Self-help literature has been subjected to criticism, parody, derision. Much of the critique is justified (it doesn’t work, or it’s just a way to make money, etc.). All the same, we should not forget the simple mundane point behind the sophisticated arguments: that each one of us needs to make her way into the world. And we need all the help that we can get.
Many reasons can be adduced to explain the rise of self-help: the individualist, self-reliant culture of the United States; the atomization of society and the decline of forms of community; and the exploitation of such phenomenon for commercial gains, among many others.
But I also think that the rise of self-help literature fills the gap once vacated by Philosophy. Philosophy as it arose in the ancient world was not an academic discipline housed in a university department. Part of it was done in the streets, not least by Socrates in the public market. Philosophers (then) may have debated philosophical topics such metaphysics, epistemology, and other abstruse material that the field is known for. But such recondite concerns were ultimately geared to transform the way they lived. for the philosophers of India, inquiry into the nature of reality served, not simply to get facts, but also, more primarily to orient action and behavior. One title of a volume on ancient philosophy said best: Philosophy as Therapeia.
Self-help literature is precisely that: a way to show us how to live. But why has it taken such a role?
This is a complicated question, no doubt. But I surmise that one reason is the “academization” and “professionalization” of philosophy, which moved from the streets and into university departments. And the arcane jargon did not help, which further isolated the discipline. And so people take to other sources for guidance, including self-help literature. Indeed, philosophy has been attacked for its irrelevance and practical purpose.
That such a question could be posed of philosophy shows how far we’ve come from the streets of Athens, Alexandria, and other major cities of the ancient World. How we have forgotten the original vocation of Socrates, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and the rest.
Today, however, there have been attempts to make philosophy more interesting: through books that popularize the topic and all by showing how a philosopher can give life lessons. Recently, I just saw a new book, What Would Nietzche Do, which purports to show us how various philosophers could help us solve everyday problems.
Now isn’t this what self-help literature aims to do? So what if we saw self-help as a form of philosophy, a way of continuing the first raison d’être of the field? This means engaging in self-help ideas as if they were philosophy, tracing their origins, relevance, applicability, historical context, and even their ideological and political functions. More importantly, it entails setting the ideas of self-help beside those of the arguably more venerable philosophical tradition, combining and refining each other to help us live in this complex day and age.
In many ways, the popularization of philosophy is a welcome attempt to reverse the academization of the discipline. It’s also inevitably a way to gain money. True, but such popularization need not be done through book sales alone anyway. And the presence of free blogs and essays are a testament to this.