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Monthly Archives: September 2012

The social networks theory of philosophy

As regular readers know, I’m researching the rise of grassroots philosophy groups for a project called Philosophical Communities. This has got me thinking about the roles of groups and networks in the history of ideas, and I’d like to sketch out some initial thinking.  I hope the following isn’t too pretentious…

The history of ideas can be told in two ways: as a series of separate episodes where individuals hatch ideas while shivering in their lonely garret; or as the evolution of networks, communities and experiments in living together.

The first approach is that of Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy: history as a series of Big Names. The second approach is that of Isaiah Berlin, particularly in his analysis of the Russian intelligentsia: a network analysis of groups.

The second approach is taken to an extreme by Randall Collins’ colossal work The Sociology of Philosophies (1998), which declares that “the history of philosophy is to a considerable extent the history of groups”.

Collins insists that “the history of philosophy can be traced through a surprisingly small number of social circles”: Socrates and his descendants, the Renaissance Humanists, the Encyclopedists, the Apostles, and so on. He is interested in the philosopher as “community organizer”. His book is full of slightly crazy flow-charts where he tries to plot the network connections between philosophers at key moments in the history of ideas. Like this:

Ideas, Collins argues, don’t exist in detached monads in an individual’s head. They exist between people, in conversation, even if that conversation is with dead thinkers. They emerge out of networks: between friends, between teacher and pupil, between rival schools.

Abbe Morrellet discussed the social construction of ideas, in the mid-18th century, at the apex of the salon movement:

Very often the one talking has but an incomplete idea, the development of which he has not followed, a principle whose entire consequences he has not appreciated. If he announces it in society, one of those present will be impressed and will perceive the link with one of his own ideas; he will being them together. This rapprochement in turn excites the first speaker, who sees that his initial opinions can be further developed; and with everyone contributing to the growth of this first fund, the communal contribution will soon be enriched.

According to the network theory of ideas, it is not ‘me’ having this idea. This idea is emerging on a network, like a circuit-board lighting up into a certain configuration.

We are only as intelligent as our conversation partner or network enables us to be. We call each other into being.

The Stoics believed that we aren’t really separate individuals, we’re connections in the Logos, the grid of consciousness which guides the universe, and which speaks through us. Stoic logic, which tried to map the Logos, helped to inspire circuit-board programming and computer logic.

Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is as much other people’s words as his own.

The Romantic conception of social network theory, in Shelley, Herder, Goethe, Jung: individuals don’t have ideas: the Zeitgeist has ideas, which individuals channel, like metal rods conducting electricity from the clouds. We are synchronous networks. Elective affinities exist between us. Through synchronicity, we have ideas at the same time.

Collins’ social network approach to the history of ideas has obvious limitations. In some ways, it is just a parlour game: re-arranging the Big Names of philosophy and drawing lines between them. In some ways, it doesn’t go deep enough: a true network analysis of an philosophical community would be a black page, because there would be so many lines of social and sexual connection between so many people. Everything would have to be connected to everything else: the Kevin Bacon history of philosophy.

And it focuses so intently on the connections between people, that it loses sight of questions of truth, value or significance. Were the ideas these people came up with true? Were they valuable? Did they help people?

Collins divides some philosophers into ‘major philosophers’ and ‘minor philosophers’, but never explains on what basis he evaluates them. It becomes, in the end, the ultimate manifestation of the tendency to evaluate a scholar’s significance by the number of times they’ve been cited: if you follow that tendency to its natural conclusion, then the most significant human is the one with the most Twitter followers: Lady Gaga.

It also raises questions of intellectual property and plagiarism. If everything is a co-creation, who has a right to put their name to an idea? Did Mark Zuckerberg create the social network, or did the social network create itself? Who deserves to get paid?

It also raises questions of accountability. If the network is thinking rather than individuals, then can we be held to account for our words? Or can we say, like schizophrenics, it wasn’t me, it was the network controlling me?

Still, I like the approach, and I’ve been using it myself as I try to map the recent history of practical philosophy, which certainly develops through clusters and networks.


Hope that wasn’t too boring for you. In other news:

From the History of Emotions blog, here’s a piece asking if Spinoza was a Stoic.

This piece in the Huffington Post argues that online CBT is the future of healthcare.

This is a good piece on how Mitt Romney ‘went fully Atlas Shrugged’ in that leaked video. Ayn Rand’s paperback classic is still in the best-seller list and has probably influenced recent American politics more than any other book.

If Rand’s crappy book inspired the New Right, then the Port Huron Statement inspired the New Left. Here’s it’s principal author, Tom Hayden, discussing the legacy of the statement and its central idea of ‘participatory democracy’.

And here is an absolutely wonderful documentary looking at the Weathermen, the terrorist organization that the New Left evolved into at the end of the 1960s. Fascinating exploration of a terrible mistake.

My friend Richard Orange, who was in a philosophy club with me back in the day, has written a Kindle Single about the Anders Breivik case, which he covered for the Guardian. It’s doing amazingly, despite the fact Richard hasn’t promoted it in the slightest! Have a look.

A new digital magazine has launched, called Aeon. They’re friends and are kindly sponsoring the next London Philosophy Club meeting. Here is a great article from the new edition, with author Tim Lott talking about how he was helped through depression by the Zen buddhism of Alan Watts.

Here’s a TES piece about a new study that found undergrads who got the best degrees usually bought more books

I’ve started watching the HBO series ‘Girls’. So far I think it’s really good – like a TV series by Whit Stilman. Here’s a NYRB piece on it and here’s a Spotify playlist of the great songs in it.

Finally, remember that post I did about the melancholic tradition in English music? Well, last week, an American brought out a book on melancholia in pop called ‘This Will End In Tears: A Miserabilist Guide to Music’, complete with its own Spotify playlist. Obviously something in the Zeitgeist…

See you next week – by the way, I’m speaking at the Society of Psychotherapy on Tuesday evening and at the School of Life on Wednesday evening, both in London. Maybe see some of you there.


Self-help shouldn’t be a dirty word

I was at a drinks party of a history conference this week, talking to a young academic who was writing a PhD. ‘And what are you working on?’ she asked me. I said I was researching philosophy groups, and was interested in the role of support groups and self-help networks in education and health.

‘Oh’, she said, ‘well, I’m a socialist, so I don’t believe in self-help.’

Be a winner!

Her attitude is pretty much the norm among left-wing intellectuals. There is a widespread feeling, particularly among sociologists, that self-help is an ugly manifestation of neo-liberalism (see, for example, ‘The Age of Oprah: A Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era’). Self-help, for many on the Left, means Zig Ziglar telling you how to be a winner, or Anthony Robbins getting you to walk on coals, or Rhonda Byrne telling us we can all be rich if we just think rich thoughts. It brings to mind corporate seminars with Steve Ballmer jumping up and down like a bald gorilla, or Annette Bening desperately repeating positive affirmations in American Beauty: ‘I will sell this house. I will sell this house!’

Not only is self-help wickedly neo-liberal and individualistic, according to the intellectual consensus. It’s also stupid. The best way a book reviewer can diss a book, these days, is by calling it ‘self-help’. Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina, for example, has attracted incredibly vitriolic reviews, but surely the lowest blow was calling it ‘self-help marketed as feminism’. Ouch. You want to diss Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer? Call them ‘just self-help dressed up in a lab coat’. Ohhhh SNAP! Pick up yo’ face Gladwell!

Academics would admit to reading anything, even 50 Shades of Grey, before they admitted to reading a self-help book. When the great novelist David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, and around 40 self-help books were discovered in his library, everyone was a bit, well…embarrassed. And when the University of Texas created an official archive of Foster Wallace’s books, the self-help titles were surreptitiously removed, like a pile of porn mags under the bed of a dead relative.

Well, it’s true, a lot of self-help is pretty awful. You can drown in all that Chicken Soup. A lot of it is badly written, full of dodgy statistics and falsely-attributed quotes (my favourite is the idea that Plato said ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’. Plato would never say that!). And some of it is a weird religion for capitalists, what C. Wright Mills called the “theology of pep”.

But that’s not the whole story with self-help. It’s just the direction self-help took in the 1980s, and unfortunately most people strongly associate the word with the Reagan era.

There is an older history of self-help – a history of mutual improvement clubs, corresponding societies, lending libraries and friendly societies. It runs through the 17th century via Protestant groups like the Quakers and Methodists, into 18th century mutual improvement clubs in London, Edinburgh, Philadelphia and beyond. It runs into the working class education movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, through Chartism, the Co-operative movement, the battle for universal suffrage (Samuel Smiles, the author of the 1859 book Self-Help, was a supporter of universal suffrage and the Co-operative movement, and his books were widely read by Labour activists at the turn of the century).

It runs through Gandhi’s theory of swaraj and the Indian self-governance movement of the 1940s, and through Malcolm X and the Black Nationalism movement of the 1960s (X declared, in his most famous speech, ‘We need a self-help program, a do it yourself philosophy, a do it right now philosophy’). It is still alive, and vibrant, in the Indian women’s self-help movement, and the UK Refugee Community Organisation (RCO) movement. It is also a huge movement in mental health, leading to life-saving organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous or Hearing Voices.

Quakers: pioneers of self-help

I feel a strong affinity to that history, partly because I come from a Quaker family, and partly because self-help helped me, when I was suffering from depression and anxiety in my early twenties. I went to two psychotherapists, both of whom cost a lot, neither of whom helped me. I then found a support group for social anxiety through the internet, and together we practiced a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy audio-course, every Thursday evening.

That helped me a lot. So did reading ancient Greek philosophy, which I discovered had been the inspiration for CBT. Over the next decade, I tracked down and interviewed many other people who had helped themselves through reading ancient philosophy – none of them were ‘intellectuals’, they were ordinary people who’d self-medicated themselves with philosophy. I called my book self-help, and I wore that badge with pride.

What appeals to me about self-help is its autonomy. I like the fact that people help themselves rather than being subjected to the theories and power structures of their ‘betters’ – whether that be psychiatrists, or academics, or Party officials. I like the fact that the advice people share comes from their first-hand personal experience rather than academic theory. I like the democracy of it, the lack of hierarchy, the egalitarianism. I think this, secretly, is why some academics look down their nose at self-help: because it challenges their intellectual authority, their expertise, their Mandarin status.

At this point I can hear left-wing sociologists (and Adam Curtis) saying ‘That’s the whole problem with self-help – this naive belief you can somehow liberate the self from power structures. Haven’t you read Foucault?’ Sure, I’ve read Foucault. In particular, I’ve read the last writings of Foucault (see the second half of this collection, for example), where he expresses regret for focusing too much on the individual as passive victim of social domination, and he begins to explore how individuals can actively take care of themselves and learn to govern themselves “with a minimum of domination”. Foucault, by the end of his life, was celebrating self-help.

But I’m aware that one can take this sort of self-reliant philosophy too far. It can be too individualistic. It can put too much emphasis on the superhuman individual conquering all circumstances. I think this critique can be directed at both Pierre Hadot and Foucault – they concentrated too much on individual spiritual exercises in Greek philosophy, and missed the communal aspect. As I put it in my book, “the Greeks knew that the best way to change yourself is together with other people”.

That’s why I’m increasingly interested in self-help communities, in mutual improvement. I’ve moved, personally, from quite a Stoic-libertarian philosophy to a more communal philosophy – I suppose it’s more Christian, in the sense that it’s grounded in a recognition that life is difficult for everybody and we all need to help each other (not that I’m a Christian).

Left-wing intellectuals love to sneer at initiatives like the School of Life

I’m interested in experiments in communal self-help like the School of Life, which the intellectual Left loves to sneer at. But what outreach has the London Review of Books done recently, or the New Left Review, or Verso Books? When did the Left stop caring about adult education? (One possible answer: when Perry Anderson took over editing the New Left Review from EP Thompson in 1962, and the intellectual Left became totally entranced by continental philosophy and contemptuous of the British mutual improvement clubs that Thompson so admired).

Yes, the mutual improvement ethos can also be taken too far. It can be used as an excuse by libertarians for cutting public services, for closing libraries and hospitals, for dismantling comprehensive schools, for rolling back all the gains that the labour movement achieved since it first came to power in the UK in 1924.

But self-help groups aren’t inherently libertarian, or laissez-faire capitalist. Support groups can really help people to get better. Self-help books can really help people (the best ones can, anyway). They can empower the vulnerable and relieve human suffering. And they can also work very well in partnership with public services, rather than as a rival.

So the next time someone disses a book as ‘just self-help’, say to them, ‘what do you mean…just?’

If you want to find out more about this older tradition of self-help, I recommend Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Brian Graham’s Nineteenth Century Self-Help In Education, or EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. Or come and see Jonathan Ree, the author of Proletarian Philosophers, talk at the London Philosophy Club on October 3rd.


In other news:

Andrew Adonis’ new book, Education, Education, Education, has got rave reviews, with both Anthony Seldon and Adrian Hilton holding him up as a rare example of an intellectual who succeeded in government.

Another intellectual in government, David Willetts, won praise this week for his speech defending universities’ ability to attract foreign students. He suggested we need to separate their numbers from main immigration figures, to help clarify the public debate over immigration.

Here’s a great lecture about an archeological research project into the Oracle at Delphi. Apparently there are some radioactive fumes there which likely sent the Oracle into a trance.

RIP Thomas Szasz, the author of The Myth of Mental Illness, and a man who stood up for the vulnerable and marginalised.

Here’s a Guardian piece on the recent spate of fraud scandals in scientific research.

I’m a big fan of new proposals to limit English football clubs’ spending on players.  It’s grotesque how much Premiership footballers are paid at the moment.

I’m giving a talk at the Society of Psychotherapy on September 25th. I think I’m going to explore some of these ideas on self-help and support networks. Come along and help me!

Michael Lewis is the highest-paid freelancer in journalism. That’s because he writes great copy, like this Vanity Fair cover story about six months he recently spent in the entourage of president Obama.

The investment banking industry is shrinking. That’s tough news for bankers, but good news for society: too many bright people got sucked into that industry over the last 30 years. I hope lots of them go to work in the education sector.

Finally, good luck to everyone who has started at university this month. Take care of yourself and each other. I hope some of you start a philosophy / well-being club, if you do, let me know if I can help out.

See you next week,