Philosophy In Pubs: happy 10th birthday

You know which city in the UK has the most philosophy clubs? Liverpool. It has at least 16, thanks to a movement called Philosophy In Pubs (PIPs), which was started there 10 years ago, and which has now spread all over the country, with 37 PIPs groups based in Brighton, Leicester, Newcastle, Blackburn, London and elsewhere.

Last weekend, I travelled up to Liverpool for PIPs’ first annual conference, at the Adelphi Hotel. PIPs had hired out a big hall where around 70 people sat around tables listening to the speaker and discussing their ideas. We just missed Bernadette Hughes' talk on Logic, Nature and Truth, but were in time to hear retired union official Arthur Adlen talking about ‘the challenge of the Big Society’. ‘The Tories want us to be disempowered and commodified’, he declared. ‘They want us to be idiots’. Idiots, he explained, came from the ancient Greek for a person deprived of the rights of citizenship. But the citizens had to resist this idiotification, he said, and struggle for their right to a Good Life.

I met one of the founders of PIPs, Rob Lewis: a stocky man with an impish smile. Back in 2000, Rob had been unemployed, and had taken an introductory philosophy course run by Paul Doran. Rob says: “I came to philosophy by chance. I saw it as a way of trying to make sense of why the world is like it is. I decided that philosophy was this amazing thing, and wondered why it didn’t have more of an impact.”

Rob, Paul and another founder, Mike Naidoo, decided to set up PIPs, in August 2001, to “empower people, and give them the sense that there’s an alternative to being manipulated”, says Rob. “Coming across philosophy was a massive turning point for me in my life. Doing philosophy is a way of overcoming the sense of alienation that many of us feel at times, which comes from being in a society that wants to measure you in very limited ways and then judge you to see what shaped hole you might fit into and what life chances you might be worthy of.”

The format of PIPs is for a ‘facilitator’ to establish a PIP in their local community, pick up a pub to meet at, and then go about trying to attract locals to come along to the monthly sessions. Sessions differ in structure in different PIPs: sometimes a person gives a presentation and then there’s a discussion, sometimes there’s a ‘stimulus’ (a photo, a poem, a book) and then a ‘philosophical enquiry’ around that stimulus. The emphasis is on participation, rather than simply “turning up and listening to a sage on the stage”, as Rob puts it.

So, for example, Nicola recently set up a PIP in Eccles, near Manchester. She says: “It’s a very poor, deprived area, where everyone complains there’s nothing to do. I could have set a PIP up in a middle class area where there’d be plenty of attendees, but I thought of it as a challenge. The first pub we met in was full of drunk people, some of whom would wander over to the group and get involved. We had a couple of prostitutes come over as well. I thought it was great if people showed an interest, but some of our core members found it disruptive, so we moved to another pub with fewer rowdy people.”

They were partly inspired by the Cafe Philosophique movement in Paris, which developed into the global Philosophy Cafe and Socrates Cafe movements. PIPs also developed a close relationship with Sapere, a charity dedicated to community philosophy, which developed the famous P4C (or philosophy for children) classes. Several of the PIPs members have taken Sapere training courses, and their approach is saturated with its ethos and terminology (such as ‘stimulus’, ‘community of inquiry’, and so on).

The aim, from the beginning, was to take philosophy beyond academia, and beyond what Rob calls the “chattering classes”, and instead bring its power to the working classes. During the conference, the facilitators have a meeting to discuss ways to run groups and develop their membership. One facilitator says proudly that a few academics initially came to her group, but they had been “driven away”. “Steady on”, says Paul, one of the founders, who looks a bit like Ben Kingsley. “We don’t need to drive academics away. Just anyone who is a pontificator or a bully.”

The facilitators discuss how to get more people to come along. Some have regular attendance of around 20. Others get four or five. “Even if it’s just three people, there’s a point to it”, says Paul. “The point is, we want to do it.”

The membership seemed mainly people in their 40s and 50s, probably 60% men, of whom around half have beards. I would guess that the majority are left-wing, and a show of hands during the day suggests around 90% are atheists. I remarked to Rob that many of the people on my table seemed connected with the Labour party or the socialist movement - had PIPs grown out of, or even replaced, party and union meetings?

He replied: “The union movement is about bringing people together to galvanize them for a particular purpose. PIPs is a bit different. It’s about helping people to examine social structures, training them in analysis and evaluation, so that they have richer and more sublime relations.”

In the union movement, perhaps, a person is defined as a worker with class interests. In PIPs, the aim is towards the whole human experience (though perhaps I'm defining the union movement too narrowly). It also seems that PIPs members are as likely to quote Socrates, Aristotle and Plato as they are Marx, Gramsci and Lenin. The language is of the good life, flourishing, sublime relationships. If it is Marxist, then it is the humanist Marx of his early writings.

By 11pm, there’s about 30 PIPs members in the bar of the Adelphi. I’m explaining my interest in ancient philosophy to Mike, a facilitator from Chester. He is not impressed. “If you’d lived in Athens in the fifth century BC, you wouldn’t have been born into the 10% of the population who actually practiced philosophy. Chances are you’d have been born a slave, and had to wipe the philosophers’ arses.”

There’s something refreshingly direct about Mike, and indeed about the whole PIPs movement. It is free. It is participatory. It is not pretentious. And it makes an effort to reach out to the most deprived parts of our society, and to bring them the benefits of philosophy. There is much to be admired in this approach. Happy 10th birthday.