Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Alain de Botton's Myth of Understanding

These days it is probably futile to sound off against those who, through fear that dealing with complexity may be too depressing, prefer to take refuge in superficiality. Nevertheless, Victoria Beale has done just that in her article for The New Republic about the books published in the School of Life series of Alain de Botton. To make her point, Beale singles out de Botton's latest product (what else can you call it), How to Think More About Sex, as well as How to Stay Sane by one of his other authors, Philippa Perry.

The virtue of Beale's article is that she quickly catches on to the rules of the game that de Botton and his disciples follow. The basic technique is to cast a broad net over as many "elevated" sources as you can muster (de Botton first book focused primarily on Marcel Proust), cherry-pick a bunch of quotes that you think are likely to register with the reader (regardless of whether or not they make sense when taken out of context), and meander through them while expounding on such meaningful issues as life, the universe, and everything else (such as sex and sanity). Since this School of Life stuff seems to sell, the technique must at least have the virtue of providing a return on the investment of time required to mine those quotations. From my own point of view, however, it opens up a whole new dimension of what Max Weber meant by "loss of meaning!"

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