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September 20, 2004


The Age considers the work of English philosopher and novelist Alain de Botton and considers popularizers of philosophy.

It is not difficult to see why de Botton has become so popular. He is an entertainer and he makes few demands on his reader - or no demands at all, depending on the reader. He embodies the notion that this is easy, anybody can do it. You don't have to be an egghead to read philosophy, you can even read it on the conveyer belt at your local gym, thus combining your physical and intellectual work-outs and saving valuable time.

It doesn't do any great harm, except to offend some purists. On the other hand, the promise that it is all pretty easy is the kind of expectation that produces a sort of DIY intelligentsia, because, in the end, the inescapable fact is that it is not easy. It is, ultimately, difficult to understand complex ideas. They have to be taken in slowly, over a period of time, which the readers of fast-food philosophy presumably don't have.

Conversely, de Botton's musings on Wittgenstein and relationships may move people to pick up Wittgenstein. The fact is that the work of many economic or political philosophers can be summed up by reference to key concepts without damaging a future detailed reading. In my own teaching, I believe demonstrating the contrast between different schools of thought is at least as important as explication of particular schools of thought. Alain de Botton does yeoman work in making relevant ideas that would otherwise be disregarded. It is a bit much to dismiss his books as "middle brow" consumption for the crime of being popular, commercially successful or, heaven forbid, readable.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 20, 2004 09:47 AM

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