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.]