Well-being and Philosophy
In times such as ours there is a great pressure to come up with concepts that help men understand their dilemma; there is an urge toward vital ideas, toward a simplification of needless intellectual complexity. Sometimes this makes for big lies that resolve tensions and make it easy for action to move forward with just rationalisations that people need. But it also makes for the slow disengagement of truths that help men get a grip on what is happening to them, that tell them where the problems really are.Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
I recently started reading Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death for the first time. During its introductory section I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the above quotation. Whilst the book was initially published way back in 1973, the “urge toward vital ideas” he speaks of, seems hugely relevant to the world today. If not more so than ever before. It seems we live during a time in which academia, and “intellectualism” is something to be rallied against. A time in which prolonged discourse and discussion is curtailed in favour of direct aphorisms offering quick solutions.
It was only in 2016 that politician Michael Gove posed the idea that the British public had now, “had enough of experts”. This was all part of a campaign in which both sides arguments hinged on spiffy slogans and personal digs in place of any extended discourse on relevant issues. As Becker describes, we saw a simplification of so called “needless intellectual complexity”, and instead allowed the discussion to be lead by “big lies” on the sides of equally big buses…
This diluted the facts at the time and made it almost impossible for anyone to come to any kind of truly informed decision. The tragedy is, there was a debate to be had. Arguments on both sides. What should have been an intriguing and fulfilling discourse became a race to the most appealing lie.
That’s how this move away from philosophical, intellectual thought has played out more politically, but it has also taken place in our modern approaches to well-being. This has created what I see as, a shift from philosophy to quick fix self-help.
You see, it used to be that the goal of understanding our lives and what it means to be happy was the realm of great philosophical thinkers devoting much of their lives to seeking an answer. A back and forth discussion over multiple centuries. Much debate went into trying to decide what it actually means to live a good life. So much so, that to read it all would almost certainly take up multiple lifetimes of study.
Now however, it only takes a few seconds online to find a single – often pretty short – book offering you the literal secret to a happy life. Self help you see, focuses upon simplification over discussion. Convenient lies over the long, laborious and inconvenient struggle for an actual truth.
So why this shift?
I strongly believe that this shift is partly due to the outcome driven nature of our society. Whereas philosophy often focuses upon the abstract and delving for more emotional truths, much modern self help often comes down to achieving a desirable lifestyle. Or, put simply, a fuck ton of money. Whereas philosophy may debate the link between physical outcomes and internal happiness, and ask what is happiness, self help will tell us what happiness is and how to get it.
If you want to see this drive towards outcomes, you just need to look at who’s writing these books. I’ve done a quick search of top self help books:
The seven habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey. A businessman.
How to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie. A professional salesman.
The power of now, Eckhart Tolle. A spiritual teacher.
The subtle art of not giving a fuck, Mark Manson. Personal development consultant, writer and entrepreneur. (This one is actually really fucking good!)
You are a badass at making money: Master the mindset of wealth, Jen Sincero. Success coach and writer.
Think and grow rich, Napoleon Hill. According to Gizmodo, “the most famous conman you’ve probably never heard of”
It is interesting to note the proportion of these that have some link to money or business. It would appear happiness and wealth have become synonymous. With these, we see an outcome, and often a nice simple approach to obtaining this. A recipe to riches if you will. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s already a book.
Philosophy however, isn’t at all outcome focused. It is discursive and often does more to confuse the truth than solidify it. Just compare these quotations from Stephen Covey and Martin Heidegger.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”Stephen Covey
Cool. Pretty to the point. Sounds simple enough and makes sense. You’ve got to be driven and focus on your main goals. GOT IT!
“Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.”Martin Heidegger
What the actual fuck Heidegger…
So what’s the issue?
The Covey quotation seems fine enough. It isn’t really doing anything wrong and Heidegger sounds like a bit of a pretentious prick. The issue comes in the passivity brought about by Covey and similar individuals. In offering a “guide” to better living, they attempt to spoon feed the answers. It all becomes a simple equation:
A + B = Happiness
Whilst this may work for some, well-being is far more complex that simply achieving success. I see these kinds of self help as making the already happy feel even happier about themselves. They do very little to help those truly struggling. The man or woman who is already a success but still finds themselves empty, or unfulfilled. The individuals that don’t suit the discourse of wealth = happiness.
The issue is that you’re following a road map to somebody else’s happiness. It has you look outwards, rather than inwards. You disengage from yourself and what happiness is actually is to you.
This polemic approach to self help, this “simplification of needless intellectual complexity” is dangerous as it can leave an individual feeling even worse off when the truth they’ve been sold doesn’t work for them. They don’t realise that everybody’s truth is different, instead believing that there is something wrong with them for not fitting the mould.
This is where philosophy becomes so important. It is not something you simply consume. No. It is a process with which you engage. Nothing is black or white, right or wrong. You are entering a millennia old dialogue, and must actively partake in the discussion. Much philosophy involves interpretation, and it is through this act of interpretation, you are able to better understand yourself.
Rather than taking another’s ideas verbatim, it is about working through their ideas, disputing or agreeing with them in an attempt to grow your own.
We are in a time where questioning other people is harder than ever. Truths are becoming more and more ingrained. It is no surprise then, that in this climate, poor mental health and anxiety is on the rise. People are picking sides, and the issue with nailing yourself to a single truth is this:
Truths are fragile. And when we’re beholden to them… We become fragile as well.
Philosophy is about elasticity of thought. Of constantly changing and adapting our truths. This way we aren’t so likely to crumble when they’re proven wrong. It allows us to live a happier, healthier and more adaptable life.
But these are just some of my thoughts. These aren’t some polemic truths. Lets be philosophical about this. What do you think?
All the best,
2 thoughts on “Dangerous Polemics: Society and the need for Philosophy”
This was such an interesting post. It’s a unique angle on the topic of wellbeing. I would agree that we’re so prone to taking the path to least resistance. We’re all looking for that quick fix but like you say, it’s a process. Whilst I think it’s great that we are all talking more about wellbeing and people are starting to prioritize self-care it’s often the self-care methods which require time and self-reflection which people (in my experience) reject. We want someone to tell us what to do to make everything immediately better but unfortunately that’s not realistic and as you pointed out can make those who are struggling feel worse because we feel like we should have everything sorted by now!
Thanks! It’s a hard one cause the more simplistic self help methods can be useful, but I feel for the real issues you need to try dig deeper. I think this is why often people can dislike therapists and certain approaches to helping their mental health. They’re often time consuming and can be uncomfortable. I like to think there needs to be a feeling of resistance for you to get better though. If you’re resisting, it just means you’re touching on something.