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I went to my first ever humanities academic conference at the start of this week – a three-day event called ‘Connected Communities‘ run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in Cardiff. It was quite a baptism of fire. The conference took a new experimental format, bringing together about 60 academics working in the medical humanities. These 60 academics were then encouraged to spontaneously coalesce into groups, come up with a three-year research project that involves them all, and then pitch at the end of the conference for up to £1.5 million in funding.

The AHRC compared the process to Dragon’s Den or X-Factor, but to me it resembled the TV show ‘Hole In The Wall’, where teams have a few seconds to assume unusual positions to fit through a hole, otherwise they end up in the cold water. The academics came from every part of the UK, from the highlands of Scotland to the badlands of London, and specialized in every conceivable type of arts and humanities research – touch and dementia, migration and medicine, depression among young British muslims, digital media and the BDSM community. Now imagine them coming together with people they’ve never met, in groups that sometimes included 10 people, to try and find a common project to work on for the next three years. Um….how about performance narratives about BDSM among elderly Hassidic Jews with Tourettes…on ice?

The participants were really lovely people – as a former business journalist, I’m used to going to investment banking conferences, and I can tell you, arts and humanities conferences are much warmer and more congenial affairs, and I really felt at home. But you can also imagine, a room full of arty types like me, some of whom are more comfortable communicating visually or through movement, manically trying to brainstorm a three-year business proposal. The walls were soon covered with strange diagrams and illustrations, including lots of flip-charts with various large words on them: ‘Engagement. Loneliness. Stories. Togetherness.’ There were lots of sentences along the lines of: ‘There’s something here to do with connectedness…but also dis-connectedness…I want to use the word…inter-mingling. Can I just bring that into this space?’ Okay!

By the end of three intense and quite tiring days, the conference had formed itself into six proposed projects, all of them strange chimeras incorporating the head of a sociologist, the body of a philosopher, the legs of a performing arts therapist and the tail of a gerontologist. The teams managed to get through a ten minute pitch without descending into in-fighting, and put forward surprisingly coherent projects – and they almost all got the green light from the AHRC to take a shot at the Big Cash Prize, in a live final which will be filmed in front of a studio audience at the Millennium Stadium (not really), so some exciting and genuinely cross-disciplinary research may emerge.

My group, full of lovely people, decided not to go forward for the Big Cash Prize, but instead to pitch for smaller ‘follow-on funding’, and I also teamed up with David Hunter, a philosopher at the University of Birmingham, to pitch for smaller funding to research the rise of philosophy groups around the UK and indeed around the world. I know of several such groups, but let me know if you know of others. There’s as yet no central website where people can find such groups near them – perhaps we should set one up. Brendan Stone at the University of Sheffield very helpfully told me about the Philosophy In The City project at Sheffield – a group of young post-grads in their philosophy department, who take their practice out into schools and adult communities. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to meet them soon. Tracy Robbins, the programme manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s excellent programme investigating loneliness, also told me about a young man in York teaching philosophy in a housing project – I would love to meet him and find out about any similar endeavours.

I also met the wonderful Dr Josie Billington from the University of Liverpool’s English Literature department, who told me about the research being done in Liverpool on ‘bibliotherapy’, particularly by Jane Davis. The clinical research on bibliotherapy started with a study of the effect of reading David Burns’ CBT book, Feeling Good. But, as Jane has investigated, the idea of reading for health goes back to the Renaissance and further, all the way back to the ancients’ use of handbooks and therapeutic poems like Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things. Jane’s work also explores communal reading, and the pleasure and health that comes from reading aloud together. Read this beautiful Guardian article by Blake Morrison about her work.

An area of practical philosophy that I have never written about or, to be honest, thought much about is the work of science ethics committees. I recently heard this interesting lecture by AC Grayling at the LSE, bemoaning the over-specialization and institutionalization of philosophy. He noted the existence of amateur philosophy clubs on the continent but alas seemed unaware of such clubs here in the UK – but he does, very usefully, flag how philosophy has become much more applied in real-life settings through the rise of bioethics committees in hospitals, research academies and government departments since the 1960s.

Ethics committees are fascinating creatures. In a pluralist society, we are all supposed to be allowed our own view of the good life. What that means, as Alasdair MacIntyre has written, is that we don’t really have a common moral language, and mean very different things by words like freedom and justice. And yet ethics committees have to arrive at collective moral decisions which often have life and death implications.

Grayling says: ‘Medical ethics is now one of the richest areas of serious thinking in contemporary philosophy’, and there were some great bio-ethicists at the conference in Cardiff, including David Buchanan, director of the Institute for Global Health. David gave an impassioned talk, very inspired by MacIntyre’s After Virtue, arguing that we need to discover a common language of morality and a common conception of justice if we are to arrive at ethically sound conclusions about health policy. He writes here about what he calls ‘the justice project’, and the need for philosophy clubs, essentially, to bring ordinary people into the bio-ethical discussion. Have a look, it’s a fascinating example of philosophy and ethics applied to real-life decision-making. And also look at the Open University’s excellent website on bioethics, which has links to the Radio 4 show, Inside the Ethics Committee, which is co-produced by the OU and the BBC.

So, no £1.5 million cash bonus for me, but certainly a very rich few days, and a wealth of fascinating introductions and conversations (thanks AHRC).

See you next week,