Subway Philosophy

Saturday January 19, 2008

A friend used to comment as we walked the ad-saturated streets of New York that I seem unduly influenced by advertisements. Maybe so.

One ubiquitous ad is the subway car campaign of The School of Practical Philosophy. It describes the school as "chartered by the Regents of the State of New York", which means nearly nothing as far as I can tell, and certainly doesn't indicate a relationship between The School of Practical Philosophy and any public institution of education such as the New York State or City colleges.

Curious, and seeking a convenient opportunity to be a student again rather than a teacher, I credited $175 to sign up for the ten-week "Philosophy Works" class they advertise. This is, it turns out, a first and introductory course in a long sequence.

The class is not an academic survey of philosophy, although some people might not realize this from the ads. The philosophy taught is one presented implicitly as the distilled truth of the universe, what they call "perennial philosophy". In this way it seems like a sort of academic Godless religion, like an Eastern version of Unitarian Universalism in classrooms. To be sure, however, they make no effort to present it in this way.

This is all a bit weird and cultish, but my curiosity leads me to continue wondering if it might not be just what I'm looking for. A couple months ago I was playing with the idea of visiting New York's "All Souls" Unitarian Universalist congregation. I read a sermon on their site that I agreed with. The thesis of the sermon was that it's hard to feel committed to a religion that says basically nothing of its own. So I didn't go.

Whether it's philosophy or surrogate for religion, I went to my first class this past Saturday. The building, a converted row house under a block from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is plush in the old style of dark woodwork and glass, giving the impression of gilt surfaces without actually flashing metal. They also run Philosophy Day School there, for kids through fourth grade or so. Large pictures of active kids adorn the walls in the stairwells.

There was not a lot of content as such in the 2.5-hour session. The volunteer "tutor" spent considerable time soliciting individuals' reasons for coming to study philosophy. He eventually gave us etymology of "philosophy" to mean "the love of wisdom". Wisdom was defined as "the knowledge to enable life to be lived truly and happily". He had the class suggest characteristics of a wise man or woman. Our first "homework" (not called that explicitly) was to consider "What would a wise man or woman do in this situation?" through the next week.

At the beginning of the class our tutor described some of the other and ongoing classes offered, and mentioned that meditation is offered beginning in the second year of study. In fact, The Exercise that we closed the first session of the introductory class with is a form of simple meditation. I believe I recall from the web site that the later meditation involves a mantra. It was recommended that we practice The Exercise (always capitalized) twice a day through the coming week. It amounts to sitting quietly and being casually aware of yourself and your surroundings.

One of the big claims seems to be that wisdom is innate, but needs drawing out. In a sense, it's a very constructivist system, at least on the surface. That was really about it for the first class. I am withholding judgment for now. In fact, that's a major directive at this school: "Don't accept and don't reject; try it out in practice." You can interpret that as either unthinkingly acceptive or thoroughly experimental. We'll see. A British writer has a piece about his experience with the originating organization in the UK, called the School of Economic Science there. His piece is called "Course or Cult?" and he leans toward cult. I haven't experienced anything as strange as what he reports yet, but my eyes will be wide open looking for it. If nothing else, it should be an interesting experience.

Subway Philosophy
Week One
Week Two
Week Three

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