Stepping out of Plato’s Cave: Philosophical Counseling, Philosophical Practice, and Self-Transformation

The book, Stepping out of Plato’s Cave: Philosophical Counseling, Philosophical Practice, and Self-Transformation, was an interesting read about how one philosophical counselor who uses philosophy to help his clients understand and improve their lives. The author Ran Lahav, uses Plato’s Cave allegory to try to help people understand how they may be enslaving themselves inside a self-chosen cave.

Lahav’s vision of how people should use philosophy is quite ambitious, he says:

“there is an alternative way of being that is more faithful to the potential fullness of human reality. It involves not just doing something different, but being different—being differently with ourselves, with others, with life.”

Lahav further explains philosophical counseling as he sees it:

“the goal of philosophical practice as I see it is not to solve and satisfy, but rather to awaken forgotten dissatisfactions and yearnings, to transcend our everyday needs, arouse wonder, awe, even confusion, and in this way open for us new doors towards greater horizons of understanding and life.”

According to Lahav, for people to embrace fullness in life, they need to move beyond normality and into a transformational reality that embraces the fullness of life.

One of the downsides of this approach is that the author assumes that his clients are stuck in a “cave” or prison. Rather than seeking to understand, the practitioner may be imposing his own view of the world on his client.

When talking about the proverbial cave, Lahav says:

“The starting point of the philosophical process is always the realization that I am a prisoner of my limitations. Only if I realize how constricted my life is, only if I recognize the narrow boundaries of my world can I start struggling to overcome them. Only if I understand that I am imprisoned in my Platonic cave, can I try to step outside it and enlarge my life.”

Lahav includes many “case studies” peppered throughout the book. I put scare quotes around “case studies” because I do not believe there are any case studies, there are only persons seeking help by talking and listening – one of the most basic things humans do with one another. The fact that Lahav calls this a “case study”, tells us a little about his approach.

By calling a person’s problems in living a “case study” Lahav implies that he sees persons as objects and as something to be tinkered with and fixed. All of the case studies presented in the book are amputated stories about a person’s life. None of the case studies include dialogue about why the client has come to talk with Lahav and what he or she hopes to get out of the dialogue. Also, Lahav never asks whether the client wants to explore their “cave” or if he or she thinks they need to liberate themselves from any sort of cave. Since the cave allegory is central to his counseling, I would think this sort of discussion would be important. Instead, Lahav launches into each case study trying to free the client from their proverbial cave.

Another downside to Lahav’s approach is that, like other philosophical counselors, Lahav, wants to professionalize talking and listening. He says:

“Philosophical practitioners must, therefore, have a broad philosophical background, and it is generally expected that they must have at least a Master’s degree in philosophy.”

I find the desire to professionalize talking and listening absurd, especially for the philosophical counselor. The whole idea of philosophy is to embrace free-thinking, independent-mindedness. Calling for professionalization by requiring a certain degree or certification means one must conform. How can Lahav expect his clients to break out of their caves if he wants to enslave practitioners in a cave of professionalization? After all, much of formal education involves conformity rather than independent thinking. Moreover, most of the important philosophers he refers to in his book did not have masters degrees or PhDs in philosophy. Great philosophers throughout history usually come from outside the discipline of professional philosophy. For example, Kierkegaard abhorred professional philosophy.

Another aspect of the book that I did not like was the “Polyphonic Wisdom and Beyond” section. This “polyphonic wisdom” involves things such as “precious speaking”, drawing, and discussing personal matters in a group setting. Lahav says that discussing our proverbial caves in a group setting can help us break down our self-chosen caves. This is simply not my cup of tea. It seemed to border on a cult-like adherence to the allegory of the cave.

I had mixed feelings about his book. On the one hand, it had some very good ideas. On the other hand, there were some downsides that I mentioned above. Thankfully, it was a short book. I appreciated that the author did not go on for several hundred pages about his wise counseling. I was able to take away some good points and leave the rest.

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