Rick Lewis Skypes me, mug of Lemsip in hand, from a homely-looking office which, from what I can see, boasts no sign of its role in the editing and publication of a popular magazine. Rick himself is relaxed and friendly, but on reflection, I can’t think of a better demeanour to have if you had set yourself the task to not only establish the world’s first ever philosophy magazine, but to make it accessible to anyone by selling it through high street news agents.
Still going strong after twenty-four years of publication, the magazine’s most popular topic among both readers and writers is existentialism – “we get people writing in if we don’t do an issue on [it] every few months” he tells me. The supposition is that this is because “it touches on people’s every day lives”. Indeed, the popularity of this world view, which puts personal freedom and choice at the heart of existence, is attested to by the current edition’s piece on Camus, who happens to be one of the very few philosophers this author has ever read. Interestingly, the magazine also features existentialist analyses of “texts whose authors might never have thought of themselves in that way”, which reminds me of the critical approaches I studied in A Level English Literature. Perhaps, as seems to be Rick’s life goal to prove, philosophy is not a dry, academic discipline, isolated from the rest of culture.
A magazine whose articles attempt to grapple with life’s most profound and difficult questions cannot be easy to edit. Rick tries to choose pieces “which present well-reasoned, well-argued points”, regardless of whether he agrees with their conclusion. As well as good editorial policy – he would worry that the magazine would be “boring” otherwise – this fits with Rick’s more general attitude towards the philosophical works he reads.
“If I find I really don’t like a book, I stop reading it after a few chapters… I can’t think of anything I’d tell someone not to read” – Rick clearly prefers to be challenged by an interesting alternative point of view, provided it’s put across convincingly. His favourite philosopher is David Hume, but he’s always interested in reading something new. This extends to works by philosophers from different traditions around the world – he’s very interested in whether my Arabic and Persian degree touches on Middle Eastern philosophers like the ever-relevant Ibn Khaldun, a renowned political theorist from North Africa. However, he observes that, as it is, the articles he is sent seem to self-select in favour of works on European and some North American writers.
Keeping philosophy as a discipline fresh and open to new ideas seems to have been part of what motivated Rick to introduce the idea of “Pub Philosophy” to the UK. Although he now prefers attending discussions to the stresses of an organisational role, Rick was instrumental in translating the French idea of cafés philosophiques into contemporary English. For him, there’s great value in encouraging people from different backgrounds to engage in philosophical discussion – “you don’t need to know lots about the history of philosophy”, because reflecting on issues such as liberty and equality (the theme of Philosophy Now’s current issue) is fundamental.
The movement may also, one suspects, be useful in dispelling some of the misconceptions about his discipline – “people say, oh, how interesting, then ask questions which make it clear they think it’s something to do with psychology”. This confusion hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s interesting to think about how the two disciplines might overlap – could a psychologist bring new perspectives to discussions on how human beings approach life? The other response Rick gets to calling himself a student of philosophy is the well-meaning question “what’s your philosophy?”.
As might be expected, Rick is a keen advocate of the value of studying philosophy at university, pointing out that “the kind of thinking skills you learn in a philosophy degree can be useful in careers like law”. However, he’s also in favour of the philosophical approach to life’s big questions being introduced much earlier on, encouraged that “there’s now evidence that children who have philosophy classes at school seem to do better in other subjects, like maths and English”. We also agree that children might well contribute fascinating new perspectives to existing philosophical debates – in Rick’s personal experience, they come up with really challenging, interesting questions.
At the end of our conversation, I can see why Rick has been so successful in promoting accessible philosophy throughout his career. His own passion, combined with a genuine belief that philosophy is for everyone, makes the idea of picking up a copy of Philosophy Now much less intimidating.