Martha C. Nussbaum argues in The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics that all three major Hellenistic schools (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skeptics) shared a practical, therapeutic (as opposed to e.g. theoretic, metaphysical) focus:

Philosophy heals human diseases, diseases produced by false beliefs. Its arguments are to the soul as the doctor's remedies are to the body. They can heal, and they are to be evaluated in terms of their power to heal […] This general picture of philosophy's task is common to all three major Hellenistic schools, at both Greece and Rome.

She includes a relevant quote from Epicurus:

Empty is that philosopher's argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.

I am wondering whether this focus is conventionally observed in the history of philosophy and whether it is indeed specific to the Hellenistic schools, or whether Nussbaum presents some kind of minority opinion.

UPDATE Philosophy as "therapy" is also discussed here (as pointed out here) in relation to 20th-century philosophy and an understanding of Wittgenstein as inspiring to "help us work ourselves out of confusions we become entangled in when philosophizing".

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    Very interesting question. It strikes me as a particularly Nietzschean reading of the Greeks.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Oct 4, 2013 at 14:55
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    (Nietzsche indicates that perhaps one day we'll realize that all art was only medicine...)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Oct 4, 2013 at 14:55
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    Interesting question. It strikes me as most likely speculative hindsight than historical observation, but it's possible there's some truth here. Many ancient Greek writers were adapt at arguing through poetry where rational arguments were inappropriate or failed to be lucid, which is why many works begin by quoting Antiphon. It was assuredly commonplace for philosophers to ask themselves "What is a good metaphor for the nature of philosophy and it's relationship to mankind?", and "medicine for the disease of false belief" is certainly an answer they may have considered among others.
    – David H
    Oct 6, 2013 at 8:22

2 Answers 2


I think Nussbaum may be on the right track, although I think it goes wider than the Hellenistic schools. For example, yoga in Indian philosophy, in western practice is seen as therapy, similarly for Buddhism. Further Jesus, in the Islamic tradition is seen as a healer, and also certain aspects of Shamanistic practices can be seen in that light too. One could speculate, that the steady emphasis on logos in the Western tradition through Christianity effected a split between mind & body, in theory, in practice and the professions.

Hannah Arendt and Max Scheler, identify humanity as homo faber, as the man who makes rather than homo sapiens, the man who is wise. The emphasis is on the body as a practical source of know-how, rather than the mind as a theoretical source of knowledge or wisdom. Bergson goes a step further in his creative evolution, where he identifies this as the source of intelligence, that is, it grew out of a need for techne, to handle our exteriorities. That is, intelligence is essentially pragmatically orientated rather than speculatively orientated as a purely intellectual or dogmatic treatment may suppose. When one considers our interiority as an externality this might lead to a notion or system of practical and pragmatic therapeutics as a form of life that finds a space for theoria that is in sympathy rather than defining itself in opposition or contrast.

  • +1 but I cannot quite understand the last (to me almost Sokalian :) sentence: "When one considers ...". And where could one find the root cause of the steady emphasis on logos in and though Christianity?
    – Drux
    Oct 8, 2013 at 5:57
  • I was speculating: I was underlining the steady emphasis for many centuries on logos (reason/rational). After all Europe was Christian for many, many centuries. To ask for the 'root cause of the steady emphasis' appears to me to ask why Europe was Christian for those many centuries - surely one should assume an intellectual tradition would have sprung up around Christianity at any rate? Oct 8, 2013 at 6:22
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    If you think of man as a maker and user of tools, then he is using tools on the external world; to be able to access the interior world (his own experience) it needs to be placed into the exterior world - through speech or gesture (interiority as an externality) - so we see speech or gesture as a tool to act or to be acted on. I'll take Sokalian as compliment :)! To be honest, one plays literary tricks like this, for the pleasure, here, of placing opposites close to each other, and as in a cryptic crossword puzzle, to leave the reader the enjoyment of working out what is meant:)! Oct 8, 2013 at 6:29
  • I'll rephrase "root cause": where is a strong emphasis on logos evident (where is it "rooted") in Christianity? Is it in the original scriptures or a result of later developments in its theology? You seem to tie that emphasis specifically to Christianity, not to the overall "Western" tradition (starting from the Greeks, etc.) in general.
    – Drux
    Oct 8, 2013 at 6:41
  • This is why I said I was 'speculating'! It is the impression that I get. John 1:1 - 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'. I'd read Word as Logos. So, yes; in the new testament scriptures. Oct 8, 2013 at 6:58

I think this is fairly accurate, but must be seen in view of the complex evolution and differentiation of what we now call disciplines.

The logical-sophistical side of philosophy drew upon the dialectic of the law courts, the physics of the Milesians, the various cult practices, mathematics, and much more. Certainly, the Pythagoreans and the Epicureans formed communities with "therapeutic" lifestyles, diets, practices, etc.

But until the time of Hippocrates, bodily "healing" was more often sought in religious rituals than in diagnosis. I don't know if Hippocrates ascribed to some philosophical school, but Galen, much later, continued to write on logic and philosophy. He also disputed the Stoics relative mind-body dualism. I didn't think that the Stoics or Skeptics necessarily advanced "wellness" regimes apart from the usual appeals to moderation.

Of course, Aristotle's father was a physician, and his schemes of classification and "symptomatic" investigation probably owed something to this. His view of "catharsis" is protopsychological, but I have never heard that the Lyceum advanced any bodily regime distinct from the principles of eudaemonia.It may be that the "practice" of medicine and "attending" on patients was too close to menial labor for the tastes of the Athenian philosophers. Modern surgery, after all, first evolved out of the barber shop rather than the academy.

Philosophy has always been the seedbed of "disciplines" that gradually differentiate principles and "useful" practices.... until they are no longer "philosophy." So medicine began to evolve its own course with Hippocrates and at last, only in the 19th century, dragged half of philosophy into the physicalist camp of psychology. For the pre-Socratics there was no such distinction, and probably considerable overlap with various "cult" practices.

But, as I say, an ancient association of medicine with either "servitude" or "cult ritual" may have disposed many philosophers to belittle it, giving it a limited incubation within philosophy proper. It is a very modern gesture of reverse-elitism that natural-born elitists like Wittgenstein and Keynes would liken their professions to the modest, practical stature of doctoring.

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