Here’s a very brief history of philosophy.
1) The first era of philosophy was the era of Street Philosophy, which ran (very roughly) from the life of Socrates to the first council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Street philosophy was open source. It was, literally, taught in the open: in street locations like the marketplace, the gymnasium or underneath the colonnades of Athens. Anyone could come along, listen and try its teachings and exercises: men, women, freemen, slaves. The goal of philosophy was the training of one’s awareness and the transformation of the self. It taught its followers how to take care (therapeia) of the soul (psyche). Philosophy was not something one merely discussed or wrote about – that would be as pointless, the ancients suggested, as a medicine that was entirely theoretical. Philosophy was a daily practice (askesis), made up of a set of practical techniques (techne) to be used in all the different situations that life threw at one, with the aim of achieving eudaimonia, or human flourishing and fulfilment.
Michel Foucault called these techniques ‘technologies of the self’. They included visualization exercises, meditations, physical exercises like fasting or sleeping rough, behavioural exercises, and also the use of resources like the journal and the handbook. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is an example of the former. Epictetus’ Enchiridion is an example of the latter. Students shared information on these techniques through letters – Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is an example of this sort of information-pooling.
2) The second era of philosophy was the era of Academic Philosophy.
As soon as Socrates invented street philosophy, his disciple Plato tried to institutionalize it. He was St Peter to Socrates’ Jesus. He invented the Academy: a school which would teach philosophy, but only to rich young Greek men. Platonic philosophy was only for the elite. Likewise, Aristotle insisted philosophy was only for the rich, male, Greek elite, and should be taught within closed specialist academic schools like the Lyceum. Plato and Aristotle aren’t the ‘villains’ of the story – they still believed philosophy was something you practiced to transform the self and achieve eudaimonia – but they started a trend which would snowball.
The Christian Church initially absorbed Hellenistic philosophy’s idea of philosophy as an askesis, which led to the early proliferation of ascetics and gnostics: guerrilla philosophers who practiced extreme experiments in self-transformation. But the Church increasingly sought to institutionalize philosophy and theology, even declaring some field philosophers and self-experimenters as heretics. Philosophy should be taught behind the walls of universities, to the male clerical elite. It should consist in the professional discussion and interpretation of philosophical systems and theories. One showed one’s proficiency in philosophy by one’s ability to quote older philosophers and combine their quotations in interesting new arrangements.
When philosophy broke free of the Church, it remained within the confines of the university. Even during the Enlightenment, philosophy was seen as the preserve of the elite, and of little use to the mob. David Hume wrote: “the empire of philosophy extends over a few”. Some philosophers rebelled against the institutionalization of philosophy and sought to re-connect it with ordinary life and ordinary people – Rousseau, Thoreau, Marx – though other rebels like Nietzsche were just as elitist as the academics they rebelled against. Meanwhile, ordinary people lost all interest in philosophy, and turned instead to psychology or self-help for advice and consolation.
3) The third era of philosophy, which is gathering pace now, is the era of DIY Philosophy.
It began in the early 20th century, when the growing self-help movement started to return to ancient philosophy’s advice and techniques. One part of this was cognitive therapy’s re-discovery of the ancients, and the introduction of their theories and techniques into psychology. CBT also empirically tested out the ancients’ prescriptions for emotional therapy, and produced a firm evidence base for them. This gradually led to a new ‘science of well-being’, or eudaimonics. CBT showed that, actually, the masses could get a benefit from philosophical therapy, regardless of education, wealth, gender or ethnicity. It was also DIY – you didn’t even need to see a therapist to practice it (I healed myself from PTSD in my early twenties through a CBT course I boot-legged off the internet).
Slowly (in the mid-1980s) academic philosophy woke up to cognitive therapy’s rediscovery of Hellenistic philosophy, and started to re-embrace the idea of philosophy as therapy, and as a set of exercises one practiced to achieve eudaimonia. But academics still tended to merely discuss these exercises, rather than actually practicing them.
Then, in the 1990s, came the Internet, which changed everything. First of all, it made academic philosophy more open-source once more. Websites like Philosophy Bites, TED talks and the RSA opened up academic philosophy to a much wider audience and made academics realize there was a huge popular demand for philosophy.
The internet also provided networks which could connect ordinary people who were practicing philosophy as a way of life. A good example is NewStoa, a ‘cyber-city’ of modern Stoics, whose first conference I helped organize this year. Facebook, Yahoo Groups and Meetup.com also helped to bring together people interested in practical therapeutic philosophy. Blogs started to spring up in which people shared their own experiments in living. The internet was like rain after a long drought, and very quickly green shoots started to appear all over the world, as the memes of ancient philosophy began to bud once more.
The next stage of this is the use of intelligent software to create genuine ‘technologies of the self’. In the latest issue of Psychologies is an article by me on how smartphone apps are changing psychology and self-help. They will transform philosophy as well. People will soon be able to download apps which provide simple exercises they can practice – the Journal and the Handbook, for example, are perfectly designed to be transformed into phone or iPad apps that one can carry around and fill in, quantifying the self, keeping account of one’s thoughts and moods, and downloading techniques and interventions one can use to transform one’s beliefs. The philosophy book will also be transformed by new technology, becoming much more interactive, more open-ended, more dynamic, and more intelligent.
The new revolution in philosophy is a DIY revolution, in which ordinary people share stories, techniques and findings in their ‘experiments in living’. The ethos of the new movement could be summarized as: ‘Don’t just quote philosophy. Live it.’
I can see four main challenges or questions for the new era.
1) For philosophers, the game has changed. In the new era, public speaking is an important as writing, just as gigs are now just as important as recording for music artists. We’re also seeing the proliferation of philosophy festivals and conferences as philosophy becomes more of a live experience. The challenge is how to present one’s ideas in a short talk, without reducing philosophy to soundbites. But living your philosophy is also as important as talking about it – if not more so. How embodied and actualized is your philosophy? What have you practiced yourself? How has philosophy changed you?
2) The new open-source era raises questions of authority and legitimacy. First, to what extent do we follow the advice of the ancients (Eastern or Western), and to what extent do we feel free to innovate and experiment? Secondly, as we produce scientific evidence bases for philosophical techniques, to what extent do we feel bound by the authority of science? Is there a limit to empiricism? And finally, if a marketplace in philosophy starts to boom, who do we trust? Whose ideas do we download and install? How do we make sure our engagement with philosophy is deep and transformative, rather than superficial ‘window-shopping’? How do we avoid charlatans and exploitative gurus (sharing experiences on the internet helps here). And as philosophy returns to its original therapeutic role, how do we protect those who need more serious medical help?
3) The new era also raises questions about our relationship with technology. There’s a danger of us relying on shiny flashy gadgets to do the work of self-transformation. They can help, but you can’t outsource moral choice and effort. The new era of philosophy will also involve techniques aimed at lessening our dependence on technology and our addiction to information – such as information fasts and technology fasts.
4) Finally, how do you prevent philosophy in the age of YouTube from becoming just another part of our narcissistic self-exposing culture? Epictetus said the trainee philosopher should ‘take a little water in your mouth when you’re thirsty, spit it out, and tell no one’. There’s a danger that, in the era of DIY philosophy, that becomes ‘tell everyone‘. No sooner do we practice an exercise, then we blog it, tweet it, Facebook it, YouTube it, and shout our philosophical achievements to the rooftops. We need to find the balance between sharing information and techniques, and boasting or working merely with an eye to self-advertisement.