A Return to Wonder: For Decades, Too Many Philosophers Spoke Only to Themselves-But Now They're Writing Original and Accessible Works for a Wider Public

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In 1997, the bookshop chain Waterstone's invited its customers to vote for the "Top 100 Books of the [20th] Century". More than 25,000 people took part in the poll, which was topped by J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. At number 41 on the list, squeezed between Watership Down and The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's detective thriller set in medieval Europe, was Sophie's World by the Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder, a history of western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Jean-Paul Sartre in the guise of a novel.

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Sophie's World was an astonishing success: it sold over 30 million copies in 53 languages after its initial publication in Norway in 1991, and was adapted for the cinema and turned into a computer game. Since then, the general reader's interest in popular philosophy has grown enormously and the trend shows no sign of going into decline. Popular, too, are more conventionally discursive introductions to the subject and essayistic variations on it, such as Alain de Botton's bestselling updating of Epicurus, The Consolations of Philosophy (2000).

Neither Gaarder nor de Botton has held a university position, but it is possible for academics to be popular philosophers, too. A number of notable professional philosophers have, over the past decade, written original but accessible books that have impressed a readership beyond the seminar room. However, they have also attracted the suspicion of colleagues who find it hard to understand why one would want to address anybody but one's peers.

Conversely, the response of professionals to the work of amateurs such as de Botton has generally been hostile. Reviewing The Consolations of Philosophy for the New Statesman in March 2000, Edward Skidelsky accused him of promoting a "decadent" conception of philosophy that "can only mislead readers as to the true nature of the discipline". De Botton, he wrote, treated philosophical theories as if they were little more than "ointment we apply to soothe our various ailments". This was philosophy not as an inquiry into the good life, but as self-help. Speaking to the Independent last year, de Botton attributed such critical reactions to "snobbery". He pointed out that, "for the past 150 years, to be a philosopher meant to be employed by a university".

The professionalisation of philosophy and its contraction into an academic specialism remote from the interests and concerns of an educated public began more recently than de Botton suggests. A hundred and fifty years ago, thinkers and intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill and Leslie Stephen wrote on philosophical topics not for learned journals, but for general periodicals such as the Fortnightly Review and the Edinburgh Review. They were not academics writing for fellow professionals, but "public moralists", to use the historian Stefan Collini's phrase, addressing their fellow citizens.

Uncertainties of chronology aside, de Botton's general point stands: professional anxieties about the perils of popularisation are not new, nor is the hunger of the average reader for philosophical sustenance. Indeed, the two things are closely linked, because popular philosophy has often filled a vacuum left in the culture by professionalisation and academic specialisation.

In the late 1950s, Iris Murdoch, then still a philosophy don at Oxford, bemoaned the intellectual quality of public discourse in Britain. As philosophy becomes "increasingly a matter for highly trained experts", she wrote, "it separates itself from, and discourages, the vaguer and more generally comprehensible theorising which it used to nourish and be nourished by".

What replaced academic philosophy was often just as unedifying, however. In 1957, a year before Murdoch presented her diagnosis, the best-known philosopher in Britain was not the octogenarian Bertrand Russell, who by this time was more celebrated for his (sometimes crankily Utopian) political activity than for his philosophical work. …