James Garvey: It's not therapy or self-help. But people, many with mental health issues, pack out the Stuart Low Trust philosophy forums
The Stuart Low Trust provides support and companionship to isolated people in north London – many have experience of mental illness. They put on a startling range of activities: live music and comedy, classes on drama and cookery, talks on history, astrophysics, chemistry and classical music. On Sunday afternoons the trust's remarkable philosophy forum convenes. For the individuals taking part, philosophy is certainly not mere navel-gazing. The ancient questions – how should I live? what matters most? who should I be? – are live ones for them.
When Rachel Paine, a philosophy tutor who helped set up the forum, is the speaker, 30 people crowd themselves on to purple sofas to hear her. She's talking about personal identity and the narrative conception of the self. "What makes you the person you are?" she asks.
The usual answers have something to do with continuity – your body or your memories make you the same you over time – but she's asking about the control we have over who we are. The thought is that the self might be deliberately shaped when you choose actions in line with the narratives you have about the kind of life you want to live, the sort of person you want to be.
The main group splits into four seminars, each guided by a volunteer with a background in philosophy. There's discussion of what happens when your narrative fails, when your story is thwarted by factors outside your control, and you can't be who you want to be. Others consider the connection between a life's narrative and social identity, how the thoughts of other people can sometimes shape us.
The seminars merge back together, and Paine sets out a different conception of the self. The new idea is that a person consists in many changing selves, strung along over time like pearls on a string. The seminars split off again, and there's discussion of Hume's bundle theory here and there. One asks what the string connecting the pearls is supposed to be. There's a moment of baffled silence, smiles, and more conversation.
Today's topic was metaphysics, but in the past year the forum has considered how fiction can move us, Kierkegaard's three stages of life, theories of perceptual experience, distributive justice, liberty, ancient Greek philosophy, trolley problems, God, truth and much more.
What's striking is the group's openness to new ideas. "It's not like a debate among academics," a group leader, Aaron Finlay, tells me, "where people just take up established positions and butt heads." There's a real sense of people trying to get at the truth, trying to do philosophy with honesty.
Harry Adamson, a Cambridge PhD who helped set up the forum, says that philosophical questions can play a powerful role in the lives of people who have experienced mental health problems. "Their lives can throw up abstract and fundamental questions that many people drift through life leaving unexamined. Their experiences generate answers that are often novel, plausible and powerful, and as they've lived the questions, the answers they reach take on a different significance. Apart from all that, their thoughts are listened to here with an equality of respect, which I'm sad to say doesn't always happen."
While it's definitely not therapy or self-help, the participants say they get a great deal from the discussions. For some the debates are simply good fun, others come along to hear new ideas and discover different perspectives, and still others enjoy the camaraderie. One said the forum has helped in other ways too. He's "much more in the world now", less shy, more likely to speak up. "It's a privilege to hear these ideas," he says.
The philosophy forum is one of those rare things that defy the laws of social physics. Everyone gets more out than they put in, particularly the volunteers. "It's the best thing I do," one tells me. "It's the highlight of my week." As I follow Paine down the hallway from one group to another, I tell her I planned to ask why she and the other volunteers give up so much of their time to do this. Having come along and listened in, I say that's probably a stupid question. "I know," she whispers. "It's quite wonderful, isn't it?"
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