Practical Philosophers


Tim LeBon’s top 5 practical philosophers

as featured in the Independent on Sunday, Oct 2nd 2005


Socrates  (470-399 B.C)

Greek philosopher who wrote nothing, but was immortalised in Plato’s dialogues.

Key quote

“The unexamined life is not worth living”

Tim LeBon says :-

Philosophical counselling’s inspiration. For Socrates, it seems that the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. Philosophical counsellors adapt Socrates’ own  method (the elenchus) to perform conceptual analysis on key terms that may be at the heart of a client’s issues (e.g. love, friendship, meaning of life and achievement) and transform  fuzziness and confusion into clarity and insight.





Aristotle   (384-322 BC)

Greek philosopher, student of Plato who wrote Nicomachean Ethics as a guide to the citizens of Greece on how to lead the good life.

Key quote

Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy."


Tim LeBon says:-

Aristotle’s ideas can be very useful for those wanting to make wise decisions and also those who want to develop a balanced character. His theory of the mean and notion of practical wisdom are both very helpful Aristotle argues that we should always look for the golden mean between two extremes.  So  for instance a client who finds that people are always taking advantage of him would benefit from looking for the mean between standing up for himself and being a doormat.   The golden mean isn’t necessarily the half-way point between the two extremes. It lies at the point between the two that would be chosen by the person of practical wisdom. Practical wisdom –   often a very illuminating concept for clients-  is the ability to  know the right thing to do  by understanding the situation you are in , knowing what matters, and  employing effective means-end reasoning to bring about what matters.  My colleagues David Arnaud and Antonia Macaro and myself have created a method called Progress  ( based largely on Aristotle’s ideas about practical wisdom that can help clients with  particularly tricky decisions.



Epictetus (55-135AD)

Roman  ex-slave and philosopher – a leading Stoic, a school of practical philosophers.  noted for their espousal of the life of tranquillity

Key quote: “It is not events themselves that affect us, but our interpretations of these events”

Tim LeBon says:

Epictetus and the Stoics are the philosophers of choice for helping clients deal with difficult emotions like anxiety and anger.  Epictetus  believed emotions arent just things that happen to you it is your own opinions and values that cause them. So by becoming more aware of your opinions and values, and challenging them when appropriate, you can not only learn to think better but also feel better.






J.S. Mill (1806-1873)

British philosopher and economist, author of Utilitarianism and On Liberty

Key quote

“’Tis better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”

Tim LeBon says:-

A key thinker for clients who want to be happy, but don’t really know what happiness is or how to attain it. Mill realised  (as do many clients) that happiness isn’t just about having lots of pleasant experiences or lots of money – it’s about leading the sort of life that someone who is well-informed would choose. In philosophical counselling I use his ideas as a springboard to a series of thought experiments (which in Wise Therapy I write about and call RSVP) which help them decide what happiness really is for them.  One thought experiment I might use  is to ask you when and where you were happiest, and what led to that happiness.






Viktor Frankl (1905-1997)

Austrian psychiatrist, survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, whose Man’s Search for Meaning is a major contribution to practical existential philosophy

Key quote:- Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms to choose ones attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose ones own way. (Mans Search for Meaning).

Frankl  blends existentialism with a dash of stoicism to create a potent recipe to help people find purpose and deal with suffering.  I  recommend clients read Man’s Search for Meaning  - many find it an inspiring.  In sessions many of Frankl’s ideas turn out to be applicable  For example his idea that many events – even negative ones – can turn out to be meaningful in a positive way is often helpful.  To someone who has suffered a loss (for instance a romantic or job loss) I might say “I know this seems unlikely at the moment, but suppose that in the long run this loss turns out to have been a good thing. How could you imagine that might turn out to be true?”.  For a different client, say someone whose life has been high on income but short on meaning,  his idea that meaning consists of experiences, creations and attitudes  is useful. I might conduct the following thought experiment. “Imagine yourself in your rocking chair in 40 years time. What experiences, creations and attitudes in your life would lead you to say you’ve had a meaningful life?”