Photo: Caspar Hare

Kieran Setiya: The modern self-help manifesto is intrinsically selfish

The philosopher describes how reflecting on our own suffering can help us live better
November 3, 2022

Kieran Setiya is fascinated by the various maladies inherent to the human condition. In his new book, Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, the British-born MIT professor takes us on a whistlestop tour of infirmity, grief, loneliness and failure (among other emotions).

As an attempt to help readers navigate the hardships of life, it is certainly timely. He wrote the book in the first half of the pandemic, granting him a vast real-time case study of a beleaguered world. But the project was conceived before Covid-19, informed far more by Setiya’s own relationship with adversity. He talks candidly about his experience of chronic pelvic pain, recounting the humiliation of being at the mercy of “an apparently teenage urologist”.

There is so much potential for philosophy to address the human condition

“Sometimes reflecting on our own suffering is a window to compassion,” he says. This might as well be the central thesis of Life is Hard. The key, he says, is not to blink in the face of hardship but to look closely at the things that trouble us. The best way out is through, you might say.

At this juncture you might be forgiven for thinking Setiya is some kind of self-help guru, the type who promises to show you how to get rich quick or stop caring what others think about you. But when I meet him near his publisher’s office in Pimlico, Setiya politely dismantles the orthodoxies of the entire genre. He speaks exactly as a professor of philosophy at MIT might—he is precise, and wary of being misconstrued. I find his sanguine approach to what could otherwise be a miserable topic refreshing. 

Like most philosophers, Setiya is uncomfortable with sweeping generalisations. But if there is one core problem with the modern self-help manifesto, he tells me, it is that it’s intrinsically selfish. Self-help projects encourage solipsistic pursuit of personal happiness, often at the detriment of others. Setiya stands in stark opposition to such individualistic screeds. The narrative arc of Life Is Hard marches us—almost inexorably—to the conclusion that living well necessarily entails thinking about the fortunes of those around us. 

From there Setiya builds outwards. Infirmity is about our relationship with our body. As it turns out, Setiya reckons, when we really examine our loneliness or our grief we are just thinking about our relationship to others. In the case of failure, we are just interrogating our relationship to society. By the time we arrive at injustice we are incorporating the grand structures on which all humans relate to all others.

Setiya is a tonic in an increasingly individualistic world. He is convincing, and far from the gloomy pessimist the title of his book might suggest. In fact, he is hopeful about the direction of his discipline: “There is so much more potential for philosophy to connect with and to address the human condition,” he tells me. 

We have lost the ancient philosophical instinct to bridge the gap between high-level theorising and its practical applications, Setiya says. Instead, at some point in the 17th or 18th century, the project of thinking about the good life became divorced from questions about how to behave in day-to-day life. Philosophy is poorer for it, Setiya is not shy to say. 

If this academic evolution has led us down a dark and isolated path, perhaps now the job of the ethicist is to reprogram the GPS. If philosophy can show us a better life—Setiya certainly thinks it can—then why not allow it to?