Get your brain in gear: Pop philosophy is taking over the bookshops

Does cycling have anything to do with philosophy? What about tortoises, baked beans – or even porn? Think about it, and you might be surprised...

Joy Lo Dico@joy_lo_dico
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:33

Sitting on many a bookshelf gathering dust is that old staple, Bertrand Russell's 900-page A History of Western Philosophy. Published in 1945, it was one of the few books which aimed to open up philosophy to the masses. By turns opinionated and obscure, fluid and even amusing, it was in its day a commercial success and an oddity.

Today, however, booksellers devote whole stands to popular philosophy, and this autumn alone sees a wave of new releases headed to the shelves. There is Philosophy Bites by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton (OUP, £9.99), a series of bite-sized interviews with philosophers taken from the authors' podcast series. If bite-sized, 10-minute reads are not brief enough, there is 30-Second Philosophies, compiled by Barry Loewer (Icon, £12.99), a beautiful, graphically illustrated guide to the movers and shakers in the past two millennia of thinking. Meanwhile, Wiley-Blackwell, a US publisher, has produced a series of books – meditations of sorts – under the banner of "Philosophy for Everyone", on subjects as various as cycling, gardening, motherhood and pornography. And the great moral philosopher Simon Blackburn has brought out a volume of essays, unmissable for its title alone: Practical Tortoise Raising.

This pile of paper cannot help but make one think: when did we start reading so much popular philosophy? Pop-science and "think" books of the Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics school, jaunty theses about social science, probability and economics, now regularly pepper the bestseller lists. The ever-popular self-help genre continues to offer an easily digestible diet of light behavioural science and psychology, with big returns for publishers. But surely philosophy – the study of unanswerable questions – cannot be packaged the same way?

David Avital, the acting senior editor of philosophy at Continuum Books, and previously at the academic publisher Routledge, has witnessed the growth of popular- philosophy publishing over the past decade.

"Prior to working in publishing I worked as a bookseller in Waterstone's, and saw a definite appetite for higher-brow self-help books," he says. "CS Lewis on bereavement and Alain de Botton sold well. But part of the success at the moment is really because of Philosophy Bites. Turning it into a book will prove whether there is a reading audience too."

The podcast has certainly changed the dynamics of the popular philosophy market. A low-fi production of brief discussions with established thinkers, it has become a sleeper hit, boasting 7.5 million downloads and appearances in the iTunes top ten. Warburton, who has also written two introductory books on philosophy, has been surprised by the reach. His listeners, he has discovered, vary from decision-makers in the White House to a soldier who contacted him from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Warburton knows that he's not pioneering the field. "There was CEM Joad on Radio 4's The Brains Trust; a great commentator. And then books such as Sophie's World [by Jostein Gaarder] and De Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy that, from time to time, hit the bestsellers list. It may be that, once there's been a breakthrough, and there's a popular philosophy shelf in the store, it becomes easier to do other books. They sell each other," he suggests.

That they appear at all is contrary to trends in universities, adds Warburton, who is a senior lecturer at the Open University. "In academia, it is increasingly about specialising now. If anything, that specialisation discourages people from producing these sorts of wide-ranging books. Possibly, the low academic salaries are encouraging them!"

De Botton, who classes himself as a writer rather than a philosopher, concurs. "For the past 150 years, to be a philosopher meant to be employed by a university, and with that came a certain approach to footnoting, teaching the government curriculum, and so on. But as more jobs and salaries are cut, suddenly those sitting tightly in the academy are forced to start to talk to a wider audience as a means of survival."

What is gaining traction in the books market, however, is the opposite of the academic. It is the philosophy of the everyday. Warburton writes a column on the subject for Prospect magazine. In Practical Tortoise Raising, one essay begins with the quandary of how to choose which beans to buy in a supermarket. And it is applied philosophy that is the driving force behind the Philosophy for Everyone series.

The volume on cycling, for example, features an essay on the implications of performance-enhancing drugs and a phenomenological appreciation of a bicycle ride by a philosopher who is also a keen amateur mountain cyclist. Another contributor, who almost qualified for the Olympics cycling team when younger, writes about the virtue of performance, of pushing one's body to the limit, and what an "honest" victory or defeat means. (Einstein claimed that the theory of relativity occurred to him while he was on two wheels: one begins to suspect that the existence of so many cycling thinkers may be no accident.) Such is its range that Cycling (Wiley-Blackwell, £11.99) is a book which could live as easily on the sport shelves as the philosophy or cultural studies shelves.

How one markets philosophy is key to attracting readers. Avital believes that there are two strategies for getting it into the popular market. One he calls the "straight-ball" approach, which has been taken with Gary Cox, the author of How to Be an Existentialist. The subject of his new book, How to Be a Philosopher, is obvious from its title. Inside, he reads like a jovial college professor trying to enthuse first-year students, with reflections on Red Dwarf nudging up against David Hume. That is a direct sell. "We want someone to buy that because they want to be the smartest person in the room," says Avital. "There is a vanity aspect to the purchase. You want to be seen reading a philosophy book on the Tube."

The other strategy is the "curveball" approach taken by Practical Tortoise Raising or Julian Baggini's Should You Judge This Book by its Cover?. "Some books have intriguing titles where it's not clear straight away what they are about. That draws you in."

This is not to say that, once one has opened the book, all popular philosophy is equal. One academic, who declined to be named, points out that there is a distinction between popular philosophy of the sort associated with De Botton, which has a broad appeal but in his opinion not much worth, and accessible philosophy, wherein a master of the discipline – Blackburn being an example – can attract an audience at a higher level.

De Botton naturally disagrees. He sees "popular philosophy" used as a term of disparagement, but does not believe the distinction should be made. "There isn't popular poetry and then just poetry, so why this in philosophy?" He puts it down to "an incredible amount of snobbery".

"If you are popular, you must be thick, so the thinking goes," he adds. "Simon Schama must be 1,000 times thicker than a fellow historian because he is on TV. Simon Blackburn told me he sells lots of copies, but he has to be careful not to reveal how many to his colleagues at Cambridge because it's seen as not quite acceptable."

But while popular philosophy continues to define its territory and its image, what about the implied "unpopular" philosophy: the old heroes such as Aristotle and Hume? It seems that, with a little sprucing up of their covers, they still sell too. Continuum has a range of repackaged modern classics in its Impacts series, which includes Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida. They have been "phenomenally popular", says Avital, and people such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek still count among the publisher's bestsellers. Even the ancients do well.

"Some of our biggest sellers are the perennially interesting things such as Plato," says Avital. "If you get a good translation, or someone who writes in a clear style, such as Roger Scruton or Bertrand Russell, then they keep on being read." n

The extract

Practical Tortoise Raising, By Simon Blackburn (OUP £25)

'..."There we are," announced Achilles, in triumph. "Reason prevails!"

"Well, that is certainly a change," said the tortoise, "and yet sometimes, well, I am not sure how important rationality is. I certainly get these urges to act against reason, don't you know. I am really quite good with that kind of akrasia; in fact I rather enjoy it."

"Holy Apollo!" exclaimed Achilles'

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