Real World Philosophy 101

Peter Raabe puts philosophy to work -- counselling lost souls

by Dorianne Sager
Student intern
Sing Tao School of Journalism

Picture I remember my roommate talking about a Philosophy exam that he had failed. His voice was filled with exasperation when he told us the question that was the source of his downfall -- `Prove you're not a tree.'

Apparently he was not sufficiently rooted in the study of philosophy and remains haunted to this day by the realization that he may indeed be a tree.

It is this type of exasperation that has been the quintessential problem with philosophy for many a young academic. "What is the meaning of life?" has often been followed by "What is the meaning of that question?" Turning the study of philosophy into a practical form of knowledge has proven to be as challenging for some as spelling existentialism.

Recent graduate Peter Raabe is determined to put some sense into Sartre with his newly established PhD made possible through the Dept. of Educational Studies in UBC's Faculty of Education. The first person in Canada and among the first in the world to do a dissertation on philosophical counselling, Raabe is helping lead the way for a renaissance in philosophy.

According to Raabe, when most people struggle with problems and life issues, it stems not so much from a breakdown in their ability to function, but a breakdown in their belief system and the desire to continue to function. This is where Raabe and his philosophical counselling come into play.

Raabe explains that despite being brushed aside by some academics as an illegitimate branch of the field, philosophical counselling is not a bastardization of academic philosophy.Rather, it is a revival of the old tradition of practising philosophy that aimed to help people deal with the elements of human misery.

More than 2,000 years ago, Epicurus said, "Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering." He described philosophy as "therapy of the soul -- a counsel for humanity."

Raabe admits that while incredibly popular in Europe, philosophical counselling has taken longer to attract attention in North America -- perhaps because of our love affair with traditional therapy and prescription drugs. However, he is quick to point out the differences between philosophical counselling and psychotherapy as a way of addressing some of the most disturbing and painful problems of human life.

"I deal with actual belief systems. I don't look at the past as something that necessarily determines you," says Raabe.

Raabe helps his patients deal with issues ranging from  relationship problems, building one's self-esteem, ethical decision-making, meaning of life and life choices, addiction recovery and the loss of a loved one.

"The most important thing I try to do is help people to develop the skills that will allow them to untangle the complexities of their own lives for themselves, rather than offering myself as the authority who alone has the power to do so," says Raabe. "In this way I'm a teacher as well as a counsellor."

Raabe also runs three different philosophy cafés each month: one for teens, one for the general public, and one for seniors. He sees the café sessions as bridging the gap between the theory of philosophy and the practicality of applying it to everyday life.

Philosophy cafés are gaining popularity on the West Coast and are seen by many as evidence of a desire to reconnect to a community and exchange ideas and opinions with others who are not necessarily like-minded.

Raabe believes the rise in philosophy's popularity could have something to do with what he calls our "value eruption."

With the coming of the new millennium, people are starting to question the shift in values that has occurred over the past few decades, Raabe says. Reconciling new and old values with religion and faith can often lead to questions and doubts such as, "Are you meant to be happy?" "Are you meant to be alone?" "What does it all mean?" Philosophy can help you deal with those questions, he says.

Raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, Raabe recalls being chastised by his church pastor for questioning his religion.

"Those are wrong questions," Raabe remembers him saying. "I worry about your attitude."

Discouraged, he left the church in his early 20s because he says, "I had more questions than the church was willing to deal with."

He drifted from job to job, married and had a son. It wasn't until he took his first course at Capilano College at the age of 40 that he discovered philosophy and felt he had finally found a discipline in which asking the wrong questions was acceptable.

"Philosophy developed my ability to confidently inquire into all those areas of both religion and life in which difficult but legitimate questions are often brushed aside," he says.

After earning his honours BA and master's degree in Philosophy at UBC he started working towards his doctorate, doing his dissertation on philosophical counselling through the Faculty of Education.

Such an unusual thesis topic meant that both Raabe and his advising team of four Education professors learned together how to use philosophy as a teaching and therapy tool. He has since presented papers on his work at international conferences in New York and Germany and plans to give a workshop on his approach to philosophical practice in Berlin next summer.

Raabe continues to promote the renaissance of philosophy through an "Issues in Education" course at UBC which centres around student discussions and presentations of topics such as critical thinking, multi-culturalism and racism, gender, sexual orientation, religious values in education and the aims and purposes of education.

In addition to teaching philosophy courses and seeing clients in his private practice, Raabe also practises philosophy with children at an independent elementary school in North Vancouver. By breaking down concepts so kids can understand them, he challenges them and their beliefs.

"Kids have very profound insights and profound questions," says Raabe. "I let them see that philosophy is applicable to real life problems like suicide and that existential question -- what's the point?"

Begun nearly two decades ago by German philosopher Gerd Achenbach, philosophical counselors, professional associations and certification programs can now be found in the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Austria, France, Switzerland, Israel, Great Britain and the United States.

With the enthusiasm and passion Raabe shows for his profession it is clear that he is intent on promoting practical philosophy as a way to bring meaning and clarity to our lives -- there may be hope after all for my roommate's tree complex.