The Irksome Aura of Self-Help

And the Dawn of Contemplative Philosophy

Oshan Jarow
Nov 17, 2018 · 5 min read
Image by Holly Henry

trolling through the Barnes & Noble self-help section is a peculiar form of torture. But the genre, behind rows of author images with glimmering white teeth, is on to something that philosophy seems to have left behind: practice.

However banal and kitschy the tropes of self-help are becoming — journaling, gratitude, micro-habits, 10-step programs — their emphasis on practice, rather than theory, strikes a chord largely absent from more ‘serious’ recent discourse on philosophy’s inmost question of how to live.

An Agent of Entropy

hy do I — and I suspect many others — find self-help books so irksome? Maybe it’s the transparent packaging of profit motive in the guise of serving others. Anyone who claims to know ‘The One Tip You Need to Succeed!” almost certainly is not, in fact, selling anything of the sort.

But I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with a transparent profit motive. Must we hide the fact that we all have to earn our living? Better to be up front about it, rather than disingenuously hiding the motive.

So my qualm stems from elsewhere. When strolling through that aisle of smiles, all advertising the wonderful life they’ve figured out how to live and wanting to graciously share their secrets with me, perhaps I feel they’re doing a disservice to the very question of how to live by diluting the landscape of rich answers with shallow, exploitative ones. Maybe what’s so irksome about this niche of the self-help genre is their exploitation of the human appetite for simple answers to complex problems.

From either side of the aisle, the book covers exclaim:

“I’ve figured it out, and now you can to!”

To suggest life has a single response, a single method to navigate its dynamism insults the very question. Or it just insults me, and I’m projecting. Either way, I find hope in book covers that exclaim something more along the lines of:

“I’ve figured out that I haven’t figured it out, and I can confuse you too!”

This was as much as Socrates figured out, anyway. He was like a wandering virus, an agent of entropy, disassembling the fixed world views of his interlocutors, leaving them as piles of rubble, left to reconstruct themselves.

How people reconstruct themselves is a fascinating study. Also not a bad conversation starter

Commodification of Angst

ut there’s something more than lack of depth to the irksome aura of self-help aisles. What I fear the commercial success of this particularly glossy and disingenuous niche of the broader self-care domain demonstrates is that capitalism has irrevocably made its way into our inmost existential insecurities, and is turning a profit on them. There is a now, and perhaps always has been, a thriving market for the commodification of angst.

Alexandra Schwartz writes in The New Yorker:

“There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy; Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year.”

In this still nascent and poorly understood digital age, fears of inadequacy are amplified by the hyper-visibility of alternative lives across the internet. Suicide rates and pharmaceutical dependencies are rising in tandem with the self-help industry. Prozac and self-help books are coming to define the American bedside table.

But books advertising ‘The Secret’ to happiness, as with prozac, work only on a superficial, transient level, rendering them the ultimate manifestation of that capitalist ploy: planned obsolescence. They offer brief periods of relief, deliveries of dopamine that soon fade, leaving us craving more.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ester Bloom refers to this capitalist conditioning of how we seek to reconstruct our unraveled, insecure selves as ‘reflexive consumerism’:

“…self-care has also become a capitalist enterprise. American culture…has reduced self-care to buying stuff…In other words, active self-care was originally considered necessary to be a philosopher, typically for elite white men who had the luxury to sit and think. Now, America has democratized it by making it seemingly available to all — at least, for a price…The advertising industry has nudged self-care away from introspection and towards reflexive consumerism.”

Bloom’s characterization of branded self-help as a devolution of philosophy strikes a chord, and begs a question: Despite being a devolved, diluted outgrowth of philosophy, what is it about kitschy self-help that we reach for, and how might that magnetic element be re-woven into the larger fabric of 21st century philosophy?

Philosophical Practice

he vitality of philosophy may hinge upon its return to a discipline of practice. I’ve elsewhere written that our lives are constellations of practices, which function as the locomotive forces propelling our own becoming. Everything from our work environments to our grammatical structures are questions of philosophy, because these are our most frequented realms of repetition. As the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk declares: “It is time to reveal humans as the beings who result from repetition.”

Placing practice at the center of philosophical focus serves two functions. First, it naturally returns towards the everyday context that makes self-help so relatable. We grab those quick-fix books from the shelves because Kant is writing about transcendental knowledge, while Tony Robbins is writing about losing weight, or getting rich. One feels alien, the other speaks directly to the vulnerabilities most everyone harbors.

There are already motions underway nudging philosophy back into more relatable contexts. Skye Cleary — associate director of Columbia University’s Center for New Narratives in Philosophy — is turning a philosophical lens towards romantic love, that inmost, and yet most common, thread of longing we harbor. Philosophy professor John Kaag’s most recent book takes Nietzsche on a hike, a terrain of familiarity that invites anyone, and everyone, to see what Nietzsche might offer them in times of turbulence.

Second, this lens of practice reveals an exciting philosophical landscape on the rise. From counterculture into the mainstream, consciousness is returning to the foreground of philosophy as a focal point of practice. Attention and perception — aspects of consciousness that underpin our lives — are being approached as tools, or skills, to be trained through various regimes of exercise.

In a manner unfamiliar to Western philosophy since antiquity, contemplative practices are beginning to merge with philosophical inquiry. Meditation is being translated broadly, as any form of practice that cultivates mental autonomy, that views living as an art form, and takes attention and perception as its primary mediums.

As more thoughtful writings on how to live become increasingly relatable — driven by the likes of Cleary & Kaag — and the inventory of practices for enriching our lives become more clearly and widely understood — driven by advents in contemplative neuroscience, essentially the study of meditating brains — philosophy may reconstitute itself as a sort of ‘lived-genre’. A pragmatic discipline where theories are born of experience, and practices are the rubric of theory.

This might require a new shelf — “Contemplative Philosophy” — to distinguish from the dusty tomes left to languish in Barnes and Noble’s philosophy section. Or maybe the self-help and philosophy sections will merge into one big shelf titled “How to Live?”, addressing this question as the transdisciplinary matter that it is, and with the depth it deserves.


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Oshan Jarow

Written by

Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More:

The Consciousness Column

An ecosystem of writers exploring consciousness & culture.

Oshan Jarow

Written by

Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More:

The Consciousness Column

An ecosystem of writers exploring consciousness & culture.

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