The Problem With Using Philosophy For Self-Help

philosophy for dummies

This morning I awoke from an elongated stupor to find myself hunched in a dark corner of the library, surrounded by Nietzsche books and empty budget-coffee cups. Nearby undergrads eyed me up warily. I dimly recalled having thrown a dictionary at them earlier because they were eating fruit too loudly. Looking down at my hands, I noticed the letters U B E R M E N S C H inscribed upon my knuckles. I scuttled to the bathroom to scrub the ink away and when I saw my reflection in the mirror I let out a scream. Not at the sight of my skewed hair and bloodshot eyes, but at the giant fake moustache that was glued to my upper lip.

Like a fool, I had allowed that angry Oedipal Jesus to yell into my soul, and I had been seduced to the extent that I had actually attempted to become him. I tutted at the mustachioed girl in the mirror. “What would your younger self say to you?” I asked. Just two years ago I had formally declared an end to all engagement with Nietzsche, not due to any academic beef, but because I found him so unbearably RUDE. I had tried to look past the arrogance and the abrasiveness for the sake of understanding exactly what the genealogical method entailed, but after one too many lady-hating rants I gave up and turned my attention to Germans with less of a bad attitude (hello Husserl!). And maybe this doesn’t make me a scholar, but it does make me a nice (if somewhat wimpy) human being.

Yet there I had been, just moments ago, consuming Thus Spake Zarathustra with the same vigor that I would usually reserve for a tasty snack.

The truth was, I had been utilizing Nietzsche as a certain means towards an end, and that end was Ultimate Power. I wanted to transcend my immanence. I wanted to be the sheep that stepped away from the herd, and then I wanted to make all the other sheep into my army of slaves.
But why would I, a spectacularly unambitious specimen by nature, suddenly desire world dominion so intensely?

The possible reasons are numerous. Perhaps it’s because I still don’t have a thesis topic and I’m searching for the ultimate form of procrastination; perhaps it’s because I’m riddled with student debts and can’t think of a sensible way to manage my finances; perhaps it’s because I know that the answer is moving back with my parents and getting a job but that just doesn’t feel like personal progress; perhaps it’s because I’m feeling very single but not in a ladies-leave-your-man-at-home way and more in an all-by-myself (literally, because I’m living alone in a shipping container) kind of way…

It doesn’t take Freud to see that the general problem is an increasing sense of a loss of control over my life, of which I have responded to through a manic attempt to become a demi-god. And this desire for mighty power that has recently manifested itself in my academic studies does not end with Nietzsche. As a member of the humanities department, I frequently encounter Foucault on various syllabuses. Many people see Foucault as a depressing determinist, always banging on about discourse and our inevitable place in it and how we are constituted by all these power structures that give only an illusory sense of autonomy and so on BUT if you keep reading Foucault’s oeuvre right up to his dying day, you’ll find that he has a cheeky change of heart and starts giving quite useful self-help. “Be like the Greeks”, I muttered as I flick my way through the The History of Sexuality trilogy. “That will sort you out”. But the weather has not been toga-permitting and the Greeks were not women-permitting. I tried to embody an attitude of modernity through ascetic practices like Foucault encouraged me to, but it ended up with me weeping in bed with empty stroopwaffel packets strewn around me, experiencing something more like postmodern bewilderment than modernist enlightenment.

Heidegger suggested that I try to live more authentically, but I resigned myself to being too caught up in the chatter of the crowds. I even appealed to the philosopher I hate almost as much as Nietzsche: that smarmy, self-important Sartre, but all that stuff about bad-faith only led me to believe that it was in fact Sartre who was acting in bad-faith if he really believed that anyone could take him seriously as a philosopher after the way he’d treated poor Simone.

I dubbed all this reading Thesis-Research, but actually it was me trying to use philosophy for my own ends. In this sense, I was being nothing more than a cheeky neoliberal go-getter. Unfortunately my strivings towards self-actualization have failed, and now I resign myself to sitting in my own squalor, writing this self-pitying monologue instead of doing tomorrow’s seminar reading.

But lessons must be learnt from my miserable mistakes. The reason philosophy cannot be adequately transformed into self-help is because that is not what philosophy is meant for. Unless you’re counting Alain de Bottom as a philosopher, which I am not. We exist in strange times, where neoliberal notions of investing one’s own human capital make us think that if we are not mini-superheroes then we are fundamentally flawed, when actually there are a number of political and economic structures in place that increasingly render a generation immobile. It is valuable to sometimes not try to break through these structures but instead dwell in them, taking scope of our surroundings. Reading decent philosophy is difficult, but this difficulty enables us to pause for a while and be thinkers as opposed to doers. And whilst this might leave you feeling powerless (and, more importantly, jobless), it is still perhaps necessary if we hope to eventually change the system, as opposed to changing ourselves.

By Phoebe Eccles



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