Plutarch's Table

Philosophy as Self-Help: Response to Alain de Botton

January 11, 2011

I just read an interesting piece by Alain de Botton on the BBC, on the much-discussed topic of the value of the humanities.  His claim that academics ought to be doing a better job of explaining why they matter seems right, and echoes what I have previously said.  Of course many academics are now, at this point of crisis, doing just that (see, for example, Martha Nussbaum’s recent book “Not For Profit”), but de Botton’s central point seems to actually be that they don’t teach as though the humanities are relevant for anything outside of academia itself.  Although I agree that philosophy can and should be applied to “the problematic areas in people’s lives”, I also think that if this kind of direct application were all that philosophy did, then philosophy would no longer have much to bring.

The difference between philosophy and self-help is enormous, and I remember attending a class on contemporary continental philosophy where a lecturer was offering what I called the self-help version of Nietzsche and Heidegger – which to me meant the absolutely unphilosophical version.  Instead of challenging students’ familiar views of the world by making them grapple with ideas that required real mental struggle and highly theoretical exercises, this instructor was translating the texts into the kinds of formulas for personal fulfillment in which the self-help genre specializes.  If Nietzsche can be reduced to  “reject mediocrity!” and Heidegger to “live as though every day were your last!” then philosophy is dead, because philosophy is exactly that which exhorts us to live without formulas and using the creative and responsive power of our own minds.

I am not in the habit these days of defending the ivory tower and my doing so would surprise the students that I have taught, because I am always working to get them to see the real-world relevance of what they are studying.  But I need to emphasize this in the classes I teach, I think, because I see myself as working against an academic culture that de Botton rightly identifies as at times hostile to the notion that the ultimate value of philosophy is to help us to lead better lives.  But de Botton’s suggestion goes somewhat further than I would be willing to go with this:

How should universities be rearranged? In my view, departments should be required to identify the problematic areas in people’s lives and to design courses that address them head on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies should be properly explored.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

The problem with structuring courses around conventional problems is that asking conventional questions gets you conventional answers.  Thinking that sets out with a clear idea of where it wants to end up is not philosophical in nature, but is something more like the ‘calculative’ thinking that Heidegger contrasts with the ‘meditative’ thinking of philosophy.  Meditative thinking is indeed the best thing to apply to the existential questions about why we are here and what we should do, but the highest power of philosophy is that it offers us better questions that enable us to see what we hadn’t already anticipated.  In interpreting the work of Gilles Deleuze, Todd May suggests that the genius of this great philosopher lay in his asking not the usual questions philosophy poses about what things are or how we ought to live, but in asking “how might one live?”.  This is a great example of how philosophy is a constantly self-overcoming discipline, and this is what allows it to open itself to the unfamiliar, the as-yet-unthought, by looking beyond the ought and the is with which our lives are regularly constricted.  A course structured around the works of Deleuze, or around the concept of, say, metaphysics, might be restrictive in its own ways, but at least it refuses to begin with the answer.  The best courses in metaphysics, ethics, etc., problematize and keep open the very notion of what these words mean in a way that courses that translate philosophy into a ready set of guiding principles couldn’t begin to fathom.  And there are many great philosophy professors out there who teach in just this way, without closing down the possibility that what they teach might be useful.  It’s just difficult to see from the outside.

So I am finding myself stuck in the middle here.  I believe very passionately in the real-world value of philosophy (and the humanities generally) and am making my own attempt to use philosophy productively and towards the possibility of helping people to lead better lives.  But I think that the reason philosophy is equipped to do this as no other study can depends upon its sometimes highly esoteric activities.  The ivory tower is the place where academics need to begin their work, because it is (supposed to be) safe from the need to conform to the status quo, to be in line with the political powers, and to respond to current trends or the desires of the consumer.  Above all philosophers need the rarified air of that tower in order to think independently and without any restrictions on what real-world problems need to be solved by their thinking.

Using philosophy to help people to lead better lives, then, is not about telling people what answers to our problems we can glean from Nietzsche.  It is about demonstrating how philosophy can open up new and better possibilities for human life by teaching us to use our highest capacities to question and reflect upon what we might otherwise take for granted, to experiment and to aspire to something more than the given.  It is about teaching us how the human mind, in engagement with a world that is always in the process of transformation, can turn difficulties into challenges that incite us to greater forms of existence.  But until you encounter Nietzsche’s thinking itself, until you are laid flat by the extreme difficulty and the struggle of grasping what he is trying to do, this just sounds like another self-help formula.  A good philosophy teacher takes the student along that difficult journey and lets her find out for herself how to make a better life, so that it is her better life, and not the one currently in fashion.  Maybe this is why philosophers have such a hard time explaining themselves.


About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.