Philosophy vs rationality vs therapy

stop and thinkStoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me.

(In this sense, a philosophy of life is somewhat akin to a religion, and indeed religions can and do provide their adherents with a philosophy of life. The main difference, however, is that one is supposed to accept a religion’s tenets by faith, while philosophies are arrived at by reason. Also, religious doctrine — in theory at the least — is not supposed to change, while philosophies are living and ever evolving notions.)

Ever since I’ve started studying and practicing Stoicism I have run into people who frequently confuse it with two allied concepts, which, however, need to stay clearly distinct: the idea of therapy, and the idea of applied rationality. Let me consider them and their relationship to Stoicism in turn.

As is well known, Stoicism does have strong links with a family of modern therapies, especially Victor Frankl’s logotherapy and Albert Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy, both of which are in turn connected to cognitive behavioral therapy (which itself has gone through three different “waves,” emphasizing respectively behavioral factors, cognitive factors, and finally a blending of both).

Modern Stoics like Don Robertson and Tim LeBon have very explicitly worked toward augmenting ancient Stoic practices with a battery of modern, evidence-based techniques that are used for therapeutic approaches. These are important efforts, it should go without saying: one of the fundamental principles of Stoicism is that the study of Ethics (meaning, how to live one’s life) needs to be informed by an understanding of Physics (i.e., natural science and metaphysics) as well as Logic (i.e., logic, epistemology and cognitive science). Which means that the modern science of the mind, including its therapeutic applications, should be incorporated into any viable modern version of Stoicism.

But as Robertson, LeBon and others are the first ones to point out, therapy is not philosophy. Therapies consist of a collection of techniques (derived from a given theory and refined via pertinent empirical evidence), not of general precepts about how to live one’s life. And therapies — especially CBT & co. — are meant to target specific problems for limited periods of time, not to serve as lifelong all-purpose companions.

(Indeed, it can be argued that if your therapist thinks you need to commit your life to weekly sessions, a la Woody Allen, you should probably look for another therapist.)

So the difference between Stoicism (or any philosophy of life) and CBT-related (or any other) therapies is that you go to therapy if you have a specific, potentially treatable problem, like depression, or a type of phobia, or panic disorder. Conversely, you reflect on and practice a philosophy your entire life, and it informs your outlook on pretty much everything.

What about (applied) rationality? I am thinking specifically about people bringing up organizations like my friend (and former podcast co-host) Julia Galef’s Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), which has been explicitly mentioned in recent discussions over at the Facebook Stoic page. After all, Stoicism is a rational philosophy, built on the idea that our “ruling faculty,” to use Marcus’ famous phrase, can and ought to be deployed toward the achievement of apatheia and a eudaimonic life.

But, I argue, the connection between applied rationality in the modern sense of the word and Stoicism is far more dubious and less helpful than the one between Stoicism and therapy. Here is why.

What CFAR and others are in the business of doing is to teach critical thinking with a very strong practical bent. Now, you can take a course in critical thinking at your local community college (or online, often for free), and learn that way about elementary logic, informal fallacies, and cognitive biases. What CFAR attempts is to show you how those and other notions can be applied in the service of self-improvement which, in turn, they say, will make you a happier person.

And herein lies the rub. I’m not going to question CFAR’s specific methods and claims. That’s an empirical question about which I don’t know enough, and that is at any rate irrelevant to my point here. Rather, the problem is in the more “philosophical” aspect of applied rationality, the general contention that it will make you a happier person.

First off, “happiness” is defined very differently depending on the context. Most people arguably mean by that word some kind of general contentment in life, or the feeling of elation that we experience when something very positive happens to us (“I’m so happy about my raise!”). CFAR seems to mean a degree of control over your goals, the ability to improve one’s own decision making. Here is what they say on their website (since taken down):

“Recent scientific understanding of cognitive biases, or systematic thinking errors, provides an exciting opportunity for humanity to become smarter and more effective. We’re taking the results of cognitive science research, and turning them into techniques that people can practice and use in their own lives.”

Their goal, in part, is “building a real-life community of tens of thousands of students, entrepreneurs, researchers, programmers, philanthropists, and others who are passionate about using rationality to improve the decisions they make for themselves and for the world.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the above, in principle. But this is only superficially like a philosophy of life. Indeed, applied rationality is essentially good old fashioned instrumental rationality, which can be put to uses that are ethically positive, negative or neutral. Stoicism, instead, is most decidedly the view that we ought to behave in certain ways (practice the four cardinal virtues) because that is the right way to live for rational social animals such as ourselves  (“follow nature,” as the ancient Stoics put it).

“To improve the decisions [we] make for [our]selves and for the world” is certainly a good thing, but we need first to agree what exactly we want to do for ourselves and the world, as well as what counts as improvement. And applied rationality is, seems to me, entirely silent on this crucial matter. Well intentioned philanthropists can benefit from more critical thinking, a knowledge of logic and an awareness of fallacies just as well as psychopathic dictators. That’s because critical thinking is a set of tools, and tools don’t make for a philosophy, they make for aids that can be deployed for whatever goals we have decided we wish to go after. But how do we decide those goals in the first place?

Wisdom. The objective of the prokoptôn, the student of Stoicism, is to strive toward the ideal (and likely unachievable) condition of the Sage, the perfectly wise person. We have role models to help us on our way, beginning of course with Socrates. And we get there by a combination of studying, reflecting and practicing.

But wisdom is not the business of either therapy (see above) or applied rationality. Indeed, they both presuppose a certain way of looking at things, a conception of what is and is not good, what is and is not worth achieving. And that is why they are not philosophies of life.


25 thoughts on “Philosophy vs rationality vs therapy

  1. Daniel Mann

    While I appreciate stoicism’s emphasis on philosophy and living the good life, it would seem to me that by denying the existence of an objective moral law existing independent of our nature (and this requires a Law-giver), that the stoic also is beholden to a pragmatic foundation as are therapeutic practices.

    BTW, the Biblical faith is also predicated on reason and evidences.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jbonnicerenoreg

    The distinction between a philosophy and therapeutic techniques to reach the goals of that philosophy seem clear. But I hypothesize that applied rationality is a modern phenomena brought on by two factors. The first is logic going from a formal study of ordinary language to a branch of mathematics. Second is the rise of social media. The explosion in the use of written language with the fact that people receive degrees without ever studying the logic of language makes for a need of people to realize that ordinary language has rules and norms which need to be followed for a fruitful discussion.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Douglass Smith

    Thanks Massimo. As you note, very much the same could be said of secular Buddhism as modern Stoicism. I’m also all in favor of classes in critical thinking, but I don’t believe one can think oneself to wisdom: one needs practical knowledge, and training. Further, I don’t think that wisdom is simply the assent to a list of facts. It is a kind of emotional affect as well as an approach to knowledge. The wise person isn’t necessarily the person who knows the facts; she’s the person who knows what is truly important and truly unimportant. And she doesn’t simply know this intellectually or cognitively, she knows it in her bones, such that she acts upon what is important and is emotionally unswayed by what is not. Of course this is entirely consistent with being a person who is a critical thinker, but it is more than simply thinking critically in the sense of getting facts right.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Daniel Mann

    Douglass, Sound points! However, wisdom and rationality, as you know, require far more than courses. In general, we are held captive to our passions and emotions to the point of addiction.


  5. cmplxadsys

    “But wisdom is not the business of either therapy (see above) or applied rationality. Indeed, they both presuppose a certain way of looking at things, a conception of what is and is not good, what is and is not worth achieving.”

    Isn’t it exactly the opposite, given that “[w]ell intentioned philanthropists can benefit from [stuff CFAR teaches] just as well as psychopathic dictators”? One could make a similar argument that CBT and other therapies could amerliorate the guilt of one who’s done wrong, e.g. “Just because I robbed that guy doesn’t make me a bad person. That’s overgeneralization!”

    On the other hand, it seems that it’s Stoicism that presupposes a certain way of looking at the good: namely, virtue is the only “true” good.


  6. Patrice Ayme

    A few points for the background, my way. (And its along the line Daniel Mann mentioned above that we have an objectively given moral law, given by 500 million years of animal and neural evolution. Ethological studies show this.)

    Religion and faith are not just natural, they are essential to humanity, be it only to think.

    A re-ligion re-ligare, it ties people together again. It does not have to be what the Christians called a “superstition”, 17 centuries ago. By this the Christians meant the Greco-Roman pantheon. But of course, Christianism, just like Islamism, itself is a superstition.

    Non-superstitious religions have always been with us: a tribe is a religion. Thus, to do without religion is not just naive, but inhuman.

    That does not mean we have to embrace superstitious religions.

    The Republic itself is a religion. Countless Roman, or French officers gave their life for the Republic, because it was their highest calling.

    A faith is what it means: deciding that a belief is true. We all do it. Mathematicians are full of faith, because they all admit as true axioms, many of them so obscure they don’t understand which ones they are using, or (I claim) incoherent.
    Without the usage of faith all day long, we just could not think. And if we claim we have no religion, we are not just hypocrites, but drastic loners, even to ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author


    “it would seem to me that by denying the existence of an objective moral law existing independent of our nature (and this requires a Law-giver), that the stoic also is beholden to a pragmatic foundation as are therapeutic practices”

    We have talked about this before, and you know my take. I disagree.

    “the Biblical faith is also predicated on reason and evidences”

    Uhm, there goes another thing we need to agree to disagree…


    “Isn’t it exactly the opposite, given that “[w]ell intentioned philanthropists can benefit from [stuff CFAR teaches] just as well as psychopathic dictators”? One could make a similar argument that CBT and other therapies could amerliorate the guilt of one who’s done wrong”

    Right, so I’m not sure we disagree on this. That is why I am saying that both CBT and applied rationality are tools that need guidance, i.e., they need some sort of philosophical framework (not necessarily Stoicism, of course).

    “it seems that it’s Stoicism that presupposes a certain way of looking at the good: namely, virtue is the only “true” good.”

    Of course, we all start with some assumptions. But please notice that the Stoics developed arguments for why virtue is the only true good. One may or may not agree with the arguments, but they didn’t pull it out of nowhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Daniel Mann


    You deny that “the Biblical faith is also predicated on reason and evidences.”

    Actually, there are many evidences – subjective and objective. (I’d be glad to share them with anyone who wishes to give them a fair hearing.) If it were not so, this rabid Zionist and Christian-hater would never have come to believe in the Messiah Jesus.


  9. Daniel Mann

    Patrice, I appreciate many of your comments. However, this Christian would never have followed Christ had I believed it to be a myth. Only if we believe it can we take it seriously, and this skeptic has found many weighty reasons as a foundation of faith.


  10. Massimo Post author


    I’ve look at that evidence, and found it wanting. But please let’s not turn this discussion in one about Christian apologetics. The blog is about Stoicism, after all.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dee Dumars (@deedumars)

    I think you’re have captured what is fundamentally different, e.g. that cbt is therapeutically centered however I think there is a little bit more overlap in those categories from what might be assumed from your account. While CBT is directed at specific problems there is often a high comorbidity in patients e.g. someone who seeks treatment for a body image problem may also have a problem with anxiety, self concept, traits like perfectionism, etc. So while the training may be short term the practice of applying the concepts will often be long term and more generalized than the initial training.

    In addition to learning concepts from psychology like how emotion colors interpretation and affects memory recall there does seem to me to be a philosophical character or art even while it isn’t specifically aimed at a normative goal like virtue. The practice of thinking an alternate thought which over time becomes an alternate theory or approach as beliefs or behaviors supporting the “maladaptive” point of view are weakened is very similar to ideas from philosophy of science like theory laden observation, and Kuhn or Lakatos on theory change; which in turn is a way of characterizing a personal process of change or self improvement.

    Another similarity embedded in that process is the idea of self knowledge, usually the identification of biases, like in applied rationality, but also techniques for emotional regulation, practical advice for how to behave which includes understanding of what other people want which does have a normative component. It isn’t only about self improvement even if there is no thick underlying ethical philosophy.


  12. viennahavana

    Massimo, thanks for the clarification.

    While I believe that psychotherapy (whether CBT or other talk-therapy methods) is helpful for targeting specific treatments (which are sometimes supplemented by medical treatments for co-morbid conditions), I think you have missed an additional important aspect of therapy which is not offered by Stoic philosophy or applied rationality (as far as I am aware): the therapeutic relationship.

    For many people living in the modern-paced industrialized world, with disjuncted friends and families (a problem social media recently highlighted), who have suffered from relationship failures and struggled to find closeness and intimacy, the therapeutic context can be life-saving. I would never minimize its importance–for however long (even decades of intimacy with a therapist can offer the only source of closeness for some people, even those who are otherwise successful and productive in their lives).

    A therapeutic relationship–when effective–can provide psychological safety, non-judgment, trust, healthy emotional intimacy, and facilitate life changes over time. So while I see the distinction with philosophy and applied rationality, therapy offers a unique personal approach that the others lack, and therefore may be very effective as a tool in this additional way.

    [I would also risk saying that the therapeutic relationship in some ways mirrors the pastor-congregational relationship, which is why religion remains a strong crutch for many people in the world. I really don’t want to start a conversation off Stoic topics and onto religion, but just briefly wanted to add that observation…]


  13. Massimo Post author


    thanks for the comment. I never meant to say that therapy is not useful, though I am indeed weary of open-ended “Woody style” therapy, as it may become a type of (costly) emotional dependency.

    And yes, you are right that the therapist may replace the pastor, except of course that one doesn’t usually go to the pastor at fixed times every week, and usually doesn’t pay for it — these are not trivial differences, as they do alter the nature of the relationship.

    Nonetheless, you are correct of course that the three approaches complement (and overlap with) each other. My point was simply that all too often people seem to confuse them.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. viennahavana

    Going every Sunday (or Friday-Saturday, depending on the religion) qualifies as a “fixed time every week.” And based on the amount of physical labor and time that my grandmother gave her church during her lifetime, I would say that is a kind of emotional dependency and time “in lieu” of money–although very many people also tithe 10% or more of their income… just saying…
    Anyhow, your post was very clear and helpful, thanks.


  15. Massimo Post author

    well, you definitely have a point about “paying,” though not quite the same spirit (I think there is a difference in principle between a voluntary donation and a pay-per-service approach).

    as for going every Sunday, again, yes, but not the same thing. I thought you were talking about going to see a pastor on a one-on-one, which people do, especially in small churches. simply attending a Sunday sermon is obviously useful to people, but not quite therapy (its secular equivalent would be to attend a lecture, like people do, say, at Ethical Culture).


  16. viennahavana

    Confession once a week…
    I know it’s not exactly the same, but there is a meaningful analogy in some people’s lives between the relationship of a pastor/leader of a religious group and a formal therapeutic relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Massimo Post author

    Ah good point. So is religion of that sort both a philosophy and a therapy? (I suspect it doesn’t have much to do with applied rationality though.)


  18. Walter J. Matweychuk (@REBTDoctor)

    I think you are mistaken that REBT is not a philosophy. Beck’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a CBT treatment for a variety of disorders based on the generic cognitive model. That cognitive model is modified for each disorder. The techniques used for the protocol of each disorder are empirically derived. Beck is known for the empirical support of his protocols for different disorders and I strongly believe he would agree that his brand of CBT is not a philosophy.

    On the other hand Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is a philosophy and from that philosophy derives a psychotherapy. REBT has a theory of emotional disturbance that is built on the premise that rigid and extreme beliefs are at the core of emotional disturbance while flexible and non-extreme beliefs are the core of emotional health. However, Ellis always said that REBT was an amalgamation of ancient and modern philosophy borrowing heavily from Stoic philosophy and well suited for both problems of daily living and formal disorders. REBT strives not only to reduce dysfunctional symptoms (help people feel better) but to more importantly remain better by facilitating a profound philosophical change. Secondly, I believe that REBT is a philosophy in part because it clearly specifies the values that make it a philosophy too. Those values are Unconditional Self-Acceptance, Other and Life Acceptance, Calculated Risk Taking, Non-utopianism, High Frustration Tolerance, responsibility for one’s disturbance, Self-Interest (putting oneself first and others a close not a distant second), Social Interest, Self-Direction, Tolerance of the mistakes of others without condemnation of others while still holding them responsible for their errors and misbehaviors, Flexibility (rigid, bigoted and invariant rules tend to minimize happiness), Acceptance of Uncertainty, and Commitment to vitally absorbing pursuits that maximize happiness and add meaning to life.

    I knew and have worked with both Ellis and Beck. In my opinion Ellis was an applied philosopher\practicing psychologist while Beck was a clinical scientist. Their therapies overlap in some ways but have very important differences. They evolved in very different environments but more importantly REBT is both a philosophy and a psychotherapy whereas I truly believe Beck being the clinical scientist he is would never argue his therapy is a philosophy.

    Thank you Massimo for your thought provoking post. I look forward to meeting you at Stoicon.

    Walter J. Matweychuk, Ph.D.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Massimo Post author


    thanks very much for your comment and perspective. Yes, REBT certainly ha a much deeper philosophical grounding than CBT, and for the reasons you suggest.

    As such I’m inclined to see it either as a philosophy with a strong therapeutic component, or as a therapy with a strong philosophical grounding.

    The point is, the three categories (philosophy, therapy, applied rationality) do overlap and grade into each other. I still think, however, that there is value in making distinctions wherever distinctions are possible.


  20. PeterJ

    Massimo – I would strongly and belatedly disagree with your idea that rational thought is ethics-free, a value-free method rather than a normative influence on behaviour. Of course, a lot of what we call rational thought does not qualify and this is the problem.

    Daniel notes above that ‘by denying the existence of an objective moral law existing independent of our nature (and this requires a Law-giver), that the stoic also is beholden to a pragmatic foundation as are therapeutic practices’.

    I would agree that Stoicism is reduced to a therapy by this denial, and becomes an incomplete philosophy (if this phrase is not an oxymoron), but no law-giver would be required for an objective morality, just some rational thought directed at metaphysics. It would not be impossible to place Stoicism within a global metaphysical theory that justifies its ethics by reference to knowable facts.

    If we separate ethics from metaphysics then we are then stuck, however, for if we do not know our situation as human beings then we cannot know how to behave. We are left with experimental therapies, indefensible philosophies and no solid results from our rational thinking. Yet where is the metaphysics of Stoicism? It seems to have been lost along the way. I am a fan of Stoic ethics but could not be one if I thought it had no basis in fact and knowledge or could not be fully defended in metaphysics.

    ‘The objective of the prokoptôn, the student of Stoicism, is to strive toward the ideal (and likely unachievable) condition of the Sage, the perfectly wise person.’

    Why unachievable? Is this not selling Stoicism short? I would rather believe Stoic teachings are grounded in the knowledge of the sages, albeit only partially transmitted, and that the level of agreement with their perennial teachings is not a coincidence. I even wonder why all Stoics do not take the same view.




  21. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure I said that rational thought is “value free,” but I do think one can do logic without ethics, if that’s what you mean.

    As I said to Daniel, I reject the idea of an objective moral law. I see no evidence or need for it. Morality is an evolutionary invention — first biological, then cultural — and it serves the purpose of helping us live a decent, flourishing, social life. Nothing else.

    Stoicism is most definitely not reduced to a therapy by the denial of objective moral law, I can’t imagine any serious philosopher endorsing that view, even if he’s not a Stoic.

    Stoic ethics is already justified by reference to knowable facts, facts about the cosmos and human nature. That’s why the Stoics thought you have to study physics in order to understand ethics. I suggested no sharp separation between ethics and metaphysics, only that more than one kind of metaphysics is compatible with Stoic ethics (i.e., Stoic ethics is underdetermined by metaphysics). That doesn’t mean that every conceivable metaphysics is compatible with Stoic ethics — for instance, if it turns out that we are characters in someone’s cosmic videogame then the whole thing collapses.

    Where is the metaphysics of Stoicism? It’s part of their physics. I wrote several articles on this blog about it, and there is a simple explanation on the “Stoicism 101” tab.

    No, saying that perfection is unachievale is not selling Stoicism short. I don’t believe it is within human possibilities to achieve perfection, but I’m not bothered by it. So long as Stoicism helps me improve throughout my life, that’s more than good enough in the develivery department.


  22. PeterJ

    Thanks. We won’t agree about this then. The idea that Stoic ethics is undetermined by metaphysics will never gain any ground around here. For me there would be one and only one metaphysic that can justify and explain Stoic teachings and is thus necessary to it. The Stoic doctrine, ‘Those and only those are free who know that they are not free.’ could have been written by Lao Tsu or Wei Wu Wei and narrows down its metaphysical basis to one possibility. You say you don’t know it and don’t need it, however, so I’ll not bang on. . .


  23. Massimo Post author


    We’ll have to agree to disagree here. I note that plenty of Stoics, from Zeno on, have not seen the need to address the issue you raise, or to go with the solution you propose. Also, to be precise, I don’t say that ethics is undetermined by metaphysics, but that it is under-determined. I plan on writing a post on this soon…

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