Born in Winnipeg, Canada, 1957. Got to Vancouver in ’74, married Rob in 1980. Went to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1987 to set up a safe house for the underground anti-apartheid movement. Left rather quickly in 1990 and returned to Vancouver. Worked as a bookseller for several years. Bachelor of General Studies (Humanities), Simon Fraser University, 1997. Returned to South Africa in 1997. Received an MA in Philosophy (cum laude) at the University of Stellenbosch in 2002, with a dissertation later published as Love & Arms: Violence and Justification After Levinas (Pittsburgh: Trivium, 2011). From 2004 to 2016, I was the deputy editor of New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. I have published some poetry and prose in addition to the pieces on philosophical practice you’ll find here.
The following profile by Chris Preen appeared in the Cape Times on 24 May 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. But what is most interesting is Helen’s profession. Confronted with the usual official forms requesting a job description, she writes “philosophical counsellor”. “Or sometimes,” she says, “just ‘philosopher’”. Based in Kalk Bay, she is probably the first philosophical counsellor 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 German philosophy professor, placed a sign on his office door offering personal counselling for students, and philosophy turned back toward the mainstream.
Of course, in 1986, 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 who wouldn’t be known to the security police. So in 1987, Helen and Rob came to Johannesburg from Canada to set up a safe house. To the outside world, Rob appeared to be an ordinary high school teacher and Helen an ordinary bookseller at 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 clearly remembers the night that Mac Maharaj arrived in the small hours 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 this was, Rob 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 their 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.
Although still in its infancy, philosophical counselling 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.
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.
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. She agrees with Socrates’ comment that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. But, of equal importance, the unlived life is not worth examining.