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Social psychology

PoW: Is academic philosophy in crisis?

You’d think philosophy was in quite a healthy state, considering the growing number of popular philosophy books, clubs, debating events, podcasts, evening schools and festivals in our culture. And yet, at the level of schools and universities, the picture is quite different. At A-Level in 2010, the subject attracted a mere 1.1% of students – and even that is an improvement on a few years ago.

Philosophy A-Level is completely outgunned by subjects that would once have been considered part of philosophy, such as sociology, politics and economics, and in particular psychology, which is now the second most popular A-Level, after mathematics, attracting 19% of all students. A quarter of all girls taking A-Levels took psychology in 2010 – we seem to be becoming a nation of therapists.

At undergraduate level, philosophy barely seems to exist. According to UCAS, only 1,500 students started philosophy degrees in the UK in 2010 (although UCAS doesn’t include joint courses like Oxford’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics course). The feedback I get from people who took philosophy degrees is mixed. Some say they loved it. Others were turned off by the narrow focus on Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, which they found dry and uninspiring.

There’s a move, now, to make philosophy a bigger part of the school curriculum. Yesterday, I attended a roundtable at the London School of Economics which sought to promote philosophy for children at the primary and secondary level. It was partly organized by Peter and Emma Worley of the Philosophy Shop, a charity that teaches philosophy in primary schools and beyond. They’re doing a great job at getting this issue more public attention: they’re presenting a White Paper to the government this month, as well as a petition. There was also an item on philosophy in schools on Radio 4 this week, and this month’s edition of the magazine Philosophy Now is devoted to that topic.

Here’s a video of Peter Worley in action at a primary school discussing epistemology with some year six kids. (I like the Raiders of the Lost Ark introductory music). As you can see in the clip, children are natural philosophers, and love to consider ideas of time, space, identity and knowledge. I remember my best friend and I tripping ourselves out when we were 11 by wondering what existed beyond the edge of the universe. This natural curiosity can perhaps be guided and trained by philosophy, making young people better able to think about their thinking, to formulate reasoned arguments, and also to dialogue with themselves and each other (the communal aspect of philosophical inquiry is a big part of Philosophy for Children, another school philosophy programme).

I hope the campaign succeeds. In the meantime, it might be useful to ask ourselves, why is philosophy so unpopular at A-Level and undergraduate level? What is it missing? And why is psychology doing so well?

One possible answer is that psychology speaks to our emotions and our daily concerns in a way that academic philosophy no longer does. In Greco-Roman philosophy, logic, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics were grounded in psychology, and in a deep understanding of our emotions. Academic philosophy went into decline, I would argue, when psychology split off from philosophy towards the beginning of the 20th century. From that point on, psychology grew in influence, while philosophy steadily declined.

If we want to increase the relevance of philosophy, not just in schools but in society in general, I would suggest we need to return to the ancients’ conception of it as an education of our emotions as well as our thoughts. It should teach us to be aware of how our beliefs lead to our emotions, and how we can manage and transform our emotions. It should also teach us, I believe, about the different conceptions of the Good Life which different philosophical schools offer (that’s actually what I’m trying to do in my book).

But why not simply study psychology, you might say. What has philosophy to offer that psychology can’t? First of all, a lot of modern psychology has its roots in ancient philosophy, so there is a historical awareness there that some psychologists lack. They don’t always realize where their ideas and techniques come from.
Secondly, ancient philosophy understood – in a way some modern psychology doesn’t – that therapy involves a critical engagement not just with an individual’s beliefs and values, but with their culture’s beliefs and values.
Thirdly, many psychologists and neuroscientists have a naive understanding of concepts like ‘meaning’, ‘happiness’, ‘well-being’ and so on. Their discipline is founded on these terms, yet very often, their use of these terms is unexamined, even by those at the top of their field.

I think some of the most interesting work in the next few decades will come from psychologists and philosophers working together, to combine the analytical rigour of the latter with the experimental rigour of the former. The subjects need each other, as I argued here.
On that note – it’s good to see experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe is teaming up with leading social psychologist Roy Baumeister to work on free will, thanks to a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation. For a great discussion of the relationship between philosophy and psychology, by the way, I recommend Experiments in Ethics (The Mary Flexner Lectures), by Knobe’s former supervisor, Kwame Anthony Appiah.
One psychologist who combines the analytical rigour of a philosopher with the fieldwork and experimental practice of a psychologist is Richard Bentall, arguing here that psychiatry’s definition of schizophrenia has as much scientific validity as astrology.
Here’s an inspiring story of a leading therapist for borderline personality disorder, who just came out with the news that she’s suffered from the disorder herself since she was 22. She says: “I was in hell. And I made a vow, that when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”
Here’s a great video from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, about an important new report by the OCC on the well-being of children in our justice system.
The Economist reports here on a new study that suggests people who live in cities are more messed up than those who live in the countryside. Perhaps we should all take to the hills and pop magic mushrooms. A new study from John Hopkins University gave magic mushrooms to 18 volunteers, of whom 94% said it was one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. A third said it was the single most meaningful experience of their life. Far out!

Talking of which, I enjoyed seeing Angie Hobbes, the flame-haired siren of British philosophy, talk on ancient philosophy at the LSE roundtable. She remarked on the trippiness of the ancients – Plato and Heraclitus in particular – and suggested: “I do sometimes wonder what my favourite philosophers were on, and whether magic mushrooms form the basis of western culture.”

I’ve always thought psilocybin from yeast was an important part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, where many great ancient philosophers and artists were initiated (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius…) The psychedelic theory of Eleusis was first argued by R. Gordon Wasson, a former investment banker who got turned on to magic mushrooms by his Russian wife, and who played a key role in developing modern culture’s understanding of psychedelics in the 1950s. Check out this ground-breaking article he wrote for Life Magazine in 1957.

Finally, news that James Arthur Ray, one of the leading gurus promoted in Rhonda Byrne’s New Age bestseller, The Secret, has been convicted of negligent homicide. Three of his followers died when a sweat-lodge initiation went wrong in 2009. The Atlantic looks at all the mainstream media outlets who promoted his dumb Law of Attraction idea – that we can just wish for something, and lo, it will happen.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could get a column in which I explored and exposed the claims of psychics, shamans, faith healers and other oddballs? Let’s all wish for it. Close your eyes and repeat after me: ‘I wish that Jules will get his own column.’ Thanks! I’ll keep you posted.

See you next week,


Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, on the coming revolution

This is an interview I did way back in 2002, with Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, which is a Vancouver-based collective of ‘culture jammers’, the inventors of Buy Nothing Day, and the trouble-makers behind the Occupy Wall Street movement. You can read my account of Occupy London here.

What was your first foray into culture jamming?

My family left Estonia when the Russians invaded. We lived in some deported persons camps in Germany for a few years, then moved to Australia, where I grew up. When I was 23, I moved to Japan for five years, and worked in the advertizing industry. This was the late 1960s. It was a very thriving time, business-wise. And I got a taste of what the advertizing industry is all about. I found they were ethically neutral people, it was an ethically neutral business, where people didn’t really give a damn whether they were selling cigarettes, or alcohol, or Pepsi-Cola. For them it was all one big interesting game, and the social repercussions were somehow irrelevant. That made an impression on me.

Then, in 1970, I moved to Canada. In 1990, I was in an environmentalist group campaigning against foresting, and we wanted to buy TV airtime to run a campaign advert. We were told we couldn’t. The $6bn forestry industry could, but we couldn’t. Some of us were so angry with that, we started a newsletter, which grew into
Adbusters magazine. And we started a little non-profit group which grew into the AdBusters media foundation. Everything we’ve done since has grown out of that outrage, from realizing that one side gets on TV and the other side doesn’t. We want to have our say. Democracy doesn’t really work unless everyone can have a say.

Where did the idea of doing spoof ads come from?

The idea came from the Situationist movement, which was such a powerful intellectual force in the 1960s, and especially around 1968, when there was almost a world revolution. One of the big things the Situationists talked about was
detournement – it’s a French word that means taking an existing situation, and in a deft, Judo-like move, creating a feedback loop that destroys it. So you’re a culture jammer and you’re facing Nike, which is a massive corporation that has all kinds of power on its side. But because you’re fleet of foot, and nimble, you grab them and throw them on the mat with a beautiful, aesthetic, intellectual tour de force that somehow outwits them. Many other activist movements before the Situationists have used that, like Dada for example. They don’t have the money, they don’t have the power, but they use their wits, and they find ways for making people laugh, and think about the paradigm shift just through the power of their wits.

Did you ever have legal problems?

Yeah, we had a legal tussle once with Absolut Vodka, who didn’t like our spoofs. T
hey scared us initially because they had this international law firm which threatened to put us out of business if we didn’t do what they asked, which was apologize, and promise not to do this sort of stuff again, and throw away all the copies of our magazine. But as soon as we put out a press release about this battle we were having with them and got a bit of publicity, they basically ran away with their tail between their legs.

And our second tussle – we’ve only had two tussles – was with McDonalds here in Canada, when we started putting Grease stickers all over Canada. And then one of the jammers was caught red-handed putting a huge big sticker on a sandwich board outside of a McDonalds restaurant. Then it went to court. And eventually the jammer actually won the court case, because it wasn’t actually on the restaurant, it was on public space outside the restaurant. So he was OK, and it got a lot of publicity, and then McDonalds was absolutely shamed on national television.

So how did you get the idea for Buy Nothing Day?

Back in 1992, we were looking for a campaign that talked back against consumerism. And we kept on brain-storming about what would be a good campaign, and then one day a young Vancouver artist called Ted Dave walked into the office and said: “I’ve got a brilliant idea! Buy Nothing Day!” And we never looked back. It was a huge success right away. As soon as we put it on the internet it became very quickly a world-wide phenomena. Last year [2001] 65 countries around the world had Buy Nothing Day. We want to be the world wide co-ordinators to encourage people to go on a ‘consumer fast’.

It’s interesting that you talk of a ‘consumer fast’.

Many people who decide to take the personal plunge for 24 hours, they suffer – it’s as hard as giving up smoking for some people. The resistance to the urge to having a coffee or a Mars bar – people go through a cold turkey experience. They sweat, and they realize to what extent this impulse to buy is a bit of an addiction.

What is the simplicity movement?

The simplicity movement is people who have been stung by consumer culture. Either they stressed out, or they got some kind of mood disorder, or they lost their job – people who have really suffered because of the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism that we live in, and some people have said: “You know, I don’t need a car, and I don’t need a big house with a TV in every room, I don’t need to max out on my credit card every Christmas. Im just going to downshift, I’m going to live a simpler life, and I can get by on the money I have, and get a job that I really love instead of a job that pays a huge amount of money. These are people who radically changed their personal and working lives.

In an interview of yours I read, you said you liked the book Fight Club.


In the book, what begins as an emancipatory movement turns into an authoritarian movement, whose members end up chanting slogans just as mindlessly as they once did the slogans of consumerism. Is that a danger – that movements designed to free people from mass conditioning simply replace the old systems with new systems of mass conditioning?

Of course it’s a danger. I’ve been a student of revolution all my life, and every revolution faces that danger. In the early stages it’s full of idealism and truth and sincere authentic people doing the right thing. But as soon as they win, like in Russia, it turns into a monster. Likewise, I believe we are at the beginning of a huge cultural revolution right now, in the early stages. And then years down the road from now, when we’ve won, I’m sure that some of us will turn into monsters. That’s just the way the human spirit works. But nonetheless I believe it’s very important for us to win, and worry about how badly we behave later – right now we need to pull the current monster down.

But do you think the new monster will be better?

I’m sure it will.

AdBusters is a great critic of advertizing, but it’s also a movement that itself uses adverts. Is your arguments against adverts as a medium, as something manipulative or simplistic, or is it more against the message it carries?

I love advertizing, I have nothing against advertizing, it’s just that I don’t like the fact that of those 3,000 marketing messages that seep into my brain, 2,999 of them are commercial messages.
So what we’re trying to do is change 100 of them, or perhaps 500 of them, into other kinds of messages. Advertizing has two sides to it – the product-marketing side, but also the social marketing side. One side sells products, the other sells ideas. What our movement is trying to do is to turn some of those 3,000 marketing messages a day into social marketing messages that push society in another direction, rather than selling them some damn product that they don’t need.
Do you think there’s a danger that advertizers will see there’s this great anti-consumerist movement, and they’ll try and tap into it?

They’ve been doing that for 10 years. Ever since we came up with this culture jamming aesthetic, that looked a little anarchic and organic – they’ve been stealing that aesthetic for ten years, sometimes to the point of actually jamming themselves, so they look they like been jammed. That’s nothing new – this cat and mouse game between the culture jammers and the advertizing people is a game that’s going to continue. The only difference is that after a hundred years of phenomenal growth the advertizing industry is just about ready to get its comeuppance. We’re at the early stages of a mental / environmental movement that will wipe the advertizing industry out as we know it.

People are feeling mind-fucked. There’s good scientific evidence, a study by Myra Whiteman at Columbia University for example, and another study by the World Health Organization – young people are 300% more likely to suffer from depression, or mood disorders, or panic attacks than my generation. there’s been a terrible degradation of our mental environment, and almost an epidemic of mental disease, and this epidemic is I think what is fuelling the mental / environmental movement. People are making this connection between their own stress levels and their own weird feelings, or this mood disorder that your wife or girlfriend is going through, and the media cartel and the ads, and they’re saying “Jesus, maybe I should clean up on the mental pollution that I’m subjected to – cut back on the 3,000 messages, and stop watching so much TV.”
We’re at the beginning of a mental / environmental movement, and once people make that connection between advertizing and the media cartel and their own mental well-being, then the advertizing industry will be in deep shit. It will be a situation very similar to 30 years ago, when people started making connections between dirty air and dirty food and dirty water and their own physical well-being. That changed the world, and the mental / environmental movement will also change the world.
So the mental / environmental movement implies two ills of consumerism. One is that it fucks up the world and the other is it fucks up our selves as individuals.

Exactly. That’s my basic position. If I had to say what I have to say in a nutshell I would say our present system basically is ecologically unsustainable – it’s killing the planet – and it’s psychologically corrosive – it’s making us crazy. That one-two punch, that eco-psycho punch, is what is going to bring the current system down.

And at the heart of both of them is that the system is unable to say ‘enough’, that we have enough.

On the eco side, I would say that’s the heart of the eco system, but on the psycho side I would say it’s do with media concentration, that commercial systems have taken over society’s information delivery system and are now basically brainwashing us.

But on the psychological side, isn’t that basically telling people that at the moment, they don’t know what’s good for them?


But mightn’t people say, perhaps a bit like an addict: “I’m fine, I know exactly what’s good for me, and I want to go shopping”?

Yeah, they’re saying that all the time. I’d say at least 75% of the population is caught in a consumer trance, and they believe in the American Dream. I experience that every Buy Nothing Day when I go on radio talk shows, and these outraged Americans call up and can’t believe that somebody’s talking back against the American dream and telling people to consume less. The mainstream population literally doesn’t care, and that’s what cultural revolutions are all about.

But how do you avoid the accusation of elitism, that you are middle class people telling working class people how to live?

I don’t want to avoid that charge. People are throwing that at me all the time, and I just throw it back in their faces. I tell them ‘You’ve been brainwashed’. I’m accusing them as well, I’m accusing them of being brainwashed.

And politicians will probably say, a less consumer society will mean less production, less growth, less employment, less money for welfare. I’m sure that’s what they would say. What would you say to them?

I would say our system at the moment is a destructive system. We’re using up the natural capital of the planet in pursuit of the short-term growth that we believe in now. I would also point out that at the moment we don’t know how to measure progress, like GDP, which tell us that we’ve grown, and other measures of progress that show the good as well as the bad show we haven’t been making any progress since the 1970s, we’re going down. If you start putting a value on climate change, or the fact that the salmon runs in the Pacific North West are drying up, and the cod fish in the Atlantic has disappeared – once you start putting a money value on the negative aspects of our economic system, then you’ll find we’ve been making negative progress since the 1970s. So I would say to the politicians and the economic policy-makers, I would say ‘Learn how to measure progress properly, then we can talk about how to make progress.’

One of consumerism’s practical uses is as a distraction, as an opiate. We’ve always had opiates of one kind or another – whether it’s religion, Stalinism or consumerism. If we limit consumerism as a distraction, what would you replace it with, an an alternate system of distraction.

I’ve been asked that question many times and I can never answer it. I say something like: “God knows what will happen after the next paradigm shift or after this next cultural revolution. We will be left with a grim situation where climate change is out of control, and we may be in a situation like the 1930s where our economic system is in tatters. And then from the bottom up we’ll have to build a new system, and at the moment, I have no idea how that system will look. I have a few ideas, but basically I’d rather live that. I hope that before I die I can live that rather than predict what it will be. To me that prediction is kind of facile.

Do you think it will be like waking up from a dream?

Yeah, I think so. All of a sudden people will wake up one day, after the Dow Jones has gone down by 7,000 points, and say: ”What the fuck is going on?” They’ll just see their life as they know it collapse around them. And then they’ll have to pick up the pieces and learn to live again.
[Here’s a recent interview Kalle did with the Washington Post about the Occupy Wall Street movement.]