Saturday, November 17, 2007

Alain de Botton interview on Philosophy Bites

Hear Alain de Botton defending himself against his philosophical critics (which would include me) on Philosophy Bites here.

For my review of The Consolations of Philosophy in the Mail on Sunday go here.

Note that, towards the end of the interview, Alain suggests that the kind of analytic philosophy I and other professional mainstream academic philosophers do (when I publish in journals) is largely a waste of time. For the most part, only the sort of thing he does (the more "literary" stuff addressing the problems of everyday living) is worthwhile. That's also implied by the book (see quote on back cover, 1st ed.).

But then he says near the beginning of the interview that he was surprised when academics took him to task. He says:

I was quite surprised. I quickly became aware that I had done a very bad thing, but it was unclear to me for a while what that bad thing is supposed to be.

Surely he shouldn't have been that surprised?

The problem many academics have with Alain's book and his subsequent remarks is that, in effect, he rubbished the kind of thing they do, did so on a very intellectually flimsy basis, then said he was "surprised" at the response, putting it down (in this interview) to "the narcissism of small differences" (I assume he means their narcissism?) and adding "we should all have been friends and, basically, on the same side."

You can't rubbish what others do, and then, when they get upset, insist it's only a "small difference" and that you're "basically on the same side"!

I am very happy to be friends with Alain (he's a nice bloke - I've met him), but, on the specific issue of what philosophy should aim at, we're not on the same side. Alain says it should aim at dispensing practical advice and consoling thoughts. I think philosophy should aim at truth, whether the truth be useful and/or consoling or not.

Indeed, in the book, Alain seems pretty uninterested in whether what e.g. Seneca or Socrates have to say is actually true so long as it helps make life more bearable. It doesn't seem to matter that some of the philosophical theories he presents actually contradict each other. Philosophy is simply a medicine cabinet offering us a range of therapeutic and consoling thoughts - a little Seneca for your frustration, some Epicurus for your money worries, and so on.

I actually think that dispensing agony-aunt style wisdom is something philosophers do very badly. I'd leave that business to Miriam Stoppard and Claire Rayner.

Rarely does even the best practical philosophy console us. Usually, it gives us a hefty and deeply uncomfortable kick up the pants (e.g. Peter Singer).

Of course, I do agree with Alain there's no harm in trying to make philosophy accessible, stylishly presented and immediately relevant to day-to-day life where possible. But sometimes some of the very best philosophy is none of these things. That doesn't make it a waste of time.

[Post script. This was edited on 22/11/07, as I suspect I might have slightly misrepresented Alain. Incidentally, I cannot place my copy of The Consolations, and would be grateful if anyone could remind me of the quote that appeared on rear cover of hardback, 1st edition (Epicurus, I think it was). It particularly irritated me, I seem to remember!]

[Post post script - here's the quote from the back cover, 1st edition (where it appears without comment):

'Any philosopher's argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless; for just as there is no profit in medicine when it doesn't expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it doesn't expel the the sufferings of the mind.' Epicurus.

Thanks to Michael Rooney.]

14 comments:

Joe Otten said...

Forgive me if a glass of vodka has made me incoherent, but as an amateur, I feel entitle not to care what gets called philosophy and what doesn't.

I have long felt it a little odd that philosophy lumps together the good guys and the bad guys, as a single subject. Why should I ever recommend philosophy if somebody might go and read Hegel as a result?

Ron Murphy said...

I'm still not entirely sure what 'truth' is. I've just started Ophelia Benson's 'Why Truth Matters', so maybe I'll learn more from that. But it seems to me that philosophical 'truth' is far more important as a goal for philosophers, than the therapeutic goals promoted by Alain.

If practical therapy were the main goal of philosophers I think that would be dangerous in the long term. The principle would, in time, find its way into social politics and social management and could promote a Big Brother paternalistic ethos that would discourage challenging questioning of authority, in the interest of least stress.

Philosophy's most beneficial practical contributions to society over the centuries has been to apply reason and questioning in the search for 'truth' to challenge the dubious customs and practices of, not only the incumbent society, but all subsequent societies that have access to the philosophical writings.

Note that to be beneficial this doesn't always require a philosopher to be 'right' or to ever find an absolute 'truth', or that the society being challenged be in the 'wrong'; it only requires only that the status quo be challenged and questioned.

Mr.H said...

Can't you both be wrong? Botton's indifference to truth is regrettable, as is academia's indifference to relevance. To be blunt, it is simply true that the overwhelming majority of philosophical "research", including that of the very best philosophers, is inane and pointless. In grad school, I found myself increasingly embarrassed by the utter triviality of what I was reading and writing. This is not to downplay the value of an education in philosophy. A good background in philosophy can help you see how silly Botton's work is. But the fact is there simply aren't enough genuine problems, nor prospects for advancement in them, to justify application of the "research model" to philosophy. I sleep better at night now that I'm working as a schoolteacher.

Bob said...

Hi Stephen

De Botton thinks professional analytic philosophy is "a waste of time". But you don't counter his arguments (apart from saying they are "flimsy"). Instead you critique his own style of philosophy. (I know sometimes offence is the best defence, but a "tu quoque" hardly absolves analytic philosophy from the charge levelled).

At best you only state the position that analytic philosophy is more rigorous than de Botton's literary self-help style; but his objection is that analytic philosophy is "a waste of time", not that it isn't analytically rigorous. Just being more rigorous is not itself a rejoinder to the charge of being a "waste of time". (Is it?)

I'd be interested to see a post which first detailed de Botton's stance (perhaps under the Principle of Charity if you think it's too flimsy to stand alone) then rebutted the actual charge to show that analytic philosophy was not "a waste of time".

Or perhaps the practical benefits of analytic philosophy should speak for themselves...? http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,2213665,00.html

Bob said...

Sorry that link didn't come out right. If Blogger accepts href tags then it was meant to be here...
Philosophy in the Guardian

Stephen Law said...

Hello Bob

Well, he hasn't really got an argument for analytic philosophy being a waste of time, I think, other than - it's not much practical use in helping us deal with day-to-day problems.

I can deal with that argument, if you like? I've done so elsewhere, several times. But happy to do so again.

But maybe you've got a better argument for the "waste of time" charge?

Michael Rooney said...

From the back cover of de Botton's book:

'Any philosopher's argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless; for just as there is no profit in medicine when it doesn't expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it doesn't expel the the sufferings of the mind.'
Epicurus

Stephen Law said...

Many thanks to Michael Rooney.

Ralph Dumain said...

Alain de Botton is an intellectual fraud, not because he's an amateur, but because he is vacuous even for a self-help guru: he engages in platitudinous plagiarism from the greats, without offering up real intellectual content or real analysis of human problems.

"Philosophical counseling" in general seems to be a spurious endeavor. Lou Marinoff writes even more reprehensible garbage.

As for analytical philosophy, it seems like much of the 20th century was a dead-end--the linguistic turn, neopositivism, postpositivism--self-contained formalistic lgocial masturbation as pointless as the metaphysics it sought to displace. But this isn't becuase it's not "just plain folks" philosophy, which is a sham--you can't live in the modern world and think like a simpleton and call yourself down-to-earth.

Jean Kazez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean Kazez said...

Personally I don't find enough to chew on in the books of Alain de Botton, but I think they are a good corrective to the trend of academic philosophy. It really is OK to write things that help people live better lives. All philosophy doesn't need to be technical and "hard" and incomprehensible.

But I agree philosophers should care to write things that are true. Peter Singer is a good model on this score. His book "How Are We to Live?" combines truth-seeking with relevance. He does try to diagnose what ails us and point us in a better (more satisfying, more meaningful) direction.

You have to admit that Alain de Botton irritates academic types for some ignoble reasons. There's envy as well as fear--fear that the people will get the idea philosophers nice and literary instead of hard-nosed and scientific.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen!
I believe that outside of the physical sciences, law and commerce, there are no objectively or indisputably true ideas to be found. I think that all 'philosophical' ideas written about e.g. the ones in de Botton's book, are all very subjective but all interesting nonetheless to read about and to consider. But I think after reading about and considering them, one should never adhere absolutely to any such 'philosophy' as the search for truth in these areas will never definetely come to a concretely conclusive end. I believe human beings should never look for truth outside of those disciplines that are objectively true i.e. science and law and commerce and 'philosophies', being essentially undisciplined in the strict sense, should be looked upon as the mere prejudiced and emotive opinions of a subjective mind.

Donovan said...

"Philosophy is a waste of time"... Greatest philosophy quote ever.

the-philosopher said...

I enjoyed Stephen's persuasive critique of De Botton's 'agony aunt' philosophy but I still maintain that analytic philosophy is in serious need of repair. A cursory scan of the current undergraduate curriculum suffices. Epistemology= empiricist propaganda. Also heavily indebted to a correspondence theory of 'truth.' If you regard 'knowledge' as 'justified true belief' where justification is regarded as the close correspondence of an object to someone's cognitive state then what does 'truth' add to 'justification'? There is a HUGE hang-up on Kantian 'things in themselves' here...

Philosophy of religion= not concerned with much 'religion' at all. Any mention of the fact that Anselm of Canterbury intended his ontological argument as a prayer? No. Or that Aquinas' 5 proofs in no way at all resemble proofs in the modern English sense of the word? No.