Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Strawson’s basic argument is that either you’re a dualist or you think everything is made of the same ‘stuff’. If you’re a monist, and you also believe in consciousness, then everything must be somehow made of the ‘conscious stuff’, consciousness must be a fundamental constituent of all matter, including this table that I’m writing on. Table, thank you for all your support.
If all matter is conscious, then does that mean all matter can suffer, that the trees weep, the stones cry out, creation itself is groaning? Imagine being able to hear the emotional emanations of every object you encountered. It reminds me of the Roald Dahl short story, ‘The Sound Machine’, about a man who constructs a machine that enables him to hear plants communicating – he hears them cry out every time someone picks a flower. You’d have to turn that machine off pretty quickly, particularly at lunch time.
Anyway, for most of the evening, I felt like a one-legged man at a yoga retreat: slightly wobbly. I felt keenly aware of my lack of a philosophy degree. The audience, by contrast, were mixing it up with Strawson like professionals. ‘What about epiphenomenalism?’ ‘How radical is emergence?’ ‘Have you forgotten Occam’s razor?’ Whoever this Occam is, I think he should launch a whole range of male grooming products: Occam’s moisturiser, Occam’s chest-wax, Occam’s full Brazilian.
After the talk, we floated to a nearby pub, which I initially thought was called The Preposterous, but turned out to be called The Perseverance. I was hoping for a relaxation of the old cognitive muscles, but no, the debate raged on. ‘What do you think of consciousness?’ a lively South African called Frank demanded of me immediately. ‘I don’t know, but I’m hoping a Guinness will reduce it.’
He, I, and another man got into a conversation, and it emerged that the other man – let’s call him Chris, because that’s his name – believed in God. ‘You believe in God?’ asked Frank, astonished. ‘Yes’, said Chris. ‘You…you are a Christian?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You believe that the Bible is true!’ ‘I…’ ‘To me, religion is just about feelings’, Frank pressed on. ‘There is rationality, and there are emotions. People who are into faith are usually very emotional. It is just about the feelings.’
I left Chris in the lions-den, and went to the other side of the bar, where I met a latex-fashion designer. She asked me what I thought of consciousness. I said I was a Pan-psychicist – I believe in a telepathic goat-God who plays the jazz flute. We talked for a bit about her work – I asked her, predictably enough, what was the kinkiest latex costume she’d ever designed for a client. It was… well, I’ll tell you at the end. Then we got talking about my own fetish (Greek philosophy) and the Stoics’ idea of how our reason can help us transform our emotions. Reason and emotion aren’t two separate things – they’re intertwined, like consciousness and matter.
We began talking a bit about the challenges of life in our respective industries. We began to have an actual conversation, in which we put down our conceptual armour, stripped off our philosophical latex, and spoke honestly about what it’s like to be us. And then someone came up and asked us if we were really realists or just pretending.
So here’s my point, such as it is. Max Weber once suggested that the only thing for mature adults to do in the icy polar night of modernity is to face up to our disenchanted, rationalised world, and accept it. In fact, we should serve the relentless process of rationalisation, so that we eventually subject all of reality to our technocratic control. His middle name was ‘Darth’, by the by. Darth Weber also said that some people, some ‘big children’, would not be capable of facing the icy darkness, and would turn for emotional consolation to religion. Well, says Darth, let them go without a fuss. They couldn’t handle reality.
I want to put it to you that rationality can be just as much of a flight from the messiness of reality. We see the pain and suffering of ourselves and other people, and we can’t handle it, so we retreat to the safety of abstract concepts and impersonal systems. Because, to misquote Paul Simon, a concept feels no pain, and a system never cries.
I think it’s an issue with Greek philosophy, perhaps with all philosophy – the flight into rationality. Out there is the messy chaotic suffering of humanity, but the philosopher, like Plato, retreats to the safety of his academy, and polishes his concepts. I know, I know, concepts help us, systems help us, ultimately they help to reduce suffering. But there is also the raw pre-conceptual reality of our suffering, and sometimes a dog has a wiser and more real reaction to it than a philosopher – the dog simply shares our suffering, without taking flight into concepts.
I want my philosophy to help me confront reality, by which I mean, help me confront the reality of how much people suffer in this world, and to enable me to look on that without shutting down, without escaping into abstraction. That’s very very difficult, because people suffer so much, and sometimes one feels helpless at the extent of it.
Just this morning, for example, I read of a woman who put her baby down for a second on the baggage carousel of a Spanish airport. The carousel was automatically activated, the baby was carried into the machinery, and asphyxiated. The husband was waiting at the barriers to meet them. Just an awful, awful story.
That sort of random tragedy happens all the time, every day. Not to mention people struggling with chronic illnesses, with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, not to mention their families, desperately wanting them to be well, not to mention children or the elderly in care homes, so vulnerable to the worst human behaviour. There is so much suffering in the world, you want to switch off your emotions, to stop picking it up.
When tragedies happen, we reach for rationalisations, for concepts, because we want to protect ourselves from suffering. We take flight into rationality. Sometimes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be like that. You’re suffering? No problem. Here are some rational concepts and techniques. We can fix that! A lot of the time, those concepts really do help. But life is still messy, imperfect, there is still an ocean of suffering out there. It doesn’t make for a great TED talk, but it’s reality nonetheless.
And I want to suggest a slightly hippy idea. Sometimes the sadness we feel might not be our sadness. Sometimes it might simply be The Sadness, a sort of collective sadness. We might be picking up on the sadness of the person next to us on the bus, the historical sadness of a place we’re walking through, the sadness of a table. Some people, with sensitive dispositions, might be better at picking up the sadness of others. Those people need help, to shoulder the sadness. We all need help.
Beneath the latex-suit of concepts and labels (realist, epiphenominalist, atheist, fetishist) there is a basic reality: we are conscious beings. Consciousness hurts, because we are lonely, afraid, and mortal. But our consciousness also allows us to share each other’s pain, to free ourselves occasionally from the prison of isolation – if we have the courage to open up.
At the beginning of the Philosophy Club meeting, I sat next to a regular, and talked for a bit, asked them how they were. They launched into a graphic description of their physical ailments, including a particularly painful-sounding bowel infection, and also how their mother had dementia and breast cancer. Woah, I thought. But what do you think of epiphenomenalism?
Well, that’s reality. Messy, imperfect, chaotic. That’s the real stuff.
Oh yes, I promised to tell you what was the kinkiest costume the designer had made. It was…well…I better leave it til 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 -]]>
Of course, hardcore Stoics might say we shouldn’t share the fruits of our practice – we should ‘tell no one’, as Epictetus puts it. But I actually think it’s good to share your practice with other Stoics, as long as you’re not showing off. My own rather humble practice this week has been to knock off the booze for a week. Small steps, I know – but I’ve stuck to it out of the thought that it’s not just me practicing – there are lots of us out there, committing to this week. We’re stronger when bounded together.
It’s also been a good opportunity for people to say how they’ve been helped by Stoic writings in their life. People like Dorothea from Vancouver, who this week tweeted:
I went through an extremely difficult time a few years ago and one of the things that helped was Stoicism. Reading Epictetus was like having a wise friend sit with me in a situation that no one, not my friends or family, could understand.
Right on Dorothea! As I discovered when I was writing my book, there are loads of people out there who have been really helped by Stoic writings through difficult times, for whom Stoicism means a great deal to them. Everyone from Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China, who says he has read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations over 100 times, to Elle MacPherson, who named her son Aurelius, to Tom Wolfe, who got into Stoicism a decade ago and is still very into it today (he said he’d write a quote for my book – Tom, if you’re reading this, get in touch…I need your help!)
So here’s my question: is Stoicism really enjoying a revival or a rebirth now? Or is that a gross exaggeration? And if there is a revival happening, where could it go?
I think there is something of a revival taking place, in large part thanks to Albert Ellis and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but also thanks to the revival of the idea of philosophy as a therapy or way of life. And, finally, I think Stoicism fits quite well with our increasingly crisis-prone era. I’ll go through these three factors, quickly.
Stoicism and CBT
The biggest driver for the revival of Stoicism is its direct connection to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. When I discovered this link, back in 2007, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t more written about. I found it amazing that ideas and techniques from ancient Greek philosophy should be at the heart of western psychotherapy (2007 was the year the British government started putting hundreds of millions of pounds into CBT and also the year CBT started to be taught in British schools via the Penn Resilience Programme). And no one was writing about it. So I started to write about it. In 2009 I came across Donald Robertson, a cognitive therapist and scholar, who was also writing about it. I interviewed him for my first ever YouTube video. Check it out and enjoy the trippy special effect at the end illustrating the Stoic idea of the ‘view from above’.
In 2010, Donald published the first ever book properly exploring the relationship between CBT and ancient philosophy. It’s a great book and helped me a lot.
Then, this year, I brought out my book about ancient philosophies and CBT (not just Stoicism, also Epicureanism, Cynicism, Platonism, Scepticism etc),which featured interviews with lots of modern Stoics – Major Thomas Jarrett, who teaches Stoic warrior resilience in the US Army; Chris Brennan, who teaches Stoic resilience in the US Fire Service; Jesse Caban, who is a Stoic in the Chicago police force; Michael Perry, a Stoic Green Beret; Sam Sullivan, the Stoic former mayor of Vancouver, and others. I was helped a lot by the NewStoa community set up by Erik Wiegardt, which helped me get in touch with all these modern Stoics.
Since the book has come out, I’ve done a lot of talks about the connection between Stoicism and CBT, like this one on Radio 4. The book got a nice review in The Psychologist this week (behind a pay-wall alas), and I hope it has encouraged more of a dialogue between psychology and philosophy. The same month my book came out, Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian brought out his book, The Antidote, which also interviewed Albert Ellis and made the connection with Stoicism. We were both interviewed in this Guardian Books podcast talking about Stoicism and CBT.
Then, at the end of this year, Christopher Gill in Exeter’s classics department organised a seminar on Stoicism and CBT, which brought together Donald, me, Tim LeBon, a cognitive therapist and philosophical counsellor; classicist John Sellars; Patrick Ussher, occupational therapist Gill Garratt and others. The Exeter Project has been a great help in making the connection between Stoicism and CBT a bit more explicit and academically credible.
The revival of philosophy as a practical way of life
Secondly, Stoicism has revived in the last few years thanks to a broader revival of ancient philosophy and the idea of philosophy as a way of life. When Alain de Botton brought out the Consolations of Philosophy in 2000, he was widely reviled by academics for dumbing down philosophy. A decade on, however, more and more academic philosophers have come round to the idea that philosophy can and should be an everyday practice, and even a form of self-help. That’s partly through the influence of de Botton and the School of Life network, but also through the work of academic philosophers like Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum, who have pushed forward a more personal and emotional form of philosophy (by emotional, I don’t mean gushing and sentimental, I mean it works on the emotions, it tries to help people flourish). So academia has played its part in the revival, but I’d suggest self-help writers like De Botton, Eckhart Tolle and Tim Ferriss have been key in bringing Stoic ideas to a wider public.
Stoicism is popular in times of crisis
Finally, I think Stoicism is enjoying something of a revival because it fits with our crisis-prone era. It’s a good philosophy for coping with volatile and chaotic times. You wouldn’t expect it to be that popular during an age of affluence, for example like we were in from 1955 to 1975, although it was popular then among some officers in Vietnam like James Stockdale. But you would expect it to be popular in times like now, an age of austerity and emergency, when our economies are crashing and our cities are being constantly buffeted by floods and hurricanes. It is appropriate that, in the very week Exeter University hosts ‘Stoic Week’, floods are coursing through the town. Our imagination has become more apocalyptic – whether that be in films like Deep Impact, books like The Road, or TV shows like Derren Brown’s Stoic-inspired Apocalypse. We’ve started to wonder how we’d fare if some of our affluent accoutrements were stripped from us. How would we, poor bare forked animals, cope upon the heath without our lendings?
There has been a growth in nostalgia for the Stoicism of our grandparents – the generation before the baby-boomers, who went through the war with a calm Stoic spirit (or so it seems to us). Hence the popularity of the old war poster, Keep Calm and Carry On. Hence the interest in the history of the ‘stiff upper lip’. Hence the call this week by a Tory MP and GP for a return to the values of ‘post-war Stoic Britain’, when people took care of themselves and didn’t burden the NHS with all their self-indulgent lifestyle illnesses. We are in the midst of an austere reaction to the consumer excesses of the baby-boomers, and Stoicism goes quite well with that reaction. Though of course, the baby-boomers are a part of the Stoic revival too – not least in the increased interest in assisted suicide. The baby-boomers want the freedom to choose their own death, as Seneca put it. If death became the ultimate lifestyle choice, that would be a huge cultural shift, away from Christianity, and back towards Stoicism (the word suicide, by the by, was invented by a 12-century theologian in a tract written against Seneca).
Where could the revival go?
So, there is something of a revival happening. But where could it go? Well, I think we’re all learning how to take care of ourselves better, learning how to be the ‘doctors to ourselves’ as Cicero put it. I don’t think that necessarily means we’re all going to become card-carrying Stoics, but I do think and hope we’re becoming more intelligent about our emotions and how to heal them, and more DIY about our health in general and how to take care of ourselves. I suspect and hope that this will involve a continued growth of interest in ancient philosophies – Greek, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Sufi and so on. One of the most encouraging phenomena in this difficult era is the synthesis of ancient wisdom and modern empiricism – the Shamatha project in California is one of the great examples of it. I hope that my psychology colleagues in the Exeter project, Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon, can do more empirical work on Stoic ideas.
However, I personally think Stoicism itself is lacking some things. As Martha Nussbaum told me in this interview, it’s part of an ‘anti-compassion’ tradition. It lacks compassion, is too cold, too uncaring. I remember, on Stoic email lists, when someone has said that something terrible has happened to them, no one would say anything consolatory to them. They would just stiffly quote Epictetus – the philosophical equivalent of a punch on the shoulder. And I would feel like giving that person a hug and saying ‘yes, that’s pretty shit, but you’ll get through it’. The Stoic position of ‘nothing is fucked here, Dude’ seems to me too cold. We’re not Gods, we’re humans. I think we should be careful that the revival of Stoicism does not become too libertarian, part of a backlash against the welfare state. We also need to make clear that Stoicism does not mean repressing your emotions. Far from it. Nor should it mean coping entirely on your own with difficulties. Stoicism today should mean taking care of each other, not just of yourself.
A key contemporary challenge is that Stoicism lacks a proper sense of community, and if you look at modern attempts at building a Stoic community – the NewStoa group, or the Stoic Yahoo list, I don’t think either of them have been that successful, because they are too logical and not caring enough, so they end up with men bickering over terminology, rather than humans caring for each other.
Nonetheless, let me end on a positive note: the Stoics taught us some amazing stuff about how to transform the emotions, and how to take care of ourselves. It’s just that, in my opinion, those lessons are best taught alongside other philosophies of the good life. Again, I come back to the same point I often ask myself: can we build philosophical communities that are genuinely caring, compassionate, nurturing?
Next week, hopefully, I am off to meet a hero of mine, Tobias Jones, who runs a community like that in Dorset, for recovering addicts. Tobias wrote a fantastic book called Utopian Dreams, asking the same sort of communitarian questions that we are discussing. Do read it, it’s brilliant. I’ll hopefully be interviewing Tobias for a new podcast I’m putting together for Aeon magazine. Should be a really fun, exciting venture. Here’s a piece Tobias wrote for Aeon on his commune.
Next Tuesday, come to hear Angie Hobbs talking about the future of philosophy at the London Philosophy Club, at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. She’s a fascinating speaker, and it’s a brilliant venue.
This week, my friend Sara Northey arranged a brilliant LPC evening, with a talk by clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman. Peter put forward a radical and (in my opinion) quite persuasive argument about why most psychiatric diagnoses and unscientific and deeply unhelpful, and we should instead switch to a problem-based analysis of emotional problems. Here’s an interesting write-up of the event by Natalie Banner, a philosopher at KCL’s Centre for Humanities and Health.
The accuracy of social psychology studies is under the microscope, after Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel was found to have faked some of his studies, without being found out by the social psychology journals in which he published his results. A new report condemns not just him but the whole field of social psychology for its ‘sloppy’ research culture.
This New York Times article (forwarded to me by Matt Bishop) has been widely discussed in among therapists – it says business is declining for therapists, as people increasingly want problem-fixing rather than long-term counseling (Peter Kinderman would approve!). So therapists are having to hustle to get more business, which means putting more effort into branding. I’ve often thought that therapists should, at the least, put a video of themselves on their website explaining who they are and what sort of problems they can help with (in fact I considered setting up a business to help therapists do this).
Talking of therapists making videos, here is a video of Windy Dryden, a leading cognitive therapist in the UK, doing a song-and-dance version of CBT to the tune of ‘Moves Like Jagger’. Bizarre! Though it did make me think – perhaps I could put together some CBT songs..
Tomorrow, I’m speaking at this conference in Amsterdam along with Alain de Botton, Philippa Perry, Roman Krznaric, Stine Jensen and others. Still a few tickets left I think, if you’re in Holland and fancy coming along. My Dutch publisher, Regine, has been really amazing in promoting my book in Holland, and it’s got into the top 100. She is a force of nature.
The book is now out in Germany. One of my readers, Julia Kalmund, has arranged for me to come and speak at Munich University. Nice one Julia! She wins this week’s awesomeness prize. It’s also just come out in Turkey….any Turkish readers of the newsletter??
A guy called Ahmad from Pakistan got in touch with the London Philosophy Club this week. He wrote:
Philosophy should be promoted in every community because it is usually above any caste and creed…Unfortunately there are not favorable conditions in Pakistan for such activity, London has a certain attitude for this,as it provided shelter to Volatire and Marx when Europe wasn’t ready to tolerate them…I want to become an active member of London Philosophy Club and to try to go to London for studies,it would be a pleasure for me to remain in the company of such creative social minds.
I find that great and inspiring – that’s why I love philosophy, because it connects us beyond any caste or creed. Good luck to you, Ahmad. Meanwhile the British government has succeeded in lowering immigration…by putting off foreign students from studying here. Doh!
See you next week,
PS, if you fancy some weekend reading, download my report on Grassroots Philosophy
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 -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Would you say there is such a thing as a ‘practical philosophy movement’?
Yes, though it’s a very broad movement. What’s happened is that over the last 20 years there’s been a revolutionary rise of interest in the question of how to live. And that question has taken a practical focus in many ways, through philosophy clubs and organisations like the School of Life and Oxford Muse.
Why is there this interest in the question of how to live? Why now?
A number of factors spring to mind. Firstly, in the last decade or two, there’s been a flux or crisis in the art of living because of rapid technological changes, like the growth of online dating and social networks, which are raising new issues about how we conduct our relationships. Questions about how to live have also arisen because of the perceived failure of consumerism to deliver the good life, and due to advances in medical technology which mean we’re living longer than ever and having to think more about how to spend the extra years granted to us. Another factor is that people are rethinking their lifestyle choices in the face of the growing threat of climate change.
And finally, I’d suggest these questions have become more prominent as an unintended consequence of the Freudian revolution. We’ve just emerged from a century of psychoanalysis, of a therapy culture that says look inside of yourselves. That inner gaze has not done enough to solve the dilemmas of life. So we’re beginning to look outside of professional therapy for answers, and we’re looking to more communal places like The School of Life or the London Philosophy Club.
A lot of those questions about the good life, it seems to me, were asked by student radicals in the 1960s. One of my hypotheses is that the practical philosophy movement is in some ways the child of 1968.
Perhaps. Though of course the 1970s was the Me Decade, when self-obsession reached new heights. It’s reflected in the rise of things like erhard seminars training, Maharishi communes, therapy culture. Peter Singer writes about this in How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest (1997), where he notes that all his academic colleagues are on therapy, spending a quarter of their salary on analysis. He thought they were being too inward looking in their search for the good life.
So do you think self-help is just selfish and narcissistic?
There are competing streams in the broad self-help movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, you see a very commercial version of self-help emerge, which is all about scrambling up the corporate ladder. Then, as a counter to that, you have a more spiritual form of self help, people like Ram Dass, and the simple living movement which arose in the 1980s. The dominant stream, however, was the commercial / corporate form of self-help.
Tell me how you got into this area.
When I was 17, I discovered Bertrand Russell and read his books. Then, from 1989 to 1992, I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. I discovered to my horror that the great questions of how to live were not addressed in an Oxford PPE degree. This was a great disappointment. I’m not certain that academic philosophy has changed much since then. Academic philosophy has mainly failed to respond to the public demand for guidance as to how to live, and has lost the Ancient Greek ideal that philosophy is something that should be applied to the dilemmas of everyday living.
After graduating from Oxford, I travelled for a couple of years, then I did a masters in Latin American Studies. Following that I did a PhD in political sociology, and began university teaching, mainly in the fields of sociology and politics. I didn’t at that point have any intention to be a philosopher, or write popular philosophy books (in fact, I don’t really think of myself as a philosopher). But I came to believe that the best way to achieve social and political change was not through big structural changes such as new laws or institutions, but rather that the biggest changes in history came through changes in individual relations, through the flowering of empathy. I became very interested in empathy, as a meeting point between the art of living and social change. And that led me to leave academia, because at that point empathy couldn’t easily be researched in academia. It was seen as a psychological phenomenon, and I saw it as more complicated and as involving many different disciplines. I also wanted my investigation to be more practical and to affect people’s lives.
So you left academia. It strikes me that many interesting intellectuals of your age left academia – Alain de Botton, Adam Curtis, George Monbiot. Why the diaspora?
By the late 1990s, to be an intellectual and thinker, you had to escape from the bureaucracy of academia. Take George Monbiot. He could easily be a professor in a range of academic fields – he has enormous scholarly acumen – but my sense is that he feels more intellectual freedom outside of academia, and has more space to pursue his political activism (he has, though, been a visiting professor at several universities). I feel that The Wonderbox is no less rigorous than an academic work. But academics have always been suspicious of popularising or outreach, particularly in history. Historians are embarrassed to look into the past and find lessons for today. Or they think history can teach us how to organize big political systems, not so much provide life lessons on the individual level.
So what options were there for thinkers outside of academia in the late 1990s?
By a fluke, my partner, a development economist, had a research assistant who was working with Theodore Zeldin. I’d read Zeldin’s An Intimate History Of Humanity, and thought it was one of the greatest books I’d read. I’d heard a talk by him about conversations on the radio. Then I discovered that Zeldin had an organisation in Oxford, where I lived, called Oxford Muse. I went to meet him one evening, at a dinner organized by my partner’s research assistant. He liked me, I liked him, and I was intrigued by what Oxford Muse was trying to do – create conversations that promoted mutual empathy.
What is Zeldin like?
I thought he was one of the most amazing and original thinkers I’d met. I worked with him for three and a half years, and what I really noticed was how he would question absolutely everything. He would come into The Oxford Muse and say ‘right, today we’re going to re-invent the insurance industry’, or he’d say ‘there’s a problem with money, we need an alternative’. Then he’d spend months trying to come up with an alternative. He incorporated his daily experience into his ideas, and he never described The Oxford Muse the same way twice. My time working with him was enormously intellectually invigorating.
Tell me about his Feast of Strangers project.
They’re basically what The Oxford Muse calls Conversation Meals, using a Menu of Conversation containing questions like ‘What have you learned about the different varieties of love in the course of your life’. It’s very philosophical – you try to get strangers to talk about how they see the world and themselves. We would try to draw together different groups, like CEOs and homeless people. Or, within companies, we would create conversations across hierarchies. Zeldin thinks that, in a conversation between two people, it is possible to create a tiny bit of understanding and equality – that’s how you change the world, using a microcosmic strategy, one conversation at a time. Another thing we did at The Oxford Muse was to create written portraits of people around Oxford, where they describe themselves and their philosophy of life in their own words. We recruited hundreds of volunteers to talk to people, and created a book called Guide to the Unknown University – revealing the lives of people from every walk of life who exist around Oxford.
So you left Oxford Muse in 2006.
Yes, I felt it was time to move on. I wanted to teach my own courses on the art of living, so started to do that.
Well, in the beginning I couldn’t find a venue, so the first courses were held in my kitchen. I covered topics such as love, time, work and empathy, and particularly approached them through the lens of cultural history. How can looking at the past help us rethink our approach to everyday life? I also wanted to encourage creative and adventurous thinking about how to live. Gradually, those classes shifted into the public realm. The QI Club in Oxford was looking for new public events, so I began running evening workshops there. My first one was on Love and the Art of Living. I tried to make them as participatory as possible, to get away from the academic seminar format. My main advice is never to speak for more than 20 minutes before you give the audience an opportunity to participate. Try to make ideas accessible and get the audience to work on them. For example, if I was teaching a course on love, I’d not only speak about the history and philosophy of love, I’d get people to draw ‘love maps’ depicting the different kinds of love in their own lives. I thought hard about teaching and the structure of workshops.
To what extent did you feel you were doing something new and unusual?
I didn’t know anybody else doing those sort of classes. I knew of the School of Economic Science’s courses in practical philosophy, but that’s different [Jules' note: they're a neo-platonic sect, as I describe in my book]. Then, in 2007, Alain de Botton, who knew about my work at The Oxford Muse, got in touch to talk about the possibility of setting up some kind of ‘university of life’. This is what eventually became The School of Life. Its first director, Sophie Howarth, was the driving force behind shaping the intellectual approach and feel. She asked me to develop one of the five core courses that The School of Life was going to offer, on the topic of work. The love course was developed mainly by Mark Vernon and Alain, the family course by Charles Ferneyhough and Rebecca Abrams, politics by Maurice Glasman and myself, and play I believe grew out of Sophie Howarth’s ideas. Other thinkers such as the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith were also involved. They were all designed to be six week courses, or intensive weekend courses.
Preparing the launch of the School in 2007 and 2008 was a very wonderful period of my life. I wrote a 100,000 word course handbook for the work course, drawing on literature, philosophy, history, anthropology. People don’t realise how much intellectual work went into the School of Life. We’d all draft sections of courses, then come together to discuss them, try out classes, hammer out ideas. It was done very professionally, and required a lot of hard work to get right. We were trying to do something that had never been done: to create a university of life, which was an alternative to mainstream university, intellectually vibrant and absolutely practical.
Most of the people that Sophie Howarth recruited and that Alain got onboard were trying to develop their ideas and careers outside of academia. But they were all academically very well qualified: Robert Rowland Smith had been a fellow of All Souls, Mark Vernon was a PhD, Maurice Glasman was a lecturer at London Met, Rebecca Abrams had published books on family relations (while also teaching creative writing at Oxford University), and Alain got a double starred first in history at Cambridge.
How was it funded?
The idea was that funds were available to get it going for the first few years. There were debates about pricing, and about balancing financial sustainability with accessibility. We felt the courses were affordable – a lot cheaper than the cost of doing an Open University degree, for example. We had to charge, though, to make the School self-sustaining. We also wanted it to expand – the idea was always not just to have one School of Life, but one on every high street.
Was it Sophie’s plan at the beginning to make it more of a social enterprise?
Well, Sophie came from the Tate Musuems’ public engagement programme. Her idea was that The School of Life should strive to be as community-orientated as possible. Although not set up as a charitable foundation, it was certainly not intended that it should be a great profit-making enterprise. Sophie eventually left to start a family, rather than because of any disagreements. The School of Life is now very lucky to have Morgwn Rimel as the director, who is doing a great job taking it forward.
How has the School done?
It’s now almost four years since it launched. It’s been amazingly successful. Approximately 50,000 people have come through its doors. It is clear that there is a real hunger for public spaces where people can think about the big questions of everyday life.
Has it changed since the launch?
The core vision is still there, the practical model has changed. Initially it was focused on these six-week courses or intensive weekends. But we noticed people would sign up but not be able to go every week. So we incorporated more individual classes in the evening. But the quality and intellectual breadth of the content hasn’t altered.
Tell me about the Sunday Sermons.
I think there was a recognition that people love community and ideas, and there’s something wonderful about the sermon tradition, but we wanted to do it for the modern age. And they’ve been packed out since we launched it. I could never have predicted that public hunger for ideas.
Do you think the School of Life is a community?
I think people come not just to get good ideas for their lives, because it makes them feel they’re not alone. People turn up and realise there’s a large group of like-minded people who care about how to deal with the dilemmas of life. The hunger for shared community is part of the grand transformation that’s happening now – the escape from extreme individualism and the age of introspection, and the recognition we need to nurture our social and communal selves. It’s happening in many forms – in philosophy clubs, in Transition Towns, and so on.
People have criticised the School of Life as being a bit commercial, a bit lifestyle-obsessed.
I don’t think it’s commercial, it’s driven by ideas. But it doesn’t necessarily yet have as much of a collective ethos to it as it could have, that strong sense of collective ownership among the people who attend. If The School of Life is going to thrive in the long term, I think it needs to develop that. Is The School of Life a community? Yes, but not yet fully realized. You often see the same people coming to classes, sermons etc, but they’re not necessarily creating their own self-sustaining communities once they step back outside the door.
How involved are you in the School now?
Not hugely involved right at the moment because I’m working on a new book. But I still teach classes and courses, and am involved in some of the larger events we do, such as conversations with visiting thinkers like the recent interview I did with Brené Brown at Conway Hall. I also authored one of the School’s six new self-help books, on How to Find Fulfilling Work, and went on tour with my fellow authors. I understand the School is going to be opening branches in Australia, Brazil, and the US over the next year or so, although I’m not directly involved in that.
So how do you think the practical / grassroots philosophy movement will grow?
I think the great task of philosophy clubs is to turn into collective movements of social change, which are capable of tackling the great problems of our age. Look at what they did in the past – at how the Circle of Tchaikovsky in 19th century Russia drew thinkers together and helped to inspire socialist and anarchist movements. That’s the potential of philosophy clubs – they need to escape the obsession with lifestyle. I think we need to wean ourselves off the contemporary obsession with happiness. It’s framed in too individualistic terms. I think we’re going through a great revolution in our understanding of the self, and are realising we’re wired for empathy and mutual aid. If we just obsesses about our own lifestyles, I don’t think we’ll get very far.
Do you think philosophy clubs could help tackle climate change, for example?
I think of our failure to tackle climate change as an empathic failure. It’s a failure to step into the shoes of other people today – especially in developing countries who are suffering the impacts of climate change – and of future generations. We’re hopeless at empathising with people who will be alive in 2100. I’m going to continue my work on empathy to try and contribute to that grander project.
You’re planning to set up an empathy museum?
Yes, it will be the world’s first. We need new institutions in public culture. The Empathy Museum may start by existing online, offering downloadable exhibits. I’m interested in the Human Library Movement, which began in Denmark in 2000. You go along to the library on a certain day, but instead of borrowing a book, you borrow a person for conversation, who tells you their story and answers your questions about their life. I’d like to create a downloadable kit so you can put on events like Human Libraries or Conversation Meals in your own community, school or organisation. Then the museum can be put on everywhere by everyone. It breaks down the old static model of the museum and makes it more participatory.
I’m also an advocate for teaching empathy in schools. And perhaps the next revolution for practical philosophy, which grew up outside of university, is to take it back into universities. They need to be reinvented.
This interview was done as part of my research project into grassroots philosophy clubs, which will eventually be found at www.thephilosophyhub.com, with interviews with several other pioneers of grassroots philosophy, and a global map of philosophy clubs.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>