PoW newsletter: philosophy festivals, army psy-ops, and other curious phenomena

The Roman philosopher Epictetus declared we should “enjoy the great festival of life”, and that’s exactly the direction philosophy is moving these days: back to its roots in outdoor events, street performance, multi-media mash-ups and, yes, festivals.

The best known philosophy festival in the UK is How The Light Gets In, run by the Institute of Art and Ideas at the Hay Festival in the UK in late May, but How The Light Gets In runs other events, including one at the Roundhouse in Camden next month, which will mix Mary Warnock with rock music and stand up comedy. HTLGI co-hosts events with the School of Life, another pioneer in mixing philosophy with performance and music. The School has run events at the Port Eliot festival in September, and at the Latitude festival in July. Then there’s the Modena Philosophy Festival in Italy; the Philosophy in the City festival in Liverpool in October; the Bristol Festival of Ideas, which runs throughout the year; the Battle of Ideas in October; the public talks throughout the year at the RSA and Intelligence Squared; the Thomas Hobbes festival at Malmesbury, which recently declared itself a ‘Philosophy Town‘; and my favourite of the bunch, the David Hume festival at Chirnside village in April, which includes an event at the local pub where you can buy a pint of the new beer, ‘Enlightenment’. Who said Britain was an anti-intellectual society?

So where is philosophy going next? Well, it’s increasingly moving into theatre – Nigel Warburton of Philosophy Bites put on a show at the Oxford Playhouse this month, and there’s also a theatre company, Living Philosophy, that enacts 18th century Enlightenment texts. Philosophy is also becoming increasingly animated – think of the excellent RSAnimate videos, or of graphic books like Logicomix, Couch Fiction, or the Philosophy for Beginners comics.

And perhaps the movement towards ‘philosophy-as-event’ will begin to create tailor-made philosophy holidays. Some holiday companies already do ‘culture tours‘ of the Mediterranean and beyond, where the meaning-hungry are taken round ruins in the company of an impecunious academic; the Philosophy Shop runs weekend courses on the Good Life in the Cotswolds, the School of Life recently signed a partnership with Morgans Hotel Group; and Alain De Botton also launched a series of designer homes you can rent for the weekend. I’m going to launch Stoic-Cynic weekends – for £250 a night, you can wear rags and sleep in a designer barrel.

One of the big psychology stories this week is Rolling Stone‘s revelation that the US Army has been deploying its ‘psy-ops’ unit on its own people, demanding that they use all their Jedi mind powers on visiting dignitaries to try and get them to support the Afghan war. It doesn’t actually say what the ‘psy-ops’ involve, I suspect because it sounds much more sinister and nefarious if you leave it to the imagination, when in fact, ‘psy-ops’ is probably just the latest fancy new word for the 2,000-year-old art of rhetoric. You want to learn Psy-Ops? Read some Cicero.

Another debate in the psychology media this week is over ‘mind wandering’. Is it good for us, or bad for us, or good for us sometimes and bad for us at others? Psychology can’t seem to make up its mind. Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, brought out a study at the end of last year which suggested that day-dreaming is bad for our happiness. But now a new study, highlighted by Jonah Lehrer in the WSJ , discovers that people in college with ADHD are more successful than those with better powers of attention. My own two-pence-worth? Good to have both capacities – the ability to open your mind up to all kinds of stimuli, and also the ability to narrow your mind into a laser-like focus when you’re turning all that raw data into art.

The Royal Society’s excellent series on the policy implications of new research in neuroscience continued with a brief report on the implications for education. It highlighted the growing body of research supporting the efficacy of cognitive training in improving young people’s working memory and capacities for self-control and self-regulation. The best new research on emotional self-regulation explicitly draws on Stoic philosophy, by the way. The ancients have a lot to teach us on education and training. Plus they wrote well.

A big week for the ‘well-being agenda’. Here in the UK, the Office of National Statistics announced which questions it would use to assess the nation’s subjective well-being. The news led to a lot of media coverage – my favourite was the blog by BBC Home Affairs editor Mark Easton, a long-time supporter of well-being measurements, who noted the strong negative correlation between well-being and commuting. One reason that ‘work-from-home Fridays’ is a good idea that a lot of corporations are introducing.

And the well-being agenda is spreading beyond the West. The think-tank China Dialogue has devoted this week to studying the state of happiness in China, noting that the Chinese government recently declared the province of Guangdong ‘Happy Guandong’. Perhaps we could twin it with Chirnside. The well-being movement is also taking root, very slowly, in Russia where the government named its $32 billion sovereign wealth fund the ‘fund for national well-being’. And the OECD is doing a lot to drive it forward in other parts of the world, including co-organizing a conference on the topic in Mexico City in May.

Well, it’s Friday, Spring is in the air – to start you up for the weekend, here is a spotify playlist I have put together, called ‘Push here for subjective well-being‘. Enjoy.

Jules

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