The rise of grassroots philosophy

I spent the last four days at the How The Light Gets In philosophy and music festival in Hay-On-Wye. It started as a fringe event a few years ago at the Globe Hall in Hay, run by the philosopher-impresario Hilary Lawson, and has been growing rapidly ever since. I saw some excellent panel discussions there, involving everyone from AC Grayling to Toby Young, but the most fascinating discussions I had were with my fellow ordinary punters.

For example, on Saturday night, as I was queuing for some fish and chips, I turned and asked the man behind me if he was here for the festival. He was - he’d just driven for six hours from London, and had arrived at 11pm, without a tent or sleeping bag.What makes a man drive all that way and then sleep in a car, just to hear some philosophy? The man - let’s call him Alex - told me. His father had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had killed himself. Alex had inherited bipolar disorder from him, and had to carry that burden through his life.

But he had learnt to carry it, he told me, partly through medication, but partly through philosophy. He’d been helped by a form of therapy called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) invented by the psychologist Albert Ellis, who was in turn inspired by the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.This, as it happens, is my favourite topic - I myself got into philosophy after CBT helped me overcome depression, and like Alex, I’ve spent my time since trying to spread the word. I did the last interview with Ellis before he died in 2007, and have written many articles about the revival of Stoicism via REBT and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). How strange, that we should happen to be standing next to each other in a fish-and-chip shop one night. Alex was something of an evangelist for practical philosophy. He felt he had been helped by some simple methods for controlling one’s mind and changing one’s opinions, and he wanted to bring this to as many people as possible. Philosophy, for Alex, was not a theoretical or abstract pursuit. It was a matter of life and death.

A few days later, I helped to run a workshop on Street Philosophy at the festival with Filip Matous, my co-organizer of the London Philosophy Club (the photos are from the event). We talked about how to make philosophy more open-source, more participatory, and more personal, so that it genuinely helps people to live better lives, and overcome the serious emotional problems which affect most of us at one time or another.

We then split our audience into small groups so they could discuss the ideas and share their stories. And that was when it got really interesting. Just in my group, the stories were absolutely fascinating. One man was a street magician, who literally combined street performance with counter-cultural ideas (the evening before, he’d performed on a unicycle while discussing the arms trade!).

Another member of our group talked about his experience of being sectioned two decades before. Another, a teenager, spoke of having to bring himself up after his mother had a breakdown, how he had taught himself to control his temper. Another was a therapist who talked of teaching young people to become more aware of their beliefs and emotions, and their power to control them. All of their stories were examples of philosophy really lived.

I felt that everyone there enjoyed the opportunity to contribute, to engage, to participate. When you do so, you feel listened to, you have the dignity of joining the conversation of philosophy, rather than just being lectured. I think philosophy needs to listen more, and talk less. Isn’t that what Socrates meant when he suggested he had nothing to teach, only questions to ask? Even Socrates was somewhat superior in his outlook to his fellow citizens - he thought they were all sleepwalking through life. Maybe so...but to my eyes the true philosophers are people who have coped with serious difficulties and challenges in their life, and learnt to face them with dignity and virtue. I’ve met many such people, but hardly any of them have written a book, or taught a class. They are too busy grappling with the messy business of living.

That weekend, I also saw an episode from a new BBC 4 series called In Their Own Words, which showed BBC archive footage of some of the great thinkers of the Twentieth Century: Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Kenyes, Milton Friedman and others. It was a wonderful programme. Why, I asked, was there so little philosophy on TV today? The producer, John, replied that he thought there were no longer such towering intellects as Russell or Keynes, with the self-confidence to opine on public matters in the way that those figures did. Philosophy, he said, had turned into self-help.That’s probably true. But if it is, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. What's the point of philosophy, if it doesn't help us? But it should also connect us to each other, rather than keeping us in atomised cells like a lot of modern self-help.

Perhaps the centre of philosophy has shifted now, away from lone geniuses like Marx or Russell, telling the masses what to think and how to live. Instead, it seems to me that philosophy is becoming more democratic, more personal, and more communal. You see it in the flourishing of places like the School of Life, in festivals like How The Light Gets In, or in movements like Philosophy In Pubs. The nature of this new movement of democratic philosophy reminds me of Bakhtin's description of carnivals: "In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated, and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalesque life.” Here's to more such philosophy events, more philosophy groups, clubs, associations and networks, more places that bring people together, and give us the opportunity to talk, to listen, and to meet each other.