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by Lou Marinoff
Academic Press, 2001
Review by Alex Howard on Mar 11th 2002

Philosophical Practice

Philosophical Practice is aimed at philosophers and other professionals interested in the application of philosophy outside of, but supported by, academe. He examines philosophical practice as it may be utilised as forms of counseling, facilitation and consulting.

This is a very different from, and much more demanding than, Marinoff's previous book (Plato not Prozac), which was far more 'popular' in style, aimed as it was, at the general reader. 

I have read both the manuscript and the final published version of Philosophical Practice and, as I observed in my endorsement on its back cover, the book is informed, engaged, polemical, amusing, concerned and passionate.

Marinoff says in his Acknowledgements that “Alex Howard hunted every hare; no utterance or implication eluded his meticulous scrutiny.” It would be unreasonable to expect an author to allow critics to actually shoot dead every hare they have hunted, and some of my targets have certainly managed to survive the salvoes I aimed at them. These I found running around intact in the text.

Marinoff describes the development of philosophical practice, the difficulties it is likely to confront, and is already facing, and the direction he believes it needs to travel if it is to establish itself as a professional activity of use to individuals, groups and organisations.

The book provides just the kind of detailed practical information an aspiring philosophical practitioner might need, and describes the work of the American Philosophical Practitioners' Association, whose President is Marinoff himself, in furthering this work.

The book thereby helps readers move from philosophy they may have learned as an academic subject to philosophy that can be of practical use to clients in a variety of marketplaces.

Such a guide, and manual, for philosophical practitioners, on its own, would be a very useful agenda that would quite justify the writing of this book. But Marinoff has an additional, and much larger, ambition. This is to provide a cultural analysis of what he passionately regards as intellectual and moral decline, not just within academe, but in many other parts of the society, community and polity of North America and beyond.

This general account is relevant since he values philosophical practice, above all, as a means of combating the moral, intellectual, spiritual and emotional decadence and dissipation, which he sees all around him.

The style of writing is deliberately polemical and, perhaps inevitably, it has the strengths and weaknesses of polemics. On the positive side, he hits home at his targets graphically, succinctly, sometimes convincingly, with brutal and uncompromising clarity. Less positively, polemical description is prone to exaggeration, can collapse into name-calling, and does not reliably provide the (relatively) detached marshalling of evidence that a calmer style of writing might encourage.

Marinoff observes, I think quite rightly, that:  ... professors of philosophy must assume responsibility for having managed to reduce their subject to irrelevancy in the larger community.”   (p 3)

And that:

Instead of using language as a precise tool, Americans and others now use it as a blunt instrument.  (p 8)

He does not assume a world of inevitable progress:

'Homo sapiens' is something of a misnomer; man is at least as rapacious as he is sagacious, hence 'homo rapiens' is surely a more accurate taxonomic depiction of the broad spectrum of human history.  (p 74)

He looks for signs of hope:

In the post-postmodern urban and suburban worlds of secular fragmentation, where every man is an island, where most families are unextended, where many churches are empty, where all communities are ephemeral, where local culture means a shopping mall, the supermarket bookstore serves a vital function. (p 117)

And within the bookstore, as well as the boardroom and consulting room he seeks to locate the philosophical practitioner. The discussion that might take place there could, he believes, be an improvement on much of what passes for 'Higher' Education in the academy and elsewhere. He is, for example, rightly scathing concerning the effects of (the worst kinds of) post-modernist thinking:

Because there is no rigor, one can talk in any way about anything; any proposition seems credible, and, in the absence of rules of inference, any other proposition can be inferred from it. One can ordain the universe according to fancy, or re-ordain multiverses hourly.  (p 146)

Marinoff shows forcefully and effectively that philosophical problems are not the same as psychological problems. He gives instances of the important philosophical problems that confront individuals, groups and organisations and demonstrates that philosophers are better placed than psychologists to tackle such problems.

He acknowledges the difficulties: “What most theoretical philosophers lack, of course, are the interpersonal skills and professional (as opposed to academic) expertise necessary to practice philosophy as a discipline of personal counsel. Those deficiencies are precisely what this book addresses, and what APPA Certification Training Programs remedy.” (p. 89)

Clearly such certification is a work in progress and much more needs to be done to clarify and provide the kind of personal skills suitable to the provision of philosophy outside of academe.

On balance I welcome the polemical style, though it will not always help him make the friends he might need. Also, both style and content do sometimes get in the way of the main message. For example, as Marinoff acknowledges, the reader does not need to accept all, or many, of Marinoff's political views and cultural perspectives in order to participate as an enthusiastic and effective philosophical practitioner.

He observes of City College, where he is employed: “This is not a university; it is a travesty.” (In relation to its Open Admissions policy.) (p. 184).

And announces that: “I am a political refugee from the People's Femocratic Republic of Canada.” (Further details in Sexuality and Culture, 4, 23-44) (p. 249)

He asks, “Where is Senator McCarthy when we really need him?” (p. 318) (Oh dear!).

On the other hand, he bemoans the replacement of “steadfast moral worthiness with vapid self-esteem. (p 312)  (Three cheers!)

This is a brave, sincere and important book. I stand by what I said on its back cover: 'Read it!'

© 2002 Alex Howard

Alex Howard is a philosophical counselor and consultant practicing in England and online. His last book is Philosophy for Counselling and Psychotherapy.