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The Importance Of Philosophy:

An Introductory Address To Students, Educators, And Practitioners

Cathy OíKeefe, M.Ed., CTRS
University of South Alabama,
Dept. of HPELS, Mobile, AL 36688
Phone: (251)-460-7131

A wise person once told me that the study of philosophy is much like the process of creating a painting in that it reflects the artist's perspective of the subject from the ground on which he or she stands. This "figure/ground" relationship, well known to me as an undergraduate art student in the late sixties, helped me see in later years that I must expect change in my perceptions of truth and wisdom as the ground upon which I stood, personally and professionally, changed.

Students, educators, and practitioners in therapeutic recreation operate from a set of assumptions influenced by their academic preparation, experience in the field, and personal values and beliefs. We know that developmental influences over one's lifetime enter into the picture as well, creating a range of experiences that shape the process of learning and growth. These assumptions must be continually reflected upon over time so the individual, like the painter, maintains a sound perspective on practice, the needs of clients, and professional conduct. Philosophy, then, becomes a navigational tool, the pencil held at arm's length, against which the individual, like the painter, measures the subject before him and renders it with care, accuracy, and vision.

Words can create problems! Any of you who witnessed the struggle in recent years simply over the terms therapeutic recreation and recreation(al) therapy know how terms take on a life of their own. Historical circumstances generate attitudes and perceptions that attach themselves to terms over time, leaving a trail of cognitive and affective associations that are incredibly powerful. I have learned that even philosophers are not immune to this difficulty and have trouble reaching consensus on a definition of philosophy. Additionally, philosophy carries, as a discipline, millennia of linguistic and conceptual changes not to mention cultural, political, social, and religious influences. I pass along the best advice of my own professors in philosophy in urging you to continually clarify your terms, remembering how laden they can become with associative meanings. You must also honor the feelings of your colleagues and clients while asserting your right to the same respect. In this paper, philosophy, literally "a love of wisdom," implies thoughtful examination of concepts, principles, values and practice that are both normative and consistent with personal experience. From a philosophical foundation, dogma, set structures of beliefs, may emerge, but the two are not the same. Philosophy demands a willingness to continually reflect and transform ourselves, to be open to new ways of thinking, at least, and an outright change of heart (the Greeks call it metanoia), at most.

My purpose in writing this introductory article for The Philosophy of Therapeutic Recreation, Volume II, is to draw you into the subject of philosophy thoughtfully and with confidence. Exploring philosophies of therapeutic recreation should be more than an intellectual exercise done in a classroom to prepare students for a few exam questions. It should extend beyond an occasional session at association conferences where we dutifully gather to earn our continuing education units. It should take us past the reading of articles in the Therapeutic Recreation Journal or ATRA Annual to writings in the humanities, science, and the arts.

My choice of writing style for this article is purposely conversational. Philosophy can sometimes intimidate people with terminology that is difficult to understand and concepts that are abstract. I want to invite you, through my own example, to personalize philosophy, reflect on your experiences, and seek new learning with confidence. Hopefully, the articles in this collection will contribute to your growth and provide food for thought in the years to come.

Students are often asked to write a personal philosophy of therapeutic recreation as part of their academic course work. The exercise requires them to evaluate some of the major written works in the field and synthesize their views with lecture and discussion material. The outcome should be a well developed and written justification of the student's own belief about the meaning and value of therapeutic recreation. If done properly, the assignment can become more than an academic exercise. I recommend to both students and educators that it be regarded with great respect and given the preparation and attention that elevates it to more than a few test questions, just as one's personal journal is more than an exercise in composition.

Writing one's philosophy of therapeutic recreation might be more meaningful if it grew out of an extended effort over several courses and field experiences. Ultimately, students would create a series of reflections that would reveal changes in perspective over time. Like the artist who completes a number of renderings of his subject from a variety of points in a room, the student is able, during a number of months or years, to develop a richer, more meaningful, and probably more accurate framework of philosophical thinking. I suggest that this process of reflection over time would be made even more meaningful by the inclusion of educators, practitioners, and individuals who have received therapeutic recreation services in honest dialogue. It seems a duty as well as a privilege, in my view, to test one's own perceptions against those of others who have an equal interest in the integrity of our service.

As students move beyond graduation to the professional arena, our own Code of Ethics serves as a reminder of the importance of diligence and fidelity in continuing the process started in school. Philosophy, after all, will be viewed and remodeled again and again as the years provide a more solid foundation and keener perspective on the bigger picture. There may be times when one's philosophy is expressed best in ideals, "conceptions of perfect states of affairs that we think should exist, but which may exist only in our thoughts" (Cooper, 1993, p. 7). Situations at other times might invoke an urgency to make our ideals practical by applying them to an ethical dilemma or organizational problem. In any case, philosophy springs from foundational principles that must be understood and articulated clearly.

Where to Begin

I would like to suggest first, that educators recognize three critical student needs: (1) the need to understand what philosophy involves and what process is required to actually develop a philosophy; (2) the need for guidance in finding writings that nurture thinking, foster understanding, and challenge assumptions; and (3) the need for frequent dialogue over the entire course of study with other students, educators, practitioners, and clients about the meaning of the service of therapeutic recreation to those who live it. That is a big order, but I can think of nothing in the long run that will better prepare students to face the questions that I hear everyday: "How do I explain my field to my family and friends? How do I know if I will fit into an agency's corporate culture? What will I say to clients when they ask me how therapeutic recreation will help them?"

Understanding Philosophy

I was convinced early in life of the importance of philosophy by the people who taught me. My educational formation took place in the sixties and early seventies under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore and the Jesuits in the South. I was forced to critically examine major social, political, and moral issues to understand the imperative to become a person of conviction and thoughtful action. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the moral upheavals of the seventies, and social conditions of poverty, insufficient health care, and isolation impacted me. I saw peers searching for or locked into ideologies but without the philosophical ground in which to root them.

When I began to teach as a graduate assistant at the ripe old age of twenty-three, I found that my students, many of whom were my own age, had never taken a philosophy course and did not understand why philosophy was anything more than an elective they'd rather avoid. When discussion about ethics was raised, most could not see that ethical decision-making springs from a personal philosophy that is well thought out and committed to principles of justice, honesty, fidelity, and respect. The adage, "You can't be what you don't see" is true in the educational setting. Unless students see philosophy expressed and lived by teachers and practitioners, it will be overlooked as a value altogether.

I recently returned to Mercy High School in Baltimore, my alma mater, to deliver the commencement address. I ran into my former French teacher and reminded her about her charge to us as seniors to read the works of Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre on existentialism. We had to write, in French, an explanation of their philosophies with comparisons to others we studied, including Christian philosophers. We laughed at the heaviness of the assignment for seventeen year olds, but I look back gratefully for being encouraged to at least make the attempt to think philosophically at that age.

Reading the philosophical writings of others can be heavy stuff. My students tell me that they sometimes have to read an article two or three times to understand the language and meaning of some writings. Don't be intimidated by vocabulary or the complexity of the phrasing. Students should ask professors for help with the terminology of philosophical discourse. The long history of philosophy as a discipline has created a unique body of terms that draw from a variety of languages, cultural, ethnic and religious traditions. I prefer to see each new word I encounter as a window to some past place and time where people just like us have tried to answer the same basic questions about the meaning of life, joy, suffering, courage, perseverance, spirituality, peace, and death.

I recommend an experiential and multi-disciplinary approach to philosophy. I encourage my students to start where they are in life and examine sources that already relate to their values. I ask them, through a values clarification exercise, to write a credo, a listing of statements that begin with the phrase "I believe..." and articulate their convictions about life in general, its value, and the meaning of human relationships. Next, I try to generate excitement about the sources that are available to begin their quest. I remind them that Plato said it is the job of teachers to introduce students to the best possible circle of friends. Living or dead, once the philosophies of others are articulated to students in a way that is clear and relevant, the relationship between the student and the philosopher becomes intimate and alive. In a society that is moving away from the printed word, we must become more committed to reading.

David Cooper, a modern philosopher specializing in applied ethics, social and political philosophy, likes to show his students a film called "The Death of Socrates" from an old CBS TV series called "You Are There." Actors play the roles of classical philosophers dialoguing with present day reporters. In this film, Socrates and his friends engage in philosophical discussion just prior to his execution. Cooper shows the film "so that students can see for themselves how inspiring a person's life can become when it is governed by a sophisticated philosophical theory" (Cooper, 1993, p. 2). Charles Sylvester shows his students the film "Awakenings" and follows with discussion that invites them to examine all the levels at which awakenings are occurring among staff as well as patients in a mental hospital where encephalitic clients emerge after years from a catatonic-like stupor. I have encouraged my students to watch video tapes by the cross cultural author Joseph Campbell, and I have read to them from Joseph Pieper's Leisure, The Basis of Culture and Paul Haun's Recreation: A Medical Viewpoint. I have learned that philosophy can be found even in sports, as one of my most well received short videos comes from a speech by Jim Valvano on his philosophy of life, given as he was dying of cancer. Ultimately, we must become better observers of our world, past and present, and whatever media help with the process should be used.

I recently recommended to my students that they allow computer technology to help them. I encourage you to get one disc that you can keep over a period of years to store any quotes, summaries from and reactions to what you read. Anytime you come across words that seem important to you, record them and the source. Read from philosophy, theology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, world literature, politics, or other disciplines that give you a well rounded view of life. My favorite authors are those who dig through a multitude of diverse sources and give you the best of what they have found. Above all, read!

I also suggest that you compile a file of articles from our own field that relate to philosophy. You won't have to look far, as our sources are consolidated in a few journals and books. Some authors in therapeutic recreation are particular devotees of philosophy, and you will find their names repeatedly on articles relating to the topic. Sylvester, Mobily, Fain, Hemingway, Hunnicutt, Lahey, Halberg, Shank, Howe-Murphy and others will make contributions time and again in their efforts to educate our field about the relevance of philosophy.

Look for stories. Joseph Campbell noted that we have lost our connectedness as a society to stories that he calls, "the literature of the spirit." Philosophy is often better understood when framed in stories. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to news bites and the reduction of experiences to quick columns of print that we resist the hard work associated with seeking those values that have to do with the centering of our lives.

Tragically, we carry this over to our practice of therapeutic recreation. What our clients really want us to know, and deserve to have us hear, is their stories. By knowing their stories we come to know their hearts and spirits, the source of their motivation and actions, their philosophies of life. Yet our assessments give little room for story and, at their worst, reduce our clients' lives to Likert scales, check sheets, and Ttests. I often tell my students that unless we are willing to invest in the stories of our clients and know the wisdom from which their actions spring, we cannot truly understand what they need and, therefore, will surely err in treating them with the individual dignity each deserves. You see, knowing your own philosophy is only part of the picture. You must also be in touch with the context in which your clients frame the meaning of their lives to understand their motivation and to anticipate how they can be aided by your service. Some of the most compelling philosophy is contained in the stories that many of us already know: the parables of the

Christian scriptures, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures and the Talmud, the Platonic dialogues, the wonderful stories of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the writings of Islam, and the reflections of humanist thinkers. We and our clients live in the same world, influenced by similar traditions and philosophies, and it is essential to honor and draw from the wisdom that each of our clients uses to interpret the experiences of his or her life.

Unfortunately, the classical philosophers and writers of European civilizations have been lost to many of us today. This is especially problematic in educational settings. T.S. Eliott (1940) noted that there was a very high level of intelligence in American universities but "progress was impeded by the fact that one could never assume that any two individuals, unless they had been at the same school under the influence of the same master at the same moment, had studied the same subjects or read the same books" (Eliott, p. 33). He contended that understanding and beneficial discourse among educated persons was impeded by the lack of common background in academic formation. What this means for all of us in therapeutic recreation is that we are inhibited in our dialogue about our field by the lack of common philosophical preparation as students. If one student from each program in therapeutic recreation across this continent were to assemble together, I suggest that it would be difficult to discuss philosophical issues related to the field because of the lack of consistency of reading and discussion that has occurred across campuses. If advocating the good life for our clients is our purpose, and acting virtuously as professionals is our goal, we must, as students of life in general, be committed to learning what others have said about virtue, wisdom, and the good life.

I find that my students who understand this have very little trouble when ethics is introduced in my courses because they have learned that making ethical decisions is most easily accomplished when action springs from an ethical life. A philosophy that is expressed in work for legislative and social change beneficial to those we serve, and advocacy for social equality, comes from a desire to use wisdom to advance the good life for everyone. This kind of life indicates that therapeutic recreation is more than a career. It is a vocation in the truest sense of that word, for it is a calling to live what one believes.

A personal example of my own philosophy may be helpful here. When I read John Hemingway's article, "Building a Philosophical Defense of Therapeutic Recreation: The Case of Distributive Justice," in the first volume of Philosophy of Therapeutic Recreation, I agreed wholeheartedly with his defense of the value of a philosophy that espouses a just society for all. It made me think of my own reasons for my commitment to social justice which are largely rooted in the beatitudes and the invitation to love God in my neighbor. While my Judeo-Christian education taught me that love is an ultimate end, I understood and appreciated Hemingway's more humanistic and pragmatic approach that by elevating the quality of life of those who struggle with less, the quality of life of the society as a whole is better. Later, in the same book, I read Roxanne Howe-Murphy and James Murphy's piece on New Age consciousness and was again challenged to stop and examine my Christian consciousness and how it frames my own views on therapeutic recreation practice. Consequently, I began to write and speak about the affect that my faith, the faith of my clients, and the faith of their support systems (family, friends, and community) have on my philosophy of therapeutic recreation, and I have gained enormously from dialoguing about this with others.

One other article from this same publication really moved me. It was an autobiographical piece by Warren Johnson about the importance of wisdom, fun, and health in the face of a fatal disease. Had I met Warren Johnson years ago when he was a patient, I admit that I probably would have done him a great disservice by assessing his needs in our traditional, clinical way. But had I asked for his story, I would have gained a window to the real man behind the disfigurement of scleroderma, a man who really understood the value of recreation as a healing experience. I urge all of you to read his story.

Becoming a Community of Philosophers

Because I have lived and taught in the same place for over twenty years, I am privileged to remain in contact with many of my former students. When I see them our conversation often comes around to what each has gradually embraced about the meaning of therapeutic recreation and the philosophy of practice that has developed over years of experience and continued learning. Many will comment that as new graduates it would have been difficult to articulate a personal philosophy to undergird their fledgling careers, but as time passed, a way of seeing the field and its gifts emerged from a variety of sources. Sometimes an ethical dilemma forces practitioners to stop, think through, and formulate the purpose of therapeutic recreation for an individual client or for a program within an agency. Once, a student called me to say that she was on the verge of quitting because her administrator had established a monthly quota of generated fees for service from each therapist. It did not take long for her to come in conflict with a profit based philosophy of treatment. When she questioned the appropriateness of taking certain clients on an outing, she was told that outings were an excellent way to generate large amounts of charges and were, therefore, to be used as frequently as possible. In the wake of its effort to produce profits, the agency was losing sight of its ethical obligation to clients. As health care reform lends to experimentation with new configurations of service delivery, I believe that you will be faced with similar experiences and challenges to your own philosophy of practice.

Ignorance is not bliss! I sometimes get letters or calls from students who finally leave an agency because they believe in retrospect that they have affirmed unethical approaches to patient care inadvertently by failing to speak up early on. Some have said, "I didn't realize at first what was happening. I was so new and inexperienced at practice that I allowed myself to be influenced by the actions of others that I knew intuitively were not in the best interests of the clients. Only as time went on did I realize that I had to take a stand for what I knew was just and right." That kind of personal evaluation of one's surroundings, the philosophy of an agency as it is practiced, not stated in some slick brochure or policy manual, requires wisdom and knowledge about a host of variables that interface to pose a challenge to you. I can tell you from experience that learning about philosophy during academic preparation and finding out its value in creating your own constructs and convictions will serve you well when you are faced with difficult questions about the meaning of your work.

I encourage educators in our field to bring practitioners into your classrooms and to create dialogue about philosophy in action. It is imperative that students have the opportunity to hear how philosophy is played out in everyday actions before they seek jobs on their own. In today's world of health care delivery, ethical issues will arise frequently that challenge us to interpret and act on our own philosophies of practice. Two situations that I have recently encountered are not uncommon. In long term care, for example, nursing homes are establishing in-house ethics committees made up of staff and patients or their advocates/family members. Policies and procedures for making decisions regarding a variety of quality of life issues are established by this committee, and when individual cases present difficult situations, the group attempts to arrive at a course of action that is ethical and sound. You may be asked to serve on a committee that decides when patients will be moved to other facilities, when treatment will be withheld, or how scarce resources will be best used to meet patient needs (Ross, Glaser, Rasinski-Gregory, Gibson, and Bayley, 1993). You must be ready to contribute meaningfully to discussions about the importance of giving attention to patients who may seem unable to benefit from your presence. You must be ready to justify community reintegration activities in the face of objections raised by liability conscious administrators. You must clearly understand the value of your service as competing interests vie for priority.

Most recently, I have become greatly concerned about the rush to licensure that I see occuring in some areas of the country. Ethically I believe that any action should be preceded by an intense period of study and reflection. All of us share an obligation to participate, but the effort should be led by a committed and impartial group, preferably jointly represented by members of the American Therapeutic Recreation Association, the National Therapeutic Recreation Society, and the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. This is truly a community issue with a great potential impact on practitioners, educators, students and, most of all, those we serve. Our association leadership really has a challenge ahead as we face the uncertainty of health care reform. My own philosophical commitment leads me to suspect that the rush to licensure springs from a desire to carve out a territory for our practice, a legal protection for us more than for our clients. I am very open to hearing well developed arguments in favor of licensure, but I have seen none, only a frenzy of activity based on fear that if we don't act, some other discipline will take from us our right to practice.

Of all the things that a thoughtful study of philosophy can do for us, the most important is to create a sound interior confidence. Then, the strength of individuals can be joined under associational umbrellas to create a collective of ethically thinking, virtuously acting professionals. I would predict that in an environment such as this, licensure would not be our choice.

The issue, however, reminds me of five foundational principles outlined by Cooper (1993) that provide options for our choice of philosophy. They are:

(1) Ethical Egoism: Everyone ought to act so as to promote their own best interest.

(2) Utilitarianism: Everyone ought to act so as to promote the greatest amount of happiness for everyone.

(3) Natural Rights Theory: Everyone ought to act in accordance with everyone's inalienable, indefeasible, natural rights.

(4) Social Contract Theory: Everyone ought to act in accordance with the principles of justice that would be chosen by free and equal rational people who come together to form a social contract.

(5) Duty Ethics: Everyone ought to always treat people as ends unto themselves and never use them as a means only (p. 23).

While I invite you to examine these when you consciously create your philosophy of practice, I find them ineffective without a commitment to virtue. Aristotle framed the value of virtue so well, and my own Christian background made it part of my very soul. Virtue helps us live as we "ought to." And a sense of right virtue keeps us from extreme action since it is tempered with wisdom and respect for persons and situations. I strongly encourage you read what you can on "virtue ethics" rooted in Aristotle and made popular today by a number of authors.

Conclusion While we do not have to become specialists, we should all strive to be philosophers in the sense that we are open to the wonder, doubt, and thoughtfulness that accompanies the search for wisdom and truth. Carl Jung believed that making meaning of life's experiences was in itself therapeutic. Discovering and developing one's philosophy of life and professional practice makes meaning of our own experiences. I believe that it also nurtures us to be better human beings and partners with clients in their journeys to healthy living. For twenty years I have admired and been influenced by an international movement called L'Arche (The Ark), where able bodied and developmentally disabled adults live together in community. L'Arche has helped me to appreciate the great paradox that exists when, in the act of serving and helping persons with disabilities develop their potential, we caregivers find our own. Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, believes that we are all "handicapped," and a philosophy that recognizes the mutual nature of healing and growth is most healthy (Vanier, 1995.)

I encourage you to view the journey towards your own philosophy of therapeutic recreation as one of the most important in your life. Surely it will intertwine with your personal life, and I expect that, if done with thoughtful reflection, will make it richer and more meaningful than you could dream. Still the would-be artist after all these years, I see my own journey as a tapestry of woven thread creating a picture of who I really am. In the end, whether helping clients find their source of meaning, or finding our own in the process, there is no more wonderful mystery than that which happens when, as students, teachers, practitioners, and clients, we make that journey together.


Cooper, David. (1993). Value Pluralism and Ethical Choice. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Eliot, T.S. (1940). Christianity and Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc.

Ross, Judith Wilson, Glaser, John W., Rasinski-Gregory, Dorothy, Gibson, Joan McIver, and Bayley, Corrine. (1993). Health Care Ethics Committees: The Next Generation. Chicago: American Hospital Association Co.

Vanier, Jean. (1995). The Heart of L'Arche. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co.

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