Rob Lewis and Paul Doran
Rob Lewis (left) and Paul Doran (right). Images by Rob Lewis and Paul Doran.
Rob Lewis and Paul Doran are the founders of Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs), a Liverpool-based grassroots community organisation promoting and practising community philosophy in the UK and worldwide.
During the pandemic, I spoke to Rob and Paul to learn about how PIPs started, its efforts to democratise philosophy, and the impact of technology on opportunities to philosophise with others.
Ciaran: Hi guys, so could you tell me a bit about how Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs) started out?
Paul: So, I was running an introduction to philosophy course in adult education at a local school and Rob came into the class. I'd have been about 50 then and Rob, 30. It was at the end of the course, we were just having a celebration in the local social club when Rob asked me, "Well, why don't we do this in the pub?" Which might have seemed strange to some but didn't strike me that way at all. I think his reason was to get philosophy out to more people; an introduction to it anyway. We only had about eight people in the class at the time, but it still ran. Today you would need ten or twelve people before a course is viable, so you can see how it is increasingly difficult to run these important further education courses today.
Five years before that I was working on building sites and in factories. So, I went to university relatively late in life. It's something that I felt I needed to do. There was a couple of things that struck me when I came out of university. One was how useful philosophy is, how good it is at helping us understand ourselves and the world. The other was how inaccessible it was to working-class people, to my culture. So, when Rob said “why don’t you do it in the pub” it just made complete sense. Me and Rob have never actually spoken about this: going back to when it started 22 years ago, to think about how we met, and what lives we had. Ordinary, working-class lives; typical state-provided education, etc. So, we were aware of the problems there.
Rob: I think I'd kind of been playing about with the idea very loosely, there was nothing solid at the start. In the background, I was just starting to engage with philosophy of education material, essentially. I was getting the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain journal, starting to read people like Ivan Illich, and Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner who wrote Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I was also just exploring on the internet, largely, for community-based philosophy groups, just to get a feel for how they did it and what that was about.
I came across the philosophy cafes or salons in France, in Paris, and I thought it seemed like it was in the ballpark of where we were thinking. Then by chance I came across SAPERE who we're advocating philosophical inquiry using a kind of Socratic method of questioning and dialogue, and that seemed to connect quite well; it seemed like there was some potential in that. In a way, Paul, myself and a friend of ours called Mike, we were sort of doing this informally, you know. We'd get together, we'd have some food and drinks, and various subjects would come up, and we'd be very rigorous and testing of the ideas we'd be putting forward.
So eventually Paul, Mike and I got together, and I was suggesting we use some of the ideas from SAPERE. I went on to one of their conferences, just to get a better feel, did some workshops and then did a level one course with them. Then we started advertising with local media, and a local pub that we thought would be favourable towards what we were hoping to do, and good enough they were. When Paul and I first spoke [about doing PIPs] it was just around Christmas time of that year, and by the time we got everything in place, it was the October of the following year. Initially it was just called ‘Philosophy Club’ or ‘Philosophy Group’ or something. I think we had about six people.
We were very anxious when we first started because there's this idea that you've got to really be in the know about all there is to know about philosophy in order to put these types of events on. But we started to settle and realise, actually, what we're doing is trying to guide and coach people through a philosophical dialogue and we can do that by understanding a few things: what makes dialogue work? What makes philosophy work? What is it that philosophers do? We don't necessarily need to know everything about philosophy. What we do need some good and clear ideas about is how philosophers function, how they think, the kind of approaches they take in order to progress ideas towards the best possible understandings we can put together. So, once we settled with that our meetings became more comfortable, and we grew from there.
Paul: That's about right, yeah. I'm just trying to figure where we went then, once we developed a sort of vision of what we wanted, whether we knew it at the time. I know when we look back now, I think the vision that I had was that if we would develop these groups all over, that they would be in pubs just as a normal thing, like a darts team. Bit of a crazy idea but that was within me. I thought, under the radar as it were, working-class people could get to understand the world they live in, how it works, how they work, and have this philosophical understanding, a way of thinking philosophically. It didn't turn out that way exactly, but it is that way in a small way. There's groups developing even now, you know, there's one in Luton, and there's a couple of new ones coming off here in Merseyside, which is great. But the Covid has knocked it in the head a bit.
Rob: We were both very enthusiastic for it to grow. I can remember our first meeting, we were putting out leaflets and information on almost every empty table in the pub, thinking people are gonna come flooding in, we're gonna have a full pub, how are we gonna get round and facilitate all these different tables? And then about four people turn up! And it's like, this is the reality. But the hope was - and the energy we both had was very positive regardless - this could make a difference, this could change society, change the way the media report, change the way parents even engage with their children, all of that. We saw it as having enormous potential to improve society and relationships. I think we just thought, well, we've got to start this process at some point, that's not all going to happen straight away. Unless we start the process and give this a go, it's just never going to happen, is it?
Paul: I would say I was keen on getting more groups going, whereas Rob was more keen on what we were doing in the groups, and it's still the same now.
Ciaran: It sounds like a good pairing though!
Paul: Where the two overlap is in the idea of a self-sustaining community of inquiry, which was what we were doing right at the beginning. It's a difficult thing to do. The reason being is that in the open public arena, where we were working - not in institutions, sometimes in semi-institutions, but mainly in the open public arena - you have to create a group yourself that aren't there already. I've done it in prisons and institutions like that, where there's a ready-made audience there; it's there and then it's gone though, of course, as you're not there all the time. With creating a group [in PIPs] it was a social unit, and it stayed there and people were doing it themselves and that's still the case now. The social nature of it keeps it together, and it carries on whether anyone's there or not. All our role now is to make sure they’re philosophising, that they're doing that, you know.
Rob: There's no end date, in a way. You know how some projects will say, "Okay, we'll do this for 12 weeks in such a place", and then they finish and encourage you to carry on, but there's no real involvement after that. Typically, they just fizzle out. With us, it's always been the case that there's no end date in mind. It's never even spoken about it's just really meant to have a kind of energy of its own that keeps it moving on. By and large, that's very much the case. Paul and I can't get round to all the groups all over the country, so they have to look after themselves and keep themselves going. All we try to do mainly is support them as best we can.
Paul: And you recognise that self-motivation in them. Ben in Oxford, Billy in Hull: they're full of really interesting people involved in it, you know, who are keen on philosophy.
Ciaran: For the groups that keep going and are more autonomous from you now, what is it do you think about them that makes them reach that point? Is it just a case of being lucky, of getting the right person who's keeps it going? Or is it that everyone there is like that? What makes one of them special, do you think?
Paul: I think you need an individual who keeps it going; that's not the only thing but that seems to be a necessary part of it. Still, it's not really about any individual. One of our groups developed a bit of a 'top table' thing going on, about 10 years ago, so me and Rob went down there to talk to them about it.
A PIPs group at Keith's Wine Bar, Liverpool. Image by Paul Doran.
Rob: When we first set the groups up, nearly all the groups have had Paul or myself - and plenty of times both of us - there in the initial weeks when it's first finding its feet. So, we've often helped to bed it down and give some clear guidance about the kind of principles that we're looking to operate with and encouraging that during the sessions we hold in those early stages. Then we start to encourage people to have a go at bringing a stimulus in and choosing what kind of topics they might want to cover in the future. So, gradually the group gets ownership of itself. You may get one or two personalities that are into it and happy to organise and look after the group, but you often get a core of members, three or four, who will happily support it; turn up regularly and if the main person who facilitates isn't there, they'll step in. They also keep connection with the PIPs committee, and we'll be informing them of events, offering any development courses or areas of interest where there might be some basic training, more insights, workshops offered in critical thinking, and so on.
Largely, the idea is that we set it up in a way so that if anything happens to Paul and I, PIPs can carry on. I think we're getting closer to a point where if Paul and I were to step back, I'm pretty sure PIPs could keep going under its own steam now; there's enough people with enough insight to do a good job of that and keep it developing.
Ciaran: That's good to hear! I wanted to come back to something the two of you were talking about before, this idea you talked about early on of really feeling like this could shape things, could really affect things. I just wonder if there's comments people have made about their experience of PIPs that stand out from over the years in that respect. I know you were talking about having an effect at a societal level but also, you know, has it had an effect on people in their own lives?
Rob: The thing is it happens so often that it's difficult to pick out just one, it's quite amazing. I've been doing this for 20 years and it still fascinates me. Only last night at a PIPs I was at, it's amazing some of the perspectives that I heard. There's a couple of lads that go to the Keith's Wine Bar PIPs group in Liverpool where I was last night; Michael and Paul, who are both about 30 and had not done any philosophy before. As they were hearing these perspectives, I could just see them going "Wow! I’d never thought like that". So they're learning plenty from just going to that one weekly group.
Paul: I can remember in the early days, people like John Corcoran saying how refreshing and uplifting he found it. Conversations that you had in the pub could seem a bit mundane and pedestrian, or ran the risk of becoming a shouting match, but he was saying that, for him, it was a chance for conversation that was very challenging, very stimulating, very thought-provoking. It often left him with things to carry on thinking about for days, maybe through the rest of the week till the next session. He liked that. He liked that it had a richness to it and that everyone had an opportunity to share ideas and shape them as we went.
Rob: I can certainly remember John, and plenty of others, as Paul said, saying very similar things. After a while you sort of take it for granted that it's working and it's doing well, because you hear these comments so frequently. We also think we've still got work to do; we can see areas where we can develop things further. At the moment we're giving focus to what our purpose is: we've sort of distilled it to being the democratisation of philosophy. It's the democratisation of being able to think and engage in a philosophical way. It's not about making philosophy democratic; although in a way it is, it's not so much about that. It's democratisation, not just in terms of accessing it, but being able to participate in it in a way that's meaningful, effective and which really gets into your very being, if you like; it becomes part of how you think. It's only at that point you can start to say there's a democratisation of philosophy going on.
Back in our early literature, we describe it as a kind of “feed and weed” for community. We bring on the best ways of thinking and feed those and try and weed out those areas where we're making errors in our thinking, where our thinking's doing us a disservice. Even now, that notion of philosophy as feed and weed for the community was another way of saying we're seeking to democratise philosophy, and give people those skills, those tools, those capabilities. Above all, give them the opportunities to practice these things through dialogue and inquiry. Because that's how you really build a skill isn't it? Getting the opportunity to practice and maybe having other people around you who can guide and give feedback. That's exactly what you get in the community and in a dialogue situation. This is just going to be ongoing. I think we really know what we're about but achieving it is very difficult, and people have felt that already but there's still more to do.
"We're giving focus to what our purpose is: we've sort of distilled it to being the democratisation of philosophy. It's the democratisation of being able to think and engage in a philosophical way."
Paul: It's something of an exploration, this facilitation development series we're working on now. You know it's unending, you just know it's gonna keep going on and that's okay, because that's the way knowledge is. But if we can just go back to your question about how it effects things socially, what you put me in mind there of Rob is the testimonials we used to take. For the first two or three years we took some, then we took some more, and again in 2011 and in 2015. We've got a little booklet of testimonials. Just asking people, what are you getting from PIPs, what's it doing for you? I'm just reminded of one, Chris O'Brien, do you remember him?
Rob: I do, 'Grasshoper Man'.
Paul: That's right! That's exactly what he said: "My mind was a little like a grasshopper, but since I've come to PIPs, it's a bit more organised now."
Rob: I think Chris really enjoyed that sense of singular focus, and real careful attention to details and how they piece together. I remember Chris talking about his mind being like a grasshopper, that it jumps from one thing to another, to another, but when he did philosophy, it was so different, there was a direction, a focus. I think he almost found that cathartic in a way.
Ciaran: This point about democratisation resonates with what you were saying before about PIPs being about the dialogue and not just the content of it. People have that fear as you say of not being familiar with all the right philosophical touchpoints, but it's about having familiarity with the type of dialogue, not about having to know all the right things. You were saying at the start that you had specific ideas about that, from SAPERE, from ideas about communities of inquiry and so on. Has that developed over time? Given you are still working on, as you said, the facilitation? Has there been any new revelations since that time?
Paul: No, the revelations for me were early on. What's happening now for me, is just to keep on learning and the appetite for that is just the same for me. It's enjoyable learning, especially this type of learning.
Rob: In a lot of ways the model is set, although it has enough flexibility to make some changes in there or put a twist on things. One of them might be just the types of stimulus we use, and trying to encourage people to use a stimulus that's not necessarily text-based. I think with adults, there is a sort of tendency to move towards a text and to philosophical articles or snippets from some philosophical work. It's about trying to encourage a way of looking at things where you can see philosophical potential in the everyday; in the films you watch, in the cartoons your kids are watching, poems, a game of ice hockey. So, we're very keen to do that. It's part of the democratisation of philosophy, because people have more experience of those things. It's easier to participate in a discussion about those things in a meaningful way then than, say, the finer points of Wittgenstein, for example, which is a bit more remote.
That's part of the democratisation: we're not trying to democratise the philosophical canon, if you like. It's about democratising philosophy as a way of thinking, and you can turn that to anything in your life, anything in your culture, your politics. It doesn't just allow you access to, say, a philosophical course at university. It's not a case of saying, well, we've dealt with that issue of access so philosophy has been democratised. For us, access isn't enough, it's meaningful participation that matters. How do you equip people in such a way that ensures they have this meaningful participation? It's giving attention to that and saying, "Okay, we've got this fixed model, what ways can we work with it, maybe bend it out of shape a little bit, if it means we can engage people in a way that allows that opportunity to come to the fore?" So, although we've taken a lot of influence from the likes of SAPERE and John Dewey and Matthew Lipmann, we're still looking at tweaking, twisting, exploring it as Paul says, to see what kinds of opportunities we can produce to bring about the democratisation of philosophy. I think recently we've been looking at that a bit more, that's starting to open up a little bit.
Paul: It's interesting because we've always been doing that, given that we meet up in the public arena, and people see us - we're not just in some back room. People always see us and ask "What are you lads doing?" and we explain to them. I'm just thinking that that's always been our basis, and then along comes Covid and we can't do that, we can't go on. But it didn't stop us, we went on Zoom - though now most of them have gone back. There's about a third of groups that are still on Zoom, because fear's quite a big thing. It's interesting though as it's developed it. Our National Symposium now could be national and international in terms of where we get people coming from. We started a Zoom group on a Saturday night now, twice a month. We get a lad from Germany and a lad from Spain turn up to that one so that's good. We just kept going, it didn't stop us though as now we're back in the pubs, which is great.
Ciaran: I'm glad to hear that and it is an interesting point: you could do it in a pub where you've got that openness, but it can still be open online in a different sense if you have people from all over taking part. You were both saying earlier about the vision you had for PIPs, what effect it could have socially, how it could change how people think about the media, how you socialise with other people, how they interact or how people think and so on. What do you think things like PIPs say about the opportunities, and the spaces, that people have for reflection these days?
Rob: I think one of the things that we're trying to offer is opportunities that people don't have, and understanding the reasons why people don't have those opportunities. The likes of Dewey and Postman and Illich and Lipman, they all talk about the social dimension of learning and education. They all talk about how much of how we think and speak and see the world comes to us gradually in small increments. What's happening is, those ways of thinking and speaking and seeing the world are all around us; we're in a kind of milieu or swimming in it. So, our cognitive development comes about in a way that is a reflection of existing thinking, existing practices, existing use of language and social interaction.
You might have a society where a lot of people think the BBC news is a reliable authority, or that Question Time really asks difficult questions and digs down into the real fundamentals of what's going on, and that if you've watched those things and read certain newspapers, then you're well informed. That's a common experience that people have, but of course, there are a number of people who question these things as well, but where's the opportunity for that? Where does that kind of questioning and doubt go [for people themselves]? It's not present in the newspaper or during BBC News or in a Question Time event. So, we need to find ways to bring the people together so they can ask these questions and can look into things and see say, "Okay, what are the options here in terms of how I understand it? How can I go about testing the credibility of what I'm being told?"
So, in understanding that, that helps us understand the kind of opportunities we want to provide, because the opportunities for that sort of thing are very difficult to bring about when you've got a whole culture and society that doesn't offer that in the main, or just does so in very small pockets. All the other things going on in people's lives driven by that culture, they're sort of counteracting and undermining the sorts of opportunities you're trying to raise. That culture can have powerful resources, making it very easy for someone to say, "Oh, yeah, that's all very interesting, but how does that help you get a job in IT?" Or "That's all very interesting, but we're just talking about angels dancing on the head of a pin now." That kind of dismissive thing. The opportunities you're given can be steadily eroded and undermined in various ways. We've got to bolster those opportunities, we got to keep trying to project this as a positive thing and keep trying to provide opportunities in a society that's largely geared up against this kind of thing, so it's difficult.
Rosie Carnall facilitating a PIPs group in Sheffield. Image by Eve Hopkinson. Rosie runs philosophical enquiry groups in pubs, galleries and community venues. Her work background is in mediation and enabling people to 'disagree agreeably' is a big part of what she values in getting people to philosophise together. Visit: www.rosiecarnall.co.uk
Ciaran: You were saying earlier about when you started and you thought the scale of it might be bigger than it currently is. But, actually, the scale is still very good, and it's a stable thing that's kept going. And I wonder if, to some extent, that is because it's reached that level where, as you say, with a lot of these things, if they just keep growing and growing, then it becomes something else and you actually lose what's really good about it at the size it is now.
Paul: There's something in that, yeah.
Ciaran: It seems like the PIPs groups have a connection to the places they're in, and I wonder if it became a big thing It might get a bit more detached?
Paul: We'd have to look at the different groups. When we were joking about being worried it was going to take over the whole pub, well in Brighton their group did exactly that! They had about ten different tables. We went down to have a look and it was fantastic. Pam Lelliot, who was running it at the time, was really good. Brilliant the way they did it. We usually take up one table but every table in the pub? Fantastic! The whole pub was doing philosophy, unbelievable. Mind you, Brighton's a bit like that, it can happen in a place like Brighton.
Ciaran: Was there anything either of you wanted to bring up that we haven't really touched on?
Paul: I think one thing that did come to mind when we were talking about opportunities, is opportunities via technology. Some people would say things like Facebook and Twitter give opportunities for people to engage with each other, ask the questions, make the kind of comments they don't see going on in everyday media. It is a different type of space, a different type of opportunity that hasn't been there before, but I think one of the problems is that not everyone is aware - although I think more are becoming aware - that what happens on social media is often governed by algorithms and so on, monitoring the sorts of things you might be interested in. Truth will happily be compromised in the name of clickbait, getting more views, monetising your channel and so on. I think people are cottoning on to that, but I think initially it was seen as an opportunity to produce great things in and for society. You've got these people who are often funded by dark money in quite far-right groups to just work as trolls on their behalf, and freely misrepresent or undermine quite valuable causes and quite valuable opportunities.
So, I think trying to keep true to what you want to do, and how you want to do it all through the internet is much more difficult. It's easy to be infiltrated by bots and trolls and so on, if you're wanting to offer something that's open and available in a public space, not a closed group. You run the risk of what kind of elements and motives are emerging and how are you going to deal with them. So, I think the internet has brought some good and interesting stuff, but it's given us challenges for creating these opportunities, for protecting them from being undermined and spoiled.
Ciaran: Sadly, I think you're spot on. Thanks so much for speaking to me both!