Tab Interview: Alain de Botton

RICHARD COOK meets celebrated writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton.

A Week At The Airport Alain de Botton Cambridge Cambridge University Essays on Love Goethe Gonville and Caius Gonville and Caius Alumni Heathrow Richard Cook School of Life The BBC The Daily Mail The Wealth of Nations WW2

Philosophy gets something of a bad press a lot of the time for being a subject too wrapped up in its own petty concerns and having no relevance to any of the practical issues we face in our lives. Alain de Botton, then, may just be the saviour of the subject and an answer to its critics.

Ignoring typical subjects such as metaphysics and logic, he instead writes on the issues that are most important in our lives, such as love, work and happiness. He writes with a clarity and charm that has rightfully earnt him a place as the country’s foremost populariser of philosophy, and his most recent achievements include being granted the unique privilege of being Heathrow Airport’s ‘writer-in-residence’ last summer, where he wrote about his observations of daily life in and around the terminals. As a Cambridge graduate himself, he seemed the perfect person to talk to for insights into student life and society more generally.

Braving the ice and snow, I made my way to meet him in his north London office – a decorated flat comfortable enough for any man to live in permanently without any worries. Unsurprisingly, the shelves were filled with thousands of books – from numerous copies of his own publications to classic texts such as Adam Smith’s 'The Wealth of Nations'. In short, it was the ideal setting for the conception of new and exciting ideas, a promising sign! As we got talking I found him to be a speaker both eloquent and witty – finding that ideal balance that so many lecturers just fail to manage. Especially delightful was his ability to talk at great length about any given subject without the possibility of being at all tedious; a rare pleasure indeed….

Richard Cook: Is writing a good career? Do you enjoy it?

Alain de Botton: It’s a terrible career; I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy! The major problem is that it isn’t really a career: a career usually suggests a mountain that you’re climbing and eventually you get to the top and life’s relatively comfortable. It doesn’t have any of that, you’re always back to square one – you’ve got to keep writing and to make a living from it you’ve got to keep selling books. At the same time, it’s great fun too, but it’s an extreme situation. I’ve got many friends who say things like, 'my life’s so safe, but it’s so boring, my salary is so secure…' and they look longingly at my exciting life and I look longingly at theirs. So there are good and bad sides.

RC: I was quite interested in your last book, 'A Week at the Airport' – that seemed like quite an ambitious challenge to take on…

AB: Yes, it was a joy to do. I was approached by Heathrow Airport as I’ve wanted to write about airports and I’ve written a bit about airports in the past – and find them very fascinating places. What really interested me about the project was to be able to talk to anybody and go anywhere and that was really fun. I think there are so many places in the modern world where people don’t really go or there’s not much data on what really goes on. What goes on in a nuclear power plant or a hospital or a cancer ward, in a school or whatever? There are some books but on the whole the information is quite sparse so it was fun.

RC: So, it’s the most obvious question to ask really: what exactly is philosophy?

AB: 99% of people who call themselves philosophers are employed by universities, in the UK. And they’re really employed to teach the history of philosophy or the theory of philosophy but they’re not philosophers as such, they’re commentators on philosophy that other people have done, on the whole. My handy definition is just a commitment to logical thinking and reasoning, and that can be directed towards any subject on earth. But it’s all fairly shaky ground, and whether someone is or isn’t a philosopher is always going to be a bit of an ambiguous question.

RC: Do you think it has something of an image problem, concerned with just asking pointless questions?

AB: Yes, a terrible image problem! Most academic philosophers would say that philosophy is pure enquiry into certain abstract questions and we have no responsibility to do the kind of thing that Joe Public expects of philosophy, which is, ‘how do I live?’ Somehow philosophy should be a repository of wisdom and that it should be particularly concerned with the great challenges of life but it doesn’t seem that this is the case.

RC: But in your writings you do manage to apply philosophy to ‘Joe Public’ situations. What makes your approach different?

AB: Primarily through the topics that I look at – more than my manner of reasoning or whatever. So paragraph by paragraph it could appear somewhere else but overall it’s just oriented in a particular kind of direction. And it does tend to be subjects which a reader is likely to have encountered in their own life and so have a more emotive relationship with, a capacity for identification with the argument, or a rejection, but either way personal experience is going to be called in as a point of reference. I’ve got the reader’s pleasure in mind and I think that’s quite different from what academics do. It’s a long-standing tradition in philosophy that the way that something is written does not impact on its truth value, and I don’t agree.

RC: Do you really think that people can apply philosophy to problems in their lives? There’s an aphorism of La Rochefoucauld that goes, 'philosophy easily triumphs over past and future evils, but present evils triumph over philosophy.' How can philosophy possibly help people like those currently stuck out in their cars in the snow?

AB: Well, if philosophy’s doing the past and the future that’s probably quite a good thing – two out of three is not that bad! I think sometimes people get impatient with the arts and culture more generally because it seems ineffective at certain potent points. Like where was the philosophy of Goethe in the Second World War and why didn’t that stop the Nazis? Or why didn’t the music of Mozart bring them to their senses? I can understand the frustration but I just think that it’s expecting to something to do something where it doesn’t quite belong. So if you’re stuck in the snow or very cold or someone’s got a gun to your head, it’s asking a lot to think that La Rochefoucauld’s going to help you there!

RC: Coming as a student, how do you think philosophy could help motivate us in our studies? Students quite often have existential crises too!

AB: As a student, it’s a time in your life when you’re becoming aware of lots of difficult issues like, ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ or typically around relationships and work. I suppose what a lot of people look for, sub-consciously, is some help from books, culture, knowledge to shed light, you want some kind of perspective on problems. It can also make you feel less alone, not the loneliness that you’ve got nobody to go and have a meal with but that the kind of conversation you have over that meal with the people you’ve gathered does not properly address the problems that you’ve got on your plate. It’s at moments like that, that a book can be a great medium of communication and people will look to it for that.

RC: At university everyone is so specialised that sometimes you sometimes literally cannot talk to someone else even about your own subject. Is there a problem of an arts/science divide?

AB: I think it is a big problem and in university 98% of my friends were in the arts. It should be the case that artists and scientists can put down their tools at the end of the day and talk about life, but I think that the demands on the mind of the sciences are such that they reward and encourage a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mindset that is probably not inclined to the sort of views of arts people. So it’s not just that it’s hard to meet after lectures, one has to acknowledge a rather awkward structural problem here: the ways of looking at the world are so different.

RC: Do you have fond memories of your undergraduate years at Cambridge?

AB: Semi-fond memories but it was a difficult time for me. Really what I was trying to do was feel my way to the kind of books that I might want to write, which felt so different from the books that were around me, so a lot of my time was spent thinking about that. Also, I didn’t like that many people that I was around with. I expected an environment full of wonderful, thoughtful, nice interesting people and there was a general level of dullness of mind. I was also very keen to fall in love in a transforming and extraordinary way and that also failed to happen as it should have done. So on all fronts, university was a disappointment and a challenging time. Looking back, it was maybe a good thing that it wasn’t perfect because life’s not perfect. But having not particularly enjoyed my school time I really looked forward to university being an amazing experience and it just wasn’t.

RC: Do you think that tabloid journalism is a good or bad thing for society?

AB: I think that the media is an incredible powerful force and it can be for good and it can be for evil. For all the mockery of media studies as a subject, there are few subjects more important because it’s teaching you how to consume media and to be a bit suspicious of how media has come to your plate in the form it is. Most of us don’t have that training, most of accept it uncritically. I think you need to know how to decode it and understand. A good tabloid would have an idea of what a good life was and try to report on the world with that in mind. So, a good tabloid has a mission. The Daily Mail has a mission, it’s not exactly my mission or many people’s mission – but it has a mission and it shows very clearly what a mission looks like for a tabloid newspaper.

Should a newspaper be making normative judgements anyway? Shouldn’t it just be an impartial telling of the facts? Well you can’t do that anyway since all stories are selections. The BBC suggests that it’s an impartial, reasonable voice when it’s riddled with ideological assumptions about what should be number one on the news agenda, and its faux-tone of authoritative bland majesty is just not true. Whenever there’s a really thorny issue like reporting on Israel or climate change then the BBC is attacked for having bias and it gets terribly upset and goes, ‘no no no, we’re not biased at all,’ and you want to go, ‘is bias necessarily that much of  a bad thing?’ The point is just to have the right bias rather than no bias at all.

RC: What does the future hold for Alain de Botton?

AB: The future holds a book about religion; looking at religion from a secular point of view and the sort of things a secular society loses when its institutions are mostly secular.

RC: Is it a shame that we’ve lost religion in society?

AB: It’s not a shame that we’ve lost superstition, I think that’s a good thing. The problem is that along with losing superstition we’ve lost many things that went with it and many things that were unfairly associated with it. Such innocent bystanders as morality and virtue have got caught up with it and it now seems religious to talk about good and evil. We’re very worried about slippery slopes in this whole discussion about religion that we’ve got off the mountain altogether! And that’s a real pity.

RC: But there is still hope for society?

AB: Definitely, yes…

So I think I can safely say that I learnt a lot from my talk with Alain de Botton. Who knew that The Daily Mail could actually be considered a good newspaper and that the primary mission of the BBC might in fact be misguided? Or that media studies might not be such a waste of time after all? If philosophers can bring insights such as these to contemporary debates then all may not be lost after all and cynicism towards the subject can be overcome at last.

It’s a refreshing thought that there might still be a place for philosophy in society when it seems to have been neglected by so cruelly. Hopefully this outlook will just be enough to help a few dozen undergraduates (and maybe one or two professors too) sleep better at night.