How a Ph.D is bringing philosophy back to its roots
Article: Liam Fitz-Gerald – Contributor
Dr. Dan Mullin isn’t your typical Philosophy Ph.D.
Not only does he run a blog discussing problems of the academy along with non-academic job options for humanities professors and a podcast talking to “people doing innovative things with philosophy,” but he is also an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical counselor.
“Philosophical counseling is [about] using philosophy to help people think more clearly about their practical problems. It tries to go back to ancient philosophy in many ways.”
Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had practical concerns. What was a good life, and how was it meaningful? According to Mullin, modern philosophy has lost sight of this slightly and the philosophical counselor seeks to return to these questions.
Different philosophical counselors have different methods. One is the Socratic method of question, answer and clarification.
“Socrates asked his interlocutors questions to help them clarify their position. Often he did that to show them the error of their ways. His dialectical purpose was to win an argument.”
Philosophical counselors aren’t out to win the argument, but they question the client in an attempt to flush out beliefs or worldviews maybe showing an individual how these influence their outlook.
Yet, philosophical counselors take different approaches. Stoic philosophy deals with anxiety and some philosophers may utilize existentialist philosophy to help people with their life issues.
“You look at people like Victor Frankel who found existential logo therapy. He took his cue from philosophers like Nietzsche and Sartre. Rather than reach some of their more pessimistic conclusions, he actually utilized an existentialist concern with the meaning of life and put a more positive spin on it.”
Mullin’s interest in philosophical counseling began when he was an adjunct professor. Students visited and asked him questions about the course. During the discussion, Mullin felt there were underlying issues. As a professor, there was little he could do as it is “common sense” to not blur the line between student and professor.
“These discussions made me think that there’s an opportunity for philosophers to serve a need that maybe isn’t being served by other kinds of counselors. For a crisis of faith, a typical counselor may examine empirical data suggesting religious people are happier and may pragmatically suggest that a person struggling with faith reconnect. But maybe that’s not the best answer. Maybe it is worth struggling a bit.”
People seeking a philosophical counselor usually wrestle with a short-term decision relating to issues like relationships or careers. Some people have made tentative decisions and maybe want a second opinion.
Philosophical counselors do not diagnose. If clients show symptoms of mental illness, they are referred to a mental health professional.
Mullin researched alternative careers to academia. After learning of philosophical counseling, he traveled to New York City for courses and became certified. Mullin, who taught at the University of Regina, also discussed some of the problems with the ivory tower, starting with doctoral education.
“It’s very difficult to complete a Ph.D. You find people burning out halfway through the program. The Ph.D is so constrained by various things. It’s not as simple as writing a book over which you have complete creative control.”
The doctoral supervisor and external examiners who read the thesis require concessions and this can take a while, leaving doctoral students unproductive at times. Doctoral programs can also take longer than four years, sometimes stretching to six or even ten years. Traveling to conferences and publishing for journals can be difficult for those with limited finances.
In addition, finding an academic job can be difficult. Tenure and tenure track positions are on the decline, with U.S. statistics showing that only 35% of American faculty have such positions. Universities rely increasingly on sessional lecturers to teach courses. Competition for academic jobs is fierce and many sessional faculty teach multiple classes and take jobs outside of academia to make ends meet. This often makes it difficult for them to publish research, making it challenging for them to be competitive for scarce openings.
Mullin has advice for students thinking of going to grad school in humanities or social science.
“Read on some of the drawbacks of graduate programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education is a good resource, as is author William Pannapacker. Also, be strategic about picking a research topic. Pick something of interest to more than three or more people around the world. Pick something that a certain industry may have an interest in.”
Graduate students should also discuss these problems with each other.
“Students in graduate programs should start grass roots movements around this issue. Discuss the idea of backup plans if an academic career doesn’t work. Invite guest speakers to talk about non-academic options.”