Against Consolations, Alain De Botton, and the Demand for Accessibility
Last June 2018, a magazine article from The Brag circulated online. Authored by Lisa Dib, who provokingly titled the piece “Sorry philosophy snobs, you’re wrong about Alain de Botton,” the article was a frivolous addition to a growing list of opinion pieces in defense of the pop thinker. At its core, however, it was a hand-wave towards a critique of ‘high’ philosophy — a gesture, which, to use the words of Heikki Ikäheimo, “one should in any case avoid if one is to do serious philosophical work.”1placeholder
Majority of academics who are preoccupied with serious philosophical work would easily be dismissive of the article. On the surface, it really isn’t worth any serious scholar’s time, much less engagement. For anyone who has manuscripts to finish, dense tomes to read, papers to grade, and emails to respond to, why bother with an article that only sought to taunt academics? The author’s myopic view of the discrimination between academics and non-academics is evident throughout the short piece — a piece that is a perfect example of how articles on philosophy are not always philosophical. Following the distinction, it could be argued that de Botton is hardly a reputable academic source, so an academic engagement with him would not even count as an interdisciplinary study. So, why bother? As the case may be, although I’d like to consider myself as a serious philosophy scholar, or if not, at least as someone “follow[ing] the roads that have been trodden by the great,”2placeholder I find that her article is indicative of a commonly overlooked problem which nevertheless merits a closer examination.
This polemical piece is a prelude to a more comprehensive critique of self-help pop philosophy and its effects as a product of popular culture. Here, I basically address criticisms leveled against academic philosophy in a world where impatience is the norm and convenience is the king. The piece touches on de Botton, and to a great extent, Dib’s article. Along those lines, one may consider this an indirect response. Yet, there is a more pressing predicament that any philosopher and educator must consider: the accessibility of philosophy and the public’s receptivity to it.
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How are supposed “philosophy snobs” wrong about de Botton? Dib perfectly captures one of de Botton’s tactics in marketing philosophy to ‘non-academics.’ In namedropping a philosopher followed by a reference to a famous quotation — in her case, mentioning René Descartes, followed by “I think, therefore I am” enclosed in parentheses — Dib, consciously or unconsciously, employs a subtle approach in reducing philosophy to easily absorbable concepts and quotations that are often isolated, uncontextualized, and almost always taken as representative of the entirety of a philosopher’s thoughts. The more familiar occurrences of this is the reduction of Heraclitus to the river simile, Plato to the world of forms, Thomas Aquinas to the five ways, Immanuel Kant to the categorical imperative, G.W.F. Hegel to (the legend that is) the thesis-antithesis-synthesis, Karl Marx to thesis eleven, Friedrich Nietzsche to the death of god, Camus to suicide, and so on.
One could already imagine where the supposedly snobbish, dismissive, and intolerant attitude of academic philosophers come from. The reduction of philosophy to easily absorbable tic tac-like commodities — the tictactization of philosophy, if you will — establishes a culture of accepted views resulting to a sea of prejudiced interpretations upon which the minds of generations of learners cruise. It creates an illusion that the learner is confidently in familiar territory, when in fact a vast area of uncharted waters remains to be explored.
The unwelcoming attitude of academic philosophers to oversimplification comes from the fact that the volumes of a philosopher’s work cannot possibly be reduced to what then becomes popular buzzwords, catchphrases and misattributed bumper sticker quotes at worst, and readily consumable concepts and quotations at best, without losing its depth. Note well, however, that my concern is with the reduction, not the recognition of the central tenets of a philosopher’s thoughts. After all, most thinkers were not inclined to reduce their philosophy to one or a few concepts, however representative we think those may be. Even the admission of Kong Zi (Confucius) that there is one teaching — i.e., reciprocity — that people ought to have their lives governed by, did not encourage his disciples to reduce Confucianism to the golden rule.
Criticisms commonly levelled against de Botton, were, for Dib, tough pills to swallow. “The elitism surrounding academia,” she writes, “means that people will thumb their nose at anything deemed to accessible, ‘mainstream’ or simple.” The prevalent impugning and mockery of de Botton is so preposterous for the author who regards The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) as a “thought-provoking, stimulating work that, as with anything else, has its fans and detractors.” This kind of apologia misses the common tenor present in criticisms against de Botton. That any thinker has their fair share of followers and critics is an undisputed fact. What academics are concerned with is the proliferation of what, for lack of a better term, we shall call bad philosophy.
Coming from a different horizon, most defenders of de Botton commonly try to paint a portrait of snobbish philosophers that Dib fondly calls “philosophy nerds” — those who frown upon the idea of accessible philosophy. She laments:
“Those who haven’t studied philosophy at university may not realise this, but that stuff can be hard to read: dense, dry and often inaccessible. I’m a smart person, and it’s a tough slog. My interest in philosophy has often stimulated a desire to soak up the knowledge of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Plato, but I find myself confused and ashamed 20 pages in. I don’t think I am the only human alive who struggles with tomes like those, though they might have the genuine desire to be educated on the subject.”
The self-admission of smartness seems an uncharacteristic attitude of anyone who wishes to study or do philosophy. This starting point fosters a sense of entitlement in which one is ostensibly led to think that understanding is supposed to be easy. This mindset favors the shortcut over the scenic route in which, borrowing from Karl Jaspers, the loving struggle for truth is experienced.
To judge how the author perceives herself, however, is none of my business. Instead, I intend to show that though there might be a difference between those who studied philosophy in the university and those who didn’t, the difference is far from Dib’s straw man conception. Although she is not the premier representative of philosophy learners unaffiliated with the academe, we can nevertheless speculate that the difference lies precisely in attitude. Those who studied philosophy in the university were made to understand, at the outset, that ideally, there is a need for a cultivation of a certain kind of intellectual humility, the epitome of which was the man who showed that wisdom begins in the admission that one knows nothing. This trait is often missed by some (and the emphasis is on some) who approach the discipline from without. With this difference in mind, Dib was wrong to imply that those who studied in the university had it easier and that the experience of the denseness of the text and dryness of the prose is exclusive only to non-academics. In fact, these are quite difficult as well even for those who’ve been engaging with it for years. The latter, however, is cognizant of the fact that they are not supposed to ‘understand’ at once. It is not prohibited to study philosophy without a degree. However, the importance of time must be underscored: the study of philosophy, as with any other discipline, takes time. Prefacing the circuitous, yet, educative journey of self-consciousness in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel warns us: “Impatience demands the impossible, to wit, the attainment of the end without the means.”3placeholder
Ernst-Jan Pfauth, CEO of a Dutch news website, once praised de Botton for “making philosophy and higher culture accessible.”4placeholder He regrets that de Botton’s critics fail to realize that the thinker provides an alternative approach, which, although it may not always be to everyone’s taste, provides a fresh perspective that entices the otherwise uninterested. However, because de Botton’s book touches on a particular discipline, those knowledgeable in the field would inevitably subject it to rigorous scrutiny. Essentially, the critics are not so much concerned about the endeavor to make philosophy or even art more accessible as they are worried about the implications of such democratization. Dib’s sentiments concerning academic elitism are valid, but it should not center on that. The problem is making philosophy overly accessible at the expense of its depth and rigor. De Botton’s approach to philosophy appears to be a manipulation of complex philosophical concepts into bitesize commodities, peppered with sappy language, that could very well be a calculated attempt to target a certain type of consumer. Philosophy, as a result, becomes therapeutic. It purportedly presents the discipline as a repository of self-help ideas. This strategic move allows de Botton to sell and proliferate his philosophy as wisdom for the non-snobbish.
This emerging trend of the tictactization of philosophy is symptomatic of the “tyranny of convenience” — an idea elaborated by Tim Wu in a recent opinion piece from The New York Times. The uninitiated is no longer challenged to explore the legitimate philosophical sources when there are more ‘user-friendly’ pop philosophy works that present themselves as being more accessible. If the literature becomes too much, perhaps the more inviting route in the future would be to rely solely on de Botton’s School of Life videos, or even a twenty-two-minute episode of The Good Place. That Dib isn’t aware as to why this is alarming is actually grounds for us to be alarmed. Based on a distinction made by Tom Stern, therapeutic philosophy appeals to philosophy-users rather than philosophy-scholars.5placeholder In what could be perceived as a perverse outlook, the former arms himself with ‘philosophical wisdom’ to exude a smart self-image, a concern absent in the latter. As elitist as this might be, some pop philosophy makes its consumers think they know something about a philosopher or a philosophical concept. We have to keep in mind, however, that the dangers of the popularization of philosophy is that it tends toward the proliferation of a decadent version of it. Accessible doesn’t necessarily mean academically credible, just as we teach students that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable academic research source (a fact that Wikipedia itself explicitly discloses).6placeholder Understanding philosophy, just as with any other discipline, is a long and arduous process that is unfortunately subjected to our desire for convenience. Wu writes:
“[W]e err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.”7placeholder
The very difficulties — being lost in the pages, struggling to understand ideas, and the feeling that the text gradually makes sense — that make philosophy what it is (without romanticizing these things) are traded for the easier path. In the span of her diatribe, Dib, however, espouses a different view:
“It’s not a crime against the foundations of philosophy to make things easier to understand for people that didn’t study it for four years. What it does sound like, though, is snobbish gatekeeping by dusty academics or condescending intelligentsia; people that don’t want the lofty art of philosophy to be accessible to common folk. … People have their islands and don’t want any outside intruders.”
In her defense of the endeavor to make philosophy more accessible, no one can be more in agreement with Dib than most academics; its depth, rigor, and complexities, however, are just as much in need of a defense. Grant Maxwell, who recently wrote for the APA Blog, observed that the demand for accessibility often arises from those who want to halfheartedly commit to philosophy (his phrasing is more modest).8placeholder No one, perhaps, could have explained this better than the fictional medical doctor, Gregory House (House, M.D.): “People choose the paths that grant them the greatest rewards for the least amount of effort.” Thus, a halfhearted commitment is called out every now and then, but more often than not, it’s left unengaged, evidenced by the fact that very few literature, save for some reviews and interviews here and there, expressly deal with de Botton’s work in an academic platform. The fact that it’s often ignored, comes from the feeling that ‘we have better things to do.’ Yet, when it is called out, the criticism should be welcomed as an opportunity for intellectual growth. Those who are confident in only storing therapeutic, self-help, pop (if not pseudo-) philosophy in their arsenal must not really complain and go on a tirade once they are outgunned by those who labored to build their scholarship over time. Paraphrasing a proverb in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we may then say that “for one swallow does not make a summer …,”9placeholder nor should a comforting reading of The Consolations of Philosophy make one immediately think that he understood Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Michel de Montaigne, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.
Far from the isolated portrayal of the divide between snobbish academics and eager, marginalized non-academics, the problem is learning to delineate unhelpful dismissiveness from actual challenging engagement in which the credibility of sources and strength of arguments are tested. Those who recognize the difficult are not simply “philosophy nerds” who dread the idea of making the “lofty art of philosophy accessible to common folk.” No one writes for the sake of confusing their readers. Commentaries, interpretations, analyses, in addition to the pursuit of truth, are some of the most important livelihoods of philosophers. “[W]hat non-philosophers often don’t appreciate is that,” according to Maxwell,
“just as one wouldn’t expect a surgeon or engineer to avoid technical apparatuses, which are necessary for their work, so one shouldn’t expect a philosopher to plumb the furthest depths of human knowledge, to bring into precise verbal formulation concepts for which simple language does not yet exist, without specialized words which condense concepts that initially required volumes to be explicated.”10placeholder
In forcing simplification, the result could only be watered down philosophy, full of worn-out, “trite clichés.”11placeholder There are those who work on philosophy without being philosophical; they shouldn’t be apprehensive with that judgment. Let’s just call a spade a spade. These serious scholars of philosophy only wish to preserve the integrity and high standards of the discipline that anyone foreign to it must respect and attempt to stand equal to by not being content with or resorting to the simplifications and allure of pop philosophy.12placeholder After all, one isn’t a photographer just because one has a camera.
In attempting to “battle through” Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818/19), Dib admitted that she “got frustrated with his dusty ass pretty quick.” Had she been patient enough to slog through the dense text, she would’ve encountered a very interesting observation from Schopenhauer, who remarked, concerning Kant and the complexity of philosophy, that “what is obscure is not always without meaning.”13placeholder Unfortunately, Dib dropped Schopenhauer in favor of de Botton. For the bragging rights of being able to boast that one understood a certain philosopher or a concept, one, in fact, may have only settled for a dumbed down, overly simplified, or at times, an unmistakably wrong interpretation of it. Of course, one could easily invoke the impossibility of a purely objective reading, but just because there’s no such thing doesn’t mean there are no objectively wrong, misleading, and trivialized ones. Case in point is de Botton’s therapeutic conception of philosophy, best described by his use of a quote from Epicurus, on the back cover of the first edition of The Consolations:
“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 sufferings of the mind.”
De Botton’s gravest offense was perhaps already pronounced by Edward Skidelski, in a critical review published almost two decades ago. In confusing the practicality of philosophy with flattery, de Botton fails to communicate that “something may be useful or appropriate in your life without necessarily making you feel better.”14placeholder It is a common misconception that philosophy ought to solve our problems. “To comprehend what is,” Hegel declared in 1820, “that is the task of philosophy.”15placeholder Likewise, Theodor Adorno admitted that the question “what is to be done?” is “asking too much” of him, and he confined himself only to the task of analyzing “relentlessly what is.”16placeholder Even Ludwig Wittgenstein challenged the idea that “philosophy hasn’t made any progress” when he asked: “if someone scratches where it itches, do we have to see progress?”17placeholder The medical analogy is misleading; for unlike medicine, philosophy isn’t always concerned with end results. Theories are not at once to be followed as though they were the teachings of a wise guru. Its chief value is that it stands in conflict with other theories, which allows us to view the world from a variety of perspectives.
The practicality of philosophy must never be a justification for dumbing it down for the sake of accessibility. Far from the dominant misconception, it’s never the case that philosophers are keeping philosophy from the public, given the plethora of readily available recorded talks, lectures, and podcasts, open access philosophy journals and publications, and a variety of freely available resources online. The democratization of knowledge can optimistically be viewed as an invitation to improve the quality of thinking. After all, in the words of a certain British rock band, “nobody said it was easy.”
Public libraries as well as the World Wide Web abound with readily available academic philosophy sources which should entice us to look beyond the comforting and the therapeutic. “Claiming that academics are failing to engage with the general public,” Adam Kotsko wrote, “is intellectual laziness at best and anti-intellectual posturing at worst.”18placeholder We’ve gone from the age of enlightenment to the age of entitlement in which not only must knowledge and information be spoon-fed, it must also be easily consumable. The democratization of knowledge is an invitation for engagement, which, in its ideal form, is a “two-way street.”19placeholder
That accessibility is a prerequisite of engagement is indeed a convincing argument. In an interesting response, Justin Weinberg questions Kotsko’s “faulty generalization” of depicting the public as “close-minded and unreceptive to academic expertise.”20placeholder He invokes the “availability heuristic” as the primary reason why the public find it difficult to engage. Yet, while the simple answers to this are time, humility, and patience, Maxwell’s defense of the necessary complexity of philosophical language is more persuasive. He insists that:
“[J]ust as one wouldn’t expect to be able to perform brain surgery or build a rocket without decades of study and practice with the instruments and theories of those endeavors, so too should one not expect to be able to do real philosophy, or even to understand it very well, without years of study and practice. Of course popularly accessible explanations of difficult philosophical concepts are necessary and important. …. Still, the often-repeated demand that all philosophy be understandable by non-specialists is as misguided as the demand that a brain surgeon or rocket scientist should be able to do their work without the tools of their trade …”21placeholder
The complexity of philosophy represents the complex subjects it engages (no matter how simple it appears). This is why academics often feel offended by an oversimplification, much less misinterpretation, of what they devote years of study to. De Botton and his defenders espouse the thesis that a philosophy that isn’t directly relatable is a weak kind of philosophy. As a result, philosophy is forced to become overly simple resulting to some trite clichés and truisms that often do injustice to the philosopher or the concept. It is indeed tempting to go on into detail, although the brevity required of this piece suggests that I must postpone such a trajectory for the moment. Yet, for the sake of example, we may succinctly consider de Botton’s brainchild, The School of Life.
The School of Life is an educational company that publishes books, articles, and films on philosophy and emotional intelligence.22placeholder Premised by the (false) promise of the democratization of wisdom, SOL is a profiteering company that entices its consumers promising answers to life’s biggest questions. In the company’s introductory video, they describe themselves as an “open-minded, rigorous, unideological organization devoted to helping you deal with the important things that you were never taught at school.”23placeholder It betrays, however, those descriptions when almost all content are created and narrated by de Botton, whose very ‘philosophy’ reflects the contents published. There is nothing open-minded, rigorous, and unideological in a philosophical ‘lecture’ that fails to address, or at least, present opposing views from the ideas being advanced. We need not even talk about how ‘philosophy’ as it is presented is noticeably prejudiced at best and misleading at worst, for all of this is hidden in de Botton’s cut-glass accent, near-perfect enunciation, and a soothing voice that reassures us, toward the end of almost every SOL video, using a tone that suggests ‘don’t you worry, we’ve got it all figured out, everything will be just fine.’ Hegel once said that “[w]e do not need to be shoemakers to know if our shoes fit, and just as little have we any need to be professionals to acquire knowledge of matters of universal interest.”24placeholder He refers to right and freedom, though much of the subjects covered in philosophy are matters of universal interest too. And while this is the case, any philosophy worth its salt must invite the learner to pursue more questions.
De Botton and Dib advocate for a philosophy that’s directly applicable to life. This is not uncommon. Thus, there are those who prefer one variant over the rest. There are those who never cared about labelling their works philosophical, yet still produce philosophically-rich content. There are those who were profoundly informed by philosophical theories in their applied philosophical and interdisciplinary studies. Unavoidably, there also those whose attempt fail both in its theoretical foundations and practical applications. Incidentally, these are usually those who are insulted when their work is criticized as hardly or insufficiently philosophical; they resort to calling philosophers “purists,” among other things. Dib has a proclivity for “applying philosophical teachings to modern life,” emphasizing the immediacy of the hic et nunc. She might as well be the type of person to haphazardly trumpet Marx’s eleventh thesis — “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”25placeholder — commonly misinterpreted as an objection against all theory, and forgetting its roots from the young Marx who hoisted the banner of the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.”26placeholder Interestingly, Mladen Dolar has this to say, perhaps not of Marx, but to those who carelessly tout the oft-cited thesis:
“Where is a single interpreter of the world in the entire history of philosophy? Philosophy was always done in view of changing the world, the idea of mere interpretation, if such a thing exists, never crossed anybody’s mind. Not that the world would have necessarily been a better place if one heeded their advice … but one certainly cannot reproach them for the lack of trying. Hence the provocation that Slavoj Žižek loves to make in his lectures: philosophers were always trying to change the world, let us finally interpret it properly, this will maybe make a change; rush to action is more often than not an acting out, a flight from a conceptual deadlock that only ‘theory’ can tackle.”27placeholder
To change the world is to understand it. No philosopher endeavored a pure interpretation designed only to reconcile ourselves with the current state of affairs. No matter how remote a subject may seem, Amélie Rorty argues that philosophy always has an educative import:
“Philosophers have always intended to transform the way we see and think, act and interact; they have always taken themselves to be the ultimate educators of mankind. Even when they believed that philosophy leaves everything as it is, even when they did not present philosophy as the exemplary human activity, they thought that interpreting the word aright — understanding it and our place in it — would free us from illusion, direct us to those activities (civic life, contemplation of the divine order; scientific progress or artistic creativity) that best suit us. Even “pure” philosophy — metaphysics and logic — is implicitly pedagogical. It is meant to correct the myopia of the past and the immediate.”28placeholder
The stylish and fashionable pop philosophy oozes with allure given its apparent proximity to our daily lives. However, just because we don’t see the immediate results and effects of academic philosophy, doesn’t mean it’s divorced from reality. Anyone who wishes to partake in this venture must accept and respect its “extremely long, slow process.”29placeholder
Dib makes a case for de Botton’s legitimacy. Blinded from critical perspectives, however, she misses many of de Botton’s blatant trivialization of philosophical ideas. For example, inspired by the non-existence of a complex setup of a formal educational system in Greek antiquity, de Botton misdirects his readers in saying that “[w]e do not need years of formal education and leisured existence. Anyone with a curious and well-ordered mind who seeks to evaluate a common-sense belief can start a conversation with a friend in a city street and, by following a Socratic method, may arrive at one or two ground-breaking ideas in under half an hour.”30placeholder This trivialization of supposedly commonsense beliefs that Socrates questioned in Plato’s dialogues, and the dumbing down of the Socratic method that “may without injustice be presented in the language of a recipe book or manual,” (CON, 23) are instances of the perils of overly popularizing high culture at the expense of its depth.
Doing philosophy is akin to an educative experience. In the history of education, the transition from medieval to modern period signaled the gradual dethroning of the professor, transitioning to the facilitator. With these came contemporary models of education such as student-centered learning, Ivan Illich’s deschooling, and Jacques Rancière’s “equality of intelligence,” to mention some. The latter wrote in 1987 that “[o]ur problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal. It’s seeing what can be done under that presupposition.”31placeholder Yet, given today’s conditions in which we witness the most evident cases of pacified consciousnesses exhibiting anti-intellectual tendencies, it would be difficult to comply with what Rancière advocates as the starting point of learning. Because everyone is given a voice, anyone, with the right means could just as easily speak. We would not be far from the truth in saying that the crisis of the contemporary culture of learning is precisely the forgetfulness of humility. De Botton’s consolatory philosophy, however, shoves the people further down the depths of false consciousness, instead of awakening in his readers, the capacity for critical consciousness. Now, more than ever, in a world that subjugates us, the task of philosophy as education is to disturb — to startle and estrange rather than console.
One could only hope that those who began with de Botton may actually have the inspiration to go beyond, to start again, for the first time. Paraphrasing Slavoj Žižek, “[y]ou’ve had your [anti-intellectualist] fun, and you are pardoned for it — time to get serious once again!”32placeholder
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A critique of pop philosophy seems to be normally something that any academic philosopher won’t bother to soil his hands with. For one, pop philosophy, especially that of de Botton’s, is not only unacademic, it is also hardly philosophical (that it is about philosophy does not necessarily guarantee its being philosophical). On the other hand, there seems to be no agreement with the definition of ‘pop philosophy’ apart from the fact that it is popular. But what is popular? Lest we condemn everything that is popular, let’s examine some considerations.
The growing interest in the merging of philosophy and popular culture in both the academic and non-academic setting contributes to the rather vague conception of what pop philosophy is. Last 2015, The Telegraph ranked the top ten ‘pop philosophers’ using “criteria based on social media followers, numbers of books published, media appearances, catch phrase creation, amount of viral memes and fan base nicknames.”33placeholder The list includes celebrities, academics, and even fictional characters such as (1) Stephen Fry, (2) Russell Brand, (3) Caitlin Moran, (4) José Mourinho, (5) Homer Simpson, (6) Stephen Hawking, (7) David Brent, (8) Yoda, (9) Taylor Swift, and (10) Slavoj Žižek. One could say that these ‘thinkers’ have popularized philosophy by engaging with popular culture, by popularizing some run-of-the-mill wisdom, or by simply just having a large following. Interestingly, de Botton did not make the list. Perhaps he is neither popular nor a philosopher, but as far as the list is concerned, we can never know.
The production of some clichéd wisdom is expected, nonetheless of fictional characters, whom people are fond of quoting. Academics usually capitalize on this (in their messianic effort to educate) by integrating philosophy to popular culture to show the potent philosophical issues in the latter that could gradually be raised to discussions of even bigger, more complex issues. On this note, the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series of Open Court Publishing Company and The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series are rather laudable multivolume enterprises that sought to highlight and extend the philosophical from the popular. It elevates the discussions on popular culture to a more educative and thought-provoking level. It’s praiseworthy in that it’s not pretentious: it does not claim to possess what had been presented as well-kept philosophical wisdom — much like lifestyle gurus do — now ready to be dramatically revealed to its readers in the most accessible way possible. Instead, academic philosophers who contribute to the aforementioned series attempt to show how we can be critical consumers of mass culture in understanding that entertainment could just as well contain the philosophically pertinent. It does not, however, promise ‘fun learning.’ It is serious engagement that may otherwise be brushed off by the uninterested. The volumes in the series are philosophical at best since it aims to entice the readers to keep on engaging even after the consumption of the product of culture, and perhaps, hopefully, even after finishing a volume from the set. This is in stark opposition to the resignation that one has been consoled or that one, at the end of a book, has gained wisdom. Pop philosophy of the kind we’ve introduced here, I believe, is faithful to the academic, in the sense that one will most probably end up with more questions than one originally began with. With the necessity of difficulty in mind, as opposed to the convenient and consoling, I find it hard to place de Botton on the same plane as those enterprises. Against consolations, and in consideration of the status of philosophy in the oscillation between the necessity of difficulty and the demand for accessibility, an advice from Tim Wu is worth noting: “We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest.”34placeholder
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Weinberg, Justin. “Is the Public Receptive to Public Philosophy?” Daily Nous. 24 October 2017, http://dailynous.com/2017/10/24/public-receptive-public-philosophy/.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value: A Selection from the Posthumous Remains. Revised Edition. Edted by Georg Henrik von Wright and Heikki Nyman. Revised by Alois Pichler. Translated by Peter Winch. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1998.
Wu, Tim. “The Tyranny of Convenience.” The New York Times. 16 February 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/opinion/sunday/tyranny-convenience.html.
Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, then as Farce. London and New York: Verso, 2009.
See Heikki Ikäheimo, “Holism and Normative Essentialism in Hegel’s Social Ontology,” in Recognition and Social Ontology, ed. Heikki Ikäheimo and Arto Laitinen (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007), 145–209. Needless to say, the context of what was quoted from Ikäheimo is supposed to be understood against the backdrop of a warning against the caricaturization of Hegel’s philosophy.
See Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Ninian Hill Thomson (West Sussex, UK: Capstone, 2010), 42.
G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), § 29.
Ernst-Jan Pfauth, “The critics of Alain de Botton have got it all wrong — here’s why,” The Correspondent, 14 July 2014, https://thecorrespondent.com/1395/the-critics-of-alain-de-botton-have-got-it-all-wrong-heres-why/39329235-4a48015e.
Tom Stern, “Do We Cheapen Philosophy When We Use It as Theraphy?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 July 2015, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Do-We-Cheapen-Philosophy-When/231825.
Both are considered accessible references. However, Wikipedia is only unreliable given that it is open to be edited by anyone anytime. De Botton’s philosophy is dubious for other reasons.
Tim Wu, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” The New York Times, 16 February 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/opinion/sunday/tyranny-convenience.html.
Grant Maxwell, “Does Philosophical Language Have to Be Difficult?” Blog of the APA: The Official Blog of the American Philosophical Association, 18 June 2018, https://blog.apaonline.org/2018/06/18/does-philosophical-language-have-to-be-difficult/.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1098a.
Maxwell, “Does Philosophical Language Have to Be Difficult?”
Maxwell, “Does Philosophical Language Have to Be Difficult?”
Finding myself in the “For Writers” section of this philosophy magazine sometime last month, I have found that they are interested in submissions that “distances itself from the simplifications of pop-philosophy.” Dib would probably cite this as an instance of academic elitism, although I would pre-emptively beg to differ. In an attempt to show that philosophy can be for everyone, i.e., not just for the “inaugurated few,” the foremost task of the publication is to “challenge amateur readers and engage academic ones.” This idea perfectly captures what I intend to argue. Philosophy is a challenge, much like any discipline or field that the uninitiated attempts to enter.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969), 429.
Edward Skidelski, “Comforting, but meaningless. In seeking to popularise philosophy, Alain de Botton has merely trivialised it, smoothing the discipline into a series of silly sound bites,” New Statesman, 27 March 2000, https://www.newstatesman.com/node/151016.
G.W.F. Hegel, Preface to Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox, rev. and ed. Stephen Houlgate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 15.
Theodor Adorno, “Who’s Afraid of the Ivory Tower? A Conversation with Theodor Adorno,” trans. and ed. Gerard Richter, in Monatshefte 94, no. 1 (2002): 16.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value: A Selection from the Posthumous Remains, rev. ed., ed. Georg Henrik von Wright and Heikki Nyman, rev. by Alois Pichler, trans. by Peter Winch (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1998), 98.
Adam Kotsko, “Public Engagement is a Two-Way Street,” Inside Higher Ed, 23 October 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/10/23/claiming-academics-arent-engaging-public-wrongheaded-essay.
Adam Kotsko, “Public Engagement is a Two-Way Street,” Inside Higher Ed, 23 October 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/10/23/claiming-academics-arent-engaging-public-wrongheaded-essay.
Justin Weinberg, “Is the Public Receptive to Public Philosophy?” Daily Nous, 24 October 2017, http://dailynous.com/2017/10/24/public-receptive-public-philosophy/.
See “About Us,” The School of Life, https://www.theschooloflife.com/about-us/.
“What is The School of Life?” YouTube video, 0:45–0:57, 9 September 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q28W7N6Th58.
Hegel, Philosophy of Right, § 215 Addition.
Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The German Ideology (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998), § 11, p. 571.
Karl Marx, “Letter from Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge (Kreuznach, September 1843),” in “Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher,” trans. Clemens Dutt, in Karl Marx: March 1843-August 1844, vol. 3 of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works (London, UK: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 142.
Mladen Dolar, “The Owl of Minerva from Dusk till Dawn, or, Two Shades of Gray,” in Filozofija i drustvo [Philosophy and Society], vol. 26, no. 4 (January 2015): 885. Emphasis mine.
Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, “The Ruling History of Education,” in Philosophers on Education: Historical Perspectives, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 1.
Maxwell, “Does Philosophical Language Have to Be Difficult?”
Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 23. Hereafter abbreviated and parenthetically cited as CON.
Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 46.
Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 157.
Telegraph Reporters, “Who is the ultimate pop philosopher?” The Telegraph, 10 September 2015, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/pop-philosophy-russell-brand-stephen-fry-yoda-homer-simpson/.
Wu, “Tyranny of Convenience.”