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PoW: Philosophy on Second Life

Welcome to another PoW newsletter. At the moment I am deep in research for a project I am running at Queen Mary, University of London, looking at the history and contemporary rise of philosophy groups. The hope is it will build links between academic philosophy and ‘street philosophy’, and also encourage people to get involved with grassroots philosophy, by joining clubs or setting up their own.

I also think that the work could help encourage a ‘sociological turn’ in philosophy, by which I mean philosophers shifting attention from questions of theory to questions not just of practice but of community. Pierre Hadot helped create a more practical focus for philosophy with his Philosophy As A Way of Life. But it was still quite individualistic – all his spiritual exercises were for individuals. There was no sense of communal practice.

Philosophy has since its birth challenged and disrupted traditional forms of community, through its Socratic rational individualism. The challenge for philosophy itself, ever since Heraclitus and Pythagoras, has been to create new forms of community. That’s been an ongoing, 2500-year experiment, and contemporary philosophy clubs are one part of that long experiment in living together.

I think some contemporary philosophers have begun to shift towards this ‘sociological turn’, looking at forms of community, forms of popular association and conviviality. I’d point to Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire, with its focus not just on the theory of philosophy but the forms of community they led to. I’d also point to Charles Taylor’s Secular Age, which is as sociological as it is philosophical; and Jurgen Habermas’ Transformation of the Public Sphere, with its excellent exploration of the coffeehouses and salons of the 18th century. Left-wing philosopher-sociologists like David Harvey have also started to examine forms of popular association like the 1871 Paris Commune, as historical precursors to urban movements like Occupy.

Some of the most interesting questions for philosophy today, it seems to me, are questions of community organisation. And you can theorise about those questions, but it’s much more interesting to live them.

I think the Skeptic movement is particularly interesting in this respect, because it’s an example of a grassroots movement started by a handful of philosophers and thinkers (Paul Kurtz, Martin Gardner, James Randi and, more recently, Scott Campbell) that has now spread all over the world. As DJ Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, puts it in this interesting talk:

There are are 200 local Skeptics groups across the US, some formally structured with boards and outreach efforts, others more informal meet ups like Skeptics In the Pub…All of these local groups feels part of the Skeptic movement. There’s a real sense of community.

I’ll be interviewing the guy who set up the Skeptics In the Pub movement, professor Scott Campbell of the University of Nottingham, in the next few weeks, along with some other key figures in this fascinating moment in the history of philosophy. In the meantime, here is a good overview of the Skeptic movement, from Humanist magazine.

I’m particularly interested in the role of the internet in helping this growth of grassroots philosophy clubs. Did you know, for example, that there is a philosophy club in the virtual world Second Life? Here is an interview with the lady who runs it, on a Second Life chatshow. She says she lives in a small American town where people are fairly narrow-minded, but on Second Life she is a cosmopolitan – a citizen of the global community of reason. She appears 39 minutes into the show.

I also interviewed Chris Calvert-Minor, assistant professor of philosophy & religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who teaches an open ‘introduction to philosophy’ course on Second Life every summer. You can read a journal article he wrote, ‘Teaching philosophy in Second Life’ here(it’s behind a paywall alas).

Chris’ university actually bought him an island for $700, which he called Athena Island, for his classes: “I designed it myself, buying the trees and shrubs. You can build up to 4000 metres high. Second Life allows for an actual real-time dialogue between the teacher and the students, and between the students themselves. It might even encourage more participation than in my offline classes, because offline some students are too shy to say stuff.”

Chris adds: “Second Life also lets you use props. For example, when I’m teaching Scepticism, and Sextus Empiricus’ idea that the world might be full of ‘unknown properties’ that we can’t see, I hid ten large red skulls around the classrooms, and made them transparent, then at a certain point in the class they become apparent. It has quite a dramatic impact. I also built a large sphere up in the sky, the inside of which was decorated to look like deep space, then took the students up there to get them to think about how do we know if we’re in reality or not – it looks like you’re in space, but in fact you’re looking at the surface of a sphere.”

Trippy stuff. Second Life also, of course, lets the teacher and students choose their own appearance or ‘avatar’. Chris says: “We have quite a bit of diversity. We’ve had students as unicorns, superheroes, robot monkeys, a couple of werewolves.” I would love to see Michael Sandel teaching his Justice classes to a class full of werewolves and robot monkeys…


In other links:

As Europe senses the approach of another painful contraction, Europe’s philosophers are weighing in on the question of the continent’s future. Here is Andre Glucksman being interviewed in Der Spiegel, and here is an article penned by Jurgen Habermas and others arguing for the introduction of ECB-guaranteed bonds as well as a new ‘public debate on Europe’.

Over in Russia, Pussy Riot’s closing statements, in their trial for impiety, were full of weighty philosophy talk: Socrates, Berdayev, Dostoevsky…They may need to dumb down a bit if they’re to connect with the Russian masses.

In the US, the New York Times’ Stone blog has brought together some interesting articles considering the philosophical inclinations of Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. Is he a Randian, a Hayekian or, as he claims, a Thomist? Decide for yourself.

Here’s a fascinating blog post from Scientific American, looking at some recent studies challenging the traditional idea that our self-awareness comes from our cerebral cortex, via some studies of children born without cerebral cortices, who still seem to posses self-awareness.

Oliver Sacks has a new book coming out about hallucinations. Here’s a New Yorker podcast of him talking about his own experiences on LSD, and how it made him more empathic towards some of his patients’ experiences; and also his experience on Speed, and why he thinks it’s such a dangerous drug.

Finally, a couple of funny Tumblrs. Here’s one called Philosopher Shaming, where academic philosophers secretly fess up to their academic limitations. And here’s another called Dog Shaming, which…well, you get the idea.

See you next week,


PS There are now 19 reviews of my book on, 16 of them five stars. Thank you to everyone who wrote a review, it is a massive help. The 20th reviewer will get a signed copy of the upcoming report on philosophy clubs. Email me if you’re that person.

Involuntary mimicry, psychiatry and theatre

My colleague at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Tiffany Watt-Smith, has written an interesting blog post on the history of involuntary  mimicry. She writes:

For Victorian men of science, mimicry was frequently regarded as deviant and pathological: among the “feeble- minded”, women and “the lower races, a tendency to imitation is a very constant peculiarity,” wrote George J Romanes in 1883.

However, by the beginning of the 20th century, involuntary copying was increasingly understood to be a key psychological mechanism, responsible for learning, socialisation, empathy and even morality. Since the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in 1994, the idea that our bodies helplessly echo each other now extends to the operations of the brain itself, sparking vigorous debates in neuroscience and beyond about a new era of human interconnectedness. An enduring problem associated with the idea that we are, to quote the psychologist James Sully, mere “copying machines” is the unsettling connection between mimicry and theatricality.

Charcot's theatre

My current research charts the collision of theatre and medicine in the cultural history of involuntary mimicry. Theatre appears as a leading metaphor in scientific writing on motor mimicry from the 1850s onwards. Moreover, in filmic and literary treatments of the phenomenon, alarming involuntary copying is also often entangled with theatre and its vicissitudes. In H G Wells’s short tale ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’ (1894), for example, the hero cannot help replicating the histrionic attitudes he witnesses nightly in the theatre. In an “infection of sympathetic imitation”, he is forced to perform “agonising yelps, lip- gnawings, glaring horrors” and so on, leaving him with the alarming feeling of being “obliterated”. While for Wells imitation festers in the auditorium, the protagonist of Woody Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, a man compelled to transform his appearance to replicate whichever person or object is closest to him, becomes a theatrical attraction (before becoming demonised amid a national panic about infiltration).

Her research reminds me of the work of Oliver Sacks, and the case he describes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat of Shane, who has Tourettes Syndrome, and who suffers from echolalia (compulsive echoing of others’ words) and corporalalia (compulsive copying of other’s physical actions). Here’s a clip of it – fascinating how they go to look at a painting of Charcot’s ‘consulting theatre’ (shown above), where the mad would be observed by the sane, and Shane reflects on himself as an object of others’  curiosity and study…