Practical philosophy

Lauren Tillinghast uses her philosophy training as an alternative to psychotherapy.

By Stephen Richard Witt, AB’01
Photography by Shawn Brackbill

Body of work
Tillinghast, in Manhattan, used philosophical counseling to help herself quit smoking.

Lauren Tillinghast, AB’90, AM’91, PhD’00, describes a client who came to her Manhattan office, a commercial airline pilot fighting midair panic attacks. During takeoff and landing he was fine, but, as the plane reached cruising altitude, a crippling fear would take hold as his body’s flight response kicked in: elevated pulse, goose flesh, dilated pupils, and an almost total loss of mental composure.

The pilot sought help from psychologists and counselors, and from Prozac. Finally, in desperation, he turned to the unorthodox and scheduled his first meeting with Tillinghast, a philosophical practitioner.

“We take the hair-splitting discipline of philosophy and apply that to the ordinary, messy stuff that is a part of modern adult life,” explains Tillinghast. Her office—a neutral box of a room off Union Square—looks like a typical talk therapist’s setting. There’s a couch, of course, and hanging behind it are Tillinghast’s postgraduate degrees.

Tillinghast is not a mental-health professional, as she is required by law to tell you. She has “clients,” not “patients.” And with those clients she employs the argumentative techniques of analytic philosophy, eliminating confusion, clarifying muddled thinking, and trying to elicit what she calls “the other half of the thought.” Her method eschews discussions of personal history and buried feelings. Instead it emphasizes developing new outlooks and identifying hidden cognitive errors.

She’s had clients who have gone through cognitive behavioral therapy, and “they have found that the discussions are deeper with me,” she says. “I take topics farther down, call more into question, and am more focused on how clear and precise our reasoning is.” Mostly her approach offers perspective, helping clients to cultivate a dispassionate interior voice. “It’s like mental karate,” Tillinghast says.

The practice attracts clients like Christine Greatrex, a golf pro from Westchester, New York. Greatrex, who had spent years in traditional therapy, unsuccessfully, found Tillinghast through the Internet.

“My traditional therapist encouraged me to go with my feelings and to go with myself,” says Greatrex, a year into her work with Tillinghast. “Lauren is not that way.” She taught Greatrex to reframe her problems and see them from multiple, competing perspectives. Greatrex says she’s now more careful about her immediate gut reactions, relying more on logic. “I often hear Lauren in my head now,” she says.

Philosophical counseling is a growing movement, counting more than 300 certified practitioners worldwide. Its roots can be traced to ancient traditions, but, says Lou Marinoff, a philosophy professor at City College of New York, “modern philosophical counseling began in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, emerging in Europe in the early 1980s.” In 1999 Marinoff, author of Plato, Not Prozac! (HarperCollins), founded the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, which offers training and certification.

Tillinghast, who completed the certification program in August 2006, opened her private practice that same year, following a five-year stint as an assistant philosophy professor at Knox College. Taking a leave of absence from the Galesburg, Illinois, school in 2005, Tillinghast researched alternative—“that is, nonacademic”—ways to be a professional philosopher. “I had read about philosophical counseling back in 1999 or so,” and she had always “been attracted to the idea of using philosophical skills to help sort through ordinary-person problems.”

Tillinghast’s first client? Herself. She’d been smoking cigarettes since age 13, and, after 25 years of continuous use, she’d developed a chronic cough. She loved cigarettes. She’d spent her life smoking and discussing philosophy. She’d smoked while discussing Anscombe with her fellow grad students. She’d smoked after her undergraduate aesthetics seminar with Professor Ted Cohen. “My whole sense of self was as a smoker.”

To quit the habit, Tillinghast turned to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. “Aristotle is a very helpful thinker about habits, especially his account of how they relate to our decisions, feelings, and goals,” she says. “He clarifies why it is so difficult to bring thoughtfulness to bear on what we do out of habit.”

Inspired by the text, she broke down her habitual actions into a series of isolated decisions, each requiring a small but concrete instance of rational contemplation. First she put off her morning cigarette. Then she put it off till noon. Till night. Over three months, she used Aristotle’s theory of rationality to create a schedule of delayed gratification. At midnight on Halloween 2006, she smoked her last cigarette.

Almost five years into her practice, Tillinghast sees between 15 and 20 clients a week. She does not believe philosophical counseling is right for everybody. If a person is too upset, agitated, or aggressive, “or not prepared to engage in critical reflection about what’s troubling them,” says Tillinghast, “this sort of work is not for them.”

Her clients tend toward educated New Yorkers: A media designer who worries that he overanalyzes his decisions. A filmmaker who launches into a fit when her boyfriend cancels on her for dinner. A trend analyst who struggles with procrastination. And the panic-stricken pilot.

First he and Tillinghast discussed the history and pattern of the attacks. “The question of when the attacks started and when they happen is relevant to understanding what they’re about,” she says. “But we wanted to expose the errors in the habits of thinking that fed the panic attacks, not just understand their meaning.” So Tillinghast asked him to pay attention to his thought processes during the attacks.

“He would say to himself, ‘Oh this is nothing, this is going away,’” she says. “But he didn’t actually believe it.”

By gradually learning to slow down his turbulent stream of consciousness into manageable, individual thoughts, Tillinghast says, the pilot achieved a level of detachment. “One of the ways the panic-anxiety attacks took form for him was as a feeling, or a sense, that he was floating away from the earth—as if the law of gravity didn’t apply to him.” Tillinghast talked him through the absurdity of such a thought, reflecting on the nature of the laws of physics. Then, she says, “we strategized that when he had the feeling again, he might try to poke fun at himself and think, ‘Really, am I so special that the law of gravity doesn’t apply to me?’ It turned out that this was one of the thoughts that really helped to break the spell.”

He was able to view the onset of his panic attacks with dispassionate perspective. He’d developed a calm interior voice.


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