This year I’ve developed and trialled an eight-part course in practical philosophy, called Philosophies for Life. The pilot was financed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via Queen Mary, University of London. I trialled the course with three partner organizations: Saracens rugby club; New College Lanarkshire and HMP Low Moss prison; and Manor Gardens mental health charity.
The results were very positive – the coaches of Saracens said the philosophy club was ‘the most popular thing we’ve done this season’; the participants at Manor Gardens philosophy club reported feeling more socially supported, more capable of coping with adversity, and much more interested in philosophy. And the participants of the prison philosophy club said they found the club more enjoyable and useful than the prison’s CBT courses, and became more interested in philosophy as a result.
I now plan to launch commercially, working with businesses, NHS mental health services and other organizations, and also developing an online course for the retail market. .
The wisdom approach
I tried to develop a ‘wisdom’ model of well-being education that balances evidence-based techniques with ethical discussion, approaching questions of the meaning of life in a pluralistic way.
I call my method the ‘wisdom approach’ and use the ‘wisdom tree’ as a symbol, because the course explores various wisdom traditions and how they share certain ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature, while then ‘branching out’ into various different life-goals (happiness, social justice, Nirvana etc).
Psychology now has good evidence for some of these ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature, like the idea we can use our reason to know ourselves and change our habits. However, when it comes to higher life-meanings, science can’t prove them or disprove them. It can’t prove that happiness is the proper goal of life, for example. That’s why we need philosophy to help us reflect, discuss and choose our own life-philosophy.
At the moment, well-being courses in schools, mental health services, and businesses tend to be purely scientific / psychological. They teach evidence-based techniques for well-being, usually from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is very useful from a practical perspective. However, a purely scientific approach either leaves out any questions of values or the meaning of life, or it simply assumes one definition of the meaning of life (for example, individual subjective well-being), and then imposes it uncritically and scientistically on participants. A purely scientific approach to well-being education easily becomes ethically illiberal and culturally insensitive.
On the other hand, the ‘critical enquiry’ method used by most philosophy clubs (and by organizations like SAPERE and the Philosophy Foundation in schools) is very good at facilitating group discussions of values and meanings, engaging people and respecting their perspectives. But it is perhaps too open and undirected – it ignores the fact that ancient wisdom and modern psychology have discovered reliable hypotheses about how the mind and our emotions work, which it’s helpful to learn.
And both the scientific and the critical enquiry approach to well-being education fail to teach people about the history and cultural variety of the pursuit of the good life, and how different wisdom traditions from various cultures have come up with differing answers to the question of the meaning of life.
Philosophies for Life tries to combine the best of all these approaches. It teaches people evidence-based coping skills from modern psychology, and explores their roots in ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, humanism etc). Rather than just teaching instrumental ‘thinking skills’ emptied of ethical content, as CBT does, it gives people space to consider and discuss the original philosophical context for these skills, and the higher ethical goals they were designed to reach, such as inner peace, happiness, justice or oneness with the Tao / Logos / God.
Each session focused on a different ancient philosopher (Socrates, Epictetus, Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and others), exploring one or two key ideas of theirs that we can use in modern life, and also whether evidence from modern psychology supports or undermines this idea. The session on the Buddha, for example, explores the importance of habits and training to the good life, and how CBT supports the Buddha’s claims about human nature and how to change it.
Then the second half of each session is a group discussion, both of the practical usefulness of the techniques we discussed, and of the philosopher’s broader ethical philosophy and the moral goal they were trying to reach (happiness, Nirvana, justice etc). The group discussion enables participants to accept or reject aspects of each philosophy, and to share their own stories and wisdom strategies. And it enables the course to cover various ethical life-goals and meanings without imposing any particular meaning onto participants.
Manor Gardens philosophy club
Manor Gardens Welfare Trust is a charity that works for the well-being of people in Islington. Our club met every Tuesday evening throughout March and April, initially attracting 15 people, which dropped to 12. Three quarters of the group were women, from their 30s to 50s, and were mainly Anglo-African and Anglo-Caribbean. The participants were mainly ‘mental health champions’ who do volunteer work for the charity.
I gave the participants a well-being questionnaire before and after the course, which asked them the extent they agreed to various questions, scoring their answer on a seven-point scale (with one being ‘strongly disagree and seven being ‘strongly agree’). This allowed me to get some sense of the impact of the course, however imprecise. It found the following
‘I lead a purposeful and meaningful life’ +12%
‘My social relationships are supportive and rewarding‘ + 21%
‘I am engaged and interested in my daily activities‘ + 6%
I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others 0%
I have control over my life and can move towards my goals +6%
I am optimistic about my future + 28%
When bad things happen to me, I can take steps to deal with them +27%
The most significant impacts seemed to be in participants’ sense of social support, in their optimism, and their belief in their ability to cope with adversity.
I also asked participants for their own comments about what they liked and disliked about the course. Their comments can be grouped under four headings. Firstly, community: comments included ‘Tuesdays have been the highlight of my week for two months’, ‘a great sense of community, sharing, friendship’, and ‘great subjects taught and discussed in a very conversational manner that encouraged everyone to get involved.’
Secondly, the participants said they enjoyed learning about practical wisdom which they could use in their life. Their comments included: ‘I will take time to think about the bigger picture’, ‘relating theory to practice is what makes this course powerful’, and ‘the tools I have learned in this course and my belief in God will enable me to make major changes in my life’.
Thirdly, participants enjoyed the pluralism of the course – they felt they could learn about differing philosophies of life, without feeling their own faith or philosophy was threatened or undermined. This was a key aim of the course – to give participants a respect for various wisdom traditions, whether they are theistic, atheistic or agnostic. Participants’ comments included ‘Variety works well. It was interesting to hear how different people use different ideologies to guide their lives and how these ideologies can work well for different problems.’
Finally, all the participants said the course made them much more interested in philosophy – most of them having never read any before the course. Comments included: ‘I found the entire course inspiring; this motivated me to include more philosophy books in my reading list.’
Participants said they would have liked more of a range of philosophers, including black philosophers and female philosophers. They also said they would have liked the course to be longer, and to have a way to stay in touch with the other participants. Finally, they would have liked more materials to take away with them.
HMP Low Moss philosophy club
I taught the course over four Fridays in March to a group of 11 inmates in HMP Low Moss prison outside Glasgow. They were all male, mainly in their 30s and 40s, mainly white Scottish, and mainly long-term prisoners. The participants were already in a philosophy club run by Nikki Cameron of New College Lanarkshire, and my course benefitted from the thinking culture Nikki has created over the last year and a half. Nikki’s philosophy club explores questions through philosophical enquiry. I tried more of a ‘wisdom approach’, teaching practical ideas for life, and exploring their connection to modern psychology, particularly CBT.
CBT courses are already widely available in Scottish prisons and in other prisons around the world. However, these courses are usually compulsory, and either leave ethics out or include them in a quite dogmatic and non-criticizable form. I was interested in whether the participants would respond better to similar ideas presented in the context of philosophy, in which participants are not treated as malfunctioning brains to be fixed (low status), but as autonomous free-thinking philosophers (high status), who were not there just to take onboard ancient wisdom, but also to share their own wisdom. My sense was this made it more likely participants would engage with the course.
Feedback from HMP Low Moss philosophy club
I gave participants a questionnaire after the course, which gathered quantitative and qualitative feedback. It found that 66% of the participants said they found the course more useful and more enjoyable than the prison CBT courses (some of the group hadn’t done the CBT courses). When asked what they liked about the course, participants emphasized knowledge, wisdom and community. They liked learning about ancient philosophers and their relevance to modern life. They liked learning ‘coping skills’ to help them with the stress of being inside (Stoic philosophy was particularly popular). And they enjoyed the community of meeting up each week with the same people to hear each other’s views.
While I was doing the course, Kristine Szfiris, a University of Cambridge criminologist who is doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons, interviewed some of the participants. Here are a couple of quotes from them. The first shows one of the coping skills participants learned from Epictetus:
Jules Evans was in doing something about philosophy and he was talking about how we can jump to conclusions, and I do that when I play chess. I just look at the board and I’ll jump to conclusions and then I make a move and it’s been the wrong move kinda thing. I think it gave me a better understanding. I think it’s just about focusing on things I can control and not focusing on things I can’t control. I find philosophy really interesting and worthwhile being taught in prison.
And the second shows the benefit of a pluralist approach which doesn’t impose any particular ethical philosophy onto participants:
With Jules coming in, his views and opinions are set one way but he talks about all the different philosophers which we can disagree with or we can agree with if some of their points are valid. It allows you to take snippets from each one and take something away from it. It’s impossible to take it all in, not in such a short space of time but if you can take a little bit of it away and practice it for yourself, it benefits you greatly.
Participants said they’d like more materials to take away and study in their own time, as well as suggestions for further reading that is available in the prison library. It’s also interesting to think about how ideas from prison philosophy clubs can be extended out into the rest of the prison, and also beyond the prison walls once prisoners are released (via probation organizations and community groups). Sometimes the group discussions were fractious, and discussion topics could sometimes have been better picked and facilitated by me.
Saracens philosophy club
Saracens FC are one of the world’s best rugby clubs. This season, they broke the record for most points scored in the Premiership, but sadly lost the Heineken European Cup final and the Premiership final in back-to-back weekends.
I ran the Saracens philosophy club as part of Saracens’ ‘personal development programme’. Saracens is unusual among professional sports teams in having an explicitly ethical mission, of focusing not merely on external results, but also on the internal goods of the well-being and character of players and staff. Saracens also have a willingness to try the new and unusual, hence the remarkable feat of getting 12 players and staff to attend and enjoy monthly philosophy sessions.
In fact, ancient philosophy seemed to me very applicable to professional sports – if you search ‘philosophy’ or ‘Stoicism’ in Google News, most of the results will be from sports. While many people in education are wary of talking about values, coaches are more prepared to do it. However, there can be a culture clash between an internal focus on character and virtue, and an external focus on ‘winning at all costs’. One even felt this clash at Saracens, despite their unusually ethical culture.
The timing of the sessions and the participants in the sessions were all somewhat fluid, due to the team’s schedule and fixtures. The philosophy club regularly attracted 12 or so participants, including first-team players and coaching staff.
Feedback from Saracens philosophy club
I gave all the attendees a basic questionnaire at the end of the course. It found:
83% agreed or strongly agreed that the philosophy club has improved their on-field performance
83% agreed or strongly agreed the philosophy club has improved their understanding of team mates and colleagues
100% agreed or strongly agreed the philosophy club has improved self-awareness
66% agreed or strongly agreed philosophy club has improved their ability to handle stress
100% agreed or strongly agreed it was interesting to hear how others deal with difficulties in life at philosophy club.
The Saracens coaches, when interviewed in the Telegraph before the Premiership final, were kind enough to speak at length about the philosophy club. Alex Sanderson, the forwards coach, said “it has been the most popular thing we’ve done this season”.
Paul Gustard, the defence coach, said: “We spoke about the art of friendship, a higher calling – that could be faith or family – and it was nice to hear people speak openly about how they have changed along the journey that we are all on and where they sat on the ‘Golden Mean’. It was pretty cool.”
Kevin Sorrell, the backs coach, said: “It was an open forum for players to bounce ideas around. It was pretty enlightening to hear about how players felt individually about certain incidents over the last 12 months. Everyone left the room with a better understanding of what made that person tick and how they react to certain situations.” And Neil de Kock, Saracens’ scrum half, said: “I took an enormous amount of value out of Philosophy Club by having open and having frank discussions with colleagues on various topics very applicable to our game.”
As an organizational method, the philosophy club improved communication within the team, and also improved communication between the players and the coaches, helping them to see each other’s perspectives.
Again, the course would benefit from having more developed teaching materials, such as a handbook which participants could take away with them. Within an organization that has a very strong team-culture, like Saracens, it’s interesting to think of finding ways not just to reinforce that culture, but also to let people challenge it – otherwise group discussions just become ‘group-think’, rather than enabling people to think and speak for themselves.
Conclusions and next steps
The pilot was more successful than I expected. I initially wondered how philosophy would go down in these various communities (particularly the rugby club), and also how I would go down, as a plummy-voiced southerner. I think I went down OK, because I was open about my own vulnerabilities and flaws and didn’t claim to have all the answers. And the wisdom of ancient philosophies turned out to be very accessible to people from varying educational backgrounds, for many of whom this was their first exposure to philosophy.
The group discussions in the second half of each session worked well – people don’t want just to listen, they want to share their own ideas and experience. However, I think these group discussions were balanced well by the wisdom teachings of the first half of the course – people don’t just want to hear each other’s opinions, they also enjoyed learning about the ideas of Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Epictetus and others.
The course worked particularly well with a demographic that is traditionally wary of group therapy – young men. Opening up about your inner life does not come particularly naturally either to rugby players or long-term prison inmates. However, both Saracens and Low Moss philosophy clubs were places where men could talk about what really mattered to them, and share life-strategies for coping with stress and adversity, without feeling ashamed or broken.
I now plan to launch the course commercially, by selling it to companies, to individuals, and to charities. It could either be sold as a full eight-part course, or as a one-day workshop, or as a two-hour session focusing on, say, Stoic wisdom.
There are two questions I need to answer: where would the course make the most money, and where would it do the most good?
Clearly, the most profitable way forward is to sell the course to businesses, business-people and entrepreneurs. However, it would be an ethical mistake if the course was only taught to affluent businesspeople. I also think it has great potential to help people in schools, in prisons, in mental health services, and in the general population. I can afford to work with these groups if I subsidize it by working with business-people, and if I use technology to increase my impact.
The next steps, then, are firstly, building a strategy for the launch of the course as a social enterprise. I plan to work with a mentor and business coach to develop this in the next two months. Secondly, design and create teaching materials, such as online videos, handouts and activity sheets, and a website. I also plan to do this by September. Thirdly, expand my roster of clients and improve the course as I go on.
The best way to reach the biggest number of people is via the development of an online course. It will be important to find a technological infrastructure that can support this and take payments from participants. I may need to raise capital to design an online course and will discuss this with technology partners and possible funders in the coming weeks.
To read the 13-page report on this project, click here. If you’re interested in me running Philosophies for Life at your organization, as a workshop, a one-day event or as the full eight-part course, get in touch at jules dot evans @ mac.com