PATHWAYS TO PHILOSOPHY: SEVEN YEARS ON
by Geoffrey Klempner
In the Summer of 1995 Pathways was a few notes jotted down on scraps of paper. I took my first students in the Autumn of that year. The project has come a long way since then. At the last count, there were over 400 Pathways students and former students in 42 countries around the world. I have now begun taking on mentors to help with the teaching load.
None of these 400 or so would make a case study for the purpose of this article. I do not help my students with their personal problems, or even invite them to confide in me. I engage my students in philosophical dialogue. I send them material, they write back to me, and I respond to what they have written. The sole subject for our discussion is the problems of philosophy.
Lacking a suitable alternative, I am putting myself under the microscope. This will be an exercise in self-examination. I will be quoting my own words, posted on web sites or published at different times during the last seven years, because writings one has disseminated constitute hard evidence of a kind. Evidence, at least, of what I thought fit to publish at the time.
One important source of material is the online philosophical notebook which I maintained on the Glass House Philosopher web site between August 1999 and April 2002:
On that first page, I promised myself that 'I will meet up with all my former selves. I will become whole again'. I ended the notebook when there was much work still to do. I was beginning to wilt under the relentless exposure.
I feel better for the experience, though some of the pages I find too painful to read, even now. There was a price to pay in other ways. Incautious postings have got me into hot water on more than one occasion. Family, friends, students and colleagues were not always happy about being dragged into the limelight. But at its best, the notebook gave me insights which I am grateful for, as well as recording critical moments in the Pathways story.
When the Glass House Philosopher was launched, I wrote a slightly mischievous philosophical autobiography for the front page:
Did I really believe that the university departments of philosophy have 'had their day', or was that just bravado? At Sheffield where the main Pathways web site is based as it happens, one of the strongest philosophy departments in the UK such a claim would be regarded as preposterous. Why then, I reply, is there not a single philosopher in the top 100 greatest Britons poll recently conducted by the BBC? No Locke, Berkeley or Hume? No Bertrand Russell? Something is surely amiss, and it is time that academic philosophers woke up.
I have made no secret of the fact that I regard what I do as a business. Despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, I have discovered that philosophy is what a lot of people want. Not everyone, admittedly, but potentially enough to keep a sizeable battalion of Sophists usefully employed.
Even now, those committed to philosophising outside the box may find that statement rather shocking. Philosophy is justified, critics of academic philosophy may say, because of its practical benefits, because philosophers are able to make a real difference to people's everyday lives. With the latter sentiment I agree. If philosophy is something you need, if you can't live without it, or at least live happily, then getting an adequate supply will be important to you. The same can be said, of course, about chocolate, or heroin. (I have never tried heroin, but I know it would be very hard to give up chocolate.)
Philosophy doesn't make you fat. It doesn't wreck your health or force you to steal to feed your habit. In fact, it's really quite good for you, when incorporated into a well balanced life style. I seem to remember that Aristotle said something along similar lines. But enough of the salesmanship.
In September 2001, I was invited to give a presentation at an education technology conference held at University College Dublin. In the abstract which I submitted beforehand, I wrote:
After I had submitted the piece, one colleague wryly commented that my question, 'How can one work in philosophy?' could easily be misinterpreted as meaning, 'How can one obtain employment as a philosopher?' rather than the question I had intended, 'How can one do philosophy?' No matter. On the day, my audience were left in no doubt. As I explained:
My letters I have lost count of the number, somewhere between two and three thousand were where I have been doing the bulk of my philosophising over the last seven years. But this was not the only work I was talking about in my abstract. The Glass House Philosopher takes up the story:
The idea came to start up a correspondence school of philosophy.
Now came 'the part that still amazes me':
The ninety units were written between July 1995 and December 1997.
Apart from letter writing, a regular chunk of my time is now taken up with the Ask a Philosopher service on the Pathways web site. The last completed 20th page of Questions and Answers ran to over 60,000 words. Every two weeks I post between ten and twenty thousand words submitted by our panel of philosophy teachers and graduates. In the early days, I answered all the questions myself, but soon found myself out of my depth coping with the sheer volume of requests.
The Philosophy Pathways newsletter appears every two weeks and is sent out to over 700 addresses all over the world. I have been fortunate to receive some outstanding articles in recent months, including papers by Richard Schain in the USA, Dmitry Olshansky in the Russian Federation, Hubertus Fremerey in Germany and Daoud Khashaba in Egypt.
Occasionally, I get asked to write articles myself. One of the most interesting recent assignments was an essay on the philosophy of time travel to accompany a new edition of David Gerrold's 70's sci-fi classic The Man Who Folded Himself. Researching and writing the article was a joyful experience. I have always been a fan of science fiction. For six weeks, I lived and breathed the physics and metaphysics of time.
But there is trouble in Paradise. Earlier this month, I was rocked to receive the following e-mail from a Pathways inquirer:
I wrote back, 'Thanks for the reality check.' And it certainly was. I am still getting over the after shock. I think of the massive amount of time I have devoted to building up and promoting the Pathways web sites which now run to millions of words, a maze of hypertext strung across the Internet. Every minute, hour, day, month that I have spent developing the web sites is a minute, hour, day, month when I have not been doing philosophy. Years of my life. What was the point, after all?
Everyone who tries to do commerce successfully on the Internet knows what I am talking about. How difficult it is to achieve and maintain good search engine rankings. The endless time spent checking on how well your site is doing by comparison with its competitors. The agonizing over every detail of every web page to maximize the 'conversion rate' of visitors to customers.
It didn't start like that. Back in 1997 when the first Pathways web site was launched, I saw the World Wide Web as a fantastic new medium in which to work, a powerful spur to creativity. What I didn't appreciate was the extent to which as a web communicator you are controlled by your audience assuming, of course, that you do want to communicate, and not sink into complete obscurity:
At the end of the day, I have to balance the books. Running a business is what it is, and not another thing. In my online notebook, I put a brave face on it:
What was I trying to say? That the skills of the philosopher can be useful in business? Or that philosophy can make you a successful business man? At any rate, my enthusiastic paean to the cash value of philosophical skills is a novel take on the story of Thales:
Of course, philosophers like to flatter themselves that they can turn their great intellects to any practical task including, if circumstances should so require, the task of making money. I wonder if that is really true. On closer inspection, Thales' tale is a story of insider knowledge rather than business acumen. I find myself in reluctant agreement with the common perception, that the philosopher is the very last person you would expect, or wish to be out for a profit.
In March 2002, I resigned as Director of Studies of the Philosophical Society of England, a post which I had held since 1996, and formed the breakaway International Society for Philosophers. The schism was the result of a clash of views about how the Philosophical Society Associate and Fellowship Diplomas should be administered. I was accused of profiteering at the expense of the Society and risking its hard won reputation. The split was one of the biggest upsets in the Society's 89 year history.
Now those same awards are offered instead by the International Society for Philosophers, somewhat lighter in substance, perhaps, given the short time that the new organization has been in existence. The two Societies have agreed to work in partnership, which I hope in time will prove to be more than a mere marriage of convenience. On the smart new ISFP web site (designed, this time, by one of my students) I describe the new society as a 'sister organization to the Philosophical Society of England'.
In my Glass House notebook, I offered my analysis of what had gone wrong with the relationship between the Philosophical Society and Pathways:
Although in my view the accusations made against me were unjustified, I discovered something about myself as a result of this incident. I did not realize before how ruthless I was prepared to be when Pathways was threatened. History will record that I broke away even as moves were afoot to find a solution acceptable to both sides. I knew there could be no compromise. Certain individuals have not yet forgiven me for what I did. Yet I still feel that I was the more injured party.
Pathways has completed one seven-year cycle. I hope that it will last another seven years. I worry that I will wake up one morning to discover that I have become a cynical entrepreneur. The danger would be greatest if I actually succeeded in making my fortune.
I would like to work productively as a philosopher again. My mind boggles at the thought of sifting through millions of words of letters and web site postings for nuggets of philosophical insight that might be scattered there. I would like to write a book the old-fashioned way. No audience to applaud or jeer my efforts. Just myself and my thoughts. What chance is there of that, I wonder?
Sometimes I get asked why I chose philosophy. More often, people ask me why they should choose philosophy. I don't have an answer readily prepared. It all depends on who is asking the question.
You can philosophize for sheer enjoyment. Or because you want to change the world. Or to develop and hone your mental powers. Or out of insatiable, childlike curiosity. Or because your very life depends upon it. I have had the privilege to have known students a few exceptional, but all of them interesting who have exemplified each of these goals and ideals. And I understood perfectly where they were coming from, because I could see a little bit of me in there too. The joys of philosophy are, or have become, for me the joys of dialogue. If and when I escape back into my solitude, I shall take all of this with me. Whatever may happen in the future, Pathways has changed my life forever.
One of my favourite old films is the 50's Launder and Gilliat comedy Geordie about a frail Scottish lad who is transformed by a body building correspondence course into an Olympic hammer thrower. The most poignant scene is when 'wee Geordie' meets his mentor Henry Sampson for the first time on the eve of the competition. One of my regrets is that I have had the chance to meet so few of my correspondence students face to face. Perhaps one day we shall have a great get together. Wouldn't that be grand!
This has been a great adventure. But it is not over yet. I have risked myself, and despite setbacks I am still in the game. I still have a healthy appetite for more.
Articles on Pathways
Klempner, G. (1997) Philosophy From a Distance The Philosopher Vol. LXXXV No. 1, Spring 1997.
Klempner, G. (1999) Can Philosophy be Taught? Read to a joint meeting of the London Group of the Philosophical Society of England and the South Place Ethical Society, at Conway Hall, London.
© Geoffrey Klempner 2003
This article appeared in Practical Philosophy: Journal of the Society for Philosophy in Practice, Issue 6:1 April 2003: 'Case Studies in Practical Philosophy'