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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

Wisdom, critical thinking, well-being or faith?

article-new_ehow_images_a07_lr_kg_learn-prison-800x800Apologies for the lack of newsletters recently – I’ve been in the depths of a project to design and teach a course based on Philosophy for Life. This month, I started teaching it in three organizations – a mental health charity in London called Manor Gardens; Saracens rugby club; and Low Moss prison in Glasgow (via New College Lanarkshire, which runs learning courses there).

Why try the same philosophy course in three such different organizations? Why these three in particular? Why indeed. I have no idea, other than a sense (a faith, really) that ancient philosophies have something to say to all of us, and could usefully be taught in all kinds of contexts – schools, universities, adult education, prisons, armies, hospitals and mental health trusts, armies, companies and online. Might as well start somewhere!

It’s been full-on. Low Moss has been the most intense and time-consuming, partly because I’m teaching two sessions there back-to-back every Friday, which takes a lot of preparation and energy; partly because it’s all the way up in Glasgow; and partly because….well…it’s in a prison, teaching to a group of long-term prisoners inside for serious crimes, so that brings its own challenges. It’s never been scary or threatening, thank God, but there’s just the challenge of ‘is this actually making any difference?’

There isn’t much philosophy happening within British prisons at the moment. I recently met Kirstine Szfiris, who’s doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons at Cambridge, and she tells me the only place it’s happening regularly is at Low Moss – although other prisons have occasional philosophy events or have run courses in the past. There is interest in expanding it to other prisons, and I went to a seminar on that last month.

Three approaches to philosophy in prisons

It became clear there are different ways to try and teach philosophy in prisons. Firstly, you use an idea or a stimulus as a springboard for Socratic discussion, which you allow to go where it wants. This is the Socratic approach of Philosophy for Children (P4C), as used by organizations like Sapere and The Philosophy Foundation. Nikki Cameron more or less uses this approach with her Philosophy Club at Low Moss. The participants seem to really enjoy it.

The other approach is to try and teach particular ideas from ancient philosophies, and then open them up for Socratic discussion. This is what I try and do. For example, I teach some ideas from Stoicism – such as Epictetus’ idea of focusing on what you can control while accepting what you can’t – and tell a real-life story or two of people using that idea today. Then, in the second half of the session, the group discusses this idea as well as what they think of Stoic philosophy in general.

The first approach aims to teach ‘critical thinking skills’. The second approach tries to teach ‘wisdom’. The wisdom approach has been particularly developed by Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy, and one of my colleagues on the Stoicism Today project.

Then there is a third approach, which tries to teach ‘wellbeing’ or ‘flourishing’ using purely Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Positive Psychology. This approach is very popular within prisons – indeed, the Scottish Prison Service spends a lot of money on CBT courses like Constructs and Good Lives.

So three different approaches:

Critical Thinking – leave it entirely open to the prisoners to come to their own conclusions.
Well-being / Flourishing – teach psychological techniques from CBT, without any room for the discussion of values.
Wisdom – teach ideas from ancient philosophy and CBT, and incorporate discussion of values. Allow participants to discuss and disagree.

My approach tries to take a middle-ground between the complete freedom of Socratic enquiry, and the more doctrinaire approach of CBT. It has a more specific normative goal in mind – it believes ancient philosophies have useful things to tell us, things we might not simply discover for ourselves, things it’s worth learning – wisdom, in other words.

However, it doesn’t teach just one particular wisdom tradition, but several of them (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism). It explores the connections and similarities within these approaches – the core of wisdom that they share – while also exploring their value differences, and allowing participants to disagree and perhaps to reject them all.

The course I’m teaching also explores some of the similarities between ancient philosophies and modern psychology, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I believe inmates are far more open to these ideas when they’re presented in the context of ancient philosophy – and when it’s permissible to discuss and reject them. Perhaps they start to feel less like a clockwork orange, and more like a free thinker being encouraged to be the ‘doctor to themselves’, as Cicero put it.

In general, I think this is an advantage that the wisdom approach has over the more strictly psychological ‘well-being’ approach – it treats people as free minds and moral agents who can think for themselves and who may reject your ideas, rather than as thinking machines who simply need to download a better running script. If you let someone criticize and reject your ideas, they are more likely to accept them.

The difference between the ‘critical thinking’ and the ‘wisdom’ approach, then, is that I have less faith in wisdom simply emerging when you put a group of people into a room and get them to talk. From my own experience, when I was very unhappy, I didn’t figure a way out for myself, I benefitted from the wisdom of previous generations – although I didn’t simply swallow that wisdom whole, but chose which bits of it made sense to me.

Which of these three approaches works best? It’s too early to say. The CBT approach is the most scientistic, with more narrowly emotional goals – it’s easier to measure depression than wisdom. However, Sfrizis’ early research suggests that the participants of Nikki’s club at Low Moss say they also learn ‘coping skills’ from studying philosophy. They learn how their perspective can cause their emotions. They become more tolerant of different opinions. All of this is encouraging.

My experience so far, after seven sessions at Low Moss, suggests the following points to me:

1) The idea that participants seem to find most useful is the Stoic idea of focusing on what you can control and not freaking out over the things you can’t control. I think this is also the idea that participants at Saracens and at the mental health charity find most useful. There’s a reason Epictetus repeated this idea over and over, in lecture after lecture – it’s a very simple idea, yet one we constantly forget.

2) It’s also useful to repeat the idea of philosophy as training – we can’t just have a good idea once, we need to repeat it over and over until it becomes a cognitive habit, and then practice it until it becomes a behavioural habit. This emphasis on habits is very important in all the wisdom traditions we study – but it’s not part of the ‘Critical Thinking’ approach (indeed, habit is anathema to free open Socratic enquiry).  I would try and reinforce certain ideas using postcards and art-work around the classroom. The idea of reinforcing good habits would seem like indoctrination to the Critical Thinking approach – I think there is an optimal balance between wisdom / dogma and criticism, and that the Critical Thinking approach leaves people too adrift.

3) There’s a challenge of how to get the course to spill out into the rest of a person’s life, outside of the classroom. For paid participants, you can set them homework or fieldwork to try out each week. In Low Moss prison, they’re not that into ‘homework’! But you can at least try and make sure the prison library stocks books from the wisdom traditions that you’re teaching.

4) Both the ‘wisdom’ approach and the ‘critical thinking’ approach seem to reach the moral goal of helping people see things from others’ perspectives. Yesterday, one participant – a member of the BNP – got really into the Islamic mysticism of Rumi, for example. Racism and religious sectarianism presents quite a challenge to Socratic philosophy within prisons – and there may be times when the discussion can get quite heated – but it seems to be able to meet that challenge over the long-term (with proper classroom management). Getting inmates to think constructively about politics, however, is very hard – they are deeply disenfranchised and conspiracy-theorist. That may be a bridge too far.

5) There is another approach to philosophy in prisons, which is basically ‘faith’. You teach inmates one particular religious path to salvation. This is what the Alpha course does, for example, which runs in prisons around the world. This approach has various advantages (besides any supernatural assistance it might have). Firstly, when inmates leave, they can join a church – that’s a massive advantage over any philosophy or psychology course. Secondly, it teaches one particular ethical approach, which it can reinforce over and over. Thirdly, it involves inmates as mentors, helping each other keep the faith. Fourth, it understands the power of story – both the stories of Moses, Joseph, Christ etc – and the story of the inmate and how they came to be saved.

And finally, it involves transformation at a deep level – it tackles the prisoner’s belief ‘I am a worthless, bad and unlovable criminal and will always be that’. It meets that low status belief with an incredibly high status response – you are the child of God, who loves you, who particularly loves sinners like you. You are an heir to the Kingdom.

Both the ‘Critical Thinking’ and the ‘Wisdom’ approaches have to ask how they can achieve those ends, or whether that’s impossible. In a session I taught yesterday, I discussed Plato’s idea that we have forgotten who we are and need to remember we’re royalty (as it were) and how that idea influenced Christian and Muslim mysticism. But obviously a pluralist wisdom approach can’t be hung solely on such a supernatural hook. Still, I think of St Paul’s idea that knowledge without love is ‘a noisy cymbal’. It really is love that transforms. How do you teach that? How do you pass it on?

All these four approaches are at play in various social institutions and structures today. This is what I and others have called ‘the politics of well-being’, and it really is political. Whose approach will be taken up? Who has a powerful coalition and political backers to get their approach ‘rolled out’?  It’s also economic – who has the funding, who gets the profit? It’s scientific – who has the evidence base? And it’s a lot about egos – whose trade-marked approach gets all the respect and credit?

I feel like an infant in such political matters. I don’t really have grand political plans. At the moment I’m just trying to refine the wisdom approach and perhaps the best way to ‘roll it out’ (in that awful political parlance) is through an online course. In fact, I think the best way to roll it out is just to put it out there and let other practitioners take what they see fit. After all, these are not ‘my’ ideas or ‘my’ approach – these are very old wisdom traditions which belong to everyone. There’s a wise quote that the best way to exert influence is not to seek the credit. As Epictetus put it, do what is in your control and accept the rest as God’s will.

Philosophy for life (and other sentences)

I’ll admit it, I was slightly nervous. I’d been invited to give a philosophy workshop in HMP Dumfries, a prison in west Scotland. Plummy-voiced and puny-framed Englishman that I am, I wasn’t sure what they’d make of me. Mincemeat, maybe. Anyway, I figured it was a low-security prison, otherwise they wouldn’t be inviting philosophers to give workshops, right?

Dumfries is a a squat concrete slab, circled with barbed wire and slits for windows. I was dropped off, buzzed in, and told to leave my bag, wallet, mobile and any valuables at the reception. Then the head of prison education came to meet me, he seemed a nice sort. I followed him through a locked door. And another. And another. He unlocked and then locked about ten doors in the space of 20 metres as we sank into the bowels of the building.

And then, abruptly, I was in a small room with some paintings and drawings on the walls. Inside were about ten men, all wearing orange and brown prison clothes. They were mainly white, English and Scottish, from their early 20s to 50s, with two youngish Pakistanis sitting together at the back, and a black guy with dreads on the right. I said hello, introduced myself, and they all did too. Then I launched into it, about how philosophy had helped me through depression, how it had inspired Albert Ellis to invent cognitive therapy, the Stoics’ idea that our emotions come from our beliefs or perspectives.

I asked, as I often do in these talks, for someone to suggest a moment recently that had upset them, so we could consider what beliefs or perspectives had led to the upset. Complete silence. Maybe it’s not something you admit publicly in prison – what gets to you. So one of the teachers jumped in and talked about how her brother wound her up.

Then I got onto the idea of focusing on what you can control rather than what you can’t. I told the story of Rhonda Cornum, how she had used Stoic techniques to cope with being a prisoner-of-war. ‘When you’re a prisoner, your guards control everything about your life, everything external anyway, except your thoughts and beliefs.’ That got their attention. Stoicism, after all, is very much a philosophy of finding inner freedom in external imprisonment – that’s why it’s inspired various inmates, from James Stockdale to Nelson Mandela.

By the end of the workshop, the front five people were sitting forward and engaged, and I’d got about half of the back row into it too, with two people apparently completely unphased by it all. It emerged that four of them had read my book, and they brought me copies to sign. The black guy told me he’d been about to begin a philosophy degree when he got arrested. He said to me, ‘I like what you’re doing, taking philosophy outside of academia’. I replied ‘if you can practice philosophy when life gives you a serious set-back, and you manage to cope, then you’re practicing at a much higher level than an academic writing in a journal’. I signed his book and wrote ‘Keep going’ in it.

Boethius in prison

We all shook hands. I was genuinely moved that ancient philosophy seemed to resonate in here, perhaps even more than in academia. I thanked them all for their contribution. ‘Well’, said one old fella, ‘you had a captive audience’. The rest of the class groaned – clearly an old joke. They asked what philosophy book I’d recommend for the library. I thought about suggesting Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, but decided on Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written while he was on death-row for a false accusation of treason.

Afterwards, I met Nikki Cameron, a teacher in Low Moss prison, near Glasgow. She’s set up a philosophy club in the prison, and she says it’s been hugely popular – it’s running every week now, twice on Fridays, and they get ten or so people sitting round discussing everything from happiness to nothingness to the nature of evil.

Her boss at Motherwell College (which runs further education courses in western Scottish prisons) had given her a copy of my book, and she was excited about the possibility of developing a course on ‘living the good life’, which teaches some CBT self-management tips within more ethical and reflective context of philosophy. ‘Inmates are often conspiracy theorists, and they’re very wary of anything that sounds like a behaviour-change programme’, she says. ‘But philosophy piques their interest and gets them thinking and asking questions.’

Nikki didn’t know of any other philosophy clubs in British prisons. Nor did I, but apparently there is at least one – Alan Smith has been teaching a philosophy class in prisons for 12 years, and has actually just brought out a book about it, called Her Majesty’s Prisoners. The Reader Organisation has also run reading groups in prisons, similar to the Changing Lives Through Literature programme in Texas. There is also something called The Epictetus Club run by Jeff Traylor in the Ohio Penitentiary. I know AA Long has taught classes on Stoic philosophy in San Quentin prison too (in many ways, he’s the Johnny Cash of Hellenistic ethics).

I asked if the Alpha course ran in Dumfries and Low Moss. Carol, one of the teachers at Dumfries, said: ‘Religion is often quite divisive in Scottish prisons. The first question people get asked is, ‘which football club do you support?’, which really means, ‘are you Protestant or Catholic?’ And your answer will decide whether they think of you as one of them or as the enemy. ‘It’s incredibly tribal in here’, Nikki adds. ‘That’s why philosophy brings something new – it gets people thinking for themselves, not just governed by tribal loyalties.’

Religious prison-courses have one advantage, however, which is that they can perhaps offer a form of community to inmates when they go back outside. Carol says: ‘We see a lot of people re-offending in November, so they can be inside over Christmas. This used to surprise me, and I once said ‘what could be worse than being in prison over Christmas?’ An inmate said to me, quick as a flash, ‘there are a lot worse places to be over Christmas than prison, like sitting on your own in a bed-sit.’

For some people, it seems, prison is the closest thing they have to a caring community, and it can be a less chaotic, dangerous and lonely place than the outside world. Could philosophy provide community for them? Perhaps prisons could link up with recovery colleges and other community charities, so that inmates have somewhere to go, socialise, feel listened to, and feed their minds. Perhaps universities could also link up to such colleges, so that there is a steady stream of volunteers prepared to share their knowledge.

I also wondered if philosophy / CBT helps with the really deep stuff, of helping people cope with their guilt or their sense of being unlovable. ‘I think it can’, said Nikki. ‘CBT teaches us that guilt is a destructive habit of thinking.’ But is it always? What if you’ve done something really bad?

I asked what sort of a prison Dumfries is, assuming it was a low-security prison for short sentences. ‘No, it’s a high security prison’, I was told. ‘The class was basically made up of [people who had committed serious crimes, I’m not allowed to tell you what]. They’re people that couldn’t safely be allowed in with the other prisoners.’

This was quite a shock to me. I’d shaken all their hands, even written ‘keep going’ in the front of one of their copies of my book. They had done that? And they were all deeply in denial, keeping the memories of their crimes locked up in the back of their mind, just as the abused often bury their memories out of their consciousness. Could philosophy really help people to confront what they had done? Could it shift their psyches at such a profound level?

And why should we help people who’d done something so awful, so damaging to other people’s lives? It’s not an easy question. I think one can do it for various reasons. One can do it because it seems a bit racy, a philosophy class in prison, with violent criminals, wow! I imagine that wears thin fairly quickly. One can do it because you believe philosophy can change people, even people with deeply-ingrained habits of destructive behaviour. Maybe.

Or you can do it because you believe they have souls too, that it’s worth a shot, and sometimes God can speak to people even through layers and layers of denial, abuse, addiction and sin, and liberate them. Is that possible? Or just another self-serving delusion?

I’m completely new to the whole prison education thing, and I’m sure some of you have  a lot more experience, so feel free to share your stories and ideas in the comments.


In other news:

Two pieces in the Guardian about sex trafficking really hit me this week – this one by a lady who was sold into sex slavery by her parents, who now campaigns to help the victims of sex trafficking; and this one, about the Mumbai sex slave economy.

This interesting neuroscience study suggests it has found neural correlates for unconscious thinking.

One of my non-fiction heroes interviewed another this week – Jon Ronson did a profile of Malcolm Gladwell on the Culture Show to discuss his new book, David and Goliath. Fascinating stuff. Ronson also has a story on this week’s episode of This American Life. I’m in awe of his work ethic and how he makes it all seem so shambling and relaxed…like Boris Johnson!

While Ronson and Gladwell have helped to create a golden age of non-fiction, it’s worth remembering what fiction can do for us – according to this study in Science, it improves our empathy and social intelligence, by leaving more up to our imagination. That’s the danger of our increasingly unimaginative and fact-based era.

OFSTED slammed English schools for how badly they teach Religious Education (and PSHE, and basically anything to do with ethics).Teachers don’t get much training in how to teach it. We don’t know how to teach ethics in our schools. This is a serious problem!

One possible approach – teach some practical ethics and wisdom, rather than focusing entirely on theory. Give young people some ideas they can take away and use in their life – like Stoic philosophy! That’s what John Lloyd, the creator of shows including Blackadder and QI, suggests in this interview I did with him, where he talks about how Stoicism (and other philosophies) helped him through five years of depression.

Jonathan Rowson of the RSA discusses the usefulness of the term ‘spirituality’ in this blogpost. I’ve started talking about ‘spiritual experiences’ in some of my talks, and asking the audience if they’ve ever had any. Lots of them have, it turns out – it’s really a hidden world out of there of profound spiritual experiences that people are having, often outside of traditional religious structures. One sane-looking man, at a small talk I gave in Wigtown last week, told us ‘I often have out-of-body experiences, and am increasingly able to steer them’. Crikey! Honestly, once you start asking about these things, in an open-minded way, you hear some amazing stories.

Some upcoming events: I’m talking in Epsom library tomorrow evening, and on Saturday afternoon the Philosophical Society of England has a free event on Albert Camus at Conway Hall in London. And my book is coming out next week in America, without any apparent publicity campaign. Here’s the US edition on Some kind souls have given it some reviews – thanks for that.

Finally, I really recommend you go see an exhibition at Nottingham University, called Art in the Asylum. It has an amazing collection of outsider art from asylums including Kingsley Hall, Lausanne and Dumfries, including this remarkable drawing by William Bartholomew, an inmate at Dumfries asylum. See you next week, Jules