When Philosophy Becomes Therapy

Alain de Botton's self-help books for those who style themselves as intellectuals are making their way to the United States.

Philosophy has earned a reputation as a complicated, inaccessible, and irrelevant pursuit, consigned mostly to old white men in wood-paneled offices. It’s vaguely associated with asking the kinds of big questions—Do we exist? What does life mean? Is there such thing as right or wrong?—that can seem frustrating, impractical, and, perhaps, pointless.

But for the past ten years or so, Alain de Botton, a Swiss-British philosopher, writer, and TV presenter, has made it his mission to rebrand philosophy by stripping away its crusty, academic trappings and restoring its day-to-day value. His own chatty, intelligent, and highly readable books, with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy, have been bestsellers in the UK. In 2008, he founded The School of Life, an enterprise which seeks to offer “good ideas for everyday life.” Since then, The School has been expanding steadily from London into other major European cities like Paris and Amsterdam. “Campuses” will open in the U.S. within the next year; a large percentage of the organization’s followers are American, the director told me.

The School of Life is a cozy space that hosts classes and lectures; the organization also consults with big-name businesses and sells “books, objects, and tools” to help anyone who walks through its doors make headway in “the quest for a more fulfilled life.” Its offerings are playful yet sincere; unique, even if occasionally verging on the overly cutesy. It’s philosophy that borders on therapy; take, for example, one-on-one classes like “Bibliotherapy,” or “Visual Arts Therapy,” in which trained psychologists prescribe novel-reading or painting instead of pills. Or the tongue-in-cheek emotional baggage tote bag—“the trick is to carry it elegantly,” The School of Life advises. At the beginning of the year the organization also launched its own alternative news source for Britons sick of the relentless negativity and senselessness of tabloid newspapers: The Philosophers’ Mail.

All of this has been a savvy move by De Botton, spiritually and financially. His product line targets self-styled intellectuals—people who see themselves as too classy or high-brow to be caught flipping through a self-help book, but still feel practical dissatisfactions. De Botton has become a well-recognized public intellectual in the UK, and bringing The School of Life to the United States may help him raise his profile here.

But even those who are cynical about the combination of profit and philosophy may find The School of Life’s non-fiction series substantive. In these short books, sophisticated wisdom from philosophers and other great thinkers is made digestible and fresh. Old, powerful ideas are re-explained simply and packaged between colorful covers. Each is authored by a different writer with a background in philosophy or an overlapping and related field, like psychotherapy. How To Stay Sane, How To Find Fulfilling Work, How To Change The World, and How To Think More About Sex (by De Botton himself) have a characteristically dry British sense of humor and no-nonsense approach to topics that are often considered taboo or clichéd. Ultimately, De Botton is trying to bring philosophy back to its roots—a source of enlightenment and cure for daily ills, accessible to anyone who can reason and reflect. After all, Socrates, the bearded, barefoot grandfather of much of today’s philosophical thought, did nothing more than wander the streets observing and playfully testing the beliefs and behaviors of those around him—no big words or citations involved.

Even though The School of Life hasn’t fully made its way across the Atlantic yet, it is releasing two of its books in U.S. editions this month: How To Be Alone and How To Deal With Adversity. The first is a clever and surprising analysis of the modern, deep-seated fear of being alone—people tend to unfairly and unwisely brand those who are solitary either “bad, sad, or mad,” the book argues. The author, Sara Maitland, is an expert on solitude—she currently lives alone in a nearly isolated highland in Scotland, where she has been, contentedly, for the past 20 years. Maitland tries to understand the human fear of being alone and how it can be overcome to reap the many rewards of solitude, like creativity, attunement to nature, and a deeper understanding and connection to ourselves.

In Adversity, religion professor Christopher Hamilton systematically and empathetically tackles a selection of the struggles everyone faces: in our families, in love, in our own fragile and vulnerable bodies, even in dying. In his introduction, Hamilton describes the book as a part of the “ancient and noble tradition of philosophy as therapy”; his book shows that the line between the two is blurrier than might be expected. Psychology came out of philosophy, after all—as did all forms of scientific inquiry.

Though the language used to describe human minds and emotions has become steadily more specialized and technical in the past couple thousand of years, and we have fancy new ways of measuring neuron activity or revealing subconscious biases in the way we think, questions of meaning and purpose remain as relevant as ever. Although the details and context of life have changed since the time of Plato, the most essential philosophical question remains: How can I live a good life?

What these authors seem to be saying is that philosophy does not have to be aloof and pretentious. It’s as simple and natural as asking questions about ourselves and the world around us, using logic and skepticism as tools. It’s the process of looking for meaning and guidance in how to act. It’s curiosity and common sense, passed down over hundreds of years of human experience. It’s living your life in an engaged, intentional, contented way—or, more fancifully, in the pursuit of wisdom. It can, and should, be utterly practical.

To call these School of Life books an overview of philosophy is certainly an overstatement. The study of philosophy today overlaps with psychology, history, physics, and mathematics. But for people who don’t keep a copy of Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason on their bedside tables, picking up one of these bright little gems could provide valuable insight—not just on philosophy, but what it means to be a person.