The School of Life: Philosophy and the everyday

A cultural corner shop in London brings intellectual ideas out of the ivory tower and down to earth.

Academic, philosophic and literary responses to the question of how to live a better life abound. These are literally at your fingertips at The School of Life in London, which helps people connect often abstract, intellectual ideas to everyday living.

“It’s about making them relevant and packaging and presenting it in a way that is entertaining, but insightful and eminently practical,” says the School’s director, Morgwn Rimel.

Established in a Bloomsbury shop in 2008 by philosopher Alain de Botton and a group of colleagues, the School seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist. Its secular Sunday Sermons, in which writers, economists, historians, philosophers and artists deliver a perspective on a virtue or vice, have attracted 500-strong crowds. There is also a strong online following for its blog and vodcasts.

The School’s shopfront presence is essential to its presentation as a cultural corner store. “It was conceived as a high street shop to appeal to the way that people already know how to engage with ideas; everybody knows how to go shopping and they can dip in and select things,” says Rimel. 

As well as selling books and objects designed to surprise and provoke alternative thinking, Rimel says they are selling experiences. Ideas and insights are “cherry-picked” from fields including philosophy, neuroscience, dramatic arts, photography and biology, then communicated in an à-la-carte program. Night classes focus on topics ranging from the enduring favourite, ‘How to find a job that you love’ to ‘How to be cool’ or ‘How necessary is a relationship?’. 

Weekend courses take students out of the classroom for urban gardening, philosophy by bicycle or countryside cloud watching. Other programs include a bibliotherapy service, in which a consultant develops a personal reading list catered to your intellectual and personal requirements.

“We are not prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions,” says Rimel. “We are not saying we have answers to all your problems. We are saying we have better questions to ask about your problems which will help you arrive at better conclusions.”

This story was first published in Vogue Living May/June 2011. Click here to download a PDF of the original story. Photograph courtesy The School of Life.