Sunday, November 18, 2007

Is philosophy a waste of time? Should it aim to offer practical advice and consoling thoughts OR aim at Truth (whether consoling or not)?

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green; highlights in blockquotes (yellow).

Picture of Alain de Botton.

This seems like a minor spat between philosophers de Botton and Law. Does de Botton claim that philosophy does NOT aim for the truth? Is the best way of getting at the truth - through science, not philosophy?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Alain de Botton interview on Philosophy Bites

Hear Alain de Botton defending himself against his philosophical critics - e.g. critics like me - here.

For Stepen Law's critical review (in 2000) of The Consolations of Philosophy in the Mail on Sunday go here.

Note that, towards the end of the interview, Alain suggests that the kind of analytic philosophy I and other professional mainstream academic philosophers do (when I publish in journals) is, in fact, a waste of time. Only the sort of thing he does (the more "literary" stuff) is worthwhile.

He also suggests that in the book.

But then he says near the beginning of the interview that he was surprised when academics took him to task. He says:

I was quite surprised. I quickly became aware that I had done a very bad thing, but it was unclear to me for a while what that bad thing is supposed to be.

[Incidentally, I don't think it unclear what my objection is - but make up your own mind about that.]

The problem many academics have with Alain's book and his subsequent remarks is that he rubbished what they do, did so on a very intellectually flimsy basis, then said he was "surprised" at the response, putting it down (in this interview) to "the narcissism of small differences" (i.e. their narcissism) and adding "we should all have been friends and, basically, been on the same side."

Well I am very happy to be friends, but I am afraid that,

on the issue of what philosophy should aim at, we're not on the same side. Alain says it should aim at dispensing practical advice and consoling thoughts. I think philosophy should aim at truth, whether the truth be consoling or not.

Indeed, in the book,
Alain seems pretty uninterested in whether what e.g. Seneca or Socrates have to say is actually true just so long as it makes life seem more bearable. It doesn't seem to matter to Alain that some of the philosophical theories he presents actually contradict each other. Philosophy is simply a medicine cabinet offering us a range of therapeutic and consoling thoughts - a little Seneca for your frustration, some Epicurus for your money worries, and so on.
I have

I actually think that dispensing agony-aunt style wisdom is something philosophers do very badly. I'd leave that business to Miriam Stoppard and Claire Rayner.

Rarely does even the best practical philosophy console us. Usually, it gives us a hefty and deeply uncomfortable kick up the pants (e.g. Peter Singer).

Of course, I do agree there's no harm in trying to make philosophy accessible and immediately relevant to day-to-day life where possible. But sometimes some of the very best philosophy is neither. That doesn't make it a waste of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment