24 July 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do people need to join clubs?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a topic very close to our heart: why do
people need to join clubs? At face value this does not seem to be a
philosophical question, but as I try to show, this question is more than
just a philosophical question. But I'll let you discover why I say this
when you read the essay.

I do, however, apologise for any typos and errors which I might have
overlooked in the rush to get this essay out by this morning. Have a
good long weekend holiday and see you Sunday.

Take care



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Why do people need to join clubs?

There are a number of issues that make this question also a
philosophical question. However, given the interdisciplinary nature of
the question we might also have to establish whether this is a subject
relevant to theoretical philosophy or applied philosophy or both. And
how does this question affect us philosophically. My plan is to give a
general idea of how and why this is also a philosophical question.

We also need to widen the scope and meaning of the word "club" since
although some groups are not called clubs they share many aspects of
what we normally understand by the word club. Or use some other term
such as group, society, or association, or simply nothing.

Then there are groups that do not necessarily follow the same model of
clubs we might be more familiar with. For example, I am thinking of
debating groups, tertulias, ex.pat groups, or even a group of friends
who meet at the local bar to play cards or whatever.

In some countries, for example England and Wales, they have a legal
structure to regulate clubs. Most of these relate to the legal status of
a group, the rules that govern club constitutions and so on. I won't
consider the legal and historical context of clubs since this most
probably falls outside the ambit of philosophy. For example, the private
gentlemen's clubs in London or the Salons so famous in Paris.

How do clubs, in our extended meaning, fit within theoretical and
applied philosophy? I would say that issues pertaining to the Person
would probably belong to theoretical philosophy. For example, personal
identity, social interaction, emotional feelings, personal objectives,
interacting with groups and group interactions, the sense of belonging
and so on.

The nature and scope of clubs that would belong to applied philosophy
would include clubs connected with political ideology, religious
beliefs, commercial interests, the sharing of knowledge or information.
There are also clubs that go beyond group gatherings, for example
football clubs, chambers of commerce etc. A new form of gathering today
are cyber communities which reflect communities in real life but with
many thousand of members if not millions.

The key feature of a club is that it is a form of a community. By
definition a community is always made up of a number of people: the
number is probably not important other than that it must be a reasonable
number in the circumstances. For example, there can possibly be a club
of ex-Presidents of the USA, today that would have four members, but not
of ex-Popes. This condition of number of people is not much different in
basic structure than any other forms of human groups found in nature
(natural groups): family, extended family, tribe and nation.

The difference or important difference between clubs and natural groups
is that we have no choice as to which natural group we belong to. We
have no choice who our family is nor our state or nation. Although, of
course, we can leave our family or change our citizenship. But once
again this is irrelevant.

The other main difference is that natural groups exist by default and in
virtue of the natural biological way humans have evolved. The biological
immediate family with common genes is usually quite small: parents plus
children. Clubs, on the other hand, usually develop for a purpose or an
objective. Most clubs also require some form of free or voluntary act to
participate in. But as I have already hinted at, free and voluntary must
be used advisably.

The most important theoretical aspect of joining a club is a sense of
belonging. And I would say that the single most important feature of
belonging is acceptance by one's peers. Put in an other way, one of the
most traumatic psychological experience we can have is to be rejected by
our peers. Acceptance and rejections are themselves very relevant for
who we are, our personality and most important of all, our personal

In terms of biological matter we are, more or less the same, but
personal identity is the only thing that makes us different from the
other 5.999 billion people on the planet. But personal identity is not
only what we know about ourselves and about what we think of ourselves.
Personal identity is also about what others think of us and know about
us. If you like, our personal identity is metaphorically some kind of
rational credentials we need to operate in society. It is a necessary
condition that makes all of us a person and not just a blob of
biological matter.

By accepting our membership or participation in a club we are, in a way,
being told by the other members that they accept our credentials; our
personal identity. Our personal identity has value and currency with
other people which allows us to interact with the group members.

Failure of acceptance or failure of our personal identify to carry value
or currency means hostility and aggression either of a subtle kind,
maybe in the use of language, or physical aggression. Of course,
physical aggression is very easily identified: for example, a bouncer,
seven feet tall and weighs half a ton, outside a fashionable disco club
is a clear sign of potential physical persuasion.

What is more interesting for us is the subtle use of language that
itself might be aggressive. Of course, in most countries there are laws
against violence and discrimination. But, of course, verbal violence is
more sophisticated than that. We, as a philosophy group, employ very
subtle forms of rejecting some people, hence aggression but nothing
illegal or improper, in the same way that a football club use subtle
language as a form of aggression or knitting club, the cactus lovers
club and so on.

When we call ourselves a philosophy group we are in effect sending out a
signal that the opportunities for discussing knitting and cacti are very
limited. And these limits would certainly feel like a rude rejection if
we choose not to discuss knitting and cacti. Is the word philosophy
(knitting, cactus etc) doing the equivalent job of a seven foot half ton

I distinguished natural groups from clubs by pointing out that clubs
usually have an aim, an interest, an objective. What distinguishes us
from other creatures is not that we have plans and they don't, but that
we have rational plans and not just instinct type of plans. Of course,
it does not mean that because we have rational plans somehow we are
always right or that we are always better. Not to mention species
arrogance. So, just because we have a well thought out business plan,
based on solid statistics, to exploit all the natural resources in the
next five years, it does not follow that we are better than whales and

It does mean, however, that we employ methodologies exclusive to us to
achieve our aims and objectives. And that these methodologies depend
heavily on our brain power and not our muscle power. Compared to other
creatures we have the most impressive unique selling feature of all: our
brain power.

Thus clubs, as we generally know them, are a rational solution for us to
achieve some of our personal objectives by mustering together similarly
minded people to participate in our activities. The most important
implication of all this is that the members of the clubs can also share
their skills, information and knowledge with the rest of the other
members. What I think about a philosophical issue (or knotting or
cacti....) might be interesting, but knowing what twenty or thirty other
people think about the same issue makes us all wiser and more informed.

Staying at home looking at myself and thinking how handsome I am will
never get me a partner, mate or friends. Mixing with other people is
organised groups (discos, discussion groups, singles' clubs...) will at
least give me an idea of what the competition is like. I might also find
a partner if I am clever about my strategy. Clubs help us achieve some
of our aims and objectives amongst our peers.

Speaking from experience, doing philosophy by one's self might be
interesting, challenging and absorbing. But doing philosophy with twenty
or thirty other people each trying to convince and persuade everyone
with their points of view is more exhilarating, engrossing and certainly
makes one feel a rational person.

Thus, being in the company of others pursuing our aims and objectives,
the same as they are doing, can give us an emotional feeling of
fulfilment. We can say that clubs have the potential to make us feel
good about some of the things we care about. For example, we might
experience a sense of helping others or of being helped by others. After
all one meaning of what it is to be rational is to cooperate with
others, and sometimes even helping others. I am sure there is nothing
more gratifying than helping someone get their stitches right on their
woolly jumper.

Although our personal objectives fall squarely within the domains of
philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and maybe the self and
consciousness, the objectives of a club fall squarely within applied
philosophy. For example, the philosophy of social structure, political
philosophy, sociology and anthropology and maybe even social psychology.

A group of twenty or thirty people getting together to discuss some
philosophical topic is not a very complex structure. This is not to say
that the relationship between twenty or thirty people is not complex.
However, the situation is quite transparent.

But what about twenty or thirty people getting together to try and
develop a sinister political ideology? How should we consider such a
group? Luckily, not many groups of people get together to topple a
legitimate political system. But as I have shown, many groups directly
or indirectly discriminate by virtue of their objectives. Maybe we might
be hard with someone who insists on talking to a philosophy group about
knitting patterns, but on the other hand we might do our best not to
hurt their feelings too much. What if a club is not so denerous?

For example, what if a club requires that we pay a 1000 euros membership
fee per month to join the club; what are they telling us? That this club
is very exclusive or that this club only welcomes certain members of
society: i.e. the super rich? Do the words "exclusive" and "elite" in
our language, besides meaning special interests (knitting,
philosophy...), also function something like a code saying "we
discriminate against people who are not our peers?"

Whilst most clubs do operate as a means to get together people with the
same aims and objectives, some also have ulterior motives. A
mountaineering club, a philosophy group or a knitting society are quite
straightforward and transparent. Of course, this does not mean, and I am
not saying that these straightforward clubs can only be used to pursue
the focus of the club. Some people join clubs simply to be with other
people, others maybe to find a partner or make friends. But these extra
curricula activities do not diminish the scope of the club. On the
contrary, these extras might enhance the scope of clubs because they
give the community added value.

But what about clubs that seek to manipulate society or certain members
of society: political parties, lawyers societies, street gangs,
religious associations, or even religions themselves. Are we to say that
these groups are all bad just because they either exclude most members
of society (lawyers' associations..) or want to pursue their ideologies
(political parties)?

This question, I contend is not that easy to answer. I won't of course,
consider the claim that one group should exist but not the opposition.
But rather, if we accept that political parties, for example, are
legitimate, why shouldn't a party with a racist agenda not exist? The
issue is not whether racism or discrimination are wrong, they always
are, but what makes a club legitimate and worthy of existing. For
example, why are we prepared to accept groups such as religions, based
on the belief that god exists, but not a group who believe that males
are the only super beings?

We might argue that the objectives of the club, make the club
legitimate. Which is quite a reasonable claim to make. But this
presupposes that we have a system in place to make value judgements. As
system that will eventually tell us what is a legitimate objective and
what is not a legitimate objective. But even this criterion might be
difficult to manage, especially since an evil ideology might be in a
position of power to decide what is legitimate and thus decide what
clubs should exist and how they should function. Both National Socialism
and Communists ideologies were, and still are, very efficient at
imposing such a situations on people.

A tentative answer might be to consider first the objectives of the club
(philosophy vs evil ideology) and then the behaviour of the members of
the club. If a racist club advocate the demise of a certain group within
society and after their meeting they gather to find a person from such a
group to beat them up, then surely this club ought to be abolished. But
this is not enough. Surely coercion to join a club might itself be
indicative of something unacceptable. Or maybe, repercussions for
wanting to leave a club is equally sinister of what that club stands
for. Absence of free speech or freedom to disagree should send alarm
bells ringing.

To conclude, I think we can safely say that clubs reflect not only the
human character, but also life in general. We find cooperation in clubs
but also aggression. We find risks in clubs, in the same way we do in
life as Miguel pointed out in his essay of the Fragility of Life (see
essays with this title), but we also find safety in numbers ( for
example a mountaineering club with many experts). We find knowledge and
information in clubs but also false beliefs. And so on.

Although we sometimes join clubs to fulfil our wish and need to be a
person and not just a biological mass, we can only do that is we can
join a club freely and leave a club freely. Any other way would be
deterministic of our biological make up obeying the laws of struggle and

Take care


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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do people need
to join clubs?

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