Rick Lewis on the rise of grassroots philosophy

Rick Lewis was working in the laboratory of British Telecom when he decided, just over 20 years ago, to launch a philosophy magazine for non-academics, called Philosophy Now. He tells me about the early days, how grassroots philosophy has grown, how he met his wife Anja Steinbauer, who runs Philosophy For All, and where he sees the ‘movement’ going.

Rick, tell me about the founding of Philosophy Now.

I studied physics with philosophy of science at university, then worked as a physicist at British Telecom Research Laboratories. I became very interested in ethics, in the meaning of life. Not having a religious faith, I was aware that ethics needed an underpinning. Also, when I was new at BTRL, a guy at the office invited me to a friend’s retirement party. His friend been at the company a while. We got talking and he opened up, and said, ‘I think I’ve wasted my life. I’ve worked here 35 years, and I should have done something else.’ I was 23, and I thought ‘how awful!’ So at 26, I did a Masters in philosophy at the University of York. Then I went back to BT to work on underwater optical cables again.

There were lots of very interesting people in the laboratory, without a background in philosophy, but who were interested in different philosophical questions. This made me think there should be a philosophy magazine for laypeople. So I printed 2,000 copies of the first issue of Philosophy Now, in 1991. I didn’t know anything about magazine publishing. I distributed it by phoning around newsagents and bookstores mainly in Cambridge and its environs. Then Libby Purves wrote about it in the Times, and it took off from there.

Why did it take off?

I think it was an idea whose time has come. There have been lots of times where I thought I don’t really know how to do this but it’s working anyway. If it was a different time, I probably wouldn’t have had that luck. Why did it work in this period or era? Because there are lots of people looking for an ethical foundation. Because of the growth in higher education in general. Because people have more spare time to think about things.

Was it time-consuming, putting the magazine together?

Very. I realized by Issue 3 that I couldn’t do it and hold down a full-time job. So I took voluntary redundancy in 1992. I wasn’t sure it would work. But I’m very stubborn, and didn’t want to give up. So I worked part-time in a factory, then worked in the Kings College London philosophy department. By 1999, I was able to go full-time again on the magazine.

So when you started the magazine in 1991, were there many philosophy clubs?

There were some, but fewer, and they were smaller in scale. Then, in November 1997, Gale Prawda held the first Cafe Philos at the Institut Francais in London. She’d met Marc Suatet in Paris, attended his Cafe Philos, and brought the idea back to London. I went along with our book reviewer, Bryn Williams, who was doing a PhD in philosophy at KCL. We both through that, culturally, this would work better in the pub. We both liked pubs, and Bryn had once worked in one, he thought people already talk about ideas in the pub, why not run a philosophy group there. But we were very influenced by Cafe Philos, so we thought ‘let’s pick a theme, and have a discussion’.

Bryn really got into it – he set up another philosophy cafe in Costa Cafe in Soho. He enjoyed the whole process of discussion and was genuinely interested in people’s ideas. He got to the point where he thought popularising philosophy was more important than his PhD! However, eventually he got engaged and dropped out of the scene.

The flyer for Philosophy Now's 20th anniversary festival in 20111

How did you hear about Philosophy For All?

In 1998 another bloke at KCL asked if I’d heard about a new organisation called Philosophy For All, which was just about to launch. So in May 1998 I went along to their first meeting, which they called Kant’s Cave, and which was held in a room above a pub. That’s how I met Anja Steinbauer, who set up Philosophy For All – we got engaged in August 1998 and have been married ever since. Philosophy For All is a very different approach to Cafe Philos. You have a talk by an academic, followed by Q&A, followed by general discussion. It’s more about connecting academics to the community. They have quite a few people at their events – 80-100. If it’s a general open discussion like Philosophy Now Pub Philosophy was, it works pretty well for 20 people or so, but is trickier with larger numbers.

Philosophy For All got bigger and bigger, so we thought we’d close our Pub Philosophy events and support Philosophy For All’s meetings instead. It holds meetings every week, including philosophy film nights, a feminism forum, philosophy walks, philosophy debates. It absorbed a lot of people who might have started their own group. But there were still various groups working on the periphery, some of which are still going, like the Kingston group and the Pinner group.

How did all these Philosophy Now Meetup groups start around the world?

Well, the magazine is distributed in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. In 2004, a local discussion group in Orange County, California got in touch, they wanted to base their meetings on articles in Philosophy Now, and they also wanted to organise their group through Meetup.com. When they did that, through a quirk of the Meetup.com website it created the opportunity for people in other cities to create Philosophy Now groups as well, and these groups started appearing around the world – eventually including the Philosophy Now New York dinner meetup, run by Massimo Pigliucci.

And you’ve started running events too?

Yes, we held a 20th anniversary Philosophy Festival at Conway Hall last year, with the participation of many London-based philosophy organisations, including Philosophy For All and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. We had 1500 people attend over the course of a day. We also put on a debate at the How The Light Gets In festival in Hay on Wye this year.

Here’s a video of Rick talking at a recent seminar on community philosophy:

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