Thursday, April 26, 2018

On the Therapeutic Model of Philosophizing

The purpose of Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics is to investigate the therapeutic philosophy preached by the three major Hellenistic Schools, Epicurean, Stoic, and Skeptic. The view was widespread among the Hellenistic philosophers that human diseases can be cured by modifying the passions through reasoning and argumentation.

They believed that philosophy heals the diseases caused by false beliefs; and to deliver therapy, they deployed rhetorical and literary forms in complex ways.

Philosophy in the Hellenistic age was a tool for recognizing the error in one’s thinking. By diagnosing the errors, the philosophers endeavored to make things better and develop a radical norm of true human flourishing (Eudaimonia). Their outlook on nature was often teleological and normative; however, there is a difference in the degree to which the three schools based their ideas on such a view of nature.

Here’s an excerpt from The Therapy of Desire (Chapter I, “Therapeutic Arguments”):

“Epicureans and Skeptics vigor­ously repudiate any such project, deriving their norms of nature from a consideration of the ways living creatures operate in an indifferent uni­verse. The Stoics… are in a sense closer to the Platonists…, in that, although their account of nature is certainly value-laden, and does claim to derive both support and justification from the deepest of human desires and aims, they also believe that the universe as a whole is providentially constructed by Zeus, and that norms of human life are part of this providential design. What complicates the matter further is that the essence of the providential design is reason; and reason is the very thing we encounter in ourselves when we scrutinize our deepest judgments. Thus it is no mere accident that self-scrutiny gets things right. In that sense the Stoics are not Platonists: the connection between the deepest layers of our own makeup and the true good is not merely contin­gent. But a normative ethical structure does pervade the universe as a whole.” (Page 32)

Nussbaum explains that she begins her book with a chapter on Aristotle because his ethical philosophy is close to the account offered by the Hellenistic philosophers. “Aristotle accepts and develops at length the idea that ethical philosophy should resemble medicine in its dedication to the practical goal of ameliorating human lives. And he develops, in some detail, aspects of the analogy between the philosopher's and the doctor's tasks.” (Page 42). But Nussbaum also notes that there are several points on which Aristotle criticizes the medical analogy—he argues that there are some important ways in which ethical philosophy should not be like medicine.

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