Public forums for the discussion of ideas are flourishing everywhere, from festivals to pubs. But will the popularity of philosophy groups have any lasting impact?
Philosophy today has moved a long way from that stereotype of the lonely thinker. Its practice is becoming ever more communal. As well as attending discussion circles, salons, debating clubs, literary-philosophical societies and events from the likes of TED, 5×15, the School of Life and Intelligence Squared, people are gathering in philosophy clubs, Socrates cafés, Enlightenment cafés, even “death cafés” (for those who want to reflect together on mortality). Music festivals, too, such as Latitude and Bestival have their own “ideas tents” – yes, philosophy is one of the new rock ’n’ rolls. But how can the current wave of philosophical clubs ensure they are more than a fashionable trend?
The London Philosophy Club, of which I am an organiser, is the biggest in the UK. Our 2,000 members include bankers, lawyers, therapists, advertising people and a few academics looking for a more social form of philosophy. We hold free monthly meetings in pubs, cafés, galleries, parks and restaurants. Sometimes we try to match the topic to the venue: last week a group met to discuss Italian philosophy in a pizza restaurant by the River Thames.
Typically, a speaker is invited to give a 30-minute talk. Lord Maurice Glasman, Ed Miliband’s favourite philosopher, turned up at the Green Man pub in Euston, north London, two minutes before the start of a recent meeting, downed a double espresso and a Red Bull, then launched into a bewitching monologue on the search for the common good. We followed this with a question and answer session where Glasman’s thesis was politely assaulted, before breaking into smaller groups to discuss the main ideas. It’s surprising how quickly people share their beliefs with complete strangers.
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