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9 questions for Alain de Botton

The philosopher on emotional intelligence and the value of popular culture.

Javier Zarracina

This week, Alain de Botton — author, philosopher, and founder of the School of Life — answers our questions.

What’s the first piece of media you consume every day?

I read the Guardian online and check my Twitter feed. These are probably very bad habits.

Name a writer or publication you disagree with but still read.

It’s very gratifying to grow utterly incensed by the Mail Online and come away from it full of fury and absolute outrage at its prejudice and xenophobia — and support for Brexit.

Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think?

I’ve been deeply influenced by the child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. The School of Life is entirely based on the therapeutic approach of Winnicott. Our mascot is even a toy bear called Donald. Since the election, he has stopped selling.

When was the last time you changed your mind about something?

Very logically, popular culture is defined essentially by just one thing: It is popular. That means it’s any cultural product that’s managed to find a way into the lives and hearts of very large numbers of people. Intellectuals have often been very troubled by the idea of popularity — it seems a very wrong guide to what is good, important, and serious. They look at some of the most conspicuously popular things (certain newspaper and television shows tend to come to mind) and see how shallow and misleading they are. And therefore they conclude that popularity in itself is bad thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In roughly democratic and market-driven societies, it matters immensely what happens to be popular. And more deeply, the true ambition of every important truth should be to win universal acknowledgment.

Popularity is hugely important because it means that an idea or a value is alive in the minds of large numbers of people. Popular culture provides the repertoire of all the moves for reaching people: It’s funny, very honest about negative reactions, rude, and extremely interested in sex. It admits that we’re more excited by a sex scandal than by a government legislation; by gossip than by abstract reasoning; by fashion rather than by justice. Rather than reject the notion of popularity, we should pay close attention to how things get to be popular and try to see how more helpful ideas could be embraced with equally widespread enthusiasm.

The greatest ambition is to make the truth popular. We need the most useful ideas to learn all the arts of populism. It may be idiotic and lamentable that this is what human nature tends to be like. But since it is what human nature tends to be like, rejecting it is not a useful option. Anyone who seeks to protect the truth from vulgarization is, in effect (though with noble intentions), guaranteeing that it cannot be powerful in the world.

What we haven’t quite seen as yet is the union of two big strategies which have generally been thought to be opposed: devotion to the truth and devotion to popularity. Cracking that problem would save the world.

What’s your worst intellectual habit?

I’m prone to overexplaining things –- when my own understanding of them is shaky. The better I know something, the shorter my prose.

What inspires you to learn?

The lack of emotional intelligence circulating in society. I’m desperate to improve the transmission of wisdom. That’s my thing.

What do you need to believe in order to get through the day?

That people can improve if they are presented with the right ideas molded into the right form. I have to believe in our capacity for improvement.

What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend?

That the humanities can get to more interesting places, faster, than the sciences. At least for another 40 years or so. Then they won’t be able to.

What book have you recommended the most?

I’m always recommending John Armstrong’s The Conditions of Love.

You can read last week’s edition of 9 questions with Martha Nussbaum here.