Philosophy vs. Self-Help

The difference between “a philosophy” and “Philosophy”.

Steven Gambardella
5 min readNov 20, 2021


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This isn’t going to be an anti-self-help tirade.

In fact, I read a lot of self-help and there are a lot of great authors who work in that genre. The point of this post is really to distinguish philosophy from self-help.

Good, honest self-help is life advice that allows you to navigate life smoothly and maybe find some success. It’s a body of information that you tap into to empower and entertain yourself.

Commonly regarded as the all-time greatest self-help book is Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a great source of advice for anybody starting out in adult life. Every kid should get a copy for their eighteenth birthday because it’s a wholesome and benevolent approach to life to start on a roll with.

One of the habits, for example, is “Think win-win”, that is — always be looking for an outcome to be mutually beneficial in a discussion or negotiation.

I can’t think of a piece of pithy life-advice that tops this. It’s the angelic cousin of the Prisoner Dilemma. It says that if you have a bit of courage and an “abundance mentality” you can build cooperative relationships rather than stew in needless antagonisms.

These ideas seem like philosophy, don’t they? You could legitimately say I have a “win-win philosophy when it comes to negotiations”. This is because the idea of “win-win” is an ethical idea or rule: it guides our conduct for a positive outcome either for ourselves or others (in this case, both). It’s good for us and, to some extent, good for society.

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But that’s a philosophy, it’s not Philosophy. Philosophy is trying to understand the world and our place in it.

Self-help is about adjusting to the world. It’s about acceptance. That’s fine, there’s a place for that. We can learn to be more productive and emotionally resilient with advice.



Steven Gambardella

I am a history PhD sharing the lessons of philosophy and history with practical benefits for your life and work. Get in touch: