When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask A Philosopher by Marie Robert
Author Marie Robert believes that philosophy’s priceless wisdom doesn’t belong buried away in ancient tomes, but should instead be discussed at bars, offices and dinner parties. In When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask a Philosopher, Robert presents a series of modern-day dilemmas, and brings in an assortment of philosophers to shed light on these modern quandaries. While the premise has potential, the book’s critical issue is that most of the alleged insights represent mere common sense—very little that actually requires relying on the sage advice of immortalized philosophers. It reads like Roberts is just trying to justify her choice to have studied philosophy in college, rather than assembling a practical guidebook that might nudge laypersons toward further interest in the field.
Each chapter adheres to a set structure. First, Robert depicts a vignette of a specific scenario/problem/first world complaint. Examples include buying too much stuff at IKEA, becoming consumed by social media, or dealing with a hangover. Each situation is followed by an exploration of what a prominent philosopher would say were they consulted to weigh in. This is followed by a mini-biography of that chapter’s philosopher, a paragraph highlighting their essential book, and concludes with a bullet list of the chapter’s key takeaways. Each section is reasonably brief, and the book can easily be consumed in a couple of days.
Looking back 500 or even 2500 years for ancient wisdom quickly proves unnecessary since most of what’s actually discussed here is common sense. There isn’t much reason to invoke Martin Heidegger if the main advice on offer is essentially “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Another chapter explains that, while effort and hard work can be difficult, it will ultimately bring joy and personal growth. No one would really disagree with this, so it seems disingenuous to ask Henri Bergson to come to the rescue with his astute guidance. Roberts highlights how John Stuart Mill would recommend that telling the truth builds trust, and that lying is harmful to happiness. It’s odd to imply that if not for Mill, the world would be helpless to navigate the complex moral landscape of truth versus lies.
Much of the advice is too obvious to be useful, while some of it is just plain bad. The opening vignette involves a person who goes to IKEA and impulsively buys over $250 worth of assorted clutter. Supposedly, philosopher Baruch Spinoza would enable this behavior, by stating that our desires make us who we are, so it is pointless to fight them. Indulging impulses like these doesn’t seem like sound practice, and sure enough, in a subsequent chapter the author contradicts herself by handing the mic to Epicurius, who says that most of what we think we want and need is superfluous. Each end of this contradictory spectrum contains either bad advice or obvious advice—neither of which is all that useful.
The book is further hindered by some half-baked choices in presentation. Each vignette is written in the second person “you” perspective, and many make reference to “your boyfriend,” but the book hedges its bets and never identifies itself as an advice book targeted at a specific demographic. Later on, the book’s final chapter covers the aforementioned exploration of truth and lying, after which the book abruptly ends. There’s no epilogue, no meditation on what we’ve learned, nor how to carry these lessons into future endeavors. It feels like an unnecessary slight to readers, as if Roberts writes in service of her own vanity alone, forgetting the audience was even there.
The suitable readership for this brief volume seems small. It might make sense for a philosophy undergraduate to give it as a gift to her business major boyfriend, as a means to give him a brief overview of the abstract word labyrinths she studies. Even then, it would probably behoove said couple to just watch Crash Course Philosophy YouTube videos together instead, which (unfortunately for Robert) emerges as the more engaging and informative survey of philosophy. In a book review, it doesn’t feel good to recommend a visual medium in place of the written word. This choice is not taken lightly.