A DISMAL, drizzling evening had not deterred the students of the School of Economic Science from turning up for their weekly philosophy class. Around 50 were crammed into the lecture room: young men in pin- striped suits, women in sensible skirts and jumpers, twenty-somethings in jeans and fake fur. "I started coming because I felt there had to be more to life," explained Annie, a lawyer. "You need to take care of your mind and soul."
"The class is like being at a big, brilliant dinner party and not being stuck beside one person all evening," added Claire, a willowy blonde dressed all in black.
"As an actor, the more I understand others, the better I can do my job," said Carl. And how does the class affect you personally? "What is me personally?" he responded enigmatically.
"I work in a hospital, and these classes are very much like the group therapy sessions we run," one woman was telling another.
This evening's topic was states of mind and spirit; the lecturer was concentrating on Indian Sanskrit philosophy, with nods along the way to Shakespeare, Einstein, Jesus, Jane Austen, Wordsworth, Diogenes and Dylan Thomas. The school, founded in 1937, concentrates on Eastern philosophies and meditation. None of the teachers is paid, and there are no exams; the pupils study simply for the enjoyment of the lessons.
This class is not alone in its quest for enlightenment. Booksellers report that, far from being bought by the 13- to 18-year-olds it is aimed at, Sophie's World - a history of philosophy disguised as a teenage novel - is being snapped up by eager 20- to 30-year-olds. It has been top of the hardback best-seller list for the past two months, and has shifted 55,000 copies at £16.99 a throw. Sophie's World is only one of many new books that attempt to explain the basics for lay readers; others include What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, by Thomas Nagel, with a seven-page chapter summing up The Meaning of Life, and Icon Books' Wittgenstein for Beginners (far from a barrel of laughs, despite its cartoon format).
The School of Economic Science, with around 3,500 students nationwide, reports a definite upward trend in admissions. In London, more than 70 adult education courses are on offer. Mainstream universities such as Birkbeck College - which has one of the top philosophy departments in the country, and which specialises in part-time degree courses for mature students - are also having no problems filling their classes.
But why are grown-ups going back to the classroom to tackle one of the most intellectually demanding of subjects? Finding answers to Big Questions is part of it; but enlightenment is not instant. "At one of my introductory lectures I had drawn up a list of questions - what is truth, what is reality, what is right - that we would be looking at during the course," recalls Anthony Grayling, a lecturer at Birkbeck College. "One student came up at the end and said he wanted the answers straightaway."
One vital aspect of philosophy, he says, is learning to ask the right questions, rather than plunging straight into the meaning of life. "We all indulge in philosophical discussion; we all go to the pub, have a few drinks and start asking complicated questions. Here at Birkbeck we try to question intelligently, rather than getting confused, starting to argue and then giving up. For example, if you stopped someone in the street and asked them `What is truth?', assuming they didn't immediately call the police or an ambulance, how would they answer? You would need to be clear about what is meant by truth." So all big questions are even bigger on the inside than the outside? "Quite. Like the Tardis." Apparently, unravelling this kind of knot can become addictive. "Philosophy should have a big Government Health Warning stamped on it, because people fall in love with it and find it very absorbing."
In a Birkbeck tutorial, a second-term group was wrestling with a theory that statements can be neither true nor false. "Is that persuasive?" asked David Mitchell, the lecturer, who looks like a philosopher should - tall, enthu- siastic, with little glasses, a domed forehead, wild curly hair and a beard.
"It's ... plausible," volunteered Tom, after some thought. "That's a word philosophers use a lot," he explained. He is an education administrator, financing his own degree. "The lectures really liven me up - especially Fridays, when we have two, and I can go to Greek philosophy and ethics."
These are dedicated students. "I spend half my weekends writing or studying," said Jim, who works in desk-top publishing and graphic design. They both feel that philosophers are an undervalued breed. "There's a hospital in Toronto that hired a philosopher. I think it would be a good thing over here, for doctors and patients. And the Government should hire a few," said Jim. "Philosophers should run everything," said Tom. They seemed totally addicted; after an exhausting two-hour tutorial, they went off happily to a lecture on the principles of identity.
Philosophy may set out to tackle big questions; but one of the big questions about philosophy is why bother with this struggle in the first place? Personal satisfaction is one of the main reasons. "People are hungry for answers," says Anthony Grayling. "Philosophers reach their own answers through criticism and reflection. Religion is supermarket philosophy; it's like buying a can of belief off the shelf - you are allowing someone else to do your thinking."
A qualification in philosophy is a practical asset. According to Chris Janaway, senior lecturer at Birkbeck, philosophy graduates are in demand from enlightened employers who value their analytical and critical skills. Margaret Wallis, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, agrees. "Every employer wants people who can think logically, think on their feet, develop an argument, especially if they are looking for people who will be managers in complex situations. We've had philosophers going into advertising, journalism, social work, computing, finance, retail."
Other philosophical talents are sheer fun. Being able to sneer knowingly at the panel on Question Time is one of them. "I could see through politicians before, but now I turn off even more quickly because there is just no proper argument in what they say," says Tom.
"I evaluate more clearly," says Jim. "I recognise bullshit when I hear it, and I know why it's nonsense. I think in terms of arguments now, and often theirs just don't hang together."
And, of course, the subject has a certain cachet. "Our lecturers were just so cool, the coolest in the university," sighed a Leeds university graduate.
Philosophy's new modishness reflects Nineties zeitgeist, suggests Irene Reid, philosophy lecturer at Langside College, Glasgow. She also edits The Oyster Club, a philosophy magazine for "intelligent lay people", published through Glasgow University - the magazine's circulation has trebled in the three years since its launch, and she is taking on extra help. "There really is an upsurge in interest, and I think it may be connected with the Nineties backlash against the Eighties. In the Eighties, people really lost their way. It's a bit like therapy - you may not find happiness but you will get an idea of what life means."
Some philosophers, however, believe the sudden fashion is superficial, and not altogether welcome. "The media has hooked into it," says Pamela Jenks, a philosophy tutor at the Mary Ward Centre in London who favours "a European Kantian-Hegelian approach". "The hard thing is distinguishing real philosophy from cocktail conversation - bandying vague ideas around with names attached. You need to really work at it. It's like a puzzle, you can only see the totality after years of fitting the pieces together."
Nigel Warburton, author of Philosophy The Basics (about to go into its second reprint) and lecturer at the Open University, where philosophy is an obligatory part of the foundation degree course, is also sceptical. "Sophie's World seems to be saying that if you cultivate a sense of wonder, that makes you a philosopher," he says. "There's more to it than that. You're not learning how to be a sophisticated football commentator. You're learning how to kick the ball yourself."
Football and philosophy are not obvious partners. But the connection is there, according to Michael Robinson, editor of La Philosophie de Cantona, to be published at the end of the month. "It's a collection of Eric Cantona's views in the tradition of French philosophers. Camus was a footballer, you know. Perhaps all French footballers are philosophers and get together before the game to talk philosophy, not tactics. Philosophers are treated more seriously over there - they are cult figures. In Britain, many of them out there aren't recognised. Every pub I've ever been in has one." A sample of Cantona's oeuvre: "Life is always too cruel. All we can do is say let's try to pass the ball and let the sun shine. Let's just hope it shines on everyone."
Former Manchester United manager Dave Sexton studied philosophy at the Open University. "You have to wrestle with it. But it helps you think on your feet when you're asked questions in the public eye, instead of thinking of good answers three days too late. To be a good coach you need to put things in a nutshell, speak clearly, give advice simply, philosophy helps with that. And football managers need to be philosophers, just to keep things in perspective," he added somewhat ruefully.
Philosophy has not always been the people's choice, as landlord Noel Reilly discovered when he engaged the dissident Czech academic Dr Julius Tomin to deliver nine half-hour lectures in the Beehive pub in Swindon in 1988. "His great interest was Plato, though he disagreed with his fellow philosophers about the chronological sequence of Plato's works," explained Reilly at the time. Unfortunately, Dr Tomin delivered only four lectures. "He was a nervous man. I think the hurly-burly of the public house upset him," said Reilly, whose attempts to turn his pub into a "place of culture" sadly ended in bankruptcy. Perhaps he was simply ahead of his time.
THOSE PHILOSOPHERS IN BRIEF
Socrates (circa 469-399BC): First to get down to those "What's it all about then?" questions. Too clever for his own good: forced to drink hemlock by the exasperated Greek senate for making them (and everyone else) look silly.
Plato (c428-347BC): His imaginary Republic, a state governed by philosophers, had no private property, men and women were to be equal, and sweets were to be banned on health grounds.
Aristotle (384-322BC): Multi-talented philosopher, metaphysician, biologist and scientist. Came up with the concept of logic - following known facts through to a valid conclusion. But still somehow believed women were "unfinished men", and that goats breathed through their ears.
St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): Reconciled Aristotle's philosophy with Catholic theology. Made a list of things even God can't do, such as undoing the past and making the sum of the angles of a triangle not two right angles.
Descartes (1596-1650): Father of modern philosophy; raised the question of the relationship between body and mind. Began by doubting everything, including reality. He resolved this by realising the one thing he could be certain of was that he was doubting everything; therefore he was thinking, therefore he had to be a thinking being. "I think, therefore I am," he famously concluded, to the great relief of one and all.
Kant (1724-1804): His great contribution to European thought was the Critique of Pure Reason. Argued that the mind's innate knowledge of time, space and causality gave structure to our perception. Keen on precisely timed afternoon walks.
Sartre (1905-1980): Existentialist. Believed the world exists for no particular reason; humans come from nothing, return to nothing, and it's up to every individual to make sense of their own life. Re- sponsible for a whole generation suddenly realising that there was potentially absolutely no reason to bother getting up in the morning.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies