Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Right from the get-go, he patronizes the humanities, giving his essay the sub-title, ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’, which makes everyone in the humanities sound like losers. Just to make sure of offence, he then claims that Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and Smith were ‘all scientists’, and all materialists to boot. Even I know that’s wrong – Descartes, Rousseau, Liebniz, Kant and Smith all used spiritual ideas like the soul, providence, God or the General Will in their philosophies.
I don’t care about inter-departmental bun-fights. I am all for cross-disciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences, like the Stoicism and Therapy project I’m working on at Exeter University. The Scientism I object to, which Pinker expresses, is the shrill insistence that science has ‘proved’ materialist utilitarianism and any other world-view is ridiculous. I think that type of Scientism, besides being tactless, leaves out important aspects of human experience.
Materialism’s rejection of subjective experience
According to Pinker’s Scientism, ‘most of the traditional sources of belief – faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty – are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge’.
Dismissed entirely? That would mean ignoring subjective experience, our mental states and emotions. Surely our inner experience is a useful source of knowledge about ourselves – otherwise how would we have any basis for psychology? Certainly subjective experience can mislead – whole shelves of philosophy and theology have been written on the art of discernment – but it seems extreme to dismiss all inner experience as a source of knowledge.
Pinker goes on, ‘the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person requires a radical breach from religious conceptions of meaning and value’. How does it require that? William James understood that the foundation of religions is ‘religious experience’, our attempt to make sense of our consciousness, emotions and relationships, and to discover the wisest way to live. Many ‘scientifically literate’ people still find religious traditions useful guides.
Pinker insists that scientific progress has exposed and debunked the truth-claims of the world’s religions. This is true – some of the truth-claims of Genesis, for example, have been debunked, and it’s unfortunate that many fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the discoveries of evolution or geology. But Pinker over-eggs his materialist pudding. He says: ‘We know that the laws governing the physical world have no goals that pertain to human well-being’.
No, we don’t. We know that the laws of the physical world led to consciousness, and that consciousness apparently gives humans the ability to think, discuss and philosophize, and to choose better and wiser ways of living which enhance our well-being. A strict materialist might claim that talk of consciousness and free will is ‘woo woo’, but I think the scientific evidence supports the above claims.
We don’t yet know how consciousness works, and whether it’s confined to our individual brains or is connected with other sentient beings and the cosmos. Until then, scientists don’t know if things like prayer, prophecy and revelation have something to them or are delusions (although we can test out the truth-claims of particular prophecies or revelations, and see for ourselves if we think prayer works).
Does science ‘prove’ secular humanism?
Pinker’s right that scientific progress has undermined many religious truth-claims, and in the process undermined people’s values and sense of meaning. But has science led to positive values or meaning? Pinker says that though ‘the scientific facts do not themselves dictate values…[they] militate towards…principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings’. This ‘humanism’, he says, ‘is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies’.
Is it? The fact that modern democracies are doing nothing to prevent climate change suggests that we don’t care about the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. Rather, the ruling value system of modern democracies would seem to be consumerism, and the flourishing of all sentient beings is way down our list of priorities.
I’m not blaming this failure on scientific materialism – the Christian majority of America seem just as consumerist as the atheist minority. I’m merely saying that Pinker’s faith in secular humanism is just that: a faith, something that flies in the face of the abundant evidence that humans don’t care about the flourishing of others, that rationalism alone is apparently not enough to help us. He speaks of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of secular humanism, much like a Christian longing for a more just world. Humanism, like Christianity, involves faith (which according to Pinker makes it ‘unscientific’ and therefore unworthy of respect).
Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism ignores the three Cs
Like Pinker, I believe that our ethics should be connected to what psychology tells us about human nature. But I would argue that religious traditions have a better understanding of human psychology and how to develop it into ethical conduct than Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism. I want to emphasize three aspects of human nature where materialist utilitarianism falls short – creativity, community, and consciousness.
First, creativity. Pinker discusses at the end of his essay how ‘new science’ has discovered humans are not ‘rational actors’. Instead, as social scientists like George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have researched, we’re moved by metaphor, image, and narrative-frames of purity, heroism, justice and other ‘moral emotions’.
That’s what religious thinkers from Carlyle to Chesterton have been warning utilitarians since the Enlightenment. But materialism has undermined our myths or ‘sacred narratives’, which is why poetry has gone from being at the very centre of human society to being at the margins. Poets (even atheist poets like Shelley) drew energy from the Platonic idea that they are prophets, mediators to the spirit world – this is true all the way up to Ted Hughes, our last great poet. Once we stopped believing in things we couldn’t see, our poetic imagination dried up. Poetry became a sideshow: amusing but of no substantial import.
As TS Eliot warned, the loss of collective myths led to a loss of meaning and a flattening of emotion, because materialism failed to come up with new sacred narratives that light up our moral emotions, other than the rather toxic narrative of nationalism. Photographs from the Hubble telescope are awesome, but they’re not a guiding myth like, say, Lord of the Rings or Paradise Lost.
Secondly, community. Religious traditions are not perfect at community-building – most of them still struggle with misogyny and homophobia, and secular humanist communities are much better in that respect. But religious communities typically have stronger and more emotional ties, because they have at their heart collective experiences of the sacred, which social scientists from Emile Durkheim to Robert Putnam emphasised as the key to community cohesion.
The most nurturing religious communities have the idea of a loving God at their centre. This allows people to be vulnerable, to care for each other and for their communities, and gives them a common identity at a deep level – deeper than the secular humanist idea that what connects us in rationality. The problem about communities connected only by rationality is they easily become snobbish cliques of the cognitive elite, rather like the Edge Foundation to which Pinker belongs. Secular humanist communities need to learn the art of being vulnerable – that’s why Brene Brown’s work is so valuable.
Thirdly, consciousness. Rather than dismissing subjective experience, religious traditions are storehouses of wisdom about it, and in particular about the emotions, and how to transform them. Secular therapy owes a great deal to these traditions, from mindfulness meditation to prayer in the 12 Steps Programme. This wisdom seems to me at least as valuable as the materialist approach to our inner worlds, which is basically to look for chemical solutions to chemical problems. Religious traditions are also open to ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ like visions, trances and ecstasies, which scientific materialism can often dismiss as ‘psychotic-like symptoms’.
Of course, the materialist hypothesis may turn out to be right. Our minds may be confined to our brains, there may be no God or higher beings communicating with us, the universe may not care anything about us. But it remains a hypothesis, to be challenged and criticized rather than turned into dogma. As Pinker says, ‘the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today’.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
It can still feel weird discussing having had depression and anxiety to strangers in public talks. Although I’m fairly used to exposing myself these days (as it were), there are still occasions when I think ‘is this really a good idea?’ I had that feeling this week, standing in front of a gym full of colossal rugby players at Saracens rugby club, staring at me stony-faced as I discussed how ancient philosophy helped me through panic attacks. What the hell am I doing here?
I was invited to Saracens’ training ground in St Albans to give a talk about ancient philosophy, virtue ethics, and the Greeks’ ideas on the good life. I believe, and Saracens also believe, that ethics are right at the heart of sport. Sportspeople, on a daily basis, are faced with the questions that Socrates first raised: is it worth being an ethical person? What is the appropriate trade-off between external and internal goods? What does it mean to succeed at life? How do we cope with external pressures and still maintain a good character?
We, the spectator-public, like to think that professional sportspeople are shining knights, that sports coaches are founts of moral wisdom like Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. We look to professional sportspeople as moral guides – recently I was at a conference on well-being at work, where the keynote speaker was Sally Gunnell, who was greeted like a demi-goddess by the assembled businesspeople. But professional sports looks much better from the outside than the inside, and what’s good for external success (prizes, profits) is not necessarily good for a person’s character or well-being. You can be a highly-successful athlete and still a very messed-up human being.
Professional sports is not necessarily the character-forming crucible we amateurs think it is. It’s big business and razzle-dazzle spectacle, with huge amounts of money involved and an intense focus on winning at any cost. David Priestly, who is head of the Personal Development Programme at Saracens, says: ‘People have an incredibly romantic view of professional sports. But it can be a very brutal world, a machine that squeezes everything out of a person and then tosses them aside. Most of the people in that world are very far from being role-models. Most people in professional sports shy away from anything explicitly about ethics. It’s just about winning. Younger players can see people at the top of their sport who are doing very well while still behaving in a questionable manner.’
The Saracens revolution
Which brings us to Saracens. The club was 50% bought by a South African consortium in 2009, who appointed Edward Griffiths as the CEO – the man who’d managed South African rugby in the run-up to their nation-building 1995 World Cup victory. Griffiths promised a ‘Saracens Revolution’ which would turn rugby into a glitzy, entertaining and crowd-pleasing spectacle. Saracens matches would alternate between Wembley and a new astroturf stadium in north London, match attendance would rise from 14,000 to 80,000, spectators would be able to watch replays on their smartphones, even order pizzas from their seats. The club was now in the business of ‘making memories’.
But the other side of the Saracens Revolution was a focus on character and virtues, as proclaimed by the South African director of rugby, Brendan Venter. He’s a doctor, a Christian, and something of a rebel, who’s surprised journalists with comments like: ‘You can’t think about winning all the time. I’m far more interested in my players, along with me, improving as people. That’s basically the only thing that really matters.’ He’s also said: ‘If we win everything there is to win but we’ve broken relationships, we’ve lost the plot. We’ve missed our point of being on earth, it’s as simple as that.’
Venter, who studied to be a doctor while playing rugby, insisted the players need to be well-rounded and prepared for life after rugby. They need to be cared for as individuals with souls rather than commodities shoveled into the money-furnace. Their academic pursuits should be just as important as their physical fitness. Players were asked to write essays on ‘the ideal 20-year-old’ and to think about questions like: ‘How does the ideal 20-year-old treat women? How does the ideal 20-year-old treat alcohol? How does he handle his finances? How does he deal with life in general?’
Alex Goode, the 25-year-old Saracens and England full-back, saw the revolution first-hand, having come through the Saracens Academy as a teenager. He says: ‘The old Saracens was not a particularly friendly place. There’d be quite brutal banter. Players lived spread out across Hertfordshire and hung out separately A lot of the players were in it for their own benefit and not the team, they didn’t make sacrifices for the team. Now, there’s much more of a feeling of togetherness. The players and families are really taken care of, and the flip-side of that is we have to work incredibly hard.’
The Revolution seems to be succeeding. Having never won the English rugby premiership, Saracens were runners-up in Venter’s first season (2009-2010), then won it in 2010-2011. This season, however, has been tough – they led the Premiership by wins and points, but then lost in the play-off semi-final, and also lost in the Heineken Cup semi-final to Toulon. The defeats raise the age-old question again: is it worth putting character before external success?
The Jerry Maguire of sports coaching
Venter stepped down as director of rugby and went back to South Africa in 2011, following a series of family bereavements back home, but he’s still technical director. The ethical revolution, meanwhile, continues through the Saracens Personal Development Programme, which is run by David Priestly and David Jones. The latter David is a philosophy grad, who read my book and got in touch. He has the unique vision that philosophy has a place in professional sports – and he’s stuck his neck out by inviting me to speak to the lads.
His boss, 34-year-old David Priestly, has a remarkable, zen-like calm about him. He is something of a Jerry Maguire-figure in that he genuinely believes winning isn’t everything. He says the ‘performance-based myopia’ of professional sports can be morally corrupting for players and staff. This is somewhat heretical in professional sports, even in the world of ‘performance lifestyle coaching’, which is meant to be provide care and guidance for sportspeople but is often just as obsessed with winning at any cost.
Priestly is different. He’s nick-named ‘The Priest’ at the club because he is something like a moral compass for the team, keeping them honest, challenging them to live by their mission-statement, rather than just hanging it prominently on the wall. For example, if a match-winning player fails to meet the ethical standards of the club, will that player be dropped before a big game? Is the club’s commitment to virtues just window-dressing, or does it translate into actions? The players will watch to see how the management acts, and will adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Priestly tells me: ‘Players can smell it a mile away when you say one thing but behave differently. But if you genuinely live by what you teach they will respond to that.’ He has the backbone to stand by his beliefs even in a high-pressure workplace, and the wisdom to recognise that even hard-as-nails rugby men need the occasional opportunity to be vulnerable.
He has written:
In my opinion it is neither ‘soft’ nor ‘fluffy’ nor easy to listen to someone sharing their innermost difficulties. In fact, when someone feels able to bare their soul and be completely vulnerable in my company, I actually believe it to be an incredibly privileged experience. [Sports psychologists] obsessed with performance will never even get close to touching this kind of information…When you are told that you need to be tough, why show that you are vulnerable?
He gives me some advice as I go in to talk to the players: ‘They will be interested. They might put forward a tough-guy front, but they’ll be listening intently.‘
Virtue ethics and sports psychology
There’s a good turn-out for my first workshop, 20 or so players and coaches, including various internationals like Chris Ashton and Steve Borthwick. And so, with these assembled tough guys in front of me, I launch into my talk. It feels slightly surreal at first, but I tell myself to keep going.
After the initial weirdness of exposing my soul to a room full of rugby players, I settle into it, confident that virtue ethics has important things to say to sports psychology (and vice versa). Sports is a lot about emotional control, and no one understood emotional control better than the Stoics. They insisted our emotions come from our judgements and perceptions. We can change our emotions by becoming more aware of our beliefs and attitudes, and more skillful in what we say to ourselves.
This is a familiar idea to sportsplayers, who have already been drilled in the importance of ‘attitude’ to winning, although one of the players asks me if the Stoic idea of controlling your perceptions and emotions means ‘always being positive’. I reply that no, being ‘philosophical’ is not necessarily the same as never feeling negative emotions. Aristotle thought sometimes anger and grief were appropriate responses to life’s tragedies. I say this not realizing that one of the team’s core values is ‘be relentlessly positive and energized at all times’…which sounds a bit exhausting. Surely it’s OK to be frightened, angry, upset or lost sometimes?
The Greeks’ techniques for creating ethical habits are also obviously useful to sportspeople, particularly the idea of repeating maxims to yourself over and over. Sportspeople already use ‘mantras’ and mottos to ingrain attitudes, and Saracens has its mission statement posted on the walls around the gym. I talk about the Greeks’ idea that excellence isn’t just about how you perform in the classroom (or the rugby pitch) – that it extends out into all your interactions, how you treat your wife, your children, the younger players, the referee, how you cope with setbacks in your life. Everything is training.
The players are particularly interested in Epictetus’ idea of focusing on the things you can control in life without freaking out over the things you can’t completely control (your reputation, your body, other people, the weather etc). Again, this is not a new idea in sports psychology (or management – it’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits), but it still resonates.
One player tells me, privately, they’ve not been picked for a big game this coming weekend, but they’ve decided that the coach’s choices are beyond their control. Rather than sink into a week-long funk of resentment and depression, the player has decided to focus on what’s in their control – their own beliefs, their own attitude.
We talk about not using externals as an alibi for your own bad behaviour – the referee, for example, your team-mates, your wife, your childhood. Letting go of the past is such a key skill for sportspeople – whether that past is your childhood, the last match or the last point. Andy Murray said in a recent BBC documentary that one of the main things he’s worked on in the last year is not wasting energy thinking about past points during games. Priestly says to me, ‘So much of what I’m trying to get across comes down to the three words: ‘Let it go’.
We also talk about the idea of not caring too much about your status and reputation, not building your house on sand as Jesus put it. Professional sports people have to deal with an incredibly volatile status throughout their life, as Alex Goode tells me. ‘It’s a big shift from schoolboy rugby to professional sports. Suddenly, you go from the blue-eyed boy of your school team to a situation where no one cares if you’ve played England Under 18s, and you’re on the bench and not playing all the games. That’s hard to deal with.’
Then, like Goode, you might get to play for England, another huge step-up in terms of pressure and publicity. He says: ‘Suddenly, everyone wants to talk to you about rugby. By the end of last season, for the first time, I didn’t want to talk about rugby any more, I needed something separate from it.’ Goode was then injured and side-lined, thereby perhaps missing the Lions tour. Injuries can be existential crises for sportspeople, depriving them of the activity by which they define and validate themselves. Alex got through the disappointment of his injury partly by having ‘something separate’ – he tells me he’s found pleasure in reading novels, and is interested in becoming a journalist after rugby.
A lot of the volatility of elite sportspeople’s status comes from the media, which can be a circus mirror, distorting reality into simplistic narratives. In 2006, the 19-year-old Andy Murray was being interviewed with his friend Tim Henman. They were teasing each other about the World Cup and Murray joked he’d support ‘anyone but England’. The joke was seized on by a journalist and hung round his neck like an albatross for years. It prompted Tony Parsons to fulminate that the comment was ‘the tip of a toxic iceberg of anti-Englishness’. Journalists divide humanity into heroes and villains, and sports stars can be canonized one day, demonized the next. They have to live with that volatility of image, accept that its out of their control, and let it go. Not easy.
Not just means, but ends
So there are many meeting points between sports psychology and virtue ethics. What philosophy brings to the table – why Saracens asked me there – is that philosophy isn’t just about techniques for on-the-field success. It’s also a way to question what success actually looks like, what end or goal we’re using all these techniques for. Is winning your ultimate goal – your God – or is there something higher? It’s possible to win a lot of medals and lose at life.
I put it to the players that there is something more important than external success, that you can live a good life even if you fail to win the World Cup, say, or to win the league.
This does not go down that well with the players. ‘I don’t even consider failing’, says one player. ‘It’s not an option. If you think you won’t get a goal, why bother trying to get there’. It’s a fair point, and I am reminded again of the difference between philosophy and professional sports – sometimes there is a tension between internal and external goods. A complete obsession with winning might be very good for professional sports, while in some sense…bad for the person?
After the talk, several players came up and shook my hand, which was heart-warming, because I’d wondered how my talk would go down, as a small philosopher in a world of big athletes. I subsequently went back for a second workshop, and this time I talked less and let the discussion flow – what was really interesting was how the players started listening to each other, swapping stories, letting themselves be vulnerable. The best way to learn is not to teach from the front, perhaps, but to let the group help each other along. Anyway, I’ve applied for funding from the AHRC to prepare and teach a course in 2014 at Saracens, as well as in Low Moss prison in Scotland and a mental health charity in London. Fingers crossed we get it and we can continue exploring the role of ethics in professional sports.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Max Weber once suggested our society was haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs. Sociology is more haunted than most. For the last century and a half of its existence, sociology has repeatedly told us that the rise of capitalism and decline of religion has left us lacking community and miserably alone. The great sociologists have found many different ways of describing the prison of modern isolation. Weber suggested we are trapped in ‘the iron cage’ of capitalist productivity; Emile Durkeim wrote that we have lost the capacity for ‘collective effervescence’ and are suffering from suicidal ‘anomie’; while Thorsten Veblen and Norbert Elias both insisted that we are imprisoned in an over-civilised concern for the approval of strangers. Our lives have become boxed-in and one-dimensional (Herbert Marcuse), our characters are corroded by the rat-race (Richard Sennett), we are cut off from nature and each other (Charles Taylor), we no longer dance together (Barbara Ehrenreich) or even go bowling together (Robert Putnam).
OK, we get it! We’re alone and depressed. So how do we get out of the iron cages we have constructed for ourselves. On that subject, sociology is oddly silent. Sociology, after all, is a social science, very prickly about its scientific status, and it’s not the job of science to lay out a grand moral vision. Early sociologists like Comte and Marx tried that, and it didn’t work. Science describes, it doesn’t prescribe. Thus sociology describes, very intelligently, the bars of our prison-cage.
From a certain perspective, sociology is itself part of the prison. Let me explain what I mean, with reference to that fascinating bundle of contradictions, Max Weber. What an interesting figure he is. Someone should make a film about him, starring Viggo Mortensen. Mad Max: Escape From The Iron Cage. His catchphrase could be: ‘It’s Weber time!’
Mad Max’s mother was a Calvinist religious enthusiast and his father was a worldly bureaucrat. They didn’t get on. Max spent his life working out the struggle between religious charisma and rational bureaucracy. His mother wanted Max to be religious too, but Max preferred the army and then academia. In 1897, he had an argument with his father, who then died, and this plunged Max into a suicidal depression – he seems to have had the same melancholic-enthusiast temperament as his mother. Except he didn’t come out of this emotional crisis religiously awakened. Instead, he threw himself into academic work and found a salvation of sorts there. For the rest of his career, he subjected religious phenomena to a pitiless rational analysis and classification, pounding it to death with his rubber-stamp, as if to revenge his dead bureaucrat father upon the irrational animist beliefs of his mother.
Weber’s great theme is the disenchantment of the modern world, and the historical shift from religious charisma to rational bureaucracy. A charismatic world-view – from the Greek charis, meaning gift – implies that God or the gods connect with humanity through the gifts of revelation and ecstasy. Yet over time, Weber suggested, the magic dust has seeped out of the world. In religion, the charisma of prophecy evolved into the rational religious ethic of priests. In politics, the charisma of tribal leaders evolved into the rational bureaucracy of civil servants. This might not sound much fun, indeed modernity may sound like an iron cage of rational technology, but we need to face up to this like adults, and accept that we live in an age without the consolation of gods, rather than taking flight into irrational mysticism like children.
Weber warned, in 1919, that young Germans were rejecting rationality and instead finding consolation in the ‘sterile excitation’ of revolutionary politics, and in ‘windbags…who intoxicate themselves with Romantic sensations’. This was dangerous. As Tina Turner put it, we don’t need another hero. You can see Max’ point – the politics of charismatic heroism cost millions of lives over the next thirty years. Yet Weber’s own more rational world-view has a potential flaw. Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue that rational bureaucracy can become so focused on the smooth running of the machine, it loses sight of the ultimate end or telos that it was designed to serve. Life without any sense of passion, conviction, inspiration or faith becomes meaningless, a machine going round and round without a driver or a map.
This brings me to Weber’s thoughts on the role of the academic, which is something I’ve been pondering since coming back from Wales.
Weber discusses the role of the academic in a fantastic lecture he gave in 1919, called Science as a Vocation. He starts by telling the assembled students that he must disappoint them (modern life, for Weber, is one long disappointment, and maturity is accepting that). He is not going to unfurl some grand redemptive moral vision for them. That’s not the academic’s job. The academic is not a seer, nor a revolutionary. Their proper role is not to impose any particular ethical world-view (or ‘weltanshauung’) on their students, and they only render themselves ridiculous when they try to become ‘arm-chair prophets’.
Instead, the academic specializes, and bends over their own small square of scholarship like a monk. They ruthlessly suppress their own passions and prejudices, and subject their chosen topic to dispassionate critical analysis. They may feel the occasional throb of religious ecstasy or political outrage, but such feelings have no place in the sober rational analysis of academia. The academic excises everything personal – their character, their emotions, their convictions, their life.
This is not to say the academic is soulless. Far from it. The academic may feel a ‘vocation’, a ‘passionate devotion’ to their craft, an ‘enthusiasm, ‘inspiration’ or ‘intuition’ which has ‘nothing to do with cold calculation’. They may even feel a ‘frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s ‘mania’), a sort of academic ecstasy which Weber compares to the Pentecost – he speaks of the academic feeling a ‘strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider’. So even that cold fish, the modern academic, is still haunted by the ghost of dead religious beliefs – in this case, the old Renaissance ideal of the ecstatic Platonic scholar.
But what God or demon does this academic ecstasy serve? Academics, Weber suggests, are tiny cogs in the great ‘process of intellectualization’, which helps to disenchant the world and make us realize there are ‘no mysterious incalculable forces’, therefore we can ‘master all things by calculation’. Academics, then, have a vocation for disenchantment, a passion for the dispassionate. But as the academic sits wearily through yet another departmental meeting, they may wonder, does this long ‘process of intellectualization’ really make life better?
Weber is uncertain. He’s dismissive of those who think that science brings more meaning into our lives. ‘Who – aside from certain big children from the natural sciences – still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world?’ He’s equally dismissive of those ‘big children in university chairs or editorial offices’ who think the progress of science makes us happier.
So what’s the point? It’s not for academics to say what the meaning of life is, what god or values we should serve. But Weber suggests academics can, at least, help to clarify what serving a particular god (or moral goal) would mean, and the sympathy or conflict between a particular world-view and empirical reality. An academic can be compared to a civil servant, who does not tell the Prince what values or ends to pursue, but explains the consequences and ramifications of any particular decision. The academic cannot, finally, tell us what god we should serve, and any choice involves a leap of faith.
From relationships to concepts
I have sympathy with this rather tortured position. I took a similar stance in Philosophy for Life, in which I explored various ethical world-views (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism etc) without forcing any particular one on the reader. I pursued the same tack when I taught the book as a course at Queen Mary. I also felt it was not for me to impose any particular ethical vision onto the students, other than the academic virtues of rigour, honesty and openness to criticism.
Yet what of my own beliefs and experiences, my own emotions and character, my own relationship to God (or the absence of God)? Are such concerns and experiences properly left out of academic work? Every academic faces the question of whether and to what extent to include their own feelings and experiences in their work, but a historian of emotion researching (and experiencing) ecstasy faces these questions in a particularly acute form!
C. Wright Mills, a great American sociologist who inspired many a Sixties radical, offers one solution. He tried to build a more engaged and ‘passionate’ model of academic work, where one works not just on one’s thesis, but on one’s character and society as well. He suggests academic research is ‘the most passionate endeavour of which a man is capable’ (tell that to your colleagues at the next departmental meeting).
Yet Wright Mills is also aware that passionate scholarship, or ‘felt knowledge’, has its pit-falls. In a review of James Agee’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which is about the suffering of farmers during the Great Depression), he applauds the book for its passion, its indignation, its ‘sociological poetry’. But he also criticises Agee for getting too ‘in his own way’, ‘obscuring the scene and the actors’, for being ‘over-whelmed’, ‘indulgent’ and gushing. In other words, if you’re going to include yourself and your own feelings in your work, you have to be able to hold yourself and your emotions at a critical distance, and consider when to put yourself ‘in shot’, when to leave yourself out.
All of that is very well, and useful for me as a writer. But we are still faced with the wider social question: how do we escape from the iron cage of our isolation and anomie, and build stronger communities? I am not sure sociology can be much help here, because its tools of rational analysis and critical distance are, perhaps, themselves somewhat inimical to community. The way to love your neighbour or wife is not by holding them at a critical distance. Sociology studies the bare ribs of community, but tells us nothing of the heart which once beat within it. It tells us everything we need to know about the concepts of ecstasy, caritas, bonding and love, except what they feel like.
Weber praises Plato for inventing academia, for inventing the rational concept, and turning religion (man’s relationship with a living, breathing God) into theology (the articulation of abstract concepts). That achievement, he says, was when the long process of intellectualization and disenchantment began. All the -ologies that academics serve grew from Plato’s invention of theology, and are part of that same evolution from living relationships to abstract concepts. But was that not a terrible falling off? Can a concept love you? Can the concept of community keep you warm at night?
Did you make it this far? Well done!
Here’s an article on baking and its benefits for mental health, which should be headlined Knead You Tonight, but isn’t.
Here’s a new study from the Maudsley of CBT for psychosis-like experiences in children. It suggests that ‘over half of children in the general population report unusual or psychosis-like experiences’. Surely, then, they’re not…er…unusual? Personally I had a toy Papa Smurf that spoke to me and there was absolutely nothing weird about that. Right, Papa Smurf? (He’s nodding.) Also here’s an episode of RadioLab about hearing voices.
Todd Kashdan and Robert Diesner-wotsit wrote an article about what happy people do differently for Psychology Today.
The Church of England is growing in London, as this video and report explores. Humanist communities are growing too – I’m playing the drums at Sunday Assembly this Sunday (then going to church after…It’s all good!)
Here’s a brilliant New York Times magazine article about Jason Everman, and his journey from Nirvana to Soundgarden to the US Special Forces to a Bachelors in philosophy.
I saw Bruce Springstreen perform last Sunday. It was amazing. Here’s a former captain of England’s cricket team on why he’s seen the Boss perform more than 70 times. And here, on the excellent blog ‘Rock and Theology’, a theologist ponders how the Spirit is so strong in Bruce, despite him not being a Christian.
I had a big break in my journalism career last weekend, with this cover story in the Telegraph Weekend. Thanks to the Telegraph team for that.
Finally, let’s end with some ecstasy for the weekend. Here’s a track from Daft Punk’s new album, called Giorgio by Moroder, which is a song and also an interview with synth-pioneer Giorgio Moroder. I love its combination of historical education and musical ecstasy – good combo!
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The book, which I wrote back in 2010, is really philosophy ‘for dangerous situations’, and when I think of it, most of the examples in the book are of people using philosophy to survive and endure crises – imprisonment, abuse, life-threatening illness. I wanted to show that philosophy can work not just for bored yuppies suffering from ‘status anxiety’ or ‘affluenza’, but for people in the very worst experiences. As Major Thomas Jarrett puts it in the book, ‘if your philosophy doesn’t work in the worst situations, then it’s a cafe philosophy’. And I also wanted to tell my story – how philosophy helped me (and lots of people like me) overcome emotional disorders like depression and PTSD, to show again how philosophy can really help you when you’re in the shit.
But that focus on crisis-management means the general thrust of the book is pretty ‘defensive’, and the book doesn’t talk enough about flourishing, joy, love, about the importance of relationships and opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt. I end the book by saying something like ‘we are not, and should not strive to be, Stoic supermen, safely cut off in our self-sufficient fortresses of solitude. We need one another’. That’s why, since the book came out, I’ve been exploring Christianity as a philosophy of love, relationships and mutual dependence. Though I still find a lot of Christianity weird – the relationship with God is so much more intense and personal in Christianity, compared to the chilly pantheism of Stoicism or the mystic maths of Plato and Pythagoras. As a detached Stoic, I’m like, Dude, not so close!
Anyway, the University of Humanistic Studies is an interesting institution, founded in 1989, making it the youngest university in Holland, and also the smallest with just 400 students. Students take BAs and MAs in ‘humanistics’, which is a combination of philosophy, psychology and social science, and which trains students to consider the meaning of life, the good society, and so forth. A third of the students then become ‘moral counselors’, who are basically like humanist chaplains, in the army, hospitals and so on. Interesting eh? A seminary school for humanists. The professor of ethics at the University is Joep Dohmen, who is the leading ‘philosopher of life’ in Holland. He was one of the founders of Filosofie magazine in 1992 (it’s grown to a circulation of around 20,000), and has since written 10 very successful books on the ‘art of living’. Now, he tells me he is setting up a ‘Senior Academy’, teaching art of living classes to the elderly. Smart move.
I’m in Holland until Sunday evening, when I am giving a sort of ‘secular sermon’ in a church here. Then next Sunday I’m speaking at Holy Trinity Brompton about my experience of the Alpha course. One Sunday in a humanist church, the next in HTB. I feel a bit schizophrenic at the moment.
Unusually, I’m actually being paid to give the talk tomorrow. Writers are in a slightly tricky position at the moment of being expected to do more and more talks and festival appearances to promote their books, while not necessarily or even usually being paid to do them. There was a line of thinking that, as the publishing industry follows the record industry and becomes more digital, public speaking will become a more and more important revenue stream for authors.
The reality is, as in the rest of the publishing industry, the top-end authors earn big bucks, and the rest get a bottle of wine. So, right at the top of the speaker chart is someone like Tony Blair, who reportedly charges £190,000 for a speech, or Hilary Clinton, who charges $125,000 for a two-hour talk. Then, among professional writers, you have Malcolm Gladwell, who reportedly charges around $80,000, or Thomas Friedman, who charges around the same. In self-help and philosophy, the biggest names – Deepak Chopra, Alain de Botton, Michael Sandel – can charge tens of thousands for talks to corporates (though they might do some talks for free too).
Then there are lots of ‘mid-list’ writers who are happy to do talks for free. A school, a student philosophy society, a regional philosophy club or a festival invite you to talk, and you think, ‘wow how flattering, sure!’ Last year I must have done 40-50 talks, sometimes two a day, mainly to philosophy clubs and festivals. I did it partly out of an evangelical zeal to ‘get the message out’ and support grassroots philosophy, partly because I was flattered to be asked and I enjoyed it, and partly because I thought all the talks would be good for book sales and general publicity. And they were. However, the royalties authors now get from books – around 7.5% per trade paperback – means even if a book sells, say, 10,000 copies in a year, that will only translate to around £4K in annual royalties. So it’s not worth it, from a strictly economic perspective, to do loads of free talks, even if you sell say 20-40 copies after the talk.
I can’t complain too much, as I ask philosophers who are far more experienced and better-known than me to come and give talks for free to the London Philosophy Club (and they do: John Gray, Robert Skidelsky, Angie Hobbs, all happily come and talk for free). I think it’s wise to learn to charge some audiences (corporates, particularly) thereby enabling yourself to give other talks for free (to student philosophy societies for example). What I also need to do, next week, is sign myself up for organisations like The Speakers Agency, which book speakers for corporate audiences. Though I wonder if doing lots of talks to a corporate audience is going to turn me into Tim Ferriss. Well, hopefully not.
More broadly, the question of ‘how should a philosopher make a living’ has always been at the heart of philosophy. There’s a story that Pythagoras struggled so hard to find students, at the beginning of his career, that he actually paid his first student to study geometry! Plato of course famously criticised Sophists for charging for their lessons – but surely he charged students to his Academy? Aristotle raised some eyebrows making a living by becoming tutor to a dictator’s son (it probably contributed to him being exiled from Athens). 19th century authors like Marx and Mill made their living mainly from journalism (and were better writers as a result). Then, in the modern era, the invention of the university philosophy department supported a vast expansion of ‘professional philosophers’, though perhaps the comfier philosophers became, the more boring the philosophy they produced.
In the last decade, we’ve seen the return of the extra-academic philosopher – the pre-eminent example is Alain de Botton, the philosopher-as-entrepreneur. But can the free market support thinkers who have dangerous or difficult ideas? Perhaps it can – two of the most successful extra-academic philosophers are John Gray and Slavoj Zizek, both of whom are sort of professional insulters of free market capitalism. It seems there is market demand for anti-market polemics.
Well, I’ll continue trying to work it out as I go along – I’m trying to create a sort of ‘mixed model’ of academic, media and speaking work. In the meantime, the new edition of my book comes out next Thursday, it is smaller and slightly cheaper than the trade-paperback. It would be AMAZING if all my British readers would pop into their local bookstore and order it – you don’t have to buy it, just order it! The new cover looks so great that it will sell once it’s in the bookstore anyway.
In other news:
Avant garde composer Richard Carrick talks about how his new work, ‘Flow Cycle for Strings’, was inspired by Positive Psychology.
Here’s a little article I did for the Faculty of Public Health’s magazine on the politics of well-being.
Here’s a good review of a new book called Infinite Progress, a prime example of Techno-utopianism, which argues we can banish poverty, ignorance and want by uploading all our details into a global super-computer.
Democracy will fail because the Left is too weak, argues this essay by Henry Farrell in Aeon magazine. I blame critical theory! The Left became fatally seduced by critical theory in the 1960s, and by poseurs like Alain Badiou and Jacques Lacan. No wonder it failed to stand up to Neo-Liberalism. The Right had graphs and data, while the Left had ‘the mirror phase’ and ‘the event’. It was always going to lose.
Talking of critical theory, I’m reading a good book by Simon Critchley, a leading British philosopher (although he lives in New York) and a big fan of critical theory. The book is called Faith of the Faithless, and is all about how modern political ideologies are really re-formulations of the sacred, and quasi-religious fictions. He writes: ‘The return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliche of contemporary theory’. It has? Who knew! I realised that Terry Eagleton had ‘returned to religion’, I didn’t realise the likes of Badiou had as well. Anyway, I’ll try and write a review of the book for next week’s newsletter.
See you next week – and don’t forget, go to Waterstones and #askforjules !
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Big day today. I’ve finally finished my report on grassroots philosophy groups, which you can download here: Connected Communities- Philosophical Communities.
It’s taken me eight months to research and write, and has made me realise quite how vibrant and diverse the world of grassroots philosophy is. There are 850 philosophy groups just on meetup.com alone, with a combined membership of 125,000. I’ve found philosophy groups all over the world, from Fukushima to Rio de Janeiro. And I’ve learnt how grassroots philosophy often connects academia to society, with many academics happy to give their time for free to encourage the love of wisdom.
Until now, the broader grassroots philosophy movement has not had a dedicated website, so today I’m also launching a website called The Philosophy Hub, dedicated to ‘building a global thinking culture’. It has a map where people will be able to find their local philosophy group or upload their own group – do please add your own group. Group organisers can then log in whenever they want and add details of upcoming events to their page. There’s also a history of philosophy groups on the site, going back to ancient Greece, which comes from my report (it focuses mainly on the history of western philosophy groups, and I want now to learn more about grassroots philosophy in other cultures). The site also has lots of other resources for people interested in researching grassroots philosophy, or who want to set up and run a club. Finally, there’s a blog which will focus on grassroots philosophy. It launches with an interview with John Mitchinson, one of the founders of the quiz show QI, who talks about the QI Club – the progenitor of the Idler Academy and the School of Life. He’s a fascinating, likeable person.
The rise of grassroots philosophy is an encouraging phenomenon in a period of sudden and brutal change for higher education in the UK. This year, the coalition government slashed its block grant to universities by £3 billion, asking universities to finance themselves through higher tuition fees, which have risen from an average of £3,000 a year to roughly £8,000 a year. Undergraduates are expected to pay these higher fees through loans from the Student Loan Company. The government’s hope is that this will increase consumer choice and competition among universities – this week, the government began granting university status to private education providers. Slashing the block grant and asking students to pay more was also, of course, intended to help reduce the budget deficit.
No one knows quite what higher education will look like once the dust has settled. The reforms are rapid and bewildering, and often one part of the government seems to be acting against another part: the Home Office, for example, tried to crack down on the number of foreign students at English universities, just when universities desperately need their money. And already there are unintended consequences of the reforms. Andrew McGettigan, one of the organisers of the Big Ideas philosophy club in London, showed in an excellent report for the Intergenerational Foundation that the government had effectively tried to pull an accounting trick by switching funding from a block grant to state-provided student loans.
As Andrew shows, the trick may have reduced the deficit, but unfortunately (and apparently unexpectedly for the Business, Innovation and Skills department) all those new loans have also pushed up the Consumer Price Index (CPI) by about 0.6%. The CPI is used to calculate state pensions and other benefits, so a rise in the CPI of 0.6% means a loss to the public purse of around £2.2 billion annually. Vince Cable was asked about this unexpected consequence at a recent BIS parliamentary committee. He replied: ‘I don’t follow the logic’. This despite repeated warnings from the Office of National Statistics and the Higher Education Policy Institute of the effect of the loan-boom on inflation.
There could be more problems for the tax-payer further down the river. The Student Loan Company is set to lend around £10 billion annually, via income-dependent loans which will be paid back once graduates earn over £21K a year. But the government may have underestimated how much students borrow, while overestimating how much earnings will rise in the next decade, or how much interest rates could rise. If graduates take longer than expected to pay back the loans, or can’t pay them back, it could end up costing the tax-payer more rather than less. As McGettigan notes, students today may end up paying for their university education twice, once today and again as tax-payers in 20 years.
There are attempts to slow or oppose the reforms. This week, 10,000 students marched against tuition fees, but their demands were somewhat broad (from saving the NHS to freeing Gaza) and their alternative to student loan-financing was simply ‘tax the rich’. That may be some of the answer but it’s not all of it. Meanwhile, some senior academics have created the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which aims at resisting the commercialisation of higher education. But the CDBU risks looking like grumpy old academics trying to protect the status quo. They follow Stefan Collini’s argument that students don’t know what’s good for them, therefore putting them in control of the money is like letting children run a candy store. The CDBU worries that students will all choose subjects that give good salaries, like business and management studies, while neglecting more liberal subjects like history or philosophy (both of which have declined in popularity in the last few years, unlike almost every other subject). And the CDBU dislikes the government’s emphasis on quantifying the quality and ‘impact’ of research. Academics should, Collini argues, be free to pursue research for its own sake, without any regard to social or economic benefit.
To which I’d reply, yes, to an extent. But I think academics of my generation (if I can call myself an academic, despite my lack of a PhD) are far more comfortable with the importance of ‘impact’. We’re impatient with older academics who seem to see any attempt at community engagement as a distraction, who congratulate themselves on their ignorance of social media. We see the decline of the tradition of university extension as a great tragedy, an abandonment of the public role of the intelligentsia in society. In other words, I agree much more with the Stefan Collini who wrote Absent Minds, Collini’s 2006 book in which he bewailed the disappearance of public intellectuals in British culture. Nowadays we only seem to hear from academics when they’re complaining about the loss of their own privileges. Sixty years ago, Beveridge, who as a young man worked at Toynbee Hall, designed the welfare state while serving as Master of University College, Oxford. Bring back the Beveridge model of academics!
My generation also think universities should listen to the needs and desires of their undergraduates, and should do a lot more to provide well-being and counseling services on campus. And I think we’re prepared to be creative and innovative in how subjects are taught at university. At Queen Mary, University of London, for example, we alas don’t have a philosophy department, so next year we’re launching a free practical philosophy course which any undergraduate can take, whatever their subject. I’d also like to make the course available to the local community. And I think we can improve the university experience, so that one doesn’t simply study ‘management studies’ or ‘computer sciences’, but instead can learn from both the humanities, and the sciences, and learn vocational and life skills, to get a genuinely rounded education – closer to the American model, in other words, where students can study several subjects and get a broader education.
There is a lot to dislike about the government’s higher education reforms. They seem to be the sort of omnishambles we have come to expect. But resistance to austerity measures can’t simply be about protecting the status quo of the past. It needs to be a progressive vision, a positive vision, a vision of making things better.
Jesus, I sound like Tony Blair. Cue Brian Cox on the synth. In the meantime, here are some young academics with vision.
First, meet Patrick Ussher at Exeter University’s classics department (that’s him on the right with the laptop open, at a recent Exeter seminar on Stoicism and CBT). Patrick wrote his dissertation on Stoicism and Buddhism, and is now doing a PhD on Marcus Aurelius. I met him at the seminar shown on the right. Next week, he’s launching an initiative called Live Like A Stoic For A Week. He’s produced a booklet where people can find practical Stoic exercises for life. Pick one, try it out for a week, and record the results through one of the well-being questionnaires provided by the psychologists working on the project (Tim LeBon and Donald Robertson). Me, I’m going to give up booze for a week. How about you? The week is being covered by the Guardian and has attracted lots of interest. Go Patrick!
On Wednesday, meanwhile, I traveled to Cambridge University to talk at a seminar on the politics of well-being organised by Tom Barker, an inspiring young PhD who is researching meaningful work. I spoke at the seminar alongside Ben Irvine, who is coordinator of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge (where Felicia Huppert works), the founder of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, and the author of a new book, Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling. Ben, like me, passionately believes that intellectuals have a social responsibility to engage with society and communicate their ideas to as wide an audience as possible. I was very impressed with the range and calibre of people working on well-being in Cambridge, and how well the Institute brought people together fromdifferent disciplines (architecture, psychology, philosophy, geography etc).
This week, the Office of National Statistics published a big report presenting and reflecting on the data on national well-being it has been collecting for a year. The head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, called for ministers and civil servants to start using the data to make actual policy decisions, while the previous head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell (who is now running a well-being programme at the Legatum Institute) said one clear policy recommendation was for the NHS to spend less on physical illnesses and more on mental illnesses.
The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Antony Jenkins, has (according to the Daily Mail) has “corralled his 125 most senior managers, including former close Diamond associate Rich Ricci, into attending a series of seminars and bonding exercises aimed at instilling ethical values. The executives will then be expected to act as evangelists for the new culture throughout the organisation. During the two days they will be immersed in sessions including history lessons on the bank’s heritage as a Quaker institution. They will also be subjected to ‘360 degree feedback’ on their performance, with people both above and below them in the hierarchy contributing to their bonus assessments. The process is designed to penalise self-serving or unethical behaviour.”
Sounds like the Cultural Revolution. I like the idea of lessons in Quaker values though. What I think would be great would be to combine ethics training courses with stress management / well-being courses – the essence of both resilience and ethics is good character. I was at a fantastic conference on compassion and empathy today at the Quaker meeting house in London, by the way. The highlight for me was a workshop on Deep Listening by Rosamund Oliver. Good stuff, although she works for Sogyal Rinpoche. I loved his books when I was a teenager, and was gutted to find out he was a sex pest. Anyway, the Deep Listening workshop was brilliant.
Well, I think that’s enough information for one week. My book’s doing good in Holland, by the way, thanks to my amazing publishers, who lined up a lot of interviews and also launched a poster campaign (check it out on the right). They tell me it’s already going for a second printing. It also came out in Germany this week.
See you next week, and hope you like the report and The Philosophy Hub.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>