stand-up philosophy: the academics’ edition

WOW.

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.

There were so many people that we had to run two shows simultaneously because there were just far two many people to fit in the 130-seater lecture theatre.

And I was the lucky, lucky fellow who got to compere it all.

—–

There is some backstory to this. Last autumn, I was talking to Dr. Gordon Finlayson of Sussex University about the idea of Stand-up Philosophy. We were discussing how it could work, who could do it, what its purpose would be, etc. Gordon suggested that since the emphasis would be on serious (but accessible) philosophy rather than comedy, it could be called ‘Philosophy Stand-up: No Joke.’

And then Gordon said that he thought it would be a good idea to talk about it to the rather prestigious and brilliant Forum for European Philosophy based at the LSE, which organises public philosophy events and of which he is part of their planning committee.

And then a few months later, as I was trying to organise my little experimental night in the Jeremy Bentham pub, Gordon said to me, ‘It’s happening. You should come to the next planning meeting of the Forum.’

Crikey, I thought. And then I went along.

The committee of the Forum for European Philosophy convene in a rather ornate meeting room, high up in the Old Academic Building of the LSE. The board is packed with various professors and senior lecturers and is chaired by the Forum’s director, Simon Glendinning. I hadn’t met Dr. Glendinning before, but I knew of him. He is something of a big deal authority on J.S. Mill. On that day he came in wearing a very smart suit with a waistcoat and tie, looking extremely distinguished and – for me – quite intimidating. And there I was – as a comedian – at a table with them all.

I was quite taken aback by how much they seemed to like the idea of Stand-up Philosophy; they had already scheduled an event, and Gordon seemed to have persuaded them to let me compere it.

Simon and the other philosophers were, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat hesitant about my suggestion that we invite some stand-up comedians to take part too. But that didn’t matter: the point was that they were interested in the idea.

Afterwards, I worried. Was anyone even going to come? The event had been booked at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, after exams had finished and outside of term time. It was booked for the Wolfson Theatre, a quite fancy new lecture theatre which seats 130 people and doesn’t allow people to take drinks in. There were no comedians on the bill, and most people outside of the very small world of academic philosophy wouldn’t have heard of any of the philosophers who had been invited to perform.

Surely we would be performing to about ten or fifteen sober postgrads in a room which was too humiliatingly large?

—–

Then, it seemed, philosophy made a comeback.

This summer, the ‘How The Light Gets In’ festival of philosophy and music at Hay-on-Wye seemed to really take off.

I started my night at the Jeremy Bentham pub, and the room has been consistently full (much fuller, in fact, than most comedy nights at this time of year).

A few weeks after that, an event called ‘My Night With Philosophers’ ran a night of public lectures at the Institut Francais; I went to see what was happening and there must have been close to a thousand people there.

And then we put on our event at the LSE on Tuesday.

I arrived at six in the evening, and there were already about ten people sitting in the Wolfson Theatre. That’s our ten, I thought. They’re keen.

Then more people came. And more. And more. They filled all the seats in the theatre by 6.20. And then they just kept coming.

Eventually, Gordon and Simon – who had both volunteered to perform – 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 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 all six philosophers speak, and they seemed very happy.

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 finally starting to think that I am not the only one.

Advertisements