Monday, March 24, 2014

Alain de Botton, cod philosopher

I wish people wouldn’t call Alain de Botton a philosopher. I wish he wouldn’t call himself one. He isn’t. He has never had an academic post, has never published an article on a philosophical topic in a scholarly journal. He is a populariser – which is a very good thing to be, so I can’t understand why he makes a larger claim for himself and why the media unthinkingly repeat it. Philosophy is very hard work, so I’m all for amateurs taking an interest and popularising but really this is, in legal terms, “passing off”.

His newish website,  The Philosopher’s Mail, is intended to be a thinking person’s equivalent of the Daily Mail Online, he says here in a Spectator article whose intro says, “Media moguls aren’t philosophers. So it’s time for philosophers to become media moguls.” So, again the claim that de Botton is a philosopher. Quote unquote:
The website looks similar to the Daily Mail one, many of the stories are similar but the content is radically different. The goal of the Philosophers’ Mail is to prove a genuinely popular and populist news outlet which at the same time is alive to traditional philosophical virtues. For too long, philosophers (like serious news-people) have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people. Hence the challenge that explains the birth of the Philosophers’ Mail, which is rooted in the popular interests, sensibilities and inclinations of the day — but tries to read and caption the news with an eye to traditional central philosophical concerns; for compassion, truth, justice, complexity, calm, empathy and wisdom.

On his personal website he says of Philosopher’s Mail:
Updated daily, with articles written by a team of philosophers, the site gives current celebrity news and global affairs stories a philosophical analysis, so they become opportunities to think about and understand ourselves in a new way.

A team of philosophers! Awesome. But there are no philosophers among the contributors whose bios I checked – they are journalists, life coaches, psychologists (i.e. people with a BA in psychology) and so on. Not your actual members of philosophy departments, but the usual run of arts graduates who infest the media.

And boy, it shows. The site is full of stuff like The Philosopher’s Guide to Calm, which is not philosophy but soothing psychobabble. It is also a crock. For example, it says:
The French 18th-century philosopher Chamfort wisely observed: ‘A person should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.’  

First, Sabastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort (1741-1794) was not a philosopher. He was a handsome, entertaining “writer and conversationalist”. Second, where and when did he say this? There is no source given at Philosopher’s Mail, and the quote does not appear at  this website which has four pages of quotes from Chamfort, all sourced. So I suspect it is a sham Chamfort.

The article “Environmentalist in secret sex tryst with Jeremy Clarkson” is illustrated by photos of Clarkson and, bafflingly, Christine Lagarde, with no quote from either, and nothing to do with Clarkson’s private life, or Ms Lagarde’s, with or without environmentalists; “Cameron Diaz investigates the origins of happiness” is illustrated by a photo of Ms Diaz engaged in topless chest-splashing and several other shots of her in a bikini, with no quote from Ms Diaz herself. And then this, about Kristen Stewart’s socks. Oh, and this article – I am not saying it is the worst – is about Shane Warne as philosopher. None of the articles has a byline – I am not surprised – and none involves an interview. So this is not journalism and it certainly isn’t philosophy. So what is it?

Perhaps it is simply a promotional device. Currently the front page has a banner ad for de Botton’s new book, The News: a user’s manual. Local reviewer/blogger Nicholas Reid  has a good go at it on Reid’s Reader. Quote unquote:
…one expects an analysis of the news media, an attempt to fathom how they work, what their economic bases are, what they do to attract their mass audience and how one can profitably de-construct them. In other words, a methodical critique. But alas, this is not what de Botton offers. Instead this volume is a collection of “life lessons” in which de Botton wants us to reflect on how the news can be used for self improvement and solace, regardless of its defects as commodity or intellectual matter. It does sound like a weekend “life skills” seminar, doesn’t it?

John Crace’s Digested Read in the Guardian offers a 600-word condensed version of the book (and even at the Guardian de Botton is billed as “writer and philosopher”). Quote unquote:
What are we to make of economics? Not much. So let's move on to celebrity. It’s become fashionable among my dinner companions to dismiss celebrity culture, but in so doing they let the illiterate determine the celebrity agenda. The broadsheet newspapers should be doing more to promote celebrities from whom we can learn and improve ourselves. Men such as St Gengulphus of Burgundy, the patron saint of difficult marriages.

As always the comments on Crace’s piece are excellent. Some take it seriously. Some say that de Botton’s writing is sixth-form; some disagree. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say it’s seventh-form. And bloody good marketing.

The Spectator Blog had, spookily, run an attack on de Botton’s latest book Art as Therapy a few days ago (thanks to eagle-eyed Paul Litterick for the link) in which art critic Fisun Güner makes some of the same points but much more elegantly. Quote unquote:
He’s a businessman and a writer whose pop-psych, mind-body-spirit essays make Paulo Coelho look like Dostoevsky. He’s also a writer who thinks Plato was the original self-help guru, for it was the Greek philosopher’s big idea, according to a bizarre Alain tweet – which he subsequently deleted because it was too dumb even for his own timeline – that the wise should be rewarded with fame and elevated status because even the clever need to feel wanted. 


Asking for a Friend said...

Unlike the Daily Mail, there is no advertising on this site. I wonder how it pays its uncredited contributors.

Stephen Stratford said...

I assume you mean Mr de Botton's site, not QUQ. Yes, I had wondered about the economics. I assume the contributors are unpaid, which may help explain the low quality of the writing/content. The main sponsor is an outfit called the School of Life (, which Mr de Botton founded. It seems to be a mechanism for parting sad people from their money.

Paul said...

I think you are on to something here. Maybe there is more to happiness than M. de Botton is telling. Maybe the secret to life is getting rich, just like his daddy did.

Emily said...

It may be assuming a lot that quality of writing is a result of unpaid contributors. That fails to account for the hordes of poorly written articles for established outlets by those compensated for their work.

You've concentrated your point around de Botton's lack of credentials as a "real" philosopher, and whether or not he should walk around calling himself one.

I'd argue the point that indeed more people should claim the title Philosopher - one who asks questions of profound a nature.

Why does it matter so much if he published a paper in a journal or not? It doesn't make him (or any others like him) less genuine in his intent to encourage people to THINK more. To reduce his work to "seventh form" level is highly typical of cynical, academic New Zealand.

Marketing ploy or not, Alain de Botton has some interesting ideas around really considering what it is we value in ourselves and others. The Philosophers Mail has copied the trash-news format of every other news website around. Sadly, that may well be the only form mainstream media junkies can digest engaging thought - via celebrity tag-lines.

Stephen Stratford said...

Hi Emily - I think it does matter if someone calls himself a philosopher but has no academic credentials. It's just too easy to label oneself as this to make one's published thoughts seem to have the same weight as, say, Plato's, Hume's or Wittgenstein's. Journalists let him get away with it - I don't see why the rest of us should.

As for "To reduce his work to 'seventh form' level is highly typical of cynical, academic New Zealand", I may be cynical but am not in the least academic. The charge of seventh-formism has been made, much more harshly, by English people.

I agree that it's a good thing that he tries to get people to think a bit. But this venture seems to be a money-making one (nothing wrong with that) which exploits under-qualified and unpaid volunteers (a lot wrong with that).