Interview With A Philosopher
Associate editor of the UK's 'Philosophy Now' magazine Bryn Williams has been in this country on perhaps the first world tour of pub philosophy.
A sprightly, peroxide-blonde-haired Welshman, Williams is a regular at London pubs where he sparks philosophical discussions amongst locals propping up the bar.
But he’s not just a professional conversationalist, as he recently completed his PhD at King's College in both the philosophy of mind and ancient philosophy.
The visit to New Zealand, partly sponsored by a certain well-known liquid aid to pub chatter, took in an assortment of local watering holes, included spots in Thames and Rotorua.
Last Wednesday night saw more than 200 budding philosophers and the simply curious cram into the smokily dim confines of an Irish pub in Auckland’s Newmarket.
Bryn's manner marries cheeky stand-up comic and earnest academic tutor. He calls for discussion topics, and after fending off some drunken buffoon’s request for “wanking politicians”, settled on concepts of identity.
Over the next two hours or so, a mildly chaotic but sincere discussion evolves, with Williams focusing and clarifying his contributor's points in between an occasional pint and smoke. What kinds of things constitute one's identity? Does identity change? Can one have multiple authentic identities?
Amid the clatter I asked him about the pluses and pitfalls of non-academic philosophical discussion. In age where the commercialisation of tertiary education has resulted in much ‘freeze-dried, factory line academia’, what does community philosophy offer?
“It’s the ability to talk about things that are true for everybody, rather than just individual stories. We’re going to a place that is hopefully discussing the universal, but in ways that transcend the simply personal. And in a community sense the intention is to emphasise the commonalities of people, rather than their differences. When you force people into talking with strangers it’s that much harder for them develop a ‘them versus us’ mentality,” he says.
T.R. One of the things that's striking about this kind of philosophical discussion is that it’s not about solving the great philosophical problems, but rather that it’s a valuable process.
B.W. “Yes, that’s what I try and do. In part we’re trying to take people’s assumptions and perhaps clarify them more. A lot of philosophy is about making ideas and concepts and terms more precise. Though I think you can get to approximations of the truth in this kind of discussion, which is as much as any academic can hope for."
T.R. How does pub philosophy differ from academic philosophy in terms of its quality or its rigour?
B.W. “Well the rigour question comes up a lot. And I usually say I’m not here to be rigourous, I’m here to do philosophy. In fact it’s very much like a graduate seminar, or with the kinds of things that go on around conferences, and it’s something that is very valuable and interesting I think.”
T.R. Is there a specific area you find these pub philosophy discussions tend to turn to?
B.W. “Not really, but I think people are concerned with the old Socratic question of ‘the good life’ and questions of what it all means and of finding a purpose in things. But having said that many people are interested in notions of consciousness, which is my area of philosophy. And then there’s euthanasia and other ethical questions too, which are very common.”
T.R. It seems that the quieter people seem to value it a great deal, they really come out of their shells, and that it seems to be a very democratic way of conducting things.
B.W. “Certainly, and I’ve found with my work with children as well that definitely the girls, and often the quieter children are actually doing more talking than the perceived 'loudmouths'.”
T.R. Do you think those who get the most out of it are those who have been thinking most deeply?
B.W. “My experience has been exactly that, and it’s very warming to have people come up and thank me after the sessions, saying that they’ve been really examining their own thoughts.”
And with that, Bryn hops back onstage.
At the end of the evening the audience is enthusiastic in their response, but the most intriguing point comes from a visiting academic, with a clutch of undergrads in tow. He bemoans the affect semesterisation has had on more contemplative and fluid tertiary subjects such as philosophy, and applauds these kinds of community philosophy events. And does it matter if it is good philosophy I ask? "Well this is a unique evening," he says. "The people were enjoying it, and they were doing something they'd sadly never get a chance to do at varsity."
Is it rigourous? One of the academic's wide-eyed young friends pipes up: "All philosophy is good philosophy!"
"From the mouths of babes!" he says proudly.