Saturday, April 09, 2011

Those Who Help Themselves

De Botton promised his series would be "a ground-breaking experiment", offering rigorous self-help books that hark back to the days when – in the hands of Epicurus and Seneca – such tomes were highly valued, rather than the much-ridiculed genre of today. "We need self-help books more than ever before," he said. "In the age of moral and practical confusions, the self-help book is crying out to be redesigned and rehabilitated."

Well, I'm interested to see what this will be like. I've always enjoyed de Botton's writing, though others disagree:

Is there a sniffy faction within the world of philosophy that takes a dim view of attempts to make the subject more widely accessible?

"Oh, I'm absolutely sure of it. But I also think that attitude has moderated considerably over time. Ten to 15 years ago, when I started to try to do this, I'm pretty sure there was a lot of sniffing going on." He does a bit of his own sniffing, though, a moment later, when I mention the popularity of bestselling writers whom he has described as quasi-philosophers.

"Hmm, yes, the [Alain] de Bottons and so on," Grayling murmurs rather sorrowfully. "He's a perfectly nice fellow, but it's not philosophy. It's cream-puff stuff. What worries me is that someone will go to it thinking, 'Ooh, this is an opportunity to think and find out something', and then they find that it's actually very shallow and doesn't have deep roots. And I do think that people who do this kind of thing should really have done some work and got engaged in something serious, and then they won't make too many mistakes when it comes to trying to introduce others to it."

I'm not aware if de Botton's books have been marketed as philosophy per se, but I also don't remotely care. I've read a lot of "deep, serious" philosophy that I found useless. You already know I hold Plato directly responsible for at least half of the stupidest ideas underpinning Western culture. Hegel was a human hot-air balloon. Descartes' mind/body dualism still plagues otherwise intelligent people. De Botton just strikes me as an intelligent guy who uses readings of philosophy to make sense of everyday life. Philosophy in the sense of "how to live" as opposed to an academic discipline. Give it whatever taxonomy you want. I'd enjoy shooting the breeze with him.

Besides, if self-help books were good enough for David Foster Wallace...

A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with "self-help," which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.

Yes, exactly. I see it as being similar to spiritual-not-religiousness in that regard; reinforcing rather than challenging the very egotism that causes so many problems. Hopefully that's what de Botton wants to rehabilitate about the genre.