[Paleopsych] Hermenaut: Philosophy Hits the Newsstands

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Philosophy Hits the Newsstands
FEATURE | Joshua Glenn | 8/23/0

Philosophy Hits the Newsstands

Recently, in a Wicked Pavilion conference on ex-Harper's editor Willie
Morris, Hermenaut's Josh Glenn invited all present to help him dream
up the perfect periodical. One question that arose in the ensuing
discussion was this: How to publish a magazine, for a general
audience, which takes difficult ideas seriously, and refuses to dumb
them down--without gaining a reputation for being too esoteric? This
conundrum reminded me of Glenn's write-up of two English "popular
philosophy" magazines whose editors he'd interviewed earlier this year
for Britannica.com (as part of a short series in which he reported on
the so called applied philosophy movement in Europe and the United
States). Hoping, then, to fan the flames of the discussion on
intelligent magazines, we've decided to reprint "Philosophy Hits the
Newsstands: A Tale of Two Magazines" (February 9th, 2000) here, on our
site. Please join us in the Wicked Pavilion to discuss the prospect of
a magazine staking its claim in what is called, below, "the
inhospitable no-man's land between the academy and the real world."
--C. Ingoglia, ed.

Philosophy Hits the Newsstands
by Joshua Glenn

There is, by all accounts, an "applied philosophy" movement afoot in
the world today. In times past philosophers from Aristotle and Lao-tzu
to Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume applied philosophical
insights and methods to quotidian matters of diplomacy and public
policy. Over the course of the 20th century, however, philosophical
inquiry--particularly in the United States--grew largely abstract and
detached from public affairs. While a handful of the century's more
public philosophical figures, such as Bertrand Russell, John Dewey,
Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Herbert Marcuse, actively
participated in--indeed, played monumental roles in influencing--the
events of their times, they stand distinctly apart from the prevailing
tendency among their contemporaries to practice philosophy as if in a
cave, impervious to the world-historical upheavals and transformations
taking place around them. Worse, philosophy has been confined almost
exclusively to the isolated (and isolating) groves of academe.

All that seems to be changing, however. In the past few years men and
women who once seemed burdened with doctorates in philosophy and
consigned to the hermetic margins of society have begun engaging in
what's being described as "philosophical practice." Besides practicing
individual client counseling, these brave new philosophical
practitioners are engaging in philosophical discourse with children,
working with schools on educational programming, and consulting with
American corporations on everything from dilemma training to
designing, building, implementing, and maintaining codes of ethics.
Philosopher-led Socratic dialogues, or just plain old philosophical
forums, have been sprouting up in American cafés, bookstores, senior
centers, libraries, hospices, prisons, and shopping malls. For
philosophers and interested laypeople alike it's an exciting time.

There's just one thing missing, though. What's a movement without a
magazine? There are plenty of scholarly and professional journals and
newsletters devoted to philosophical practice, but where's the Rolling
Stone, the Wired, the Utne Reader of the popular philosophy movement?
Where is the independently-published yet glossy magazine--which
supports itself through subscriptions and ad sales but maintains a
sense of mission--that tackles the burning issues of everyday life in
an informative, enjoyable, and thought-provoking manner, but with all
the clarity, rigor, and precision that define philosophy? Is the very
idea that such a magazine could survive in today's marketplace just a

There are, in fact, two contenders. Philosophy Now and The
Philosophers' Magazine, both quarterlies published in London and
distributed in the United Kingdom and the United States, have staked
their claim in what was previously regarded as the inhospitable
no-man's land between the academy and the real world. Which raises
another question: is there room enough, in that peculiar new "media
space," for both magazines? On closer inspection, it turns out that
these two periodicals aren't as similar as they first appear.

In 1990 Rick Lewis was working as a physicist for British Telecom
Laboratories. A couple of years earlier, having decided that he wanted
to be able to look back from his old age and see that he'd spent his
time well, he'd returned to school and earned a master's degree in
philosophy. In 1991, when the British government began slashing
funding for many philosophy departments without a squeak of public
protest, Lewis decided to take action: he started Philosophy Now, a
magazine devoted to what he calls "popular philosophy." ("You can't
expect people to pay taxes for something if they don't understand it
and can't see its importance," he told me.) Today, thanks in part to
the "applied philosophy" movement marching across Europe and the
United States, the magazine's circulation is at 8,000 and growing

Lewis remarks that "one way you can tell that an idea is successful is
that sooner or later people take it up and try to develop variations
on the theme. For almost seven years this didn't happen and I was
starting to worry why not!" In 1997 Julian Baggini, a disaffected
philosophy Ph.D., relieved Lewis of his worries on this matter.
Baggini told his friend Jeremy Stangroom, a Ph.D. in sociology, that
he was dissatisfied that no one was publishing a philosophy magazine
"that was both genuinely a magazine," as he put it to me recently,
"and genuinely philosophy." Stangroom, who'd become fascinated with
the Internet, launched The Philosophers' Web Magazine that spring, and
Baggini launched its sister publication, The Philosophers' Magazine, a
few months later. Today, their Web site receives between 2,500 and
3,000 unique visitors per week, and their magazine's circulation is
already at 3,500--double what it was a year ago.

Both magazines publish theme issues (on heavy-duty topics like "The
Meaning of Life" and "The New Problem of Evil"), but they leaven the
gravity of their feature articles with humorous cartoons, titles, and
short features. Commenting on this, Lewis argues that The
Philosophers' Magazine has followed in his publication's footsteps.
Baggini and Stangroom respond that Philosophy Now's redesign in the
spring of 1998 was clearly an attempt to reposition itself in response
to the challenge of its upstart rival. It's true: at the level of
format, it's extremely difficult to distinguish between the two
publications. Their covers and layouts are nearly identical, right
down to the typefaces--one of the perils of desktop publishing,
perhaps. Lewis insists that Philosophy Now's redesign was strictly
market-driven. "There is little point in producing a magazine to
popularize philosophy if nobody has a chance to read it," he explained
in an editorial at the time, "and to be displayed by the big retail
chains Philosophy Now really does have to look as slick as the
style-obsessed citizens of the '90s have come to expect."

Although the two popular philosophy magazines are eerily similar in
means, they diverge sharply when it comes to the question of ends.
Stangroom likes to say that the point of The Philosophers' Magazine,
both online and off, is to "break down some of the barriers that exist
between academia and the intelligent world outside." And Lewis might
describe Philosophy Now in similar terms. It's clear, however, that
whereas Philosophy Now wants to lead academics out of their ivory
towers into the light of day, The Philosophers' Magazine is more
concerned with inviting interested laypeople inside for a guided tour.

Philosophy Now, for example, invites prominent (mostly British)
philosophers--including Antony Flew, J.J.C. Smart, Richard Taylor, and
Mary Midgley--to write original articles on matters of everyday
importance, in a manner accessible to an intelligent magazine-reading
public. The Philosophers' Magazine, on the other hand, leans toward
the interview form: leading philosophers are encouraged to be clear,
but not necessarily un esoteric. Thus, in the Winter 1999/2000 issue
of Philosophy Now, we find Midgley weighing in on the "selfish gene"
debate with the elegant proposition that although everyone has "a Don
Giovanni somewhere inside him," we might ask why "there is usually
also, for a start, at least a Figaro, a Tamino, and a Sarastro, as
well as a whole crowd of unexpected characters whom the tide of life
is continually producing?" In the Winter 2000 issue of The
Philosophers' Magazine, on the other hand, we find Baggini asking the
eminent English philosopher Stuart Hampshire, "Aren't the procedures
by which you undertake [the conflict resolution mechanism that you
advocate] in some sense dependent upon the kinds of principles
established in deductive reasoning, such as the law of
non-contradiction?" A scholarly philosophy journal might get even more
technical than this, of course, but it isn't "popular philosophy."

It's also indicative of the difference between the magazines that
whereas Philosophy Now has gone to a good deal of trouble and expense
to get itself shelved at ordinary newsstands around the world, The
Philosophers' Magazine can for the most part only be found in
specialty bookstores. Dr. Charles Echelbarger, professor of philosophy
at the State University of New York-Oswego and a member of Philosophy
Now's U.S. editorial board since 1998, expresses what could be the
magazine's mission statement when he admits to having become
"increasingly frustrated over the fact that it is so difficult to
explain to people outside academic life what I do." Perhaps this
explains the helpful sidebar to each issue's editorial, which provides
a guide to "philosophy in a nutshell." The Philosophers' Magazine
turns up its nose at crutches like this; it's edited for people who
already know exactly what Echelbarger does. "Bertrand's Break," its
regular crossword puzzle--named after Bertrand Russell--challenges
readers to name, for example, a "Proponent of Theory of Relativity" or
a "Follower of Plotinus." This is fun, but decidedly in-crowd, stuff.

After reading half-a-dozen of the most recent issues of Philosophy Now
and The Philosophers' Magazine, I felt a burning need to ask the
editors of both magazines about the ends of philosophy itself. "What's
it for, anyway?" I asked in an e-mail. "And are academic philosophers
doing it right?"

Lewis replied that, although we may be living in the golden age of
democracy, this is also the golden age of spin-doctors and lobbyists.
So "clear thinking and a questioning, skeptical (rather than cynical)
attitude to life are not merely relevant--they are vital survival
skills!" Lewis doesn't want to be lumped in with those in the "applied
philosophy" movement who insist that academic philosophy is useless.
Although he's highly critical of professional philosophers "who've
forgotten how to communicate in ordinary English," Lewis's editorial
in Philosophy Now's Winter 1999/2000 issue insists that, by training
their students to have "a clear head and the courage to think
fundamental things through for [themselves]," dedicated, scholarly
teachers of philosophy are an asset to society.

In their responses to my question, Baggini and Stangroom were careful
to note that The Philosophers' Magazine covers philosophy as it is,
not as it ought to be. "I don't think people like me who have
effectively given up doing original philosophy for writing about it
have much right to comment on what the academy is up to," Baggini
insists. That said, however, he agrees with Lewis that philosophy can
be useful to everyday living, but notes that "a great deal of
philosophy has no relevance whatsoever to how we as individuals live
our lives, and if we don't accept that we're going to falsely accuse
philosophers of letting us down." Stangroom admits to having a more
jaundiced view about academic philosophy. "It seems to me that its
strength is its scholarship--philosophers almost invariably know the
minutiae of the philosophical canon," he offers. "However, that is
also its weakness, in that they frequently seem to know little else."
Stangroom and Baggini agree, though, that the greatest contribution
philosophy can make to society is "to introduce clearer, sharper
thinking on the issues which bother us, whether they're moral,
existential, legal, or epistemological."

In the end the editors of both publications insist that it would be a
fantasy to suggest that they're bitter rivals. Dr. Timothy J. Madigan,
another member of Philosophy Now's U.S. editorial board, sums up the
situation by noting that "it is important to try to return to the
Socratic tradition of philosophy in the marketplace, while not unduly
denigrating the Platonic tradition of academic philosophy per se.
There's no need to perpetuate a false dilemma--there's enough food for
thought at all levels for everyone to join the banquet." And, after
all, success for either publication is undoubtedly good for the other,
because it expands the circle of people interested in philosophy.
"Maybe," Madigan suggests hopefully, "the western world is ready for a
full-blown philosophical explosion."

A version of this article originally appeared on the Web site

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