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Philosophy Hub

The Philosophy Hub is go!

Photo of London Philosophy Club by Greg Funnell

Big day today. I’ve finally finished my report on grassroots philosophy groups, which you can download here: Connected Communities- Philosophical Communities.

It’s taken me eight months to research and write, and has made me realise quite how vibrant and diverse the world of grassroots philosophy is. There are 850 philosophy groups just on alone, with a combined membership of 125,000. I’ve found philosophy groups all over the world, from Fukushima to Rio de Janeiro. And I’ve learnt how grassroots philosophy often connects academia to society, with many academics happy to give their time for free to encourage the love of wisdom.

Until now, the broader grassroots philosophy movement has not had a dedicated website, so today I’m also launching a website called The Philosophy Hub, dedicated to ‘building a global thinking culture’. It has a map where people will be able to find their local philosophy group or upload their own group – do please add your own group. Group organisers can then log in whenever they want and add details of upcoming events to their page. There’s also a history of philosophy groups on the site, going back to ancient Greece, which comes from my report (it focuses mainly on the history of western philosophy groups, and I want now to learn more about grassroots philosophy in other cultures). The site also has lots of other resources for people interested in researching grassroots philosophy, or who want to set up and run a club. Finally, there’s a blog which will focus on grassroots philosophy. It launches with an interview with John Mitchinson, one of the founders of the quiz show QI, who talks about the QI Club – the progenitor of the Idler Academy and the School of Life. He’s a fascinating, likeable person.

The rise of grassroots philosophy is an encouraging phenomenon in a period of sudden and brutal change for higher education in the UK. This year, the coalition government slashed its block grant to universities by £3 billion, asking universities to finance themselves through higher tuition fees, which have risen from an average of £3,000 a year to roughly £8,000 a year.  Undergraduates are expected to pay these higher fees through loans from the Student Loan Company. The government’s hope is that this will increase consumer choice and competition among universities – this week, the government began granting university status to private education providers. Slashing the block grant and asking students to pay more was also, of course, intended to help reduce the budget deficit.

The anti-tuition student protest in London this week

No one knows quite what higher education will look like once the dust has settled. The reforms are rapid and bewildering, and often one part of the government seems to be acting against another part: the Home Office, for example, tried to crack down on the number of foreign students at English universities, just when universities desperately need their money. And already there are unintended consequences of the reforms. Andrew McGettigan, one of the organisers of the Big Ideas philosophy club in London, showed in an excellent report for the Intergenerational Foundation that the government had effectively tried to pull an accounting trick by switching funding from a block grant to state-provided student loans.

As Andrew shows, the trick may have reduced the deficit, but unfortunately (and apparently unexpectedly for the Business, Innovation and Skills department) all those new loans have also pushed up the Consumer Price Index (CPI) by about 0.6%. The CPI is used to calculate state pensions and other benefits, so a rise in the CPI of 0.6% means a loss to the public purse of around £2.2 billion annually. Vince Cable was asked about this unexpected consequence at a recent BIS parliamentary committee. He replied: ‘I don’t follow the logic’. This despite repeated warnings from the Office of National Statistics and the Higher Education Policy Institute of the effect of the loan-boom on inflation.

There could be more problems for the tax-payer further down the river. The Student Loan Company is set to lend around £10 billion annually, via income-dependent loans which will be paid back once graduates earn over £21K a year. But the government may have underestimated how much students borrow, while overestimating how much earnings will rise in the next decade, or how much interest rates could rise. If graduates take longer than expected to pay back the loans, or can’t pay them back, it could end up costing the tax-payer more rather than less. As McGettigan notes, students today may end up paying for their university education twice, once today and again as tax-payers in 20 years.

There are attempts to slow or oppose the reforms. This week, 10,000 students marched against tuition fees, but their demands were somewhat broad (from saving the NHS to freeing Gaza) and their alternative to student loan-financing was simply ‘tax the rich’. That may be some of the answer but it’s not all of it. Meanwhile, some senior academics have created the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which aims at resisting the commercialisation of higher education. But the CDBU risks looking like grumpy old academics trying to protect the status quo. They follow Stefan Collini’s argument that students don’t know what’s good for them, therefore putting them in control of the money is like letting children run a candy store. The CDBU worries that students will all choose subjects that give good salaries, like business and management studies, while neglecting more liberal subjects like history or philosophy (both of which have declined in popularity in the last few years, unlike almost every other subject). And the CDBU dislikes the government’s emphasis on quantifying the quality and ‘impact’ of research. Academics should, Collini argues, be free to pursue research for its own sake, without any regard to social or economic benefit.

To which I’d reply, yes, to an extent. But I think academics of my generation (if I can call myself an academic, despite my lack of a PhD) are far more comfortable with the importance of ‘impact’. We’re impatient with older academics who seem to see any attempt at community engagement as a distraction, who congratulate themselves on their ignorance of social media. We see the decline of the tradition of university extension as a great tragedy, an abandonment of the public role of the intelligentsia in society. In other words, I agree much more with the Stefan Collini who wrote Absent Minds, Collini’s 2006 book in which he bewailed the disappearance of public intellectuals in British culture. Nowadays we only seem to hear from academics when they’re complaining about the loss of their own privileges. Sixty years ago, Beveridge, who as a young man worked at Toynbee Hall, designed the welfare state while serving as Master of University College, Oxford. Bring back the Beveridge model of academics!

My generation also think universities should listen to the needs and desires of their undergraduates, and should do a lot more to provide well-being and counseling services on campus.  And I think we’re prepared to be creative and innovative in how subjects are taught at university. At Queen Mary, University of London, for example, we alas don’t have a philosophy department, so next year we’re launching a free practical philosophy course which any undergraduate can take, whatever their subject.  I’d also like to make the course available to the local community. And I think we can improve the university experience, so that one doesn’t simply study ‘management studies’ or ‘computer sciences’, but instead can learn from both the humanities, and the sciences, and learn vocational and life skills, to get a genuinely rounded education – closer to the American model, in other words, where students can study several subjects and get a broader education.

There is a lot to dislike about the government’s higher education reforms. They seem to be the sort of omnishambles we have come to expect. But resistance to austerity measures can’t simply be about protecting the status quo of the past. It needs to be a progressive vision, a positive vision, a vision of making things better.


Jesus, I sound like Tony Blair. Cue Brian Cox on the synth. In the meantime, here are some young academics with vision.

First, meet Patrick Ussher at Exeter University’s classics department (that’s him on the right with the laptop open, at a recent Exeter seminar on Stoicism and CBT). Patrick wrote his dissertation on Stoicism and Buddhism, and is now doing a PhD on Marcus Aurelius. I met him at the seminar shown on the right. Next week, he’s launching an initiative called Live Like A Stoic For A Week. He’s produced a booklet where people can find practical Stoic exercises for life. Pick one, try it out for a week, and record the results through one of the well-being questionnaires provided by the psychologists working on the project (Tim LeBon and Donald Robertson). Me, I’m going to give up booze for a week. How about you? The week is being covered by the Guardian and has attracted lots of interest. Go Patrick!

Ben Irvine of the Cambridge Well-Being Institute

On Wednesday, meanwhile, I traveled to Cambridge University to talk at a seminar on the politics of well-being organised by Tom Barker, an inspiring young PhD who is researching meaningful work. I spoke at the seminar alongside Ben Irvine, who is coordinator of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge (where Felicia Huppert works), the founder of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, and the author of a new book, Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling. Ben, like me, passionately believes that intellectuals have a social responsibility to engage with society and communicate their ideas to as wide an audience as possible. I was very impressed with the range and calibre of people working on well-being in Cambridge, and how well the Institute brought people together fromdifferent disciplines (architecture, psychology, philosophy, geography etc).

This week, the Office of National Statistics published a big report presenting and reflecting on the data on national well-being it has been collecting for a year. The head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, called for ministers and civil servants to start using the data to make actual policy decisions, while the previous head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell (who is now running a well-being programme at the Legatum Institute) said one clear policy recommendation was for the NHS to spend less on physical illnesses and more on mental illnesses.

The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Antony Jenkins, has (according to the Daily Mail) has “corralled his 125 most senior managers, including former close Diamond associate Rich Ricci, into attending a series of seminars and bonding exercises aimed at instilling ethical values. The executives will then be expected to act as evangelists for the new culture throughout the organisation. During the two days they will be immersed in sessions including history lessons on the bank’s heritage as a Quaker institution. They will also be subjected to ‘360 degree feedback’ on their performance, with people both above and below them in the hierarchy contributing to their bonus assessments. The process is designed to penalise self-serving or unethical behaviour.”

Sounds like the Cultural Revolution. I like the idea of lessons in Quaker values though. What I think would be great would be to combine ethics training courses with stress management / well-being courses – the essence of both resilience and ethics is good character.  I was at a fantastic conference on compassion and empathy today at the Quaker meeting house in London, by the way. The highlight for me was a workshop on Deep Listening by Rosamund Oliver. Good stuff, although she works for Sogyal Rinpoche. I loved his books when I was a teenager, and was gutted to find out he was a sex pest. Anyway, the Deep Listening workshop was brilliant.

Well, I think that’s enough information for one week. My book’s doing good in Holland, by the way, thanks to my amazing publishers, who lined up a lot of interviews and also launched a poster campaign (check it out on the right). They tell me it’s already going for a second printing. It also came out in Germany this week.

See you next week, and hope you like the report and The Philosophy Hub.


Set the controls for the heart of happiness

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there was no newsletter last weekend. Apologies. The reason for this is I have journeyed deep into the warm, pulsating heart of the happiness movement. Last Thursday I took part in a conference on Positive Psychology at Wellington College (the pioneer of well-being classes), and then I went down to Dartington, in Totnes, Devon, to take part in an Action for Happiness two-day happiness festival.  I left Dartington, I kid you not, while a choir stood on the misty lawn singing ‘happy, happy, happy clappy!’ I felt like a rehab patient leaving the Priory.

Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).

I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!

I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.

We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.

I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT,  and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.

It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.

Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.

Idealistic champions of adult education like RH Tawney are long gone.

Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.

The Octagon Room at Queen Mary, University of London

Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website,, which will finally launch next week, I promise!

One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.

One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world

Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith

Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.

Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.

I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.

Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.

From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.

And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.

I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.

See you next week,