What is Stand Up Philosophy

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This blog charts my attempts, in whatever way I can, and whenever I can, and as honestly as possible, to stand up for thinking - real thinking, whether in philosophy or politics, or maths - Because thinking needs standing up for!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The two paths to performance philosophy

   A remark that is often made to me, as a stand up thinker, could be summarised as the following;
 How does one make philosophy dramatic, or exciting, or even relevant? Surely it is dry as dust, and boring? It is, after all, merely smug clever-idiots playing word games and never resolving anything...
Now I am not denying that this remark does cover rather a lot of what passes for philosophy. It has more than its fair share of logic choppers, and meaning(less) wallahs. And yet, the remark is surely wrong-headed for all that. For what is more exciting or more challenging or more simply interesting than really thinking? If philosophy is not fundamentally engaging, and engaging on some level for everyone, then it is nothing. The game is though, always to find that level, and it is this that the stand up show explores.
   There are essentially two main strategies which I have developed within the show. The first, attempts to really get under the personality of a thinker, or perhaps better, to give personality to their works. The aim is therefore to give life to thought, and explore how ideas relate to contexts, passions and history. In these pieces I am doing a lot of 'filling in' of the historical biographies of the thinker, but doing so almost incidentally, so that when I do it right, the audience should get the feeling of a cloud of events, a history which they can appreciate in itself (as another time) and yet also feel it reflects their times. It is out of these events and histories that the ideas I am developing, arise. More than that, the revelations of thinkers must comment upon or even resolve the passions such events cause, both then and now. The performance is therefore designed to build context, share emotions, and only then to really communicate ideas as a resolution to these situations and feelings.
 I hope you can see what I mean in this very short video.

   The second main approach is more obviously ideas-based. I love taking a thinker, or an idea that either we think we know very well, or else regard as frankly bizarre, or think of as too difficult to bother with, and then showing how, actually, in the context of our lives, the idea really does make sense and is important by performing it. I see myself as freeing ideas of their 'assumed' philosophical context, and letting them speak for themselves, and to our times once again. Take for example Leibniz's assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds. This argument was hooted out of history from Voltaire onwards. And yet, when you put it in the context of the kind of moral argument Leibniz was certainly making, it becomes a real proposition once again - a battle-cry which calls to us to be worthy of  life itself. The trick with the lectures is to pitch them right, so that although I am often 'doing real philosophy' in them, it does not feel too difficult to a general audience, and catches their attention long enough for them to get something out of it.
   I hope this video illustrates something of this.

For me, the point of philosophy, is that it is as challenging and as urgent as more conventional drama, and the game is merely to show that this really is the case. Does it work? I hope so, but judge for yourself.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hoping for Hecklers!

It finally happened - I always wanted one - a Heckler: For how else do you know this is Stand Up? And that you are really getting to people? I love the idea that the audience have the right to answer back, and think it great that people felt happy enough to do so (and that the ideas were worth answering) - but it did raise a problem mid-performance of how I should respond. This problem was all the more tricky as there was only a limited time (around five minutes) for this piece. I could not then simply become Kant ad libbing an answer (which was my instinct), and had to stay inside the essay. My answer was (and you can see it in the performance below), was to engage the heckler, trying to bring him to the argument. But the question was how to do it? Taking my cue from Kant, I felt I had to be gentle - as arguing with Kant is tricky - he is very very good (although always polite), and if you are not used to him, likely to blast you away (as he has usually thought of the problem you are raising...). One has therefore to genuinely be listening to the argument, and note, as one keeps going on, the point which will really answer the heckle.
  In this performance (and I hope you can see it), the answer to the heckler comes at the end - with Kant's masterful (but genuinely difficult) paradox - that in obeying, one is finally free. The point being that real freedom exists in thought alone, and in our human ability to argue and influence one another, and this true freedom is too often occluded or delimited by supposed freedoms 'to act'. Kant is therefore setting the two types of freedom - of 'action' and of 'thought' against each other, and arguing that one is worth protecting from the other. The heckle in the interest of the freedom to act is therefore very much caught within this paradox, and kind of illustrates Kant's point rather well... Which was of course why I was delighted.
  My main worry was that it might be too much to ask an audience to take Kant on. I wanted not to be too aggressive in the reply, and to allow the audience to feel that they can answer, and can position themselves in relation to the argument, while all at the time same being true to Kant. A difficult balancing act - and if you want to see if it proved possible, the video is here.