“There is nothing which requires such gentle handling as an illusion.”—Søren Kierkegaard
The idea that philosophy as questioning dialogue has a therapeutic aim and impact goes back at least as far as the Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues. It is in the Apology that Socrates spells out most explicitly the therapeutic aim of his philosophical method, the elenchus, as well as the unity of its investigative and therapeutic aims. The divine purpose, he claims, of his practice of philosophy, of his devotion to questioning, examining, and testing the men of Athens, is to persuade them to care “for the best possible state of [their] soul[s]”—to provide psyches therapeia. An analogous therapeutic aim can be shown to underlie the philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein and, in a certain sense, to unify them.
For both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, philosophy is a human activity exhibiting a unity of investigative and therapeutic aims. For both philosophers, the purpose of philosophical concepts, as formal indicators (Heidegger) or as signposts or reminders (Wittgenstein), is to point us toward the path of transformation rather than to explain. For both, a first step on this path is the recognition of illusions spawned by conventional interpretedness (Heidegger) or scientistic evasiveness (Wittgenstein). For both, such illusions are sedimented in linguistic practices, in the “idle talk” of das Man (Heidegger) or the “bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” (Wittgenstein). For both, philosophical investigation is a way of bringing what we already prereflectively understand into the light of thematic explicitness. And what both philosophers bring into thematic explicitness are aspects of our context-embeddedness and of our finitude. Heidegger helps us understand and bear the anxiety that comes with authentic or owned Being-toward-death, and Wittgenstein helps us to bear the irresoluble complexity of an indeterminate multiplicity of language-games and perspectives, each serving particular human purposes, of which the scientific perspective is only one. Through our therapeutic encounters with the philosophies of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, we are able to recognize ourselves as ever more distinctively human.