A Pub Philosophy Manifesto

Not all problems in life are of the same kind. Physicists and engineers go to the maths department with problems and take away the solutions. Like a sausage factory, the maths department takes in problems and produces solutions, and it’s not usually important for an outsider to know how the sausage was made; indeed, as with sausages, it might be best not to.

Philosophical problems are a different kettle of fish. The philosophy department ends up with all of the intractable questions that people care about but don’t know how to approach. They concern a whole raft of unrelated issues — medical ethics, the foundations of mathematics, ontology, epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, political philosophy. There’s no reason why one discipline should deal with all of these, except that philosophy is the home for academic lost causes; the questions we don’t know how to ask in a way that might be answerable, rather than those we merely don’t know how to answer yet. There was an attempt by philosophy, about a hundred years ago, to define itself out of existence by claiming that such problems are actually meaningless; meaningless or not, the problems didn’t go away.

As a consequence, if a non-specialist is bothered by a philosophical problem — whether out of curiosity or, more likely, in connection with some practical matter — the philosophy department is only a certain amount of help. This is because, unlike maths departments, philosophy departments don’t produce answers or solutions but something called “philosophy”, most of which is done for an audience of fellow-philosophers. As a result, the ordinary person is poorly-served by relying entirely on the professionals.

Philosophy can’t be blamed for the fact that it doesn’t solve the problems it’s given. After all, the only reason it’s given them is that they can’t be solved. The way it deals with them is by philosophising about them. This is an active process without any specific end result, but it’s useful; it clarifies ideas, sharpens important distinctions, rules things in and out of the discussion and so on.

There’s no academic prerequisite for philosophising. Everybody who thinks about tricky questions does it quite naturally; after all, it’s the only approach that does any good at all when a problem is really intractable. The details of the process can vary widely between the seminar room and the boozer but its goals are more or less the same.

One reason for that variation is focus. Usually a philosophy seminar will deal with one specific subject, but in informal situations conversation tends to drift from topic to topic. Often the subject changes when something seems hard to understand or articulate — just at the moment, in other words, that it’s about to get interesting.

Another reason is available expertise. In an academic setting there’s typically at least one person who knows the subject at hand well. Again, often in pub discussions this isn’t true.

Institutional philosophy has weaknesses too, though. The participants tend to come from a narrow field; discussions of medical ethics rarely include doctors or other relevant “stakeholders”, and similar things could be said about virtually any philosophical topic. Not only is relevant non-philosophical knowledge or experience missing, so are seemingly irrelevant but illuminating perspectives.

There’s also a danger of getting bogged down in technical details, and ending up thinking about questions raised by philosophy itself, rather than trying to answer questions that anybody else might care about. This sort of thing is given short shrift in the pub.

Doing philosophy in the pub doesn’t mean doing simplified philosophy, or at least not in a bad sense. If I’m curious to know how my central heating system works, I don’t want an answer that involves the equations for heat conduction across a radiator; that’s not merely too much information, it’s simply not the kind of answer I’m looking for. Philosophising is similar; it has to be fit for purpose, and professional philosophising doesn’t meet every need.

The format we’re proposing is designed to provide just enough focus and expertise to enable us to do a slightly better job of philosophising in the pub. We don’t think there’s anything fundamentally; wrong with the kind of pub philosophy we already do. We want above all to preserve the things that are good about pub philosophising: the freewheeling discussion, the sense of humour and, of course, the beer.