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.