Hardly anyone has heard of philosophical counseling, but now that I’ve started my own philosophical counseling and consulting business, I’ve had loads of opportunities to describe the “how’s” and “why’s” of this form of philosophical practice. I start by emphasizing that, at the heart of the matter, philosophical counseling entails thinking about our lives and experiences in ways that help us become better people who think, live, and feel better along the way. Even though I think that’s a pretty compelling description of what’s at stake, it’s been met with a variety of responses.
Some people get it right away and are really excited to learn of such a “practical” approach to life’s questions. Some people are genuinely intrigued and want to learn more. But there’s another response that I hadn’t fully anticipated, which, although less common than the first two, has been frequent enough that it motivated me to write this post.
Some people respond by saying, “Thinking as a solution to life’s problems? Huh. I think the real problem happens when people think too much.”
Now, let’s be honest. Approaching the topic of philosophical counseling per se is a new thing for me, so there’s a solid chance that my elevator pitch needs some polishing. But since I’ve heard it more than once or twice, I couldn’t just chalk this skeptical – if not down right dismissive – response up to poor marketing. I started to think about thinking, what it would mean to think too much, and if thinking too much is really a problem. (One thing is for sure: If thinking too much turned out to be a problem, it would be a major problem, one that could undermine all that I’ve been thinking and doing and working up to for so long. In the spirit of my philosophical commitment, then, and since I’m all in favor of critical self-reflection, I took this to be an important point of exploration, even if considering the possibility felt a tad bit risky).
It wasn’t too deep into my thinking about thinking when I realized that I could have really set myself up – personally and professionally – in a bad way. Not only have I failed to consider that thinking a lot could become too much thinking that could itself be a problem that could produce more problems, but I’ve actually zeroed in on thinking and placed a really high value on it. For years now.
For example, the essence of my thinking-centric approach to philosophical practice is captured by my tagline: Thinking Through Life in Transformative Ways. The idea behind philosophical counseling really is as simple as that – to practice and develop new ways of thinking that elicit positive, empowering changes in our lives, how we understand ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we interact with the world around us. But even before creating that nice little slogan, in fact nearly two whole years before that, I tried to convey the same idea with the name of my YouTube videos: Think for a Change.
I decided to post my first video as part of the It Gets Better project. Although telling queer kids to send their parents to PFLAG meetings might be a reasonable option for some, my suggestion gestured in a different direction: I noted that one of the most empowering things we can do is re-think what we think we know and what other people say, especially about things like sexuality. I encouraged all the queer kids on the interwebs to find resources that help them thoughtfully navigate their lives at present rather than just hope and wait for everything to get better. So instead of titling the first video “It Gets Better: How Patience Saved a Gay Wretch Like Me,” I went with “It Gets Better: Think for a Change.” And with that, a simultaneously sincere yet tongue-in-cheek title was born.
The motivation behind starting the Think for a Change video series back in 2010 wasn’t to make a point about philosophical practice as it is conventionally done. It wasn’t a commentary on the limits of academic philosophy or even an attempt to thrust myself into the role of a public philosopher. It was much more personal than that.
I knew from experience that studying philosophy, or more precisely, learning how to think more philosophically, made me a better person. It also helped me develop my own voice with which I could articulate complex ideas and respond to the assumptions that fueled the disparaging comments and beliefs that frequently make life so hard for so many people. In short, learning how to think changed me, and it changed my life. Hence, the title. Well, at least part of it.
I published the rest of my videos under the Think for a Change title because, in a lot of ways, I thought it would be a pretty big change if people actually started to think more about the stuff that we see, hear, do, and take for granted every day. I knew from teaching that getting students to think, and I mean really think, in a classroom setting is often difficult enough. And although not everyone is thoughtless all of the time, I thought it would be a pretty remarkable change if thinking was something people started to do more in general, outside of a classroom, especially via YouTube.
Here’s a funny side story: One semester, a couple of years ago, some of my students gave a presentation that attempted to settle the pro-life/pro-choice debate. They said, “It’s hard to really know what to do in this type of situation, so we think that people really need to think more about it like we have been in class.” And with that, the Pro-Thought Movement was born. Really, that’s what they called it.
Although I sometimes recall this class conversation and think, “Teaching is so weird. What a strange thing to propose!” I appreciated the sentiment and really wanted them to make bumper stickers. They never did, but now I’m thinking that I should make bumper stickers or t-shirts or something because, lo and behold! I turned into one of the biggest pro-thought advocates that’s ever lived!
I’ve now spent years publishing videos and blog posts with the hope of generating more public thinking, honing my teaching style to a student-centered, skills-as-objectives-based approach that pushes one’s ability to think regardless of the topic, dissertating on the personally and politically positive effects of cultivating a pleasure in disciplined thinking, and establishing a professional practice that applauds the holistic benefits of thinking. In other words, if thinking too much really is a problem, then not only have I got problems, but I’m part of the problem! (And in the process I’ve probably become a social media whore.)
Oh, snap again. What was I thinking?!?!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to the notion that one could think too much. I’m familiar with practices of mindfulness, the multifaceted benefits of quieting the mind for health, happiness, and creativity, and I think I understand the culturally-specific metaphors some people have told me about finding the bones in a fish or seeing a fifth leg on a cat or something like that. (The idea is that if you look too hard, you’ll start seeing things that aren’t really there.)
But as far as understanding where the real problem lies, I don’t actually think it’s that people think too much. The problem is that people aren’t thinking well.
Thinking well is not easy, and it’s not something that we just naturally know how to do. Like developing any other skill, whether it’s playing the guitar, running a marathon, or learning how to dance, thinking well requires practice, training, and a lot of effort. Until we learn how to think well, we might actually feel overwhelmed and look pretty stupid (let’s call that the “having two left feet” of thinking). The process of learning how to think well isn’t always super enjoyable either. In fact, much like those other activities, we might even have to suffer some real brain-pain before we are strong, skilled, and capable enough to think with clarity, ease, pleasure, and confidence. In other words, it’s hard work to craft a sound argument, follow an idea to the end and realize its implications, and be able to gracefully engage in such a movement of thought with others. Like music, marathons, and dance.
Even worse than the brain-pain and feeling unsure on our thinking-feet, though, is when we arrogantly assume that we are already capable of the difficult task of thinking well. Like trying to impressively serenade another too soon with your music or dance or jumping from the couch to the starting line of a race, falsely presuming that you’re already well-equipped enough at thinking can create a lot of problems. People might shut-down and reject your ideas because they just sound so awful (which can come as a surprise, “They just don’t appreciate the sound of my brilliance!”). Conflict and misunderstandings are more likely since there’s a good chance you’ll step on someone else’s toes, perhaps even unintentionally (“Ohhhhh, what? You actually believe in Salsa?! Then I’ll just go twerk in the corner by myself.”). Or, in an effort to heroically (foolhardily?) figure out all of life’s questions, you might be tempted to run your mind so hard, so fast, and for so long that you end up in a nihilistic void of meaninglessness. If that’s your way of thinking, people, check yourself before you wreck yourself. You gotta train for that type of thought-marathon so that it doesn’t destroy you.
In short, if we often don’t yet know how to think well, no wonder people think that thinking too much is a problem. It can exacerbate confusions and conflicts, prevent genuine listening and understanding, and make us sound like arrogant, even ignorant jerks. In other words, it hardly gets us anywhere good. But to conclude, then, that thinking too much is a problem is itself a poor example of thinking! Rather than turning our back on thinking, we need to do the opposite: We need to think more. Perhaps even think about our thinking. So that we can think at all.
My goal, then, so far with all the online work, right now with philosophical counseling, and in the future with whatever that brings, remains the same. My aim is not to tell people what to think, but rather to help them learn how. Here’s a previous video to remind you about thinking and, perhaps, to provide another place to start.