Cleaning the aquarium from the outside – about the difference between a psychological and a philosophical approach in coaching

The image of cleaning the aquarium from the outside can be used to explain the difference between the psychologically oriented conversation as opposed to the philosophical protreptic coaching conversation.

When you are cleaning the glass of the aquarium you don’t put your hands in it and mess with the fish inside the aquarium. Instead you use a magnetic cleaner where you clean the inside of the glass by moving the magnet-cleaner around from the outside. This metaphor visualizes how the philosophical protreptic coaching conversation approach the problems created by the conditioning of our minds. The philosophical approach seeks to clear our vision so we can observe our beliefs non-judgmentally and explore our insights more clearly without being tossed and turned by our emotions.

The Danish philosopher Morten Paustian explains the difference between the psychological and the philosophical dimension in the following quote:

The philosophical dimension is about the creation of thought and the psychological dimension is about the human emotional condition in the creation of thought

Paustian: Væren & Omverden, Aalborg Universitetsforlag 2015

The quote implies that the psychological dimension is colored by emotions. From the research on emotion and the biology of the brain it is known that emotional reactions can be formed in the amygdala without any conscious registration of a stimulus. It is also known that when the amygdala system makes any appraisal of danger whether the danger is realistic or not the fear response with its emotions and bodily responses occur automatically.

Furthermore, these automatic negative emotional responses limits our thinking, but focuses our senses in order to be able to face the threat in a fight, flight or freeze response.

As mentioned by Paustian the philosophical dimension focusses on the creation of thought. Hence the philosophical approach is less likely to arouse negative affect compared to the psychological approach because the magnifying glass in a philosophical inquiry is directed at objects that are not directly connected with the ‘me’ or the specific hurts of the individual’s particular childhood – visualized as the mess inside the aquarium.

The philosophical inquiry investigates our thoughts on values and concepts in a more general manner. As John Herman Randall puts it: “to look through as many different eyes as we may” in order to increase our store of imaginative perspectives upon the world. This means that the philosophical approach is more likely to facilitate unimpaired free thinking. This point of view can be supported by Christopher Phillips and his facilitations of Socrates Cafés across America. According to Phillips Socrates brought a:

Method of philosophical inquiry that “everyman” and “everywoman” could embrace and take for his or her own and in the process rekindle the childlike – but by no means childish – sense of wonder

Phillips: Socrates Café, 2001

The purpose of this type of dialogue is – as it was in the Greek context – to help people to become more thoughtful, tolerant and rational by having their ideas and beliefs challenged through the Socratic dialogue.

Socrates was well aware that the truth’s he discovered through experience was slippery, elusive and always subject to new developments, new information and new alternatives. In order to explore different alternatives, the Socratic method of philosophical inquiry and questioning helps people to know themselves and their nature better by acquiring new tactics for thinking that allows them to expand their outlook on life and therefore make better life choices (Phillips 2001).

To sum it up quotes of antique philosophers and statesmen like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius touches upon the limitations of the insights of the human minds and the changeability of the “truth’s” we live by. These various truths are part of the cultural conditioning that Krishnamurti refers to and the individual conditioning that schema theory zooms in on.

These self-perpetuating “truths” are constructions created by the different systems that have a domineering conditioning impact on our lives – such as the systems of family, workplace, culture and society. The narratives created by these systems perpetuates the ideas that best sustains the system and hence tends to eliminate contradictions to the domineering narrative of the system. Foucault talks about culture as a hierarchical organization of values where a mechanism of selection and exclusion takes place.[1] This leads to simplistic thinking, single-mindedness, fundamentalism and rigidity which in turn keeps us from freeing ourselves from our individual and cultural conditioning and exploring our full potential as human beings.

The philosophical protreptic coaching conversation that I offer will help you to clean your aquarium from the outside. We will inquire the cracks in our domineering narratives created by our cultural and individual conditioning. Through the questions in the coaching conversation you will get to practice your “thinking-muscles” by examining the theme in question from different perspectives in order to unfold your possibilities and potentials and ultimately get to live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Please contact me if you have questions about this Blog Post on cleaning the aquarium from the outside or if you want to hear more about my services.

My next Blog Post will expand on a question from a reader “What about negative thinking?”

If you have suggestions on related themes you would like me to write about on my Blog please send me a note.



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