Picture the scene. It’s the third week of a nationally advertised philosophy course. The tutor has been asked about the relationship between rationality and logic, and the students wait expectantly for his answer. Listen, he says, this is logic. “All trains are long. All coaches are long. Therefore, all trains are coaches.” That is logic, and it is no good for anything at all. There is absolutely no relationship between rationality and logic.” Couldn’t happen? Well it did. Welcome to Introductory Philosophy, courtesy of The School of Economic Science (SES).
The Philosophers’ Magazine had for some time been intrigued by the high profile advertising campaign of the SES. If you are a frequent user of the London Underground then doubtless you’ll have spotted their posters, promising Practical Philosophy for 12 weeks. And Guardian readers will have seen their adverts offering “…lectures, discussion and practical exercises… [taking] students through an exploration of how daily life can be informed and governed by the love of wisdom.” Our interest was further piqued by the knowledge that the SES has been the subject of quite some controversy. In 1981, for example, a student complained to the Advertising Standards Association that the “philosophy” on offer in the introductory course was nothing of the sort. And two years later, the Evening Standard ran a series of articles which claimed that the SES was essentially an Eastern religious cult, one whose influence over its members was far from benign.
Thus, it was with a little trepidation that in late April I headed towards the SES headquarters in Queen’s Gate, South Kensington, for the first of the 12 lectures. Initial impressions were mixed. I was struck by the grandeur of the buildings, which were clearly worth millions. It was also obvious that any attempt to disguise a “religious” agenda would not be unsophisticated, for as soon as I entered the building, I was able to pick up a pamphlet advertising “[A] series of Sunday morning lectures and a one-day seminar devoted to the Goddesses of Wisdom”. And the atmosphere was strange. Imagine a large accountants` firm in the 1950s, and you’ll get a sense of it. It was partly down to dress codes – the men, on the whole, wearing suits and ties, and the women, in a manner reminiscent of The Stepford Wives, long-flowing dresses.
Registration was easy enough – £60-00 for the twelve lectures – and I soon found myself sitting in a classroom with some 20 other students. Our tutor was David Williams, a barrister in his fifties. He gave us the low-down on the SES. It was founded in the 1930s, with the aim of studying “the natural laws governing the relations between men in society”. Its original concern was with economics, but during the 1950s this was widened to include philosophy. It is a world-wide organisation, with offshoots in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the Netherlands. In the last fifty years or so, the London branch has had some 130,000 students through its doors. It was also emphasised that the tutors themselves remain students of the school, attending their own study-groups, and that they offer their services on a voluntary basis.
The first lesson began with a discussion of the meaning of the word philosophy, which was defined as “love of wisdom”. It was emphasised that philosophy is necessarily practical – and that it involves “searching out the words of the wise, putting them into practice in everyday life, and holding to them if they pass the test of experience.” It did not take long before alarm bells began to ring in my head. It seemed to me that the tutor was making a number of rather bizarre claims. For example, within half an hour of the start of the lesson, we had been taught: that Socrates had proved that our souls had existed before our birth (although the tutor conceded that he could not remember precisely where this had been proved); that evidence suggested that even those people in the deepest states of unconsciousness, presumably including the most serious of persistent vegetative states, have awareness; and that it is desirable that one should devote one’s full attention to every action that one undertakes, even the most mundane of these.
This tactic of assertion, deprived of context or demonstration, was characteristic of every lecture that I attended. It very quickly created the impression that the tutor was not in full command of his material. To give but one example: in an early lesson, the class spent over an hour discussing the nature of selective attention. During this time, the tutor made no reference to the wealth of established research on the topic (e.g., Broadbent; Treisman; Deutsch and Deutsch etc). The SES position on attention runs contrary to any prevailing orthodoxy. To neglect to mention this fact, indeed to be seemingly unaware of it, demonstrates an alarming ignorance or a wilful disinterest in counter-evidence.
So what is the content of the philosophy on offer from the SES? According to their literature, it is embodied in the notion of Advaita, a Sanskrit word meaning “not two, not many”. It is in essence a philosophy of unity, and involves the claim that there is an identity between the individual Self (the Atman) and the universal Self (the Brahman). Meditation is central to the philosophy, being seen as the technique whereby individuals, by stilling their minds, come into closer connection with the Absolute. The SES philosophy is based most significantly on the Hindu vedanta (one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy), particularly as espoused by the medieval Indian philosopher Shankara. However, there are other sources, perhaps most significantly the writings of the Renaissance, neo-Platonist philosopher Ficino, and the mystics Gurdjiieff and Ouspensky. Interestingly, though, in SES terms, the distinction between one and many sources is blurred, since they all represent and partake of a single universal Truth.
The fact that the SES is offering a philosophy to its students and not providing a general philosophy course throws up a number of interesting issues. The most significant of these is whether students are being misled by the school. It is true that if one reads the details of their literature then it is clear enough that the lectures are underpinned by an Eastern philosophy. However, unless one has some prior knowledge of the normal content of more traditional philosophy courses, then this will not appear to be at all out of the ordinary. Also, it is quite possible to arrive in the classroom for the first lecture, as I did, having seen only a newspaper advertisement for the school, where it is not made clear that it is a philosophy that is on offer. Indeed, some of the students that I spoke to had not been aware that they were not getting a traditional philosophy course. One told me that he had been so puzzled by the content of the first lesson that he had mentioned the SES to a friend, and had been shocked to discover that the school had the reputation of being “some kind of religious cult.”
There is also a more subtle way in which the SES is open to the accusation that it misleads its students. The lectures themselves are presented as exercises in Socratic dialogue. However, it is at least arguable that they are nothing of the sort. Socratic dialogues in their original form are exercises in “refutation” (or elenchus), and involve the imaginary Socrates drawing out the inconsistencies in an interlocutor`s position, in order to demonstrate the falsity of a posited thesis. However, in the SES form, dialogue is simply a vehicle to hand down a truth that has already been established. As Hounam and Hogg put it: “…students are not taking part in some philosophical free-for-all. Although no one has yet told them, they are receiving instruction in the Truth [Secret Cult, p. 98].”
I put this point, that it is misleading to call a technique Socratic, when its sole function is to pass down a Truth that is already set in stone, to David Boddy, spokesperson for the SES and one time press advisor to Margaret Thatcher. “Well, there’s more than one way of interpreting Socrates”, he said. “Also, early on in the course it is stated, ‘Don’t accept. Don’t reject.’ And that is really a fundamental Socratic principle.” However, Boddy conceded that ultimately the SES is committed to a certain view of the truth. “Obviously, a person is always free to keep their opinions, but do people go to these philosophy classes in order to have their opinions confirmed or do they go to these philosophy classes in order to open up the possibility that perhaps what they thought to be right and true, may have some question marks about it? Certainly in the early phases of the school, a lot of people say, ‘Well, I thought this, but I hear what you say, and through my experience there is some validity in it, so I think I’ll carry on with it, and it is a progressive process.”
This idea that people who pass through the school find something valuable in what is being taught came across in conversations with my fellow students. A number of them were very positive about the school. “It has given me a sense of perspective”, said one, “and has enabled me to look at what is going on in my life with a new objectivity.” Another was enthusiastic about the relaxation exercise that had been taught. “I have done meditation before,” she said, “but it has never really worked. This time it’s different, and…well, it’s great!”
But, of course, the fact that some students find the lessons valuable establishes neither that the teaching techniques employed are honest nor that the philosophy that is taught is benign. Not surprisingly, David Boddy is keen to emphasise the positive value of The School of Economic Science. “We’re not a malicious organisation,” he says. “We stand for certain principles. We encourage people who come to the school to live in a certain way. It’s pretty harmless. It’s not subversive. It holds to certain family values. And it values marriage and all that kind of stuff.”
So is this a persuasive view? Is it the case that the SES, whilst perhaps slightly eccentric, is essentially a benign organisation, which functions to broaden the outlook of those students who attend its courses? In the end, the answer to this question will depend on where one stands on the other issues discussed in this piece. Firstly, there is the charge that the SES is guilty of misleading its students. Its advertising promises a course in Practical Philosophy. The reality is that the course is a mechanism for the delivery of a particular philosophical system. Is this disingenuous? Secondly, there is the fact that they present as revealed truths, a number of ideas that in other contexts would be regarded as truly bizarre. For example, the notion that women should dress in long, flowing dresses, in order to remind men of the true nature of femininity. Thirdly, there is the fact that the school has in the past been the subject of a number a serious allegations, the truth of which it is hard to establish. And finally, there is the fact the SES espouses a conservative social vision, which celebrates traditional gender roles and sexual mores. How one views these issues, will ultimately determine how one views The School of Economic Science.