Logic-Based Therapy: The New Philosophical Frontier for REBT

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.

Logic-Based Therapy (LBT), a variant of REBT which I began to develop in the mid- eighties, is a leading modality of “philosophical practice” (or “philosophical counseling”). Like psychological practice, philosophical practice aims at helping clients address their behavioral and emotional problems. In contrast, its practitioners typically stress philosophical methods and theories above mainstream psychological ones.

This paper outlines some of the main philosophical tenets of LBT.

Philosophical therapy is logical therapy—it helps clients identify, repair and overcome their bad logic.

What makes a theory “philosophical” rather than “psychological” is a persistent question in the literature of philosophical practice.[1] According to LBT, a theory is philosophical insofar as, in helping clients overcome their behavioral and emotional problems, it examines the reasoning rather than the causes underlying these problems.

To illustrate the difference, suppose John sees a 2007 BMW red convertible, top down, keys in ignition, parked on a city block and then jumps in and steals it.

Why did John heist the BMW? This is an important question if John’s problematic behavior is to be addressed. But notice that this “Why?” is equivocal. In one sense it could be construed as asking for an explanation. For example:

(E) John had low frustration tolerance and poor impulse control.

In a different sense, it could be asking for a reason or rationale for John’s action:

(R) The car was a flashy, brand new BMW—exactly what John always wanted and probably would never be able to afford.

Whereas (E) gives a causal explanation, (R) gives John’s rationale or (perceived) justification for stealing the car. In responding to (R), it would make sense to say “That was a bad reason for stealing the car. Didn’t he know that he would get caught and be sent to jail?” However, this response would be illogical as a response to (E). This is because (E) is not attempting to justify anything; rather it is attempting to explain John’s action.

Now, psychological approaches have classically taken a causal, explanatory approach. These approaches look for the underlying causal laws that generate clients’ behavioral and emotional problems. To the extent that REBT looks for the underlying causal laws of human emotions and behavior, it is psychological. The terminology of the so-called “ABC Theory” of REBT largely reflects a causal, explanatory approach—“activating event,” “beliefs,” “behavioral and emotional consequences.” According to this theory, certain activating events together with certain beliefs (especially, absolutistic “shoulds” or “musts”) cause certain behavioral and emotional consequences.

On the other hand, because REBT attempts to dispute and correct clients’ irrational beliefs, and to provide them with the tools to do so, it is a philosophical approach. It is also philosophical in the sense that it starts with the ancient Stoic principle that it is not the events in people’s lives that upset them but rather the way they think about these events. However, when REBT applies this philosophical doctrine in terms of the ABC theory, it takes a psychological, rather than a philosophical approach—it looks for the cause of some behavioral and emotional consequence (effect).

In contrast, while LBT starts with the same Stoic doctrine as REBT, it also takes a philosophical approach in applying it. Instead of speaking in the causal language of activating events, beliefs, and consequences, it uses the language of reasoning or logic—premises, conclusions, and logical deduction. When this deductive translation is made, logical methodologies for constructing clients’ arguments pinpointing their irrational premises, and assessing validity and soundness of their arguments can be freely developed and applied to REBT.[2]

People deduce their behavioral and emotional problems from irrational premises in their practical reasoning.

According to LBT people disturb themselves by deducing self-disturbing conclusions from irrational premises. They reason themselves into a corner, and then self-defeatingly keep themselves there by persisting in their destructive lines of reasoning.

Aristotle was the first to carefully articulate the mechanism by which people deduce self-destructive actions and emotions from irrational premises. He identified a form of reasoning he called “practical syllogism.” This form of reasoning had as its conclusion an action or an emotion. When at least one of the premises of such practical reasoning was fallacious (contained a fallacy), a person could deduce destructive emotions or behavior from it. Stated Aristotle,

Outbursts of anger and sexual appetites and some other such passions, it is evident, actually alter our bodily condition, and in some men even produce fits of madness [irrational behavior]….It turns out that a man behaves incontinently [has such outbursts of emotion] under the influence (in a sense) of a rule and an opinion.[3]

As Aristotle indicated, there are two premises in the practical syllogism—a “rule” and an “opinion.” The first—a rule—is a universal, prescriptive premise—that is, it prescribes how to act or feel whenever certain situations or conditions arise. The second—an opinion—files a descriptive report (factual claim) under the given rule.

Following Aristotle, LBT recasts REBT in terms of the practical syllogism. For example, in helping John address his problematic behavior, LBT would help him see the premises—rule and report—from which he deduced his self-destructive conclusion—the act of stealing the BMW.

An LBT analysis of John’s reasoning might accordingly look like this:

Rule: If I want something badly enough, then I can’t stand to be without it and must have it immediately.

Report: I want that BMW so, so much—it’s got everything I’ve ever wanted.

Conclusion: My (act of) stealing—or attempting to steal—that BMW.

In the above inference, the conclusion is an action; however practical syllogisms can also have emotions as their conclusions. Thus, in the case at hand, John might have deduced global anger from a different rule. For example, he might have accepted a rule of global damnation such as “If rich people can have what I want and don’t have, then the world is a rotten, unfair place and I must not stand for it.” from which he might have deduced anger at the world.

According to LBT, an emotion is an amalgamation of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological changes.[4] Thus, the latter anger would include certain cognitive changes such as concluding, “The world is a rotten, unfair place and I must not stand for it”; certain physiologic changes (increased respiration, heart rate, and endocrine activity associated with “fight or flight”);[5] and certain behavioral changes such as vandalizing the car.

People ordinarily suppress their irrational ideas; they don’t repress them.

According to LBT, when people deduce their problematic behavioral and emotional conclusions, they do not explicitly think all the premises of their practical reasoning. Very often, people file the report but merely assume the rule. So, before heisting the BMW, John might expressly say to himself, “Wow, that’s an automobile! It’s just what I always wanted and more!” However, the rule which validates the inference to the action is suppressed, that is assumed and not explicitly formulated. But it is precisely this rule that prescribes the content of the behavioral and emotional conclusion.

Contrary to Freud, LBT holds that many—if not most—of our destructive, self-defeating thoughts are suppressed, not repressed—hidden somewhere in the unconsciousness pit.[6] One key difference between a suppressed premise and a repressed thought is that when the latter is suggested to a client, the client typically strongly denies it. Whereas when a suppressed premise is suggested to a client, the client strongly affirms it and in fact takes it as self-evident.[7] So, far from denying it, John would agree that he had an irresistible impulse to possess that BMW and couldn’t help himself when he heisted it.

The major fallacies that infect the premises of people’s practical reasoning can be identified and cataloged.

The “can’t” in John’s rule is clearly fallacious. John is assuming that if he finds something difficult or challenging (in this case, foregoing the BMW), then it must be beyond his capacity to tolerate and that he therefore cannot and must not ever hope to tolerate it. According to LBT, it is in this manner that people commit fallacies. A fallacy is “a way of thinking or reasoning that has a proven track record of frustrating personal and interpersonal happiness.”[8] LBT holds that these fallacies infect the premises of people’s practical reasoning and lead them to deduce horseshit.

LBT provides a catalog of fallacies occurring in people’s practical reasoning. Here is a list of ten of the most commonplace and dangerous fallacies:

Fallacies of Behavioral and Emotional Rules

  1. Demanding Perfection: Perfect-a-holic addiction to what you can’t have in an imperfect universe.
  2. Awfulizing: Reasoning from bad to worst.
  3. Damnation: Shit-ification of self, others, and the universe.
  4. Jumping on the Bandwagon: Blind, inauthentic, anti-democratic and parrot-like conformity.
  5. Can’tstipation: Obstructing your creative potential by holding in and refusing to excrete your emotional, behavioral, or volitional can’t.
  6. Thou Shalt Upset Yourself: Dutifully and obsessively disturbing yourself and significant others.
  7. Manipulation: Bullying, Bullshitting, or Well-Poisoning to get what you want.
  8. The World-Revolves-Around-Me Thinking: Setting yourself up as the reality guru.

Fallacies of Reporting

  1. Oversimplifying Reality: Pigeon-holing reality or prejudging and stereotyping individuals.
  2. Jumping to Conclusions: Reasoning from shoddy evidence to conclusions about the material world.

The first eight of these fallacies—“Fallacies of Behavioral and Emotional Rules”— typically occur in rule-premises of practical syllogisms whereas the last two—“fallacies of reporting”—typically occur in the report filed under a rule. Regarding fallacies of reporting, there are several different types of fallacies associated with “jumping to conclusions.” This group includes the so-called “inductive fallacies” such as overgeneralizing, assuming the cause, and unsupported explanation.[9]

Fallacies go to extremes while rational thinking follows the Aristotelian “Golden Mean”

Notice how all of the above fallacies involve extremes. For example, in demanding perfection you go to one extreme, while in awfulizing you go to the other. However, as Aristotle made clear, reality typically lies somewhere in the middle. Things aren’t perfect nor should people expect them to be. Nor are they 100% bad. Rather, reality tends to be a mixed bag of good and bad. In this way, LBT stresses realistic, empirical, anti-fanatical, anti-absolutistic thinking as an antidote to fallacious thinking.

Fallacious premises can and should be exposed through philosophical methods of refutation.

Like REBT, LBT stresses logical refutation of extreme, fallacious thinking. In this way, it helps clients perceive the fallacies in what they otherwise would have taken for granted. For example, LBT shows clients how world-revolves-around-me thinking leads to inconsistency in the form of a double standard. It demonstrates the absurdity of equating having failed with being a failure since that would make everyone a failure. It shows how demanding perfection is unrealistic since perfection is anti-empirical and false to fact. It shows clients how, in denying the capacity to control their own actions and emotions (can’tstippation), they relinquish personal freedom and responsibility, dehumanize themselves, and turn themselves into robots.

Philosophical Theories can be used to construct potent antidotes to people’s fallacious reasoning.

LBT is constructivist and offers clients a diverse number of philosophical antidotes from which to choose in overcoming their irrational thinking. LBT does not dictate to clients which antidotes to apply but instead allows them to embrace ones that are compatible with their individual world views. For example, for a religious client who demands perfection, bibliotherapy might involve reading St. Thomas who carefully demonstrates that human beings in relation to God are “imperfect imprints of the divine light.” On the other hand, a secularly inclined client who jumps blindly on the societal bandwagon might be assigned a reading of John Stuart Mill’s powerful defense of individuality as developed in his essay On Liberty.

Selection of bibliotherapy would obviously be guided by the specific problem a client is having and the appropriateness of the philosophical theory in question for treating it. For example, for victims of domestic violence who acquiesce in a cycle of self-defeating wishful thinking, I have sometimes assigned selections from Mill’s essay on the “Subjection of Women.”[10] Similarly, I have sometimes used Sartre’s idea that human beings are “condemned to be free” in working with can’tstippated clients.[11]

LBT shows clients how classical philosophical theories can provide potent antidotes to self-stultifying fallacious thinking. It holds that these theories can be incredibly valuable not only in helping clients to overcome their fallacious thinking, but—what is more—in helping them to aspire to the higher reaches of human capacity—for instance, becoming courage, self-assured, respectful, creative, and other-regarding. As such, these theories can be a bountiful fountain of alternative rules for attaining an enduring happiness.

For example, Sartre’s existential philosophy could be useful in redirecting John’s reasoning in a rational direction, one that keeps him from committing a regrettable crime. Sartre states,

the existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion.[12]

Using Sartre’s philosophy, John could be afforded a constructive rational antidote to his deduction of a criminal act:

Rule: You shouldn’t make excuses for succumbing to an irrational passion.

Report: Telling myself that I can’t stand to be without that car is just an excuse I am using to hide my freedom and responsibility.

Conclusion: Acceptance of my freedom and responsibility by not heisting the car.

Here, John would be constructing an antidotal practical syllogism that could counter his irrational syllogism. The shouldn’t of this rational syllogism could counter the irrational should that prescribed stealing the car.

Rational shoulds (and shouldn’ts) are open to refutation while irrational ones are not.

As such, LBT distinguishes between rational shoulds (and shouldn’t) and irrational ones. Irrational shoulds are dogmatically held as unconditional, irrefutable (self-evident) commands and mind sets. For example, for John his irrational rule—“If I want something badly enough, then I can’t stand to be without it, and must have it immediately”—was a self-evident assumption beyond questioning. On the other hand, a rational, antidotal should is no sacred cow. It is held reflectively and with an open mind. It is accepted only to the extent it that it has survived a careful process of refutation; and even then it remains open to the possibility of refutation. Nor is it to be used as a pretext for self-deprecation. For example, John should realize that, while he shouldn’t ordinarily make excuses for succumbing to an irrational passion, this does not mean that he is a worthless person if he does succumb. It is this philosophical open-mindedness that distinguishes rational shoulding (and shouldn’ting) from the dogmatic, anti-philosophical kind.

People can overcome cognitive dissonance by flexing their willpower muscles.

According to LBT when people counter irrational practical syllogisms with rational antidotal reasoning, a state of cognitive dissonance arises. This is a state where a client intellectually perceives the irrationality of her syllogism but is still inclined to deduce its destructive conclusion. For example, despite the fact that John may now see that he shouldn’t succumb to his blind passion to steal the BMW by making deterministic excuses for himself, he may still be inclined to steal the car.

In overcoming the inertia of cognitive dissonance between rational and irrational syllogisms, LBT stresses the cultivation of willpower. Following philosopher Aristoteles Santas,[13] it construes willpower as a muscle that can be strengthened by repeatedly flexing it. Just as a body builder cannot bench press large amounts without building up to it, people can develop their willpower muscle through incremental practice.

Behavioral assignments can be made to help strengthen willpower.

Accordingly, LBT prescribes homework assignments in which clients are asked to practice (“flex”) their willpower muscles. Like the body builder, it is easier to start light and then build up to “heavier” loads. For example, a client who is working on anger control could work on not yelling at the ticket taker at the toll both (say for moving too slowly) before working up to more challenging feats such as not yelling at his aggressive teenage son.

LBT is the new philosophical frontier of REBT

LBT makes a dynamic contribution to REBT by spreading its philosophical wings. It does this by abandoning the classical psychological commitment to finding the underlying causes of clients’ behavioral and emotional problems. Instead, it locates the etiology of these problems squarely inside the logical framework of deductions from fallacious premises—rules and reports. In overcoming these fallacies, it further enlists the vast body of classical philosophy for use as potent antidotes. LBT is therefore a dynamic, flexible, constructivist variant of REBT. True to REBT’s roots in philosophy, it is a thoroughgoing philosophical development of this profoundly useful therapy.

[1] See, for example, International Journal of Philosophical Practice on line at www.aspcp.org.

[2] See Elliot D. Cohen, “Syllogizing RET: Applying formal logic in Rational-Emotive Therapy,” Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. Vol. 10. No. 4 (1992); Elliot D. Cohen, What Would Aristotle Do? Self-Control through the Power of Reason (Amhert, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), especially Ch. 8.

[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, in the Basic Works of Aristotle, Ed., Richard McKeon, (New York: Random House, 1941), Book 7, Ch. 3, p. 1041. My italics.

[4] Elliot D. Cohen, “Philosophical Counseling: Some Roles of Critical Thinking,” in Ran Lahav & Maria Tillmanns, Eds., Essays on Philosophical Counseling (New York: University Presses of America, 1995).

[5]It is sometimes contended that such physiological aspects of emotion are caused by beliefs rather than logically deduced from premises. See, for example, Donald Robertson, “REBT, Philosophy, and Philosophical Counseling,” in Practical Philosophy: The Journal of the Society for Philosophy in Practice, Vol. 3.3 (November 2000) http://members.aol.com/PracticalPhilo/Volume3Articles/REBT.htm However, LBT does not deny that there are causal relations between cognitive and physiological changes. It allows that bodily changes can be caused by what is deduced from premises. Thus, from premises A and B, John might deduce C, which, in turn, causes visceral changes in him. Notice, however, even on this understanding, these changes depend on John’s inference from premises, and is therefore an outcome of his reasoning.

[6] Following Aristotle, logicians typically refer to syllogisms with suppressed premises as “enthymemes.”

[7] Elliot D. Cohen, “Philosophical Principle of Logic-Based Therapy,” Practical Philosophy: The Journal of the Society for Philosophy in Practice, Vol. 6.1 (Spring 2003).

[8] Cohen, What Would Aristotle Do?

[9] Cohen, What Would Aristotle Do?

[10] Elliot D. Cohen, “The Philosopher as Counselor,” in Elliot D. Cohen, Ed., Philosophers at Work: Issues and Practice of Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 457-466.

[11] Sartre, “Existentialism,” in Cohen, Ed., Philosophers at Work, 444-449.

[12] Sartre, “Existentialism,” in Cohen, Ed., Philosophers at Work, p. 446.

[13] Aristotelis Santas, “Willpower,” International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol 4, No. 2 (Fall 1988), p. 9.

About the Author

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D. Principal founder of philosophical counseling in the United States. Co-founder and Executive Director of the Society for Philosophy, Counseling, and Psychotherapy. Ethics Editor for Free Inquiry. Editor-In-Chief and founder of International Journal of Applied Philosophy and International Journal of Philosophical Practice.


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