Sunday, August 09, 2009

I Don't Know

What's philosophy for do you reckon?

I'm asking this because it's about an hour and a half before I go off to my book group where we're reading Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy. And a little while ago, when I was looking for a link to information about the book for the 'Book Clubs' column in the margins of this blog, I came across its Wikipedia entry, which is little more than a collection of bad reviews that effectively declare that Botton's work is not philosophy.

Panel from Cham, J. 'Nature vs. Science, pt. 4' PhD Comics 5/8/2009

The criticism quoted seems to rely entirely on the usual boring old prejudices that because something is popular, or aimed at a popular audience, then it is somehow devoid of any value. There's an extract from one Mary Margaret McCabe that I take particular exception to:
the latest attempt to popularize philosophy [De Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy] - that is to say, to make philosophy into televisual fodder - does so precisely on the basis that philosophers can provide us with useful tips...
Ah, yes, how intellectually rigourous: something appears on television ergo it is debased. Still, I doubt Socrates would sanction this line of reasoning.

Before I continue let me just say that I have some sympathy with Messrs McCabe et al. It can be incredibly frustrating, if you spend your days revelling in the wonder of a subject you love, appreciating all of its joys, its contradictions and complexities, to then witness its apparent evisceration at the hands of someone who doesn't seem to have taken the time to understand those joys, contradictions and complexities, let alone communicate them as they purport to do.

Again to be fair to Messrs McCabe et al. perhaps they did say something more in their reviews of Consolations other than 'It's not philosophy'. I wish I had more time right now to find that out. I hope that in their reviews they would give me more of an idea of their understanding of what philosophy is and how that is different to Botton's. And yes, however Utilitarian, I also want to know 'What is philosophy for'?

I think, despite my years of study, I probably have a fairly lay conception of philosophy as a field of inquiry. I've used the writings of theorists (are they philosophers?), who are concerned with how we live, in my academic degrees. So this is my understanding of philosophy: that it is concerned with the matter of how we live and all the questions that are associated with that. As to what it is for, then I think it's for figuring out how to live.

What do you think? Or perhaps you know?


Tim said...

Ethics has been a major part of philosophy since year dot, so yes, I would say philosophy is (or can be) about figuring out how to live. OTOH, philosophy as a whole is such a fragmented field that it's probably impossible to provide a succinct definition.

As for de Botton, surely if he is doing "bad" philosophy, or isn't doing philosophy at all (however defined) his critics ought to address this, not just make snide remarks about his popularity.

Kirsty said...

We had a bit of a chat about this at the book club (or perhaps I just had a bit of a rant--but I swear I was encouraged).

I asked whether others thought it was philosophy, and the general consensus was that Consolations was an introduction to the lives and loves of philosophers with a few insights into their key thoughts more than anything else.

This got me thinking that Botton was using a legitimate rhetorical strategy to introduce the works of thinkers who are key to the Western philosophical tradition, that is he mined what is known about the lives of the philosophers to present philosophy in context: he showed instances of philosophy being applied.

There's clearly much disagreement between Botton and his critics about how to successfully bring philosophy to the masses.

Is it possible to make philosophy more accessible without isolating key points and communicating in a way that builds upon what we the masses already know of philosophy ie contemporary self-help?