Jean-Paul Sartre, Relationship Counselor

I know, I know, taking relationship advice from disillusioned French intellectuals may not seem like the best idea, but it works.


First, the idea of philosophical counseling isn’t exactly new; to be honest, if I weren’t so interested in publishing (yes, I have more than a little bit of a soft spot for making academic prose look good), I’d probably get myself certified and become Phill Melton, Philosopher at Large.  There’s something about helping people with conundra and difficulties that seems to get back to the Socratic ideal of the philosopher as a doctor for the soul, rather than an isolated practitioner in the academy.  I’ll probably address this in a later post, but much of philosophy nowadays isn’t particularly concerned with whether or not belief in proposition X entails action Y; ethicists, for instance, have a reputation as actually being somewhat unethical, and metaphysicians will gladly bang their fists on tables that they’re trying to prove don’t exist.  There are a few branches of philosophy—especially feminist philosophy—that actually care about the practical implications of all these abstruse reasonings, but they’re definitely outside the Anglophone analytic mainstream.

So, now that I’m out of school, I can actually admit that some of what I do has very practical applications.  Like existential relationship counseling.  Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus has nothing on Being and Nothingness as a guide to understanding the significant Other.

Drawing by Paul Delvaux, 1949

"To apprehend a look is not to apprehend a look-as-object in the world; it is to be conscious of being looked at."

“‘Codependent’ is such a loaded word; it’s just that your partner’s relying on you to provide definition of every aspect of his/her being without ever having to take responsibility for the making of their own essential nature themselves.  That’s an awfully frightening task, and it’s much easier to simply put it off and rely on the judgments passed by another to define one’s own self.  Having to decide how to make yourself through your own actions in time is the most essential, but most existentially terrifying, task a human being can take on.  That said, the need for authenticity, an existential identity created through one’s own actions as willed by one’s own self from one’s own motives without conforming to the desires and expectations of others, is one basic to human existence and the task of self-making.  Rather than calling each other names, which only reinforces one’s understanding of one’s self as essentially conforming to the assigned label, why not try something more productive, like engaging in self-actualization and self-reflective apperception of your own desires and ideas?  See, that’s not so hard, is it?”

“‘Crazy?’  ‘Psychotic?’  Are those terms really accurate?  Perhaps ‘taking on masks, new identities in bad faith to protect the authentic self from annihilation, but paradoxically annihilating the ego one so desperately seeks to protect’ might be better.  Okay, a bit longer, but at least it doesn’t involve implying your partner’s basic sense faculties are unreliable.”

“Yes, well, of course the magic is now gone and you’re beginning to despair.  You’ve posited an idealized version of what your relationship once was in your mind—which, I might add, annihilates the actual relationship you two really had—and, because you can neither achieve this image you’ve created in the imagination nor be free of the reality at hand that you’ve created, you no longer want to go on existing in the way you’re currently existing.  Here, have some Kierkegaard.  Yes, Sickness Unto Death.  Trust me, it’s good for you.  Cheery Danish stuff.  Well, you can either read it, or change your mode of existence.  You pick which one sounds less onerous.  Why yes, Kierkegaard did leave his fiancée because he didn’t think he was good enough for—no, look, I’m not endorsing that, there are lots of miserable people who made bad relationship decisions who didn’t become great philosophers.  Just read the book, not biographies of existentialists.”

Hmmm . . . “fix your relationship or I make you read dense continental philosophy” might be the best idea to come out of this.


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