Planet de Botton

I’m all for popularizing philosophy in the right kind of way, and admire — not to say envy — the likes of A.C. Grayling and my colleague Simon Blackburn for their prose styles, their immense energy, good sense, ability to bring ideas to life, ability to engage with wider concerns. But I could certainly do without Alain de Botton pretentiously sounding off from whatever remote planet he inhabits. Here’s an excerpt from an interview in a Cambridge student mag.

Q: So, it’s the most obvious question to ask really: what exactly is philosophy?

A: 99% of people who call themselves philosophers are employed by universities, in the UK. And they’re really employed to teach the history of philosophy or the theory of philosophy but they’re not philosophers as such, they’re commentators on philosophy that other people have done, on the whole. …

What utter ignorant bollocks. When my colleagues wrestle as it might be with the philosophical foundations of set theory, or how we manage to think about the non-existent, or the foundations of political liberalism, or on the nature of moral judgement (to pick a few local enthusiasms), they are doing philosophy, trying to get it right, trying to push things on. Of course they engage with what others have said, but not as commentators-from-the-sidelines but as fellow participants in the ongoing conversation of philosophy. They are most certainly philosophers as such.

At a time when humanities disciplines are depressingly undervalued and misunderstood, and indeed under some threat, it does my blood pressure no good to have the likes of the crashingly ignorant de Botton trying to piss on us as well.

22 thoughts on “Planet de Botton”

  1. It bothers me as well when people like de Botton talks nonsense about philosopers. Besides he doesn’t even answer the question. And I am completely sure he wouldn’t have been able to answer it.

  2. Actually, de Botton answers the question (very badly) in the next sentence. It’s quite an irony that he criticizes university philosophers for commenting rather than doing philosophy, when he himself is utterly incapable of doing it. The idea that philosophy should be accessible to the general public or comforting or … (here insert your favourite description of philosophy that makes most university philosophers not philosophers) rests on a popular misconception of the subject. It’s a bit like saying that university mathematicians aren’t mathematicians because they don’t spend their time doing complicated sums or solving quadratics. At best the word ‘philosophy’ is ambiguous and the likes of de Botton are exploiting the ambiguity to do down the other types of philosophers. I wonder whether he is really as intellectually infantile as all this suggests or whether it’s all one big con trick.

  3. To be fair to de Botton:

    1. It is the journalist who is so keen to quiz him about his views on philosophy. As far as I know he has never claimed to be a philosopher or a populariser of philosophy. When asked, he always describes himself as an essayist. He doesn’t aim to explain the philosophy of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer (or whoever) – he uses them to help him express himself (like Montaigne when he says, ‘I quote other to better express myself’. So he is not in the same line of work as Grayling or Blackburn. You could respond that in that case he has no business talking about philosophy at all, but he did at least study philosophy at post-graduate level (and began a PhD), so he is not talking from a position of total ignorance.

    2. I think his frustration with academic philosophy is that it doesn’t live up to the general perception of what philosophy is. Studying philosophy as an undergraduate, you find yourself very far from questions about the meaning of life, about mortality, about living well (most ethics courses seem deeply removed from ‘real life’ questions of morality). These are questions one encounters far more often in the study of literature. But even there, they are treated in a dessicated manner, which rarely involves meditations on the questions Eliot/Flaubert/Dostoevsky raise, but rather on *how* they present and deal such problems. In other words ADB’s beef is with the absence of philosophy at university in its much wider ‘love of wisdom’ sense, rather than with academic philosophy per se. I don’t see why there’s not room for both at universities, but I don’t see it happening in the near future.

  4. My favourite thing about the article was how he made sure right at the beginning that everyone reading it knows that he got a double starred first in history from Cambridge, just in case people didn’t know and thought he might be stupid enough only to get one star, or maybe even only a first!

  5. Peter,

    It certainly makes my blood boil too. I certainly feel that if philosophy were better understood philosophers could better integrate themselves into society, in all sorts of jobs. The average “decision making” job requires analytical skills far below the level developed by the usual philosophy graduate student. The philosophy programs certainly develop skills valuable and valued in most jobs: good writing and communication skills, as well as abilities in argument, evaluation and analysis. Take the typical professional in political science or international relations, one cannot help but wonder whether a couple of courses in ethics, political philosophy and introductory logic would not have gone a long way in improving their (usually not too impressive) analytical skills (sadly the same could be said of many economists, engineers and even mathematicians). So, professors of philosophy should be in more demand than they currently are. Teaching courses in seemingly unrelated specializations, or as advisors in diverse walks of life.

    However, to think that only professors of philosophy are equipped to do philosophy is certainly a false claim as well. This would hardly need saying, as the logical possibility of someone highly trained in philosophy who has never set a foot in graduate school is an evident logical possiblity. Of course, the same might be said of all disciplines. It might be odd for someone who is completely outside the academy to be reading, for example, Parts by Peter Simons, however it can certainly occur and professional philosophers sometimes seem to regard the existence of such individuals with certain contempt (at least some of them do). Many of them are guilty of gratuitous snobbery in that respect.

    Credentialism of course permeates academic life and, though you have never said that you don’t believe there couldn’t be non-academic philosophers, a certain answer you gave in gave me a bad impression. Specifically, when you noted that it is a good thing for philosophy that people being accepted in teaching positions are mostly from the top rated graduate programs. Hopefully you don’t mean to say that people who don’t study philosophy at such graduate programs or don’t study philosophy at any graduate programs at all, could not make a contribution to the discipline or could not make a contribution at the same level of philosophical originality and level of rigour as people from those programs. That strikes me as evidently false. What people should be looking for in candidates to fill a position in philosophy is philosophical ability, which can easily be calibrated by examining the applicant’s written papers, by having him solve exams which test the relevant knowledge for the position or by having a series of discussions and debates with the candidate. I think the culture of credentialism should die, for it mostly involves pandering to the academic community in the most despicable ways. Examples abound: The pressure to have an amiable attitude towards incompetent people who might block you academically; having to constantly seek out professors whose letters of recommendation you might need; being constantly pressured to publish papers at times where more training might be more beneficial to you, as well as learning about the current debate on X because it is currently fashionable and knowning about it might look good on your CV. Advertising is for the man in the street, philosophers shouldn’t need such unseemly techniches (they have logic and argument after all). There are ways to test for knowledge regardless of credentials. In a better world this would certainly be a truism.

    By the way, I’ve been following yout blog for a while. It’s great.



  6. David,

    Even if ADB doesn’t classify himself as a philosopher, he should make it much clearer than he does that he isn’t one. If I wrote a bellelettriste tome called ‘The Consolations of Evolutionary Biology’ I would take great pains to alert everyone to the fact that I’m not an evolutionary biologist and that I’m using evolutionary biology for literary ends, something quite different from what proper evolutionary biologist do. I certainly wouldn’t go round criticising university evolutionary biologists for not tackling the questions important to me, such as how evolutionary biology can help one deal with life/death/love/work/divorce… (Which it does, indirectly, btw.)

    You say he studied philosophy at the postgraduate level and started a PhD. I didn’t know that. Reference?

    On the second point, that his frustration with philosophy is that it doesn’t live up to the general perception of what it is. That’s precisely my point about the popular misconception of what philosophy is. Also, a lot of the stuff one studies in e.g. Ethics does have an implication for how one should lead one’s life. For example, all first-year students study Utilitarianism, which if true (in some particular version) surely has very immediate and important implications for how we should all lead our lives. I could make similar points about many other fields, even Meta-Ethics which to the outsider might seem abstruse and removed from everyday concerns, but to anyone who understands it is readily seen to have important practical implications (as good popularisers, e.g. Blackburn, emphasise).

    Frankly, ADB’s complaints are sophoromic at best, infantile at worst. He’s a good writer and is thoughtful and interesting about various aspects of everyday life, but intellectually he is third-rate. Plato would have shown him the way out of the Academy too.

  7. I don’t know if anyone on this blog has actually ever read a book by de Botton. If you had done so, you’d quickly realise two things:
    1. He’s very bright
    2. He’s clearly not a philosopher in the accepted modern sense of the term
    He’s so evidently not a philosopher that the whole attack on him here leaves me puzzled. It’s like attacking a donkey for not being a parrot. Even if in some sophomoric interview, de Botton comments on philosophy, his ideas here are as valid as Ian McEwen talking about the science of climate change.
    De Botton is to be celebrated as one of the greatest essayists that the UK has produced in the last 20 years, up there with John Lanchester, Adam Phillips and John Armstrong. But don’t, please, make the ignorant mistake of attacking him for not doing philosophy ‘correctly’.

    1. I don’t think anyone is “attacking” de Botton for not being a philosopher: the beef concerns his claim that 99% of those who teach philosophy in UK universities are “not philosophers as such”.

      1. I think the only debate here is about numbers. It is definitely true that many academics spend far too much time teaching the thinking of others and too little time doing original work (I know this is true in my case). Even when we are writing our own work, we have to expend a vast amount of time setting this work in context, making sure we don’t seem too bold, hedging our comments. I don’t resent this, but I recognise that I have to do if I’m to be published in the necessary journals. The bold thinking of Nietzsche: which among us could get away with it in the current climate!? I think this is what de Botton means; that people like Nietzsche or, in literature, Roland Barthes or Virginia Woolf, they wouldn’t be able to survive in the academy. Their writings make up the curriculum, but they couldn’t find a job in the university. There is a paradox here, Peter, and however much we’d like it to go away, we have to accept it is there and not attack de Botton for pointing it out. He may not not know much about academic philosophy, but he understands the constraints of academia. We all need to highlight them and fight against them.

        1. The ‘teaching the works of others’ is a complete red herring. The idea that the ‘true’ philosophers spends all (or even most) of their time writing original philosophy strikes me as absurd: it presupposes something which he is claiming to be challenging, to wit that ‘real life’ (e.g. teaching, administrating, loving, living, dying — in short, the things we do every day) is incompatible with doing philosophy.

          There is a gap between what philosophy truly is and how it is practised in academia. But that doesn’t mean academics are collaborators with the status quo. I teach my students that they are learning to be lovers of wisdom, learning (amongst other things) to yearn for truth and to detest falsity. They’re also learning other things, but those things are only means to an end of real value. One of those means is the study of those who have gone before us, and I will not apologize for doing it. My problem with de Botton is that he points out an ILLUSORY problem in academic philosophy (which is rife with problems) and then presents as an alternative something which in no way rectifies the REAL problems with academic philosophy.

          For what it’s worth, I’ve tried to read books by de Botton. They are very badly written. His prose is not to my taste; his grammar is fine. But his tendency to make unfounded assertions, sweeping generalizations, and grandiloquent pronouncements are detestable. I like to think that I (and my colleagues in the Universities) are doing what we can to develop human beings who can realize that very fact.

          1. Brian,

            I’m not sure someone who has written the sentence, “One of those means is the study of those who have gone before us, and I will not apologize for doing it” is in a strong position to criticise the quality of anybody’s writing.

            A pedant might also point out that “his TENDENCY to make unfounded assertions, sweeping generalizations, and grandiloquent pronouncements IS detestable.” And furthermore, it could be said that your comment is itself an unfounded* assertion and a sweeping generalization.

            Whatever we think about modern academic philosophy, surely we can all agree that only a small percentage of it is well-written. Not that Locke or Kant were much better, of course.

            *(or at least unsupported)

        2. It seems to me that there are two separate issues: ADB’s accusation that 99% of academic philosophers in UK are “not philosophers as such” and spend their time discussing the work of others, on the one hand, and the issue whether someone like Wittgenstein would find a job in contemporary British academia (or even pass his viva!), on the other.

          I think ADB’s claim is just plainly false. In any event, it seems to me to be much truer of the way philosophy is practiced on most of the continent than of British philosophy in general. It is true that we need to set our work in context in order to get published, but, in general, the setting up should only cover the introductory part of a good paper – the bulk of a good article is supposed to be new.

          As for the Wittgenstein (Nietzsche, Barthes, Woolf etc.) issue, that’s a tricky one. I’m not sure how helpful these questions are – after all, we may as well ask whether Socrates would have gotten a job (the man never published a single line!). For what is worth, I’m pretty sure Nietzsche would find a job on the continent. I shall leave it to others to decide whether that’s a virtue or a vice of contemporary British academia.

  8. Why did I think of /

    Gore Vidal’s line? what are the three saddest words in the English language: Joyce Carol Oates.

  9. Moises:

    It might be odd for someone who is completely outside the academy to be reading, for example, Parts by Peter Simons, however it can certainly occur and professional philosophers sometimes seem to regard the existence of such individuals with certain contempt (at least some of them do). Many of them are guilty of gratuitous snobbery in that respect.

    I was struck by that comment, since I have read that very book and, although I am not yet completely outside the academy, I am outside the philosophy part of it and indeed outside the humanities.

    It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be regarded with a certain contempt, but it wouldn’t surprise me. If a philosopher wandered into my area, I wouldn’t feel contempt, but many would (and have).

    Which is unfortunate.

  10. It’s distressing to admit, but someone like Alain de Botton is a frightening figure for us in these desperate financial times. He is essentially standing back and asking, ‘What are you guys for?’ And that’s a question we will always have a hard time answering. I’ve just spent two months writing a paper on Aristotle’s notion of luck. The article is highly scholarly, it has something like 300 footnotes, it will be read by 500 people if I’m lucky and will make zero difference to the national debt. I might have wanted to take my arguments out to the media, to try to change the world, but I’m not that sort of person and my material doesn’t allow for this sort of propogation. Do I sometimes feel strange about what I do? Sure, when I leave my study, and meet my children’s friends, or talk to a homeless man I help to look after. We probably all have that sense. De Botton is provoking us, making us feel our vulnerability. I don’t resent him for it, but I do fear that voice – and hope that society will continue to be tolerant enough to let us do our stuff, which is admittedly strange, beautiful esoteric and not especially useful when compared with medecine.

  11. You need somekind of good intellectual celebrity to be the face of the academic philosophy to the public. We had Georg Henrik von Wright and Eino Kaila before him in Finland, and philosophy was well respected in publc compared to most other counties. Also quite a few non-professionals were very intrested. I see, in my mind, sophisticated analytical philosophic views in the essays of Väinö Linna, who was a factory worker turned to writing (I believe there is no good translation of the unknown soldier to the english available), but I am not trained to do philosophy.
    When von Wright died in 2003 it has been downhill ever since.

  12. Gc, if we don’t have ‘good intellectual celebrities who can be the face of academic philosophy to the public’, it’s not a coincidence; what we do and what the public want are essentially very far apart. If you want to bring analytic philosophy to the public, you immediately travesty it. My view is that philosophy departments should make room for a diversity of styles, and at the soft wing, there should be room for brilliant but light minds like de Botton to flourish. We have pushed out too many clever but light-footed people. They have gone off to be journalists, when they could have been on our team.

  13. Miranda, I don`t agree. You can even popularize theoretical physics. But I didn`t mean just to popularize philosophy, but to be a public intellectual like Russell was or what Dawkins is now. Good public image radiates also to the more scholarly projects.

  14. GC, my feeling is that being a public intellectual isn’t something you can just ‘add on’ to your work. It comes from deep within the work. Sartre, Freud, Marx… all public intellectuals because they were out to change the world, had a relatively simple message, were masters of the stage. Alain de Botton IS a public intellectual and not a bad one at that. I just despair that we will ever get our work on a national platform.

  15. “GC, my feeling is that being a public intellectual isn’t something you can just ‘add on’ to your work. ”

    Yeah, that`s true. At least you can write a blog. That`s, what I think, what Socrates would do if he was a still alive :)

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