June 29, 2012 7:22 pm

We think, therefore we are

Public forums for the discussion of ideas are flourishing everywhere, from festivals to pubs. But will the popularity of philosophy groups have any lasting impact?
A meeting of the London Philosophy Club at Conway Hall©Greg Funnell

A meeting of the London Philosophy Club at Conway Hall

When I graduated from university just over a decade ago, I decided to become a freelance philosopher. I was inspired by the cover of the Penguin edition of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, which showed a solitary thinker deep in rumination in a garret. This, I decided, was the life for me. I announced that I was moving to Denmark, held a leaving party, and then decided not to go. I recollected that I didn’t know anyone in Denmark, couldn’t speak Danish, and realised that the move would be a disaster. It was my first great philosophical insight.

Philosophy today has moved a long way from that stereotype of the lonely thinker. Its practice is becoming ever more communal. As well as attending discussion circles, salons, debating clubs, literary-philosophical societies and events from the likes of TED, 5x15, the School of Life and Intelligence Squared, people are gathering in philosophy clubs, Socrates cafés, Enlightenment cafés, even “death cafés” (for those who want to reflect together on mortality). Music festivals, too, such as Latitude and Bestival have their own “ideas tents” – yes, philosophy is one of the new rock ’n’ rolls. But how can the current wave of philosophical clubs ensure they are more than a fashionable trend?

The London Philosophy Club, of which I am an organiser, is the biggest in the UK. Our 2,000 members include bankers, lawyers, therapists, advertising people and a few academics looking for a more social form of philosophy. We hold free monthly meetings in pubs, cafés, galleries, parks and restaurants. Sometimes we try to match the topic to the venue: last week a group met to discuss Italian philosophy in a pizza restaurant by the River Thames.

Typically, a speaker is invited to give a 30-minute talk. Lord Maurice Glasman, Ed Miliband’s favourite philosopher, turned up at the Green Man pub in Euston, north London, two minutes before the start of a recent meeting, downed a double espresso and a Red Bull, then launched into a bewitching monologue on the search for the common good. We followed this with a question and answer session where Glasman’s thesis was politely assaulted, before breaking into smaller groups to discuss the main ideas. It’s surprising how quickly people share their beliefs with complete strangers.

When people join, we ask them why they want to become part of a philosophy club. Some have a degree in the subject and miss the practice of philosophising; some want a space to think about the “big questions” of life. Above all, they want to philosophise with others – to listen and to be heard.

Each member has his or her particular interests. I’m fascinated by Socrates’ idea that philosophy can be a “therapy for the soul” (it’s where the word “psychotherapy” comes from), and at a meeting last month we explored the links between philosophy and cognitive behavioural therapy. In the breakout groups, one elderly gentleman spoke with quiet dignity about being committed to a mental care facility. A floppy-haired undergraduate discussed how he’d learnt to reason with his temper and to choose wiser reactions to life’s slings and arrows. I was particularly moved by Matthew, a 30-year-old who told us he’d inherited bipolar disorder from his father. He’d learnt to manage it using a combination of CBT and ancient philosophy. “My father killed himself, but I’m hoping I’ve got the better of the condition,” he said. “Philosophy isn’t an abstract intellectual exercise for me. This is life and death stuff.”

Philosophy In Pubs was started just over a decade ago by Rob Lewis: inspired by a course he’d taken at the Workers’ Educational Association, he set up PIPs with his teacher, Paul Doran, to “help spread a thinking culture in the working classes”. There are now 35 PIPs across the UK, where recent discussions have included “the problems with realism” and “bad marriages make philosophers”. It’s an open-endedness that appears to attract participants. Doran says, “I’d like it if you could walk into any pub in the country and ask, ‘What time is your philosophy night?’”

This isn’t, of course, the first outbreak of communal philosophy. In Athens in the fifth century BC, it was very much a social activity – although one mainly confined to the upper classes. Pythagoras, the first person to use the term “philosopher”, lived in a commune with his followers, as did Epicurus. The Stoics gathered in one corner of the Athenian market place, the Cynics in another. The Greeks understood that, if you want to know yourself and change yourself, it’s easier to do it with others.

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ (1509-10), with Plato and Aristotle©Getty

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ (1509-10), with Plato and Aristotle

Fast-forward to the Enlightenment, and public forums played a central role in the spread of new ideas. By the 18th century there were some 3,000 coffeehouses where people – typically, affluent men – debated ideas. By the early 19th century the movement included women and working-class men who met in pubs across the country to discuss Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, which was itself written in the Angel pub in Islington, north London. This period was perhaps the high point of grassroots philosophy – it had noble ideals, a clear goal in the attainment of universal suffrage, and its meetings and rallies could attract thousands of people willing to brave government spies and cavalry charges.

. . .

Yet today’s movement is arguably happening on a far larger scale. Melvyn Bragg, the novelist and broadcaster who presents In Our Time, a radio programme devoted to the history of ideas, puts this down to the rise of a “mass intelligentsia”. “It used to be a very small minority that got together to discuss ideas,” he says. “Now it’s a very large minority. And that’s mainly a result of the colossal increase in university graduates, from 5 per cent in 1960 to 40 per cent today. There’s now a huge section of the population willing and able to take on challenging ideas.”

Bragg also points to an ageing but mentally active population: “The trend for using your leisure for intellectual activity started with older people, who decided that, rather than sweltering on a beach in Spain, they’d prefer to go to a book festival or to courses provided by the University of the Third Age. They like the ideas, and they like the social aspect too,” he says.

Derek Tatton is director of the Raymond Williams Foundation and runs a discussion circle in the Blue Mugge pub in Leek, Staffordshire. “Adult education has been transformed by the internet,” he says. “There’s now much less formal adult education, but informal learning is flourishing in exciting and unpredictable ways.” Sites such as meetup.com and Facebook allow self-run organisations to arrange meetings and attract new members.

The internet provides resources that would previously have been harder to come by. Tatton says, “We might use In Our Time as a starting point, or a TED talk. We recently used the online video of the debate at Oxford between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury.” It has also played a crucial part in building like-minded communities. Take the Skeptics movement, which flourished in the US in the 1970s and now has several million members. While there had previously been sceptics, critical thinkers suspicious of religion, in the US they didn’t always have places to congregate outside of big cities. In the Bible belt a handful of Skeptics might find themselves in a sea of evangelists. Online, they can now find local meet-ups, chatrooms and podcasts. They can even make the annual pilgrimage to The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas, where around 2,000 Skeptics congregate to socialise and meet Skeptic heroes such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

. . .

The big question facing philosophy clubs is what kind of impact they can hope to have on our society. How can they exert the kind of influence of their 19th-century counterparts?

It is perhaps no accident that such clubs flourish during periods of economic and moral crisis. There’s a sense that the ruling elite can no longer be trusted to know where it’s going, so citizens have to become more active. The Occupy movement is in some ways a giant philosophy club, an example of a popular willingness to come together to find ways to transform ourselves and our society. Yet as Occupy also shows, it’s unclear whether such informal, grassroots, non-hierarchical organisations can be more than talking shops, whether they can be an effective means to respond to global challenges. If they are to do so, they face stiff organisational challenges.

The question of funding goes back to Pythagoras (who was forced to pay his first student to take his classes) and Socrates (who famously refused any payment). Idealistic volunteers can run clubs for a few years but to develop they may need a more sustainable model. Derek Tatton says: “It’s back to the 1890s, when adult learning didn’t have any government support and relied on funding from philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie.” The clubs that survive will probably need to become slightly more formal and to attract funding, either by charging members, or by winning charitable donations. There are plenty of small grants out there from foundations such as the Big Lottery Fund, or organisations can go the route of Alain de Botton’s School of Life, and charge per event.

The movement must also improve its relationship with academia. Academics accuse grassroots philosophy of incoherence, with grassroots philosophers retorting that academic philosophy is irrelevant. This mutual suspicion dates back partly to the shift from informal to formal education – the London Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1823, eventually became Birkbeck College – and philosophy’s becoming, in the eyes of grassroots philosophers, increasingly specialised, theoretical and introverted (that image of the lonely philosopher again), losing its outward focus on improving people’s lives.

At Queen Mary, University of London, where I run the Well-Being Project at the Centre for the History of Emotions, we’re trying to build more links between academic and grassroots philosophy. There is a huge popular demand for academics to share their expertise – Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s lectures on justice have been watched on YouTube almost 4m times, his recent LSE/Radio 4 lecture series attracted thousands – and we need to find a better way to help them do that. Some philosophy departments are already finding ways: Sheffield, for example, encourages its undergraduates to run a philosophy café in the local community; Warwick has a monthly ideas café; the University of East Anglia launched “conversation cafés” earlier this year.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge for grassroots philosophy could be agreeing on common values and goals. Philosophers such as AC Grayling have talked of making philosophy a secular alternative to religion. But to create genuine communities you need shared ethical commitments. What can philosophy clubs demand of their members, beyond the entrance fee? Can we create strong ethical communities without turning into weird sects? For now, the movement is making it up as we go along. Come and join the great experiment.

Jules Evans is the author of ‘Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations’ (Rider Books). London Philosophy Club’s next meeting is July 10, at Conway Hall, London, where Professor Richard Ashcroft will discuss bioethics

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Philosophers’ spats: A poker, a pig and a boxer

Those who excel at reasoning are not always reasonable, writes Peter Leggatt

Wittgenstein vs Popper

John Maynard Keynes, after meeting Ludwig Wittgenstein on his return to Cambridge in 1929, told his wife, “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train.” What Keynes didn’t mention was that the great philosopher was returning from a stint as a teacher in Austria – where he once pulled a female pupil’s ears so hard they bled. And Wittgenstein certainly wasn’t reasonable at the meeting of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club on October 25 1946. It was the only instance in which Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper – three of the greatest philosophers of their generation – were together in the same room. Popper, contesting Wittgenstein’s notion that there are no real philosophical problems, only linguistic puzzles, presented a paper called “Are there philosophical problems?”. Wittgenstein, it seems, took up a hot poker and demanded Popper furnish an example of a moral rule. Popper claimed to have replied: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.”

Scruton vs Singer

Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton

Cambridge philosophers remain pugnacious. Roger Scruton, a former fellow of Peterhouse, is an expert on Immanuel Kant and scourge of animal-rights activists. He also has his own farm. Scruton’s signal opponent is Peter Singer, the Princeton professor of bioethics and defender of animal rights. As Singer’s book Eating records, Scruton recently reared and butchered an animal named after his nemesis – Singer the pig – and can thus claim to have slaughtered Singer.

Ayer vs Tyson

AJ Ayer, author of Language, Truth and Logic, was 77 when he took on Mike Tyson. According to Ben Rogers’ biography, Ayer was a guest at a party in New York in 1987 when a woman cried out that her friend was being assaulted in the bedroom. The philosopher went to investigate, and found Mike Tyson advancing upon the model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer told him to desist, Tyson shouted back, “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” In an apogee of mind over matter, Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Campbell left the room; the philosopher and the boxer began a dialectic.

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