Philosophical Counseling Applied to Mediation
By Professor Nayha Acharya
In January, 2022, I participated in the International Conference on Philosophical Counseling, hosted by the University of Delhi. My talk was titled “Philosophical Counseling Applied to Mediated Conflict Resolution: A Pathway to Justice.” I have taken the opportunity to collect and share some of my preliminary reflections about the emergent field of philosophical counseling and its expansive potential to contribute to discourses within Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) theory and practice.
Philosophical counseling is a type of applied philosophy that presumes that as a person becomes more aware of their thought processes, underlying worldviews, and value structures, they become better equipped to notice and correct fallacies in their thinking, problematic assumptions, and internally inconsistent or conflicting values. Such critical awareness of one’s underlying conceptions can lead towards a more integrated, grounded, and meaningful life. In essence, a person is helped to ‘philosophize’ about themselves and about life, and they emerge from that process as better integrated human beings. From what I gathered from the presentations that I heard at the conference, a philosophical counselor is less a pathologizing therapist, and is better thought of as a wise well wisher that can, without imposing any way of thinking or values, open avenues for a person to become intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually integrated. Through such self-understanding, a person becomes equipped to take on life’s challenges and dilemmas from a cohesive, strong centre. I am new to the field of philosophical counseling, but I am grateful to have found it, as I believe it has tremendous potential to enrich dialogues about conflict resolution and mediation which should, in my view, centre on the type of personal empowerment that philosophical counseling holds as key to a good life.
For the past three decades or so, mediation has been increasingly embraced in legal contexts, and various iterations of mediation have found their way into all Canadian civil justice systems. I see this as a generally positive trend, but the problem is that the mediation programs that are connected to courts most often slip into a legalistic approach. Rather than making space for open andfree dialogue and exploration, which are the qualities that make mediation deeply valuable, the parties (and their lawyers, and often the mediators too) tend to focus on what a judge is likely to decide, and they use that as a starting point to wrangle over dollar amounts. Law remains the primary normative framework in this type of process, which prevents mediation from being a space where parties can be empowered to self-create the norms that will guide their resolution. This erases the very reason that mediation could be a profound complement to adjudicative dispute resolution.
There are several reasons why this happens. In part it is because lawyers, who are usually involved, are steeped in the legal system, so they see most conflicts through the legal lenses. Many clients are likely to prefer their lawyers to take such legalistic approaches because it aligns with their pre-conceptions of what lawyers should do. So, legal norms remain primary, and the dispute resolution revolves around application of law rather than around helping people to create norms based on their own value systems. As lawyers, we are comfortable with figuring out what legal norms are and explaining to clients how they may apply, but we may not be well equipped to enable people to self-determine a normative way forward. This suggests that lawyers are not well positioned to be very helpful when it comes to rich mediation, which does not, and should not, depend on only legal norms, but should be contingent on self-determination, autonomy, and dignified dialogue.
This is where philosophical counseling may help. The foundational goal of philosophical counseling aligns with the broad goal of mediation that I described—that is, to equip people to critically perceive their own worldviews, and to see how those underlying views influence their actions. In a mediation context, such perception would allow someone to appreciate why they are approaching a conflict in a particular way and can help them to deeply evaluate their approaches and actions, and even potentially shift their value structures. This has the potential to give a person a sense of autonomy, empowerment, and authorship in the dispute resolution context, as opposed to being limited to acting as a subject of the law and the legal system only.
Because of this basic alignment, I felt that the techniques that are used and debated within philosophical counseling discourse could be instructive in the mediation context too. Speakers discussing techniques tended to converge on the central idea of engaging a client in a process of verbalizing their philosophical conceptions, values, and perceptions. This is relevant in the context of a legal conflict because concepts, values and perceptions are likely all relevant in varying degrees. A party could be encouraged to dig into and verbalize their concept of what constitutes ‘fairness’ or ‘justice’ or ‘forgiveness,’ for instance, to determine how these concepts may be impacting their approach to the dispute. In terms of values: many conflicts have ethical or values-based components, and upon philosophical introspection, a person may find that their sense of what is right or wrong could be hazy or internally inconsistent, which can lead to a sense of uneasiness or indecision. Being able to perceive and critically analyze one’s ethical underpinnings can result in a better formulated value set, which can assist in well-reasoned conflict resolution. In terms of perceptions: often at the heart of a conflict there are faulty or one-sided perceptions, and an assisted examination of what perceptions are influencing the parties can lead to their recalibration, which can help move parties towards resolution. Ascertaining and verbalizing the concepts, values, and perceptions can help a party determine why they take the positions they do in a conflict and can affect a movement away from positionality to a place of curiosity and exploration of what lies beneath the commitment to any position, which is a key element of principled negotiation.
Several philosophical counselors who spoke at the conference referred to Socratic questioning as a method of enabling such exploration with clients. Many of their comments resembled the type of questioning that may be helpful in a mediation context. For instance, gently asking questions like “why is that important to you?” or “what could be the cause of your perception?” or “why do you feel that your position is fair?” which may be the type of questions posed by philosophical counselors, are likely used frequently by mediators as they nudge parties towards mutual understanding. More deeply understanding the philosophical counseling approach to questioning could, however, encourage mediators to emphasize the added dimension of asking questions that may lead to a deeper self-understanding (as opposed to orienting primarily towards understanding the other) and encouraging a philosophical look at one’s general approach to life (as opposed to exploring only the reactions, feelings, perceptions that relate directly to the conflict). This learning could be a source of deeper empowerment for parties to a dispute.
Dr. Michael Picard, one of the invited speakers at the conference, made an additional point that I found especially valuable and unique. He argued that there is necessarily no formula or method that a philosophical counselor should adopt and adhere to. Rather, they should be attuned to the ‘visitor’ who they are engaging with, and that attuned engagement would set a spontaneous path forward for the dialogue between the two. Having the attunement of a wise well-wisher has parallels to the Hindu idea of a Guru who shoulders the responsibility of making their students integrated human beings, which other speakers also made note of. While a mediator cannot take on the role of Guru, attunement as the catalyst for spontaneous, client-centred dialogue was a stimulating idea that I think has much utility in the mediation context.
Allowing one’s attunement to guide a dialogue struck me as a rich conception and expression of neutrality. Just as a philosophical counselor is not there to impose any method or system on the visitor, a mediator should generally not impose their pre-conceptions on parties either. In the mediation context, rather than thinking of neutrality as requiring distance from both parties, perhaps a mediator could think of neutrality as being equally attuned to both parties. I asked Dr. Picard how a philosophical counselor equips themselves to serve as a methodless, attuned well-wisher in the way he described. Dr. Picard’s answer focused on the idea that to engage in a philosophical dialogue, a person must have wisdom. I had not often heard of wisdom as a necessary characteristic of a mediator, but I find it to be a worthwhile avenue to explore further—what does wisdom mean? How is it cultivated? How is it expressed? These questions could benefit significantly from exploring Indigenous traditions and Eastern wisdom traditions.
This relates to the final point that makes philosophical counseling so compelling to me: it is rooted in an integration of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ ideas to form a truly holistic approach. As Dr. Louis Marinoff noted in his comments after his keynote address, philosophical counseling has deep roots in India’s rich traditions, philosophies, and spiritual exploration. The thinkers that were invoked by speakers at the conference ranged from Plato to Epicurious to Heidegger to Carl Jaspers to Buddha to Kabir to Aurobindo to Achenbach to J Krishnamurti, and to the unauthored ancient Vedic texts of India. The result was an enlivening exchange of ideas of a quality that I had never experienced before, rich and diverse in intellect, emotion, and spirituality.
When I was first invited to submit a paper to the International Conference on Philosophical Counseling, I felt skeptical about what I could possibly contribute or gain from a field that seemed foreign to mine. But participating in it showed me what there is to gain by thinking beyond my silo and opened my eyes to the true value of inter-disciplinarity and cross-cultural exchange. I have offered these thoughts (though they are still in their early stages) as an expression of gratitude for that learning.