Coaching according to the Maieutics School

Harm van der Gaag’s book shows some disdain toward forms of philosophical practice that do not use the same method as Van der Gaag himself. In his case, the question/doubt is absolutized as the sole goal of philosophical practice, while in others – whom Van der Gaag calls “just coaches” – the emphasis is more on answers and solutions for the client (Wie het niet weet, mag het zeggen, p. 20).

In the maieutics school, both Van der Gaag’s approach and that of (other) coaches are respected. After all, this school is based on two basic philosophical experiences, the experience of doubt and the experience of totality. From this perspective one can say that Van der Gaag’s method belongs exclusively to the first basic experience. Typical for the doubt experience is that it initiates philosophizing as radical questioning. Van der Gaag also places questioning at the center of his philosophical practice. However, the maieutics school does not stop there. For her, the experience of doubt is only one of the two basic experiences. It is true that it is perfectly legitimate to allow philosophical questioning to develop fully on the basis of the experience of doubt, whether or not in a philosophical practice. The German philosopher Wilhelm Weischedel (1905-1975), for example, systematically applied this method to philo-sophical ethics and metaphysics. But this, according to the maieutics school, does not exhaust the philosophical possibilities.

Wilhelm Weischedel

Weischedel bases his radical questions on the experience of doubt. He takes this doubt so far that he even doubts the legitimacy of radical questioning as such. So that is already a step further than Van der Gaag seems to take, in whom questioning is actually absolutized. The maieutics school, however, goes even further than Weischedel, because it states that apart from the experience of doubt, there is a second basic experience which sets philosophizing in motion. And precisely in this second basic experience metaphysical and thus existential answers are offered which are of fundamental importance for humanity as a whole and for the individual in particular. In this second basic experience, therefore, asking no longer dominates, but the answers prevail. It is not for nothing that both ground experiences involve a completely different kind of consciousness, respectively a local and a non-local consciousness. In this sense, the philosophical ground experiences are mutually incomparable.

Consequently, the concepts of ‘philosophical practice’ and ‘coaching’ only make sense according to the maieutics school if they are connected to both philosophical basic expe-riences. If, with coaching, you limit yourself only to the experience of doubt (questioning), as Van der Gaag does, you may well achieve – as a by-product – a kind of peace or resignation after a session. Perhaps this can be compared to the resignation that Buddhists seem to experience when they become aware of their postulated emptiness (shunyata). And it is quite possible that this resignation is beneficial and leads people to better decisions about their lives. Hence, the maieutics school also explicitly promotes radical questioning: in practical terms, it brings people to intellectual clarity, breaking through personal ‘dogmas. In a theoretical sense (cf. Weischedel), by the way, exactly the same applies.

At the same time, however, the answers from the totality experience can remove some uncertainties or rather ambiguities from the doubt experience. Metaphysical, anthropo-logical, ethical and other gaps are filled by the totality experience. Incidentally, this does not end the inquisitive search inherent in the human condition, but rather stimulates it further. It is an empirically researched fact that experts by experience are moved by many more questions after the totality experience than before. They not infrequently show a great urge to investigate numerous areas of science. They regularly make completely different choices in their lives. They not infrequently change interests, jobs, partners and circles of acquain-tances. So the idea that answers would put an end to existential development, as Van der Gaag at least suggests, is false. Metaphysical answers have exactly the opposite effect: they bring people back to themselves as unconditionally loving beings (anthropology), to which one then starts to respond in practical life (ethical, social). A greater and more beneficial transformation is hardly imaginable.

It is quite possible that knowledge from the totality experience has a particularly beneficial effect on the human psyche. That knowledge brings us to an understanding of ourselves and others as unconditionally loving beings anyway. This insight alone can perhaps help us in dealing with ourselves and with others. If people learn to replace egotism and narcissism with a healthy form of self-love, in which they learn to accept themselves without question and do not demand approval (applause) from others, their attitude to life will change, which will also benefit their fellow man. Power lust and oppression – that is, forcing respect – give way to compassion and care that will produce a reciprocal effect. Further, the totality expe-rience takes us back to our metaphysical source. That insight can be a great inspiration for hope in an afterlife: the reunion of deceased loved ones and the continuity of existence, but in considerably more pleasant circumstances than the sometimes harsh existence here on earth.

Coaching sessions in philosophical practice within the framework of the maieutics school can zoom in on the aspects just mentioned. In doing so, the philosophical practitioner can act as the client’s sparring partner, achieving intellectual and emotional clarity. The goal of these sessions is not to send the client on his way with a question, as Van der Gaag does, but to reach answers with which the client can then set to work. These answers can sometimes raise questions, as answers often do, but they can also immediately lead to concrete chan-ges, depending on the situation. For example, it is known that suicidal people, after coming into contact with knowledge from the totality experience, whether from personal experien-ce or not, do not make new attempts. It is also known that the totality experience can help with mourning after a death. These are just a few examples that we know exist from research. A systematically designed development of philosophical practice within the frameworks of the maieutics school could bring about many more beneficial effects in people’s personal lives.