I’m writing this from the Hay-On-Wye book festival, where the rain is coming down piteously, maintaining a steady rhumba on the roofs of the marquees. There are actually two festivals here – the main one, sponsored by the Telegraph, which is rather blue-rinse; and How The Light Gets In, which is a philosophy festival. The main event is huge – a whole mini-city of walkways and pavilions. HTLGI feels more like a village fete, with the speakers and audience all mixed in together.
HTLGI started five years ago, and has done well to establish itself and to get media attention. The Guardian had an editorial this week, suggesting that it showed a ‘new confidence and expansiveness’ in British philosophy, and indicating that philosophy and ethics still had one or two interesting things to say to science. Amen to that. I think the festival could have more audience participation, and younger speakers – the youngest I’ve seen so far is in their mid-40s. I don’t see how you’re really going to have new and edgy ideas from people in the last third of their careers, which is the stage where most thinkers simply churn out the same stuff for bigger advances.
I spoke at the main festival on Tuesday – it was the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to. I’m sure the majority had never heard of me and turned up on a whim (or because it was one of the few events not sold out in advance). Anyway, it went well, I think – the audience seemed warm and appreciative, except for one fellow who said he’d read the book and decided I was a charlatan! He obviously felt so strongly about this he was willing to come to Hay and sit through my talk just to tell me. The crowd booed him down, but personally I consider him a loyal reader.
The real discovery of the festival for me is Tobias Jones, a 40-something writer who was speaking here yesterday (that’s him on the right). I missed the talk but happened to pick up his book, Utopian Dreams, in the festival bookstore. It’s absolutely brilliant. He goes on a search, with his wife and child, for true alternative communities, and writes six chapters about his time in six religious communities – a Catholic village in Italy where there is no money; a Quaker retirement village, a New Age community in the Alps, and so on.
What makes the book so good is partly his intelligence and ability to weave together journalist accounts of his time in the communities with more philosophical reflection on what sustains and destroys communities. But above all it’s his voice, his sincerity. He’s really searching for community and for a good life, not just doing freaky tourism (which I think is an accusation that could be directed at Jon Ronson) or self-regarding self-parody (which could be directed at Geoff Dyer). Tobias Jones is genuinely searching, not just writing a book. It comes as no surprise to read on the internet that he’s since set up his own commune in the woods of Somerset, where people in crisis can go and stay for free. He finances it from his earnings writing murder-mysteries!
That impresses me – he actually sets up a community, rather than simply preaching community from the safety of the lecture-circuit (as do, say, Jonathan Haidt or Alain de Botton). There’s a giving up of ego there, a willingness to engage with the messy reality of human life.
If a writer puts so much effort into publicity, into marketing, into sales, then they’re probably seeking fame and status rather than real community (I write this to myself – as a person attracted to fame and status). But fame and status are the enemy of community – they turn you into an object to be applauded on the stage, a commodity, a reflection in a mirror, rather than helping you meet other humans and connect with them. De Botton said he wanted to set up the School of Life in the manner of Epicurus’ garden. But is he ever there? Does he make himself available to the people who come there looking for answers? Tobias Jones lives in the same house as the people who come looking for help – he actually pays for them to stay there. That’s making yourself available. That’s serving others.
Reading his book makes me feel a bit immature, to be honest, and makes me question my own values and goals, as a searcher for the good life. Are my own goals, in fact, very conventional and bourgeois: a job I enjoy and for which I get recognition and status, a happy family, a nice home? Should I be giving more of myself, as Jones does? Am I writing about the good life without really taking the risks to find it? But then, another part of me reads Jones’ account of the challenges of running a commune for the emotionally and spiritually broken, and thinks, God, that sounds hard.
Anyway, at the moment my plan is still to develop philosophy courses for the general public in the UK. Not very radical perhaps, but it’s a start. Hopefully I’ll be working with Tim LeBon, the cognitive therapist and philosophical counsellor, to develop a course that combines Positive Psychology with ethics and philosophy. Tim writes here on the need for this balance in this excellent piece.
Talking of Positive Psychology, here’s a piece from two American psychologists criticizing the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme (the resilience-training programme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology). The authors say that the programme evaluation failed to test if it had managed to reduce incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression – which surely was the whole point of it.
I also discussed the rise of Positive Psychology, and the danger of an over-instrumentalised and over-automated attitude to the Good Life, in this long essay in American magazine The New Inquiry.
This piece from the Journal of Mental Health, by two academics from the School of Sociology at University of Nottingham, criticises the happiness / mental health initiatives of Lord Richard Layard. The paper argues:
firstly, that Layard’s approach does little to tackle the structural inequalities within society, which are known to be prime indicators of mental ill health. The second critique is that Layard’s proposals form a misguided attempt to use therapy as a way of compensating for a breakdown in community. The third and related critique is that Layard’s proposals suggest a medicalization of social issues in ways that individualize social problems.
Fair enough. As Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan recently noted, the best predictor of depression is poverty. But are the authors saying that people with depression / anxiety / panic attacks need to wait for the complete overhaul of capitalist society before they can hope to stop having panic attacks? They are, it seems to me, making the inner / outer fallacy – either overcoming mental health problems is entirely an inner process (as perhaps CBT seems to suggest) or it’s entirely an external and social process (as the authors seem to suggest). Surely it’s both – you need to do inner work to strengthen yourself and make your self more autonomous and less prey to each compulsion or fixation, in order that you can engage effectively with society and change it. To challenge society, you need an anchored self. When I was emotionally disturbed, I was a passive victim, stuck in a job I hated, precisely because I couldn’t govern myself. Only when I learnt to govern myself more was I able to begin pushing against the conventions I was stuck in.
Nonetheless, the politics of well-being can certainly become too focused on inner work, ignoring social conditions – like housing for example. Happiness gurus often say ‘money doesn’t make you happy’. Perhaps not – but a nice home surely does? A garden does, doesn’t it? A beautiful view from your bedroom window does, doesn’t it? These are things that money buys. The link between housing and well-being needs to be much more researched, as this article argues – because I think it is, potentially, the really revolutionary part of the politics of well-being.
Ed Milliband has appointed Jon Cruddas MP as his head of policy. Cruddas (that’s him on the left) is a philosopher-MP, who’s very into Aristotle, Thomas Paine, and other thinkers, and who wants to revive a form of Leftist communitarianism. He spoke about the politics of the good life here, and apparently wrote Milliband’s recent speech about the need for a more English sense of national identity, as opposed to Blairite jet-set neo-liberal cosmopolitanism.
Here’s a decent piece in the NY Times’ excellent philosophy blog, on overcoming philosophy’s western bias. Talking of which – do any of you know anything about philosophy in Brazil? I am interested in finding out more, to write a piece on it. It seems to me a country where practical philosophy is really flourishing.
Here’s another piece I did this week, in Wired UK magazine, on why we need to stop automatically pathologising religious or revelatory experiences, and try to find a more pragmatic way of understanding them and helping people to integrate them and find meaning in them.
Finally, I’d like to hear more from you, to hear your stories of whether or how you’ve been helped by philosophy and / or psychotherapy. I’d like to write some of them up, so we can share ideas and strategies for leading good lives. Get in touch if you’d be willing to help with that- your stories can be anonymous or not, as you prefer.
See you next week,