Philosophy, Psychotherapy and Jewish Studies: An interview with Elie Jesner.

Philosophy has always had a therapeutic dimension. We can think of Socrates engaging with passers-by in the agora of Ancient Athens, asking questions about love, life and how we should live. Famously, Socrates is reported to have said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living. Through questioning and conversation about the fundamental matters facing human beings the “Socratic Method” was born. Much later, we can think of Wittgensteins famous notion of ‘philosophy as therapy, where philosophy emerges as a way of ‘showing the fly the way out of the bottle. Given this, we might ask, can philosophers make good therapists in practice, and not just in theory? Philosophical Counselling is, after all, a growing field and can sometimes be deployed alongside more traditional psychotherapy. Joining me to discuss some of the issues prompted by the mingling of the worlds of philosophy and psychotherapy is Elie Jesner, a UKCP registered Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist based in London. Elies practice combines the resources of both philosophy and psychotherapy in service of his therapeutic aims. Elie studied philosophy at both the University of Cambridge and the University of Warwick before pursuing a career in psychotherapy. Elie is a former student of the Har Etzion Institute of Jewish Studies, where he studied Jewish philosophy and the psychology of religion, and is, in addition to running his psychotherapy practice, active in Jewish Education.


PT: Elie, perhaps we can begin in the following way. Can you tell us why you decided to move into psychotherapy and away from the academic study of philosophy? Or, does putting the question that way distort the way you construct the relationship between these two disciplines?

EJ: Hi Phil, and thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts in this interview.  I think it’s a good and fair question, and an important one.  There is a lot of value in the academic study of philosophy, and in the responsibility of teaching it to undergraduates and debating it amongst peers.  Perhaps I am more able to appreciate that as the years have gone by – you will no doubt recall that I often felt quite frustrated by it when I was within its confines all those years ago!  But if I was able to articulate one of my primary frustrations with academic philosophy it was that it was always in danger of being divorced from life, the value of one’s work was evaluated on the basis of how clever and well researched it was, and not necessarily by whether it was actually right.  Now many people might balk at this, at the notion that there are right answers in philosophy, and I certainly wouldn’t claim that all philosophical questions can be answered satisfactorily.  But, on the other hand, I do believe that we genuinely do live based on our ideas, and some ideas are going to lead us to a better form of living than others.  So one can only really get the answer to these questions through living them, not merely through thinking about them.  I guess I felt that psychotherapy might allow me to test ideas through both living and thinking about them, and through sharing these experiments in living with my clients. 

One might of course claim that what exactly constitutes this ‘better form of living’ is also a philosophical question. But I would contend that it too can only be discovered through living, not merely through reading, thinking or debating.  Psychotherapy then is perhaps a form of empirical philosophy, of lived philosophy, and it has certainly been my experience that it has enhanced rather than dulled or undermined my appreciation of what the great philosophers were up to, of the endless and enduring nature of the fundamental questions they asked.  Everyone, whether they realise it or not, is bothered by philosophical questions, and it is very helpful to be able to share with people the thoughts of the great philosophers.

Thus far I’m very happy with my choice, though I certainly wouldn’t rule out doing further academic work in philosophy, which might involve writing about all of the philosophical dimensions of my therapeutic work. And, of course, about the hitherto under-appreciated psychological implications of traditional philosophical questions. 

PT: Early on in your academic development you studied Jewish Thought and the psychology of religion and you currently write, speak and teach within that broad tradition. No doubt, your studies in religion and psychology have been formative for you. Can you tell us in what ways?

EJ: I feel this would take a lifetime to answer, and that even then I wouldn’t have exhausted the question. How, after all, can we ever fully appreciate quite how formative something has been in shaping us, we never really know what that other, differently formed self would look like.  But I guess I might say a couple things.  First of all, I’d like to introduce a quote from Leon Wieseltier, the prominent American intellectual, who left his faith but continued to ponder it deeply, particularly in his book Kaddish, where he tries to come to terms with the death of his father. He writes the following:

Am I confusing philosophy with religion? No, I am associating philosophy with religion.  If you care about interiority, they are both your allies.  Many of religion’s answers are to philosophy’s questions. A shul (synagogue) is not only a house of religion, it is also a house of philosophy, because within its walls first principles, and an interest in first principles, are demanded. As long as there are shuls and churches and mosques, the feeling for philosophy will not be lost.  The same cannot be said about universities.

I don’t necessarily agree 100% with his final conclusion, and clearly he is making a controversial point using rhetoric and provocation. But I take his point that religion guides us towards big questions, towards constant bewilderment and searching, it ensures that we are never fully satisfied with the answers that people offer us, with the simplifications that society would have us swallow. 

I also think that the link to interiority is key, for clearly this is where psychology and religion are getting at the same things. When done properly, both draw our attention to the spiritual aspect of life, to the non material, to the way we are drawn to values and ideas, to the way we are moved by existential concerns more than biological ones.  Psychotherapy can be literally translated as ‘paying attention to the psyche, to the spirit’, so it is perhaps natural that after a lifetime of being interested in them, I have arrived in a job where it is my duty to maintain that attentiveness and to share it with others. 

I do believe that in the ancient world, religion was simply their way of doing philosophy and psychology, that it was their attempt to understand their world and their selves. But clearly in its complex history religion became much more than that, and often in very negative ways, and it’s important not to whitewash this. 

PT: Wittgenstein is an important thinker for you. He is, of course, famous for his notion of ‘philosophy as therapy’. Was this something that had an impact on your intellectual development?

EJ: His notion that the correct answer is the one that brings one’s mind peace certainly struck me as significant when I encountered it. And I think both of these ideas of his get at his bigger conviction that philosophical troubles were real and lived troubles, they weren’t artificial abstractions, distractions for the intelligent and well to do.  This is embodied in the story of him pacing in Bertrand Russell’s rooms, and when asked by Russell ‘What are you thinking about, logic or your sins?’, he responded with impatience: ‘Both!’.  To be philosophically engaged is a matter of conscience, he often said that philosophy was more about character than intelligence, it was about always pushing for the more honest answer, about never being satisfied with less than the truth. 

Another vision – him finishing the Tractatus whilst under fire in the trenches of the first World War. The intensity of the experience led him to philosophise, to think with greater clarity, it was never a leisurely or peaceful pastime for him. 

So Wittgenstein had a huge impact on me, in many ways, as a model of what it meant to be an honest thinker and a truthful human being.

Now it would be wrong to imagine that Wittgenstein thought philosophy could always substitute for psychotherapy, and he took an early and keen interest in Freud’s work. But I like to think that he would approve of the way I work, of the notion that being truthful with people is often the pathway to the cure, and that they need help in getting there and coming to terms with their own truths. 

PT: How do you manage to combine your philosophical background and psychotherapeutic training in practice? Can philosophy be of real help to patients?

EJ: As I’ve indicated, philosophical questions come up all the time in therapy, and my background leaves me perhaps better prepared to deal with them than others, more attentive to the complexities and subtleties that arise. For example, people often come with low self-esteem and a strong sense of guilt. They may feel they have done bad things in the past, or continue to do them in the present, and this opens up all sorts of questions from moral philosophy, such as ‘what is the right way to live?’, ‘should my ethics be determined by my society or by my own conscience?’, ‘how large a debt do I owe to my parents?’, ‘what is a realistic demand to place on myself?’.

They may also ask ‘what is the purpose of life, what is its meaning?’ which is clearly one of the biggest philosophical questions, though not necessarily one that gets a lot of attention in academic philosophy. A thinker like Nietzsche was always wrestling with these questions, and being familiar with his struggles against nihilism is a tremendous resource.

Anxiety is also a big source of people’s troubles, and this of course links back to Kierkegaard’s writings on the subject and to the existential tradition. But it also touches on more concrete questions such as ‘how do I know X isn’t going to happen’, ‘how can I trust myself or my unconscious?’, ‘how can I trust other people?’. These are core epistemological questions, and whilst it would be wrong to imagine that a course in epistemology would sort out everyone’s anxiety, it can often be a helpful starting point. It can create space wherein I can also attend to the deeper emotional troubles which are the source of the questioning and doubt.

These are specific examples, but as well as these, a lot of the work involves paying attention to the subtleties of people’s language and assumptions. Being able to question the use of language, the sense of meaning, as I learnt to do from Wittgenstein and others, is extremely helpful and a major part of all pychoanalytic work.

PT: Finally, if you were to offer any advice to philosophy students interested in pursuing a career in psychotherapy, what would it be?

EJ: I would strongly encourage them to pursue it further, it’s one of very few careers where you really get to continue philosophising and to do so in a human and meaningful environment. At the early stages I would encourage people to read as much as they can, to read for example Jonathan Lear’s book on Freud and Peter Gay’s biography of Freud. Irvin Yalom’s ‘When Nietzsche Wept’ is also a great starter on the subject. And then to just keep reading, the memory loses its power as one ages, so the earlier one reads stuff the better the chances of drawing on it later.

Also, try to get a little work experience, there are many counselling and helpline services which would be happy to have volunteers. The work isn’t easy, and it isn’t for everyone.

I would add, on a practical note, that the training is long and can be expensive, so if someone is thinking seriously about it it would be a good idea to get started whilst one is young and has a good amount of freedom. It can be very hard to make the transition as life and its responsibilities take over a person.  

PT: Elie, thank you for your honest answers to my questions!

Elie Jesner online: