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Pub Philosophy In London

By Chris Bloor, Director of Development of the Oxford Philosophy Trust, and founder of several pub philosophy groups in London. I can be reached at bloorcb@yahoo.com

 

What is pub philosophy?

 

Pub philosophy is an activity in which people meet in order to enjoy a few drinks and discuss a topic drawn from the discipline of philosophy. These include such subjects as the meaning of life, the foundation of morality, artificial intelligence, and animal rights. For the most part, the meetings are informal and do not require a great deal of knowledge of academic philosophy. The pub philosophy tradition has strong links with academic philosophy

Pub philosophy in London was inspired by the success of philosophical cafes in Paris in the mid-1990's, but has since developed its own character. In any given week there are between two and five events being held throughout London.

There is no typical event. Many are held in the evening, but some are held at lunchtime. Most meetings last between two and three hours. There are also all day events. Philosophical walks sponsored by the PFA (Philosophy For All - see below) meet at train stations for an organised walk with a stop at a pub en route.

 

Why is pub philosophy so popular?

 

There are a number of reasons for the popularity of pub philosophy, and it would be difficult single out any single cause. Overall, philosophy has become more popular in the past decade. The influence of books such as Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World and Alain de Bottain's The Consolations of Philosophy have played no small role in this popularity.

Many people choose to pursue their interest in the subject through evening classes, and a wide range of courses are available (see the publication Floodlight for these).

However, some find that these are too regimented and formal. Government funding imperatives have resulted in emphasis placed on student assessment and the gaining of qualifications.

Some find the informal atmosphere of pub philosophy more suitable to their interest in the subject. Others use pub philosophy to supplement their courses, or as a way into the subject.

Pub philosophy offers a forum for discussing ideas in the presence of other people. Many are attracted to this as an alternative to the growing influence of broadcast and internet information sources since these tend to restrict interaction and prohibit face-to-face communication.

 

How to find pub philosophy

 

There are many groups offering pub philosophy and related events in London. Philosophy For All (PFA) is the most extensively organised of these. The group hosts a range of activities, including pub meetings, courses, debates, philosophical walks, parties, and picnics.

A monthly pub meeting, Kant's Cave, is held on the first Wednesday of each month.

The PFA can be reached at

www.pfalondon.freeserve.co.uk

I host a monthly pub philosophy group, which is currently held at the Rose and Crown pub near Southwark underground station. Please send me an email and I will put you on the list regarding future events

Chris Bloor, bloorcb@yahoo.com

 

The Meaning of Life

 

This is an extended version of a handout which I circulated to those on my mailing list as background reading prior to a meeting of the Bloomsbury Set.

The meaning of life is a question which most people in the West associate with the activity of philosophy. In fact relatively few philosophers actually say much of relevance to the question of the meaning of life. Those who do often tend to ask a related question and answer that instead:

 

What does it mean to ask the question 'What is the meaning of life?' ?

 

Some philosophers argue that questions of the meaning of life differ from age to age. One version of the question can be put like this:

What's it all about? What is the purpose of all this? Does the universe have a purpose, and if so, how does my life fit into it?

For the Greeks, the Church thinkers, the Renaissance, the philosophers and scientists of the Age of Reason, the question of the nature of human life centred on this universal: what is Man? How does he relate to the universe? How does he fit in? This is an interesting question, of course, and there are any number of answers to it to be found in the works of philosophers of those periods.

The trouble is that we 21st century moderns find it difficult to accept views which incorporate a grand plan. The alchemists' central assertion 'As above, so below' cannot mean the same thing it did for our ancestors, eg that there is information embodied in all things, and perhaps that the universe itself is in some sense 'aware'.

 

After Descartes and Kant

 

This is all down to Rene Descartes' influence in the 17th century and after. Descartes described the universe as mechanism, as inanimate. The only order which can exist is that which we impose on the world, when we apply reason to the understanding of the matter at hand.

After Descartes (1596-1650) the cosmos no longer has a message for humanity. We live, as Max Weber (1864-1920) argued, in a world which has been disenchanted. We are alone, the only beings capable of asking or answering questions about meaning, the only beings for whom meaning is important.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that no authority, be it human or God, could remove the individual from the necessity of making a choice about their actions.

Following Kant, your own responses to the world matter in a way that they did not for earlier thinkers. This, following on from Descartes, introduced the issue of subjectivity into moral and philosophical debate. Individual choices, individual responses became the reference point for moral issues.

 

The individual response

 

The individual became the focus of our question of the meaning of life in the nineteenth century. It is here (primarily through the Romantic tradition) that the question begins to look more like the sort of thing we might mean when we ask questions of the meaning of life.

For we moderns the question of the meaning of life is different from those asked prior to the 17th century. We do not assume that there is a grand plan into which our lives can be fit, given the right instruction. For us, the question becomes:

 

What should I do with my life? Which path leads towards my own personal fulfilment? How do I find out the meaning of my own life, never mind the meaning of 'the life for man' or 'the meaning of existence'?.

 

Not surprisingly, various philosophers offer differing answers to these questions.

 

Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Nietzsche (1844-1900) argued that it is vital to reject all social constraints and to challenge the image of what it is to be human which your society asks you to obey.

Much of his work (Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra) is concerned with this struggle:

'Will a self' - Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum 'know thyself', but as if there hovered before them the commandment: will a self and thou shalt become a self. (Human, All Too Human).

Nietzsche urges the reader to treat life like an individual project, a work of art:

One thing is needed - 'To give style to one's character - a great and rare art! He exercises it who surveys all that his nature presents in strength and weakness and then moulds it to an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason, and even the weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large amount of second nature has been added, here a piece of original nature removed - in both instances with protracted practice and daily labour. Here that which is ugly but cannot be removed is concealed, there reinterpreted into the sublime... (The Gay Science).

 

Existentialism

 

Sartre and the existentialists offered a clear answer to the question of the meaning of life, although noting ironically that most people aren't going to like it much. The answer to this question is that there is no single, externally derived meaning for any individual person. The only meaning or purpose is the one we impose on life, the life we choose. For Sartre, we must choose in ignorance of the consequences and (this is the uncomfortable bit) in full knowledge that once chosen we can abandon the path at any time. We can choose an entirely different meaning to our lives at any time.

For Sartre (and Camus) human beings are always in danger of abandoning the meaning we choose for our lives. There is no one defining moment (as in the Christian sense of spiritual revelation) which defines the rest of our lives and acts as a lodestone, which gives our life meaning:

Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is. We can well understand why some people are horrified by our teaching. For many have but one resource to sustain them in their misery, and that is to think 'Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to have be something much better than I have been. I admit I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; if I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so... So there remains within me a wide range of abilities, inclinations, and potentialities, unused but perfectly viable, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions.'

But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love, no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies. Why should we attribute to Racine the capacity to write yet another tragedy when that is precisely what he did not write? In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. (From Existentialism and Humanism)

Questions for debate

Questions which might be discussed with reference to the above include the following:

If the question of the meaning of life changes from culture to culture, and philosophers differ in their answers, is it worth my time considering the question at all?

How do the choices I make about my life affect other people? Do I have a responsibility towards them?

Is it correct to say that 'we moderns' no longer believe in a grand plan for humanity? What about Christians?

If, as some scientists suggest, much of my behaviour is determined by my genetic makeup, what does it matter what choices I might make (or think I make) in my life?

How might I live differently if I were to follow Nietzsche's advice and 'live my life as a work of art'?

What does Sartre mean when he says that every choice made is revocable at any time?

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Updated: 19 May 2004
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