Friday, March 7, 2014

Philosophy from a distance

'How did Pathways get started? Where did you get the idea from?' are questions that I am frequently asked. Like many projects that end up consuming virtually all of one's time and energy, Pathways began as just a passing idea. The following article originally appeared in The Philosopher, Vol LXXXV No 1, Spring 1997.

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BROWSING through a second-hand shop a couple of years ago, I came across a complete Charles Atlas course dating from the 50's. It was poignant to imagine the recipient in his living room, tensing and stretching through those lonely weeks and months, dreaming all the while of newsprint images of men posing as Greek statues, and bullies with sand kicked in their faces.

Following a distance learning program in philosophy might seem like the intellectual equivalent of the Charles Atlas course. However, there is one vital difference. Instead of slavishly rehearsing exercises, you stretch your mind through an extended process of dialogue. You learn to think and argue with someone who can argue back. Above all, philosophy is about the meeting of two minds in the pursuit of truth, the Socratic art and science of dialectic.

The idea of starting a correspondence school of philosophy first came to me as I shuffled through the yellowing sheets with their blurred sketches of arms, legs and torsos. How would you do it? What would you call it? I pictured paths through a forest with travellers and their guides converging on a central clearing. Anyway, the name seemed right. Pathways to Philosophy.

Give the student a choice of half a dozen self-contained, book length programs. Divide each program up into, say, fifteen units to be posted at fortnightly intervals. Be prepared to respond at length to your students' notes and queries, the thoughtful and the bizarre, sending back detailed annotations with each essay. Make sure to designate times when you will be there at the other end of a telephone line in case a student needs a bit of extra support, or gets stuck, or just wants a sounding board. These are the basic ingredients you need for a correspondence school of philosophy. And one more thing. You will have to write — or find — around half a million words of original course materials.

What kind of person joins a distance learning program in philosophy? Or, more to the point, what kind of person ought to join? Any seven-stone weakling can develop muscles given time, but to learn philosophy you need a genuine appetite for the subject. If you are simply tired of losing arguments and want to win some for a change, then you would benefit more from assertiveness counselling. If you want to dazzle your friends and enemies with your argumentative and rhetorical skills, then a legal training will serve your needs nicely. But if you have a taste for high altitudes; if you are not looking for an idea, or a person, to follow; if you value honesty above certainty, and freedom of thought above all else, then — possibly — a Pathway to Philosophy may be just the thing you are seeking.

Geoffrey Klempner

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A brief history of

Yesterday evening, I re-watched The Social Network (2010) by David Fincher, with Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Despite the warts-and-all portrayal I liked Zuckerberg in the movie (I don't have any real notion of what Mark is like in 'real life'). The way Mark was prepared to act ruthlessly to protect his creation is something I could sympathize with from my own experience with Pathways to Philosophy.

The split with the Philosophical Society of England which led to the formation of the International Society of Philosophers in 2002 is a case in point. (I've talked about this in Glass House Philosopher Notebook I, page 133.) When it is clear to you that the people you are working with don't understand what is at stake or what needs to be done in order to carry the project through, then you have to do it your way and face the consequences.

But watching the movie also made me realize that my original idea for is that it would be everything that Facebook is not. And not in the relatively trivial ways that Twitter or the more 'serious' LinkedIn differ. is an ultra-minimal networking hub. It offers the only thing that knowledge seekers really need or want: as it says in the blurb, a chance to, 'Link up. Get help. Share ideas.' And that's it. No fancy API. No running total of your 'friends' or 'contacts' to boast about. No fascinating discussions of TV soaps or pictures of funny cats. 'It's all about your mind.'

Socrates would have approved.

You say a little bit about yourself and the kind of 'study partner' (a quaint phrase, I know!) you're looking for on your Profile page. If someone is interested, they can contact you on your social media page, if you have one, or on your StudyPartners Contact page.

(I hope that Rebecca doesn't mind my giving her page as an example, as she was the first to request a StudyPartners Contact page, after our recent upgrade.)

When you write your StudyPartners Profile, just be yourself. You don't have to sell yourself. You've got nothing to prove. You are not applying for a job! Just looking for knowledge seekers who are like you.

Originally, one idea we had was to offer StudyPartners a 1–1 conferencing space (moderated if necessary) but there were too few takers, and the idea soon paled. Email is a much better way to talk, less artificial, than a web page where everything you say, including things you wouldn't have said if you'd thought about it more, is up there more or less permanently.

The nice thing about StudyPartners, however, is that you don't have to publicize your precious email address and risk getting spammed, or worse. Your social media or StudyPartners Contact page acts as a buffer. Once you get to know someone, then you can exchange emails.

At the end of the day, the proof of a networking concept is whether people are actually prepared to sign up. Over the last few months, things have been picking up. It looks as though we might actually have a success on our hands. Not in Facebook terms, but this was never about numbers.

Small can be beautiful.

Geoffrey Klempner