The Philosophical Practice of Harm van der Gaag

Harm van der Gaag (DenkDieper)

From a philosophical point of view, coaching has now internationally taken on the form of what is now called ‘philosophical practice. While education, as mentioned, usually focuses on formation in general and to groups, coaching is often more focused on personal guidance. Philosophical practitioner Harm van der Gaag, a well-known figure in this field in the Netherlands, describes the goal of this now increasingly popular practice with an obvious word: ‘wisdom. With this he demarcates his philosophical conversations from, for example, a psychotherapist, psychiatrist or other spiritual worker. Van der Gaag explicates:

“What makes my visitors decide to talk precisely with a philosopher? I will answer that question. They are interested in wisdom. Not for knowledge, not for skills, not for better health, not for the forgiveness of sins, not for answers, solutions and decisions, but for wisdom” (Van der Gaag, Wie het niet weet, mag het zeggen, p. 13).

Consequently, the pursuit of wisdom constitutes the “raison d’être” of philosophical practice, according to van der Gaag (p. 14). This striving presupposes in the striver an absence of wisdom. There is a certain need to become wiser, a “need for life”. But what actually is wisdom? For Socrates (and for Van der Gaag) it is, in the first instance, knowing one’s own ignorance, being aware of one’s cognitive limitations. Many people think they know a lot, but Socrates discovers that this is a great disappointment: when asked, they know very little. Van der Gaag compares Socrates’ knowing ignorance with the modesty of an expert who realizes that in his field of knowledge a lot is still unknown.

Visitors to the philosophical practice resemble Socrates somewhat, for they too know that they fall short in their knowledge – otherwise they would not have come to the philo-sophical practice. They thirst for more wisdom, on top of their knowing ignorance. That additional wisdom can be described as “something that relates to what is beautiful and good”, Van der Gaag says, again imitating Socrates (p. 18). What is striking, however, is that Van der Gaag does not specify that ‘beautiful’ and ‘good. Indeed, he explains that in his interpretation of philosophical practice, a “refraining from answering” is central (p. 19). It is not about a “solution”. Literally, he writes, “we do not strive for an (let alone the) outcome”. This, according to Van der Gaag, brings with it a “constant uncertainty”. And precisely in this, he says, lies wisdom which, but only as an accidental by-product, brings with it “a calmness and a confidence”.

Van der Gaag does not want to understand, answer, counsel, reassure, give hope or love his clients. According to him, most coaches do that, but the philosophical practitioner is not a coach, according to Van der Gaag. With Van der Gaag, the client “goes out the door with a question, because she came for wisdom, not otherwise” (p. 20). Van der Gaag even worries, once a client leaves his consulting room satisfied. “Did he give her hope? Did he comfort her? Reassured her? Then he has not worked” (p. 25). The only thing that matters to Van der Gaag is the question; answers, on the other hand, destroy the question and are therefore undesirable in philosophical practice. In that practice, “the question is central. In the ques-tion, not in the answer, lies wisdom” (book cover). Van der Gaag wants “to stay with the question and despise the answer. This is the attitude of thought adopted and taught in philosophical practice” (p. 40). Van der Gaag even goes so far as to state that a question as such does not require an answer at all; only a (non-philosophical) person requires an answer (p. 38).

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