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Philosophy Is Not Advice

by Sandy Grant

In these dark times, perhaps philosophy can help us. Perhaps. But what kind of philosophy do we need? It must be one that permits us to see what we are doing, and to face up to things. When I spoke about this recently on the APA blog, a top agony aunt advised her followers to ignore it.

I might just have laughed, or been flattered: how nice to come to the attention of such an icon. Why she even calls herself the ‘advice goddess’! But the advice she was issuing is terrible. And her column goes out to over a hundred newspapers across the length and breadth of America.

Her advice is also somewhat telling. For it seems that at this moment the privileged are being encouraged to disregard their hand in how bad things have gotten. They don’t want to take responsibility. And helping them avoid it is big business. It sells well.

The ‘advice goddess’ was offering her readers an easy way out. It is this: insult somebody who challenges you to think, and especially somebody who exposes ways in which your own hand plays in how things are. Call them a this, or a that. Then you needn’t attend to what they are saying, and we can all carry on with business as usual.

This was terrible advice at a time when people need to take a good look at themselves, when everyone needs to stop and think about what they are doing, and what they are becoming. For the current crisis is one in which we must choose what kind of countries and what kind of people we choose to be. And doing so requires us to own up to what we are all doing.

Why then does such bad advice sell so well? It takes courage to face up to your responsibility. In courage, the means taken are ones of peril, hardship or risk. What then is so very hard or risky here? What do you stand to lose?

Well, to look at one’s place in what we face now is to see not just cynical, fibbing politicians. It is to see one’s own hand in the privilege routinely accorded to some over others. It is to expose that dirty secret from which one benefits at the cost of others and about which one must not, above all, speak.

This is all a hard ask from people who prefer to see things like Brexit and Trump as a simple matter of poor people being conned by tricksters.  That beige narrative is strikingly self-serving. And it is strikingly popular. So many people prefer to make a fetish of Farage or Trump, and in wrapt fascination at their exploits disregard their own involvement in how things are now.  So the advice was bad.

But this episode also brings up a broader problem with advice. Advice involves the giving of guidance or recommendations offered with regard to prudent action. It is about what is prudent for you. And it is served up by one who purports to know what’s best. Advice is very handy when given from a plumber about your boiler. And there can be thoughtful advice. I write for The New European, a newspaper with a columnist who encourages her readers to think about how they feel at this time. But all too often advice is an invitation to be unthinking. Perhaps its very mode is a lure to what Heidegger and Arendt once called thoughtlessness, the flight from thinking.

Against this, we have philosophy. For philosophy is not advice. There are at least two basic reasons to distinguish the two. Firstly if philosophy is a practice, a something that you do, its mode is not that of giving or receiving advice. Second, philosophy fundamentally is to do with the truth. And the truth may not be a matter of what’s prudent for you.

We might also notice the scope of advice, which is keyed to immediate concerns. This makes the value of advice rather limited in addressing the big questions of life, like those about how we should live or how society should be.

Unfortunately in today’s life-hacker culture advice is big business. We see an avalanche of ‘how-to’ books promising fixes to everyday problems of living. It is the province of gurus, sages and the like. Some pop philosophers have now gone this way, cashing in on the market for advice and becoming wholly unphilosophical thereby. But advice can only be limited and limiting.

Given that trend I want to say this: philosophers are not here to tell people what they want to hear. And it is not the philosopher’s job to please people by helping them be unthinking. Indeed the best throughout history have said challenging and threatening things. And they have not always been thanked for it.

So here’s the news. There are no gods and there are no goddesses. And advice will not save you. So why not dare then? Think for yourself!

Sandy Grant is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge and at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. She tweets at @TheSandyGrant

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