Can philosophy help us with worldly troubles? Ancient philosophers thought the answer was obvious. Philosophy is a “medical art for the soul”, Cicero tells us. Its compassionate task is to lead us from suffering towards a life lived well. Contemporary philosophers are likely to be more circumspect. Wouldn’t it be presumptuous to think that my training in philosophy equips me to offer advice? The only CPR I know is the Critique of Pure Reason and the tools of my trade – a careful distinction here, some logic-chopping there – seem laughably inadequate to the fears and worries of modern living.
In his new book, Kieran Setiya disagrees. Through carefully crafted examples, he makes the case that philosophy can help us navigate the adversities of human life: pain, loneliness, grief and so on. He, too, is trained in the splitting of hairs. But this is not primarily a book of argument. It is a reflection designed to offer us new ways of thinking about ordinary hardships.
Some of this involves diagnosis. Consider the fear that your life is a failure: Setiya suggests that this only makes sense if you think of life as having a discernible narrative arc, one which culminates in the completion of some long-travelled quest. But you need not characterise it this way. Many of the things that make life worth living are processes not projects, activities not quests. If I set out to run a marathon, then I open myself up to failure. But if I concentrate on the experience of running, then I partake of something valuable no matter the distance I cover. The value of a project lies in its completion; the value of a process lies in the activity itself. Fear of failure involves emphasising one at the expense of the other.
Setiya is at his best in his discussion of the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil
Some of it involves prescription. Why do friends matter to us? Not because of their attributes. I’ve been listening to music with my mate Dan for 20 years. If my friendship with him were based solely on his extensive knowledge of music, then I ought to upgrade him as soon as someone with more knowledge comes along. But my attachment is not to his qualities but to Dan himself. He has unconditional value. This is why loneliness hurts: it separates us from the value that is other people. It follows that if we want to combat loneliness, we shouldn’t focus on shared interests, as if love were to be found by ticking boxes. We should attend closely to other people, acknowledging their existence, and see what happens from there.
Philosophy’s role here is not primarily analytical. We cannot be argued into coping with suffering. Instead, Setiya’s book is guided by an insight from Iris Murdoch: that philosophical progress often consists of finding new and better ways to describe some stretch of our experience. This kind of progress is not won by logic. It requires careful attention, precise thinking and the ability to draw distinctions that cast light on that which is of value. Setiya is at his best when he has something or someone clearly in view – for example in his account of living with chronic pain, or his discussion of the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.
And if the prescriptions sometimes seem a little pat, that is a danger inherent to the project. Setiya’s targets are the infirmities of human life in general, but many of the problems that bedevil us are as individual as we are. A philosophy that spoke to our idiosyncratic fears would amount to personalised healthcare. Setiya has his sights on something more fundamental: the problems that afflict us simply by virtue of being human. Any advice offered at such vertiginous levels of generality will always risk sounding platitudinous.
How do those consolations measure up? Clear thinking is no panacea and new forms of description may seem of little help to those who feel the pull of Setiya’s concerns. How many of those mourning a parent will be receptive to the observation that there is no disloyalty in accepting change? Will someone who worries that life is absurd take comfort in reflections on the threat of extinction? Perhaps philosophy is of use only for those already inclined to philosophical speculation.
It’s possible. But Kant is right that we all incline to philosophical speculation, whether we like it or not. And besides, what are the alternatives? Overstretched health services are not well suited to treating the fallout of grief, loneliness and emotional pain. At least philosophy is cheaper than drink and drugs. And at some point all of us must face the fact that we and those we love are finite creatures, subject to the world’s contingencies. No life worth living is free of suffering and pain. Better to face it with the clarity to which philosophy, at its best, aspires.
• Anil Gomes is associate professor of philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford. Life Is Hard by Kieran Setiya is published by Cornerstone (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply