Wansha Philosophy Salon

My own philosophical education happened more or less by accident. In my twenties, I was a serious practitioner of Buddhism. I lived in a succession of Buddhist communities, working in temporary jobs, living on a shoestring, and spending my days writing and meditating. It was not financially sustainable in the long term, and the books I wrote at the time were all more or less unpublishable; but during these years of Buddhist practice, I had the luxury of having time to think. Several friends from back then — who are still friends today — were philosophically inclined. So we read Buddhist philosophy, and Kant, and Epicurus, and Martha Nussbaum, and the Stoics, and this was pretty much how my early philosophical education started — through conversation, and friendship, and an attempt to grapple with the business of living.

Later, I signed up for a PhD at Staffordshire University. I studied part-time, and because I hadn’t studied philosophy before and had some catching up to do, I found myself a couple of small jobs teaching adult education in Birmingham, where I was living. I proposed a one-year philosophy course for beginners, calling it “From Heraclitus to Heidegger: An Introduction to Philosophy.” And for the following months, with a rag-tag group of philosophers, we worked through the Western canon of philosophy, reading big chunks of Plato and Aristotle, Hegel and Schopenhauer.

Over the years of my PhD, I continued to teach philosophy courses, following my nose, filling in the gaps. One of my favourite classes was in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens study centre, where a flock of spirited and badly-behaved pensioners came to chat about philosophy every Friday afternoon. They were raucous good fun. Twice a week, I commuted from Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent, where I took part in philosophy reading groups and met with my supervisor. By now, my Buddhists commitments were waning, but I continued to talk to Buddhist friends about this and that. And this, more or less, is how I came to learn philosophy: through talking through texts and ideas with people who were, in the main, not professional philosophers. Through conversation.

As the end of my PhD loomed, I wondered about next steps. Should I apply for a post as a philosophy academic? But I was not entirely sure that the idea of a being a professional philosopher made sense (I’m still not). To profess — and what else do professionals and professors do? — is to declare publicly. Now, public declarations are all very well, if you know what you want to say, or what you think. But part of philosophy is, for me, developing a habit of unease about what you think, holding back on public declarations so that you have time to think a bit more deeply, with greater nuance (though see what I’ve written elsewhere on deep amateurism and deep professionalism). On the other hand, to be an amateur is to be a lover. It is about doing something because it matters to you, because it gives shape to your life, because, well, you love doing it. So if philosophy is indeed the love of wisdom, I began to suspect that amateurs have a head start. As a result, I instead accepted a job teaching creative writing, thinking — correctly, it turned out — that this would give me a bit more room to move.

Because of my commitment to amateurism, I have always felt less than at home in the academy. In academic settings, I rarely feel that I have the elbow room I crave — the freedom to think, and discuss, and explore, and be wrong, without getting tangled up in anxieties about professional standing, and without being too oppressed by instrumental demands. And this is why I have preferred to continue doing most of what I do as a philosopher outside academic circles. Give me an Epicurean garden over a stuffy seminar room any day.

This is one reason why I’m particularly delighted to have started a new project here in Tainan. A few months ago, I was wandering past the wonderful Wansha Performing Arts Centre (涴莎藝術展演中心), when I fell into conversation with Mr. Chen, the director. He invited me in for tea, we got chatting, and over the months that followed as our conversations developed, we ended up making a plan for a series of public philosophy salons. The salons meet monthly on a Saturday afternoon, and we get together to read and talk about philosophy together in English and Chinese. Our first salon was just over a week ago, where we discussed the philosophy of music, exploring the ideas of Plato and Xunzi, and listening to music from Burmese punk to Sun Ra, from Grieg to the Thai Elephant Orchestra, and from Taiwanese indigenous music to Stockhausen.

The Wansha Performing Arts Centre is a beautiful space — much closer to my Epicurean ideals than to the professional world of the academy. And the salon is entirely free to attend, which feels as it should be. We are continuing this little Epicurean experiment for the rest of the year, so if you are in Tainan (and why wouldn’t you be — it’s on the National Geographic cool list for 2024), then come along. But I’m also using the salon to give extra impetus to Looking for Wisdom, and I will be publishing regular articles on the website after each salon, talking about the issues that we have been exploring. So even if you can’t make it to Tainan, you can get a flavour of our conversations. Because, for me, it has always been the case that conversation is where philosophy flourishes.

Image: Scholars in Conversation, Eastern Han Dynasty. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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