Pigliucci on Philosophical Counselling

In a recent blog-post Massimo Pigliucci discussed the case of philosophical counselling and addressed some criticisms that it was a pseudo-science. Pigliucci addressed these criticisms in a balanced manner and his responses were largely convincing. Basically he argued that philosophical counselling could be thought of in two ways (1) As a type of therapy and (2) As a type of life coaching. Pigliucci argues once it is understood that philosophical counselling is not a form of therapy but a form of life coaching; criticisms of it for being a pseudoscience dissolve. While I found a lot to agree with in Pigluicci’s analysis, I felt his demarcation between therapy and life coaching was a bit too quick and blurred some important conceptual distinctions. However before discussing these conceptual distinctions I will first address Pigliucci discussion of the nature of therapy and his comparison of psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioural science.

When discussing two forms of therapy he distinguishes between Freudian Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He makes the claim that while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is well supported scientifically some philosophers think that Freudian Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. A couple of points need to be made about this claim. Firstly while the cliché still exists that psychoananalysis is unsupported by empirical evidence while Cbt is not; there is not as much substance to this cliché as some believe.  While it is true that CBT has historically been subject to more empirical testing than Psychoanalysis this is changing; a lot of long term studies exist which demonstrate that Psychoanalysis is as effective as CBT.  In this utube clip https://youtu.be/IQBx5TONHac  ‘The Case for Psychoanalysis’ Dr John Thor Cornelius brings a lot of impressive comparative studies of the long term treatment with CBT and Psychoanalysis. And Cornelius finds that both forms of therapy perform at a par, except in the long term where psychoanalysis out performs CBT.  In the paper by ‘The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Dr Johathan Shedler again offers compelling evidence of the comparative effectiveness https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-65-2-98.pdf. In the website of The Neuropsychoanalytic Association further evidence for the utility of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is provided.  https://npsa-association.org/education-training/suggested-reading/the-efficacy-of-psychoanalyticpsychodynamic-therapies-reading-list/. Now this evidence is obviously only the tip of the iceberg and there is some dispute about the various different studies that have been done. I present it just to counterbalance the implicit suggestion by Pigluicci that psychoanalytic psychotherapy is not evidence based.

Pigluicci’s claim that some philosophers think that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience is certainly true. A prominent proponent of this view was the philosopher Karl Popper whose criticism of psychoanalysis was that it was not falsifiable. Popper noted that the core sciences made precise claims that were falsifiable in principle. Thus he noted the falsifiable aspect of the theory of relativity where light bending around the moon in a particular way at a particular time was a potential way of disproving the theory of relativity. Popper went on to note that a theory is never totally confirmed to be correct it is just becomes better corroborated as it passes more tests. Popper contrasted this scientific behaviour with the behaviour of psychoanalysts and Marxists who claimed to engaging in science. Popper argued that no possible empirical evidence could possibly refute either psychoanalysis or Marxism. It was this supposed dogmatic resistance to refutation that Popper believed stopped psychoanalysis from being a science.

Now two points need to be made here. The first is to do with Popper’s falisificationist principle. The principle has come under heavy attack from philosophers such as Kuhn, Feyerabend and Quine. Most philosophers today do not accept Popper’s so called gold standard to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. Furthermore practicing scientists today have serious disagreements about the importance of Popper’s gold standard to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In linguistics critics of Generative Grammar note how the theory is shielded from falisification by ad-hoc reasoning. The defenders of generative grammar note that Poppers criterion is at odds with actual scientific practice. Thus defenders of generative grammar argue that they are simply adopting the Galilean method which has no use for naive falsification. Now this debate gets very heated and I we don’t have time to go into it here. I mention it to illustrate that Popper’s philosophy of science is not accepted both by a lot of philosophers and by a lot of scientists. So his falsification argument cannot be assumed to be an automatic defeater of the scientific status of psychoanalysis.

But even if we did accept Popper’s criterion as one hundred percent correct it still doesn’t demonstrate that Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. This is because Popper never backed up his criticisms of psychoanalysis with any actual psychoanalytic texts, case studies etc. This fact surprises a lot of people. Those who have never read Popper think that he somehow demolished the scientific status of psychoanalysis. But this is not true. In fact throughout his various different critiques of psychoanalysis he provides absolutely no textual evidence to support his claims that psychoanalysis is unfalisifiable in principle. The most we get is a mention of a very casual conversation he had with the psychoanalyst Adler. This anecdotal evidence of Popper’s does seem to show that Adler was dogmatically assuming the truth of the theory come what may. But obviously an anecdote is not sufficient to refute an entire discipline. Pigliucci notes the weakness of anecdotes in his blog-post: I think

“This is somewhat problematic, because it doesn’t distinguish between the academic practice of PC and what some of the counselors may say in an informal setting. It also means that a study that criticizes PC for lack of rigor and evidence based methodology suffers, in substance, from similar issues.” (Philosophical Counseling as Pseudo-science)

I think Piguliucci’s criticism could apply just as much to Popper to as it does to Roxana and Gerardo. Of course Pigliucci doesn’t explicitly say he is relying on Popper’s criticisms of psychoanalysis he merely notes that some philosophers of science think it is pseudoscience. It is true that some philosophers are critical of the scientific status of psychoanalysis. But it is difficult to assess whether they are right until Pigliucci states who they are and what aspects of their arguments he finds compelling. Saying that some philosophers think psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience isn’t saying too much. Some philosophers think the same of evolutionary theory (for example Popper in his early days), but this fact wouldn’t convince many people that evolutionary theory is not a scientific theory.

I should note that I agree that there are some problems with psychoanalysis. Freud’s psychosexual stages of development are almost certainly false. Interestingly Psychoanalyst Daniel Stern in his ‘The Interpersonal World of the Infant’, rejects some of Freud’s speculative developmental theories and replaces them with worked a combination of detailed observation of children and theories drawn from modern developmental psychology. This fact makes it difficult to take seriously charges that psychoanalytic theory is unfalisifiable. Responsible theorists modify the theory as they learn new facts. There will always be people who refuse to modify their theories as they learn more about the world but such people unfortunately exist in all areas of scientific research.

Another difficulty with psychoanalysis is its reliance on implausible homunculus such as censors, egos, super-egos etc. Again even here there is some interesting philosophical research done to integrate psychoanalysis with standard cognitive science. A good example of this work is Vesa Talvite’s book ‘Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience’ which treats things like ‘censors’ using Dennett’s stance-stance approach. In sum psychoanalysis is in better shape than Pigliucci wants to acknowledge; though it like any field of inquiry it still has its problems.

Thus far I have been arguing that psychoanalysis and CBT are on a par with each other in terms of their scientific status. But I have been presenting psychoanalysis as too narrow a field. Not every psychoanalyst conceives it as a scientific discipline. Some psychoanalysts rather conceptualise their subject as a form of hermeneutics while others wed the theory to existentialism and phenomenology as opposed to biology. These psychoanalysts reject a lot of Freud’s mechanistic explanations and focus instead on the intersubjective clinical setting where clients reveal themselves to their therapist.

It is interesting when developing his claim that Philosophical Counselling is a form of life coaching Pigliucci notes that it is a humanistic discipline and one that doesn’t make claims of efficacy. The reason for this he argues is that efficaciousness will vary from person to person, depending on the needs of the client and the philosophical approach both the client and the counsellor find useful. He also notes that Philosophical Counselling as a form of life coaching doesn’t deal with actual psychopathology and that this is a key difference between it and therapy. He further notes ordinary problems of life should not be medicalized.

Philosophical counselling in this sense sounds somewhat like the type of psychoanalysis favoured by intersubjective system theorist Robert Stolorow. Stolorow psychoanalysis which he calls Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis is built upon the work of Martin Heidegger ( ‘World, Affectivity, Trauma’ is a good introduction to Stolorow’s work). There are some similarities with his approach and the approach of the philosophical councillor. Both would reject efficacy studies, as the therapy involves an intersubjective relation between two people engaging in a conversation about real world problems. Both do not consider psychoanalysis a science. Both reject the medicalization of ordinary experiences like trauma, death, loneliness etc. A real point of departure is that psychoanalysts like treat people with psychopathologies whereas philosophical counsellors do not ( I have further discussed existential psychoanalysis here for people looking for more data https://www.academia.edu/12757211/Philosophy_of_Psychoanalysis https://www.academia.edu/12377965/Freud_Existentialism_and_The_Philosophy_of_Mind .

Pigliucci argues that philosophical counsellors should not treat patients with psychopathologies because of their lack of scientific credentials. One wonders how he views existentialist psychoanalysts who regularly work with patients who suffer from mental illness but who claim to not be scientists. The longitudinal studies indicate that there is little difference in whether the therapist is a psychoanalyst (of the scientific persuasion) or existential psychoanalysts, or cognitive behavioural therapists. So from a pragmatic point of view the therapists are doing as much good in helping their patients as their counterparts in other therapeutic schools. Although I would imagine that such studies would not impress the existential psychotherapists who are interested in individual client analyst interaction not some generalization that ignores these differences. But someone like Pigliucci would place some stock in these type of studies and so cannot easily dismiss existential psychotherapists even though they claim to not be engaging in science. Overall I think that it is worth reflecting that some therapeutic practices may be closer to the practices of philosophical counsellors than they are to scientific therapies.


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