May/June 2012

Counsellor – 22

Written by Stuart Hanscomb

Flossarian, a research postgraduate in philosophy at Rio Tinto University, had a problem, a dilemma. He hesitated in the corridor, listening to the bursts of manic laughter that came from Lionel Cashcard’s room. He waited for the student counsellor to pause for breath before knocking.

“Come in!” said Cashcard, looking up from his expenses form and creaking in his leather jeans. “What can I do for you?”

“I’ve got a problem, a dilemma,” said Flossarian.

The counsellor, writing furiously, gestured to a plastic seat with his head. “You’d better sit down.”

Flossarian did so and waited for him to finish writing noughts in the Hospitality column. When he seemed to have stopped, the student took a deep breath and spilled his troubled beans.

“I’m thinking about becoming a philosophical counsellor,” he began, “but I’m not sure if it’s ethical.”

There was ominous pause; silence except for the sound of Cashcard wiping drool off the desk with his Stetson.

“Go on,” he said finally, raising an eyebrow that looked suspiciously like it has been plucked.

“Well, for starters I’m concerned about my lack of psychological training. How for instance, will I be able to spot a case – a schizophrenic say – who’s better suited to a different form of treatment? And for seconds, seeing as most philosophical counsellors have rejected a programme of certification, how will I know I’m even competent to handle people who can legitimately be helped by talking cure? Thirdly, I’m still bothered by the question “should truth have a price?”; and added to all this I share a general worry about the status of all forms of counselling in a world where shortsighted governments lick the feet of multi-nationals and wash their hands of the very social problems their own policy of turning citizens into consumers, individuals into commodities and systematically wiping out all traces of grass-roots, non-financially motivated, non-materialistic community has created thereby denying the individual the self-esteem and security required for healthy mental functioning, and then institutioning a counsellingculture to brain-launder the casualties and plaster over the holes they’ve dug for us.”

When Flossarian had finished Cashcard continued to stare into space for a few minutes, then turning to look at him, said evenly, “sounds like you need to see a philosophical counsellor.”

The philosophical trained Flossarian instinctively flinched, his brow kitting tighter than a cheap Shetland jumper after a machine wash. “But wouldn’t that render the whole enquiry redundant, be viciously circular, self-negating, defeat the object and set up an infinite regress?” he blurted, now on a roll.

“How so?” mumbled Cashcard, looking irritated and biting the end off a cigar.

“Well, if I take this problem to a philosophical counsellor that already assumes I’m prepared to listen to one of the very people whose opinion, legitimacy and competence I’m calling into question.”

“I see. Well, what about seeing another kind of counsellor?”

The postgraduate eyed the counsellor quizzically for a few moments expecting more to follow, but Cashcard just struck a Swan Vesta on some sandpaper cellotaped to the side of his boot and said nothing. “But, um, that’s what I’m doing isn’t it?” he finally prompted.

“Oh yes, I am indeed a counsellor,” said Cashcard through a cloud of smoke, “but if I’m not a Philosophical counsellor then I’m not in a position to deal with clearly philosophical dilemmas such as this one am I?”

Flossarian’s forehead was now so deeply lined he resembled a Klingon. “So my position is…” He began. “My position is that if I seek guidance from a philosophical counsellor I’ll find myself caught in an intractable circularity, but if I consult another kind of counsellor they won’t be equipped to deal with the question?”

“Pretty much.” Cashcard shrugged. “If you decide to go to one or the other it implies you’ve already made your decision about the merits of philosophical counselling. You can’t win.”

Flossarian’s vision took on a vague reddish hue around the edges. “But it’s absurd!” He spat, shaking slightly, pressing his knuckles into his forehead.

With something that could be mistaken for professionalism the counsellor waited for the young man to calm himself, and went back to his expenses.

Flossarian drew breath and thought for a second or two. He looked at Cashcard, and then at the expenses form that now had more Os than a Bulgarian World Cup squad. An idea came to him.

“So, what kind of counsellor are you exactly?” He asked, not bothering to hide his suspicion.

“I’m an “Ironic Counsellor’.” Cashcard confessed.

“A what?”

Cashcard stood up and began pacing the room revealing a pair of cowboy boots complete with spurs. “Look son,” he lectured, “if you’re thinking about being a counsellor, the ‘Philosophical’ kind is more yesterday than catching gonorrhea. Facts of the matter are: the philosophers didn’t consider Existential psychologists rigorous or learned enough; but then lo and behold a faction of Rationalist Counsellors didn’t consider the Socratic-minded Philosophical Counsellors to be fulfilling their claims to objectivity and flexibility; and then Empiricist Counsellors pooh-poohed the Rationalists’ foundationalist-reasoning cure for creating a society of schizoid solipsists, not to mention the inadvertent promoting of megalomania as a lifestyle choice by the Absolute Idealist Counsellors. Half a decade later the stiff (and frankly repressed) Logical Positive Thinkers ‘on yer bike’ policies nearly drove the whole profession under and this wasn’t exactly helped by the Pragmatherapists ‘whatever floats your body but if you ask me therapy’s for pussies’ approach. The Hermeneuticists Circle were the most paranoid bastards you’re ever likely to meet and fell foul of the backlash against recovered memories, and after a brief but barmy excursion into Post Structuralist Counselling where the counsellee is counselled indirectly by a process of apophrades [supplement] which basically means that they counsel the counsellor, we’re back where we started, more or less.

“So you’re an Existential Counsellor?”

“I prefer ‘Ironic’ counsellor.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, whereas Sartre would send hapless students on their way telling them they’d already made their choice, we prefer to confuse the crap out of them first.”

“Okay. So let’s see if I have this right. I came here to find out if philosophical counselling is ethical and you led me to believe I could never discover this for sure. But now you tell me that you’re not a philosophical counsellor but that you are well versed in the complexities of philosophy, in which case you should surely be able to tell me if philosophical counselling is ethical or not.”

“True. But you’re forgetting one thing – there is no more ‘Philosophical Counselling’: it’s as dead stay-pressed trousers. You’d have as much chance getting into the counselling profession under that banner as a Hawaiian shirt would have of getting into the Queen’s funeral.”

“But this is crazy, there must still be an answer!” Flossarian pleaded, but Cashcard suddenly grew angry, strode across the room like a slightly camp John Wayne, and grabbed him by the lapels.

“It’s not a question of ethics or truth my friend,” he throffed, “it’s a question of fashion and it’s a question of MONEY – this is not some dogooding, pure of heart, truthor- die, no-strings charity for Christ’s sake, this is philosophy! And philosophy is for once in its miserable existence making a buck so don’t bollocks things up by asking questions like “is it ethical? Okay!”

The counsellor let go of Flossarian who fell against the door wondering if this was all part of the treatment. Might Cashcard be a Post Structuralist after all? But he knew enough about French philosophy to realize there was no way of finding out for certain. It was all a mess. He had come in good faith, with a simple question and he’d ended up being mentally and physically assaulted. It was worse than a viva.

Reaching for the door handle Flossarian edged backwards out of the office and walked swiftly away on jellified legs. Cashcard’s voice crying “Is it ethical!?”, “Is it ethical!?” What kind of question is that? I’m still going to bill you though, you student bastard! I hope you’ve got a good lawyer!” echoed down the corridor after him. Flossarian kept walking though, out of the department, through the faculty building, past the security guards, under the barbed wire, across the fetid moat. He walked until Cashcard was a distant memory, then rested against a tree and started to feel better. Before long a pigeon landed in front of him and walked round in a circle a couple of times. Flossarian was reaching for his gun when the pigeon held up a wing and spoke. “You look like you need therapy mate.” Flossarian smiled and pulled the trigger. “And that was it”. He chuckled through an explosion of feathers.

Dr Stuart Hanscomb
University of Glasgow

An earlier version of this story first appeared in the postgraduate journal Philosophical Writings in autumn 1998.