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Published in:   Brian Thorne and Windy Dryden Counselling: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.  Milton Keynes: Open University Press (1993)




Campbell Purton

Working in philosophy - like work in architecture in many respects - is really more a working on oneself. On one’s own interpretation. On one’s way of seeing things.          

(Ludwig Wittgenstein 1980:16)




Bertrand Russell once said that the aim of the philosopher is ‘to see the world steadily and to see it whole’. I think I felt the need to do something of this sort from quite early childhood, but my engagement with academic philosophy dates, I suppose, from the time when I studied physics as an undergraduate. I was always more interested in the philosophical than the technical aspects of the subject, and after obtaining my degree I undertook a Master’s degree in the history and philosophy of science. By then my main interest had moved from physics to psychology, and I completed a thesis on the philosophical problems involved in giving satisfactory explanations of animal behaviour. I then studied the philosophy of psychology for my doctorate, and for a number of years lectured in philosophy at universities in Canada and Scotland. During my time in the academic world, I always felt that philosophy could be relevant to people’s lives, rather than being an ‘ivory tower’ subject, but there seemed little opportunity to put such thoughts into practice. This dissatisfaction, together with other circumstances, took me out of the academic world and led me in the direction of counselling. I completed the FDI (now PCT) course in person-centred counselling and psycho-therapy, and since then have worked both in private practice and in a university counselling setting. Following a period in which I gained much from the work of Jung (who referred to himself sometimes as ‘a philosopher manqué’), I am finding it increasingly important to relate my counselling practice to the philosophical interests which were undoubtedly my first love.

It may be best to say at the start that there are several different schools or traditions of philosophy, just as there are different schools or styles of therapy, and that the differences between them can go very deep. Partly for reasons of limited space, and partly because of my own involvement with it, I shall draw here on a style of philosophy which in this century is associated especially with the name of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but which I think has recognizable connections with the thought of earlier Western philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Socrates, and in th« East with the approach of Nagarjuna and Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy. (For the remarkable parallels between Wittgenstein and the Madhyamika philosophy, see Gudmunsen (1977). I should say that I have become increasingly impressed by the relevance of Buddhist philosophy to counselling theory, and will make some reference to it in what follows.)

For me, the deep division in philosophy is between those approaches which set out to establish a body of knowledge about the world, and the approaches which probe, question and draw out our confusions. ‘Philosophy’, Wittgenstein wrote, ‘unties the knots in our thinking; hence its result must be simple, but philosophising has to be as complicated as the knots it unties’ (1967: Section 452). According to this latter view, there are no philosophical truths to be discovered; rather there is the unravelling of the tangles of thought which constitute philosophical problems. It is impossible in the space available to illustrate this procedure adequately, but the reader who is interested in the difference between ‘discovering the truth’ and ‘untying a knot in our thinking’ may wish to reflect on the following illustration, adapted from Wittgenstein (1953: Section 350): When it is five o’clock in London it is half past ten in Delhi. Now what time is it on the sun when it is five o’clock in London? Must it not be some time on the sun? Perhaps it is for the scientists to discover the truth about this? But on further reflection we can come to see that really there is no answer to this question, and when we see why there can be no answer we no longer see it as a genuine question at all.  The problem has not been solved, i.e. no answer has been found. Rather the question, on a deeper understanding, dissolves and no longer troubles us.  Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy is that it is a procedure akin to therapy.  He writes ‘The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness’ (1953: Section 255). ‘There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies’ (1953: Section 133). ‘A philosopher is a man who has to cure many intellectual diseases in himself before he can arrive at the notions of common sense’ (1980:44). Philosophical problems, for Wittgenstein, are disturbances in our thinking.  Something has become diseased or tangled, and just as the restoration of health or the untying of a knot does not create anything new, so philosophy leaves everything as it is’ (1953: Section 124). The pattern in the relief of philosophical puzzlement was beautifully expressed by the eighth-century Buddhist Ch’ing Yuan:

Before I studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I come to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance lam at rest.  For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains and rivers as rivers.

Not all, not even a majority, of contemporary philosophers accept this view of what the philosopher is doing. There are philosophical traditions in which the goal of philosophy is to discover the Truth about the ultimate nature of Reality, even if in modern times this quest proceeds under the guise of an ‘analysis of our concepts’. The idea of coming to know what the Ultimate Nature of Things is has a great appeal, a great ‘charm’ as Wittgenstein put it. Like most philosophers I have felt, and can still feel, the pull of this approach, but I have come increasingly to think that it is to be resisted. What has drawn me in the Wittgensteinian direction is not any general argument, but rather the experience of seeing how at least some philosophical problems really do dissolve under a sustained Wittgensteinian approach.  Perhaps more than anything it was my experience of the application of the Wittgensteinian approach to what philosophers call the ‘other minds’ problem which convinced me of the value of the approach. I shall say a little more about the other minds problem later, as it has a bearing on issues surrounding the theme of ‘human nature’, but very briefly it amounts to the following. It can seem that only I can know what I now experience. I can hypothesize, guess, even be quite certain that you now experience pain, say, yet I could always be wrong, since I have direct access only to my own experiences. In your case, I have to deduce what you feel from observing your behaviour, and it could always turn out that I have made a mistake.  In the same way, it seems that I can never really know whether another person’s visual experiences are the same as mine. When I look at the sky on a clear day, how do I know that the colour sensation which I have is the same as that which you have? How do I know that they are even remotely similar? We all call the colour of the sky ‘blue’, but isn’t it possible that our experiences arc systematically different, so that for instance your experience of the sky is what I would call ‘red’, and vice versa? Might we not, for all we know, inhabit quite separate experiential realities?

In my experience of teaching introductory philosophy classes, I find

that some students quickly appreciate the force of this line of thinking, and

may well have discovered it for themselves. Others find it more difficult to

see the point, but once they have understood, the effect is unsettling, and

occasionally even frightening. For the direction in which the line of thought

leads is towards a sense of isolation. You can’t ever know what I am feeling,

and I can’t know what you are feeling. Nor, it seems, is there any way in

which I can reasonably assess how likely it is that your experiences are

similar to mine. I can’t get inside your mind to check that by and large when you behave in such-and-such a way you have the experiences which I have when I behave in that way. When taken seriously enough, this thought can be quite deeply disturbing. It can become not just an intellectual exercise but an existential experience of loneliness and disconnection from people, so that in speaking of the work of the philosopher as a form of therapy Wittgenstein is not presenting a mere analogy.  The background to the ‘problem of other minds’ is complex, and involves issues which go back to the picture of the world which we inherit from the seventeenth century and the impact of modern science on Western thought.  Descartes crystallized the most important themes in his division of a human being into a ‘mind’ and a ‘body’, and I will say something about this picture of the person in the next section. I will be reflecting for the most part within the framework of Western thought, but here and there I will draw attention to aspects of Buddhist philosophy which I have found illuminating.




In this section, I hope to provide some further illustrations of what is involved

in philosophical reflection, and at the same time begin to focus attention on

two themes which I believe arc especially relevant for an understanding of

the nature of counselling. One theme is that of ‘the nature of persons’, and

the other, closely linked, is that of our perception of people. These are both

very large topics, and I can only hint at the complexity of the philosophical

issues involved. However, I hope to be able to say enough to give some indication of what it is in philosophy which provides me with a framework for my

counselling practice.





I will focus first on a view of human beings which has dominated much of Western thought since the seventeenth century, and which found its classical expression in the work of Descartes. Crudely, but I hope not too misleadingly summarized, it goes like this. A human being is a composite entity made up of a physical body and a non-material mind. Clouds, stones and so on have the physical bit, but not the mental bit. Angels, if there are such, have the mental bit but not the physical bit.

Human life involves both action and perception. In Descartes’ view, when a person acts something like the following occurs: a mental event takes place such as the formulation of the intention to raise one’s arm. This mental event causes (we don’t know how) certain changes to occur in the brain which themselves cause changes in the nerves, which stimulate the arm muscles in such a way that the arm rises. Similarly, when a person perceives a tree, a chain of events takes place in the opposite direction. Light is reflected from the tree into the eye, causing chemical changes on the retina which produce a pattern of impulses in the optic nerve. These produce certain changes in the brain which cause (we don’t know how) an image of the tree to appear in the person’s mind.

Something like this picture of human beings has filtered through into our ‘common sense’ ideas, but philosophical reflection on the picture since the time of Descartes has revealed more of what the implications of the picture are. What Descartes is depicting is the human person as a mind which is directly aware only of its own states. Knowledge of the externally existing table is an inference from my mental image of a table; I am not directly aware of the table, but of the image which has arisen at the end of a long causal chain of events. So far as my knowledge of other people is concerned, it can at best be an unverifiable hypothesis that associated with the external objects I believe cause my images of their bodies, there are states of consciousness, i.e. minds, other than my own. But I cannot know that there are such other minds; other minds are outside my experience. Thus Descartes detaches us from the world, and condemns us to living within a bubble constituted by our subjective experiences. Here we have again the ‘other minds’ problem to which I drew attention above.

It is important to see that what I have described is not just the concern of philosophers. Descartes’ picture of human beings lies behind much twentieth-century psychology. Behaviourism, for example, arises from the view that we can’t observe other people’s subjective experiences, so that if there is to be a science of psychology it must either limit itself to the study of physical behaviour, or define mental concepts in terms of behaviour patterns. (More recent moves in this game involve trying to define the mind in terms of states of the nervous system, or in computer terms as the ‘software’ to which the brain stands as ‘hardware’.)

One of the most important developments in twentieth-century philosophy, I believe, has been Wittgenstein’s unravelling of the tangled Cartesian knot.  Here I can only give a glimpse of what I take to be involved in this process. The simplest approach is perhaps to look at how we can conceive of a young child’s early experience. The traditional view, based on Descartes’ picture, is that the child begins life with a bare awareness of sensations, the experience, as William James put it, of a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’.

As time goes on, the child (like a little scientist) notices regularities in his

patterns of sensation, and gradually builds up concepts of enduring physical

objects. Then he notices that his own body is rather similar to other bodies

which he frequently encounters. Since these other bodies behave in ways

rather similar to the way in which he behaves, he infers that they are like

him also in the respect of having thoughts and feelings. Thus the child arrives

at the idea that there are other people in the world. 1


What the Wittgensteinian approach shows, in effect, is that this story - this picture - really makes no sense (it is a muddle, like ‘the time now on the sun’). The baby can’t acquire the concept of red, for example, by noticing that this flower and that mug and that pen are all the same colour. It doesn’t yet know what counts as being of the same colour. One could (and different cultures do) classify coloured things in a variety of ways. Where, in contrast to orange and purple, do the limits of ‘red’ come? Is it all right to lump together crimson and scarlet in the ‘red’ category? These are matters which are settled by the community into which the child is born. In its early months and years, the child is drawn into ways of doing things, ways of classifying things, ways of seeing things that are normal for that community. It makes no sense to suppose that a child could acquire a view of the world all by itself. This is because acquiring a view of things is a matter of acquiring standards of judgement. The child has learned what red things are when it can correctly put all the red counters in the box, select all the red books from the shelf, and so on. Learning a concept (here the concept of red) is a matter of coming to be able to get it right. This often goes along with learning the correct word, though not always - deaf and dumb children can pick up the concepts involved in, say, setting up the signals for an electric train set without learning any words. What is essential is not verbal language, but the picking up of interpersonal ways of doing things, ways that are open to the correction of others. Very soon, of course, the child is able to assume the role of corrector: ‘Not David naughty, mummy naughty’.  In short, we must reject the view that human life begins with a baby’s subjective awareness, out of which it constructs an external world of material objects and other people. It is, rather, the other way round: the baby starts as a nexus in a network of personal relationships. There is, as it were, a place for the baby in the interpersonal network even before it is born. Without the presence and care of others, the baby will not survive physically, and even if its physical needs were somehow supplied by machines, it could not, without personal interaction, develop as a person. To develop as a person is to be drawn into a shared life with others, into ways of taking things which are characteristic of the community. Once this shared life is established, the child can begin to raise doubts and objections. Having learned ‘That’s red’ it can now begin to learn ‘That looks red to me, though perhaps it isn’t red really’ and progress to the philosopher’s ‘I am having a subjective sensation of redness’. But one can’t do it the other way round. One can’t begin with objections, or with how things seem to be, or with subjective experience. The interpersonal comes first, and only within it can develop those aspects of human life that we call ‘subjective’ and ‘individual’.  The view of human nature which emerges from these considerations is that people exist as people only in relation to others. (This is one way of expressing the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, i.e. the view that there can be no self-existent soul.) Thus solipsism, the doctrine that only I exist, is necessarily false; there logically could not have been a world in which there was only one person, a world without personal relationships. Of course, everyone else might die, so that only one person was left. But that would not be a world without personal relationships. This hypothetical, solitary last person views the world with the eyes of those who have died, thinks in terms of concepts common to that community within which he grew up. He sees that the bird above the crag is an eagle, not a kestrel; but the difference between eagle and kestrel is not his distinction, and that the lake below is turquoise rather than blue is not a purely private matter. Nothing, we might say, is a purely private matter.

The view of human nature which I have sketched has important implications for our view of what is involved in seeing things and people. I shall focus

the rest of my discussion very much around the notion of ‘seeing’, because

I think this notion is of especial importance in understanding the nature of

counselling. [The reader who is interested in other aspects of the relationship

between philosophy and counselling may find it helpful to start with such

philosophers as Ilham Dilman (1983, 1984, 1988) on Freud, Alasdair

Macintyre (1958) on the notion of the unconscious mind, and Richard

Lindley (Holmes and Lindley 1989) on the ethics of psychotherapy. For a

different approach to the thesis that people exist only in relation to others,

see Macmurray (1959,1961).]


Seeing persons


We find certain things about seeing puzzling, because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough.                     (Ludwig Wittgenstein 1953: Section 212)


‘Seeing’ seems at first sight a very simple notion. In the case of physical objects, we just open our eyes and the objects enter our awareness. Yet on reflection this is absurd: a physical object like a corkscrew can’t literally come into my mind. Isn’t it rather that the corkscrew produces physical effects that result in an image of it coming into my mind? A mental image is just the sort of thing that can enter a mind, but here we are back with Descartes’ picture of perception, and its disastrous consequences.

We have to get away from this picture of ‘seeing’ being a matter of opening our eyes and letting the images of things come in. On reflection we know it is not like that. Someone who hasn’t learned to read doesn’t see words in a newspaper when the newspaper is before his eyes. Congenitally blind people who through an operation have been given their sight for the first time don’t see apples when apples are before their eyes. We have to learn to see, we have to be taught, we have to be put in the way of taking things, visually, as those around us take them. Coming to see something for what it is is a complex interpersonal affair. Even with aspects of our experience as seemingly straightforward as colours we may need to negotiate with others what the truth of what we see is. For instance, we are choosing some new curtains.  They are to be blue. We see some excellent specimens in the shop, and I suggest that we take them. You reply that they are not blue. They look blue to me. Now I know very well that seeing something blue isn’t just a matter of having it in front of my eyes and experiencing a sensation. It may depend on the light. So we take the curtains over to the window and inspect them again. This time we may agree that they are blue (or, say, turquoise). On the other hand, we may still not agree, and now a more complex round of negotiation is called for. Perhaps we go through colour charts together, and negotiate where the boundary between blue and turquoise comes. Then back to the store. ‘But you agreed that this sample is turquoise!’ ‘Yes, but colours on small shiny bits of paper look different from when they are the colours of big pieces of material’, and so on.

Seeing what colour a thing is doesn’t normally raise such issues, but it is important to see that it can do so, since this helps us to appreciate that the concept of seeing is not a simple one. And if this is so as far as seeing colours is concerned, it is much more clearly so in seeing people. I see Fred as being a rude, uncouth person. Then I get to know him better, I hear other people speak of him in quite other terms, I am persuaded that it could be worthwhile to think of him more as a ‘rough diamond’ than ‘uncouth’. Next time he does something untoward I try to see it in this light. I think - yes, you could see him that way. I talk over with someone why, in spite of this possibility, I still can’t help seeing him as rude. We talk, and things come up about how rude-ness has been a painful issue in my life. It’s something that is hard for me to see straight. This conversation shifts my feelings a bit. I do begin to see Fred differently. He just says what he thinks. He is straight with people, although he can upset them. I gradually cease to see him as rude. [For a more extended discussion of a similar example, see Iris Murdoch’s essay ‘The idea of perfection’ (1970, pp. 17ff.). It was this essay which first made me realize the significance of ‘seeing’ for an understanding of the counselling process.] Seeing, one might say, is an achievement rather than a passive state or the mere having of sensations. Seeing isn’t a matter of ‘having certain experiences’, nor is it a matter of doing anything (compare other ‘achievement verbs’ such as ‘winning’), but through doing certain sorts of things one can help to bring it about that one sees. The things which facilitate seeing are very various and depend on what it is we are trying to see. It is often largely a matter of overcoming sources of distortion, or removing of obstacles to clear sight. We need, for example, to take the curtains to the window, because artificial light distorts the appearance of colours.  In the case of seeing people the sources of distortion often lie in wanting to fit a person quickly into a familiar pattern (stereotyping), in our wanting people to be other than they are, in our perceptions being distorted by irrelevant past experiences, or present fears or hopes and so on. For instance, in the early chapters of Middlemarch, Dorothea does not really see Mr Casaubon. Her need for intellectual and spiritual companionship makes it almost impossible for her to see him as he is. (Still less is Casaubon able to see Dorothea.) In the course of the novel, it is life and experience which bring Dorothea to a clearer view of her husband. There is then disillusionment, which distorts her view in a different way, but shortly before his death we sense that Dorothea is beginning to see him more truly.




General reflections


Two main points which I would like to draw out of the previous section are, first, that people only exist as people within a network of personal relation-ships and, secondly, that interpersonal perception is inherently liable to distortion. These points are connected, in that seeing things clearly, or at all, involves the perceiver in an interpersonal network which sets the standards of what counts as genuine seeing. All real seeing, we might say, is seeing together. Consequently, any disturbance in one’s interpersonal relationships will have the potential to affect clear perception and, conversely, the lack of clear perception will tend to disturb one’s interpersonal relationships.  People come for counselling for many reasons: for advice, for support, for sympathy, and so on. But while a counsellor, like a teacher, may usefully be able to give clients something of what they need in these respects, I do not sec such things as being central to what counselling is. Freud says somewhere that his aim is the modest one of replacing neurotic pain with ordinary pain, and I find this a helpful way of locating within the spectrum of human pain those varieties of emotional suffering which are the special concern of the counsellor. Roughly speaking, the counsellor is primarily concerned with confused emotional pain, with the sort of pain that arises from a distorted view of things. In Western thought, there is no concept which quite catches that with which counselling deals. In Buddhist philosophy, the Sanskrit term ‘duhkha’ catches it very well indeed. ‘Duhkha’ is variously translated as ‘pain’, ‘suffering’, ‘ill’, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, but with the connotation that the pain arises from delusive perception for which one bears some responsibility.

Something needs to be said now about how the emotions link with

interpersonal perception and its distortions. As in the case of ‘seeing’,

philosophical reflection on the concept of an emotion reveals how confused

our understanding of the concept can be.Emotions can easily be assimilated to feelings, and feelings can be regarded as a kind of sensation. So just

as ‘seeing something blue’ gets represented as ‘having a blue sensation’,

so ‘being jealous’, for example, gets misinterpreted as ‘having a jealous feel-ng’. Thus jealousy, like blueness, comes to be thought of as a ‘subjective mental state’. It is tempting to say ‘But surely jealousy is a feeling - it is a tight wound-up sort of feeling, with at the same time a bit of a sinking feeling in the stomach’. Someone who is jealous might indeed notice that these are exactly the feelings he now has. Yet on reflection it is clear that physical sensations like these are neither necessary nor sufficient for jealousy. Not necessary, since we usually recognize whether people are jealous without having any information about their bodily sensations; not sufficient, because a person could have just such sensations in connection with a quite different emotion, such as fear.

But if jealousy is not a set of feelings or sensations, then what is it? Perhaps the best answer is to say that it is a recognizable pattern in interpersonal relations. Roughly speaking, we say that A is jealous of B if A is upset by the fact that some third person, C, in some way prefers B to himself. Jealousy has an interpersonal structure which cannot exist without there being at least three people in relation to one another. It is not a ‘private subjective state’, but a perception of a relationship pattern. It may involve & false perception, of course. It may be that C doesn’t in fact prefer B to A, but once A comes to see this it will necessarily make a difference to his emotional state. If A no longer sees C as preferring B to himself, then whatever he now feels in this connection it isn’t jealousy.

In the same way, the emotion of guilt isn’t for example, a gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach (though such feelings may be present). To feel guilty involves seeing oneself as having done something wrong. One may not believe that what one did was wrong, but that is how one sees it. The difference here is like that between believing that the rope-bridge is safe (people are walking across it, the ropes are thick, and firmly attached, etc.) and seeing it as safe. In spite of all the evidence, which I accept as conclusive, the bridge doesn’t look safe to me. And in spite of all the evidence I may still feel guilty. Another helpful illustration can be found in visual illusions, such as the Müller-Lyer diagram. Careful measurement can lead one to believe that the two long lines in the diagram are of equal length, but no amount of rational argument can make them look equal. To make them look equal, you have to make some quite different move, such as erasing the other lines from the diagram, or adding compensating lines.

Our emotional lives cannot be disentangled from our perceptions of our relationship with the world, and especially our relationships with other people. If a client’s emotional life is disturbed, we can then expect that there will be disturbances in her perceptions of how she relates to the world and to others. It follows that if the counsellor can help the client towards a less distorted view, then the client’s emotional disturbance will be correspondingly alleviated. The general idea here is far from new. It is found in the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus (see White 1983: Section 5), and in the thought of  the cognitive-behavioural therapists (e.g. Trower et al. 1988). I find much in this approach congenial, but I think the cognitive therapists do not always fully appreciate the difference between unfounded beliefs and distorted perceptions. Unfounded beliefs can be approached through rational argument, but the transformation of perception may require quite different moves, a few of which I mention shortly.


The counselling process


In the light of the above discussion, the counselling process can be seen as beginning with the client’s presentation of a state of emotional disturbance.  In the simplest possible terms, something feels wrong in the client’s life. This ‘feeling of something wrong’, or sense of duhkha, needs to be explored, and the counsellor needs to provide an environment in which such exploration can effectively be carried out. The client needs to be able to see more clearly, and the counselling situation therefore should be one in which factors which tend to distort perception are eliminated as far as possible.  The possible distorting factors are very various, but can perhaps be classified under three main headings which I draw from the classical Buddhist analysis of duhkha. They are emotional repulsion (e.g. fear, hate, guilt), emotional attachment (e.g. dependence, possessive love) and emotional inertia (e.g. repeating old patterns, stereotyping). The counsellor needs to pro-vide an environment in which these three are discouraged, and their opposites encouraged. Thus the ideal counselling setting will be one in which (1) the client can feel safe, appreciated and accepted, (2) the client will not become dependent on or emotionally ‘involved’ with the counsellor and (3) the client will be stimulated, challenged and encouraged to look at alternative possibilities.

Within this counselling setting, the client has the opportunity to see more clearly what his or her emotional disturbance consists in. Given what has been said above about the interpersonal nature of human life, the exploration of the disturbance, with the help of the counsellor, is likely to focus on the client’s relationships with other people, including as a special case of this, the relationship with the counsellor. Other foci of attention are likely to be the possible distorting factors which have led to the disturbance, so that the counsellor may find it helpful to encourage attention to areas of the client’s life where such things as guilt, dependency or force of habit may have played a role in distorting the client’s perceptions.

If the client is to see his or her life in a truer way, there needs to be an open-ness to alternatives. The counsellor may need to challenge gently the client’s general emotional inertia, the tendency we have simply to go on seeing things as we always have done. Or to look at it from another angle, the counsellor may need to help clients to be less attached to their habitual way of seeing things. The restructuring of perception is bound to involve periods of confusion and feelings of being adrift: the pieces of the puzzle have to be thrown in the air before they can come down in a new pattern. Appeals to logic and rationality are likely to be of limited value in this process, since logic works with categories and rules of inference which have already been laid down.  In the restructuring of perception, new categories and rules are gestating, so that at this stage there is nothing for logic to get to grips with. [A very interesting comparison would be with Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) view of what happens in the historical development of scientific theories. In Kuhnian terms, counsellors tend to see clients during revolutionary rather than normal phases of the clients’ lives.]

The ways in which a counsellor can help with the client’s emotional restructuring are naturally various. I find that attention to dreams can be very helpful. Dreams provide emotional pictures which often are at variance with, or are completely disconnected from, the client’s own perceptions. They pro-vide at least a novel point of view, yet it is a point of view which is nevertheless in some sense the client’s; it is the client’s dream, though it may need to be fed back to the client by the counsellor if it is to be effective.  The use of dreams in counselling can be seen as just one aspect of the importance of the use of the imagination in emotional restructuring. To get from an old way of seeing things to a new way, one needs at least to imagine the possibility of things being different. Questions like ‘What would you do if all the current restrictions on your life were removed?’ can be very revealing. So, I think, can questions such as ‘How else could you have responded to that situation when you were a child?’ or ‘How do you imagine it all felt to the other people involved?’ Such questions can help to free the client from old, fixed patterns of perception.

The counsellor may need to slow the client down, if enough attention is to be paid to the relevant details which may be significant in the restructured view. It is well known that most of what we call ‘perception’ is based not on what is before us, but on our expectations. We see things as the way they need to be if they are to fit into our familiar conceptual structures. Now this is as it should be; we couldn’t, as I have argued earlier, see at all if we were not seeing within a broadly agreed conceptual framework. Yet where certain details of the framework have become distorted, the pattern which normally facilitates our shared life with others becomes a source of separation from them, and we cannot see what is wrong because we arc so used to viewing the data of our lives in a particular way. It is as it is with proof-reading: if you read the proofs quickly you just don’t see even glaring errors. To proof-read effectively, you have to slow down, and perhaps even read the lines backwards to break up the familiar flow of words. One interesting technique I have encountered recently in a programme of Buddhist-inspired therapy (Irwin 1990) is to tell the story of one’s life backwards, so that one doesn’t fit the various phases into the over-familiar patterns.  What the client does also has its impact on his perceptions. A client who is not able to imagine seeing himself differently may be able to put himself into a situation in which he will inevitably be different. Experimenting with doing things differently can reveal just how powerful the forces of fear, attachment and habit have become. Consider for example clients who say 1 couldn’t do that,’ where the act in question, once done, is reperceived as something quite ordinary.

I have mentioned a few ways in which the counsellor may be able to help

the client to see more clearly, and while I am sure there are many others, I

doubt whether there can be any systematic deployment of techniques in all

this. People come to see things differently as a result of all sorts of curious

events, and acquiring the art of counselling seems to me to be largely a matter

of coming to be able to trust one’s hunches about what is likely to help in

the individual case.


Case study


The counselling process I will describe is not that of any particular client, but rather a composite and therefore ‘fictional’ study. I hope nevertheless that it is as true to the relevant ‘facts’ as is necessary for its illustrative purpose. The whole issue of the use of ‘case studies’ in writing about counselling practice is something which has not yet received the study it deserves. It is obvious that any description of a counselling series involves a great deal of selection, emphasis and interpretation, and to make a client ‘come alive’ the counsellor really needs to have the gifts of a novelist. Literary critics know better than counsellors the devices that are required to portray characters and human situations effectively, and the writer of a really good case study is going to need to employ such devices. Some may want ‘case studies’ to be ‘fully objective’, but the fact that this is impossible does not mean that stories like the one I tell here are just ‘subjective inventions’. The ‘truth’ of a counselling session may be closer to the truth of a work of art than that of a scientific theory; there are, I suspect, quite deep philosophical issues lurking here, issues not to be explored on this occasion. My purpose, in any case, is not to try to convey the reality of the sessions, but simply to give some indication of the ways in which my philosophical background influences what I do.  Jeremy, a journalist who had taken early retirement, contacted me initially because he felt blocked in his creative writing. He was at first emphatic that he did not need therapy as such, but help in freeing himself to work. Early in our sessions, however, he acknowledged that there was something wrong not just in his writing but in his life. He suffered from a pervasive mixture of anxiety and depression, though just what this was all about was obscure.  This to me is a typical situation at the start of counselling. The client has a problem which at first sight seems fairly specific, but which on closer examination turns out to be a tangled ‘duhkha-ish’ knot, where there is pain but no clarity about what the pain involves. Here I feel very much as I feel in the presence of a philosophical problem, the sort of problem which, as Wittgenstein (1953: Section 123) put it, ‘has the form: “I don’t know my way about”.’

Jeremy was anxious, and my concern as a counsellor to understand his anxiety was to some extent informed by my concern as a philosopher to understand the nature of anxiety. (Compare Plato’s dialogue Laches, where Socrates investigates the related concept of courage. ) In thinking about anxiety, I find helpful the reflections of the philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich (1962), who divides anxiety into three broad categories, each of which Jeremy experienced to some extent. The three categories are (a) the anxiety of fate (and ultimately of death), (b) the anxiety of doubt (and meaninglessness) and (c) the anxiety of guilt (and condemnation). In Jeremy’s case, he was very concerned (a) that people should not know that he was receiving counselling. This was an anxiety about his fate if he entered counselling, and he needed to be reassured very explicitly about confidentiality. He was also very concerned (b) that I might not understand him, so that accurate empathy was important from the start. In addition (c) he had vague guilty anxieties connected with being found out to be a different person from the one he pretended to be, and I have little doubt that he would have abandoned counselling if he had not felt fully accepted by me. Reflecting on these aspects of Jeremy’s initial anxiety in connection with coming to counselling helped me to survey something of his more general emotional landscape.  The reduction of anxiety is important if the client is to see things more clearly. Yet, as I suggested earlier, emotional repulsion (of which anxiety is one variety) is itself only one of three main distorting factors to be considered when first exploring a client’s state of duhkha. The second factor I referred to is that of ‘emotional attachment’. Jeremy had toyed with the idea of seeking help from a hypnotist, and would have liked me to conduct some deep relaxation sessions with him in order that I might ‘draw out deeply buried feelings’ from him. I felt we had to look a little at whether this request should be taken at face value. (That things are often not what they seem is a truism, but one which is central to philosophical thought. Both in Wittgensteinian and more traditional metaphysical philosophy, the effort to distinguish reality from appearance is a fundamental philosophical aim.) After some discussion, Jeremy agreed that part of the appeal of hypnosis was that it would allow him to hand over the responsibility for his progress to someone else, and that such abdication of control over his life was a tendency which he could recognize in himself in other contexts. Here is the opposite problem from that of being anxious about engaging in therapy; it is the problem of being in a sense not wary enough, the problem of clients who, once a minimum of trust has been established, will attempt to throw their lives into the counsellor’s hands. Fear, anxiety and hate will distance the client too much from the counsellor; dependency, need for love’ and collusion will not allow a proper working distance.

Thinking within the general philosophical framework which I outlined above, there is finally a third source of distortion to consider, the one which I called ‘emotional inertia’. After the first three sessions, it seemed to me that Jeremy was going round in circles in much of what he said. His main complaint was that, in spite of now being retired, and devoting only a few hours a week to his adult education work, he never had time to write. He believed that he had a real talent for the short story, and had in fact had a number of stories published in the past. However, his week was filled with mundane gardening tasks on his rented allotment. Each week he resolved that he would write, and each counselling session became centred around what he had done instead of writing. I said that it seemed to me that just as the rest of his days went round in a frustrating circle, so it seemed to be the same in our sessions. I saw it as important to identify the emotional inertia here and to do something to help him to break the circles of habit into which he easily fell (and into which I found myself falling in our sessions). We reached an agreement that the following week he would devote Friday morning to writing, whatever happened, and this agreement he kept to.  In the early sessions, I try to be especially aware of the three dangers just mentioned. They are all dangers because each of them is likely to disrupt a clear view of what is happening in the client’s life. One can’t see clearly when one is afraid, when one is emotionally attached or when one is steeped in habit. The reduction of emotional repulsion, attachment and inertia remains a desideratum throughout the counselling process, but given that this desideratum is at least moderately fulfilled, the way is open for the client and counsellor together to try to see more clearly the nature of the client’s duhkha.

Jeremy was depressed. He was a writer who was not writing. He didn’t

write because his allotment needed constant maintenance. Yes, he had

chosen to cultivate the allotment, but there followed a long string of reasons

why he could not relinquish it. I felt confused; I couldn’t see how Jeremy saw

the situation. Did he really want to write? In response to this direct question

he rather irritably said that of course he wanted to; it was just that external circumstances prevented it. We had to agree that we were seeing the situation differently, and after we had talked about it at some length, he agreed that logically he could devote more time to writing, by cutting down on his other chores, but in practice ‘it didn’t work out like that’. Here again I felt the Wittgensteinian ‘form of a philosophical problem’: I don’t know my way about.  Given my general view of what is involved in duhkha, it seemed likely that something was distorting Jeremy’s perception here. However, since neither of us had any idea what the distorting factors were, we agreed it might be best if we spent some time simply looking about in the rest of his life and background to see what might emerge.

Jeremy came from a working-class family and had, from as early as he could remember, felt alienated from his parents. His father, in particular, he saw as an uncouth person, and while neither parent was exactly unkind, neither seemed very interested in him. His parents were often away from the house, and from an early age they expected him to look after his younger sister while they were out. Jeremy had wanted to go to college, but his parents had no sympathy for education, and at fifteen they arranged for him to take up a job in a market garden. There he was fortunate enough to meet an older man who befriended him, and who later encouraged him to obtain a place on the local newspaper.

Most of his story Jeremy told without much feeling. However, there were moments when speaking of his father that tears came to his eyes. Just once or twice during his childhood his father had talked with him, and in these moments his perception of his father as an uncouth labourer living a pointless life seemed to shift. More often, however, his feelings in connection with his father were distant and despising. He began to speak of how in his teenage years his aim above all had been not to be like his father.  From all this emerged, through his talking and my reflecting back to him, a realization that he had never wanted to be grown up, because being grown-up would mean being a man (like father). Although other people often saw him as something of a leader, he felt himself to be a boy. Other emotional pressures helped to sustain this picture: as a child he had been forced into a parental role in relation to his sister, and he had seldom experienced any parental care himself. (As one expects from an interpersonal view of human nature, the distorting factors arise from distorted relationships.) In our sessions, the question now arose of whether he would like to see himself as an adult. He felt confused about this. There were feelings of  ‘It’s too late.  I was never really allowed to be a child. Later I could not be a real adult because I still needed to be a child. Now I may have only a few years left . . .  I don’t know who or what I am.’

Jeremy’s habitual view of himself had been thrown into confusion, but there was no logical foundation on which to build a new view. Here it seemed to me that we were in territory very similar to that described by Kuhn (1962) in connection with what happens in science when one paradigmatic view has broken down, but no new theory has yet emerged. This by its very nature is trackless country, and one has to find inspiration where one can. One form of ‘inspiration’ is the dream, and Jeremy now told a dream in which he had embraced his grandfather. He told this dream briefly, then quickly went on to talk about problems he had been having with his neighbours on the allotment. I drew his attention back to the dream (an instance of slowing the client down, to allow time for new perceptions to emerge), and asked him about his grandfather. It emerged that grandfather was the one adult male in his childhood whom he didn’t despise. Following this dream, he began to reflect along the lines of 1 could be a bit like my grandfather’, and this new picture of himself was naturally facilitated by the fact that he was indeed of an age to be a grandfather. This struck me as a good example of the sort of situation in which intellectual discussion is of no help (Jeremy knew intellectually that he was not a child). He nevertheless saw himself as a child, and to counter the power of that picture another picture was needed, which the dream helped to supply.

Following this we worked for some time on the difficulties he had in relationships to men whom he saw as ‘authorities’. This seemed to be linked with his difficulty in experiencing himself as an adult with some authority.  When he took his car in for repair, for example, he saw the garage man as having the right to decide whether certain non-essential, cosmetic repairs should be done. This man was the ‘expert’ and Jeremy typically came away resentful at having spent money on work he had not really wanted done. We looked at where this picture of the garage man as an authority was coming from. What exactly did he say and do? Could he be seen differently? Jeremy felt that however irrational it was, he just did see the man in that way, and compared it with the fact that with ambiguous drawings one can know that there is another aspect, yet can’t see it. (This was a - rather rare - example of a client explicitly referring to an issue in the philosophy of perception.)

We discussed the analogy, and together realized that there were in fact things

one could do to see the other aspect. You have to say to yourself such things

as: this is the front corner, we are looking down on it, try to see that as the

top, etc. There is an clement of imaginative play in this, and no guarantee

that the new aspect will dawn. Yet often it does, and with people as well

as drawings. (Philosophers from Kant to Iris Murdoch have emphasized

the important role which the imagination plays in perception, and I find

it helpful to keep this in mind in counselling practice.) Jeremy practised

imagining what the garage man himself might be thinking, he tried to recall

what he actually knew about this man, and the more he focused his attention

on these details the more it became possible to see the man’s behaviour not

as that of an authoritarian tyrant, but rather that of a hard-pressed small

businessman. Then, being able to see him differently, Jeremy found himself

acting differently next time they met. There are clearly many ways in which

a person may be seen, but it is important to my conception of counselling that these different views are not regarded as equally valid subjective visions.  Jeremy’s two views of the garage man were, I believe, not equally valid. For his first view was clearly distorted by his general tendency to project authority into other men, while the second view he had developed through giving some genuine attention to the garage man himself.

Jeremy had a chance to go to a short-story congress abroad and wondered what to put on the application form under ‘occupation’. He had intended to put ‘retired’, but when I questioned whether this was really how he saw himself, he paused, and then suddenly said ‘No, I’m a writer!’ I encouraged him to put ‘writer’ as a way of helping him to fix this view of himself. (As I suggested earlier, ‘seeing’ is logically an achievement verb. To see himself as a writer was a significant achievement for Jeremy, but achievements often need to be consolidated.) He began to find at least some time to write, and generally came to take more charge of his own life. There were also times when he was able for the first time to relax and be playful, to be happy with being a child. It seemed important to encourage this as much as his attempts to be ‘more adult’. To return to Wittgenstein’s image of the knot, it often seems in counselling that one has to help the client pull a thread of the tangled skein first in one direction and then, maybe, in quite the opposite direction.  Untying a knot is not a linear process; one may have to loosen one bit here, another bit there, before the main tangle begins to unravel, and the process will  indeed ‘be as complicated as the knots it unties’ (Wittgenstein 1967: Section 452).

In conclusion, I find that philosophy, and especially the philosophy of perception provides me with a sophisticated framework within which I can deploy a variety of counselling approaches. It is important to me that counselling should have such a framework, since otherwise there is the danger of allurement by the latest ephemeral fashions in ‘therapy’. Human beings have always been faced with the issues which the counsellor addresses, and philosophy has always contained as part of its aim that of alleviating the tangled distress of life through the attempt to see things in an undistorted way. It seems to me that the modern counselling movement is rather out of touch with its own philosophical background, and that much remains to be done by way of relating counselling theory to very much older and broader philosophical traditions.



1  For a detailed working out of this picture see, for example, Stace (1932). For a sustained attempt to develop a Wittgensteinian view of early learning, see Hamlyn (1978); see also his ‘Human learning’ (1971).

2  For philosophical studies of emotion, see Sartre (1962) and Bedford (1957).




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Dilman, I. (1988) Freud, Insight and Change. Oxford, Blackwell.


Dryden, W. (1988) Cognitive-Behavioural Counselling in Action. London, Sage Publications.

Gudmunsen, C. (1977) Wittgenstein and Buddhism. London, Macmillan. 


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