Basic Philosophical Questions Useful for Some Psychotherapies


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     9-14

ABSTRACT:  Basic questions and issues regarding human life are identified that most people have faced and that are the object of philosophical inquiry.  These can form a framework for an individual’s philosophy of life and can also guide “talking therapies” to be most useful (unless the treatment is aimed simply at symptom reduction).

KEY WORDS:  philosophy, psychotherapy, how to live, a good life

Psychotherapies are divided roughly into two types—those that focus on symptom reduction (less anxiety, less depression) and those that aim to improve a client’s life more generally as well as reduce symptoms.  The latter therapies usually believe that an important result of therapy is an improvement in the client’s ability to effectively manage his or her life, and they focus on some general issues that help the client to make more informed choices about his or her life.  These efforts inevitably express some set of values by the foci that the therapist chooses (being more successful, being more prosocial, being happier, etc.), though unfortunately clients are not usually informed of what these values are prior to treatment. 

Philosophy is the seeking of what is real and true and what produces the best lives for people (again, according to the therapist, according to trusted or treasured experts, or according to some consensus in society), so the questions relevant to philosophical inquiry provide a framework for each person’s “philosophy of life” and can provide a framework for conceptualizing in a more public and organized way the aims of the therapies that try to improve a client’s life more generally.

There have been efforts to conceptualize psychotherapy as a basically philosophical process (“philosophical counseling”), but they have not caught on, probably due to the public’s typical desire for “help” and symptom reduction rather than to understand themselves and manage their lives better.  Some clients discover in the course of therapy that understanding themselves accurately, making better choices, and managing themselves better are desirable goals.

The following questions can be useful for people in general, and a psychotherapist could use them as a background organizing system for doing the best possible job with clients.  Therapy naturally begins with getting to know the client in depth, establishing a therapeutic relationship, and establishing a belief in the client that the therapy process can help, but beyond that, almost all client problems can be subsumed in the following questions, and helping the client to step back and look at his or her self and situation could be aided by posing these questions, since they invite comparison with how others handle the same issues, they invite searching out the wisdom gained so far historically by human beings on these issues, and they invite seeking more general and comprehensive answers rather than simply finding a tool that will solve one’s immediate problem.  These questions do not have simple or single answers, and they will all lead to a narrowing down process of exploration of the issue.  For example, “What is the best way to treat myself?” would require choosing specific goals or outcome areas that then give meaning to “best” (best for being able to have good self-esteem?, best for being most successful in business?, best for having fulfilling friendships?, etc.).

It is worth noting that the answers that we give to these questions, verbally or unconsciously, significantly affect our experience of life and our performance in life, but they do not focus on the details of the perceptual, cognitive, and motor skills and coordination efforts that determine much of the outcomes of our need gratification efforts moment to moment every day.  Our answers to these questions, do, however, guide us in choosing how to use our perceptual, cognitive, and motor skills in pursuit of our goals.

The reader may wish to contemplate for each of the following questions what his or her answer might be.  Almost everyone has faced situations in which each of these questions was relevant.  Sometimes these answers have been or can be formulated verbally, in some cases a person acts as if an answer had been found or selected even though it cannot be immediately formulated in words, and in some other cases, a person may be still striving or struggling to find an answer.

What is happiness?  How is it best achieved or obtained?

What is love?  How can love be made most enduring and most fulfilling?

What is needed in order to have relatively stable and positive self-esteem?

What is the best way to relate to myself?  What is the best way to treat myself?

What are the best methods for managing my emotions?

         How can we adaptively deal with shame, guilt, and anger?

         How can we manage disappointments in life?

         How can we handle rejection most adaptively?

What motivates human behavior (including my own)?

How can I determine what is truly in my best interest?  How can I reliably do what I know to be truly in my best interest?

How can I gratify my desire for pleasure without interfering with my completion of necessary life tasks?  What is an adaptive balance between pleasure and work?

What are the most effective and healthy ways to control my behavior?

What are the best ways to relate to others so as to gain enduring and fulfilling friendships and other relationships?

What are the goals of parenting?  What are the best ways to parent?

How do I manage my behavior to guarantee inclusion and basic acceptance in my family and other key groups?

How can we stop or prevent others from mistreating us?

How can I find sufficient security and peace in a world in which there are threats to my safety and welfare all the time?  How can I best handle the vulnerability that we all have to these threats?

How do I tolerate the anxiety of living in a world where very little is certain?

What is real?  How can we judge what is real?  What methods can we employ to best find the truth?  How can we tolerate knowing the truth after we find it?

What are the most useful and humane standards and expectations for ourselves?  What about morals, ethics, ideals, and values?  How do I develop a moral code for myself that produces the best lives for me and for others?

Why do human beings not naturally seek to be “good,” and why do they not naturally adhere to being “good”?

How can I successfully assert my needs and rights with others fairly and without disadvantaging others?

What are the skills needed to cooperate comfortably and effectively with others in seeking joint goals?

How can we get along comfortably with persons who are different from us (e.g., those who have different belief systems or are from other cultural backgrounds)?

What are the fundamental (non-cultural) differences between men and women?

How can I find sufficient meaning in my life?

How can I find satisfying purpose in my life?

How can I find satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment in life?

What values will produce the best lives for us?

What goals for life will produce the most successful and happy lives?

How do I find a satisfying and comfortable role for sex in my life?

How can I maintain an adequate degree of hope regarding my future, despite life’s various setbacks?

How can I tolerate the many small (and sometimes large) failures of my predictions and efforts that occur every day?

What are healthy ways of (and limits to) trying to control things in my life?

How can I accept things in life without becoming passive or uncaring?

How can I achieve enough autonomy to be able to stand up for myself and stand alone for my values if necessary?

How can I maintain sufficient adaptability to cope with the inevitable changes in my situation and in our society?

Why are we here?

What is the most healthy way to relate to death?