March 2011

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Alain de Botton Dodges the Question

Copyright © 2011 by Bill Meacham
Originally published in Philosophy for Real Life.

Pop philosopher Alain de Botton is undeniably entertaining. He talks a mile a minute, spewing forth an impressive array of insightful ideas and wry humor peppered with staccato interjections, the effect of which is to mesmerize his audience into uncritical adulation. You can see his performance at a recent TED conference here:

De Botton’s best outcome is to provoke the listener – or reader, as he has written several books – to entertain new ideas. His worst is to encourage us to treat these ideas as mere baubles, fascinating to contemplate for a while but without lasting effect. De Botton appears to be of that class of philosophers who make trenchant observations about life and the world rather than those who think analytically and step by step. In this, he resembles Nietzsche, not Descartes. Nor is he a grand synthesizer in the tradition of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Whitehead. What he really is is a modern-day sophist.

Sophistry has a bad name, largely because Plato and others portrayed the sophists as fallacious reasoners more interested in rhetorical persuasion than truth. The Greek word sophos or sophia originally meant wisdom, or more specifically expertise in a particular domain such as shipbuilding or sculpture. It came to mean wisdom in human affairs generally; and by the time of Socrates, in the second half of the fifth century BC, the term “sophist” meant a teacher who used the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to teach the skills of public discourse to young noblemen. The goal was to train them to prevail in public argument, a skill critical to success in the contentious social life of Athens. And the best of the sophists commanded a very high price for their work. By proclaiming that they taught excellence in general, not merely skills in rhetoric, they earned the scorn of Plato, who portrayed them in several of his dialogues as not really knowing what they were talking about. But at their best they really did teach people some important things about life.

I call de Botton a sophist because his philosophy is of a commercial sort, intended to sell books and to enroll students in his “School of Life” in London. Like the best sophists he has a wide range of knowledge and the ability to engage his listeners and readers. Like the worst, he ignores some important facts about reality and uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand to dodge embarassing questions.

Consider this statement from his lecture, “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success,” referred to above:

It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.

This was in 2009, right in the middle of a global financial crisis that left thousands of people without income. Easier than ever to make a good living? Was he living on another planet? No; he was addressing an audience of fortunates who could afford to attend a TED conference that cost upwards of $5,000. Such an audience would not be pleased to be reminded of the suffering caused by the larger economic context in which they made their wealth.

It is instructive to examine how de Botton responds to a question outside his paradigm. The audience has applauded his performance, and the master of ceremonies asks him a follow-up question.

Question: Do you believe that you can combine your kind of kinder, gentler philosophy of work with a successful economy? Or do you think that you can’t? But it doesn’t matter too much, that we’re putting too much emphasis on that?

Alain de Botton: The nightmare thought is that frightening people is the best way to get work out of them. And that somehow the crueler the environment the more people will rise to the challenge. You want to think, who would you like as your ideal dad? And your ideal dad is somebody who is tough but gentle. And it’s a very hard line to make. We need fathers, as it were, the exemplary father figures in society, avoiding the two extremes. Which is the authoritarian, disciplinarian, on the one hand. And on the other, the lax, no rules option.

His answer completely avoids the question of the economy, which at the time was reeling, and instead goes off about father figures. He does not at all address what a successful economy might look like, nor how to achieve it. His focus is solely on how to operate within the economy that we have, taking it as a given.

De Botton is a victim of ideology, the normative sense of reality produced by our culture without our quite realizing it. Social discourse tells us what is real, and our perception of reality depends as much on that discourse as it does on our senses. More specifically, ideology is a set of ideas espoused by the dominant class of society, who tell the rest of us how the world is and should be. The social discourse, the way we all frame our questions and discussions about life, the world and the economy, assumes that the economic interests of the dominant class are the economic interests of the entire society.

This is a Marxist notion, but you do not have to swallow Marxism whole in order to see the truth of it. At a superficial level, the fashions of several years ago seem hopelessly out of date and funny to us today, but a few years from now we’ll feel the same about what we are wearing now. The sense of fashion is wholly grounded in social, not physical, reality.

At a deeper level, ideology tells us that the question of what a successful economy might look like is irrelevant to our own career. It tells us that the important question is how to get the best work out of someone, and de Botton’s answer is to be like a firm but loving dad. (And note that his answer is directed to managers, who have careers, not to workers, who have jobs.) No doubt that is good advice as far as it goes, but it does not address the question. If you are a firm but loving manager in a company that is polluting the environment or lobbying lawmakers for anti-competitive special treatment or hiding evidence that your products are dangerous or moving jobs off-shore to the detriment of the local community, then you may be doing a good job within the context of your employment, but you are not addressing the greater good. An economy that fosters such behavior is not a success for the majority of us. And even within that context your own career may not be secure. There have been numerous instances of middle managers getting told to sack their employees and then, having done that dirty work, been given the boot themselves.

The dominant ideology tells us that managers have more in common with owners than workers, even though they too work at the whim of the owners.

The dominant ideology tells us that it is perfectly OK for derivatives traders, who do not actually produce any wealth themselves, to be paid exhorbitant sums of money while others, such as factory workers or teachers or many others who provide much more value to society, get paid far less.

The dominant ideology tells us that free trade is of such a pre-eminent value that we should not be concerned about the environmental impact of how goods are made or the social impact of how the workers who produce those goods are treated.

The dominant ideology tells us that corporations are persons and should have the same legal rights to freedom of speech as the rest of us, despite the fact that they are clearly not living beings and have powers no living being has, such as the ability to be in more than one place at once and, in theory at least, the power to live on indefinitely.

All these are political questions. To coin a phrase, the philosophical is political. The ancient Athenians certainly knew that. The sophists could make a living because they taught young men how to succeed in the assembly of citizens through persuasive argument. Socrates got himself in trouble because he encouraged people to question assumptions and to think for themselves, to seek truth, not expediency. In doing so, he judged his life as having been worth living. Can we do the same?


Alain de Botton:



Free trade:

Environmental effects of free trade: and

Social effects of free trade:

Corporations as persons: and