What is Philosophical Practice
Philosophical practice is the use of philosophical expertise to bring about a better state of affairs for the client.
What special expertise does a philosopher have?
Like all experts, a philosopher’s expertise be divided into two things: knowledge and skills.
First: philosophers have domain knowledge. I’ve spent over 20 years studying philosophy. So naturally I know a lot about the things I studied: ethics, justice, the meaning of life, epistemology (the study of knowing), the existence of God (and the death of God), theories of Plato and Kant, of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, of John Rawls and Rene Descartes, etc etc etc.
Second: over the course of their careers, philosophers acquire and continually develop the skills that are required to do their work well. Very broadly speaking, we could say that these skills are cognitive and pedagogical.
Philosophers learn how to think well (in a sense, that is the core feature of what philosophy is: it is to think well). They learn to think logically, to construct and critique arguments, to quickly and effectively synthesise complex information, to identify relevant similarities and differences between situations. They learn not just to question assumptions but how to question assumptions. They learn not just that they should be creative but they learn how to think creatively.
Philosophers are not just solitary scholars – a huge part of their work is to teach. And although many philosophers are extremely bad teachers, the profession itself is a continual opportunity to get better at teaching. Many philosophers, myself included, took this opportunity and consequently developed the skills needed to teach well.
These skills include: the ability to communicate difficult ideas clearly, the ability to reduce complexity to simplicity without sacrificing anything important and the ability to engage an audience.
They also include, less obviously but more importantly, the ability to listen and the ability to ask the right questions. The right questions, by the way, are not the most intelligent questions – they are the most useful questions, they are the questions that your interlocutor most needs to hear at the precise moment when you ask them.
What do you get from me?
When you come to me for a philosophical consultation, those two areas of expertise are what I first of all offer you.
I offer domain knowledge in the subject of philosophy itself. This knowledge is significant but it is naturally also limited: it’s restricted to the things that I researched and taught and wrote on. I do not accept clients who require domain expertise that I do not have.
I offer my expertise in the skills that a philosopher learns. This expertise is significantly more transferable than domain expertise. Ultimately, it amounts to a variety of cognitive and pedagogical tools and skills that anyone can learn and anyone can benefit from. If you want to think better, write better, talk better; if you want to be more creative; if you want to engage people more effectively; if you want to learn to listen better; if you want to ask better questions – well, first of all, you can learn these things, and my expertise means I can teach you.
In addition to those two areas of expertise, there is a third thing that I bring to all my work: myself.
What do I mean by this? It’s quite simple. I have a certain history, a set of experiences, things I have learned by feeling them, by living them. I have a set of dispositions, a way that I am, ways in which I think and feel and talk. I do not try to hide these things in my work: rather, I try to use them.
I believe we make a mistake when we try to divorce the person from the work. So in my work, in all my interactions, my aim is to bring everything that I am and have learned. This is not the kind of expertise or skill that can be neatly written down on a CV. But in some situations it is the most valuable thing I can give you.
I am not a therapist
I am not a therapist. I do not see you as a patient. I do not try to heal you because I do not think you are ill. I take your suffering and your search seriously and I do not reduce them to pathology.
If you need therapeutic rather than philosophical expertise, then I will decline to work with you because my knowledge and skills are not what you primarily need.
I am not a coach
I do not simply “hold space” or “help you bring out the knowledge inside yourself”. Certainly, I help you find your own answers to the questions you have. And sure, I’m a reasonably emotionally intelligent human and I use my natural sensitivities and experiences in order to create dialectical situations that help you progress in solving your problems.
But that is not all I do and not all I bring. That is why I want to make clear that I offer something different to coaching. I bring substantive and specific expertise to the table: knowledge and skills that took a long time to acquire and develop. If we work together, that is a big part of what you’ll be getting.
I am a philosopher
I am a philosopher: a representative of traditions that began more than two millennia ago and have continued unbroken ever since. It is my vocation and I take it seriously.