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With the pace of change whistling past us at a frenetic rate Artworks turned to philosopher and founder of The School of Life Alain de Botton to pause for thought.

10 min read

Philosophy. It’s fine if you drop the word into a sentence every so often when praising someone else’s stand point, or referring to one of the the greats by way of a famous quote on the brink of cliché. It’s okay to mull over what really matters in life when you’re setting the world to rights at the end of a long night, or when life is at its most difficult, but otherwise philosophy is for academics and perhaps the older generations.

All this seems to be changing dramatically however, as the digital revolution affects everything in its wake. As the new contends with the only slightly less new, and the old is celebrated and modified, ‘the way it’s always been’ is disappearing fast. What replaces is has not yet been defined. We now live in a world of rapid prototyping, with trial and improvement, agility, and minimum viable products.

The fast pace has also inspired a focus on slowing down, considering the big picture and a rise in popularity of meditation, yoga, nutrition, mindfulness and philosophy. These two contrasting tempos co-exist in today’s ever changing world so who better to ask how philosophy, the arts, and business sit together than author, philosopher and entrepreneur Alain de Botton.

Whilst you might imagine a philosopher in a grand library or study, it is clear that he lives as fast paced a life as any top entrepreneur. Late last year he published his eleventh book Art as Therapy and has just released his latest one, News, this February, fitting this interview in between travelling through Mexico and Korea!

How does the increase in awareness and interest in philosophy effect everyday business?

From a distance, it does not seem as if philosophy and business would have anything to say to one another. Businesses are concerned with meeting strict targets under time pressure, maximising revenue and outwitting competitors. Philosophy is concerned with the largest and most impractical questions about the meaning of life; it sets itself no targets and has no practical outcomes.

In reality, business and philosophy have a huge amount to say to one another. Beneath their interest in profits, businesses are forced to engage with nothing less than the question of how to satisfy their customers, a subject full of contradictions and complexities. For its part, philosophy has spent most of its long history investigating the ingredients of a good life, what Aristotle called eudaimonia, a Greek word translated as “flourishing” or “fulfilment”. In their different ways, philosophy and business have to work out what satisfies people, and therefore how they tick.

Most businesses, outside a tiny crooked minority, have to be committed to promoting the flourishing of their customers. Their long-term survival depends on it. Perhaps they are selling people hand-dryers or household insurance but, ultimately, their livelihoods depend on the accuracy with which they have discerned the true needs of those they have set out to serve: profit is the reward for working out those of your clients ahead of anyone else.

In order to work through the psychology of their clients, businesses commonly rely on market research, carried out for them in focus groups and interviews. But they do not typically step back and properly think about human nature from a 2,000 year cultural perspective, and their analyses of their customers suffer as a result. An ordinary business would ask: “How do I improve my margins in the ski business?” But a philosopher would ask: “Where is the need to ski rooted in the human soul?” Eventually the philosopher would find a way back to the balance sheet, but the starting point would be higher and broader, and the results often more interesting. With a proper philosophical perspective on the needs of customers, businesses can start to see new market opportunities, rather than being left to fiddle with margins, wages and logistics.

In Art as Therapy you say certain art works deliver valuable solutions to life’s problems – what determines its effectiveness?

It comes naturally to most of us to think of music as therapeutic. Almost all of us are, without training, DJs of our own souls, deft at selecting pieces of music that will enhance or alter our current moods for the better. We know to go for something sonorous or vulnerable to dignify a downward spirit or to regain hope with a fast, generous rhythm.

Yet few of us would think of turning to the visual arts for this kind of help.

Few of us involve paintings or sculptures in our emotional lives. 

We don’t have playlists of favourite images on our phones. We don’t assemble our own private galleries on our computers. The cost and prestige of art typically draws us back from such steps. The way the establishment presents art to us doesn’t invite us to bring ourselves into contact with works. In the solemn galleries of museums, which is still where most of us pick up cues about how to behave around art, many of us are, in our hearts, a little lost (the gift shop is more helpful; it may be embarrassingly easier to have a fruitful time with the postcard than the original). We look at the caption and dutifully learn some key dates, the provenance and perhaps an explanation of an allegory. But could this really matter to me? What should art really be for?

The second question has long felt either vulgar and impatient or else simply unanswerable. This is dangerous. If art is to deserve its enormous prestige (and I think it does), then it should be able to state its purpose in relatively simple terms. It’s the contention here that art is ultimately a therapeutic medium, just like music. It too is a vehicle through which we can do such things as recover hope, dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, wonder, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism (the list could go on…). 

But for it to do any of these things for us, we need to approach art in the right sort of way. It needs to be framed not principally according to the criteria of art history (however interesting those can be), but according to a psychological method which invites us to align our deeper selves with art works.

Is it possible for the arts to help improve business performance as a whole moreover than helping individuals?

Asked to analyse a business, a philosopher would typically start by asking what its deep purpose was: that is, what its eudaimonic promise to its customers was made up of. Then he or she would look at how well the company was living up to the promise, before suggesting new products, services or brand messages that would align it more closely with its implicit promises.

Imagine an ambitious luxurious hotel trying to stay afloat in a competitive market. The hotel would tend to imagine it knew what it needed to do for its customers; the struggle would be all about delivery. However, what tends to be rushed is the definition of what exactly a good night in a hotel is. Where do the sheets and the minibar fit into this? What is the role of the soap and room service? What if one went back to the drawing board to address the question of what a hotel is? 

There are many problems that can destroy a night in a hotel. Here are some of those that tend not to be thought about (they are too philosophical). One might feel anxious, or confused. One might be lonely. One might have an argument with one’s partner. One might feel disconnected from the culture of the country all around. Typically, hotels do not think these sort of problems belong to them. They limit their focus to the soap and the bed. In other words, they are forgetting the full range of implicit promises they have made to their customers: you will be happy with us.

A hotel that took fulfilment very seriously might be led to develop a whole range of new services and products. Hotels, like so many businesses, are only at the dawn of understanding their customers’ real needs because they operate with too narrow a definition of happiness.

Similar issues bedevil financial services. Take wealth management. On the surface, this is a business that promises customers a certain return a year on their portfolios. But the deeper implicit promise is: “You will live well with money around us.” However, very few firms tackle the implications beneath this grand claim, rendering them intensely vulnerable to competition and downturns in their financial performance. A wealth management firm under philosophical guidance would not stop looking after money in the standard ways, but it would also be asking how money can properly contribute to clients’ happiness.

How well are the clients’ children relating to money? How has money affected the clients’ friendships? What is the point of philanthropy? What has been the meaning of their lives? As with the example of the hotel, these are questions that implicitly fall under the remit of a particular business but that business is not looking at them squarely and imaginatively.

Letting the odd philosopher into a business is not an indulgence. It would help management think more deeply about what a business should properly be trying to do with the customer’s life in order to improve it. There is (fortunately) no enduring conflict between understanding the psyche and making some money.

Which art works give you therapy?

We’re often intensely lonely in our suffering. In an upbeat world which worships success, our miseries feel shameful. We’re not only sad, we’re sad at being the only ones that seem to be so. We need help in finding a sense of perspective and honour in some of our worst experiences. 

We can’t remove suffering from life, but we can learn to suffer more successfully, that is, with less of a sense of persecution or an impression that we have unfairly been singled out for punishment. ‘Fernando Pessoa’ is a beautifully dark monumental work by Richard Serra, named after a Portuguese poet with a turn for lamentation (as he wrote: ‘Oh salty sea / how much of your salt is tears from Portugal.’).

The work does not deny our sorrows, it does not tell us to cheer up or point us in a brighter direction (what people often do when we tell them our troubles). The large scale and monumental character of this intensely sombre sculpture implicitly declares the normality and universality of grief. It is confident that we will recognise and respond to the legitimate place of solemn emotions in an ordinary life. Rather than leaving us alone with our darker moods, the work proclaims them as central features of life. In its stark gravity, like many of the greatest works of art, Serra’s ‘Fernando Pessoa’ creates a dignified home for sorrow.