Grassroots philosophy

Jules Evans, co-organiser of the London philosophy club, charts the amazing rise of philosophy groups. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

I first became involved with philosophy groups through my interest in Stoicism, as unlikely as that sounds. Stoic philosophy helped me through an emotional crisis in my early twenties, and I then looked around for other people who had been helped by ancient Greek philosophy. That led me to an online community of Stoics, called NewStoa.com. I helped organise a “gathering of the Stoics” on Marcus Aurelius’ birthday (April 26) in San Diego in 2010. The gathering brought together ordinary people interested in Stoicism from all over the world. However, it turned out that modern Stoics were often quite libertarian and prickly people, and building a “Stoic community” proved difficult. I decided that if philosophy was going to appeal to a broader segment of the population and become a genuine community, it would itself need to be broader and more pluralistic.

In late 2010, I heard about the London Philosophy Club, a group of people who met up to discuss philosophy once a month. I gave a talk at the club in November 2010, and became a co-organiser shortly afterwards. In the last two years, I’ve watched in wonder as our membership broke through the 1,000 mark, then the 2,000 mark – it’s now at 2,400, making us the second-biggest philosophy club in the world (the biggest is in New York, but they mainly organise cocktail nights. We’re not in any way competitive. Honestly.) We’ve hosted speakers including Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Ree and Robert Skidelsky – our Christmas speaker was Angie Hobbs. We also have a popular reading group, philosophy meals and drinks, and group discussions across London, including an idyllic picnic-debate in Hyde Park last spring on the ethics of torture.

Over the last two years, I’ve researched other grassroots philosophy groups for a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, called “Philosophical Communities”. The picture I’ve built up is surprising, even for people within the scene. There are 850 groups on meetup.com that describe themselves as “philosophy groups”, in 384 cities and 25 countries, with a combined membership of 125,000. Some of those might stretch your definition of “philosophy”, but it’s still a striking amount. There are 229 ethics meetups, 528 Skeptic meetups, 126 feminist meetups, 60 Socrates Cafes, and 660 meetups dedicated to “intellectual discussion”. And, as I’ve discovered, there are many philosophy groups off the meetup map. There are around 200 Skeptic, atheist and Humanist groups around the United States. There are Cafe Philosophiques across France and Holland. There is the Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs) network, which has 15 groups around Merseyside and a total of 30 around the United Kingdom. There is Philosophy For All, set up by Anja Steinbauer, which has been organising philosophy talks, debates and walks in London since 1998. There are philosophy groups for retired people, run through the University of the Third Age or independently, like the venerable Pinner Philosophy Group in Harrow. There are philosophy cafes and societies on many student campuses. And there are radical ideas groups like Occupy London, who as I speak are recreating the Putney Debates.

And then there are the commercial organisers of ideas events. TED is now almost twenty years old and Intelligence Squared is ten years old, but in the last few years the “ideas event”market has become more crowded. In 2008, Alain de Botton and friends launched the School of Life in London, in imitation of Epicurus’ Garden. It’s since welcomed 50,000 people through its doors, and is launching branches in Australia, Holland, Brazil and beyond. In 2010, Tom Hodgkinson opened the Idler Academy in west London. Both the School of Life and the Idler organise philosophy workshops at festivals like Wilderness and Port Eliot. There are also festivals dedicated to ideas and philosophy, like the Battle of Ideas (launched in 2005), HowTheLightGetsIn (launched in 2008), the Month of Philosophy in Amsterdam, the Modena philosophy festival in Italy, and Recontres de Sophie in France.

Evidently, philosophy is flourishing beyond the walls of academia. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, philosophy has often flourished through informal groups of friends. As the sociologist Randall Collins wrote, “the history of philosophy is, to a considerable extent, the history of groups”. No sooner was philosophy born than it challenged traditional forms of community and gave rise to new forms, like the symposium of Socrates, the Garden of Epicurus or the cult of Pythagoras. When philosophy broke free of the Church in the fourteenth century, it spread through informal networks of friends, like the humanist circles of Erasmus or Salutati or the Platonic Academy of Ficino. The Enlightenment spread through the salons of Madame Necker and Madame Geoffrin, the Junto of Benjamin Franklin and the Select Society of Smith and Hume. And socialism likewise spread, through the Doctor’s Club of the Young Hegelians, the Tchaikovsky circle of the Russian intelligentsia, or the Sunday booze-ups at Engels’ house in Primrose Hill.

The question of who was welcome in these networks was always contentious. In the Enlightenment, middle-class thinkers like Voltaire pushed their way into the circle through the sheer brilliance of their intellect, but there was always the risk they would be snubbed or even flogged by an elitist aristocrat. Women were typically excluded from the London debating clubs of the 18th century, so they set up their own clubs, like the Female Congress and Carlisle House Debates for Ladies Only. Working-class men and women weren’t welcome in Enlightenment coffeehouses, so they also set up their own groups in the pub, like the London Corresponding Society, while middle-class philanthropists set up clubs for them like the London Mechanics Institute or, in the US, the Lyceum and Chautauqua networks.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, however, philosophy became more formal and professionalised. Self-run working class mutual improvement clubs evolved into the Worker’s Education Association, which provided courses at Oxford University’s Ruskin College. Mechanics Institutes and extension colleges turned into universities (Birkbeck College grew out of the London Mechanics Institute). Academic philosophy became more specialised, and impenetrable for amateurs. Yet some clusters of non-academic philosophy stubbornly survived, like Asterix’ indomitable village resisting the Roman Empire. There were still, in the 1890s, figures like Tommy Davidson, the exuberant and stubbornly unacademic Scots-American thinker, who travelled across the US and Europe, joining and inspiring philosophy clubs wherever he went, including the Radical Club of Bronson Alcott, the Metaphysical Club of William James, the Aristotelian Society, and his own Fellowship of New Life.

It’s only in the last few years that philosophy groups have become a mass phenomenon. The reasons for their rise are complex. Melvyn Bragg, who I interviewed for my research project, suggests they are a consequence of the rise of the “mass intelligentsia”. Bragg points to the huge expansion of higher education since the 1960s, which he suggests has created a large minority with the capacity and desire to discuss ideas that were once the province of a small intellectual elite. As The Economist’s John Parker pointed out in a great 2008 article called “The age of mass intelligence”, the mass intelligentsia are defined by their willingness to spend their leisure consuming or discussing culture – hence the popularity of book clubs (a survey by Jenny Hartley estimated their membership at 50,000 in the UK in 2001), literary festivals (there are now roughly 300 literary festivals in the UK every year), museums and galleries (attendance rose by 100% from 2000 to 2010, according to the UK Statistics Agency), classical music (Classic FM is now the most popular commercial station in the UK), intelligent mass TV (particularly HBO), intelligent mass cinema (David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufmann) and intelligent mass media, particularly online ideas podcasts and talks like TED, Philosophy Bites, This American Life and In Our Times.

The concept of the mass intelligentsia was, in fact, first put forward by Richard Flacks, a sociologist and member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to explain the mass campus uprisings that took place in universities in the 1960s. The concept was also used by the sociologist Daniel Bell, who suggested that the rise of the knowledge economy necessitated the expansion of universities and the creation of a “new intellectual class”, to work in the sciences, media and professions in the new knowledge economy. This new class, the mass intelligentsia, acquired on a mass scale many of the attributes of the former elite intelligentsia – a desire for authenticity, self-expression, sexual freedom and spiritual choice.

The rise of the mass intelligentsia has been a cause of deep concern for communitarians like Charles Taylor, who blames them for undermining traditional community values (particularly traditional religion). And yet the mass intelligentsia is not, as a class, quite as individualistic or selfish as Taylor supposes. They showed a desire, very early on, not just to destroy old forms of community, but also to create new forms, new experiments in living together, such as the commune, the happening, or the consciousness-raising circle. Sixties student radicals would sit around for hours, sometimes for days, in earnest ethical discussion about how to live well together. And they tried to extend the ethical conversation into society, through the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement. Tom Hayden, the philosophy graduate and principal author of the SDS’ Port Huron Statement, called for a new “participatory democracy”, in which the public were informed, engaged, and talking to each other. It was a vision close to John Dewey’s dream of a Great Society, where “neighbours on the street corner” could “converse freely with one another”.

If the mass intelligentsia is the demographic driver behind the contemporary emergence of philosophy groups, then the internet is the main technological driver. In the late 1990s, philosophy groups had to post notices on library boards and cafe windows to attract members. Now the London Philosophy Club posts its meetings on meetup, and within a day 100 people have signed up (not that they all necessarily turn up, but that’s another story). Sites like meetup.com and Facebook allow people interested in ideas (still a minority, alas) to find each other, get together, and form groups. The loneliness of the intellectual can be overcome, outside of academia.

The internet has made philosophy far more social and interactive. It has bridged the divide between the intellectual and the masses. In the 1940s, intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin or A J Ayer opined on the Third Programme, and the masses simply listened, their mouths agape. Now, through the internet, they can share, comment and create their own ideas, and host speakers at their own local clubs. Intellectual life has become ruddily democratic and boisterous. As David Brooks wrote: “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

The Skeptic movement is a good example of the anarchism of grassroots philosophy. Modern Skepticism was launched in the late 1970s by Paul Kurtz, an academic philosopher and Humanist inspired by John Dewey’s vision of public philosophy. Kurtz feared America was sinking beneath a flood of irrational New Age beliefs, and wanted to promote critical thinking in mass society. In 1976, he founded an organisation of fellow Skeptics, called the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The members were mainly white, male academics, along with the occasional magician. In the 1980s, CSICOP started to establish some grassroots organisations around the US and other countries. The grassroots Skeptic movement slowly grew, and then exploded in the last few years, thanks to podcasts, blogs and social networking sites. There are now 41 Skeptics in the Pubs groups in the UK – the newest, in Soho, just opened yesterday. As Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, told me: “Skepticism is now a grassroots movement. No one is in control.” Not even Paul Kurtz, who by the end of his life was perplexed by the aggressively atheist direction the Skeptic movement had gone.

The grassroots philosophy movement has sometimes locked horns with academic philosophy. Alain de Botton, who has done a lot to promote the idea of philosophy beyond academia, often criticises academic philosophy for ignoring practical questions of how to live well. Many academics, by contrast, simply have no idea of the grassroots movement, or if they do, they may consider it unserious and amateur. Yet the mutual animosity is gradually dissipating, as both sides recognise they need each other: academic philosophy without street philosophy risks becoming irrelevant, while street philosophy without academic philosophy risks becoming incoherent. Supporting grassroots philosophy groups can be a way for universities to revive their traditions of extension and liberal adult education, and to reaffirm their identity as places where life’s big questions are discussed.

Secondly, grassroots philosophy could be better supported with digital resources. Meetup.com, Facebook and Twitter are incredibly useful, but there’s a surprising lack of material on the internet about grassroots philosophy, such as videos or podcasts. As part of my project, I’ve launched a website called The Philosophy Hub, which will have a global map for people to find or register their local philosophy group, as well as other free resources for groups to use. Universities could also be encouraged to put more of their talks and seminars online, where groups can access them. Grassroots philosophy has already got onto the radio (through Radio 4‘s The Philosophers Arms) but it would be great to see it on TV too.

Thirdly, we could develop better philosophy events. We’ve come a long way, with the launch of philosophy festivals like HowTheLightGetsIn. But we could develop the “live philosophy” format further: events could be more entertaining, taking a leaf from Skeptic events like The Night of 400 Billion Stars, which combines science, music and comedy. They could be more multi-media and immersive. And they could certainly be more interactive and participatory. It would be great to have a national event that brought philosophy groups together, and then to expand that into an international event.

Finally, I would suggest that the mass intelligentsia – and philosophy groups in particular – could re-find the sense of social purpose that they had in the 1960s, and that earlier incarnations of the intelligentsia possessed. Roman Krznaric, one of the founding faculty members of the School of Life, says: “The main task of philosophy clubs is to turn into collective movements of social change, which are capable of tackling the great problems of our age. If we just obsesses about our own lifestyles, I don’t think we’ll get very far.” Philosophy clubs are wonderful places to meet up and talk, but can they also be vehicles for social action? I hope so.

Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations and the founder of www.thephilosophyhub.com. He blogs at www.philosophyforlife.org.

  1. Grassroots philosophy | Talking Philosophy - pingback on April 10, 2013 at 9:59 am
  2. My taking Coursera’s Modern & Postmodern course, which has a strong focus on philosophy, has got me into philosophy. Reckon MOOC’s will continue to drive grassroots interest. FYI, saw John Gray at the London Philosophy Cafe last night. My first such session. Thought it was great.

  3. Links for Upbuilding | Re(-)petitions - pingback on April 18, 2013 at 3:37 am

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