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  • Ben Gibran

    Tom, I applaud your courage and honesty. Welcome to the small but growing club of professional philosophers who are philosophical deflationists. You may enjoy reading my own take on the issue. Google ‘Why Philosophy Fails, by Ben Gibran’.

  • jim

    As a junior in college studying electrical engineering, I thoroughly enjoyed a course in introductory philosophy

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I teach an undergraduate class on Nietzsche, a philosopher who has a reputation for captivating young minds. After one class, a student came to see me. There was something bothering her. “Is it OK to be changed by reading a philosopher?” she asked. “I mean, do you get inspired by Nietzsche—do you use him in your life?”

You have to be careful about questions like this, and not only because the number of murderers claiming Nietzsche as their inspiration is higher than I would like. What the student usually means is: “Nietzsche mocks careful scholarship: Can I, in his spirit, write my paper however the hell I want and still get a good grade?” In this case, though, the student knew perfectly well how to write a scholarly paper. She wanted to do something else too: be Nietzschean!

Here’s my line, for what it’s worth: you can do whatever you want in life— take inspiration from The Smurfs for all I care—but I’m here to teach you how to read a philosopher, slowly and carefully, which is not an easy thing to do. If you want to be inspired by Nietzsche, you have to read him precisely, to make sure that it is Nietzsche who inspires you—not a preconception or a misappropriation or a scholarly reading, mine or anybody else’s, which is vulnerable to the interpreter’s peculiar agenda or the fashions of the hour. And what if, when you read him carefully, you find that he actually wrote things you think are false, wrong-headed, racist or sexist? It’s not a case of inspiration or careful scholarship, I say: choose both.

Notice: I am implying that if you get inspired by misreading someone, or by swallowing their false claims, then you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing. Of course, you might get inspired to do great things by ideas that are wrong or questionable. (Nietzsche could have told you that.) Notice too: I work in an intellectual environment in which young people think that applying philosophy to their own lives is something unusual. It is an oft-repeated idea that philosophy in its modern, professional form has become detached from what was, in ancient times, a founding ideal: to teach people how to live well. In today’s university, the emphasis is on the search for the truth about whichever subject lies at hand, regardless of how, if at all, such truths change what you do when you leave the classroom. So while students often report finding philosophy “therapeutic,” they do so in passing, somewhat guiltily. Perhaps they worry that the moment I hear they’re an emotional Nietzsche-user rather than a cold Nietzsche-scrutinizer my opinion of them will fall. Perhaps, against my better judgment, and in spite of being a user myself, they are right.

Professional philosophers don’t present themselves as particularly wise or as people to turn to for advice about how to live. And why should we? That’s not what we were trained for when we were students and it’s not what we promise in the prospectus. I remember, as a student, asking a philosophy professor something about what I should do the following year—whether I should continue with my studies or move on to something else. “That’s not a philosophy question,” she said. “That’s a life question! I can’t answer that.” I know what she meant, now more than ever, having faced such questions myself: you can’t expect a knowledge of philosophy to guide you through the big decisions about what to do with your life. But I can’t help wondering whether something has gone astray when “philosophy” questions and “life” questions are so easy to pull apart.

The Stuart Low Trust is a London-based charity that aims to promote health. It was founded in 1999, taking its name from a young man who had schizophrenia and killed himself after, as the charity puts it, “failing to find the help he needed.” The aim of the charity is, therefore, to provide services and facilities for vulnerable people, including those who suffer from certain mental health conditions and those who experience social isolation or emotional distress. For a number of years, I have volunteered for the trust’s Philosophy Forum, which meets most Sunday afternoons of the academic year. The Philosophy Forum is not itself intended to be therapy, or an outlet for participants to philosophize about the sorts of issues they may be experiencing: it is intended to be a philosophy forum, just like any other. At the same time, the health-promoting mission of the charity that sponsors it is no secret, which means, of course, that it is manifestly not a philosophy forum like any other. I suspect it’s the best thing I’ve done with my philosophical education, though at the end of a session I often feel flat and frustrated.

The format of the forum meetings emphasizes participation and, compared to many university settings, minimizes what you might call the “teaching” element. There is a short talk at the start, introducing a philosophical topic, followed by a question: Do we have free will? When is it permissible to kill an animal? Does getting what you want make you happy? We break up into small groups to talk it over, then get back together. A tea break follows, then everything is repeated with a related but different topic and question, then everybody goes home.

As the forum’s format has settled, so have the questions that I ask myself after a session is done. There are many versions, but the best summary would probably be this one: Is there something about philosophy which makes it particularly suited to this kind of forum? Sometimes I think there isn’t: we get people together to talk, to listen and to share ideas—it could be anything from physics to photography, and the fact that it happens to be philosophy simply reflects, by chance, the interests of the forum’s founders and the trust’s contact list. Sometimes I think there is: a theoretical physics or twentieth-century history forum—which would require technical skills and a body of knowledge—would threaten to divide the room into experts and non-experts, with participants as passive consumers of predigested knowledge and volunteers as their feeders. I don’t think philosophy can look like that; I know our forum doesn’t. On the other hand, an art forum that asked them to paint, sketch or take pictures wouldn’t have the same factual content. The answer to the question “Do we have free will?”—whatever it might be—cannot just be a matter of creativity or personal taste.

But the more I think it matters that we are doing philosophy, rather than any other activity which gets people talking and justifies a tea break, the more it seems to matter whether we, as a group, are doing the philosophy well. And that’s an uncomfortable thought, because to think about the Philosophy Forum as a kind of amateur alternative to the university—a way of doing philosophy which prioritizes a therapeutic or true-for-me-if-not-true-for-you element over a truth-seeking or fact-finding element—would not only patronize the participants, it would undermine the very thing I want the forum to offer, namely an opportunity to use philosophy to get something right about our lives. But if we are using philosophy to get something right, then a repulsive thought that cannot be true begins to hover in the background: that my colleagues and students, with their formal philosophical training, are somehow better at living than the rest.

If the Stuart Low Philosophy Forum is one answer to what it might look like for philosophy to “change your life,” here is another: best-selling books, classes and workshops applying “great works” from “big thinkers” and artists to help improve your work, your relationships, your sex life, your mental health and your sense of community; signs in art galleries telling you that though you might be lonely, sad and flawed, there’s something in this painting that can help; architecture, not in the form of dry tours of great European cathedrals but in the form of holiday homes commissioned by famous architects and available for the public to rent. Another answer, in other words, is: Alain de Botton.

De Botton became famous for writing books that apply high culture to everyday concerns: The Architecture of Happiness; The Art of Travel; How to Think More About Sex. His website describes him as “a writer of essayistic books” and approvingly cites a description of his work as the “philosophy of everyday life,” with topics ranging from airports to news to travel. Chapters in The Art of Travel combine a high-culture guide and a place: Flaubert for Amsterdam; John Ruskin in London. Likewise, The Consolations of Philosophy applies a philosopher to a life problem: Epicurus for not having enough money; Schopenhauer for a broken heart; Nietzsche for difficulties. Status Anxiety—which examines our fears of how we are perceived by others—is divided into two parts: “Causes,” like lovelessness and dependence, and “Solutions,” like philosophy and art. (Compare all this with the title of that Ph.D. your friend wrote: “Domestic Arts and Crafts in the Duchy of Brabant: 1183-1482.” The Design of Love, de Botton would call it.) The chapters of de Botton’s book on Proust echo the classic “how to” self-help formula: “How to Express Your Emotions” or “How to Take Your Time”; in several, the final paragraph begins with: “The moral?”

But applying the wisdom of big thinkers to life in a series of books turned out to be only the beginning; in 2008, de Botton co-founded the School of Life, which claims in its mission statement to be “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.” You can visit the School of Life on Marchmont Street, in the pretty London area of Bloomsbury, near the blue plaques indicating where Lenin, Keynes, Darwin and the Shelleys used to live. The basement is where the classes and workshops take place. The classes, run by various members of the “faculty,” bear trademark de Bottonish titles: How to Communicate Better in Love; How to Stay Calm; How to Make Your Mind Up; How to Be a Good Leader; How to Be Creative. At street level is a shop selling books and other wares.

One might imagine a symbiotic relationship between the School of Life and universities that offer more academically rigorous humanities courses. Some of the authors who publish through the school are highly respected academics trying out writing for a wider audience. Moreover, the school, like the Philosophy Forum, is a vivid illustration of something that is easy to forget amid all the talk of justifying the humanities: many, many people whose lives take place firmly beyond the realms of the university care about, and want to know more about, literature, art and philosophy. De Botton’s books are honest and open. He doesn’t present himself as a guru with all the answers but as a lost soul navigating by the constellations of great thinkers, and he invites you to do the same. A frequent motif in his work, which one would think academics would appreciate, is the encouragement to pay more attention, or a different kind of attention, to what we take for granted, e.g. “We shouldn’t deny the bread on the sideboard a place in our conception of beauty” (from How Proust Can Change Your Life).

But the next thing you need to know about de Botton is how often he produces vitriolic reactions, especially from academics and other public intellectuals. If you’re a graduate student or a professor and you’ve never heard of him before, you probably hate him already, just from the description I’ve given. Now add his success from the age of 23 (a novel, Essays in Love), his French name and his penchant for making disparaging remarks about the academy and the art world, cap it all with the fact that his family is unimaginably wealthy, and the result appears to be that critics feel sweet release from the pressures of holding back. You could make a general compendium of insults just from lines aimed at de Botton, as long as your target is a bit of a ponce: his “huckster’s sincerity” is “smarmy and banal”; his books contain their “quota of piffle dressed up in pompous language”; “insidious ideas” in “twee prose”; “astonishingly impudent.” Reviews of Consolations of Philosophy by the professionals were relatively clear. This is a “dumbing out” of philosophy, wrote one. “Let’s face it, this isn’t philosophy. What a relief,” wrote another.[1] Often his credentials are called into question: “And please, before I say another word, do let’s stop calling him a philosopher,” writes the author of “Why Alain de Botton Is a Moron,” a blog post for the Spectator. A New York Times review accused de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work of trespassing on the dignity of people who have to earn money to survive. One focus was the passage in which de Botton is fed lunch by the manager of a manufacturing plant who bores him, perhaps partly on account of his “surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.” Is de Botton really concerned, the reviewer asks, about the problem of work lacking meaning, or is it “just that some work means more to other people than he thinks it should”? To the Times reviewer, de Botton replied: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move that you make.” (He does write very clearly.) It was an uncharacteristic outburst, perhaps, and subsequently a source of embarrassment to its author, but everyone seems to know about it.

You might therefore predict a certain relation between me and de Botton’s school: namely that I would detest it. I am a professional philosopher—the real thing: advanced degrees, university job, students, academic publications. The School of Life has something called a “faculty” who write books, and a “classroom” for teaching, and “international campuses” (i.e. other physical locations around the world), but fundamentally it makes money from a superficial copy of what I do with my life, from—as Plato might have put it in the Republic—the ripped-off surface of something which is supposed to have depth.

But de Botton does not see what he offers as academia-lite. The sales material at the school promises to connect us with “big thinkers”: “A big thinker isn’t just someone who is famous for their ideas. What makes them big is that they get at things which matter to us personally.” So if a thinker doesn’t speak to you personally, they are not a Big Thinker. The connection between “big thinking” and “what matters personally” accounts, I think, for the pattern which emerges in so many of de Botton’s titles: take [some well-known intellectual topic] and apply it to {something you do or want or worry about all the time, something that matters to you}, e.g. How [Proust] Can {Change Your Life} or {Consolations} of [Philosophy]. For de Botton, the tags taken from formal education are a throw-down, not a rip-off: you could have a school and a faculty, a classroom and a campus, doing this. Are you sure you know why you don’t?

I’m not. One has to be careful making generalizations about a profession whose members are selected, in part, for how good they are at finding counterexamples. But, in some moods, I feel certain that if all the professional philosophers stopped writing philosophy altogether—if a freak accident muted the profession, its students and its publishers—astonishingly few non-philosophers would notice. No industry anxiously awaits the latest philosophical innovations. No general public hangs on our words. Even within the profession, the average philosophy publication is cited once and probably only then to be mischaracterized, cast aside or pigeonholed by a new author, whose work, in turn, meets the same fate. Sometimes, even as I work on my next one, I imagine a philosophy publication as one of those giant, icebreaking vessels that rides at the head of an arctic convoy, powering a path homeward through the frozen ocean. Only in this case, the ocean is not blocked by ice but by other icebreaking vessels, bobbing, marooned where they ran out of fuel, just as this one will maroon somewhere, adding more debris for the next. And in this case, there is no clear sense of home—only homesickness. Ghastly glorious, these vessels.

I am struck, in such moments, by a startling contrast between the intelligence, seriousness and energy that is poured into this activity by the professionals and its lack of bite in the world. It is true that there is a public appetite for philosophy. But I am confident that the books and journals that have been written up to now could satisfy it adequately. These thoughts do not, perhaps, reflect my considered opinion of my work and that of my colleagues. But I think them often enough that I’m not about to attack de Botton for dumbing down or trivializing my profession. I never thought it would be difficult to find something good in the School of Life. It is an attempt to connect philosophy—as well as art and high culture—with the lives of everyday people in a way that makes them better, more meaningful or more bearable. It is hardly inconceivable to me that philosophy could play such a role.

My father lived just long enough to see me take an interest in philosophy. He was, by that time, a hardworking single parent who was always struggling to find time to read. His New Year’s resolutions would often include things like “read four books,” and he kept to his New Year’s resolutions no more than the rest of us. But he did at least manage, for my sake, to start a book introducing ancient philosophy to a general readership. And he took a dim view. A natural mathematician, he could admire Greek geometry and technology, but “philosophy” seemed to be the name given to unmethodical speculation about questions that science would later answer: How did the Earth come into being? What were the stars and why did they move around the sky in a predictable way? Where did life come from? The Greeks could do mathematics, he saw, but they couldn’t work out how to apply it to answering these sorts of questions—or at least to get the right answers. One seemed to find a jumble of ungrounded speculations instead: “all atoms!”; “a battle between love and strife!”; “the product of one great mind!” Philosophy was just the History of Unmethodical and Wrong Science, even if it pretended to be deeper and more significant than its difficult, hard-won counterpart.

I found this summary upsetting. Philosophy would become my profession, but at the time it was just something I loved. What’s more, my father wasn’t without what the nineteenth century called “the metaphysical need”: the call that so many feel to a world beyond—something religious, or mystical, or spiritual. He believed, unshakably, in divine providence, and in an ethical order to the universe. He loved to talk about “coincidences,” by which he meant virtually the opposite: fortunate events which seem like coincidences but are really evidence for an ordered, providential universe. He always wrote “coincidence” in scare quotes: “Nice ‘coincidence’ today—meant to call the doctor, but ran into her in the street.” To another reader, this would mean: “Nice coincidence—got a chore done easily.” But I knew exactly what he meant by it: “The universe is looking out for us! I thought about it and it happened.”

It was difficult to see someone so mathematically precise being drawn to these sorts of fantasies. Difficult, but not incomprehensible. They were coping mechanisms for a world that was manifestly dark, arbitrary, painful, disappointing and lonely, in which the good, by whatever standard you chose, suffered as much if not more than the bad. My father had lost his wife, my mother, a few years after I was born. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 34 and they had taken to spiritualism in a serious way shortly after that. By the time I began reading philosophy, he was also dying of a brain tumor. It would kill him within months, after a period of mental and physical deterioration. Our conversations about philosophy took place, exclusively, in the devastating interregnum between diagnosis and darkness.

I tried to explain, though I can’t have put it like this, that philosophy seemed to me to bridge these two sides of him. There was the side that took pleasure in sketching out a proof that there are different kinds of infinities. And there was the side that was “faith-healed,” took inconsistently colored, mail-order pills and didn’t like me saying “God,” in case it offended Him. This was philosophy’s promise: to bring the rigor of the one side, where (so I thought) it was being wasted, to the meaningful realm of the other. He thought I was using Ancient Greek guesswork, rather than rigorous modern science, in a misguided quest to know the structure of the world. But I thought he was using magic pills, fad diets and acupuncture, rather than philosophical energy and exactness, in a misguided quest to know how to live. Maybe we were both right.

I may have been interested in philosophy, but I had no systematic way of choosing what I read. There were philosophy classes at my school, but its largely Christian administration ensured that, for the most part, “philosophy” meant studying arguments for the existence of God under the guidance of priests. Even that proved too much: it was removed from the curriculum shortly afterwards. So I read whatever I’d heard of, whatever I was given, whatever featured in the news—and in no particular order: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre; Plato, Descartes, Hume and Voltaire. But also Sophie’s World, The Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy and a popular book called Consolations of Philosophy, by a philosopher named Alain de Botton.

If I unthinkingly separate these works out now—“serious” philosophers like Plato or Hume on the one side, and “pop philosophy” on the other—I promise I did no such thing at the time. De Botton’s book introduced me to new thinkers and new thoughts, in language I could easily understand, with examples and anecdotes I can still recall: Schopenhauer on sexual love or Epicurus on the pleasures of friendship and a simple diet. De Botton, Hume, Russell, that logic textbook I was given—it was all philosophy. And it all carried the same promise: a tear in the lines which I had already come to know and resent: between literature and science; between creativity and technical knowledge; between what the world was made of and how it ought to be. In philosophy, unlike the science classes I nonetheless enjoyed, the questions were the ones I asked myself when school was done. In philosophy, unlike in the literature classes I nonetheless loved, the purpose and the methods were clear. This is the promise I want to be able to make, and keep, to the participants at the Philosophy Forum. The School of Life offered, perhaps uniquely, to be able to both help me make sense of this promise and show the way to keep it. I signed up for its class on “How to Make a Difference” (£45).

My class takes place on a weekday afternoon, which already says something about who might attend. Most seem to be in their mid-thirties and starting out on a new phase, moving from something in London’s vast, impersonal commercial sector to something with a social focus. We are asked to arrive with a “difference” we want to make. The class leader, John-Paul, is a journalist, the author of, among other things, a book called How to Change the World. He is also an accredited life coach. The class is a mixture of practical tips (tell all your friends about your idea, ask them to list resources to help you and challenges you might face), conceptual distinctions, anecdotes, words of wisdom and inspirational puff.

John-Paul asks us to think about the sorts of negative thoughts that arise when we want to achieve something: “I’m not ready”; “I’m too young/old”; “nobody wants that.” He asks us to think of someone who wouldn’t have taken any notice of that kind of negative thinking and then to internalize that person and use him to speak against these negative thoughts. I’m trying. But I’m struggling. Aren’t there moments when I really am too young? When it really is true that something has been said one hundred times before and nobody needs to hear it again? John-Paul goes so far as to say that these negative thoughts might be appropriate at certain times, but he does not follow this through to its obvious conclusion: that we need to know when the right time is—and we don’t. When is blocking out negative thinking—if that is even possible—just ignoring plain, common sense? Doubtless there are some people who are so hampered by negative thinking that they find themselves unable to break out of it; these techniques may be invaluable in such cases. But how do I know if I am such a case? Some people, I suspect, could do with a bit more negative thinking.

Later I watch de Botton himself interviewing Nigella Lawson, celebrity U.K. food writer, about the meaning of food. The hall we sit in—usually a church—is packed. Nigella sits comfortably beneath a quotation from the Gospel of John: “I am come that they might have life and that they might have it abundantly.” The one time in the interview when de Botton seems genuinely disappointed is when he asks Nigella what one needs to be a successful cook. “The most important thing in becoming a good cook is having a palate,” she begins, “and that is something you have or you don’t have.” De Botton is bothered: “Well, tell us about that, because I thought… everyone had a palate. Is it like an ear for music?” Once it is affirmed, he looks momentarily downcast. The answer he wanted was, presumably, “we all have it in us to know which tastes we like and which ones we don’t, we just have to find the grammar, the right emphasis, the right audience…” The Poetics of Food. But we don’t all have it in us to discriminate between flavors and to know how to mix them in a way that other people will enjoy them with us.

One thing I notice about my class, in fact—and about de Bottonism in general—is that it finds it difficult to tell you that you are wrong about something. You are told in the class that you are “the expert” about what matters to you, that there’s “no intrinsically good or bad thing to do,” that what matters is the “meaning and purpose” that you put on it. You can lose sight of the things that matter to you or fail to appreciate what you have. You can be misled, on the wrong path, disoriented, hindered, distracted. But you can never just be wrong.

A cynical thought is that the school avoids direct criticism of its students because it would be bad for business. A teacher who tells her students that they aren’t good enough and should probably give up will be a teacher without students. You can certainly indulge such cynicism, if you wish to, at the School of Life’s shop. £50 buys an “imperfection pot”—literally a pot—which is described as “something to turn to for support and inspiration,” its gray-green color “associated with calm in Buddhism.” You can buy “philosophical honey,” that is, honey from places in Greece where philosophers came from—Cyprus for “Zeno of Cyprus” (the founder of Stoicism, not the one with the paradoxes who came from modern-day Italy). That’s £25 for less than a pound. A “comfort blanket” costs £180 (“a comfort blanket understands”). Scented candles are “utopia” themed and cost £35 each. Descriptions on the candles evoke scenes from their scent. Take the Plato’s Republic candle: “People sit in the cool of a classical portico,” says the sales material, “discussing the purpose of courage and the meaning of honor […] You look forward to a dinner party you’ve been invited to that evening, where the highlight will be a discussion of the nature of love and beauty.”

Of course it’s not as though academics take special pride in their university merchandise: what might be even more troubling, in any case, is that the School of Life is genuinely committed to the idea that we all have some unshakeable core which only we can know and which is the ultimate source of our values— and against which nobody can argue. An employee of the School of Life tells the audience at one event that the school’s mission is to promote “emotional intelligence” via “the best ideas from writers, philosophers and artists.” The idea is right there in de Botton’s Consolations. The book from which it takes its title is Boethius’ sixth-century CE Consolation of Philosophy. But for de Botton there must be many different consolations, and you must pick the one that best suits you. Does it matter that the consolation for the broken heart (Schopenhauer) was, at least in principle, radically rejected by the consolation for difficulties (Nietzsche)? Can one be consoled for both? This is what it comes down to: Why should this matter if it “works for you”? Why should Nietzsche’s disagreement with Schopenhauer over sex and whether life is worth living be of any significance, if someone reads Consolations and finds consolation for his broken heart? When it comes to making us feel better, a messy argument about what’s true and what’s false can just get in the way.

De Botton’s Religion for Atheists looks for good elements in religion that can be adapted for the nonbeliever. Inasmuch as the School of Life is de Botton’s vehicle, he is at least true to his word. I attend a “Sunday Sermon” at Conway Hall, which is basically as close to being a secular church as you can get, built for a quasi-religious “ethical society” to hold meetings, weddings, lectures and funerals. The hall is unmistakably churchlike, only instead of the Biblical inscription, there is Polonius’ remark: “To thine own self be true.” But there was more. The “congregation” was asked to stand for a “hymn.” The talk we were about to hear was on money and the hymn was ABBA (“Money, Money, Money”). I hadn’t sung in a room like that since I was at school. It felt good. The talk itself—by John Lanchester, who had just written a humorous lexicon explaining the language of finance to complete beginners—was clever and entertaining. Its central message was that we should put in the effort to understand the language of finance and money because the people who speak it are the ones who have the power, and excluding ourselves from understanding money talk makes us impotent. Learning this language wouldn’t be easy, he thought, but it was worth the effort. He’s right, I think. But effort is exactly what is missing from de Bottonism. You can sign up for a “class” with a “member of the faculty” at the “school.” But if you’re not studying at school, is it really any different from just buying the candle?

Once we have described the “difference” we want to make, John-Paul insists that we get clear about exactly what it is and why we want this one, of all things. We have to explain it to each other in small groups. Mine sounds grandiose, inchoate and absurd, at least to me, though the former management consultant I’m talking to is trying her best to be sympathetic. I want to make a difference through philosophy. I’ve taught philosophy to children, to students at all stages, to retirees; I’ve done philosophy as stand-up comedy and philosophy as theater. If people reflected more on themselves and their world, thought more about what they knew and what they did, I often find myself thinking, then we just couldn’t have a society that looks like this one—a society in which we seem to be getting it wrong, knowing that we’re getting it wrong, and doing nothing about it.

In directing us towards making our difference, John-Paul favors boat metaphors: know where you want to go and how to get there, otherwise you’ll end up sailing on someone else’s boat toward someone else’s destination. When Plato tried to describe the relationship between philosophers and others, he too reached for a boat metaphor: some people are very good at steering boats; others aren’t. You might not be one of the lucky ones. If people ignore philosophers, the fault lies not with the philosophers, but with the people. Don’t worry about making a difference through philosophy, the Platonist might say: just do the best philosophy you can and let the rest take care of itself—if, that is, you are one of the lucky ones.

To take that view, you had better be sure you know the reason why a small band of philosophers should sail off toward the horizon. If it’s not because what they’re going to find on their voyage matters to people, then I’m not sure I do know the reason. But if it is because it matters to people, we have to ask if it’s succeeding. When the best students tell me they want to be philosophers (they always mean professional, academic philosophers), my feelings sometimes combine sorrow at the waste of their talents and frustration that, despite their intelligence, they haven’t seen through it. It’s not that I have some particular idea of what they ought to become instead: artists or bankers or lawyers or solid contributors to the economy. It’s that philosophy, for me, hasn’t delivered on its promise, or the promise I thought it was making some years ago: to be the very activity where you didn’t have to choose between what was true and what mattered to you. It’s that I worry they won’t find what I was looking for.

But philosophy doesn’t have to keep its promises. In the defense speech Plato wrote for Socrates, and by extension for philosophy itself, Socrates tells us how he chased after the truth. Striking, still, is the Socratic voice, with its combination of arrogance and modesty. None of the so-called experts, he proclaims, met the standard that emerged between them for really knowing what they were talking about—that’s the arrogant part. But, and here was the modesty, neither did Socrates. Somewhere in this play-off between arrogance and modesty lies the willingness to start with any idea—however troubling or simplistic or peculiar—and to think that you could really go somewhere with it, if only you had a bit more time and the right people to talk to. Somewhere in here, too, lies the thought that an idea might come along, from whatever source, that could shatter what you’ve thought, what you’ve lived by, even what you’ve wanted up to this point, simply by force of being more right or more true. But this means that if you try to mobilize Big Thinking to console yourself, it must be possible to discover, by means of that Big Thinking, that you are, simply and rightfully, inconsolable.

Philosophy may sometimes be difficult in the sense that it is difficult to understand, that it overcomplicates, or requires technical expertise, that it is written for those in the know with no thought spared for the rest. Those who bring such thoughts to a wider audience show their skill in cutting through this difficulty as swiftly and as painlessly as possible. But it cannot come at the cost of another kind of difficulty: that it can take your dearest thoughts—your politics, your science, your hope or your affections—and shake them up or cut them down. In other words: it cannot be defanged from the start. This, not a lack of academic rigor, is what I find troubling in the de Botton universe, in so much popular philosophy and, indeed, in much of the professional work I read. It’s also the best I can do to explain the impulse to “correct” the student who wants to be a Nietzsche-user, not a Nietzsche-scholar. I’m not worried that you’re going to get Nietzsche wrong: I’m worried that you won’t let him unsettle you. I’m worried that it won’t hurt.

If such ideas do lie behind my response to my student, then it’s strange to note that Nietzsche himself was suspicious of just the kind of attitude I’m displaying. Human beings are just set up to make themselves suffer, he supposed, and the excuse of the pursuit of truth turns out to be as good as any. We can tell ourselves that we want to get things right in spite of the pain and difficulty involved, but perhaps we choose this route precisely because it hurts. We don’t suffer for the sake of philosophy: we do philosophy because it makes us suffer. Whatever we make of these ideas—and I’m not at all sure that I agree with them—it seems that if you want to do philosophy you cannot simply dismiss them. Philosophy, that is, will not even allow you to seek after truth painfully, without asking you that painful question about whether your seeking is, itself, a good way to live.

The moral? Wherever we find philosophy we find, on the one hand, the pursuit of truth and, on the other, some promise to make a difference or to guide us towards a better or a more fulfilled life. Those who want these sides to come together harmoniously have so far been disappointed. But whenever one side claims victory, the defiant voice of the other can still be faintly heard. For the moment, then, perhaps the best option is to keep moving from one to the next, back and forth, dissatisfied with each. Is it enough? That might be a “philosophy question” and a “life question,” too.

This essay was published in Issue 10 of The Point. To read the rest of the issue, subscribe now.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. De Botton has occasionally responded to his critics in the academy: “You’ve got academic philosophers going, ‘This guy has sold 22,000 times as many books as any philosophical books we’ve written, therefore he is killing us,’” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “He is not allowed to exist.”
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  • Ben Gibran

    Tom, I applaud your courage and honesty. Welcome to the small but growing club of professional philosophers who are philosophical deflationists. You may enjoy reading my own take on the issue. Google ‘Why Philosophy Fails, by Ben Gibran’.

  • jim

    As a junior in college studying electrical engineering, I thoroughly enjoyed a course in introductory philosophy

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