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Want to Start a Philosophy Group? Here's How

Posted: 14/07/2012 00:00

I'm one of the organisers of the London Philosophy Club. We're one of hundreds of self-organised ideas and discussion groups that have mushroomed all over the world in the last 10 years. Today, you can find (deep breath) Socrates Cafes, Cafe Philosophiques, Literary-Philosophical Societies, book salons, atheist and humanist clubs, Sci-Bars, Skeptics in the Pub, Philosophy In the Pub, Psychology In the Pub, Art History In the Pub, even 'death cafes' for people who, well, want to talk about death.

There are also commercial organisers of ideas events, like the School of Life, the Idler Academy, 5X5, Life Clubs and Intelligence Squared. Then there are all those book festivals - over 300 of them in the UK now, including ones dedicated to philosophy, like How The Light Gets In. Even music festivals like Latitude have several ideas tents now (I'll be speaking at Latitude on Friday, in the 'faraway forest', which I think is basically the car park).

Why this sudden profusion of ideas clubs? I interviewed Melvyn Bragg, the cultural commentator, for a Financial Times piece on philosophy clubs last month, and he suggested the main driver was the huge expansion of higher education since the 1960s. Back then, only 5% of the population went to university. Now it's over 40%. That's created a large number of people with minds trained to tackle big ideas, who are hungry for mental stimulation.

In particular, the retired have led the way in using their leisure to stimulate their minds. It was they who drove the huge expansion of book festivals over the last decade, and other generations have followed their lead. They also helped expand the trend for self-run informal learning organisations like the University of the Third Age.

Another huge boost for the growth of such clubs is the internet, and the easy access to social network sites like meetup.com, Facebook and eventbrite, which let groups organise meetings and attract new members for a low cost. More philosophically, the think-tank ResPublica recently argued that people are attracted to clubs because of the decline of traditional forms of community like churches and working men's clubs. People want to belong, to foster community, and to learn. The Office of National Statistics recently found that people involved in adult learning are more satisfied with their lives than people who are not.

Since my FT article came out, I've received emails from people all over the world asking for advice on setting up clubs. There's still a lot of room for new clubs: according to meetup.com, there are 338 people in Edinburgh interested in joining a philosophy club, all waiting for someone to set one up. So how do you set up a philosophy club? Here's how:

1) Find a venue

Many pubs will let you use an upstairs or downstairs events room for free, as long as people buy drinks and don't plot the imminent violent destruction of the state (even then there are certain venues who will happily accommodate you). The capacity of such rooms is typically around 50, so for more than that, you will need to rent a room and charge your members. Careful though: you may find not everyone turns up and you are left footing the bill. You can also meet in restaurants, bars, parks, libraries, galleries, museums, even street corners (although you may be moved on by the police). If you're a small group of friends, you can take turns hosting the club at your homes, perhaps preparing an appropriately themed dinner (Tolstoy and borscht, Hegel and bagels etc ).

2) Find members

A club can start with just two people. One of the largest philosophy groups in London, Big Ideas, was started by two friends, Nathan and Rich, who met up in the pub to talk about ideas. They decided they wanted to bring in experts to teach them stuff, and they might as well invite other people too. They found an obliging pub, and grew over the last seven years until they now have over 200 members and have hosted some excellent speakers. Small can be beautiful: Philosophy In Pubs in Merseyside has 15 groups all over the area, typically attracting 5 to 10 people for an event. That enables everyone to get involved in the discussion, and to get to know their local neighbours. Big can also be beautiful: the London Philosophy Club has almost 2,000 members, which helps us attract world class speakers.

3) Pick a topic

There are, to my mind, three main ways to run a philosophy club, and you can do all three if you want. The first is for the group to pick a topic (it could be a question, a philosopher, a book), perhaps do some preparatory reading (perhaps not) and then use it as the 'stimulus' for a Socratic group inquiry. The advantage of this format is that it's very participatory. The disadvantage is people aren't necessarily learning anything. It can help if there is a moderator to steer the conversation, make sure it doesn't just go round in circles, and stop the extroverts from dominating. One group in London uses whiteboards to try and track the conversation and help it forward.

Secondly, one of your members can prepare a short talk on a topic, and then the group uses that as a springboard for collective inquiry. The advantage of that is that member will hopefully share the fruit of their research, and it's also a confidence-booster to have the experience of public speaking.

Finally, you can invite an academic, author, or some-such 'expert' to give a talk. That's what we often do at the London Philosophy Club, and we've had some really great speakers, like Roman Krznaric and Lord Maurice Glasman. It's also what Occupy London did - their Tent City University hosted such philosophical luminaries as Ted Honderich and Lord Robert Skidelsky. You'd be surprised how willing authors and academics are to give up an evening for free, particularly if they have a book out. It's best, though, to give them some sense of the size and expertise of the audience. Your local university philosophy department might also help - Sheffield's philosophy deparment, for example, encourages its undergraduates to run a 'philosophy in the city' project, and I'm hoping to start up something similar at Queen Mary, University of London, next term.

That's really all you need to start a philosophy group: a venue, some members, and a topic or speaker. After that, it's all about building community and strengthening your members' commitment and feeling of belonging. There are many simple ways to do that, from remembering people's names, to sharing organisational responsibilities, to sharing photos of past events, to organising field trips or volunteer work. Philosophy groups can learn a lot from churches in this respect - and can also link up with local churches to use their venues and community links.

It can be tiring, it can take a bit of time and money, but it's also hugely rewarding. I do it for selfish reasons, because I make a living from philosophy and because I like hearing great minds thinking out loud. But all of our members get a real kick, I think, from co-creating a worthwhile community.

I'm also researching such communities for an academic research project at Queen Mary, University of London. So if you run a philosophy group, anywhere in the world, do please get in touch via my website, www.philosophyforlife.org, and tell me about your group. You can also find out more about philosophical communities around the world in my book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. And please share your own ideas and experience in the comments.

 

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