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Monthly Archives: June 2011

PoW: Is academic philosophy in crisis?

You’d think philosophy was in quite a healthy state, considering the growing number of popular philosophy books, clubs, debating events, podcasts, evening schools and festivals in our culture. And yet, at the level of schools and universities, the picture is quite different. At A-Level in 2010, the subject attracted a mere 1.1% of students – and even that is an improvement on a few years ago.

Philosophy A-Level is completely outgunned by subjects that would once have been considered part of philosophy, such as sociology, politics and economics, and in particular psychology, which is now the second most popular A-Level, after mathematics, attracting 19% of all students. A quarter of all girls taking A-Levels took psychology in 2010 – we seem to be becoming a nation of therapists.

At undergraduate level, philosophy barely seems to exist. According to UCAS, only 1,500 students started philosophy degrees in the UK in 2010 (although UCAS doesn’t include joint courses like Oxford’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics course). The feedback I get from people who took philosophy degrees is mixed. Some say they loved it. Others were turned off by the narrow focus on Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, which they found dry and uninspiring.

There’s a move, now, to make philosophy a bigger part of the school curriculum. Yesterday, I attended a roundtable at the London School of Economics which sought to promote philosophy for children at the primary and secondary level. It was partly organized by Peter and Emma Worley of the Philosophy Shop, a charity that teaches philosophy in primary schools and beyond. They’re doing a great job at getting this issue more public attention: they’re presenting a White Paper to the government this month, as well as a petition. There was also an item on philosophy in schools on Radio 4 this week, and this month’s edition of the magazine Philosophy Now is devoted to that topic.

Here’s a video of Peter Worley in action at a primary school discussing epistemology with some year six kids. (I like the Raiders of the Lost Ark introductory music). As you can see in the clip, children are natural philosophers, and love to consider ideas of time, space, identity and knowledge. I remember my best friend and I tripping ourselves out when we were 11 by wondering what existed beyond the edge of the universe. This natural curiosity can perhaps be guided and trained by philosophy, making young people better able to think about their thinking, to formulate reasoned arguments, and also to dialogue with themselves and each other (the communal aspect of philosophical inquiry is a big part of Philosophy for Children, another school philosophy programme).

I hope the campaign succeeds. In the meantime, it might be useful to ask ourselves, why is philosophy so unpopular at A-Level and undergraduate level? What is it missing? And why is psychology doing so well?

One possible answer is that psychology speaks to our emotions and our daily concerns in a way that academic philosophy no longer does. In Greco-Roman philosophy, logic, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics were grounded in psychology, and in a deep understanding of our emotions. Academic philosophy went into decline, I would argue, when psychology split off from philosophy towards the beginning of the 20th century. From that point on, psychology grew in influence, while philosophy steadily declined.

If we want to increase the relevance of philosophy, not just in schools but in society in general, I would suggest we need to return to the ancients’ conception of it as an education of our emotions as well as our thoughts. It should teach us to be aware of how our beliefs lead to our emotions, and how we can manage and transform our emotions. It should also teach us, I believe, about the different conceptions of the Good Life which different philosophical schools offer (that’s actually what I’m trying to do in my book).

But why not simply study psychology, you might say. What has philosophy to offer that psychology can’t? First of all, a lot of modern psychology has its roots in ancient philosophy, so there is a historical awareness there that some psychologists lack. They don’t always realize where their ideas and techniques come from.
Secondly, ancient philosophy understood – in a way some modern psychology doesn’t – that therapy involves a critical engagement not just with an individual’s beliefs and values, but with their culture’s beliefs and values.
Thirdly, many psychologists and neuroscientists have a naive understanding of concepts like ‘meaning’, ‘happiness’, ‘well-being’ and so on. Their discipline is founded on these terms, yet very often, their use of these terms is unexamined, even by those at the top of their field.
I think some of the most interesting work in the next few decades will come from psychologists and philosophers working together, to combine the analytical rigour of the latter with the experimental rigour of the former. The subjects need each other, as I argued here.
On that note – it’s good to see experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe is teaming up with leading social psychologist Roy Baumeister to work on free will, thanks to a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation. For a great discussion of the relationship between philosophy and psychology, by the way, I recommend Experiments in Ethics (The Mary Flexner Lectures), by Knobe’s former supervisor, Kwame Anthony Appiah.
One psychologist who combines the analytical rigour of a philosopher with the fieldwork and experimental practice of a psychologist is Richard Bentall, arguing here that psychiatry’s definition of schizophrenia has as much scientific validity as astrology.
Here’s an inspiring story of a leading therapist for borderline personality disorder, who just came out with the news that she’s suffered from the disorder herself since she was 22. She says: “I was in hell. And I made a vow, that when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”
Here’s a great video from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, about an important new report by the OCC on the well-being of children in our justice system.
The Economist reports here on a new study that suggests people who live in cities are more messed up than those who live in the countryside. Perhaps we should all take to the hills and pop magic mushrooms. A new study from John Hopkins University gave magic mushrooms to 18 volunteers, of whom 94% said it was one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. A third said it was the single most meaningful experience of their life. Far out!

Talking of which, I enjoyed seeing Angie Hobbes, the flame-haired siren of British philosophy, talk on ancient philosophy at the LSE roundtable. She remarked on the trippiness of the ancients – Plato and Heraclitus in particular – and suggested: “I do sometimes wonder what my favourite philosophers were on, and whether magic mushrooms form the basis of western culture.”

I’ve always thought psilocybin from yeast was an important part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, where many great ancient philosophers and artists were initiated (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius…) The psychedelic theory of Eleusis was first argued by R. Gordon Wasson, a former investment banker who got turned on to magic mushrooms by his Russian wife, and who played a key role in developing modern culture’s understanding of psychedelics in the 1950s. Check out this ground-breaking article he wrote for Life Magazine in 1957.

Finally, news that James Arthur Ray, one of the leading gurus promoted in Rhonda Byrne’s New Age bestseller, The Secret, has been convicted of negligent homicide. Three of his followers died when a sweat-lodge initiation went wrong in 2009. The Atlantic looks at all the mainstream media outlets who promoted his dumb Law of Attraction idea – that we can just wish for something, and lo, it will happen.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could get a column in which I explored and exposed the claims of psychics, shamans, faith healers and other oddballs? Let’s all wish for it. Close your eyes and repeat after me: ‘I wish that Jules will get his own column.’ Thanks! I’ll keep you posted.

See you next week,


The Idler Academy versus The School of Life: ‘It’s like the Beatles versus the Stones’

As part of the revival of ancient philosophy in modern life, some people have tried to establish philosophy schools where ordinary people can come, eat, drink and learn about philosophy and the art of living, just as they used to do in ancient Greece and Rome. One such place is the Idler Academy, set up in West London in 2010 by Tom Hodgkinson, the 43-year-old founder of The Idler magazine. Tom wants his Academy to combine the buzz of an 18th century coffee house with the sort of leisured philosophical enquiry practiced at the schools of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics in the ancient world.

I enter the Academy and browse the bookshelves, while a young shop assistant offers me a cup of tea. Anarchist handbooks rub covers with 19th century guides to Latin grammar. Shortly afterwards, a figure in a blue suit and plimsolls appears blinking from the basement. “Oh hi”, says Tom. “I was just having a nap.” For a few minutes his assistant and he rummage around in boxes of books, trying to find an order for a customer. The Academy includes a cafe, bookstore and main room where classes take place every evening in the three main subjects of the tripos: philosophy, husbandry and merriment. Tonight there is a workshop on Hellenistic philosophy.
“Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the rest can be read with great ease by anybody”, Tom says, “and they are just as relevant today as they were 2,300 years ago.”
The Academy is still young, and slightly chaotic (in a good way). Last week, the sewers burst. This week, the boiler is on the fritz. Setting up a small business is hard work, but the local businesses are, on the whole, friendly and helpful to this unusual venture set up in their midst.
Tom’s new philosophy school is the latest experiment in a defiantly unconventional career. In fact, ‘career’ is probably the wrong word. “Career is a try-hard notion”, says Tom. “It’s a middle class affliction.” After studying philosophy at Cambridge, Tom’s misadventures began with a job at the Sunday Mirror magazine in London. He hated it. He went from a student life of leisure, partying and punk rock to having to get out of bed at 7.30, commute to work, and spend most of the day in (what seemed to him) a joyless and soulless office where the workers were forbidden to talk to each other. Looking back on it, he realizes he was perhaps “a bit puffed up” after university and that his new employers were simply trying to take him down a peg or two. But he nonetheless found the experience traumatic. “I remember going round to my parents and bursting into tears”, he says.

“Your early twenties is a weird time. Everyone is terrified of failing or not fitting in. Even the parties have this horrible competitive edge: ‘what are
you doing at the moment?’ All my friends seemed to be doing better than me.” He and his friends tried to escape the horrors of office life by raving at the weekend, but the ecstasy comedowns “only heightened the misery on Mondays”. Eventually the Mirror fired him, but rather than be crushed by this setback, Tom decided to strike out on his own path. In 1995, at the age of 26, he set up an alternative magazine, The Idler, which celebrated the Generation X ethos of leaving the rat-race and pursuing a life of pleasure, creativity and political apathy (or ‘opting out’).

“Things got much better when I had my own little project and outlet for creativity”, he says. Quite quickly, the magazine did well. His friend and co-founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, was a design graduate and the magazine looked much better than the average alternative zine. Tom’s writing articulately laid out his Idler philosophy. And, from the start, he showed a genius for getting interviews and guest articles, from the likes of Damien Hirst, Will Self, Louis Theroux, Alain De Botton, Alex James of Blur, Bill Drummond of the KLF, and others. “We were interested in interviewing anyone who had managed to get through life without a proper job.” The Idler diversified into books, producing works glorifying the Idler lifestyle such as
How To Be Free, How To Be Idle, and The Book of Idle Pleasures, and other books attacking the rat-race, such as Crap Jobs. For one who openly extolled the pleasures of the slacker life, Tom was surprisingly busy, and successful.

And then there were the parties: “We used to throw a party every new issue of the magazine, so that was five or six a year. We held them in a semi-illegal squat in Farringdon. It was a real bohemian hang-out, full of criminals and drug-dealers. They were really wild parties, with 300 people or so, cabaret, comedy, bands like Zodiac Mindwarp.” I went to one of these parties myself, and remember a cabaret performer being suspended from the ceiling by wires attached to her nipples. “The 90s were quite a wild time, what with ecstasy, rave and Britpop. We got up to all kinds of adventures. One year, we set up a crazy golf course with each hole designed by a young British artist – Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk and so on. Another year Keith Allen (the actor and father of Lily Allen) sang Anarchy In The UK while dressed as Bin Laden. Merriment and partying was a big part of the Idler philosophy.”

In his early 30s, however, Tom and his wife, Victoria, decided to leave the wild London nights behind them and move to Devon, where they rented a ramshackle old house without central heating, and devoted themselves to the bucolic dream of growing your own vegetables, raising livestock (including some ferrets), making your own beer (“that particular experiment was a disaster”, Tom confesses), and having long, leisurely lunches. “I can make a living working three to four hours a day on writing and journalism, and the rest I can hanging out with my kids, reading, going for walks, doing whatever I want really.” It has been quite a creative time: Tom’s written three books since he moved to Devon in the early Noughties. His wife and he also organized occasional weekend workshops on rural self-sufficiency, in partnership with Alain De Botton’s School of Life.

De Botton set up the
School of Life in 2008, in Bloomsbury. He wrote (in The Idler, in fact) that his dream was to set up a modern version of Epicurus’ philosophical commune, The Garden: “The example of the Garden has haunted me ever since I read about it at university”, De Botton wrote. “I too have longed to live in a philosophical community rather than simply read about wisdom and truth in a lonely study. For years, I joked that I wished to start a new version of the Garden…[then] a wise friend told me to stop defending my dreams with irony and to get on this project before it was too late…So that’s how I and a few other philosophically-minded friends came to start our own version of The Garden in autumn 2008.”

The School of Life, like the Idler Academy, has a bookstore and a classroom where workshops and talks take place. It also holds ‘secular sermons’ every Sunday, the first of which was given by Tom back in 2008. The shop has tree trunks in it “in honour of Epicurus”, and a bust of the master. De Botton says that the School, like the Garden, “gathers a regular contingent of people, and together we eat, hear lectures, go on journeys and, most importantly, attempt to live philosophically.”

He makes it sound a bit more of an Epicurean commune than it is. In fact, I have never seen De Botton at one of their events. He is more of a grey cardinal figure behind the scenes than a daily presence – he’s still mainly in his study, writing books. The School does not gather “a regular contingent” of fellow searchers, but rather whoever turns up and pays the £35 charge for evening events. And the School does not teach any particular way of life, but rather classes in which various different philosophical approaches to an issue are discussed. Nonetheless, it was, and is, an interesting new addition to British philosophy and self-help.

Tom decided to set up his own Academy in 2010, after organizing Idler events at Port Eliot literary festival and other festivals during that year, where talks and classes were held alongside lessons in music and merriment. Classes at the Academy also take place beneath a bust of Epicurus, and cost around the same as the School of Life (£20-35 a class, including wine and nibbles). However, unlike Alain De Botton, Tom is a very visible presence at his Academy – manning the till, answering the phone, making the tea, introducing the classes in the evening, although he doesn’t actually teach them himself. The philosophy classes are mainly taught by Mark Vernon, who also teaches at The School of Life (both schools ask him what the other school is up to).

Tom says he received a phone call from The School of Life shortly after opening the Academy. “They were pissed off at the time. They thought I was copying them, and asked me if we were competing. To me, it’s like the Beatles and the Stones. A bit of friendly rivalry is good for creative people. But ultimately, people can choose whether they see you as a competitor or collaborator. I think there’s room enough for both of us, and even for more such places. I’d like there to be philosophy schools in North London, South London, in other cities, in the countryside. Epicureans established philosophical communes across the whole of the Roman Empire. This is just the beginning.”