It’s New Year. Time for taking out gym membership, starting park runs or slipping on some Lycra and putting rubber to road. But what about joining a club that helps exercise the mind?
Every month a small group of citizen inquirers meets at the Philosopher's Hat, an initiative of Mayo-based community group Creative Together and run in conjunction with Tertulia bookshop in Westport.
Participants don’t need to have any background in philosophy to join. The only requirement – although it’s more a custom than a rule – is to wear a hat.
“It is sort of wordplay, between thinking cap and [Edward] de Bono’s thinking hats,” organiser Lukasz Krzywon explainers. “You should see some of the hats we had last year. Maybe it’s not Galway races yet, but we had some fancy hats.”
Sitting in on the final meeting of 2021, your intrepid reporter grabbed the nearest head-covering for a discussion on spirituality.
Krzywon, who is originally from Poland and living in the west of Ireland since 2004, kicked off with a reflection on his own “post-religious melancholy”. A micro survey was held on whether participants regarded themselves as religious, spiritual or neither. The congregation broke into smaller groups to come up with ideas for a seasonal tradition that didn’t involve God. And then it was back for a general discussion whether people can, in fact, invent their own traditions.
All in all, it was a very stimulating way to spend an hour.
Away from the meeting, Krzywon explains that running it on Zoom during the pandemic hasn’t changed the basic approach. On the plus side it has allowed people from other countries to join in.
“I think the sessions provided a haven for human connection and distraction, for at least a moment, from the uncertainty around us.”
Has he himself learned something from them? “I’ve learned that a lot of people need a space for a decent, stimulating conversation as an antidote to social media’s echo chambers and a general public division,” he replies.
“In the format that we’ve adopted, a community of enquiry, accommodates everyone. Some people come to get inspired or are just simply interested in the topic, some join us for the company, some are shyer, like to listen, some are more outspoken. We try to involve everyone in their capacity to participate.
“In general, I saw a tendency in our conversations to relate to our own lives, applying what we think to everyday situations. So in a way we walk the Socratic path of examining ideas to live a better life, a life worth living. That’s what I understand should be at the heart of public philosophy and I wish more academic philosophers would bend to it.”
The club has membership rates covering three tiers: Thinking cap, patron’s beret and good karma sombrero. Each event comes with a recommended reading, listening or watching list, and there are regular special guests, including authors and academics.
“I also believe for some of us, those conversations served an almost therapeutic-like function, being part of a community, hearing comforting words and ideas from other participants and broadening perspectives on life in general,” says Krzywon.
The club is not the only example of community-based philosophy in Ireland, albeit projects tend to depend on a handful of enthusiastic advocates.
Ian Cleary is one such soul, as the instigator of a children’s philosophy club for South Dublin County Council libraries. Every month he hosts a session for 10-12 year-olds in Ballyroan Library.
“The last one was on John Rawls,” he explains. “The kids are brilliant and they come out with things some undergrads maybe wouldn’t.”
Cleary has an MA in philosophy and an interest in animation. During the lockdown, he created a series of short videos graphically illustrating philosophical concepts. He created them for students, teachers and parents as a free resource to stimulate discussion, he says. He has also given some help to UCD School of Philosophy which, believe it or not, now runs a module for its students in "Animated Philosophy".
“It’s great to bring philosophy to a wider audience,” says Cleary who hopes to attract the interest of other librarians so the philosophy club can be expanded elsewhere.
Philosophy remains something of a “niche” activity in the education system, says Krzywon, although there are plenty of online materials available.
Why is it not becoming more mainstream in schools?
“For the same reason that philosophy is not mainstream generally. To give an example of public perception of philosophy, I recently asked TY students ‘Who are philosophers?’ The answers were: People who complicate things or people who try to find meaning in things that have no meaning. I’m sure it’s not something that those students came up with, but rather inherited,” says Krzywon.
“To my best knowledge, philosophy was not a big part of the curriculum of past generations, apart from those who might have been exposed to it at a third level. And maybe that also has something to do with it; it is seen as a rather elitist thing to do. And although Ireland had many prominent thinkers, looking at Irish history, academic philosophy wasn’t really the people’s thing, but rather the aristocracy’s fancy.
“This is of course only a generalisation, and it probably looked similar in other countries. But the philosophical ideas among people were sung by bards and poets more than teachers. It might have to do something with that legacy.
“Thankfully this is changing. Secondary schools have adopted philosophy as a short course in their curriculum, and what’s more exciting, in a form of an enquiry rather than lecture.”
He says the benefits for students are clear. “Thinking well is a skill that can be practised from a very young age. It’s the soft skills that philosophy provides, the skills that will be sought by future employers. Once learned they are permeating the mindset of a person for life. The hard skills are often easier to learn at any stage of life.”
Not all philosophy is instrumental, or directed to some practical purpose, however, and many a sage would say critical thinking is its own reward. What’s more, the Philosopher’s Hat Club goes to show that it can actually be fun.
Fancy a philosophical workout in 2022?
The Philosopher's Hat Club has annual membership rates starting at €30. www.creativetogether.ie
Trinity College Dublin is set to run another edition of its popular public lecture series (€100 for 11 mini-symposiums with staff), with a provisional start date of January 25th. Updated details to be posted at: www.tcd.ie/Philosophy/events
Dozens of "ready-to-go" lessons for teachers on philosophy can be found at www.philosophyshortcourse.com
The Irish Young Philosopher Awards are back with a special international category this year for projects on “Trust in Public Life”. Primary- and secondary-school students have until March 28th to submit their entries. youngphilosopherawards.ucd.ie/