Philosophy Coaching: An Interview with Christophe Porot
by Sarah Virgi
February 2023 – “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates at the trial upon which he was condemned to death. Can philosophers add value to your life by helping you reflect upon and critically evaluate your everyday problems, moral dilemmas, and issues you would like to explore? Can you be coached in leading a philosophical life? If yes, how? Christophe Porot, doctoral student in philosophy and philosopher coach, speaks here of his own experience of coaching as a process of what he calls “uncorking,” which he describes as a way of “enabling all of someone’s deepest thoughts to flow from the core of their thinking process out into the open,” and “having [their] philosophy elaborated on through every angle before a lightly Socratic questioning period that attempts to explore the strongest version of one’s philosophy.” Philosophy coaching is, thus, very different from teaching: it does not aim at teaching people what to do and think but at “unlocking their ability to think freely.” Porot believes that this process can contribute to happiness in so far as it cultivates freedom and responsibility of thought. In this interview, he tells us about his sources of inspiration, coaching methods, and the positive impact that this activity has brought to his work and research.
About Christophe Porot
Christophe Porot studied intellectual history at St. Olaf College and philosophy the Universities of Oxford and Harvard. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis on the intersection between philosophy of psychiatry, ethics, mysticism, and freedom at the University Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne. Aside from his academic career, Porot is a professional philosophical coach and consultant. He hosts a philosophy podcast and has published several pieces on public philosophy in addition to his peer-reviewed publications.
Sarah Virgi: You studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford Universities and are currently writing your Ph.D. thesis at Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne. Aside from your academic career, you also offer services as a philosophy coach. What is philosophy coaching? What is the difference between studying philosophy as a discipline and being coached in philosophy? Could you elaborate a little bit on this distinction?
Christophe Porot: Philosophy Coaching, as I do it, boils down to and distinguishes itself from the academic process through the uncorking process. To be uncorked (my own concept) is the inverse of the concept of being triggered; where being triggered is conceptually understood as experiencing negative emotions and thoughts in response to a stimulus, being uncorked is experiencing a similar volume of positive emotions and thoughts in response to a stimulus (especially of the intellectual variety). In other words, it is the process of uncorking mental champagne, enabling all of someone’s deepest thoughts to flow from the core of their thinking process out into the open for review, not a review conducted by others, but one they conduct for themselves.
It doesn’t seem to me that academic philosophy encourages this uncorking process; for one, the premium on truly original, small, precise thinking discourages people from “letting loose,” from adopting as their own whatever thoughts belong to them and embracing the flow of thinking as it is rather than as it should be academically. Because many thoughts someone might have in a coaching session are either similar or related to philosophers, a lot of coaching is pairing someone with the right philosopher who enables them to go deeper in their thinking process. But my clients are not students, nor are they expected to be, so instead of pairing them by way of suggesting they read William James (or any other philosopher), I pair them by summarizing the part of William James (or any other philosopher) which relates to their own thinking. Whether they have the time and will to read independently and come back more well-informed on their philosophical pairing is up to them.
When someone pops a bottle of mental champagne, both their own thinking and the thinking of the zeitgeist flows out, so it’s essential to catch the patterns and fortify someone’s ability to think by showing them they are not alone, that other philosophers have thought on the same subject before.
I say “other” philosophers to suggest that we are all philosophers. The great philosopher of religion Charles Taliaferro likes to say we are born philosophers, are philosophers by disposition, and it is beaten out of us by society. The emotional and intellectual ability to return someone to their natural philosophical condition is the art of uncorking, the goal of philosophy coaching. This is opposed to the academic track, being a philosophy student, in which one comes in already interested in philosophy and is trained to think smaller, in more detail, and with more citations that they themselves search for.
Being Philosophy coached is the emotionally rich experience of being uncorked, being supported while uncorking, and having your philosophy elaborated on through every angle before a lightly Socratic questioning period that attempts to explore the strongest version of one’s philosophy. I say lightly Socratic because the process Socrates undertook seemed to be mostly intellectually violent and negative insofar as he, through questions, would often destroy what people were thinking. Coaching is not about destroying someone’s thinking, it’s about making them conscious that it’s what they think. So I often begin with the big questions like “what is the meaning of life?” and if someone can’t answer, I present a kind of menu of options that they can intuitively respond to or select from. When in the dark, intuition is the light of your thought.
My parting distinction between studying philosophy as a discipline and being coached in philosophy is very simple and relies on proportions of the occasion rather than a necessary divide: philosophy as a discipline is often emotionally tyrannical and stressful, there is a pressure to be original and to be minuscule in the thinking; philosophy as the art of coaching is emotionally liberating (by the end), and there is no pressure but only encouragement to realize how powerful it is to think for yourself, whatever the origin of the thoughts within you or the thoughts you are within. In other words, Philosophy Coaching is an instrument to remind folks of Wittgenstein’s famous phrase that “philosophy is the slow cure.” Only, I like to modify the language and say “philosophy is the slow liberation.”
SV: How did you become interested in philosophy coaching? And how did you go about building up your methods of coaching?
CP: I’ve heard it said many times in my life that if you want to know what you should be doing, then you should just look at what you do when you are not obliged to do anything at all. In other words, how do you spend your free time?! My free time was always spent Philosophy Coaching. I’d meet people by the library and uncork with them together, I’d meet people over the phone and listen deeply to their thoughts, being inspired to read and study more so that I can comment on what they discuss. And, finally, in a certain way, I liberated my own self through philosophy.
I had a deep and dark sadness that boiled into manic episodes in my condition as bipolar. After graduate studies at Harvard University, I spent three years in a mental hospital and turned that hospital into a bit of a monastery. There, for the first time, I used Philosophy not as a competitive activity but as an instrument of deep and powerful reprogramming of my thoughts. It worked so well that I left the hospital with a deep inner peace, a peace which has never left me since. So, to answer the question, I’m not sure how I “became” interested in coaching as it wasn’t an addition to my life; it was more so a question of how I became aware that I coach both myself and others whenever I have no other obligations. An awareness that underscored a deep love for philosophy coaching.
My method was inspired by a sudden riddle that stirred within me: it had occurred to me that perhaps the most undervalued human need is to have our philosophies heard and validated. Many philosophers are bullies to non-philosophers; they listen to attack and humiliate. What I, as a coach, am trying to do is listen to echoe and build and question only as a way of enabling someone to question their own ideas. This became the core question of my methodology: how do you inspire someone to doubt their ideas without doubting themselves?
In response to this riddle, I realized a few things. First, listen and celebrate what someone is saying, celebrate the mere fact that they are getting in touch with themselves as philosophers. Second, build a mansion with them. Charles Sanders Peirce said “just as we say that bodies are in motion and not that motion is in bodies, so too we ought to say that we are in thoughts and not that thoughts are in us.” In other words, thoughts are a kind of home we inhabit, though most of us don’t even know where we live. Show someone their home, let them see it for the first time, turn it into a mansion of thought through the tools of thinking which expand the number of rooms and the overall expanse of their thinking being. Finally, love the mansion by making sure it is built to last. Start looking, together, for weak foundations and poorly decorated rooms. Tending to the home is a form of loving it, and you tend to your thoughts through questions. But first, you must realize it’s home and nothing less.
The whole methodology, other than that, was built through experience, intuition, and research.
SV: What is the purpose of philosophy coaching? How do you think it benefits the people that you coach?
CP: Freedom. Philosophy coaching is about freedom of thought.
In the introduction to “The Second Sex,” Simone De Beauvoir said happiness is irrelevant to the existentialist, the only issue which matters is freedom. As it stands, I believe liberated thinking increases happiness, inner peace, and love. However, it is justified first in virtue of being free, and those emotionally enjoyable effects are more like épiphénomènes to the freedom; they come out of freedom like froth comes off a wave.
I believe there is a sense in which I am a sort of liberated Cartesian. I do believe thinking is the center of our being; I believe even the empty experience of nothingness so celebrated by those who love deep meditation is, in fact, just misinterpreted. Instead of it being true nothingness, I believe it takes us to a place where our conscious mind stops thinking so that we are processing the ocean of our subconscious thoughts without being immediately aware of them. There is a peace in deep thinking, and that’s the destination I take people to, through unlocking their ability to think freely.
I say this to contrast myself with existential psychoanalysts and so forth; I see no reason to interfere with an infinite variety of therapeutic activities, including seeing a psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist, or psychoanalyst. In fact, I think they all can work together quite nicely. In modern psychiatry, freedom and responsibility have become more critical to patient well-being. It’s been well-validated that patients who believe themselves to be responsible for their care have a better chance of healing and managing themselves. I don’t occupy myself with the care but with the freedom itself, which contributes to how people relate to their care. A lot of philosophically-informed analysts, counselors, etc. have an asymmetric attitude about what they are doing. They come in to teach people how to think, to teach people what to think. I do not have such an agenda. I come to understand how people already think, to encourage them to think, and to celebrate their thinking by painting philosophical portraits of their ideas in collaboration with them. I am like a mirror or reflective lake through which people can see their own thoughts more clearly.
This process of co-authoring someone’s story with them in a completely serve-first and question-later way, generates astonishing doses of unexpected epiphanies and uncorked thoughts. Here are some examples: a very strong person burst into tears when they realized it was okay to let go of the influence of their past self; this was generated by the question, “who are you?” Another person realized they didn’t need their prestigious career at all, and found success pursuing other things; this was prompted by the question: “what’s your intuition?”
People are smarter than we think. Repression, especially self-inflicted intellectual repression, is the mechanism of bad thinking. By focusing on removing that self-directed violence of repressed thoughts, by focusing on uncorking people, I allow people to experience being responsible for their own thoughts, and this often seems to transform into a responsibility for their own lives too. I do not aim to change people’s thinking; I aim to inspire people to think for the first time.
SV: Do you consider coaching a private or necessarily dialogical enterprise? Or do you think its methods would also be applicable to the public in general, or even in conversation with oneself?
CP: It is necessarily dialogical and personal, but nonetheless, the strategies should be 100% accessible to everyone and can be self-directed or directed in a public or private manner. When it comes to coaching the public in general, you can only display the process publically, and let people choose for themselves whether they want to follow their intuition on subjects, whether they are ready to uncork, whether they should seek out books and instruments of thought that enable them to coach themselves or be coached by another. One way I render the process public is by trying to coach or interpret the philosophy of pop culture builders. I’ve written often for Carus Books and others about the philosophy hidden behind pop culture movements like Pokémon, Mr. Robot, Iron Man, and Captain America. This attempt to transform the popular imagination into a philosophical client is something I plan to do for the rest of my life, not to dominate the culture but to interpret it so that both individuals and the collective develop a self-consciousness about what they are thinking. Being aware of one’s true thoughts is critical to that rare condition of freedom, and, in the absence of knowing what one is thinking, how could it be said that one may change their thinking?
At the start, nonetheless, Coaching is one on one. It is necessary that someone be fully heard by another sometimes so that they can hear themselves for the first time. But that process of coaching one on one can indeed be transformed into an internal process. The great Islamic Philosopher and mystic Ibn Arabi once called himself both “the lover and the beloved,” and I think we can get to a point where we call ourselves both “the coach and the coached.” It may take another to be in conversation with us to launch that process, but once internalized, then a lifetime of self-coaching awaits. While it is always wise to check your thoughts in conversation with others, partially because we are social animals, it is also powerful to talk with yourself and to know, no matter what, you are your first conversation partner.
I should end with this: the individual person being coached may be a single person or a sort of personage built through the collective identity. I try to coach both.
SV: Who are your philosopher-idols? Are you following the method of any particular philosopher, like Socrates, or Augustin?
CP: I have too many philosopher idols to count. Some of the heavy-weight thinkers who inspire me include: William James, Rousseau, Hilary Putnam, Tommie Shelby, Charles Taliaferro, Kant, Charles Mills, the Cambridge Platonists, and the list goes on and on. The lesser-known philosophers who inspire me come through those luminaries within my own life, including my mother and a woman named Rosa Pollock, who became a mother to me after my mother passed away. They both spoke through intuition, but they are brilliant and deserve mention alongside the academically established thinkers.
I suppose, given the range of philosophers who influence me, I should acknowledge what I love about some of the attributes of the best philosophers. I love it when philosophers are the first ones to critique themselves when they write an idea that persuades everyone but themselves, and then, they are the first to punch back on their own ideas. This display of internal coaching, this willingness to build a mansion but regularly check the foundations, is precisely the liberation that I seek for myself and others through coaching.
With coaching, I feel influenced by the whole of my exposure to philosophy. The reason for this radical self-trust, this self-understanding as a filter for philosophy, is very simple: I do not want to fall into a dogmatic slumber.
I have dedicated my early life to philosophy, and it rescued me, in collaboration with Psychiatric intervention, from absolute darkness. In one of my published papers, I write about the conditions under which a philosopher might change her mind. Experience was one of those conditions; my thoughts on the function and possibilities of philosophy were not, in my case, experienced by encountering a philosopher who told me how to think. Despite the widespread popularity of philosophy as a therapeutic art, despite the existence of philosophical schools in the Greco-Roman era, and despite the profound commitment to studying the greats, I remain most informed by that cruel but effective teacher we call life. But it is not raw living that informs me, I also have a profound trust in what this life has taught me through my intuitive responses to things.
To that degree, I feel Emersonian insofar as he advocated for a wild trust in one’s intuition. I am aware that intuition may be an amalgam of social conditioning, and yet I think the empirical research on intuition shows it is the thinking abilities, beneath conscious awareness, that contribute to what we call intuitive responses. My intuitions are undeniably indebted to the vast literature I have had the privilege of reading, and to the rich experiences of life I have tasted through my varying emotions, but at the end of the day, I trust my intuition as my inner goddess, speaking to me from a world of thinking I do not yet understand. And this Emersonian trust in my intuition was not brought to me by Emerson, but through my mother, who chose to show me the way.
SV: How does this activity impact your work as a student of philosophy and a philosopher? Has it played a role in your philosophical and personal development?
CP: It has played a dramatic role in my work and personal development. First, it gives me a “Raison d’être”, a life mission, which adds fuel to the fire so I work harder, faster, more diligently than I otherwise would. Philosophy in a vacuum is a pleasure activity for me, I would enjoy Philosophy even if it didn’t contribute to my mission in life. But for those days when the work feels heavy, a cross to bear, I remember that the more I feed my inner goddess through reading and research, the more she will make me a better coach, and the better a coach I become, the more I can help people liberate themselves from an internal prison. In that sense, I see myself as a modern-day intellectual abolitionist: though carceral states exist, perhaps the most common imprisonment is the one within our own minds. I need to be as well-informed and philosophically robust as possible if I fashion myself to be a useful instrument of freedom, both the freedom of myself and others.
Second, it has directly informed my thesis work. Without going into the details here, my thesis project works on the intersection of philosophy of psychiatry, ethics, mysticism, and freedom. I am interested in this specific intersection because I am a mystic of sorts, a believer that freedom is a mystical experience, and am curious how the diagnostic approach to thinking interacts with people’s abilities to be free intellectually and what ethical responsibilities might attend to that treatment of mental freedom.
Finally, it saved my life. I didn’t want to live. One day I thought to myself, “I don’t love myself.” This simple thought would not have occurred to me without having been profoundly dedicated to an internal philosophical process. Once I accepted that it’s okay to love myself, too, I was liberated from the self-directed anger of my own body and mind. I uncorked myself after that thought, a rush of new ideas occurred to me, and these ideas are beyond precious to me; they are who I am now, and, frankly, the intellectuel champagne has never stopped flowing because the bottle of my mind flows while awake and asleep; it is, in that sense, my exposure to a taste of infinity because there seems to be an infinite variety of thoughts capable of passing through my mind. And this, for me, is intellectual freedom. Thank you.