The creation of Philosophy Now magazine

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ick Lewis is the chief editor and founder of a bi-monthly popular philosophy magazine, which aims to display the front-line of work in the field. The editorial office is a small operation – everything happens in a semi-basement room underneath his London home. Rick, and one other member of his small team are there, and his dog has come down from the house upstairs. There are piles of back-issues everywhere, all with the same title: Philosophy Now.

We walk to a high-street café, and I ask Rick about the main challenges of producing the magazine. He says “It’s never been about getting good material”. Philosophy Now is filled with high quality writing, presenting utterly contemporary ideas. Only one out of twenty articles submitted makes its way to publication, about which Rick says “I have a guilt on my shoulders” for being so ruthless. The challenge is sifting through the material for the work which combines academic quality with an accessible and entertaining style. I inquire how he got to this stage in the magazine’s history.

Initially studying physics, Rick’s interest in philosophy was sparked by a friend, substituting a lack of religious belief in answering life’s most important questions. After a Masters in Philosophy, and a job as a physicist for BT, he returned to philosophy and had the idea for a contemporary magazine. He told me that everyone grapples with key philosophical questions at some level (e.g. God’s existence, human and animal rights, the meaning of life, the nature of time). In his characteristically modest way, he said “it issue99would be handy for them to know what’s already been said”. He had spotted a gap in the market. A highly academic journal called Radical Philosophy existed, but nothing accessible and popular. Nowadays, there are further options – Rick was full of praise for a long-time competitor The Philosopher’s Magazine – but Philosophy Now persists as the most prominent of its kind.

Rick elaborated about the early days, regularly apologising for “rambling”. It took him a year to assemble the first issue, asking philosophy departments for content, followed by ringing up bookshops one by one, requesting distribution, and calling up journalists for reviews. He claims eventual success was simply down to a stroke of luck, but it appears to me that the hard work paid off, because a local newspaper sent a philosophy graduate-cum-reporter to do a piece on it. This was picked up by journalist Libby Purves, who wrote a piece in The Times; he later received an article submission from esteemed philosopher Anthony Flew. The first issue nearly sold out. Understandably, Rick doesn’t hand me one of those, but he’s very willing to offer me a second issue. They printed many more, due to the success of the first, but then did no marketing. After poor sales, the release of further issues became erratic, often taking six months to complete each one.

Another early problem was getting into enough newsagents

Many expected the magazine to buy its way onto the shelves, which was not financially viable. It was believed that there would be no market for it. Rick appeared proud of proving that assumption false, eventually. Today, sales are on the rise in both published and electronic editions. The e-book version is proving particularly popular, but while many magazines are dropping their printed edition entirely, Philosophy Now avoids doing this.

I ask him for advice for anyone looking to produce a magazine. His immediate answer is: “Don’t do it”. After a moment’s reflection, he adds “unless you’re really interested in doing it”. He cannot stress the importance of dedication to the work enough, but also says that the challenge of printing is more straight-forward these days. You can start an online blog, and the transition to publishing is fairly simple. This allows for focusing on the content, especially with electronic versions (which sell better anyway).

The magazine’s popularity has grown steadily; it is now financially self-sustainable and is an Anglo-American operation. It has featured writing by key academics, including Daniel Dennett. Rick (the ex-physicist) perceives a rise in philosophy’s popularity, rejecting ideas of it being somehow replaced by science. He claims that with more people getting top university educations, they develop academic interests and have leisure time to think about deep questions. His magazine provides an easy way into the world of philosophical enquiry. It presents the great thinkers from history, but has a specific emphasis on the subject’s relevance and importance today. The cutting-edge of philosophical thought is presented, a clear decision from the magazine’s founding.

Massive progress is being made now in areas such as free will and philosophy of mind, especially when working alongside neuroscience

Furthermore, investigations into ethics and political philosophy could not be more relevant, given new technologies in medicine and the military, and the clash of civilisations in a planet shrinking through globalisation. All this could formulate a response to the question of what philosophy is good for. But when I put the question to Rick Lewis, his answer is simpler. He met his wife at a philosophy conference. His life has been changed by Philosophy Now; yet its appeal extends to anyone. It provides an entertaining way into serious questions that affect all of our lives.

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