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).
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,