The Doomed Project of ‘Smart Thinking’

Raphael, ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-1511. Public domain

Philosophy is not here to help you do better at your job

In recent years, a new literary genre has emerged: bookshops (notably Waterstones) have gradually replaced sections like ‘Philosophy’ with something called ‘Smart Thinking’. At its core, Smart Thinking can probably be understood as the self-help book equivalent of Coke Zero: just as the no-sugar soda was invented by marketing people as a blokier version of Diet Coke, Smart Thinking books are self-help texts for people who want to see themselves as being driven primarily by reason as opposed to emotion (and of course there is a gendered dimension to this as well).

But Smart Thinking is also just a vibe: core Smart Thinking texts not only include those which purport to show us how to be better individuals and ratiocinators (Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life, 2018; Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011), but also big-picture texts about Who We Are and Where We’re Going (Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011; Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, 2011).

You probably know the sort of person that Smart Thinking books are designed to appeal to, and you probably find them incredibly annoying: rigid know-it-alls who fetishise Logic and Reason; the sort of person who might unironically think that Richard Dawkins has something relevant to say about religion; who might have stanned Elon Musk, at least before the whole Twitter thing; who thinks that it is simply, obviously true that AI is going to end up somehow usurping us all.

Most Smart Thinking authors aren’t philosophers. While the subject matter of Smart Thinking books does tend to be at least somewhat philosophy-adjacent, its authors are typically psychologists, economists, political scientists, who advance their fundamental theses about the nature of thought, or society, or the mind in a snappy, TED talk-ish, fulsomely data-driven way. But at least one is: step forward Julian Baggini, founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine.

Baggini has been writing books which might have been placed in the Smart Thinking section for a while now (I’m sure I’ve seen his 2005 hit The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten there), and has been openly interested in the concept since the middle of the 2010s. But now he has released what we might call an honest-to-god, unashamedly Smart Thinking book: How To Think Like A Philosopher: Essential Principles for Clearer Thinking (2023), which draws on Baggini’s philosophical training and experience to offer, as the blurb claims, ‘twelve key principles for a more humane, balanced, and rational approach to thinking.’ Said principles include ‘Pay attention’ and ‘Question everything (including your questions)’, and are largely illustrated with examples drawn not only from academic philosophy itself, but also the interviews Baggini has conducted with practising academic philosophers over the past 25 years.

It’s clear that Baggini conceives of what he is doing as, on at least some level, the remedy to what the likes of Peterson or Malcolm Gladwell do: soberly appreciating ‘the sheer difficulty of thinking well’ – never reducing his counsel to hot takes or simple life hacks (although there are ‘How to’ guides at the end of every chapter). His presumed reader is perhaps a bit milder-mannered than the average Smart Thinking addressee: very much a liberal Guardian-reading type, probably a senior professional of some description, dimly aware of things like trans rights and constantly fretting about things like Trump, or Ukraine. They don’t just want to get ahead at work, for instance, but to be a better citizen as well. While reading a Smart Thinking book like 12 Rules For Life might well make you actively stupider, I don’t think Baggini’s book would be liable to do that.

But equally, I don’t think that Baggini’s attempt to merge philosophy with Smart Thinking is a successful one. In particular, I take issue with something that is, at the very least, implied throughout: namely that philosophy ought to be useful, either solely or primarily, as a way of helping us to think more ‘clearly’.

Reading Baggini’s book, I was reminded of some comments that a quite different philosopher, Theodor Adorno, makes about the early Wittgenstein in his Lectures on Negative Dialectics (1965). Considering Wittgenstein’s maxim, ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,’ Adorno comments that he would maintain it is ‘the anti-philosophical statement par excellence.’ For Wittgenstein, we ought to ‘pass over in silence’ things we cannot clearly ‘speak’ of, because to do otherwise would be to lapse into nonsense. But for Adorno, on the other hand:

‘We should insist instead that philosophy consists in the effort to say what cannot be said, in particular whatever cannot be said directly […] In this sense it has to be said that the concept of philosophy is itself the contradictory effort to say, through mediation and contextualisation, what cannot be said.’

For Adorno, the effort to ‘say what cannot be said’ is worthwhile, because it is only through the attempt to do this that we might ever possibly hope to break away from the various presumptions foisted upon our thinking by the social whole through which not only it, but also us, have come to be.

In this, Adorno insists, philosophy is precisely not useful: it is precisely opposed to any of the standards of worldly success by which we might typically measure ourselves. Dedicating your life to philosophy is likely to make you less, not more, successful – it is likely to make you a substantially less productive and respected member of society than you might otherwise have been. It refuses to go along with the social whole. And it is also in this that philosophy must always, inevitably, lapse into unclearness. Either philosophy verges on nonsense, or it betrays its own concept: the ‘utopian’ potential that Adorno wishes to associate with it.

And here we can see why any attempt to turn philosophy into Smart Thinking must always, happily, be doomed. Philosophy, in short, is not that smart: at its best, philosophy dares to think stupidly, extravagantly, ridiculously. Philosophy verges on nonsense: as for someone like Deleuze, it invents technical jargon to describes things noone had ever previously really thought to name. It ends, like Plato’s dialogues, in paradox, aporia; it enforces dualisms – like Kant’s division between ‘appearances’ and ‘things in themselves’ – that no-one could ever seriously be inclined to accept. Philosophy is not there to help you do better at, for instance, your job (even, or especially, if your job is ‘professional academic philosopher’). Perhaps it has a ‘use’, in some deep sense. But this ‘use’, such as it is, is inextricably bound up with the fact that it is confusing, baffling, weird: its obvious and apparent uselessness.

Most recent


We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. This includes personalizing content. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, revised Privacy.