A Philosophy of Career Counselling

As an intimate act of personal archaeology, career counselling excavates the psychological, social, and cultural past of an individual so as to inductively understand the present. Then, on the basis of this knowledge, the counsellor and client cast their psychological eyes into the future so as to imaginatively co-construct a story that may, or may not, generate active engagement in the world of work.  This creative process of being and becoming can be traced to the philosophical treatises of Kierkegaard, Hume, James, and Nietzsche.

Soren Kierkegaard

Can career counselling be a solution to Kierkegaard’s (1843/1967) problem of living life forward by knowing it backward? It can be; but, only if, paradoxically, one bravely accepts that this putative knowledge of the future that is inductively created on the basis of the past is little more than emotive guesswork, if not a folly that should be tentatively grasped with fingers crossed behind one’s back, hoping that one’s predictions may come true.

David Hume

It was David Hume (1748/2007) who challenged induction as a way of knowing the future. Hume suggested that humans believe in their predictions as result of intrinsic psychological architecture. Humans are inherently disposed toward committing the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc or cum hoc ergo propter hoc (i.e., after this therefore because of this; with this therefore because of this). In other words, that B followed A, is no reason to believe A caused B; and, that A and B occur simultaneously is no reason to draw a causal relationship between the two.

William James

William James (1890/1952) deepened this idea in his argument that humans experience time because they experience thinking, metaphorically, like the flowing of a stream. Furthermore, James argued that consciousness of series (e.g., one event following another after another, and so on) is the source of rational thinking. Humans are not only psychologically capable of discerning series; they aim to do so in order to make sense of events they observe. Storying relies on this sense of time and inductive thinking so as to create connections between one moment in life and the next, ad infinitum.

Notwithstanding the flaw of inductive thinking, it is in existential torment that one must carry on with life, believing, and hoping, that the future can be known, albeit a fiction that is composed as an open-ended story that seems to contiguously follow on from the previous chapter of a life (i.e., post hoc ergo propter hoc). This fiction is exactly what people construct in order to make sense of their past and current phenomenal world, and it is this fictional existence that permits the activity of narrative career counselling as a way of knowing. In this way, counselling produces therapeutic truth—a benign white lie with generative intent. Accordingly, career counselling, especially narrative career counselling because it is the most doubtable form of personal knowing toward the creation of personal truths, has no more compelling a purchase on creating personal truths than psychoanalysis, which is a most exquisite form of personal archaeology.

I use pragmatism (James, 1907/2000) as an epistemology of personal truth, that which I call “pragmatic ideographic truth”. That career counselling depends so much on the psychological archaeology of a client’s past to construct an imagined future is evidence of its inductive logic and, therefore, its inherent flaws as per Hume’s problem of induction. James, like his great scientific contemporary, the legendary psychological archaeologist, Sigmund Freud, believed that the past has an enduring effect on the present of a person by way of habit.

We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. … Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out (James, 1890/1952, p. 83).

However, James would eschew a purely historical deterministic stance, for he articulated the notion of psychological plasticity and the inherent potential for change, despite the present influence of the past. James’ pragmatism posits that the proof of a theory’s truthfulness is metaphorically like the pudding: the proof is in the eating.

Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experiential terms….Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events (James, 1907/2000, p. 88).

Thus, as a way of knowing, pragmatism holds up experience as the sine qua non. With respect to career counselling, therefore, it is interpretation and reinterpretation of experience that provide the truthfulness of a personal theory or, more accurately, a personal theory of one’s person.

Friedrich Nietzsche

At the decidedly proactive end of the spectrum of career identity is the author, the person avowedly in charge of creating destiny. That a person can be the author of his or her life is metaphorically captured by Nietzsche (1878/1994) who asserts:

“Life as a product of life. However far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself—ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography” (p. 238).

Nietzsche charges the individual to live life with no regrets and, if given the opportunity to live life over, the same individual would do it all again making the same decisions.

Nietzsche provides a rendering of the individual as noble in so far as the individual recognises that life is to be lived with gusto and impunity, and not slavishly to another’s cause. Nietzsche’s philosophy is a psychological antidote to the pernicious effects of disempowerment by institutions of society and it requires the individual to assertively stake a claim on life. It is an unapologetic stance that is not to be conflated with misanthropy or anti-social personality traits. My reading of Nietzsche marks him as the first iconoclastic postmodernist; however, unlike the relativism present in postmodern thinking, Nietzsche firmly posits the individual as the self-referent measure of good and bad.

Will a self. Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum ‘know thy self’, but as if there hovered before them the commandment: will a self and thou shalt become a self. (Nietzsche, 1977, p. 232)

Thus, unlike other philosophies that are tantamount to pusillanimity in the face of the vicissitudes of life, Nietzsche’s philosophy entreats a person to boldly stare into the unknown and impose a future on it; that is, to live out pragmatic idiographic truthfulness.


Hume, D. (1748/2007). An enquiry concerning human understanding (S. Buckle Ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

James, W. (1890/1952). The principles of psychology. Chicago, IL: William Benton.

James, W. (1907/2000). Pragmatism and other writings. New York, NY: Penguin.

Kierkegaard, S. (1843/1967). Journals and papers (H. V. Hong, E. H. Hong & G. Malantschuk., Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1878/1994). Human, all too human. London, UK: Penguin Group.

Nietzsche, F. (1977). A Nietzsche reader (R. J. Hollingdale, Trans.). London, UK: Penguin Group.

Nietzsche, F. (2003). Beyond good and evil. Prelude to a philosophy of the future (R. J. Hollingdale, Trans.). London, UK: Penguin Books.

This blog article is an extract from:

McIlveen, P. (2015). The next horizon of career counselling. In J. G. Maree & A. di Fabio (Eds.), Exploring new horizons in career counselling: Turning challenges into opportunities (pp. 331-339). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

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