Is Philosophy Self-Help?: In search of practical wisdom (Kieran Setiya, 2/19/24, The Point)

Historians often trace the origins of self-help to 1859, when the aptly monikered Samuel Smiles published Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, a practical guide to self-improvement that became an international blockbuster. (The term itself derives from earlier writing by Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson.)1 Smiles inspired readers across the globe, from Nigeria to Japan. And he inspired imitators—thousands of them. Between his time and ours, self-help has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Smiles was a social reformer, but his book tells people that reform begins at home: self-transformation is, he promises, a sure path to success. The fantasy of self-reliance is a hallmark of the genre—and a focus of political critique. According to the literary critic Beth Blum, “self-help is widely understood as a technology of neoliberal self-governance used to discipline citizens and manage populations”: the social function of self-help is to obfuscate injustice, directing us to work not on society but ourselves. As if that wasn’t bad enough, self-help provokes eye-rolling cynicism. It has become “synonymous with sentimentality, idiocy, and hucksterism”—and this from one of its foremost advocates, the bestselling Alain de Botton. According to its detractors, self-help is glib, politically obtuse and intellectually dishonest: embarrassing, if not shameful. Philosophy is better off without it.

What, then, should we make of the philosophers who write self-help books? Are they bowing to market forces, dumbing down ideas to cash in on a credulous readership? Or returning to a calling they should never have renounced, “a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy”—in the words of Theodor Adorno, no admirer of dumbing down or cashing in—“but which … has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life”?

If self-help as a distinctive genre is an invention of the Victorian era, thinking and writing aimed at better living is not. In this broader sense, self-help was entwined with philosophy at the birth of the Western tradition. In Plato’s Republic, “the argument concerns no ordinary topic but the way we ought to live”; and in the Apology, Socrates definitively states: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophy is not just a guide to life; it’s an essential part of living well.

By philosophy, Socrates meant ethics, the systematic study of that extraordinary topic, how to live.