Home Concepts Philosophical Foundations The Philosophical Influences that have Shaped Coaching

The Philosophical Influences that have Shaped Coaching

56 min read

Peter Jackson and Elaine Cox

[Note: This essay first appeared in a 2009 issue (No. One) of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations]


If the reasons why people think the way they do were transparent there would be no psychology or therapy and coaching would certainly be much less interesting. As academics, coaches, and teachers of coaching, our professional lives are shot through with an interest in people’s thinking and, in particular, that part of their thinking that remains unacknowledged or hidden. When we discuss ideas with developing practitioners in the course of our teaching, we are often struck by how philosophical theory permeates their practices even though they may not necessarily recognise these influences. We feel that a more explicit investigation of some of that history would offer a source of potential learning for practitioners and students alike.

In this article we look specifically at some of the possible roots of the thinking behind modern coaching practices. At the same time, given how diverse individual practices can be, we do not propose a mapping of the source of all modern coaching concepts to all possible precedents. Instead, in this article we draw from a sample of six key philosophical thinkers, and recognise some of their impact on coaching practices. In so doing, we hope to open the door to coaching practitioners to use the ideas, methods and concerns of philosophy to understand and develop their practice more fully. When working with students of coaching, we find that the process of formalising their own experience, finding language to describe it, theorising and synthesising different theories, and putting them back into practice creates a new level of constructive enquiry which heightens and accelerates the development of their practice. They come to know their own practice better by asking themselves where their ideas come from and whether they can be questioned or developed in a new way using different perspectives.

Let us, then, define the scope of our discussion. Philosophy could be described as the investigation of knowledge, the exploration of principles underlying knowledge (such as rationality, empiricism, logic, ethics, aesthetics) or, as in existentialist philosophy, an exploration of ‘being’ in the world. Within this broad range of the ‘content’ of philosophical thought we have chosen to focus on the problem of knowledge or epistemology. We will highlight the subtle influences on coaching of several theorists from rationalist, empiricist and pragmatic traditions. We believe that these provide the potential for fruitful reflection on practice and that they form a coherent unit of investigation.

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