Paul Doran on Philosophy in Pubs

Paul Doran is one of the founders of Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs), which is the biggest network of community philosophy groups in the UK, with around 40 PIPs across the UK, including 14 in Merseyside, where PIPs began. Here he talks about how PIPs started, how to run a PIPs group, and how he sees community philosophy developing in the future.

Why did you start studying philosophy?

I was around 45 years old, a self employed (and unemployed) bricklayer, I had five kids, and was grafting like mad, living a typical working class life, but at the same time, a feeling of needing to know what was going on in life began to occupy me. I had always had these thoughts, but now there was urgency to them, something to do with my getting older and wanting to acquire some real understanding before I died. I started doing some history lessons at a local night school and from there went on to do an access course. I was lucky to catch the last access course that offered philosophy (1991/92) - it was removed from the curriculum the following year. After passing the access course, I went on to study philosophy at University of Liverpool. From there I went on to do a teaching degree, as I was keen to teach philosophy, especially to ordinary working people.

Two things struck me about philosophy: One was how incredibly useful and fruitful it was in helping people understand life; how it could dissipate various kinds of worry, and Two: how inaccessible it was to people, especially people from a working class culture. Since the access course stopped teaching philosophy, there was nowhere in Liverpool (besides Higher Education) where you could go to learn about philosophy. Only now is there signs of a couple of courses emerging in Continued Education.

What are the origins of Philosophy In Pubs?

Philosophy In Pubs, or the idea of doing philosophy in public, grew out of a local Further Education class I was teaching. It was an introduction to philosophy course (the only one in Liverpool) – the course attracted on average around eight mature students, which, at that time, meant you had a viable course; these days that is not the case, those eight people would go untutored in their chosen subject today (you need 12). Anyway, a young man of thirty odd yearrs old, joined the course, his name was Rob Lewis. At the end of the ten week course, as with many FE courses, the group met at a local pub to socialize and celebrate the completion of the course. It was on just that occasion that Rob suggested to me that it might be a good idea to try doing philosophy in a pub. He was referring in particular to the problem of bums on seats, the idea being that you might attract more people to philosophy if you did it in the pub.  I thought this was a great idea, so together, along with another chap (Michael Naidoo - who was on that particular introductory course) set out to make it a reality in 2001.

How did you go about making it a reality?

Rob Lewis played a leading role in the initial stages, contacting the manager of a city centre pub and organizing a press interview. The Philosophy Club, as it was called then, was the first of its kind (as far as we and local press knew) so it got a good local coverage. Also Rob had been in contact with SAPERE, and it was SAPERE’s methods of facilitation (Community of Enquiry) that we adopted to help us practice our philosophizing. SAPERE have played a big role in PIP development, in particular their chairman (as was) and founder Roger Sutcliffe. Slowly, through the efforts and commitment of Rob, myself and Michael, we had three groups up and running in as many years. Gradually more and more people became involved, and PIPs (as it came to be called) became more of a phenomenon on Merseyside – there are now fourteen PIP groups in the area, soon to be fifteen, and forty all together in the country, which is growing steadily.



How do you facilitate a community philosophy group well?

Well the ideal is to facilitate ‘well’ all the time, but circumstances can make this difficult. There are various ways of facilitating. Anyway, for me, the first thing you do is to make people feel welcome and relaxed. Then deal with any notices there may be. Introduce and hand over to whoever’s presenting the stimulus. Once stimulus is presented, ask if there are any clarificatory questions, once that is done, decide with presenter and group which method would they like to use at this point: 1) go around the group asking each member what their first thoughts are, and then go into the main enquiry, or 2) go into pairs/groups (depends on numbers) and discuss the stimulus and come up with a question that challenges or deals with any assumptions etc in the stimulus piece. The pairs/groups come back to main enquiry, the different pairs/groups explain the thinking behind their questions, the main group vote for which question they want to use, usually which is most philosophic.

During the enquiry the facilitator will gently encourage everyone to participate, and also challenge any contributions that require justification etc. Also, she will endeavour to summarise the different points made and where the discussion has taken them. Then towards the end begin to close things down by asking for final thoughts/comments, which involves asking whether people have moved from or altered their initial position  regarding the topic, and what they thought of the process, etc.

As I say, there are various ways and methods involved in the Community of Enquiry method, but the main thing for me is that serious philosophic thought has gone on, people have had to stop, have been stumped in a way, and have had to apply some critical and creative thinking - the Community of Enquiry method greatly aids this process. The idea within PIPs groups is that everyone has a go at facilitating, and that everyone helps the facilitator to facilitate. Ideally everyone endeavours to stick to good discussion guidelines, taking note of the 5 C’s, of which I can only remember four: caring, critical, cooperative, creative, etc.



How do you see the grassroots philosophy movement developing?

I’m not sure. At the moment my feeling is that it will keep growing as long as there are committed individuals to keep the groups running. The growth in Meetup groups is encouraging, and I am hoping to get along to a few of these types of community philosophy groups to see what methods they use and how they practice. PIPs has been going 11 years, and has grown slowly just by helping people who have contacted us . But recently we have been more pro-active and have been asking our website subscribers to give us their location – not their address – just the area, town or city they’re from. This way we have been able to build up a picture of where on the map of Britain there are clusters of individuals, living in close enough proximity to each other who might be interested in starting a group of their own.  Up to now I have visited four such clusters of interested parties: London, Leicestershire, Preston, and Huddersfield. The first one in London was problematic, it seems London is a special case, although I believe a new group got going in Stratford.  With Leicestershire we were able to help start a group in Loughborough. Regarding Preston: the new group is due to have its opening on 21st Nov and Huddersfield has three dates set for new group in the coming months.

Significantly, SAPERE are running a very hopeful 6 month pilot project to train 66 trainee facilitators. There will be three cohorts of 22 people each, operating out of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and the Leeds/Bradford area. Each trainee is committed to starting a community philosophy group, and running it for 6 months (the idea is that these groups will carry on past the 6 months). PIPs are very much involved in this, so it will be very interesting to see how things transpire.

Do you think philosophy groups could be helped by funding?

I have worries in this area. Obviously funding can help community philosophy. The funding that SAPERE have acquired from the Esmee Fairburn Foundation is fantastic. It is funding that will ultimately allow and promote the critical engagement of hundreds of people in civic and political life. The trainees running their groups will help people use philosophic method to understand and deal with social and political problems in their areas of work and life in general. Having said that, there are problems about dependence on it, or feeling that funding is needed before you can do anything.

My own personal worry is about how deft established institutions connected to funding bodies can be in  adopting movements, and persuading them to follow certain prescribed routes. Moreover, it seems to me that when groups move towards the mainstream, which can be a consequence of funding, they become less able to determine the terrain of action and discussion, and in the end become less inclined to. This view is probably due to my age and witnessing so little real change, most change being that of degree. However, when I see young minds working as they are in this area, I realise real change is possible, so maybe I should relax a bit on this.

What about the relationship between philosophy groups and universities?

It is argued that community philosophy, or community philosophers, don’t need academic philosophy in order to philosophise. While that might often be the case, I believe keeping in contact with the latest academic understanding and institutions helps community philosophy. Moreover, that the separating of community from academic philosophy is wrong-headed, and ‘unproductive’ - the situation should be seen as one of mutual aid, a balance, they can and should, aid and challenge each other.

Eight years ago, we realized there were two big resources in Liverpool which we were not utilizing - the universities. We approached the philosophy department at Liverpool University and asked if we could hold an enquiry group there, the head of department at the time: Dr Michael McGee was happy to let us use a seminar room for this, and so the Friday Forum was born. In the early years of this group, every now and again, we would invite lecturing staff to present a stimulus, but it would be done as in Community of Enquiry mode rather than lecture, this proved quite interesting for both PIP members and department staff. The Friday Forum is an example of how academic and community philosophy can work well together, it has been going strong since 2004 and shows no signs of stopping.

However, despite that experience with our university, a major problem is that universities, in general, are following a particular economic and commercial imperative, rather than a societal or educational one. Only three years ago we (representing the citizens of Liverpool) along with the students and staff of the university had to mount a defensive action and argument to keep philosophy at the university. It was argued by the vice-chancellor and other business minded members of the senate the university might close the philosophy department. The department was not closed, apparently due to the weakness of the opposing arguments, but it is a pointer to the sort of thing that tends to dominate the thinking of many of those who administrate our universities.