Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Socrates would hate self-help

At the birth of Western philosophy lies Socrates who preached that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ As philosophy has continued to develop from traditions largely put forth by this man—fallibilism, philosophy as a critical dialogue, and a need to understand and question the concepts we take for granted—it has in an important sense moved away from the examined life. This is very unfortunate.

So concerned with fundamental truths about the world and about human nature (and as it should be) philosophy has evolved almost a distaste for the personal. Even ethical and political theories only touch upon what could be considered guidance. They dampen their feet at the pool but don’t dive in.

There will on trend be more talk of what an individual owes society, than what you owe your friend, or your family member, or your lover, or your colleague. Philosophy is more interested in what counts as knowledge, then how one makes discoveries. Whether happiness is a value is of more interest than if there are good or bad ways to be happy and if so what they are.

These questions are less fundamental, but they are still very general and very important question about humans and about reality, and so they are undoubtedly philosophical.

I suppose the assumption for many of these more personal matters is that they belong more to the realm of psychology. Discovery is psychology. Happiness is psychology. Healthy relationships are psychology. Particularly self-help gets given a lot of these questions. But it would be a mistake to think that Socrates examined life lives on in psychology and self-help.

The problem with putting these questions in this domain is that we don’t get deep enough answers.  Self-help is very subjective. The individual isn’t so much searching for truth as identifying their current goals and reorganising a few mistaken methods to arrive at those goal. Socrates would disapprove.

Socrates would want to question our goals and learn about why some of them were in error. Socrates would want to question if we should even have goals. Socrates would want to scan through and examine as close to every thought and assumption motivating every single piece of the puzzle on the table. (at least the spirit of Socrates would, whether the man himself was capable of doing this is a difficult question given we can't even guarantee he ever existed). 

Self help is just too lazy for this end. Self-help mirrors the guru style of Eastern philosophy. Western philosophy can do better. And so I pledge: let us bring the examined life into the world of high standard truth seeking of western philosophy.  


  1. Interesting and I concur; ‘know thyself’ is certainly not an equivalent to ‘believe in oneself’, ‘think positively’ or the many other mantras associated with self-help. However it would be interesting to have cited examples of what is meant by ‘Eastern philosophy’, which is incredibly broad and varied. A better comparison with self-help might be the Sophists, especially in their advocacy of an easy and ethically void life for the fortunate.

  2. :)

    Yeah, I was pretty brief on Eastern philosophy. But I am planning a post comparing Eastern and Western philosophy, in which I want to state what I think to be the important difference, and it was this sort of summary of Eastern philosophy that I had in mind. Once it's written I was going to link that post in this one.

    But I take your point about the Sophists being perhaps a better comparison. I'll think about this more...

  3. I might be wrong about this, but I'm not sure that being an academic could ever really equate to living the good life. Or rather, such a life is always going to be deformed by the demands
    of the "high standard truth-seeking" of the institutions they scrabble about in. If I wanted guidance in transforming my life, I'd trust most someone who radiated happiness and expansiveness and life-experience. Academics tend to inhabit little offices and care too much about quibbles. They forego their humanity in the hope of securing their own spot in the academic firmament.

    Do you really want these people to fiddle about with the lives of innocents?

    1. Yeah, I do see your point. But this is what motivated the. My criticism is exactly that what philosophers have evolved into is too in the ivory tower and we should bring back some good old fashioned 'know thyself'

      But incidentally, even if academics are ill-lived folk I don't necessarily think that they couldn't contribute to these matters. Philosophers of science aren't usually scientists.

      And indeed, asking a happy person how to be good at being happy is as in-appropriate as asking a scientist about the philosophy of science.