The ‘Philosophy of Life’ as philosophy (or, in praise of Alain de Botton)

A few years ago I would have taken a low opinion of the idea of a popular philosopher diluting insights for a middle class time poor audience who want deep insights at little effort and dismissive of the general genre of ‘Popular Philosophy’. Then I read a few of the ‘pop philosophy’ books. I think having a varied diet means, to paraphrase Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs: having your dessert first, and then the veggies.

 

I would consider Popular Philosophy (and most literature for that matter) as a dessert. But having those veggies and salads are just as important. For every dozen popular non fiction books I’ve read this year, I’ve gone ahead 1/6th through a single volume of Gibbon.

 

De Botton should be praised for his literary efforts. There is a distinct degree to which he dilutes heavy insights from literary and philosophical figures in a way that is most appeasing to the White Middle Class faux-intelligentsia (or as Veblen referred to them: the Leisure class [or as Furrygrrl [[I bet you are looking her up]]) sometimes refers to as the ‘leisure of the theory class’]) to make them look clever for their bookshelves containing books that are ‘better than the film version’. But critiquing his audience is hardly a critique of his body of work.

 

What de Botton has taught me which is immensely valuable is something that Nussbaum wrote in Love’s Knowledge, or that Eileen John writes in her papers on Aesthetics and Literature: there is moral insight to be had in literature. By reading novels exploring character (de Botton favours Stendhal and Proust), we expand our own inner world and that in turn deepens our moral character.

 

Another aspect that I have enjoyed from Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety, is how de Botton makes everyday life seem philosophical. De Botton is hardly original in his views or combining the idea that literature-is-philosophical and the-everyday-is-philosophical. But you don’t have to read papers in contemporary philosophical aesthetics, or have to read John Cottingham’s recent Heythrop-era work to gain that insight.

 

De Botton makes me want to read Montaigne properly. Montaigne’s work is about his musings on the every day, but he makes his very unique problems very universal. I have been captivated by the idea of how particular situations in life, loves and relationships while are not directly the same or relevant to other people’s lives, are deeply relatable in some fundamental way. We do not need to know what it’s like to have kidney stones, to find sympathy in Montaigne’s woes, or even to find insight in our own lives. Perhaps in that way we are going back to what Cottingham refers to as the ‘Philosophy of Life’.

 

What I enjoy about de Botton is the immanent nature and grounded aspect of what he portrays in the world. Avoiding metaphysics or theoretical philosophy, he focusses on the mundane as psychologically insightful. This is hardly systematic philosophy, but it does certainly have a valuable place.

Sinistre

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