The self-help movement was a real late twentieth century phenomenon. It was (is) quite different from the self-improvement societies of (say) Victorian Britain, or the (often somewhat cultish) self-improvement societies of the twenties and thirties (the nadir of these societies being Hitler’s National Socialism, which had its roots in cult-of-the-body groups from the twenties). All these movements were fundamentally social. But self-help since the liberal individualism of the sixties has been thoroughly individualistic (think of the Tom Cruise character in Paul Thomas-Anderson’s flawed masterpiece Magnolia as the nadir of this kind of movement).


The following quote typifies a common view; that the self-help phenomenon is an achievement of Enlightenment culture (a culture that is optimistic about human potential and committed to social progress):


I would say that, over the last twenty-five years, the biggest triumph of the Enlightenment view is that people have grasped the concept of their own happiness as a real goal in life. You can see this in the emergence of the self-help industry. Here is a huge industry that hardly existed a generation ago. People today go to seminars, and take classes, and buy books, for no purpose except to be happier in their personal lives. Of course, a lot of it is garbage. There’s a lot of self-indulgence, irrationality, and subjectivism involved. But the very fact that the self-help movement exists is a triumph for the individualist, Enlightenment outlook. (“The State of the Culture, 1997,Navigator, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11)


But this view also equates Enlightenment culture with individualism. But does this equation hold? Here at the RSA one thing we are concerned about is what is often referred to as ‘the retreat to the private sphere’ – the withering of concern for others and collective social responses to problems that is driven by a private individualism and a public sphere that is highly bureaucratic and doesn’t engage citizens (so the way the ‘public’ sphere is organised reinforces private individualism). As an organisation we recognise that this public/private sphere combination is an impediment to social progress. We all moan about the retreat to the private sphere, but we also live highly individualistic lives. The RSA thinks this has to change if we are to live in the more pro-social world we would like, and deal with the problems we face (such as climate change, rampant and entrenched inequality). For these problems require collective action and thus an engaged citizenry.


So the self-help phenomenon, for all it might do for individuals, looks like part of the problem not the solution. And if it is the highest achievement of Enlightenment culture recently, then perhaps that culture is in trouble?


I don’t think so. It’s true that the Enlightenment from the start was always individualistic. Kant’s dictum ‘think for yourself’ is expressed in the singular after all. But it is also about taking note of scientific research – being committed to a continual non-dogmatic re-appraisal of our beliefs in light of what science discovers about the world, and indeed, for science itself to be an ongoing journey taken with an open mind.


If we look at Enlightenment culture that way, then self-help culture need not be its recent zenith. In fact, what science now tells us about the brain seems to refute individualism. I am attending a very exciting conference tomorrow hosted by my project’s namesake Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain’.  The conference title is ‘Social Brains and Social Networks. The basic theme, as far as I understand it, is that our brains have evolved to function within social networks. For example, the adequate production of the neurotransmitter/modulator Serotonin is designed to occur within empathic relationships. Take the relationships away, and problems ensue. Or, another example: feelings transmit information about help we need to others, even if we haven’t realised we need the help ourselves. And Daniel Goleman has popularised the idea that the production of certain mirror neurons makes possible altruistic behaviour beneficial to social cohesion.


Self-help culture then, seems out of kilter with what we know about the social brain. If a person wants to be happier she is better off working on her friendships and relationships. If a person wants to increase her self-esteem then she should approach this through her relationships with others too. If a person wants to be more effective in the world, then she should work on her social and emotional intelligence. The self-contained individualism of self-help culture helps with none of this. Perhaps as that culture catches up with the science, it will become less individualistic. Then it might actually be able to contribute to the wider problems we face, such as the retreat to the private sphere. And it can still be an expression of Enlightenment culture, just not individualistically conceived. As Sartre said, ‘Hell is other people’. But Sartre also recognised that a person’s sense of  self is co-constituted by her ‘being-with-others’ – her perception of herself as an entity is mediated by states of mind such as shame which fundamentally related to other people.


So Sartre foreshadowed the idea of the social brain. He recognised that everything that’s important to us – happiness, self-esteem, self-efficacy – are socially constructed (everything that self-help culture places ‘inside us’, is actually both there and ‘outside us’ in others as well). But he didn’t like the idea of such dependency. But what’s not to like? For the individualistic self-reliance he was enamoured with has been perhaps the largest impediment to social progress (something he was also enamoured with) in the last thirty yeas or so.