Almost everyone knows that one of the great banes of online life is unsolicited advice. The compulsion some people feel to advise strangers is a continual puzzlement to me. You can see it especially vividly when someone says online that she really likes X or is very much enjoying Y, where X and Y can be anything from moisturizer to a typeface. Immediately someone will hop up and say, “Have you tried Z?” — or, worse, “You should try Z.” Why should she try Z? She just told you that she’s happy with X. Leave her to her enjoyment, you obnoxious person.
But as Agnes Callard points out in this excellent essay, the giving of advice is as fraught an activity when you’re being asked for it.
When starry-eyed students come to my office to ask for tips and strategies for becoming a philosopher, I find myself cringing in anticipation of the drivel I am about to spout. My advice isn’t “bad” in the sense that it will lead them astray, but it is bad nonetheless, in that it won’t lead them anywhere. It’s as though right before I give the advice, I push a button that sucks all the informational content out of what I’m about to say, and I end up saying basically nothing at all.
And then, later in the essay:
I do not have tips or tricks for becoming a philosopher to hand over to my students; my wisdom is contained in the slog of philosophical argument — the daily grind of reading old books, picking out the premises, tearing them apart. I can make you better at that, by showing you how to do more of this and less of that. I can’t help you become a philosopher without being your philosophy teacher, any more than I can massage you without touching you. Someone who wiggles her fingers and pretends she has magical powers isn’t actually getting you anywhere.
I think this is right, and what it suggests to me is something along these lines: Useful advice can only be given in response to a very specific question. “How can I become a philosopher?” (or, as I often hear, “How can I become a writer?”) is so vague and abstract a question that no meaningful answer is possible. But if you ask me “Does this sentence make sense?” or “How am I supposed to read this article?” or “Is this a good letter of application?” then perhaps I can help.