The Sunday Magazine

Philosophy as therapy

Philosophy professor Tom Stern argues that philosophy is a search for truth, not a short cut to comfort and happiness.
Circa 410 BC, The Greek philosopher Socrates teaches his doctrines to the young Athenians while awaiting his execution. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Let's face it. This crazy, mixed-up world can knock you flat sometimes and have you asking yourself big questions: "What does it all mean?" "Who am I?" "What is real happiness?" When you get walloped by existential angst, and you need some solace, you may well look to big thinkers from the past to calm your anxious mind. Philosophers such as Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Descartes or Kierkegaard.

A growing number of people are looking to philosophers for help as they grapple with life's many problems.  They may be seeking philosophical counselling, where they meet one-on-one with a philosopher rather than a therapist. They may attend philosophy classes at their local university - classes that are advertised to the public, promising that students will discover a life full of purpose and meaning. Contemporary philosophers are writing books that have wide popular appeal, with titles like books How Proust Can Change Your Life, A Guide to the Good Life, The Righteous Mind or The Obstacle is the Way

But before you grab a dose of Socrates to ease your psychic pain, philosopher Tom Stern warns that looking to philosophers for therapeutic purposes might come with side effects. Tom Stern teaches in the Department of Philosophy at University College London, in England, and he and guest host Kevin Sylvester tackle another big question: "So what is philosophy good for?"