Battle in Print: Can philosophy change your life?

James Gledhill, 23 October 2008

A yawning chasm separates the popular perception of philosophy from the practice of academic philosophers. When reflecting on what they do, philosophers seem extraordinarily concerned about how to negotiate cocktail party conversation with strangers about the point of their jobs, despite even having difficultly understanding each other within the sphere of academia. Similarities in philosophical training may have equipped them to ask each other the right questions about what’s right or good or the best way of going about things, but philosophy has no particular answers as a discipline to the problems that beset our everyday lives. This situation is exacerbated in society more broadly by the association of philosophy with religion, which suggests philosophers form a secular caste who now share with priests the privilege of pronouncing not only on what is, but on what ought to be.

Meanwhile, proponents of popular philosophy like Alain de Botton seek to carry forward a competing idea, based in tradition, of what philosophers do. De Botton argues it is possible to ‘discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, sharing a loose allegiance to a vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word – philo, love; sophia, wisdom – a group bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs’ (de Botton 2001: 8). De Botton, and those who have followed in his wake, reflect a genuine concern about the specialisation – many would say self-satisfied insularity – of contemporary philosophy, which mirrors the specialisation seen in other areas of contemporary life. For example, the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ encourages the proliferation of highly technical journal articles rather than books that mark the culmination of decades of considered reflection. Even when it comes to fields that might have immediate practical relevance, like ethics or logic, one can sympathise with Jonathan Barnes’ view that ‘ethics, as it’s done by philosophers, is more likely to confuse than to enlighten non-philosophers, and that logic, as it’s done by logicians, tends to produce logic-choppers rather than reasoners’ (in Barnes et al. 2008: 2).

The role of philosophy in society

Nevertheless, in looking at the role of philosophy in society it is helpful to start as philosophers do and make a few distinctions: between the idea of Philosophy with a capital ‘P’, individual philosophies, and the philosophy of some aspect of existence. From its emergence in Ancient Greece, Philosophy, the love of wisdom in its universality, has understood itself as reflection on the underlying foundations of nature, thought and action. On this basis, Philosophy could historically claim to be Queen of the Sciences, encompassing all other fields of enquiry, with Plato’s Republic being the paradigmatic model.

In this, Philosophy seeks to bring the organisation of society and the individual mind into a harmonious ordering with the ultimate metaphysical source of the Good. In turn, the relationship between philosophical wisdom and everyday opinion is dramatised in the ascent from a cave of shadows into the light of the Good, from which philosophers return to the cave bringing enlightenment. The systematic nature of this picture gives it the character of a philosophy in the sense of a worldview – a framework for making sense of our place in the world and how we should live within it.

A full account of the historical development, and undermining, of way of thinking about Philosophy and its social role would need to explain how philosophy’s self-perception was altered by the development of the natural sciences out of natural philosophy. Suffice to say, few philosophers these days think this picture tenable, and some even celebrate trends away from systematic grand theory. Many philosophers instead regard themselves as philosophers of something – whether it is science, mind, language, logic, morality, politics or art – and are increasingly likely to see themselves as focused on the pursuit of answers to precisely defined problems. There is certainly something missing from this picture, and attempts to bridge the perceived chasm that lies between philosophy and society are made both outside the academy and within. From outside comes the increasing prominence of popular philosophy, while within, fears about the detachment of philosophy from the ‘real world’ are a natural and increasing concern of political philosophers.

Different forms of popular philosophy

Popular philosophy takes a number of different forms, from academic philosophers writing straightforward introductions, to the ‘sugared pill’ approach. Academic philosopher William Irwin, claims the ‘spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down’ is popular culture, which he uses to bring people to philosophy with edited books like Seinfeld and Philosophy. (quoted in Asma). Alternatively, novels such as Sophie’s World leaven philosophical exposition with narrative interludes. Most interesting of all is the growing self-confidence of popular philosophers to move beyond these approaches and offer more direct reflections on how to live. Many of the new breed pop philosophers, like Julian Baggini and Mark Vernon, are associated with the newly opened ‘School of Life’, which attempts to reconnect philosophy with the public by ‘offering intelligent instruction on how to lead a fulfilled life’.

Questions can be raised about the usefulness of all these approaches. The sugared pill approach is just as dubious as the idea that reading Harry Potter will lead people straight to studying Homer (not Simpson). The underlying thought seems to be as prosaic as the idea that reflective consciousness is a ‘good thing’. Irwin argues that ‘citizens of a democracy are better citizens for the knowledge of philosophy, as it teaches them to think critically and encourages them to dissent responsibly’ (Asma). But there is little reason to think philosophy has a monopoly on developing these skills and it gets things the wrong way round to expect philosophy to be not simply a reflection of the health of an intellectual culture, but to play a key role in sustaining it. Moreover, the idea of critical thinking invoked is less about the philosophical impulse to understand and question the ideas and assumptions that underpin contemporary social life, than about socialising citizens into respecting the status quo. It is problematic to make a leap from having knowledge of philosophy to cosy liberal conclusions about participation, tolerance and respect. If philosophy is to play a valuable role in society it must be because of its content, not simply because thinking hard about things, whatever they may be, has welcome side-effects.

Other forms of popular philosophy are more ambitious, since they seek to remedy the deficiencies of academic philosophy, rather than serving as a gateway into it. Academic philosophy is frequently counterposed to the Ancient Greek view of the wisdom gained through the examined life. There are differences in emphasis, however. Julian Baggini has argued for the direction of influence to run not just from philosophy to civic education, but from the practices of tolerance and mutual engagement that characterise the good classroom to the academic conduct of philosophy, where philosophers often seem more concerned to defend their pet theories than enter into true dialogue (see, for example, Baggini: 2007 and 2008). While arguing for more of this kind of discussion in academia, Baggini nicely skewers the claim that such a practice could be traced back to the ancient ideals personified by Socrates: ‘Socrates was not a consensual conversationalist. He specialised in picking holes in people’s beliefs until they were left humiliated and unsure of anything’ (2007).

De Botton, on the other hand, mines the legacy of the ancient world in search of a philosophy of everyday life. As an example of the philosophy of some aspect of existence this makes perfect sense, but the approach really depends on how this philosophy of everyday life relates to the over-arching idea of Philosophy and the notion of providing philosophies. For example, Aristotle might recognise everyday life as the starting point of rumination, but would see this only as one step on the road towards understanding the exemplary good life wholesale, which is not so much a matter of individual wellbeing as about human beings adopting their true role within the political world and the order of nature.

There is no small irony in popular philosophers seeking remedies for the problems of an individualised culture by looking to a culture where the idea of the individual in its modern liberal form did not exist. Socrates’ conception of the examined life becomes the precursor to a contemporary preoccupation with self-help, rather than representing the birth of a will to truth that decisively shapes the progress of the Western world, and which Nietzsche saw as bound up with the Christian impulse to give ethical values a foundation in something beyond what is conducive to life. It is a far cry too from the portentous conclusions that follow from the call for a return to the ancients in the work of Leo Strauss and his followers, in which it forms the basis not of consolation but of an assault on the emptiness of individualistic liberal democratic culture.

This is not to deride the ideal of the examined life, but only to points out that in the philosophical mainstream the examination of one’s individual life has always been the prelude to examining life in general, and consequently that it was the content and not simply the form of this reflection that mattered.

It’s all in the name?

After protests from academic philosophers that he was stepping on their toes, de Botton has opted for the description ‘essayist’, which, he argues is a ‘category all of its own, not derivative of academic philosophy, entirely independent of it, where writers tackle important subjects in a lucid, sometimes personal way’ (Vernon 2007). This is a good move. Posing the issue in the dichotomous terms of philosophy on one side and society on the other suggests a picture of philosophers bringing down tablets of stone to the unreflective masses, and overlooks the possibility of an intermediate terrain where public intellectuals, novelists, critics, commentators and a host of similar figures mediate between bodies of expert knowledge and a critically engaged public. Mark Vernon, however, goes further than de Botton, arguing that popular philosophy should retain the ancient mantle of Philosophy and strive to do more than providing diverting and biographically idiosyncratic philosophies of living (Vernon 2007). To paraphrase from the blurb for his edited series The Art of Living, in a world where people a looking for new sources of meaning, philosophy, particularly in the form practiced by the ancient Greeks, represents an untapped resource for our age. The danger is this leads to a kind of philosophy lite, staking a claim to profoundity by invoking the legacy of Philosophy while eschewing any pretense to offer truths that are binding on everyone. This both exaggerates the level of insight such an approach can provide and fails to do justice to the rightful independent place such writings can claim in the intellectual landscape.

Few would wish to deny the basis of the philosophical impulse in reflection on one’s life or childhood wonderment about the world. But there is a decisive break between reflective preoccupations that naturally emerge out of everyday life and engaging in Philosophy. In his own contribution to The Art of Living, on the subject of wellbeing, Vernon quotes David Hume’s solution to the philosophical melancholy to which his sceptical reflections on matters such as the identity of the self would lead:

‘I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with friends; and when after three or four hours amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther’ (Hume, quoted in Vernon 2008: 73).

Vernon contrasts this with how the Buddha instead linked self-reflection with the impulse to self-transformation. But here again, the philosophical impulse towards which the idea of the examined life leads is misrepresented. It is an impulse towards seeking to understand the truth about the world irrespective of its contribution to individual wellbeing and with no guarantee of reassuring conclusions. Hume is troubled by the potential of philosophical reflection on everyday experiences to take hold and unsettle our everyday assumptions. This is the texture of philosophical engagement. It is not a matter of personal reflection leading to reflection on the Big Questions of life. The Big Questions are accessed through reflection on particular problems and when they take hold the philosopher may feel just as much at the service of the question and the need to follow it through as the question is at the service of the individual. The School of Life gives the idea of philosophy a similar misleading twist, it is about:

‘the practical application of philosophy on life’s core subjects – love, politics, work, family and play the courses are structured around the burning questions that keep you awake at night – how important is sex or what’s so great about democracy? We’re rooted in the big thinkers, but always at the service of ‘how will this be useful to me?’ (quoted in Watts).

But have anybody’s reflections on their personal problems led them to think, in this way, that philosophy might hold the answers? Vernon does a good job of taking on rival accounts of wellbeing that reduce the phenomenon to mere feelings of pleasure. But in turning to philosophy and the idea of self-transcendence to find an alternative conception, his view of philosophy remains tied to the perspective of the self and its good, albeit viewed from a more all-encompassing perspective. An opposite response to Hume’s reflections, and one that perhaps better reflects the value of philosophy, is evident in the contrast between Immanuel Kant’s argument for the transcendent cosmopolitan reach of human reason and the biographical fact that he never travelled beyond his home town of Königsberg. Philosophical problems arise in the course of everyday life, but what marks them out as philosophical problems is the salience they have that goes beyond this. The philosophical tradition is defined by the abstract and focused manner in which problems of universal scope are pursued and is in no way reducible to a fund of shared wisdom to be drawn upon. It’s therefore a pretty sure bet that anything that self-consciously announces it is doing philosophy will not be.

Academics go public

It’s not simply popular philosophers who feel the need to bridge the perceived chasm between philosophy and society. Many academic philosophers are trying to work out what it would mean to connect philosophy to the ‘real world’, and their discussions also tend to operate with an undifferentiated view of the mediation between the two. From the realistic end of the spectrum come works like Raymond Geuss’s Philosophy and Real Politics (2008) focusing on the limited power of philosophy to make sense of the quotidian complexities of politics. But there is something self-refuting about this debunking approach: if political philosophy is so ineffectual, why is it so important to puncture its overblown pretensions? It’s all appetizer and no main course, promising the possibility of a social role for political philosophy, but then suggesting this can only be judged with historical hindsight. From the more idealistic end of the spectrum comes work like that of Adam Swift, including Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians (2006).  But for all its sophisticated mapping of the terrain of contemporary academic debates, it conclusions about the proper role of philosophy boil down to the idea that politics would be a lot better if politicians and citizens thought about things in the same terms and with the same analytical rigour as political philosophers.

An adequate approach to the relationship between theory and practice would acknowledge the value of the many kinds of intellectual contributions that get called popular philosophy, without over-egging their importance or dismissing them as philosophy lite. It would also set out a place for politically-oriented philosophical reflection that avoids succumbing to the ‘realistic’ view that contemporary societies are too complex and unpredictable to be the target of philosophical critique, without swinging to the other, idealistic extreme that sees philosophy as possessing special expertise and insights. The German philosopher and public intellectual Jürgen Habermas exemplifies, both in philosophical theorising and political practice, something of what this relationship between theory and practice might look like. Habermas is concerned with the legacy of Philosophy: the postmetaphysical modesty required of it in an age where religious and metaphysical philosophies cannot reasonably stake a claim to universal acceptance and the way in which it can still claim to defend the universalistic Enlightenment values of freedom, justice and solidarity.

Habermas’s critique of postmodernism in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987) shows that philosophical abstraction and political urgency are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As a philosophical movement, postmodernism amplifies dissatisfactions in modern culture and reflects them back in a way that threatens to spread damaging forms of resignation and complacency. The critique of such views is an example of the level at which philosophy has a real but abstract role to play, defending the inescapable relevance of the Enlightenment project, which can neither be dismissed nor invoked as a set of pat prescriptions. Habermas agrees that it is ‘hard to deny the feeling that a philosophy regressing into the self-sustaining discourses of an academic discipline is no longer philosophy in the proper sense of the world’ (Habermas 2003a: 283). Philosophy plays a social role by defending a universalistic morality and radical democracy through seeking to uncover the way in which these ideas already shape our understanding and make a claim on us. Beyond this, it is tempting to think, more ambitiously, that philosophy can ‘meet people’s private yearning to make their – increasingly isolated – lives “meaningful”’. But Habermas cautions:

[Philosophers] cannot slake the thirst of the sons and daughters of modernity by providing some surrogate for the lost certainties of religious faith or of a cosmological worldview. They have to leave it to priests to provide comfort and consolation in existential crises. Philosophy can rely neither on a knowledge of salvation nor on clinical knowledge and therefore cannot provide ‘advice for how to live’ in the way that either religion or clinical psychology can. In the form of ethics, it can offer guidelines for how to attain a reasonable understanding of one’s identity, of who one is and who one would like to be. However, today the ‘therapeutic’ role of philosophical ethics consist at best in encouraging people to lead their lives consciously. Philosophical ‘advice’ remains ascetic when it comes to demands for ‘making sense of life’; the responsibility for reflecting on the meaning of a person’s life has to remain with that person (Habermas 2003a: 288-89, emphasis in original).

Popular philosophy offers the promise of a still point in a turning world. Set against this, Habermas’ austere view of philosophy may not appear enticing. However, this feeling of dissatisfaction often results from subscribing to a model that sets philosophy and the real world in stark opposition. Central to Habermas’ work is the idea of a public sphere which serves as more than just the location of a staged encounter between the bearers of philosophic wisdom and the public in the role of appreciative audience. What value does philosophy have in this picture? Philosophers discipline their thinking with frameworks, even if these are no longer as wide-ranging and substantive that they count as philosophies for living, and most still feel an obligation to try and ground these framework in something beyond the contingent ebb and flow of everyday practices. The value of these frameworks to politics is shown by the political debates with which it leads philosophers to engage and the quality of the contributions they make to these debates.

Habermas’ political and journalistic writing bear the imprint, and borrow some of the vocabulary, of his philosophical writings, but they stake no claim to authority beyond their capacity to gain the assent of an educated and critical public. Much better than a ‘two-worlds’ doctrine that sets the ideal world against the real, is a model of interconnected concentric circles of increasingly abstract reflection. Philosophy as reflection on modern moral and political discourses seeks to understand their deep structure and presuppositions. Substantive choices about the content of the well-lived life, on the other hand, can only be made by individuals. Finally, the public sphere provides the arena in which philosophical reflection can prove itself by the positions it leads philosophers to adopt as public intellectuals and by the insights derived by critical publics about the social and intellectual forces that shape the contemporary world.

In reflecting on what is required by the pursuit of science as a vocation, Max Weber argued that the doors of the churches remain open for those who find unendurable the lack of meaning of modern societies. In our current world, with its reaction against the privatisation of religious faith, this has an alarming ring to it. But the underlying idea has something to it: it is futile to think that we can turn back the clock and pretend that we can take forward the legacy of Philosophy with anything other than an appreciation of the rigour, fallibilism and hard-headedness characteristic of modern science. Understood correctly, this is not a retreat from the world but instead a proper understanding of the level at which moral and political ideas can stake a universal philosophical claim to validity in a fragmented world. Such values make claims on us all. Philosophical investigation of their bases makes modest claims to immediate practical relevance, but is no less important for that. Philosophy therefore cannot imbue your life with meaning, let alone change it; did anyone really think it could? But there is no shortage of individual and collective philosophies to be found, in essays, novels, poetry and cultural and social life generally, as well as in churches.

Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from a scaled-down view of Philosophy that nevertheless claims to carry forward its spirit is this: it cautions us against the illusion that ancient wisdom can help us rediscover old certainties and restore stability to our political frameworks. These are problems with which we are concerned both in our public lives and our private lives, and any putative solutions will not come from ‘philosophy’ as such, but must be debated, argued for and fought over in the public sphere of politics.


James Gledhill is a PhD student in political theory at the London School of Economics, and co-convenor of the Institute of Ideas Postgraduate Forum.


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Baggini, J. (2008). ‘Great minds don’t think alike’. Guardian Unlimited comment is free, 4 August
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Barnes, J. et al. (2008). ‘Modes of philosophising’. Eurozine, 9 May.
De Botton, A. (2001). The Consolations of Philosophy. London, Penguin Books.
Geuss, R. (2008). Philosophy and Real Politics. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Habermas, J. (2003a). ‘The Relationship between Theory and Practice Revisited’. Truth and Justification. Cambridge, Polity.
Habermas, J. (2003b). ‘Are There Postmetaphysical Answers to the Question: What is the “Good Life”?’. The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge, Polity.
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Vernon, M. (2007). ‘Another Think Coming’., 12 May
Watts, P. (2008). ‘The School of Life opens on Marchmont Street’. Time Out, 2 September.

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