On Tuesday night something a little weird and very special happened: about three hundred people turned up, at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, to hear a bunch of academics talk about philosophy.
The Forum for European Philosophy had asked me to host a night of stand-up philosophy featuring six academics. (full backstory here). But then a ridiculous number of people showed up.
Eventually, because there were just far too many people to fit in the 130-seater lecture theatre, it was suggested that we were either going to have to run a second show, or turn away at least a hundred people. So we found some space and ran a second show – simultaneously with the first – with me (Charlie) frantically running between the two rooms, welcoming acts on to the stages, charing mini-Q-and-A-sessions and generally trying to give the whole thing the impression of orderliness.
It was brilliant.
After about an hour and forty minutes, everyone was exhausted but both rooms had seen me (Charlie) introduce:
Gordon Finlayson speaking about whether we should fear death;
Simon Glendinning speaking about ‘the weirdness of our time’;
MM McCabe speaking about Jokes and Philosophy;
Laurence Goldstein speaking about Paradoxes;
Kristina Musholt speaking about Identity;
and Lea Ypi speaking about Marx.
There was even a podcast made of the show in the Wolfson Theatre. It’s at http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1939
I’m starting to get the impression that many, many people have been interested in philosophy in a much more serious way than most academic philosophers like to think; they just find academic philosophy pretentious and inaccessible.
Philosophy has been concerned for its own survival for a while; academic philosophers are terrified about department closures, and cuts in teaching budgets and research funding. But at the same time, we’ve been gradually making our discipline so completely opaque to outsiders, especially in the language we use, that what we do is often impossible for any normal person to get their head around.
Too many academic philosophers complain that Alain de Botton can sell a million books, while doing almost nothing to make their own arguments available or accessible to the public. Instead, they obsess about whether they can get an article published in tiny niche journals that only about two hundred people ever read. These philosophers are right, I think, to be worried for their survival. And if they don’t survive, who will miss them?
But I think philosophy which makes itself as accessible and unpretentious as possible is capable of thriving. A few academic philosophers are starting to get this: that the general public of non-philosophers contains a huge number of people who are intelligent, curious, and want to know about philosophy. They do want to know what philosophers are doing, and do philosophy themselves, and know how philosophy can be fun and useful and important to them, too.
They just need ways in.
I want Stand-up Philosophy to be a way in. And I am starting to think that I am not the only one.