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What’s the difference between philosophy and self-help?

‘Life is Hard’ author and MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya has answers – and more questions

Kieran Setiya’s new book is "Life is Hard."Courtesy of Riverhead Books/Caspar Hare

Love Letters

I’ve been avoiding Instagram lately. I go on there to see my friends’ kids’ Halloween costumes and to share things about my work, but I wind up seeing … life philosophy. Posts with one-sentence platitudes about how to be.

Some of these are accounts I choose to follow; they’re run by famous mental health professionals. Others are accounts I’m offered, maybe based on who I am (45, a woman, etc.).

Basically, if I go on social media, I am served targeted advertisements for baggy tunic sweaters and unsolicited advice about how to have good relationships with myself and the world.

Sometimes the advice makes me feel like a champion. But more often than not, it makes me feel like I’m doing life wrong. While the aphorisms often sound 100 percent legitimate many contradict one another. (“No more toxic positivity!” “Be positive!” “Self-care comes first!” “Stop centering yourself and do more to help the world!”)

I thought about these messages while I read “Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way” by MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya. It’s a lovely, empathetic book — perfect to explore in this monthly Working On It column, where we consider books that might fall under the category of self-help. Setiya uses philosophers, old and new, to contextualize so many dilemmas, including COVID-19, grief, loneliness, that feeling of failure that follows some of us around all day, and the difference between being happy and living well.


I wondered what Setiya might say about whether self-help – especially quick bites of it – counts as philosophy and how to interpret it all. We philosophized together, on Zoom.

Q. Your book aims to help us help ourselves by considering philosophy. What is your relationship to the idea of self-help?

A. I’m around a lot of people in academia who roll their eyes at self-help — not all of them, but some. I generally don’t have that reaction. My general feeling is that if something’s helping people, this is good.


Q. The ideas behind the self-help one-liners I see on social media maybe aren’t so different from the thinking of the famous philosophers you write about. And there are conflicting theories in both realms.

A. Often what’s happening when you see opposing slogans that seem to have some truth in them is — which one is relevant to your situation? The task is to really pay attention to what’s actually happening in the circumstances, and only then can you tell which of these maxims to bring to bear on it. The challenge is how do you take into account the particular texture of people’s lives? One of the effects of that in [”Life is Hard”] is the turn toward using myself as a case study. It helps to have a concrete person in mind.

Q. It does make me wonder who of the iconic philosophers, if transported to present day, would really kill it on social media, in telling people how to live.

A. You know, Socrates is funny and sarcastic, so I think he’s a good bet. Epicurus, who’s this hedonist, who has this idea that it’s all about pleasure and pain – he set up a commune, so he really was a guru. Whatever he was doing, it was attracting followers. The other figure who I think would have a funny social media presence is Diogenes. He has jokes. When Occupy Wall Street was happening happening, people would cite Diogenes as a kind of avatar of that movement, because he said, “Forget money. I’m going to just camp out in the streets and protest injustice.”


Q. In your book you cite many texts that are not what I define as classic philosophy. You write about poets, novelists, memoirists, even the movie “Groundhog Day” and what lessons we can take from it. How do you decide who counts as a philosopher?

A. My sense is if you’re thinking reflectively about how to live in a way that could be of use – especially if you’re doing it in a way that is orienting for other people – I feel like you’re basically doing philosophy, whether you’re doing it with reference to canonical philosophers or you’re doing it the way Anne Boyer does in “The Undying,” where she’s dealing with her own cancer diagnosis and just reflecting on how to live in this difficult situation. I don’t see a lot of point in arguing that that’s not really philosophy.

Q. The lesson I got from your book — even though I know you’re not trying to prescribe ways to live — is that maybe we should consider self-help the way we do philosophy. That instead of internalizing some meme or message about toxic relationships and self-care, for instance, we could talk to others about when that message makes sense. Maybe self-help is just an entry point for discussion.


A. Right. I think the ideal response to philosophy is this sort of dialogic one where you think this philosopher is describing a certain way of living that works that they’ve related to their own life. “Do I think that’s right? I’m not sure it might work for me. Let me talk to someone else about it,” – and then do the philosophy yourself, which is to say, just argue it out. Use this as raw material for thinking for yourself about how to live your life. The ideal form of engagement with philosophy is active rather than passive. I suppose that one worry about certain kinds of self-help is that the form of consumption it invites is passive rather than engaged and reflective.

Worth mentioning: Setiya’s appendix in “Life is Hard” serves as a very good reading list for people who like to think about how to live. When I asked him to recommend three more books for people who want to start a philosophical conversation he suggested Iris Murdoch’s “The Sovereignty of Good.” Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” and Oliver Burkeman’s “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” which he called a “philosophical investigation of mortality masquerading as a ‘productivity book.’”

Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, by Kieran Setiya, Riverhead Books, $27.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


Meredith Goldstein writes the Love Letters advice column. You can send her a letter by visiting or by writing

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