Lou Marinoff Interview
Lou Marinoff is a professor of philosophy and best-selling author. He is a pioneer in the field of "philosophical counseling."
Hanley: Dr. Marinoff, in looking at your bio it looks like you got started in theoretical physics. What drew you to that?
Marinoff: Oh, we’re going back a ways. Yes, my first degree was in theoretical physics. I actually enjoyed it because the world is a very imperfect place as a rule, and we’re all subject to the varying opinions of others. And our own opinions are quite changeable, too. What I liked about theoretical physics was that most of the problems have definitive answers. It’s really nice that you could actually solve a problem and get the right answer. It gives you kind of a false sense of security about the world. It was also a beautiful way of thinking. On a serious note, physics is a very beautiful way of understanding the world and describing it in fairly precise mathematical language. And I enjoyed that for quite a long time.
Hanley: Did you get to a point or are you at a point still where you feel like you grasp the whole relativity and quantum physics and all that?
Marinoff: Some of it, anyway. I mean, as far as early 20th century physics goes, that’s now very passé compared to what’s happened in the interim. I actually was doing a Master’s degree in theoretical physics when I switched into the philosophy of science. So I had done advanced courses in quantum theory. And I know relativity and thermodynamics and all that good stuff. So I was fairly comfortable, yes, for a long time.
Hanley: And do you think it’s possible that physics can get it “right” about the nature of the universe or let’s say the causal properties of the universe?
Marinoff: Well, I’m not so sure about the causal stuff because you may recall that Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Laureate in physics, wrote a wonderful little popular book about 25 years ago called The First Three Minutes in which he had pieced together the state of the art knowledge of the day about what had happened in the first three minutes after the big bang. And he actually extrapolated that into a very nice little book with no mathematics. It was clear that he could describe it without mathematics. But he said, and people have always said, that if you want to know how the big bang itself originated you’ve got to go talk to the theologians. I don’t think that physicists are really doing causal stuff. The Newtonian model is certainly very causal: one billiard ball strikes another and all of that. But it still goes back to Aristotle’s prime mover, doesn’t it? There is a first cause. And I think that’s still pretty much up for grabs. It’s a metaphysical question, to me at least, what the first cause was. And I don’t think that physics is going to tell us this. I think that physics is going to tell us a lot about what happens given a first cause.
Hanley: I’ve read a bit of Heidegger on this. And in a lot of his later writings he seemed to be, to some extent, undermining science because he felt like they were presenting themselves as having the complete answer and the only answer. I mean he’s obviously very complicated, but if I read him correctly, he seemed to be saying that there are always some assumptions that you start with. And it’s the same thing in physics. There are certain assumptions they start with that you can’t really prove. You’ve just got to start with those. Have you hear of that? And do you agree with that?
Marinoff: Yes, of course. I mean this is very common knowledge in philosophy of science. And it’s not just Heidegger who espoused this. Many philosophers have pointed out more or less the same thing, Imre Lakatos in the tradition of Karl Popper who says that we progress not by verification of our theories, rather by falsification of our theories. So, in other words, we learn from our mistakes. And science progresses only in a sense by understanding which of its assumptions are flawed and replacing them with better assumptions. So for Popper there is a word called ‘verisimilitude’ which means an approach to truth. And I think that most confident philosophers of science as well as most scientists are not so arrogant as to suppose that we have the whole or complete truth. But on the other hand we do have certain reliable knowledge. There’s no question in my mind that a lot of what science has discovered is indeed reliable knowledge and therefore very close to certain kinds of truths. We are, though, very much like Neurath describes it as a ship at sea which has to kind of replace its old planks without the benefit of going into dry dock. So this makes science a very interesting enterprise. And it really is self-correcting much like probably democracy can be. As long as it remains self-correcting and doesn’t fall prey to politicization or to too much dogma, then it has a chance to continue on this project. So, I’m very much a realist in this way. And I’m rather dismayed, of course, since you mentioned Heidegger, I must also retort that on the continent followed a rather devastating wave of deconstructionism, the postmodernist wave, which has deconstructed truth and reality and which stands completely opposed to some of the things that Western science actually posits, such as an objective reality about which we can discover fundamental laws.
Hanley: And what’s your take on that? Where do you come down on that?
Marinoff: I’m anti anti-realism. I’m a realist. I believe there is indeed a reality out there and that each of us perhaps grasps some of it in our own way, but that when we arrive at consensus whether on Platonic universals, or whether indeed on the weight of the proton, or the mass of the proton, or whatever it is, we are really finding out things about reality. I do believe that there is a real world. I do believe that there are truths. And I think only that the human being has this remarkable capacity to be deluded to such an extent sometimes that the delusion even takes the form of denying what is real and replacing it with what is unreal.
Hanley: Now, you’re going along learning physics, what drew you to the philosophy of science?
Marinoff: Oh, I’m glad you asked me that, John, because what moved me away from the pure physics or the theory and into the philosophy of it was really a lack of moral content. I mean actually I just got tired of solving differential equations, a thing which really drew me in the first place, mainly getting good answers to questions and so forth, getting precise mathematical answers and solving equations, and deriving formulae which is a lot of what physics does, was wonderful. It was a wonderful exercise. But in the end, I got tired of it because it had no moral content. And I was just as a human being not addressing those aspects of my own life and of the wider human world. So, of course, as we all know philosophy deals, grapples, not only with issues in the sciences but, of course, traditionally with issues in ethics and morality. And so I was a little bit happier swimming in philosophical seas.
Hanley: Philosophy of science, does that sort of critique science? How would you describe philosophy of science?
Marinoff: Well, I’m going to dodge that by saying there’s no consensus to my knowledge about what philosophy is or indeed what science is, so if you compound this and say what’s philosophy of science, then you find that there are different schools, there are different ways of doing it. And it really depends on what one wants to understand by philosophy and what one wants to understand by science. In Britain, for example, in the UK where I did my Ph.D., it’s really a very separate enterprise, and it’s not an adjunct of philosophy at all. There are separate freestanding departments of history and philosophy of science. And these are populated by people who really understand something about science as well as something about history, or as the case may be, philosophy. So it’s done in a certain way. In America philosophy of science is done by analytic philosophers who, I must be very candid here, and say most of them, have never taken a science course. So it’s utterly preposterous for a lot of them to be doing philosophy of science because they don’t know any science. They certain know more than enough philosophy, but they end up critiquing theories. They’re doing what we call meta-theory. And it’s nothing that any scientist would find interesting, whereas on the other side, I think that in the early days, especially of 20th century physics, the quantum world was so weird. It was so strange and so challenged our assumptions about this thing called reality that a lot of the scientists, a lot of the physicists themselves, had to be philosophical. They had to be philosophers in order to do this. So I think that in that tradition there’s a much stronger interplay between philosophy and science.
Hanley: Who are the two or three philosophers you’ve read the most?
Marinoff: Gosh, you just changed gears on me. Well, I recently read the Complete Works of Aristotle quite closely. And that’s quite a number of words. I did that for my new book which is coming out. I guess maybe we’ll talk about that later. So I’ve recently acquainted myself with all of Aristotle’s works in a fair amount of depth. And I’ve drawn from many of them. I think there are 22 books altogether, something like that. So that would probably count. If you’re asking me who I tend to reread it’s a lot of the Chinese stuff. I go back a lot to Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy. I reread the classics of Indian philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita to some of the Buddhist sutras. And I also read quite a bit of Lao Tzu and occasionally Confucius and so forth.
Hanley: Since you brought up Aristotle, let’s go back to the Greeks here and starting with Socrates, I know his work is entwined with Plato since he didn’t write anything himself, let me ask you maybe, I don’t know, an unusual question here, but there’s been some debate as to whether Socrates was antidemocratic or not. What’s your take on that?
Marinoff: Well, I think in some sense that the only true anti-democratism could be in a democracy. The Greeks were performing all kinds of political experiments. And our legacy of democracy today is certainly one that the Greeks have to take credit for virtually inventing. I think that I would come down on the side of Socrates as more of a democrat and Plato as more of an anti-democrat. That would be the direction of my answer to you. Socrates got himself into trouble by being an individualist and following his principles and making enemies during the Peloponnesian War and a number of other things. But it seems to me that of the two, Socrates was the guy, if our understanding of history is correct, who went into the agora and who basically took people as they came and was willing to discuss and debate with them almost any question they wanted to raise. And that seems to me to be essentially a very democratic thing to be doing. It was Plato in his Republic who presents to us more of what Popper, post-second world war, called the roots of totalitarianism. It’s Plato who wants to censor art. It’s Plato who wants to tell noble lies and so forth. And all of that seems to grate a little against our perceived notions of how democracies function. So I mean this could be just pure fantasy. We don’t know these guys. We’d have to have a time machine to go back there. But I tend to think of Socrates as much more the quotidian philosopher, the philosopher in the streets, the man who took it right into the public marketplace. And that seems to me more cognate with democracy than Plato and Aristotle whose academies were more elite and in fact were definitely concerned with political controls.
Hanley: I remember reading some of him in college and I just remember being truly blown away by the mind and imagination of this guy. I don’t know if there’s been anybody else quite like him. Would you definitely say he’s up there in the pantheon of just mind-blowing geniuses?
Marinoff: He’s gotten my vote. In fact in my new book, which will be out in the United States in 2007, I called him one of three greatest teachers who ever lived. I’ve kind of resuscitated the ABCs of virtue ethics for the postmodern world. And the three virtue ethicists are literally Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius. Those are the ABCs. Aristotle was the philosopher. I mean he was called the philosopher in the west for almost 2,000 years. Remarkable! He invented most of the curriculum of the contemporary university. He didn’t get appointed to be Plato’s successor because he famously diverged from Plato on various important philosophical issues. But nonetheless he had enough credibility and clout to establish his own Lyceum in which he really began, that is in terms of the curricula, if you read the books of Aristotle. I mean he wrote on physics. He wrote on biology. He wrote on logic. He wrote on rhetoric. He wrote on zoology, on just an unbelievable number of subjects, not to mention his better known works on politics, on economics and on, of course, ethics, and the Nicomachean Ethics is one gem of his collected works which has the most beautiful geometric theory of balance and proportion in ethical behavior and also has a very, very moving essay on friendship and the virtues of friendships in life and so forth. So I have to agree with you. I think that he basically defined intellectual life for Western civilization for a good long time. And his influence on the West is still being felt. Although many people may not realize it’s his influence, his hand is there. So, yes, he was a great genius.
Hanley: Well, whatever your advance was for that book, you should have gotten double for having to read the Metaphysics again.
Marinoff: Well, thank you very much. I’ll put you in touch with my publisher and see if you can persuade them. But I did this voluntarily. I mean I planned this book long before there was any talk about publishing contracts. I mean I am supposedly a philosopher and should not be daunted by reading classic works after all.
Hanley: That’s a particularly tough one.
Marinoff: I take everything with a grain of salt too, John.
Hanley: Yes. I understand. Now you mentioned Buddha there. A lot of my understanding of Buddha probably unfortunately comes from reading Joseph Campbell of all people. And I do respect a lot of his work. He posits two different approaches to life. There’s the Buddhist. I think he would call it the detachment approach. And then there’s sort of the Western passionate involvement approach. I want to ask you about this. First of all, do you buy that basic construct or would you put it differently?
Marinoff: I’d put it differently. I’d say all of us are at times detached or dissociated, and all of us at times are passionately engaged. And the Mahayana Buddhists that I hang out with are more engaged with life than anybody I know and more passionately. So I think Campbell as great as he was, as powerful as his understanding of the unification of mythology and all of that, was not a Buddhist scholar and probably in fairness to him did not have a chance to learn much from Buddhists in person who have brought the teachings to us from Asia.
Hanley: Well, let’s go into this a little bit. I think this will be particularly interesting to my readers also.
Marinoff: Ok. But if we’re going to do, let me just interrupt you, if I may, if we’re going to do…we’ve done A so now we’re going to do B. Then we’ve got to do C too for completeness, ok?
Marinoff: We’ll go to Confucius, too. If we need to adlib a couple of questions, let’s do it.
Hanley: Now, the Buddha is saying that reality is an illusion and therefore the self is an illusion.
Marinoff: No. Stop. I’ll stop you right now. No. The Buddha is saying there is a reality and we can know it. But we can only know it if we recognize the illusions that we carry around and manufacture, including the illusion of personhood, or self, or ego. That’s illusory and impermanent. But there is definitely a reality. Buddha asserted most strongly that there is a reality.
Hanley: And was he talking about physical reality there?
Marinoff: All! There’s no difference. There’s no difference, material, nonmaterial, physical, nonphysical, it’s all one. It’s all part of one thing, one reality, one undivided reality.
Hanley: Alright. Well, let’s go to the personhood thing then. So he’s saying there’s no self. There’s no individual self. So if that’s the case then how do you, for example, fall in love? How do you have true love with somebody if you buy into that?
Marinoff: You never have true love with anybody. What you have is when you say “I love you” to someone in a possessive or erotic way what you’re saying is “Gee, I feel good in your presence so I need you around to feel good.” And that’s all it is, I’m sorry to say. We make great tragic tales out of it because we’re very romantic and sentimental creatures. And we love to be attached to it. But Buddha was very, very clear about a lot of things. And there are higher forms of love incidentally. He’s not denying love at all. But what he’s saying is if you love in a selfish way or an unwise way then the pleasure of love will soon be dwarfed by the pain that the foolish attachments bring us. Love is a form of attachment. And really what Buddhists are most concerned with is suffering and how to alleviate it, and like the Tibetans are very fond of saying there are only two kinds of suffering in the world: the misery of having and the misery of not having. So, half the world is pining away. People are pining away because they don’t have true love and they’re looking for their soul mates. And the other half are pining away because they’ve found true love, found their soul mates, married them, and now they’re in some kind of hell world in a power struggle with marriage, familiarity being, as Balzac said, the monster that devours everything. So some people are miserable because they’re married and some people are miserable because they’re not married. The real art of Buddhism is to be happy no matter what you are. And the way to be happy no matter what you are is actually to relinquish your unwholesome attachments to things, be it any notion that you have about true love or careerhood or how great you are, what the newspapers say about you, and so forth. I’ve given you a lot now. You’re getting the whole broadside, ok?
Hanley: This is great. Now Campbell says that Carl Jung, for example, traveled to India by boat and that he wouldn’t get off the boat because, well Campbell’s explanation was, he didn’t really want to go for all this release yourself business really when it came down to it. He wanted to keep the Western self. Do you buy that?
Marinoff: I probably do, although Jung at least took the boat ride. Freud never did. I would say this of Jung, and I think it’s very important to note that Jung was much more of a Sinologist or at least a Sinophile (that is, fond of Chinese culture). Jung wrote the definitive introduction to the Wilhelm-Baynes edition of the I Ching. And Jung also, notwithstanding what you’re saying about Campbell, which may be perfectly true, Jung wrote the definitive introduction to the original Tibetan Book of the Dead published by Oxford University Press, edited by Evans-Wentz. And so Jung wrote a psychological commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So he was willing at least from a distance to immerse himself in some of the profoundest Buddhist thought to come out of that region. I think that a lot of Westerners, including for example Elie Wiesel and long before him Erik Erikson who wrote Gandhi’s posthumous psychoanalytic biography, and myself too, for that matter, are appalled by the chaos and the contrasts of India. India is a more severely, I think, polarized nation in terms of extreme wealth and affluence and extreme poverty than any other. But India is a very spiritual place. And, of course, it reabsorbed Buddhism too. But Indian culture is not primarily Buddhist. Indian culture is primarily what has become known as Hindu as a misnomer. But now even they use it. So it’s ok to say. It’s Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and a lot of other things. And Buddhism was reabsorbed there. But the principal sources of Mahayana Buddhism that are now coming to the West are really Tibet and Japan. China transformed Buddhism and then it went to Japan. And now it’s coming here. But Indian Buddhism is still there. But you have to kind of wade through Indian culture to encounter it.
Hanley: Now your new book, I think is called The Middle Way. And you’re going to contrast Aristotle and Buddha and Confucius. So I look forward to reading that. Now, do you reckon that you lose anything if you buy into the Buddhist way completely? Is there anything good that you lose?
Marinoff: I’m not a Buddhist, ok? I’m a friend. Buddhism has been a friend to me. And I’m a friend to Buddhism. I would say that there’s absolutely nothing to lose, everything to gain. My experience with Buddhism tells me this. And I practice personally. I’m not proselytizing. I’m not saying you should do this John, or anybody else should do this. I think that all of the religions at their heart have esoteric teachings which purify the heart and which open the mind. And that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, all people of religions, great and small, if they follow the true inner way of their religions will in fact purify themselves in some spiritual sense and be really good people. That’s the purpose of it for me, ok? Things get a lot more complicated when people start doing things in this world for the sake of the next. And that’s where they part company with Buddhists who do everything for the sake of this moment because this moment is all there is. But I have no regrets at all about anything that I’ve ever had to do with Buddhism, and it’s a source to me of incredible wisdom, energy, creativity, compassion, and everything that one could hope to aspire to as a human being. And that’s really just even on the intellectual side. The practices are really unbelievable for those who want to devote more time to them.
Hanley: And now how about Confucius? What does he have to teach us that is relevant in the 21st century?
Marinoff: All kinds of lessons. It’s really interesting to me, as this book unfolded I must tell you that they were almost contemporaries. Buddha and Confucius were contemporaries. Aristotle came along a little bit later. But the thing is the three of them each taught ethics. Buddhism is, of course, also known as the Middle Way. But Aristotle’s Golden Mean, his moral Golden Mean as he describes it in Nicomachean Ethics is also a middle way for moral behavior. And Confucius talks about harmonious coexistence, balanced social order and so forth, and also advocated very, very similar principles, each of them from a different tradition. So that’s what links them. And they’re all in a way virtue ethicists. I’m now taking Buddha out of a religious context, ok, and putting him into a philosophical one. He was also a virtue ethicist. And the three of these guys gave us the three greatest systems of virtue ethics ever propounded in the world. And they’re very relevant to the 21st century precisely because the 21st century is so far characterizable as a century of extremisms. The USA is--I don’t have to tell you--politically polarized. The world is economically polarized. The gap is growing, notwithstanding globalization, between the haves and the have-nots. There are religious conflicts based on clashes of extremisms. There’s every possible kind of extremism in the world. So what my book is doing is looking at about 10 or 12 different versions of extremism on different axes, be they political, religious, economic, educational, and so forth, and applying the wisdom and traditions of the ABCs to help reconcile these extremes for people in everyday life today. So it’s really very live, a very live version of what Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius taught us. And it attempts to apply their wisdom to trying to manage some of these problems of extremism in the 21st century global village.
Hanley: In your reading of the New Testament do you see Jesus as a virtue ethicist?
Marinoff: Well, now I have to say that since I don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God--although this may antagonize believers, I don’t disrespect their beliefs --I do believe that Jesus was probably a very, very enlightened man. And certainly he was an enlightened healer, a hugely compassionate being, probably fully realized, egoless, and endeavored to do only good for those around him. And so I think he was a great, great teacher. As far as virtue ethics is concerned I’d have to be more skeptical about this because the end of virtue ethics, the goal of virtue ethics, whether Aristotle’s, Buddhist’s or Confucius’ version, is fulfillment, awakening, compassion, and leading a meaningful life now, here and now, always. You know, Aristotle talks about happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics, happiness through the life of contemplation and through balanced action. This is the goal. Confucius also talks about achieving a certain kind of serenity, a certain kind of wisdom, and this also comes through the practice of ethics in the here and now. And Buddha, of course, famously took on both religion and philosophy saying that the questions they asked were totally profitless and that it was just not worth debating about whether there are souls or not souls, whether there are future lives or not. What’s really important is what we do now. So the ABCs are not providential, ok. They’re not telling people to sacrifice this life for the sake of the next. They’re saying you can all do something important and meaningful now and become fulfilled human beings now if you follow the right path. And this I’m afraid puts them squarely in conflict with the Abrahamic faiths, whether you’re, you know, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. And, of course, we know there are any number of conflicts within those religions. They’re more like sibling rivalries because they’re all the same family. And the one thing that they have in common, especially Christianity and Islam, is they are what Freud called providential. Yes, they are hoping or believing that there is a God who looks after everything in a very personal way. And that if we do the right thing in this life we will more or less be rewarded in the next or be punished if we do the wrong thing. And that is very different from the aim of virtue ethics.
Hanley: Well, let’s switch gears now and talk some about philosophical counseling.
Marinoff: I’m relieved. Back on more comfortable ground, perhaps.
Hanley: Well, for the benefit of the readers, why don’t you say a little bit about an overview of what philosophical counseling is?
Marinoff: Yes, I’d be very happy to. And the first comment I want to make to you and your readers is that philosophical counseling is only one part of a much bigger whole. And that whole is called philosophical practice. And it’s only in the United States of America thanks to the media fixation with psychology and a thoroughly psychologized population that people are unable to conceive of the practice of philosophy in any context other than the one that the media has sensationalized for us, which has done probably more good than harm. But nonetheless it is very harmful in its distortions. And people think, oh, philosophical counseling is something new, some kind of new form of therapy. And it isn’t. It’s, in fact, a very ancient form of therapy. If it is therapy, it’s the most ancient form we have. As you know, it goes back to even the pre-Socratics. So, that’s one set of issues. But let me just say then in summary, the executive summary is that we recognize at least three ways of practicing philosophy outside the academy, outside the classroom, and outside the scholarly publication circuit and conference circuit. And one way is indeed philosophical counseling which is one-on-one interaction with philosophers who apply great ideas to the management and hopefully the resolution of everyday problems. That’s philosophical counseling in a nutshell. We also work with groups. And we do group facilitations of many different kinds, both formal and informal. And we also work, a number of us, with organizations, corporations, governments, professions, and so forth, in a consulting capacity, not only as ethics compliance people and applied ethicists, but also more proactively bringing various kinds of philosophical exercises and modalities into the corporate culture, into government culture, and helping people to become more functional, and therefore organizations also to becoming more virtuous. So those are like the three dimensions of philosophical practice, ok?
Hanley: Alright. Now, you’ve run into some resistance in the States from I guess your university and maybe other psychiatrists. Where does all that stand?
Marinoff: Well, I think that in a most generic way it all stems from a phenomenon we observe very widely in cultural evolution and that is all innovations, all pioneering efforts, are initially resisted by a kind of inertia, a resistance to change that people are so fond of, that they so stubbornly sometimes cling to. But on the whole I’d have to say that the resistance to change and intellectual inertia are sometimes good things because they create time and space for us in which we can winnow the bad ideas from the good and discard what is not sound or not valid or not useful and eventually retain what is. So I think that resistance per se is not a bad thing and that obstacles, in fact, sometimes make us strive harder; those of us who want to surmount them, at least; they encourage us in certain ways to do more than we otherwise would do and to test, I guess, the authenticity of what we’re doing.
So I think all of that is good and a certain amount of resistance is only healthy. What I’ve encountered at the City University of New York goes, of course, well beyond that. And my best information is that in around 2000 or something I was invited by the previous administration to provide philosophical counseling services at the Wellness Center. You must realize that City College where I work is part of CUNY which is a gargantuan kind of political prison as in gulag. I call it the American gulag. But anyway, City College had virtually no health services for students for 25 years. I mean ever since the New York City budget crunch of the ‘70s they basically eliminated the Wellness Center. The students were just on their own. So they resuscitated that in the late ‘90s. And a very, very good administration, President Yolanda Moses, she’s now history, but her administration, reinstated the Wellness Center. And the Vice President for Student Affairs knew of my work. And at that time they were favorable. And they invited me to provide services. And we had a whole plan set forth whereby APPA certified counselors would be available to students. We already had students seeking this. I had funding for it. It wasn’t going to cost anybody anything. We had philanthropy. So it was all going to be a wonderful three-year project. I gather that the clinical psychologists caught wind of it. We have a very dogmatic Freudian community of clinical psychologists on campus. And they want everybody to be mentally ill. This is their bread and butter. They’re part of a diagnostic culture. They’re part of the culture that has psychologized Americans and, in fact, which keeps them unwell. And so they caught wind of this. And they went ballistic. Our best information is that they actually went ballistic. And I never know because you have to understand that I’m not using these terms lightly. The American gulag is a place where there is no due process, where the constitution of the United States does not apply, and where if you are accused of being guilty you have no right to confront your accusers, no right to defend yourself, no right even to know the nature of the accusations levied against you. Everything is done by fiat.
So one day I was simply called into the Dean’s office and told that I would have to cease and desist from all philosophical practice activities on campus. Basically, they placed a moratorium on me. They shut down my research, which was a federally approved research protocol which had run without incident or complaint. That was shut down without due cause, without due process. All activities in fact pertaining to philosophical practice have been banned on campus for the last six years. I was unable to obtain a remedy in Federal court. The university prevailed with the egregious argument put forward by our psychologist friends that people, I’m quoting now from their attack, “that people who seek philosophical counselors are likely to develop psychological problems.” These are the grounds. So they panicked a stupid and ill educated and heavy-handed administration into believing baseless accounts. There’s not one, not one client, to my knowledge worldwide of philosophical counseling, that’s ever, ever suffered psychological problems because of it. On the contrary. So this is the sort of thing that I’m up against. And it’s really quite impossible to make any headway there at the present time. This may indeed change. But they also did me a favor in a way by preventing me from developing not only my own program, John, but also more importantly a graduate program on campus. I mean I am inundated. The APPA is inundated with requests, as you can well imagine, from graduate students and not just in philosophy. We have psychology students. We have all kinds of students from across the country and around the world who would like nothing better than to do a MA in philosophical practice. And, of course, we have a phenomenal faculty of practitioners in the USA. I have designed a program which can deliver the premier graduate course in this field if some university administration would be enlightened enough to actually put it on. But it doesn’t look like this. We’re living in Rome, not Greece. Americans want circuses. They don’t want to think.
Hanley: Right. Well, so it’s an ongoing battle.
Marinoff: It surely is. If it’s not quick and easy, I’m afraid this culture has been conditioned not to make too much effort.
Hanley: Now, I want to ask you some things about modern psychological practice. But before that, let’s go back to sort of the beginning which is Freud. And I’ve read quite a lot on him, mostly skeptical works, I must say. And it seems like I don’t even know if he ever helped one person, really. What’s your take on Freud?
Marinoff: Well, ok. That’s complicated. Now we’re going into another minefield. Before I stray into that minefield, ok, I have very few even left now from the last one, but I will stray into it. And I will tell you what I think of Freud. But before I do so, just let me preface it ok? The APPA has members who are psychologists or psychiatrists. And it is not the case, I repeat, not the case, that there is any kind of unified or unanimous front allied against philosophical practice in this country. In fact, many, many psychologists are very brilliant and philosophically brilliant people, Irvin Yalom for one. There are many, many psychiatrists, too. I mean he’s actually a psychiatrist.
Hanley: I love his work.
Marinoff: Yes, so do I. And you see he’s very philosophical. He’s done his homework on Nietzsche. He’s done his homework on Schopenhauer. And he understands Freud’s work better than most. He’s kind of a living heir to that tradition. And he’s not thrown out the baby with the bathwater. That’s part of my answer to you. There are things in Freud that are valuable. We certainly say that the APPA has a lot of friends and supporters from psychology, from social work, from psychiatry. I personally have many psychiatrists who are friends and who support this in their own way too and realize that we’re not practicing psychology without a license. We’re doing what we should be doing. And they understand this. But as for the larger sort of political forces of psychology, they definitely are fighting perpetual and perennial turf wars. And behind the scenes I’ve seen very many educational initiatives that they have destroyed because they feel that these somehow would intrude on their psychologization of the human being. And I think it’s really sick. They’re sick. That notion of a human being as a sick animal is what is sick. And they have captivated the American imagination with this. They have tremendous political power. And behind the scenes a lot of legislators are regretting that they were ever licensed to do anything. So there we have it, ok, in a nutshell. But there are many, many, I think, very philosophical beings among them who are definitely our friends and not our opponents. And also it’s up to people themselves. We have in civil law, I believe, we have in civil law still a presumption of innocence. Even in criminal law we have a presumption of innocence where you know you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty, although the criteria for proof differ a little between civil and criminal actions.
But in the psychological world I think that largely, unfortunately owing to Freud, people are really deemed to be insane until proven sane. This is more and more the norm now. And in fact, John, the pressures of the insurers, it’s mostly the insurers and the pharmaceutical companies who have colonized medicine and also pseudo-medicine, who have now driven psychologists to make compulsory diagnoses if they want insurance payments. I mean any third-party insurer now will not pay a counselor unless the counselor makes a diagnosis and finds something wrong. So to go to a psychologist they have to find something wrong with you if they want to get paid. This is crazy, right?
Marinoff: So what we’re seeing now is a presumption of insanity, basically. Everyone is presumed to be mentally ill in some way or another.
Hanley: I want to get more into that. Do you want to say a word on how is Mr. Freud himself as a counselor?
Marinoff: Well, his batting average, I don’t know. And I think that what Freud did really well, so let’s go back to Freud, ok? I’ve also read his complete works, also another 22 volumes or so. I studied these some years ago. I think that Freud was very brilliant, ok? Freud is certainly another genius. In fact, he’s one of the smartest people never to win a Nobel Prize. He wasn’t a Nobel Laureate. And clearly his insights into human nature tower head and shoulders above many others who did win the Nobel Prize. And I think that he didn’t precisely because he drew people’s attention to matters that they were not willing to contemplate in the day. The repression of the Victorian era is what made Freud possible. He was reacting really I think against a culture that was so sexually repressed that it was obvious to him a lot of people were walking around with unresolved psycho-sexual issues, which he then universalized into a grand theory of the human being which I don’t believe is accurate in its entirety. And I think that we have to certainly go beyond Freud in order to become whole. And I believe that the failings of psychotherapy are precisely those which I alluded to when you asked me about Buddhism. The whole notion of maintaining a healthy ego is contradictory. The ego is not healthy. The ego is what makes us sick.
And so when psychologists are constantly trying to get people to maintain healthy egos, applying some kind of balance, this is precisely why people are in constant need of psychotherapy all of their lives, including Dr. Yalom. There’s no question this man is a brilliant psychotherapist, a brilliant psychiatrist. And he also has needed psychotherapy lifelong because he’s also been in a perpetual struggle to maintain a sort of balanced ego. And I maintain as Buddhists do that it’s only by the dissolution of the ego that one can actually be at some kind of peace and obtain actually a lasting or a deep serenity. But that’s another story. Freud, nonetheless, gave us deep insights into a certain kind or a certain set of problems definitely that afflict people, ok? But I just don’t believe that his theory is universal any more than for example Newton’s theory is universal. It’s operative in certain domains. And as a philosopher of science I think that’s a creditable way to talk about Freud. Let us say there are certainly a lot of people in the world who suffer from Freudian-like complaints and symptoms, their complexes and neuroses. And there are certainly a number of people who can be helped by understanding those in a kind of psychoanalytic way. But it is not a panacea. And it is not a model for the human being, its totality, just as Newtonian mechanics do not apply to quantum domains and do not apply to relativistic domains, so too do Freudian psycho-mechanics do not apply to other kinds of domains of human existence.
Hanley: Now, let’s talk about the medication of today. I know you wrote some about this in your book, Plato not Prozac. For example, you talk about how the official list of diseases changes number every year. Anyway, people seem to be just put on this or that medication almost nonchalantly these days, almost as a matter of course. And, sure, we want to say that it helps some people and all that. But if all these chemical problems, imbalance and all of that, do you think that is real? And if so, has that been happening for six thousand years and we just didn’t know about it?
Marinoff: It hasn’t. And what’s real is that the human being suffers. Ever since there were human beings on this earth there’s been some kind of pain of existence. Existence is painful for us at times. That’s how we’re made. We’re very highly complex, very emotional, some also very rational. We’re constantly at war with ourselves and others. It’s a Hobbesian thing. By the way, I wanted to say that Freud should have read Hobbes--he would have saved himself a lot of trouble--and Hobbes’ Leviathan. The three pillars of psychoanalysis are actually anticipated by Hobbes in the first six chapters of his Leviathan. So there’s an aside for you. But what I believe is happening is this. We have a society of absolutely uncritical consumers. We have the most successful consumer society in the history of the world here. But it’s also going to be our own undoing if we consume unreflectively and uncritically.
And now this is precisely for the last 20 years what’s been happening. Americans over consume junk foods and they over consume junk thought. And they have had their education system deconstructed in the process. So they’re no longer capable of carrying the torch of Western civilization. They’ve been turned into zombies. They’re obese. They’ve been made stupid by a culture of bad television. And they have absolutely no conception of what to do or think or say until they’re told. And they’re told take this, take that. Most of the drugging of school children with Ritalin is a scandal. It’s an absolute scandal. These ADHD problems in the young are being caused by a culture of television. Television destroys attention span. The written tradition has been deconstructed. You can thank our French postmodernist friends again for that. Nothing is being taught. I inherit students in City College who are products of the New York City public school system. They go through K-12 and don’t read a book many of them. It’s absolutely appalling. It’s the greatest scandal. In my new book I call it the greatest educational fraud ever perpetrated on Western civilization. And Americans are paying the price. School taxes are spiraling out of control such that people can’t even maintain their own homes any more because of rising school taxes. And the education system is in freefall. We’re losing our lead in mathematics, science, technology, all of that, to Asia principally because they haven’t indulged in what we’re indulging in which is an orgy of extremely poorly thought of consumption. So any time anybody has any problem in life immediately it’s diagnosed as a symptom of some bogus malady and it’s drugged. And that’s really symptomatic. It’s very, very sad, very sad, tragic.
Hanley: Well, we have just a few minutes left here. What about the notion of depression? What do you make of how people think about that nowadays?
Marinoff: Well, I think once again, just as Freudian language, a lot of Freud’s terms found their way into popular culture today. People reflexively use terms like ego and superego and id, and neurosis seems to be still fashionable, complex used to be more fashionable. But a lot of Freudian language found its way into common parlance because of Freud’s importance as a contributor to the culture and understanding of human psychology, certainly. And similarly, this D word, this D word is now, it’s almost like a mantra. And what people really need to think about is whether they’re depressed or whether they’re just unhappy. And certainly there’s a lot of unhappiness. But treating unhappiness as though it were depression is what pharmaceutical companies and psychologists capitalize on. But it’s also a species of fraud. People have lost entirely in this culture the capacity to will things for themselves. The inner resources of a human being are so powerful. There is so much that we can do if our own resources are mobilized in order to make us feel fulfilled, in order to make us feel that life is meaningful and indeed to obtain a kind of happiness. This has not been encouraged in the general culture. What’s been encouraged is dependence on externals. Oh, if I get that job or that house or that car or that spouse or that trophy I’m going to be happy. No. We know this. The Stoics knew it in the West that attachment to externals only brings problems and not the thing that you think it’s going to bring, mainly happiness. So that’s my short answer to you. That, of course, there are people who have depression in a very real and very tragic sense.
Of course there are people who are, for example, clinically depressed, and I know some. I mean there are people with bipolar disorder. We used to call it manic depression. And they get so down during their down phases there really is very little they can do except perhaps take some medication. But a lot of them commit suicide just because the pain of existence is more than they can bear. And for those unfortunate few, John, philosophy can offer very little consolation. But on the other hand, if your teenager comes home and says, “I’m really depressed.” And you say, “Why?” And she says, “Well, I just broke up with my boyfriend.” It’s a big mistake to treat that with drugs and psychology because a lot of unhappiness is a part of growth, a part of life. And there are much better philosophical ways for coming to terms with such normal kinds of patterns.
Hanley: What about those very serious cases? Is that just hardwired into some people’s brains? I mean were people dealing with that 3,000 years ago? Or is it a particularly modern symptom?
Marinoff: We don’t know this because unfortunately the fossil record doesn’t leave the soft tissue. It doesn’t leave the brain and the thoughts and the chemicals, just the bones. But I suspect and my own leaning is that human beings have probably not changed much biologically for several thousand years. We’re bigger now because we have better vitamins and better nutrition. And our life expectancies are longer. We have in general better resources, although we’re contaminating those at a rapid rate. So we get other diseases that the ancients probably didn’t get. But just as you read Hippocrates and you find out people had kidney stones in those days. And they do today. So I’m quite sure that people had depression. Only it wasn’t called depression. It was called melancholy. Or it was called other things. And almost always a small fraction of the population had literally problems with not having enough serotonin or having some other condition in their brain chemistry which caused them to feel very, very depressed and almost certainly this has been with us since we were a species. But it’s only recently that medical science has tried to imitate physics and classify every possible state of mind as though it were a real physical malady.
Hanley: Just a few minutes left here. I know you greatly have enjoyed and gotten a lot of value from the I Ching. When people ask you, let’s just say in the Western literary tradition, let’s even say for philosophers, let’s say somebody coming to philosophy new but wants to read something that could maybe open their eyes to new possibilities in their life, what are a couple of things you’d tend to recommend?
Marinoff: Well, it’s pretty leading question. So right back at you, the I Ching definitely. You know that I have done philosophical consultations using the book as a basis. And I’ve done this believe it or not with other professionals. I’ve had clients who are psychiatrists and psychologists and doctors who have wanted to work with the I Ching because they actually respect what it can do. And Confucius was deeply influenced by it. It was one of the few books that he had access to. And he was deeply, deeply moved by its metaphysics. He understood exactly, I think, what was going on in the I Ching. He studied it all his life. So I find it to be great. With that said, there are many, many translations and they’re sometimes mutually unrecognizable. So I stick pretty much with the Wilhelm-Baynes. And there are some other pretty decent ones around as well. What I think it does functionally, for me it’s the philosophical equivalent to the Rorschach test. You remember the Rorschach test, the inkblot test that psychologists are fond of. And they show people these patterns which have some symmetry because the inkblot is folded and you have a kind of symmetric pattern of the inkblot. And then they ask people what they see in it. And it’s a very beautiful device for just fishing out of the shallow subconscious what people are really thinking about because they will see, they will project onto this inkblot which is just an inkblot after all, but they will project on to it whatever happens to be in their minds at the time, and usually and very often at least something that is a little bit deeper in the mind. And this is a great way of probing the unconscious, if you happen to believe in such a thing. And I do.
So I think the Rorschach test is very good for psychologists because it gives people that opportunity to voice something that is deep within them, articulate something that they didn’t know was there, but nonetheless which is having an influence on their behavior and so forth. So that’s valuable. And the I Ching does this in spades because the I Ching is actually doing philosophically for us what the Rorschach test does psychologically. When you obtain a hexagram from the I Ching and you find one or two or three sentences of it to be absolutely and vitally meaningful in the given situation of your life now and your circumstances, those which prompted you to consult the oracle in the first place, then you’re getting back the same kind of thing you’re projecting on to it, some extremely deep meaning sort of coming from you and which can be used therefore as a clue to the resolution of your situation.
Hanley: So I’m going to press you here. That’s your greatest hit in the Eastern tradition. What do you say in the Western tradition? Like, for example, I recommend to people The Present Age by Kierkegaard. Do you like that one? What other kind of quasi-accessible works do you recommend?
Marinoff: Well, I don’t work so actively with Western works because most of the works of Western philosophy are not interactive in the way that the I Ching is, you see. But if you’re asking me what are some of the popular works that I recommend when people say, “Ok, what should I read?” or “I like this idea,” then if that’s what you’re asking, then it’s all over the map, John, because you may know from my books, my popular books that in my practice I’m not trying to sell a particular philosopher to anyone. I’m rather trying to get them to work philosophically with what already resonates with them. So if someone who has existentialist inclinations walks into my office and wants to do more reading, then, yeah, I would probably nine times out of ten recommend to them if they like existentialists and they seem to be headed in that direction, then absolutely Kierkegaard is good. Or if they are atheists, Sartre or de Beauvoir or Camus are good. You name it, what one could obviously recommend for lots of works in that tradition. But on the other hand, some people are romantic capitalists, in which case Ayn Rand is their cup of tea. Other people are Platonic in which case we have another tradition. So myself I’m not cleaving to a particular philosophical school and saying well, these are books that I recommend over and over again. What I’m trying to do, more broadly stated, is to awaken the philosopher inside the client, ok. I think that everybody has a philosopher inside. Most people at least have a philosopher inside. And very often that philosopher is sleeping and needs to be awakened. And which particular philosophical tradition that one actually awakens is of smaller moment to me. What I’m more concerned about is to get the client to be more philosophical. I’m not going to dictate to them which philosophical school they’re supposed to represent. That’s their choice. My job is, as I see it, is to get them to be more philosophical. So that could entail a lot of works, right? That could entail a pretty broad spectrum.
Hanley: Alright, very good, Dr. Marinoff. I think we’ve got a tremendous interview there.
Marinoff: Well, thank you. It was very interesting and a bold line of questioning. So I was only trying to respond. And thank you very much, John.