Seven truths about character education

This is a post by Jules Evans from Philosophy for Life.

This year I got some funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to teach a course in practical philosophy with three partner organizations – Manor Gardens, a mental health charity in North London; Low Moss prison in Glasgow; and Saracens rugby club.

The courses teach practical ideas from various wisdom traditions, and how they’ve inspired techniques in modern psychotherapy. The first half of each session is me teaching the ideas, then in the second half the group discusses a particular ethical question, such as ‘what does flourishing really mean?’, and they share their own ideas and experience.

The aim is to help people cope with adversity and move towards their conception of flourishing. It’s also to introduce people to the ‘Great Conversation’ of philosophy (and culture more broadly) and make them feel at ease in that particular party.

Saracens centre Nils Mordt, catching up on some ancient philosophy

This week, I ran a session at Saracens, where the players discussed whether arrogance or humility is a better virtue in professional sports and life in general. We discussed various figures, from Lao Tse to Paul Scholes. It was enjoyable and, I hope, useful.

I’m also working with a colleague at York University to try and get some practical philosophy into Religious Education in schools, and with others to try and get it into higher education, to help undergrads and PhDs cope with the emotional demands of academic life.

All of this work is based on the uncertain premise that wisdom can be taught.

That assumption sprang into the news this week, when both the Liberal Democrats and Labour came out in support of character education in schools.

First the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility published a ‘character and resilience manifesto‘ calling for the introduction of lessons in character skills and even a ‘character certificate’ for each pupil. The report, written by Jen Lexmond of the consultancy Character Counts, draws on the work of American economist James Heckman, who found that interventions in the first five years of a child’s life can help them acquire character skills like perseverance, self-control and attention.

Tristram Hunt: resilience is all about bouncing back

The next day, Labour’s shadow education minister, Tristram Hunt, called in a speech at an education conference for “all schools to see instilling character among their pupils as part of their educational ethos.” He also referred to Heckman’s work, as well as the work of the Jubilee Centre for Values and Character at Birmingham University.

Perhaps, the RSA’s Matthew Taylor wondered, this week would come to be seen as a ‘tipping point’ for the character education movement. However, there are still plenty of skeptics. Toby Young, the journalist and free school founder, suggested that ‘all the evidence suggests it’s a waste of time’. The columnist Gaby Hinsliff worried that it was being treated as a magic bullet that let policy makers ignore the real issue of poverty. Author Ian Leslie likewise dismissed the project, telling me: “I don’t think teachers should be charged with imparting wisdom. They should be charged with ensuring kids learn stuff, so that they can fully participate in and benefit from culture.”

Ethics in a post-religious society

The problem we are grappling with, as I see it, is this: how to teach ethics in a post-religious and multicultural society, in a culture of consumerism, ubiquitous digital media and widening inequality, a culture where the ruling value appears to be individualism and personal freedom.

We are extremely wary of the sort of collective moral restraints over personal choice which religious societies accept. Yet our post-religious culture presents deep structural challenges to the development of character – the decline of the two-parent family, for example; or the huge cultural impact of a free market media which makes more money from outrage and titillation than ethical reflection.

Policy makers have seized on ‘character skills’ because they seem to side-step our liberal dislike of moral preaching. They’re skills, not values, and they’re evidence-based. So it’s not dogma, it’s science. And everyone loves science, don’t they? Character skills in this sense are the modern descendant of Auguste Comte’s vision of a ‘positivist religion’ to replace the Abrahamic faiths.

The only problem is the evidence isn’t that great. New Labour introduced a subject called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning in 2002, only to find out a decade later it had little effect on either children’s well-being or academic success. In 2008, a resilience programme designed by Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman was tried out in several regions. Again, not much impact.

So why bother? Perhaps we should give up trying to teach these soft or ‘non-cognitive’ skills as a well-intentioned but ultimately pointless or even harmful distraction, and focus on teaching children knowledge and cultural literacy. Besides, says Toby Young, most of our character and IQ is genetically determined. If you’re smart, rich and happy, you’ve won the genetic lottery. If not, sucks to be you.

A brief proposal

Let me make a brief case for my ‘practical philosophy’ version of character education, in seven truths:

1) All of us face suffering and adversity at some point in our lives. Religion, philosophy and culture provide us with resources to cope with suffering, find meaning and move towards our conception of flourishing.

2) Some of the wisdom from religious traditions has in the last 30 years been turned into evidence-based therapeutic techniques, such as mindfulness (from Buddhism) and CBT (from ancient Greek philosophy). There is a lot evidence that these therapeutic techniques do help many people through difficult moments of their lives. That’s why people have turned to them century after century.

3) It is useful to learn about these skills / techniques, and also to learn about the ethical traditions that they come from. By connecting the techniques to their cultural context, learners are brought into the Great Conversation and given valuable cultural literacy about, say, Greek philosophy or the Renaissance or the great wisdom traditions of China and India. This is more interesting and inspiring for them than simply force-feeding them techniques in the instrumentalized and culturally sterile language of psychology.

Join the Great Conversation

4) It is also good to create spaces for open ethical discussions about what it means to have a good character, or career, or relationship – in other words, not just means but ends. Such discussions get learners engaged and make them feel part of the Great Conversation. On their own, such Socratic discussions can lead nowhere (they don’t teach us the wisdom of previous generations). But they are useful in partnership with the teaching of wisdom, because they give people the space to disagree and to find the wisdom which works for them. If I was sent on a character course and given no space for discussion or disagreement, I’d find it illiberal and patronizing, and would resist it. As John Stuart Mill realized and Martha Nussbaum recently reiterated, you need a balance between the teaching of wisdom traditions and the freedom to find your own path. This is especially true for teenagers and young adults.

5) Ethical discussions help people practice moral reasoning, or what Aristotle called phronesis. This is exactly what the Positivist approach to character skills lacks – it tries to drill people in instrumental techniques rather than getting them to think critically about which values are appropriate in which situations, and which goals we should be striving for. And perhaps most importantly, group discussions let people teach each other and be vulnerable with each other. Sounds sappy but it’s powerful, particularly with tough young men like rugby players or prisoners.

6) As children of the Enlightenment, we have a wariness of people teaching wisdom / character because we have a keen sense that moral preachers are often hypocrites. Gaby Hinsliff points out that the headmaster of one academy where pupils chant ‘character before knowledge’ each morning has just been arrested for fraud. None of us are necessarily moral beacons (I’m certainly not) but we can still explore wisdom traditions as long as we’re open about our own imperfections. One of the things I admire about the Christian tradition is this recognition of our fallibility.

7) The teaching of wisdom or character should never be an excuse for failing to tackle the structural causes of suffering, nor should it be a means for the affluent to congratulate themselves while blaming the poor for their weakness. At its best, it should give the disadvantaged the resilience to stand up to social injustice. Such was the insight of Martin Luther King, the champion of ‘creative maladjustment’, who also said the aim of education should be ‘intelligence plus character’.

I’d suggest calling this subject something like practical philosophy or the Good Life. Perhaps the best place to teach it is in the statutory hour of RE which each school is meant to teach each week (although fewer and fewer do). Or it could be done in an after-class course (some schools already do this). It may be a good way to teach ethics in a post-religious society – introducing young people to the great wisdom traditions, teaching some of the techniques or ‘spiritual exercises’ which these traditions developed, and creating spaces for them to discuss, apply, and disagree.

I hope I’m not just peddling my own course…OK, I am a little bit, but really, this isn’t ‘my’ course, this is our culture. We shouldn’t be afraid to teach it.

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Street philosophy in Munich

This is a guest post by Julia Kalmund from Munich

Although I live in Germany, I was brought up in England and have always been impressed by British pragmatism. I still read mainly in English and whenever I am in Zurich I always go to the English Bookshop Orell Füssli.  Some time ago I happened to stumble on Jules Evans’s Philosophy for Life (and other dangerous things).

I was both excited and fascinated by the theme of the book.  I had felt for some time that there must be an alternative to therapy and a different type of help to tackle life’s ever increasing challenges. Through Jules’s newsletter I discovered that grassroot philosophy and philosophy clubs were popular in Britain and Jules was just launching his Philosophy Hub.

Although there has been a definite move towards more ‘popular’ philosophy in Germany  – several books have been top of the charts by philosophers such as David Precht, Wilhelm Schmid and Julian Nida-Rümelin (who has also done a stint in government, much like Luc Férry in France), philosophy clubs are few and far between – maybe a dozen in all.

About 8 years ago I started a ‘Salon’ in my home. Gatherings that take place 8 to 10 times a year. We have a lecture, followed by discussion on different subjects, but the philosophy evenings are the most popular.  I was lucky to meet several young philosophers with excellent academic qualifications and at the same time a huge talent – also rare in Germany – of explaining difficult or seemingly complicated thoughts and theories in such a wonderful way that most guests go away with the feeling that they have finally understood things that they intuited before but could not really put their finger on.

Jules mentions the dichotomy we live in nowadays and our daily struggle trying to balance what we experience in our lives and the values that are essential to us, but often seem unattainable. German society is no different and I felt that it was time to start a philosophy club and give more people the chance to profit from the insights of philosophy and seek help outside of therapy. We were very lucky to find a suitable location where the owners are enthusiastic supporters of the idea.

For the philosophers, both Dr. Celina von Bezold and Dr. Karin Hutflötz, who have contributed so much to my Salon, the club is a base outside of academia. They can reach and help a wider public and advance their careers and their vision.

I hope in time to found a ‘Good Life Institute’ somewhat like The School of Life in London but catering to German mentality. I know by experience that you have to let things grow and develop. We have just taken our first steps and I am hoping that other people will follow suit and more philosophy clubs or societies will take off.  I am greatly indebted to Jules for his inspiration.

Julia Kalmund

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Live Like A Stoic Week, November 25 – December 1 2013

In the last week of November, Live Like A Stoic Week is happening for the second year. Everyone who is interested in Stoicism, or who practices it today, is encouraged to take part, get involved in an event or activity, and help spread the word.

Last year, Stoic Week attracted participants in schools, universities and philosophy clubs around the world, and generated articles in the Guardian, Independent, The Philosopher’s Magazine and the Huffington Post. We want to make this year’s Week even bigger.

How you can get involved:

We’d love it if, once again, Stoic Week events take place all over the world. This could be as simple as organizing a discussion on Stoicism in your local cafe or pub. It could mean local clubs, schools or philosophy departments organizing a debate on a Stoic question or theme, such as ‘can philosophy be a form of therapy?’ or ‘is virtue sufficient for happiness?’ If you’re a teacher or a lecturer, you might get your class to discuss Stoicism and to consider some of the Stoics’ practical techniques for changing our emotions.

We’re organizing a public event in London on Saturday November 30. We’ll have more details soon on that.

It would be great if any bloggers interested in Stoicism used the week as an opportunity to share their own experience of Stoicism. Has it helped you? Do you think it has relevance in modern life? Which ideas or exercises have you found particularly helpful? Write a blog post or make a YouTube video, and be sure to mention Stoic Week and to help spread the word. Send Patrick Ussher or another project member the link, and we’ll share it with our followers.

You can also get involved in our annual study of the practical effects of Stoic techniques. Pick a technique or spiritual exercise from the Stoic Handbook, and then try it out every day, keeping note of the impact on your beliefs, emotions and actions. Then fill in the Stoic questionnaire we provide, and send it back to us. You might also want to share your experience more informally via a blog or YouTube video. We’re working on the Stoic Handbook now and will have it finished by November.

The week is organized by the Stoicism and Therapy project, which is run out of Exeter University. The project brings together classicists, philosophers, psychotherapists and journalists, who share an interest in the practical and therapeutic use of Stoicism today. Project members include Professor Christopher Gill and Patrick Ussher from Exeter University, Dr John Sellars from Birkbeck University, psychotherapists Tim LeBon and Donald Robertson, occupational therapist and author Gill Garrett, and Jules Evans from Queen Mary, University of London. You can watch a video featuring the project members here.

We hope Stoic Week will increase public interest in Stoicism, and bring its therapeutic power into people’s lives.

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Interview with Paul Doran, founder of Philosophy in Pubs

This is an interview by Giulia Harding from the latest issue of the NewStoa RR. NewStoa is an organisation for contemporary Stoics.

Paul Doran is one of the founders of Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs), which is the biggest network of grass-roots community philosophy groups in the UK, with over 40 PIP groups across the UK, including 16 on Merseyside, where PIPs began. Here he talks about how PIPs started, how to run a PIPs group, and how he sees community philosophy developing in the future.

Hi Paul! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was around 45 years old, a self employed (and unemployed) bricklayer, I had five kids, halfway through a typical working class life, but at the same time, a feeling of needing to know what was going on in life began to occupy me. I had always had these thoughts, but now there was some urgency to them, something to do with my getting older and wanting to acquire some real understanding before I died. I started doing some lessons at a local night school and from there went on to do an access course. I was lucky to catch the last access course that offered philosophy (1991/92) – it was removed from the curriculum the following year. After passing the access course, I went on to study philosophy at University of Liverpool. From there I went on to do a teaching degree, as I was keen to teach philosophy, especially to ordinary working people.

Two things struck me about philosophy: One was how incredibly useful and fruitful it was in helping people understand life; how it could dissipate various kinds of worry, and Two: how inaccessible it was to people, especially people from a working class culture. Since the access course stopped teaching philosophy, there was nowhere in Liverpool (besides Higher Education) where you could go to learn about philosophy. Only now is there signs of a couple of courses emerging in Continuing Education.

So how did you come up with the idea of Origins of /Philosophy In Pubs/?

Philosophy In Pubs, or the idea of doing philosophy in public, arose from out of a local Further Education class I was teaching. It was an introduction to philosophy course (the only one in Liverpool at the time) – the course attracted on average around eight mature students, which, at that time, meant you had a viable course; these days that is not the case, those eight people would go untutored in their chosen subject today (you need 12). Anyway, a young man of around 30 years old, joined the course, his name was Rob Lewis. At the end of the ten week course, as with many FE courses, the group met at a local pub to socialize and celebrate the completion of the course. It was on just that occasion that Rob suggested to me that it might be a good idea to try doing philosophy in a pub. He was referring in particular to the problem of bums on seats, the idea being that you might attract more people to philosophy if you did it in the pub. I thought this was a great idea, so together, along with another chap (Michael Naidoo – who was on that same introductory course) set out to make it a reality in 2001.

Rob Lewis played a leading role in the initial stages, contacting the manager of a city centre pub and organizing a press interview. The Philosophy Club, as it was called then, was the first of its kind (as far as we and local press knew) so it got a good local coverage. Also Rob had been in contact with SAPERE, and it was SAPERE’s methods of facilitation (Community of Enquiry) that we adopted to help us practice our philosophizing. SAPERE have played a big role in PIP development, in particular their chairman (as was) and founder Roger Sutcliffe. Slowly, through the efforts and commitment of Rob, myself and Michael, we had three groups up and running in as many years. Gradually more and more people became involved, and PIPs (as it came to be called) became more of a phenomenon on Merseyside – there are now 16 PIP groups in the area, soon to be more, and over forty all together in the country, which is growing steadily.

How do groups operate in general?

Ideally all groups have an experienced facilitator, if not, somebody, is nominated to play the role. The idea is that the facilitator take a meta-position, and not get as much involved in the discussion content itself, but rather the form the discussion takes, and the way people are practising. This is to help (facilitate) a good and fruitful discussion. The initial idea within PIPs groups was that everyone would have a go at facilitating at some point, so everyone would learn something about it and help the facilitation process. Ideally everyone endeavours to stick to good discussion guidelines, taking note of the 5 C’s, which are part of community philosophy’s ethos: to be Caring, Critical, Cooperative, Creative, Collaborative.

The ideal is to facilitate ‘well’ at all times, but circumstances can make this difficult. There are various ways of structuring and facilitating an enquiry. For me, the first thing you do is to make people feel welcome and relaxed. Deal with any group admin there may be, then introduce and hand over to whoever’s presenting the stimulus. Once stimulus is presented, ask if there are any clarificatory questions people would like to ask, when that’s done, decide with presenter and group which method they would like to use:

  1. go around the group asking each member in turn what their first thoughts are, and then go into the main enquiry, or
  2. go into pairs/groups (depends on numbers) and discuss the stimulus and come up with a question about any dubious assumptions involved, embedded concepts, etc., in general this is the problematisation stage.

If it’s pairs/groups, the pairs/groups come back to main enquiry with a question, and explain the thinking behind it, then there’s a vote for which question they want to discus in the main enquiry, and usually a short discussion as to which is most philosophic, and why. During the enquiry the facilitator will gently encourage everyone to participate, and also challenge any contributions that require justification etc. Also, she will endeavour to summarise the different points made and where the discussion has taken them. Then towards the end begin to close things down by asking for final thoughts/comments, which involves asking whether people have moved from or altered their initial position regarding the topic, and what they thought of the process.

As I say, there are various ways and methods involved in the Community of Enquiry method, but the main thing for me is that serious philosophic thought has gone on, people have had to stop, have been stumped in a way, and have had to apply some critical and creative thinking – the Community of Enquiry method greatly aids this process.

I’m sure the members of our community would be interested in knowing how to start a group. What can you share on this topic?

The first thing you should know is that PIP groups endeavour to practice their philosophy using something called a Community of Enquiry method, which is essentially a method that allows and encourages the participation of everyone involved. Members of the group propose, choose and present topics for the enquiries. Presentations need involve no more than a few lines on a sheet of A4, a poem, a picture, an object, etc – just something to stimulate the enquiry nothing more, as it’s out of the group discussion/exploration that insights or new understanding, if any, are to be had.

But the fact we are called Philosophy In Pubs doesn’t mean it has to be held in a pub. It could be a coffee shop, a community centre, a library or any public space. Although the pub is the ideal, as it is usually the centre of the ordinary working community. The venue chosen should have a space or area that is conducive to discussion, away from loud music, TVs etc. This is not always possible, and is not too much of a concern as we find it is still possible to have fruitful enquiries in that situation as long as everyone can hear each other. If it’s at all possible use an area that is easily viewed and accessible – so people at the pub/venue can see you, and join in if they want.

It’s generally not that complicated to approach the venue manager. Explain the PIPs concept – most owners and managers like the idea of a philosophy group, especially if it’s during times when business is slow. The PIPs website provides whatever you need to take with you.

Decide what day and time you are going to hold the meetings (weekly, monthly, twice a month – afternoon/evening?). Decide when you are going to start. Give yourself time to publicise event. Contact local press and media: a photo shoot with manager – staff and group looks good in paper, try for a radio interview or mention on local radio stations. If you can produce s simple leaflet/poster (A4 size) advertising the event, we find local shops, cafes, libraries, Community centres etc, are happy to put them up for you. One of our groups does very well from posters in local launderette.

On the day/night of first meeting, it would be an idea to have some topics in mind for discussion (What is philosophy? is a good one to start with) But the first thing you might want to do is say a bit about the Community of Enquiry method, along with discussion guidelines handout. This usually takes up half an hour of the first meeting along with choosing the topics for coming weeks and socialising. Then after a short break you could discuss what people in the group think philosophy is maybe. To bring things to a close, go around the group for any final thoughts people may have regarding the topic, and also about the enquiry process – thank everybody for coming and close.

Why in your opinion is philosophy going through something a resurgence in UK today?

Firstly, I am not convinced that what we are talking about is a growth in philosophic thinking going on, however, there does seem to be an opening in society and some evidence of a desire for spaces and community forums where people can come together for a more critical discussion of the bigger questions in life.

There is the argument that it’s a consequence of the shutting down or diminishing of further education courses that were of a theoretical or edifying nature, the WEA seems a shadow of what it originally was. There is also the thought that the “education” system itself is less purely educational and more employment directed than it ever was. Having said that, there are arguments against that position of course. Either way, there does appear to be a need in society for spaces/places in our civic geography where people can acquire some erudition, some intellectual stimulation, and genuine understanding.

Is PIPs still growing and what potential does it have for the future?

PIP’s is still growing, and at the moment my feeling is that it will keep growing, as long as there are committed individuals to keep the groups running. On a wider CP front (Community Philosophy) the growth in Meetup groups (world-wide) is encouraging, and I am hoping to get along to a few of these types of community philosophy groups to see what methods they use and how they practice.

What about the relationship between community philosophy and universities?

It is argued that community philosophy, or community philosophers, don’t need academic philosophy in order to philosophise. While that might often be the case, I believe keeping in contact with the latest academic understanding and institutions helps community philosophy. Moreover, that the separating of community from academic philosophy is wrong-headed, and ‘unproductive’ – the situation should be seen as one of mutual aid: a balance – they should, aid and challenge each other.

Eight years ago, we realized there were two big resources in Liverpool which we were not utilizing – ‘the universities’. We approached the philosophy department at Liverpool University and asked if we could hold an enquiry group there, the head of department at the time: Dr Michael McGee was happy to let us use a seminar room for this, and so the Friday Forum was born. In the early years of this group we would invite lecturing staff to present a stimulus, but it would be done in the Community of Enquiry mode rather than lecture, this proved quite interesting for both PIP members and department staff. The Friday Forum is an example of how academic and community philosophy can work well together, it has been going strong since 2004 and shows no signs of stopping.

However, despite that experience with our university, a major problem is that universities in general, are following a particular economic and commercial imperative, rather than a societal or educational one. Only three years ago we (representing the citizens of Liverpool) along with the students and staff of the university had to mount a defensive action and argument to keep philosophy at the university. It was argued by the vice-chancellor and other business minded members of the senate the university might close the philosophy department. The department was not closed, apparently due to the weakness of the opposing arguments, but it is a pointer to the sort of thing that tends to dominate the thinking of many of those who administrate our universities.

Thanks a lot, Paul, for sharing the hindsight from that experience with us.

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TPM article on grassroots philosophy

Here is an article I wrote for The Philosopher’s Magazine on grassroots philosophy.

I first became involved with philosophy groups through my interest in Stoicism, as unlikely as that sounds. Stoic philosophy helped me through an emotional crisis in my early twenties, and I then looked around for other people who had been helped by ancient Greek philosophy. That led me to an online community of Stoics, called I helped organise a “gathering of the Stoics” on Marcus Aurelius’ birthday (April 26) in San Diego in 2010. The gathering brought together ordinary people interested in Stoicism from all over the world. However, it turned out that modern Stoics were often quite libertarian and prickly people, and building a “Stoic community” proved difficult. I decided that if philosophy was going to appeal to a broader segment of the population and become a genuine community, it would itself need to be broader and more pluralistic.

In late 2010, I heard about the London Philosophy Club, a group of people who met up to discuss philosophy once a month. I gave a talk at the club in November 2010, and became a co-organiser shortly afterwards. In the last two years, I’ve watched in wonder as our membership broke through the 1,000 mark, then the 2,000 mark – it’s now at 2,400, making us the second-biggest philosophy club in the world (the biggest is in New York, but they mainly organise cocktail nights. We’re not in any way competitive. Honestly.) We’ve hosted speakers including Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Ree and Robert Skidelsky – our Christmas speaker was Angie Hobbs. We also have a popular reading group, philosophy meals and drinks, and group discussions across London, including an idyllic picnic-debate in Hyde Park last spring on the ethics of torture.

Over the last two years, I’ve researched other grassroots philosophy groups for a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, called “Philosophical Communities”. The picture I’ve built up is surprising, even for people within the scene. There are 850 groups on that describe themselves as “philosophy groups”, in 384 cities and 25 countries, with a combined membership of 125,000. Some of those might stretch your definition of “philosophy”, but it’s still a striking amount. There are 229 ethics meetups, 528 Skeptic meetups, 126 feminist meetups, 60 Socrates Cafes, and 660 meetups dedicated to “intellectual discussion”. And, as I’ve discovered, there are many philosophy groups off the meetup map. There are around 200 Skeptic, atheist and Humanist groups around the United States. There are Cafe Philosophiques across France and Holland. There is the Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs) network, which has 15 groups around Merseyside and a total of 30 around the United Kingdom. There is Philosophy For All, set up by Anja Steinbauer, which has been organising philosophy talks, debates and walks in London since 1998. There are philosophy groups for retired people, run through the University of the Third Age or independently, like the venerable Pinner Philosophy Group in Harrow. There are philosophy cafes and societies on many student campuses. And there are radical ideas groups like Occupy London, who as I speak are recreating the Putney Debates.

And then there are the commercial organisers of ideas events. TED is now almost twenty years old and Intelligence Squared is ten years old, but in the last few years the “ideas event”market has become more crowded. In 2008, Alain de Botton and friends launched the School of Life in London, in imitation of Epicurus’ Garden. It’s since welcomed 50,000 people through its doors, and is launching branches in Australia, Holland, Brazil and beyond. In 2010, Tom Hodgkinson opened the Idler Academy in west London. Both the School of Life and the Idler organise philosophy workshops at festivals like Wilderness and Port Eliot. There are also festivals dedicated to ideas and philosophy, like the Battle of Ideas (launched in 2005), HowTheLightGetsIn (launched in 2008), the Month of Philosophy in Amsterdam, the Modena philosophy festival in Italy, and Recontres de Sophie in France.

Evidently, philosophy is flourishing beyond the walls of academia. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, philosophy has often flourished through informal groups of friends. As the sociologist Randall Collins wrote, “the history of philosophy is, to a considerable extent, the history of groups”. No sooner was philosophy born than it challenged traditional forms of community and gave rise to new forms, like the symposium of Socrates, the Garden of Epicurus or the cult of Pythagoras. When philosophy broke free of the Church in the fourteenth century, it spread through informal networks of friends, like the humanist circles of Erasmus or Salutati or the Platonic Academy of Ficino. The Enlightenment spread through the salons of Madame Necker and Madame Geoffrin, the Junto of Benjamin Franklin and the Select Society of Smith and Hume. And socialism likewise spread, through the Doctor’s Club of the Young Hegelians, the Tchaikovsky circle of the Russian intelligentsia, or the Sunday booze-ups at Engels’ house in Primrose Hill.

The question of who was welcome in these networks was always contentious. In the Enlightenment, middle-class thinkers like Voltaire pushed their way into the circle through the sheer brilliance of their intellect, but there was always the risk they would be snubbed or even flogged by an elitist aristocrat. Women were typically excluded from the London debating clubs of the 18th century, so they set up their own clubs, like the Female Congress and Carlisle House Debates for Ladies Only. Working-class men and women weren’t welcome in Enlightenment coffeehouses, so they also set up their own groups in the pub, like the London Corresponding Society, while middle-class philanthropists set up clubs for them like the London Mechanics Institute or, in the US, the Lyceum and Chautauqua networks.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, however, philosophy became more formal and professionalised. Self-run working class mutual improvement clubs evolved into the Worker’s Education Association, which provided courses at Oxford University’s Ruskin College. Mechanics Institutes and extension colleges turned into universities (Birkbeck College grew out of the London Mechanics Institute). Academic philosophy became more specialised, and impenetrable for amateurs. Yet some clusters of non-academic philosophy stubbornly survived, like Asterix’ indomitable village resisting the Roman Empire. There were still, in the 1890s, figures like Tommy Davidson, the exuberant and stubbornly unacademic Scots-American thinker, who travelled across the US and Europe, joining and inspiring philosophy clubs wherever he went, including the Radical Club of Bronson Alcott, the Metaphysical Club of William James, the Aristotelian Society, and his own Fellowship of New Life.

It’s only in the last few years that philosophy groups have become a mass phenomenon. The reasons for their rise are complex. Melvyn Bragg, who I interviewed for my research project, suggests they are a consequence of the rise of the “mass intelligentsia”. Bragg points to the huge expansion of higher education since the 1960s, which he suggests has created a large minority with the capacity and desire to discuss ideas that were once the province of a small intellectual elite. As The Economist’s John Parker pointed out in a great 2008 article called “The age of mass intelligence”, the mass intelligentsia are defined by their willingness to spend their leisure consuming or discussing culture – hence the popularity of book clubs (a survey by Jenny Hartley estimated their membership at 50,000 in the UK in 2001), literary festivals (there are now roughly 300 literary festivals in the UK every year), museums and galleries (attendance rose by 100% from 2000 to 2010, according to the UK Statistics Agency), classical music (Classic FM is now the most popular commercial station in the UK), intelligent mass TV (particularly HBO), intelligent mass cinema (David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufmann) and intelligent mass media, particularly online ideas podcasts and talks like TED, Philosophy Bites, This American Life and In Our Times.

The concept of the mass intelligentsia was, in fact, first put forward by Richard Flacks, a sociologist and member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to explain the mass campus uprisings that took place in universities in the 1960s. The concept was also used by the sociologist Daniel Bell, who suggested that the rise of the knowledge economy necessitated the expansion of universities and the creation of a “new intellectual class”, to work in the sciences, media and professions in the new knowledge economy. This new class, the mass intelligentsia, acquired on a mass scale many of the attributes of the former elite intelligentsia – a desire for authenticity, self-expression, sexual freedom and spiritual choice.

The rise of the mass intelligentsia has been a cause of deep concern for communitarians like Charles Taylor, who blames them for undermining traditional community values (particularly traditional religion). And yet the mass intelligentsia is not, as a class, quite as individualistic or selfish as Taylor supposes. They showed a desire, very early on, not just to destroy old forms of community, but also to create new forms, new experiments in living together, such as the commune, the happening, or the consciousness-raising circle. Sixties student radicals would sit around for hours, sometimes for days, in earnest ethical discussion about how to live well together. And they tried to extend the ethical conversation into society, through the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement. Tom Hayden, the philosophy graduate and principal author of the SDS’ Port Huron Statement, called for a new “participatory democracy”, in which the public were informed, engaged, and talking to each other. It was a vision close to John Dewey’s dream of a Great Society, where “neighbours on the street corner” could “converse freely with one another”.

If the mass intelligentsia is the demographic driver behind the contemporary emergence of philosophy groups, then the internet is the main technological driver. In the late 1990s, philosophy groups had to post notices on library boards and cafe windows to attract members. Now the London Philosophy Club posts its meetings on meetup, and within a day 100 people have signed up (not that they all necessarily turn up, but that’s another story). Sites like and Facebook allow people interested in ideas (still a minority, alas) to find each other, get together, and form groups. The loneliness of the intellectual can be overcome, outside of academia.

The internet has made philosophy far more social and interactive. It has bridged the divide between the intellectual and the masses. In the 1940s, intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin or A J Ayer opined on the Third Programme, and the masses simply listened, their mouths agape. Now, through the internet, they can share, comment and create their own ideas, and host speakers at their own local clubs. Intellectual life has become ruddily democratic and boisterous. As David Brooks wrote: “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

The Skeptic movement is a good example of the anarchism of grassroots philosophy. Modern Skepticism was launched in the late 1970s by Paul Kurtz, an academic philosopher and Humanist inspired by John Dewey’s vision of public philosophy. Kurtz feared America was sinking beneath a flood of irrational New Age beliefs, and wanted to promote critical thinking in mass society. In 1976, he founded an organisation of fellow Skeptics, called the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The members were mainly white, male academics, along with the occasional magician. In the 1980s, CSICOP started to establish some grassroots organisations around the US and other countries. The grassroots Skeptic movement slowly grew, and then exploded in the last few years, thanks to podcasts, blogs and social networking sites. There are now 41 Skeptics in the Pubs groups in the UK – the newest, in Soho, just opened yesterday. As Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, told me: “Skepticism is now a grassroots movement. No one is in control.” Not even Paul Kurtz, who by the end of his life was perplexed by the aggressively atheist direction the Skeptic movement had gone.

The grassroots philosophy movement has sometimes locked horns with academic philosophy. Alain de Botton, who has done a lot to promote the idea of philosophy beyond academia, often criticises academic philosophy for ignoring practical questions of how to live well. Many academics, by contrast, simply have no idea of the grassroots movement, or if they do, they may consider it unserious and amateur. Yet the mutual animosity is gradually dissipating, as both sides recognise they need each other: academic philosophy without street philosophy risks becoming irrelevant, while street philosophy without academic philosophy risks becoming incoherent. Supporting grassroots philosophy groups can be a way for universities to revive their traditions of extension and liberal adult education, and to reaffirm their identity as places where life’s big questions are discussed.

Secondly, grassroots philosophy could be better supported with digital resources., Facebook and Twitter are incredibly useful, but there’s a surprising lack of material on the internet about grassroots philosophy, such as videos or podcasts. As part of my project, I’ve launched a website called The Philosophy Hub, which will have a global map for people to find or register their local philosophy group, as well as other free resources for groups to use. Universities could also be encouraged to put more of their talks and seminars online, where groups can access them. Grassroots philosophy has already got onto the radio (through Radio 4‘s The Philosophers Arms) but it would be great to see it on TV too.

Thirdly, we could develop better philosophy events. We’ve come a long way, with the launch of philosophy festivals like HowTheLightGetsIn. But we could develop the “live philosophy” format further: events could be more entertaining, taking a leaf from Skeptic events like The Night of 400 Billion Stars, which combines science, music and comedy. They could be more multi-media and immersive. And they could certainly be more interactive and participatory. It would be great to have a national event that brought philosophy groups together, and then to expand that into an international event.

Finally, I would suggest that the mass intelligentsia – and philosophy groups in particular – could re-find the sense of social purpose that they had in the 1960s, and that earlier incarnations of the intelligentsia possessed. Roman Krznaric, one of the founding faculty members of the School of Life, says: “The main task of philosophy clubs is to turn into collective movements of social change, which are capable of tackling the great problems of our age. If we just obsesses about our own lifestyles, I don’t think we’ll get very far.” Philosophy clubs are wonderful places to meet up and talk, but can they also be vehicles for social action? I hope so.

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Should universities teach classes in the good life?

 By Jules Evans

This week, I traveled to Durham to visit my godmother, who has just been made principal of one of the colleges of Durham University. She invited me to high table at one of their formal black-tie dinners, and then asked me to give a little after-dinner speech. It was somewhat nerve-racking, considering the calibre of the dons sitting around me and my lack even of a PhD, but I think it went OK, bar one don who I heard mutter ‘it’s just philosophy as self-help’. Yes indeed!

The morning after the dinner, I met for a coffee with Martyn Evans, the co-founder of Durham’s Centre for the Medical Humanities. The Centre was set up in 2008 along with King’s College London’s Centre for the Humanities and Health, both via a £4 million grant from the Wellcome Trust, and both with the mission to explore how health issues (like, say, hearing voices) are never simply biomedical, but are also subjective experiences, experienced through the prism of our beliefs, values, and culture. That sort of work is the humanities at its best: re-humanizing experiences which might have been reduced to mechanistic explanations. It’s the approach of, say, Oliver Sacks, who asks not just ‘what is happening in the brain’ but also ‘what is it like to experience that and make sense of it?’

This, to me, is why psychotherapy is such an interesting meeting-place between the sciences and humanities – it’s the place where our beliefs, values and culture meet and mesh with our bodies. We are flesh, blood and bone, but we are also bundles of beliefs and ideas, and our beliefs can be as good or bad for us as any other aspect of our diet. The word diet, by the way, comes from the ancient Greek diaita, meaning ‘way of life’ – you can’t separate health issues from ethics, as we are slowly remembering.

So let me get to the main course of this week’s newsletter.

While I was in Durham, I read that Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, had called for better measures at universities for the well-being of undergraduates. He sent a questionnaire to 104 heads of secondary schools, among whom 96% thought universities weren’t doing enough for the well-being of their undergraduates. Seldon is particularly concerned with binge-drinking among undergrads. He’s called for higher prices in student bars (sure to make him popular with students), the introduction of personal tutors for each student, and the introduction of happiness or well-being classes at every university.

I’m a little wary when people use the language of epidemics to justify policy measures. Why would school headmasters have particular expertise on life at universities? In fact, the latest evidence (from a Durham academic) suggests young people are drinking less and taking fewer drugs. Teenage pregnancies are also down. I also think the stigma around mental health problems is much lower now than it was 15 years ago, when I was at university and too afraid to discuss my panic attacks with anyone apart from my long-suffering girlfriend. But other indicators are more worrying: students’ demand for counseling services is rising sharply, and the number of student suicides has also risen, perhaps in connection with higher levels of debt and worsening job prospects. There are problems at other levels of academia too: taking a PhD can be socially isolating, while senior academics are often depressed by the amount of paper-work they have to cope with.

Nonetheless, to some academics, the call for happiness classes in universities sounds awful. Shouldn’t university teach us to criticise simplistic or politically convenient definitions of happiness? Frank Furedi, lecturer in sociology at Kent and one of the loudest opponents of therapy culture, called Seldon’s proposals a ‘therapeutic crusade’ which would ‘infantilise academic life’.

Furedi has previously written an interesting book in which he bewailed the loss of the public intellectual. He’s also written many books and articles criticising our culture of therapy and well-being. To me, those two positions are contradictory. The greatest public intellectuals, from Aristotle to Marx to Maynard Kenyes, engaged with the public because they thought their ideas would improve people’s lives and enhance their well-being. In this sense, well-being thinkers like Seldon and Richard Layard are good examples of public intellectuals – though of course, like many intellectuals they can sometimes be a little too sure their ideas will help everyone.

I’ve criticized Seldon and Layard in the past for their certainty that they’ve scientifically proved precisely what happiness is and how we can all reach it. I’m wary of too positivistic an approach to well-being. I’ve since been surprised and impressed by their generous response to those criticisms. To me, that’s a good measure of a person: how well they respond to criticism (a measure by which I myself have repeatedly failed). I think both of them, and their organisation Action for Happiness, increasingly recognise the need for a more philosophically pluralist approach to well-being, one which strengthens people’s critical capacity to choose their own definition rather than accept the definition of experts. However, the work of experts is useful too – whether that be scientific or philosophical experts – as long as we don’t swallow their advice without question.

If universities were to introduce well-being classes, they would have to be philosophically pluralist, exploring the different approaches to well-being and the good life. I also think they could be liberal, in the American sense of balancing the humanities with the sciences, balancing ethics with evidence. There are good precedents for such courses in American universities, such as Stanford’s course in the Art of Living, or Yale’s course in the philosophy and science of human nature. My ideal course, as I said in my book, would be a combination of two Harvard courses – Tal Ben-Shahar’s course in Happiness (now alas finished), and Michael Sandel’s course in Justice. My ideal course would combine the scientific evidence of the former with the Socratic ethical inquiry of the latter.

I’ve been running the pilot of such a course at Queen Mary, University of London, for the last few weeks – we have another session coming up on Tuesday evening. The course explores the various Greek and Roman philosophies of the good life – Epicurean, Stoic, Platonic, Skeptic – all of which share the cognitive theory of the emotions and the idea that philosophy can help us flourish, while disagreeing on broader questions of the meaning of life. The course tries to balance philosophical discussions with some ideas and techniques from cognitive therapy.

I think the course is going well, though it’s still very much a prototype. Running it has certainly increased my respect for university lecturers who do this work week-in, week-out. I wouldn’t say I’ve been over-whelmed by hordes of eager undergraduates, and those that do come are often texting away on their mobiles. This makes me think that it would be a mistake to make such courses compulsory, but it might help if such courses carried credit, as they do in American universities. Undergraduates are, on the whole, happy-go-lucky, and mainly focused on partying. But a few of them are hungry for meaning and for answers to life’s big questions. That search for meaning should be at the heart of the university experience, not out-sourced to counseling services on the fringes of campus life.

The idea that academic work should be involved with the emotions and with well-being is not necessarily ‘infantilizing’. Students went to Plato’s Academy, or Aristotle’s Lyceum, or Epictetus’ school in Nicopolis, precisely to learn how to flourish. When Plato founded his Academy, 2,400 years ago this year, the idea was that you brought the whole of yourself to education, not just your intellect. When did we start thinking that academic work should leave out the emotions?

Academics are right to be wary of pat solutions to questions of the good life. It’s an on-going conversation, to which we can all bring something and take something. I can’t think of a better place for that conversation than universities, nor can I think of a better way for universities to engage with their societies.

PS, here’s a great article by Richard Schoch, who used to work at Queen Mary but has now alas left for Belfast, on a debate between Seldon and Furedi back in 2008. Schoch, who is the author of The Secret of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life, also argues that the latest science should be taught alongside the wisdom of the ancients.

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Community philosophy: Starting young

By Michelle Sowey, director of The Philosophy Club in Melbourne

Readers of this blog will be acquainted with the many rewards of doing philosophy in a group. We’re often motivated by a desire for meaningful, intelligent conversation that will challenge our ideas and open up new ways of thinking. We also enjoy the social experience of meeting other philosophically-minded people. But how early in our lives can we reasonably expect to start engaging in this kind of philosophical dialogue?

It’s my view that children can benefit from joining a philosophical community as soon as they begin to question the world around them and their place in it. The Philosophy Club is a social enterprise in Australia designed to offer just such a community to inquisitive children as young as eight years old. Through the club, I run extra-curricular workshops that help small groups of kids to explore philosophical questions by engaging in open dialogue with one another. I use the curiosity-driven method of ‘collaborative enquiry’, which sees kids wrestling with philosophical problems for the sheer fun of it – and honing essential thinking skills in the process.

Doing philosophy can be empowering for children, no less so than for adults. Given the opportunity to think for themselves about deep and perplexing issues, they learn to examine their beliefs, refine their concepts, reason carefully and make well-considered judgements. In an atmosphere of trust, children also work up the courage to speak their minds and give voice to unpopular opinions.

Philosophical stories and dialogues among children

Each of our workshops at The Philosophy Club consists of a series of dialogues, interspersed with various other activities, all centred around a broad philosophical theme. To begin, I usually read aloud a narrative, rich in ideas, that resonates with children’s experience and fires the imagination. Sophisticated picture books (such as those on my blog, Playground Philosopher) offer useful stimuli for philosophical dialogues, as do the wonderful stories in The Philosophy Shop and other publications of The Philosophy Foundation in the UK.

After reading the narrative, we jointly consider any philosophically puzzling questions that capture the children’s interest. For each question, I invite the children to propose a range of possible answers and, crucially, to support their claims with reasons. I encourage the children to take all views seriously – but this doesn’t mean that all views are to be endorsed as equally reliable, convincing or true. While philosophical questions generally have no clear ‘right answer’, there are various ways of being wrong. Learning to recognise logical and interpretative mistakes is a powerful tool for critically evaluating beliefs. Throughout the philosophical enquiry, each child is responsible for making up his or her own mind, evaluating the arguments given, and deciding if a change of mind is warranted.

As a facilitator, I try to appear philosophically neutral. I want children to express their own sincere opinions, so I create a safe environment where they can speak their minds freely. While ground-rules require that the atmosphere remain respectful, tensions between conflicting beliefs and values make for particularly rich and thoughtful dialogues. I regularly post excerpts from these dialogues on The Philosophy Club’s facebook page so that our wider community of friends and supporters can have some insight into the collaborative enquiry process and the children’s often striking philosophical ideas.

Fun and games

I always incorporate creative play into my workshops. Philosophical enquiry itself is substantially creative, as children are encouraged to imagine the implications of hypothetical scenarios, consider alternative interpretations, and produce examples and counter-examples. All the same, kids need frequent breaks from the intensity and stimulation of philosophical thinking or, as one ten-year-old described it, ‘tying your brain in a knot and then squashing it into a pancake’. So we mix it up with drama games, drawing activities and musical play, to release some of the energy that invariably builds during our philosophical dialogues.

Intellectual and moral development

In my experience, the collaborative aspect of philosophical enquiry is vital to the intellectual process. Children build on each other’s ideas and are provoked to reflect very critically when they encounter divergent opinions. This helps them develop habits of constructive scepticism: they come to recognise that no claim (not even their own) deserves to be unquestioningly accepted. With some experience of philosophical enquiry, children can begin to assess things like suitability of criteria, weight of evidence, reliability of sources and robustness of ideas in the face of criticism. With these skills under their belt, kids can draw tentative conclusions in the face of doubt – enabling them to act more rationally and decisively in the world.

The collaborative element of philosophical enquiry also has a moral dimension. It seems likely that by seeking genuinely to understand one another, participating children will become more empathic, attentive and fair-minded – and increasingly skilled at cooperating, negotiating and using reason to resolve their disagreements.

Try it yourself!

I’ve found it a real privilege to do Philosophy with the enthusiastic and sparkling children who are part of The Philosophy Club. The depth and rigour of their thinking is remarkable, and I’m often amazed by how deftly and spontaneously they recapitulate the philosophical positions of great thinkers throughout the ages.

If you have experience in conducting philosophy groups with adults, I’d encourage you to extend your repertoire by gathering together a group of eager young philosophers. The experience will be memorable for everyone involved.


Michelle Sowey directs The Philosophy Club and runs Philosophy workshops for children in Melbourne and Sydney.

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Rick Lewis on grassroots philosophy

Rick Lewis was working in the laboratory of British Telecom when he decided, just over 20 years ago, to launch a philosophy magazine for non-academics, called Philosophy Now. He tells me about the early days, how grassroots philosophy has grown, how he met his wife Anja Steinbauer, who runs Philosophy For All, and where he sees the ‘movement’ going.

Rick, tell me about the founding of Philosophy Now.

I studied physics with philosophy of science at university, then worked as a physicist at British Telecom Research Laboratories. I became very interested in ethics, in the meaning of life. Not having a religious faith, I was aware that ethics needed an underpinning. Also, when I was new at BTRL, a guy at the office invited me to a friend’s retirement party. His friend been at the company a while. We got talking and he opened up, and said, ‘I think I’ve wasted my life. I’ve worked here 35 years, and I should have done something else.’ I was 23, and I thought ‘how awful!’ So at 26, I did a Masters in philosophy at the University of York. Then I went back to BT to work on underwater optical cables again.

There were lots of very interesting people in the laboratory, without a background in philosophy, but who were interested in different philosophical questions. This made me think there should be a philosophy magazine for laypeople. So I printed 2,000 copies of the first issue of Philosophy Now, in 1991. I didn’t know anything about magazine publishing. I distributed it by phoning around newsagents and bookstores mainly in Cambridge and its environs. Then Libby Purves wrote about it in the Times, and it took off from there.

Why did it take off?

I think it was an idea whose time has come. There have been lots of times where I thought I don’t really know how to do this but it’s working anyway. If it was a different time, I probably wouldn’t have had that luck. Why did it work in this period or era? Because there are lots of people looking for an ethical foundation. Because of the growth in higher education in general. Because people have more spare time to think about things.

Was it time-consuming, putting the magazine together?

Very. I realized by Issue 3 that I couldn’t do it and hold down a full-time job. So I took voluntary redundancy in 1992. I wasn’t sure it would work. But I’m very stubborn, and didn’t want to give up. So I worked part-time in a factory, then worked in the Kings College London philosophy department. By 1999, I was able to go full-time again on the magazine.

So when you started the magazine in 1991, were there many philosophy clubs?

There were some, but fewer, and they were smaller in scale. Then, in November 1997, Gale Prawda held the first Cafe Philos at the Institut Francais in London. She’d met Marc Suatet in Paris, attended his Cafe Philos, and brought the idea back to London. I went along with our book reviewer, Bryn Williams, who was doing a PhD in philosophy at KCL. We both through that, culturally, this would work better in the pub. We both liked pubs, and Bryn had once worked in one, he thought people already talk about ideas in the pub, why not run a philosophy group there. But we were very influenced by Cafe Philos, so we thought ‘let’s pick a theme, and have a discussion’.

Bryn really got into it – he set up another philosophy cafe in Costa Cafe in Soho. He enjoyed the whole process of discussion and was genuinely interested in people’s ideas. He got to the point where he thought popularising philosophy was more important than his PhD! However, eventually he got engaged and dropped out of the scene.

The flyer for Philosophy Now’s 20th anniversary festival in 20111

How did you hear about Philosophy For All?

In 1998 another bloke at KCL asked if I’d heard about a new organisation called Philosophy For All, which was just about to launch. So in May 1998 I went along to their first meeting, which they called Kant’s Cave, and which was held in a room above a pub. That’s how I met Anja Steinbauer, who set up Philosophy For All – we got engaged in August 1998 and have been married ever since. Philosophy For All is a very different approach to Cafe Philos. You have a talk by an academic, followed by Q&A, followed by general discussion. It’s more about connecting academics to the community. They have quite a few people at their events – 80-100. If it’s a general open discussion like Philosophy Now Pub Philosophy was, it works pretty well for 20 people or so, but is trickier with larger numbers.

Philosophy For All got bigger and bigger, so we thought we’d close our Pub Philosophy events and support Philosophy For All’s meetings instead. It holds meetings every week, including philosophy film nights, a feminism forum, philosophy walks, philosophy debates. It absorbed a lot of people who might have started their own group. But there were still various groups working on the periphery, some of which are still going, like the Kingston group and the Pinner group.

How did all these Philosophy Now Meetup groups start around the world?

Well, the magazine is distributed in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. In 2004, a local discussion group in Orange County, California got in touch, they wanted to base their meetings on articles in Philosophy Now, and they also wanted to organise their group through When they did that, through a quirk of the website it created the opportunity for people in other cities to create Philosophy Now groups as well, and these groups started appearing around the world – eventually including the Philosophy Now New York dinner meetup, run by Massimo Pigliucci.

And you’ve started running events too?

Yes, we held a 20th anniversary Philosophy Festival at Conway Hall last year, with the participation of many London-based philosophy organisations, including Philosophy For All and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. We had 1500 people attend over the course of a day. We also put on a debate at the How The Light Gets In festival in Hay on Wye this year.

Here’s a video of Rick talking at a recent seminar on community philosophy:

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John Mitchinson on QI and making learning fun

Welcome to The Philosophy Hub blog! We’re going to be covering all aspects of the contemporary grassroots philosophy scene. Get in contact if you want to share your experience of your club. Our first blog post is an interview with John Mitchinson, who is head of research for the popular game show QI, founder of the crowd-sourced publisher, Unbound; and vice-president of the Hay literary festival. John talks about the philosophy of QI, the QI Club he set up in Oxford, and why he is a cultural optimist. 

The Philosophy Hub: John, thanks for taking the time. It must have been a very busy few weeks, with the launch of the new QI book.

John Mitchinson: Yes, it’s been pretty mental.

TPH: Could we start by talking about the origins of QI?

John Mitchinson

JM: John Lloyd [the TV producer behind Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image and Blackadder] conceived of QI several years before we met. We both lived in the same village in Oxford, Great Tew, and had long philosophical chats on the mysteries of the universe in the local pub, the Falkland Arms. This was at the end of the 1990s. I would complain about publishing (I was then deputy publisher of the Orion Group) and John would complain about advertising, where he was then working. And he’d sometimes say he had this great idea.

Eventually I left Orion and was about to go to Harper, and John said he really thought I should hear this idea. So he told about it in the Falkland Arms: a show around the idea of interestingness. I asked him how he defined interestingness. And he came armed with three interesting facts. He’d come across these facts because his children were always asking him questions, so he decided to try and be the most knowledgable Dad in the world. So one fact was the invention of basketball. The interesting fact was, even though basketball was an immediate success when it was invented in 1891, it took 21 years before anyone figured out they should cut a hole in the basket net so the ball could fall through it easily. The second interesting fact was that kangaroos have three vaginas.

Tardigrades: quite interesting

And the third was the existence of tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets. Tardigrades are six-legged creatures, somewhere between molluscs and insects, and they need water to live. The interesting thing about tardigrades is that, if you dehydrate them, they can stay in suspended animate for a century, and just one drop of water will bring them back to life. They exist right at the edge of what we know about life and death.

So, when he presented me with these three facts, I said, OK, that’s quite interesting. We developed a sort of theory of interestingness. It’s extremely difficult to define, but people do share common conceptions of interestingness. Like humour – it’s hard to define but people tend to laugh at similar jokes. Both humour and interestingness make connections between things you might not immediately connect.

TPH: Yes – like the conception of wit in metaphysical poetry.

JM: ‘The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’ as Samuel Johnson put it. So we don’t see QI as trivial. Over the years we’ve tried to sketch out a philosophy. We decided we are all united in our ignorance, so the wise person realises their ignorance, as Socrates put it. We also think that a tremendous amount of education is just rote-learning. It’s not teaching people to think creatively. As the old adage goes, you spend children’s first five years trying to teach them to walk and talk, and the next ten telling them to sit down and shut up. We hope that QI gets people to notice things and to stop and think differently. Once you get past food, sex and shelter, the fourth human drive is curiosity. Giraffes are not looking up to the stars wondering why they’re here, as far as we know. But looking at things in a curious and inquiring way is not necessarily the default setting. Often we’re too busy to be present. We try to bring that way of seeing things out, to show that the world is a more mysterious and extraordinary place than we realise.

TPH: So was the idea just for a TV show?

JM: No, John had sketched out a plan for a shop, a radio show, TV, books. There was a mad conception of an interestingness corporation. He’d written three treatments for TV shows, one was QI, one was called Beat the Database, with Peter Snow presenting; and one was called Class War, about toffs versus workers to see who knew more about each other’s lives. John wrote the script for the QI pilot. Originally it would be two teams – the know-it-alls, captained by Stephen Fry, and the know-nothings, captained by Alan Davies, with Michael Palin as the genial chairperson. Mike decided he didn’t want to do it, so Stephen was chairman just for the pilot, but we realised within ten minutes that he was born to do it. This is why QI is weirdly asymmetric, with Stephen and Alan always on the show and everyone else rotating.

TPH: So the QI research team writes the scripts?

JM: The team writes the scripts and we leave the gags entirely to the guests. Stephen gets the questions on cards.

TPH: He’s brilliant as he seems to actually know it all himself.

Stephen Fry and Alan Davies: the Apollonian and the Dionysiac

JM: It’s cemented his reputation as the most intelligent man in the world. He is pretty knowledgable. People assume, though, that he has an in-depth knowledge of physics or chemistry or anything under the sun. I think he and Alan work very well together. You could say that Stephen represents Apollonian knowledge, the knowledge of the academy, while Alan represents Dionysian knowledge. He doesn’t do any preparation, but is a fantastic improviser.

TPH: I guess the improvisatory aspect of it is important: the audience like to see what the guests will spontaneously create, like in a a salon of 18th century wits.

JM: Yes. People learn things when at play, not when they think something is hard, serious work.

TPH: So you quickly did away with the idea of ‘know-it-all’ and ‘know-nothing’ teams?

JM: Yes, it was forced on us.

TPH: But that’s good, because it makes the show less confrontational or competitive, and more accessible for everyone.

JM: Yes, the reason I think QI has lasted is that people are often gobsmacked and genuinely interested in knowledge. No one needs to ‘win’ it, though when we pitched it to BBC One and said that people get points for being interesting, their question was ‘how will we know if someone has won?’

TPH: Tell me about the QI Club.

The former QI Building in Oxford

JM: We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we had a place for all our research, books, meetings. So we set up a club, in a beautiful building, on five levels, with a library where we had fantastic events and meals, a bookstore and cafe, and a vodka bar in the basement for wild parties. This was in 2004. We were very good at getting interesting people along and organising events – there aren’t many places where you’d have Philip Pullman and Radiohead in the same room. We had Roman Krznaric and Theodore Zeldin organising events there. In some ways it was ahead of its time, with regard to places like the School of Life and the Idler Academy – Tom Hodgkinson, who is a good friend of QI’s, says it was kind of an inspiration for the Idler Academy. But it was an immense amount of work, and was difficult to mobilise the Oxford middle classes to support it. And it was expensive to run.

TPH: What would be your advice to anyone looking to set that sort of place up?

JM: My advice would be if possible to get away with not taking out a lease, and avoid responsibility for serious food and drink. Trying to make hospitality work requires people who really know how to make money from food and drink. But I think if we’d opened it in London, it might still be going. Anyway, we’re doing a talk at the Idler this month. I love what Tom is doing. What’s important is he does it with a great deal of humour. You have to be careful about not hectoring people on how to live life. We like to keep things light – there’s nothing worse than someone droning on about their philosophy. That’s not to say you can’t broach serious or deep topics. I think QI has given John and I a philosophical way of behaving towards one another.

TPH: How so?

JM: Good conversation requires you to be present. Good parenting requires you to be present. Good conversation is about creating a comfortable enough space where people say things they really think, and where they listen as well as talk. We both loved the idea of the 18th century coffeehouse. And kindness is a pretty important concept too – listen, and try to be generous. Try to keep open minded. I get very nervous when people pour scorn on ideas, like Stephen sometimes does about something like astrology for example. There’s a sort of intellectual arrogance one sometimes hears in Richard Dawkins, for example. We’re sceptical too, but in the widest possible sense. The scientific method is right and proper, but it has to be accompanied by humility and a recognition that often major scientific breakthroughs happen through people at the margins.

TPH: So would you describe yourself as a cultural optimist?

The rise of book festivals like Hay is cause for cultural optimism

JM: Absolutely. So is John. We believe our audience is smart. All the shows John has done have assumed a smart audience, like Blackadder or Spitting Image. We believe there is a big public demand for ideas, information, interpretation and stories. Look at the Hay festival, which sold 150,000 tickets this year. But TV and publishing don’t always reflect the intelligence of the public, because of particular sclerotic cultural institutions, which fail to produce stuff that the intelligent public want, so instead we get given reality TV and agribusiness publishing.

TPH: What’s agribusiness publishing?

JM: Publishing that relies on the five main rotation crops: crime, romance, chick lit, misery memories and celebrity biographies and autobiographies. If you look at the bestseller list, that’s pretty much all it is, apart from the occasional book like ours.

TPH: But isn’t that depressing evidence that the audience isn’t that smart?

JM: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The bestseller list is an echo chamber, people buy what’s in it because they’ve heard of it. But I tell people in publishing, if they’re depressed by the state of the market, go to a bookstore, like Waterstones where I used to work, and see what people buy there. They experiment, they search for interesting things to read. Or go to a book festival or at book groups, where people are reading more interesting books than ever. QI is a great example that people want to be entertained, but also engaged intellectually. And school or university has often let people down, so they want to carry on learning all through life.

TPH: So tell us finally about Unbound.

JM: It’s a very simple idea. It’s publishing based on crowd-sourced funding. That’s cultural optimism in action. Let people pitch ideas for books and the audience can decide for themselves if they want to read it or not. What we hope it will create is a rich biodiversity of books. Some books might find a big audience, others a small audience, but that doesn’t mean they’re invalid: some of the great classics of literature hardly sold any copies at all for the first few years. The publishing industry wasn’t always like it is today. It used to be able to sustain a wider range of authors.

TPH: Unbound is a form of disintermediation – it’s side-stepping the cultural gate-keepers of the publishing industry, who are often very pessimistic about audience tastes, so don’t take any risks with intelligent content. Their cultural pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

JM: It’s a strange kind of self-hatred. I know lots of intelligent people in publishing or TV, who say ‘I don’t actually read the books we produce, or I don’t actually watch the shows I make’. Our cultural gatekeepers have lost their confidence. And they’re terrified of being seen to commission something because they actually like it and believe in it. We make QI because it’s the show we want to watch.

John Mitchinson and John Lloyd are talking at the Idler Academy in London on the 29th of November. You can get tickets here

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