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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.


A manifesto for the mass intelligentsia

A few newsletters back, I talked about the idea of the ‘mass intelligentsia’, and posted an interview I did with Melvyn Bragg about the term (he used it in this programme on class and culture back in March). I’ve been digging into this idea a bit more since then, for an academic research project I’m doing on philosophy clubs. I’d like to unpack the idea some more, if that’s alright by you.

The main idea of the mass intelligentsia is that today, in the words of Bragg, “a very substantial minority is prepared to put time and effort into subjects that used to be the preserve of a very small minority”. There’s always been an intelligentsia, it’s just become a lot bigger, and turned into a mass phenomenon in the last 30 to 40 years. As David Brooks put it in the New York Times back in 2008: “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

The chief driver behind the emergence of the mass intelligentsia, as Bragg told me, is the expansion of higher education since World War II. Back then, less than 5% of the population of OECD countries went to university. Now, the OECD average is around 35%. This expansion of higher education was part of the emergence of what Daniel Bell called ‘post-industrial capitalism’, or Peter Drucker termed ‘the knowledge economy’.

The industrial sector of the economy shrank, as did the number of blue-collar jobs, while the services sector grew, along with the middle class. Higher education expanded to create what Bell called a ‘new intelligentsia’ to work in the services sector of the economy, in academia, scientific R&D; communications, computing and digital technology; in think-tanks and policy, and in the arts.

Steve Jobs combined the scientific intelligentsia's love of tech with the cultural intelligentsia's desire for personal authenticity

The new intelligentsia has two wings – cultural and scientific – with quite different temperaments and attitudes. The scientific intelligentsia tends to be positivist, to believe (naturally enough) in the power of science and empirical measurement to arrive at truth and improve society. The cultural intelligentsia tends to believe in creativity and authenticity, it tends to be anti-positivistic, wary of the de-humanising potential of technological advances, and resentful of the spread of scientific metricisation into the arts and humanities. Sometimes they clash, sometimes they find compromises: Steve Jobs is a good example of someone who combined the scientific intelligentsia’s love of tech with the cultural intelligentsia’s ethos of personal freedom and authenticity.

The mass intelligentsia is characterised by the pursuit of lifelong learning. They are the creators of a new ‘learning society’. Some theorists of the learning society characterize it as a desperate attempt to keep up with rapid changes in the knowledge economy. That’s the wrong way to see it.  Instead, learning is pursued by people as a good in itself. Learning is pursued for pleasure, knowledge, community and enhanced experience – and jobs are another means to those goals, rather than the end which learning serves. People work for money, but they mainly work for new learning experiences.

The best companies adopt many of the features of the university: Google Campus

The transition from university to the marketplace is a continuation of the learning process, rather than the end of it. ‘Market-place’ is probably the wrong word for the modern work-space. It’s a ‘learning-space’. The best companies realise this, and adopt many of the features of a university.

Robert M. Hutchins, author of the 1968 book, The Learning Society, suggested a good model for the future society was ancient Athens, in which “education was not a segregated activity, conducted for certain hours, in certain places, at a certain time of life. It was the aim of the society. The city educated the man.”

In the learning society, leisure-time is increasingly used for intellectual stimulation. The mass intelligentsia construct thousands of informal networks, online and offline, to learn, collaborate and expand their minds. Informal learning websites like the Khan Academy, TED, In Our Time, the RSA and Philosophy Bites feed the rising public demand for intellectual stimulation. There is also a craving for new forms of intellectual community. In the 1990s, book clubs mushroomed across Britain, and the book festival scene exploded: there are today over 300 book festivals in the UK. Social entrepreneurs create new informal schools for lifelong learners, like the School of Life, the General Assembly, the Faber Academy, Mumsnet Academy, or Jamie Oliver’s Recipease.

The University of the Third Age: radical grannies

Much of the innovation in learning is peer-led. The internet lowers the barrier for entry, and makes it much easier for small, grassroots clubs to organise themselves. The University of the Third Age is an example of what can be achieved – it started off as a top-down organisation for learning with the elderly in Australia, and then became a grassroots peer-led phenomenon here in the UK (the same thing happened with Skepticism, by the way, which was a top-down movement in the US and Australia, and then turned into a grassroots peer-led movement in the UK. It’s now a good combination of top-down organisations and grassroots clubs), in particular, sparked a revolution in peer-led learning and mutual improvement. There are today 2,162 book club meetups, 1,799 art meetups, 1,009 environmental meetups, 811 philosophy meetups, 524 Skeptic meetups, 348 animal rights meetups, 260 history meetups, 230 ethics meetups, 124 feminist meetups, 110 astronomy meetups, and 610 meetups interested in ‘intellectual discussion’. You can find, on any given evening in London, art history in the pub, philosophy in the pub, psychology in the pub, even live therapy sessions.

British universities struggled, on the whole, to recognise the potential for the new adult learning market, with the exception of the Open University, which makes 22 of the top 100 courses on iTunes U, and is the only UK university to appear in that list. Many of the most influential British intellectuals now work outside of academia. Universities have, perhaps, been weighed down by their history and bureaucracy, and can be suspicious of innovation and entrepreneurialism. However, the rise of Ed-X heralds a period of rapid change for higher education, as it finally adapts to the lifelong learning needs of the mass intelligentsia. The university of tomorrow will follow the Open University model, and have multi-media production and adult learning at its centre, rather than at the margins.

What’s wrong with the mass intelligentsia?

The growth of the mass intelligentsia is often portrayed, by elitist intellectuals, as socially and morally undesirable. Modernist intellectuals criticised it in the 1920s as the rise of the ‘middlebrow’, and the end of avant garde. In a similar vein, some recent thinkers have criticised the growth of informal learning on the internet as the triumph of the ill-informed amateur and shallow thinking. It’s also easy to criticise the commercialism of informal learning entrepreneurs like Jamie Oliver, Alain de Botton or TED’s Chris Anderson. They are giving the people what they want, rather than what they supposedly ‘need’.

Houellebecq's Atomised criticised the mass intelligentsia as cut off and morally lost

The mass intelligentsia as a class are often depicted as selfish, narcissistic, obsessed with personal growth. The communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, warned in A Secular Age that the individualistic ethos of 19th and early 20th century bohemians had become a ‘mass phenomenon’ in the 1960s: now we’re all selfish seekers after personal freedom and authenticity, and have recklessly rejected the traditional forms of church, family, corporation and political party. Robert Putnam also warned of the erosion of social capital and civic virtue, while labour sociologists like Richard Sennet and Jeremy Rifkin have suggested that the knowledge economy’s increased volatility has made us lonelier, more anxious, and less virtuous. This generally negative view of the mass intelligentsia was well-expressed by Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, in which the two main characters, representatives of the cultural and scientific intelligentsia, are cut-off, selfish and morally lost.

I have some sympathy with this pessimistic narrative. It is easy to argue that the widening of education has come at the expense of a flattening. Where are the geniuses of the 19th and early 20th century, where the contemporary equivalents of Joyce, Marx, Freud, Mill, Picasso, Wittgenstein, Einstein? Where are the great plays and novels? Perhaps we are even in a period of intellectual stagnation. We have more and more media on which to communicate ideas, and ever-fewer things to say, with the result that the same ideas and case studies are endlessly recycled in books touted as the Next Big Idea.

Yet I choose to hold a more optimistic narrative. If the new intelligentsia has abandoned some of the old forms of community, it immediately set out to create new forms – like Esalen, the Californian commune so ably mocked by Houellebecq. Yes, many of these new communities turned out to be vapid, or commercial, or even cultish. But the rate of social innovation has been incredibly quick, and those forms of community that work have survived and spread. Witness, for example, the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is the best example of peer-to-peer learning we have.

There have been many elegies written for the end of the traditional working class, the end of socialism, the end of working men’s clubs and the worker education movement – see, for example, Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the last chapter of which delivers a tirade against the ‘weekend bohemianism’ of the new mass intelligentsia. But that critique seems misplaced. The rise of the mass intelligentsia is proof that the centuries-long drive for workers’ self-education succeeded. It’s just that it didn’t create a proletarian utopia, instead it created a hugely expanded middle class. The radical ethos of informal learning via mutual improvement clubs and corresponding societies didn’t disappear, as Jonathan argues: it went mainstream, and became the modus operandi for the learning society. (I’ll send Jonathan this piece and see what he thinks).

Philosophy clubs: Aristotle would have approved

You can criticise the mass intelligentsia as selfish and self-obsessed, as Charles Taylor does, but I think that’s unfair. We may have a problem obeying traditional hierarchies – but is that so selfish, when you consider how the Catholic Church has behaved over the last 30 years? The search for personal well-being and authenticity, which Taylor seems to find so narcissistic, has in fact rapidly led the mass intelligentsia back to ancient sources of wisdom. We’re searching for the good life. And we’re learning, increasingly, that the good life is best practiced together. We’re trying to construct non-hierarchical forms of community to practice the good life. We’re building a society that I think Aristotle would have welcomed: in which everyone has the opportunity to learn, to collaborate on meaningful projects, and to expand their awareness. That’s a society worth striving for.


Here are some interesting links I came across this week:

Yesterday I met Rob Symington, one of the founders of Escape the City, which is totally an example of what I’m talking about above: a platform, network and community to help people find learning experiences in the workplace. They have 100 meetups around the world, and have raised $600K in crowd-sourced funding on CrowdCube. Way to go!

There’s a great philosophy event next month: The Philosophical Society of England is celebrating its centenary with a weekend event, featuring Angie Hobbs talking about ‘ancient Greece and the future of philosophy’, Brenda Almond on ‘has applied philosophy lost its way?’, as well as Jonathan Ree on ‘philosophical societies and social change’. Jonathan is hopefully speaking at the London Philosophy Club in October.

Here’s a cool video on The Future of Philosophy, made by Leah Green, featuring Angie Hobbs and the London Philosophy Club.

Come to Interrogate, a festival at Dartington Hall in October, where I’ll be speaking, along with lots of other thinkers / practitioners on happiness and well-being. It will be brilliant.

Talking of happiness…I wrote this blog post celebrating English melancholy.

This account in last Saturday’s Guardian of RD Laing’s Kingsley Hall, and the orgies, LSD parties, black magic and naked wrestling that went on there, was extraordinary.

I have been doing a lot of research on Skepticism as a grassroots movement (an interesting part of the learning society). Thanks for everyone’s help with it. The community is clearly going through ‘growing pains’ as Massimo Pigliucci put it, or ‘a bit of a rough patch’, as Sid Rodrigues of Skeptics In the Pub said. Here’s one ex-Skeptic’s account of why he’s leaving the community, and here’s the founder of Atheism Plus’ account of misogyny in the Skeptic community has made her give up blogging. As a Skeptical theist (there, I said it!) I hope the community gets over this difficult patch.

At philosopher Brian Leiter’s blog, an old post that I came across and enjoyed: what are the 100 most influential philosophy books published since 2000? Above my pay grade… but I enjoyed Taylor’ Secular Age and Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought. And Sandel’s Justice – poppy, but good, and widely read.

Here’s a fascinating set of short articles by famous British philosophers in 1946, about why philosophy is in crisis and needs to connect with the wider population. Plus ca change…

Right, that’s your lot for this week. Let me know if you have any thoughts on my thesis above on the mass intelligentsia – I’m writing a report on it at the moment so would welcome any input and feedback.


PS Thank you for all the nice reviews on Amazon – 22 reviews on there now, 19 of them five-star. It’s looking hopeful for a sale to a US publisher – send me good luck in the next few days!