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Born in Winnipeg, Canada, 1957. Got to Vancouver in '74, married Rob in 1980. Moved to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1987. Left rather quickly in 1990 and returned to Vancouver. Bachelor of General Studies (Arts), Simon Fraser University, 1997. Moved to Cape Town, 1997. Master of Arts (Philosophy) cum laude, University of Stellenbosch, 2002. Since 2004, I have also been the sub-editor of New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy.

I am presently living in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.

This article appeared in the Cape Times (Review, p.6), Tuesday May 24, 2005.

Finding clarity by digging up life's big questions


The first thing that strikes you about Helen Douglas is her soft voice. The accent hails from Canada, her home country for most of her life. But what is most interesting is Helen's profession. Confronted with the usual official forms requesting "job description", she writes: "philosophical counsellor". "Or sometimes", she says, "just philosopher". Based in Kalk Bay, she is probably the first philosophical counselor to start a fully-fledged practice in South Africa.

So what is philosophical counselling? It can be many things to many people, but according to Douglas, it is really just philosophy in action - the process of engaging in a dialogue to bring understanding and perspective on one's experiences. Hopefully, one walks away with some sense of meaning. As Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century said: " Philosophy is an activity, not a body of doctrine."

Most people are oblivious that such a profession even exists. But in fact, philosophical counselling has a long and illustrious past stretching all the way back to Pythagoras. It is only in the last couple of hundred years, with the rise of the university, that philosophy has seemingly retreated into the ivory towers of academia.

But in March 1981 this began to change. Gerd Achenbach, a frustrated German philosophy academic, placed a sign in his window - "Philospher-for-hire" - and philosophy was thrust back into the mainstream.

Of course, in 1981, when Douglas was still living in Canada, she was unaware that she would land up in this field. Her story of how she got there is a long and interesting one. Deeply committed to the anti-apartheid movement in Canada, Helen and her husband Rob volunteered to assist the underground Operation Vula of the ANC. The operation was intended to infiltrate some of the senior leaders in exile back into South Africa in order to strengthen the underground organisation and to improve communications between the underground, the popular mass movements, the leadership in prison and ANC structures outside the country.

It required secure "safe-houses" in white neighbourhoods, run by people that wouldn't be known to the security police. So in 1987, Helen and Rob came to Johannesburg on their Canadian passports to set up a safe-house. To the outside world, Rob appeared to be an ordinary high school teacher, and Helen an ordinary bookseller in Exclusive Books.

Over the next three years, their house was a base for Mac Maharaj, Siphiwe Nyanda, Janet Love and Ronnie Kasrils. Then suddenly in 1990, the security police uncovered a Vula cell in Durban, and information pointed to the Douglas safe-house.

Helen remembers the night clearly, when Mac Maharaj arrived in the small hours of the morning to warn them about the leak. Three days later, the apartheid Special Forces arrived with automatic weapons and forced their way into the house.

As frightening as it was, Rob recalls a comical incident when he recognised the first policeman who barged through the door as one of the matric pupils he had taught the year before. Rob describes the "Hello Sir" that followed as "totally surreal".

Rob's Canadian passport was seized and it was only three days later, when he managed to retrieve it with some help from the Canadian Consulate, that Helen and Rob were able to flee the country. After being debriefed at ANC headquarters in London, they flew back to Canada.

But South Africa had earned a special place in the Douglas's lives, and in 1997 they returned to live in the Kalk Bay area. In the years that followed, Douglas embarked on a journey of soul searching. The violence and trauma that she had been exposed to in the struggle years had provoked many deep personal questions. Particularly, she wished to reconcile the role violence played, as a last resort, in achieving political change.

She embarked on a Masters degree in philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch, and her thesis would search for answers to that question. Strongly influenced by the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, she graduated cum laude.

It was during her studies that Douglas first came across philosophical counselling and she recognised that this was her calling. Since 2002, she has helped a wide range of clients to find meaning in their lives. Quick to point out that philosophical counsellors are not attempting to replace psychologists or psychiatrists, Douglas finds that her clients flourish in the open-minded space that she provides, uncluttered by pre-established concepts of illness and moral codes.

Many people come to her with questions in their lives, and often the proper structuring and defining of the question, by way of philosophic dialogue, leads to a path of resolution. "Getting the questions right", says Helen, "is often more important than getting the answers".

Although still in its infancy, philosophical counseling is growing more popular in Europe, North America and many Spanish-speaking countries. But it is not an easy way to make a living. The majority of the public remains ignorant that such a service is even available. Nevertheless, the barrage of information, advertising and consumerism that swamps most of our daily lives highlights the need for individuals to take time out to reflect on their lives and learn how to think clearly for themselves.

What Douglas loves about South Africa is the exciting, but difficult, phase of transition that we find ourselves in. In her spare time Helen practices Tai Chi and her philosophy, while built on solid traditional ground, also embraces aspects of Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism. Rob continues to teach at a local High School.

In addition to one-on-one discussions, Douglas hosts a monthly Philosopher's Café in Kalk Bay and has run several courses on how to improve your life through philosophy, the most recent one at UCT's Summer School. She also writes for local and international philosophical publications.

On meeting Douglas, one is immediately aware that this is no ivory-tower academic you are speaking with, but a person involved in the community at a grass-roots level. As her website quotes: "The unexamined life is not worth living". But, of equal importance, "the unlived life is not worth examining".


SA Career Focus Magazine

(April 2008) interviewed about being a philosopher:

Philosophy is indeed very difficult to define, as there are many different disciplines. Helen Douglas is a philosopher and says “The discipline of philosophy broadly involves two things: practically, you learn how to think about things; and theoretically, you study the historical development of ideas and concepts…”

Download the full article here.


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