How To Get Involved
Today, grassroots philosophy is flourishing beyond the walls of academia. There are hundreds of self-organised ideas and discussion groups that have mushroomed all over the world in the last 10 years. Today, you can find philosophy groups, Socrates Cafes, Cafe Philosophiques, Literary-Philosophical Societies, debating clubs, book salons, atheist and humanist clubs, Sci-Bars, Skeptics in the Pub,Philosophy In the Pub, Psychology In the Pub, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology meet ups, even ‘death cafes‘ for people who, well, want to talk about death.
There are also commercial organisers of ideas events, like TED, the School of Life, the Idler Academy, 5X5, Life Clubs, Brandstof and Intelligence Squared. Then there are all those literary and ideas festivals – over 300 of them in the UK now, including ones dedicated to philosophy, like How The Light Gets In or the Battle of Ideas. Even music festivals like Latitude hold ideas-talks now.
Why this sudden profusion of ideas clubs? I interviewed Melvyn Bragg, the cultural commentator, for a Financial Times piece on philosophy clubs in 2012, and he suggested the main driver was the huge expansion of higher education since the 1960s. Back then, only 5% of the population went to university. Now it’s closer to 40%. That’s created a large number of people with minds trained to tackle big ideas, who are hungry for mental stimulation. In particular, the retired have led the way in using their leisure to stimulate their minds. It was they who drove the huge expansion of book festivals over the last decade, and other generations have followed their lead. They also helped expand the trend for self-run informal learning organisations like the University of the Third Age.
Another huge boost for the growth of such clubs is the internet, and the easy access to social network sites like meetup.com, Facebook and eventbrite, which let groups organise meetings and attract new members for a low cost. More philosophically, the think-tank ResPublica recently argued that people are attracted to clubs because of the decline of traditional forms of community like churches and working men’s clubs. People want to belong, to foster community, and to learn. The UK’s Office of National Statistics recently found that people involved in adult learning are more satisfied with their lives than people who are not.
Hopefully you can find a local philosophy group via this site or other sites like Facebook or meetup.com. Your local university might have a club, or your library might have information on it. if not, you can set up your own club. Here’s how:
1) Find a venue
Many pubs will let you use an upstairs or downstairs events room for free, as long as people buy drinks and don’t plot the imminent violent destruction of the state (even then there are certain venues who will happily accommodate you). The capacity of such rooms is typically around 50, so for more than that, you will need to rent a room and charge your members. Philosophy groups also meet in cafes, restaurants, bars, bookstores, libraries, galleries, museums, parks, even street corners (although you may be moved on by the police). If you’re a small group of friends, you can take turns hosting the club at your homes, perhaps preparing an appropriately themed dinner (Tolstoy and borscht, Hegel and bagels etc ). People have also run philosophy clubs in prisons, hospitals, mental health homes, for the homeless…Philosophy is incredibly flexible to the needs of the community involved.
2) Find members
A club can start with just two people. One of the largest philosophy groups in London, Big Ideas, was started by two friends who met up in the pub to talk about ideas. They decided they wanted to bring in experts to teach them stuff, and they might as well invite other people too. They found an obliging pub, and grew over the last seven years until they now have over 200 members and have hosted some excellent speakers. Small can be beautiful: Philosophy In Pubs in Merseyside has 15 groups all over the area, typically attracting 5 to 10 people for an event. That enables everyone to get involved in the discussion, and to get to know their local neighbours. Big can also be beautiful: the London Philosophy Club, has almost 2,500 members, which helps it attract world class speakers.
3) Pick a topic
There are, to my mind, three main ways to run a philosophy club, and you can do all three if you want. The first is for the group to pick a topic (it could be a question, a philosopher, a book), perhaps do some preparatory reading (perhaps not) and then use it as the ‘stimulus’ for a Socratic ‘community of inquiry’ (as the philosopher Matthew Lipman called it). The advantage of this format is that it’s very participatory. The disadvantage is people aren’t necessarily learning anything. It can help if there is a moderator to steer the conversation, make sure it doesn’t just go round in circles, and stop the extroverts from dominating. One group in London uses whiteboards to try and track the conversation and help it forward.
Secondly, one of your members can prepare a short talk on a topic, and then the group uses that as a springboard for collective inquiry. The advantage of that is that member will hopefully share the fruit of their research, and it’s also a confidence-booster to have the experience of public speaking.
Finally, you can invite an academic, author, or some-such ‘expert’ to give a talk. That’s what we often do at the London Philosophy Club, and we’ve had some really great speakers, like Roman Krznaric, Angie Hobbs and Lord Maurice Glasman. It’s also what Occupy London did – their Tent City University hosted such philosophical luminaries as Ted Honderich and Lord Robert Skidelsky. You’d be surprised how willing authors and academics are to give up an evening for free, particularly if they have a book out. It’s best, though, to give them some sense of the size and expertise of the audience. Your local university philosophy department might also help – Sheffield’s philosophy deparment, for example, encourages its undergraduates to run a ‘philosophy in the city‘ project.
That’s really all you need to start a philosophy group: a venue, some members, and a topic or speaker. After that, it’s all about building community and strengthening your members’ commitment and feeling of belonging. There are many simple ways to do that, from remembering people’s names, to sharing organisational responsibilities, to sharing photos of past events, to organising field trips or volunteer work. Philosophy groups can learn a lot from churches in this respect – and can also link up with local churches to use their venues and community links. It can be tiring, it can take a bit of time and money, but it’s also hugely rewarding. I do it for selfish reasons, because I make a living from philosophy and because I like hearing great minds thinking out loud. But all of our members get a real kick, I think, from co-creating a worthwhile community. Good luck – and let us know if we can help publicise your group on our blog!
You can download my AHRC-funded report on philosophy groups around the world here: Connected Communities- Philosophical Communities