Blog by Luis de Miranda
We think we know what physical health and psychological health are, but what is philosophical health and why should it matter?
The phrase “physical health” is nowadays considered self-evident. However, it became part of modern discourse only in the nineteenth century, along the publication of manuals such as Health Made Easy for the People, or Physical training, to Make Their Lives, in This World, Long and Happy (Bentley 1845). The Victorian period saw a growing emphasis on gymnastic instruction in Europe, for example via athletic programs in public schools (Shephard 2015, 630). In Sweden for instance, Pehr Henrik Ling, appointed fencing master at the University of Uppsala in 1805, observed that a personal program of daily exercises (fencing, horse riding and swimming) completely restored his previously fragile health, and he was appointed in 1813 as Principal of the newly founded Royal Central Gymnastic institute. Nowadays the access to physical health is not a luxury for the happy few anymore; it is considered to be a necessity for all. In recent decades, lifestyle-related citizen health has been increasingly monitored as a universal or standard program by governments, schools, organizations, or corporations (Åkerblom 2020). Physical health might not be fully forced upon citizens as compulsory, yet it is certainly perceived by many as a categorical imperative, an internalized duty.
The phrase “psychological health” has slowly become a trope of our social reality since the end of the nineteenth century and the establishment of the first psychology labs in European and American universities. Janet and Freud were notoriously influent in conveying the idea of psychological healing (Larson 2017), then again applying it firstly to a few more or less privileged patients in Paris or Vienna before the notion disseminated and became a general norm. In the USA for instance, as part of the Mental Hygiene movement that emerged in the early twentieth century, Thomas W. Salmon proposed broadening the specialty of psychiatry beyond the traditional focus on institutional care toward the societal prevention of mental illnesses (Parry 2006). By applying it to communities and social preventive programs, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene secularized and democratized the idea of psychological health in the USA (Grob 1983, 162). The slow rise in the western world of “the therapeutic culture” and the cult of the self led to the perception of homo sapiens as “psychological man” (Rieff 2006).Psychological and mental care is today a ubiquitous licensed profession, certain forms of which are sponsored by nation-states, and “psychiatry, in the most general sense of the psy disciplines, has moved very powerfully into the ways in which people understand themselves, their self-technologies and into the ways in which people articulate and judge their mental states” (Rose 2020, 3).
Compared to “physical health” and “psychological health”, the idea of “philosophical health” may still appear to be a curiosity. Until recently, the phrase was mostly used as a metaphor to describe sound philosophical thinking versus faulty reasoning. According to Wittgenstein and some of his followers, we should not indulge our temptation to ignorance if we are to cultivate a healthy mind: “Consistency between our ways of thinking and speaking and our ways of acting eliminates, or at least reduces, the psychic tensions that acting against one’s own allegiances will cause” (Gilmore 1999, 146). Wittgenstein’s later insistence, in his Investigations (1953, §133), on the idea of philosophy as a kind of therapy that may bring peace of mind may have been instrumental in the genealogy of how the idea of philosophical health is now being democratized as a complement to physical and psychological health.
A first step to understand that the idea of philosophical health is at least equally as important as physical and psychological health is to recognize that any human being possesses philosophical beliefs, intellectual allegiances and more or less rationalized concerns, often not yet fully explicit or compossible. These influence our decisions, reactions and therefore way of life. In the 1980s the first contemporary “philosophical counselors” started to appear in Europe and the USA (Raabe 2001): it was now admitted that “some people believe that good health also includes a feeling that one’s behavior is in rhythm with one’s basic values. This feeling may also include a sense that life has meaning and is worthwhile” (Levy, Dignan and Shirreffs 1984, 7). The cosmopolitical and practical idea of philosophy as democratic therapy was reborn from its Ancient Greek ashes: “The operative notion of philosophical health depends on a conception of the human good” (Peterman 1992, 18). One is engaging in philosophical health when one’s behavior is careful (and care-full) in considering not only the physical or psychological individual balance but also a certain idea of what the collective good of humans and other beings on earth might be.
I founded in 2019 the Philosophical health International (PHI) movement in order to unite around the world, in an open network, all researchers or practitioners who believe that the concept of philosophical health is important, for example to reach the United Nations sustainable goal of well-being. Philosophical health is a state of fruitful coherence between a person’s ways of thinking and speaking and their ways of acting, such that the possibilities for a grateful life are increased and the need for self- and intersubjective flourishing satisfied. A philosophically healthy individual, group, system or protocol ensures that the goals and purposes of the whole are pragmatically aligned with its highest ideals, while respecting the regenerative, plural and possibilizing future of multiple forms of life.
Åkerblom, E. (2020). “Governing of the Nation: Generation Pep as Biopolitical Strategy”, Sport, Education and Society, 25 (7), 752–763.
Bentley, J. (1845) Health Made Easy for the People. London: Darton, Clark and Wright.
Gilmore, R. A. (1999). Philosophical Health: Wittgenstein’s Method in ‘Philosophical Investigations’. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Grob, G. N. (1983). Mental Illness and American Society: 1875–1840. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Larson, P. C. (2017). Psychological Healing: Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Professional Psychology. Eugen, OR: Resource Publications.
Levy, M. R, Dignan, M.B., and Shirreffs, J. H. (1984). Life and Health. New York: Random House.
Parry, M. (2006). “Thomas W. Salmon: Advocate of Mental Hygiene”, American Journal of Public Health, 96 (10): 1741.
Peterman, J. F (1992). Philosophy as Therapy: An Interpretation and Defense of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophical Project. New York: SUNY.
Raabe, P. B. (2001). Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice. Westport: Praeger.
Rieff, P. (2006). The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington: ISI Books.
Rose, N. (2020). Interview, in Carvalho, S.R., et al. “Our psychiatric future and the (bio)politics of Mental Health: dialogues with Nikolas Rose” (part 4), Interface, 24: https://doi.org/10.1590/Interface.190732
Shephard, R. J. (2015) An Illustrated History of Health and Fitness. Zürich: Springer.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, ed. By Anscombe, G.E.M. and Rhees, R. New York: Macmillan.