In this interview Oliver Thorn, creator and star of Philosophy Tube (more than 300k subscribers), talks about growing up among smoky heathers and stalwart gorse within a high-achieving family, an early interest in becoming a soldier, toxic masculinity, feminism, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the link between New Atheism and the Alt-Right, developing a love for acting, an influential mentor, who, in high school, introduced him to philosophy, St Andrews, a brief stint in standup, starting a YouTube channel, Patreon, ads, social justice warriors, Antifa, the future of Philosophy Tube and academic philosophy in general, Twitter, gatekeepers, and his last meal…
Where’d you grow up?
Yeah, very high-achieving. My eldest brother did Philosophy & Economics, then medicine; the middle one did Archaeology and Anthropology and then an MA at Cambridge. Both Mum and Dad came top of their year, one after the other, at university; my eldest brother won the exact same prize years later. Outside of academia both brothers played rugby for the school.
Did you enjoy high school?
Loathed it! In fairness I did make it harder on myself than it needed to be: I was a very angry kid, quick to flare up and resolutely opposed to giving anyone (including myself) an inch of slack. Misery loves company, so of course I joined the Army Cadets and spent five years terrorising anyone unfortunate enough to be put under my command. I joke, but "toxic masculinity" doesn't even begin to cover what I had in those teenage days.
We’ll talk about that in a bit! Why were you so angry, you think?
I'm not sure. Maybe it was something to do with being the youngest, or being picked on, maybe I wasn't really any angrier than any other teenage boy and just went into environments that drew it out, like cadets.
Did you want to kill people? Were you interested in the army because of politics?
There's so much more to a soldier's job than killing people, so truth be told I didn't really think about that bit too much during the phase when I thought I might join up, I was focused on the adventure and the challenge and the camaraderie aspects. Same with politics; at that stage I didn't think about it much.
Did you start thinking about what your alternative were, long-term?
Eventually I decided that, although I loved firing rifles and polishing boots, I couldn't stand being ordered around, so I crossed soldiering off the list. I didn't know then what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I knew I loved acting. I've been acting as long as I can remember in school plays and stuff. I can't remember a time when I wasn't doing it; I just love it. In school I wasn't sure how to ever go into it seriously, nobody from my school ever did, so it was a sort of vague dream.
How did you get into philosophy then?
I was gently encouraged to go to university before applying for serious acting training - at my school it was basically Law, Medicine, or 'Other'. When it was time to choose my A-Levels; I had Biology and Chemistry down, but needed a third. It was Howard Baker, the quiet, scholarly philosophy teacher, who invited me to take up his subject. More than anyone else, Howard was responsible for starting me down the philosophy path. There were only four of us in his class, and he used to buy chocolate for us every Friday; I discovered there that not only did I like philosophy, but I had a knack for it too.
What were you interested in back then?
Do you remember when the New Atheism thing was gaining steam, when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were massive and everyone was talking about godlessness? Well I was in high school when that started and I signed on big-time; whether it was out of a desire to be contrarian or what, I don't know, but I was already a nonbeliever and I got pretty aggressive with it. It must have read just about everything Hitchens wrote, and watched hours of his stuff on YouTube. Nowadays we recognise that there's potential for young white guys to be radicalised towards the right-wing from that starting point: there's a pipeline on YouTube from atheist content to antifeminist content to anti- “SJW” content to white nationalism, and there but for the grace of God went I. Luckily, two things happened in pretty close proximity.
Firstly, I read Sam Harris' book The End of Faith expecting it to be the same kind of 'Hitch-slap' compilation of anti-religious stuff I was used to. But it wasn't. I got to the bits where Harris started defending aggressive US foreign policy and realised that I wasn't just being asked to reject the supernatural but to adopt a particular view of the natural; I was being sold on something bigger without even really realising it. So although I didn't (and still don't) believe in God, I started questioning whether the whole New Atheism thing was the right direction for me.
Secondly, I was sitting in a pub one night with two mates, one man and one woman, and my girlfriend of the time, and I was lucky enough to be present for a conversation that absolutely rocked my world. The guy mate got up to get a drink, and the girl mate shuddered and said to my girlfriend, "He's a real creep, isn't he?" and my girlfriend concurred. I asked what they meant, and my girlfriend said, "He has a real problem with women." And I was right about to say, "That doesn't sound like him; I've never seen him do anything creepy!" when it hit me that I wouldn't ever see that, because of course he only did it when I wasn't around. Seems stunningly obvious now, but I was young and had a lot to learn! So I realised that I couldn't learn everything on my own, or from people like me; I actually needed to listen to other people from different backgrounds. The whole "neutrality and objectivity and reason" scales fell from my eyes. I went back to YouTube, found my favourite atheist creators (who by that stage had moved on to antifeminist content), found the feminist creators they were railing against, and then went and actually watched them instead. I think my first toe in the water was actually Anita Sarkeesian's series Tropes Vs Women in Video Games! This was pre-Gamergate, so nobody quite knew the significance those were going to take on later, but I found them interesting enough to tune in for each new episode, and I suppose that was the precursor to a bit of a shift in the way I look at the world. Not even really in the specifics, but just in the colours I saw, the tones and patterns I picked up on. It was like if all the pictures you'd ever seen were architectural blueprints, and then someone showed you Turner.
But to be clear, you aren’t claiming listening to or watching guys like Joe Rogan, will make you a neo-Nazi, right? Are you suggesting we shouldn’t watch pro-atheist or anti-SJW videos on YouTube because of the possibility it could make us alt-right? Or is your message: listen to both sides? Do you think SJW should watch alt-right videos, or is this one-way advice?
I’m afraid I haven’t seen Joe Rogan; I might be too British to get that reference. I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to seek out Alt-Right material without first preparing for how it aims to deceive; it looks like the innocent flower but hides the serpent under it. I think it’s better for people to be able to make up their own minds having been told the whole truth than be taken in by some huckster hawking ideological snake oil. Like if a cigarette company started making ads that didn’t mention the health risks of smoking, ran those ads alongside gaming or sports media to target young guys, used dodgy data to claim smoking would make them big and tough, and claimed that warning labels on cigarette packets or people trying to get the ad pulled from the air was some kind of censorship, I imagine you’d say, “On your bike you jokers,” and you’d be right to! The fact that smoking is provably bad for you is relevant information that people need to know going in. So similarly, I’m grateful for and proud to be one of the creators on YouTube who are out there slapping big warning labels on Alt-Right PR. Some of my favourite moments from the last few years, since I started growing more into that role, have been when I hear from people who say, “I used to be Alt-Right, but watching people like you and Shaun I realized what they were making me into and got out.”
Right. What did your parents make of your decision to study philosophy?
Mum and Dad were very supportive about going to study philosophy; they agreed with Mister Baker that it didn't close any doors so it was a sensible move.
Could you describe Mr. Baker, Howard a bit?
Howard was an inspiration. Never angry, always softly spoken, fluent in seemingly every language including Latin and Ancient Greek, and inscrutably deep as the ocean. One morning he taught a full double period and then told us, "I'm afraid I won't be here for this afternoon's lesson, as my mother died last night and I need to make some arrangements." We were stupefied. Not once had there been even a glimmer of anything wrong. He turned up and taught a full double period - to just the four of us - the morning after his mother died. Not only that, but he made the lesson every bit as good for us as every other. I can still hear him saying, through a mouthful of Bournville chocolate, "I'm not afraid of dying. Plenty of people have done it before."
In my final year of school I still didn't know what I wanted to do, and it was Howard again who suggested I apply to do philosophy. It wouldn't close any doors, he said, and I might just enjoy it. But he advised that I do it as joint honours with something else, "Or else you'll go mad." In the UK at that time we could only apply to five universities: mine were Oxford, St Andrews, Bristol, Warwick, and Durham. I was rejected from Oxford the day before Christmas, like my eldest brother was nine years before, and languished moodily awaiting offers from elsewhere. I was the last in the school year to hear back, but eventually St Andrews - where my heart had been since I first visited it - made me an offer to do Philosophy and Theology.
When the final exam results came in, however, all four of us in that class were shocked. We had scored significantly lower on one paper than we had been predicted. It was possible I wouldn't be able to meet the offer St Andrews had made.
Meeting the offer?
I'm not sure if this is still how they do it but in British school in my day in your final years you do what are called A-Levels. You pick 3 subjects (mine were Biology, Chemistry, and Philosophy) and just study them. While you're studying you apply to five universities (four if you do medicine), they might interview you they might not, and then they'll either make you an offer or reject you. The offer is the grades you have to get in your A-Levels (final school exams) in order to go there. St Andrews offered me AAB; so long as I got 2 As and a B, I could go. But when the exam results came in, that looked like it might not happen.
I see, go on…
I remember Howard took me aside and asked me what I had thought of the exam. I said it didn't seem much harder than the other paper, where I'd scored very highly. He chewed his cheek and said, "Right then. Leave it with me."
On the strength of my say so - on the strength of 17 year-old boy's opinion! - he contacted the exam board and requested that our whole class be remarked. He fought tooth and nail to get us that remark, and lo and behold after some tense weeks the board got in touch and said they'd identified a problem with the marker of that particular paper and the whole class had been bumped up two grades. I was going to St Andrews after all! Howard didn't have to do that for me, he could have just left it, but he genuinely cared what I thought and he trusted my assessment - not because I was a higher rank than him or because I'd given his mate on the rugby team a black eye in a fight - but because he was just nice like that.
Howard retired the same year I finally left the wrought iron gates and boiled-cabbage smell of that school behind.
What was your first philosophy class like at St Andrews?
I don't remember my first philosophy class particularly; Mister Baker had prepared me so well that first year was largely familiar territory for me. Theology was trickier, and though I got the hang of it after a rocky start I dropped it in the first week of second year and went to Single Honours Philosophy. The Scottish education system allows you to study extra stuff on the side as well, so I did a bit of Classics, a bit of Ancient History, and some Astrophysics, bearing in mind Howard’s warning that single-honours philosophy was the road to madness!
Some, but I was pretty studious; I was famous (or infamous) for being That Guy Who Has His Essays Done A Month Before They're Due. I actually party more now than I ever did as a student!
I loved St Andrews. It was quiet, and cold, and beautiful, and cloistered - exactly what I was looking for - and there was a very active drama scene - the Mermaids Society. I acted in as many plays as I could make time for and channeled my Cadet Energy into becoming a vicious (and not unsuccessful, for a student) stand-up comic, of all things!
Hard to say what my favourite amateur role was; around about the time I realised I wanted to be an actor professionally I was playing Ariel in the Tempest, half-naked and with all my body hair shaved off, that was one for the books! Another time I played a standup comic who has a nervous breakdown mid-act and bursts out into the audience to rant at them; that was cathartic.
haha…What was your stand-up act like?
My own standup act got increasingly challenging, deliberately esoteric, Brechtian, political (in a superficial way) and confrontational until I was basically just trying to make the other comics laugh and the audience feel like they had to laugh too or they'd be left out. I took a lot of cues from Stewart Lee, in the sense that I used to inhabit a right-wing perspective that wasn't mine and take it to extremes in order to parody it. Some of it survives, you can still see it! In that video you can hear the other comics off camera left laughing the loudest and fastest after a punchline, and the audience lagging behind, not sure of themselves, which is exactly how I used to like it.
Years later, at drama school, we did a class which was all about exploring our relationship with laughter and I realised that I'd gotten into standup for all the wrong reasons…
What do you mean?
See, my first week of uni I tried out for the improv troupe and got rejected. I was feeling pretty down about it, and then I saw that the improv troupe would be judging a standup contest the next week. I had never done standup before, but I thought, "I'll show them!" and went along anyway. And at the end of the night I won! The head of the troupe that had rejected me had to say, in front of an audience, that I was the funniest guy there and hand me £100 in cash! So I kept going. But right from the start standup for me was just a way of proving I was the cleverest guy in the room, it was about winning. It was very unhealthy and didn't make me happy in any way that stuck. I didn't fully realise that until drama school, and after that class on laughter I dropped standup and haven't touched it since.
Acting is a whole different ballgame for me. When I act I feel like I can use all of me, I don't have to hold anything back. My brain, my heart, my body, my philosophy training - it all comes into play. It feels like creation for creation's sake, rather than a competition. Going to drama school after all those years of cadets, and then standup - it was like being told I didn't have to fight anymore. I found out that deep down I'd been a Lover all along, not a Warrior, and it's amazing to finally be able to live that. I'd act if nobody was watching. Sometimes I do!
So why didn’t you pursue academic Philosophy?
So my first degree was a Scottish MA in Philosophy, and after all that pressure I did end up coming top of my year (rather than three years and then a postgrad somewhere else, in St Andrews you do four years on the trot and come out as a Master of Arts). In my second year, I looked into medicine, and looked into law, and marketing, and teaching, and all sorts, but nothing thrilled me. I just couldn't figure out what I wanted. So one night, bearing in mind the old adage that sometimes the thing you want is right in front of you, I flipped the question on its head and asked myself, "Of all the things I currently do, how would I feel if someone told me I could never do them again?" If someone had told me I could never study philosophy again, I thought, I'd be fine with it; if someone told me I was banned from standup comedy it would honestly have been a relief for me, not to mention the audiences I terrorized, because it was an exercise in bitterness; and then I got to acting, and I realised that if someone told me I could never act again I would be devastated. I didn't want to live a life where I couldn't act. "So," I realised, "That's what I have to do." After graduation I took a year out, auditioned for drama schools, got in, and went to drama school in London to do an MA in Acting, which I completed in 2017. Since then I've been a professional actor living and working in London alongside doing Philosophy Tube.
So then how did Philosophy Tube get started? It’s enormously popular!
Thank you! A girlfriend of the time (a different one than the other story) suggested that I start a YouTube channel for my standup, and although I didn't think I had enough material to do a regular thing I liked the idea of starting a YouTube channel. I was also in the last year to pay the old tuition fees, before the government tripled them in 2012; the new fees affected everyone in the years below me. I thought that was deeply unfair. In 2013 I applied to a summer internship at Private Eye, thinking that would fill the summer nicely. One rejection letter from Ian Hislop later I was suddenly at a loose end for two months, so all the threads came together - I sat down, did some research, and created my first video! The plan was to just record what I had learned in lectures and give it away for free!
What does Howard think of Philosophy Tube?
When the channel took off I thought about contacting him and letting him know where philosophy had taken me. I never tried too hard, thinking I'd always have time to find him later.
He died in September 2017, at the age of only 63.
I’m so sorry to hear that. How has Philosophy Tube grown?
It's now just under 6 years old and still going strong, which is unusual - most channels live and die in that time. Unlike a lot of channels it never really blew up, it just grew steadily, which, now that it's reached the level where it's brought me a little bit of relative fame, I realise was a really good thing because I've had time to adjust to that gradually rather than having it suddenly thrust upon me overnight.
On average, how many hours does it take you to make a video nowadays? What’s the process like? Hardest video to make? It seems like it might be a lot of work!
It can vary enormously. Filming can take days; editing can take weeks; research and writing can sometimes take months as I try to find out what the video needs to be. Some videos have started life as one thing and become something totally different way down the line. The hardest one to make from a technical standpoint was my one on Witchcraft, Gender, & Marxism: the costume took a long time to make, I hired musicians to write an original soundtrack, travelled to Oxford on a research trip to get the right feel for it, and filmed outdoors by firelight with coloured lighting. Overall though, the hardest one to make so far was my one on Suicide & Mental Health, for reasons that will be obvious if you watch it. I spent weeks and weeks crying myself to sleep during the writing phase of that.
I'd say I have two videos that I'm most proud of, for very different reasons. The first is my Philosophy of Antifa video, which I like because as far as I know nobody had made anything like it on YouTube before. There are lots of videos about antifascist action but I don't think anybody had ever sat down and explained the whole thing, theory and practice, with proper citations and anticipated objections before. I got to plant the flag on that one, and my video on it has become one of the definitive resources for learning about Antifa, which makes me very proud! The second is my one on Elon Musk. I was in a bit of a rut with the channel for a while until I went to VidCon in June 2018 and came back totally inspired to try new things. Even though I think I’ve since surpassed it, the Musk video was like a renaissance for the show – the beginning of Philosophy Tube Season 2. I took a gamble in hiring a studio rather than filming in my bedroom and fully committed to making videos as art, rather than lectures. I really put a lot into it and you can see that from what's on the screen.
The Antifa video is good. Cool take on a contentious topic. So, the videos are your full-time job, right?
Patreon is my main source of income, which is phenomenal. It didn't exist when I started, and I got in at just the right time when it was still pretty new. Luckily what I'm trying to do with the channel really resonated with people in a way that made them happy to chip in. For a while I was making enough that Philosophy Tube was like a part-time job, and just before I went to drama school I made a video where I sat down and said to the fans, "I'm going to be an actor; every actor has two jobs; if you want you can help make this my second job because if I have to work in a pub or whatever to make ends meet then I probably won't have time to make the show as well." The response was unbelievable: the very next morning the Patreon campaign had doubled and suddenly I had full employment, so I kept making the show all the way through drama school and out the other side. The fans really supported me, which is incredible. If I was dependent solely on advertising I just couldn't do that. I also hardly ever get brand deals, which is partly my own fault.
Why don’t you get brand deals?
A couple of years ago I was approached by a marketing agency on behalf of a major UK university asking me to make a video promoting their uni. They offered me £2500. So I made the video, and then immediately made a follow-up one saying, "I believe everything I said in that video, they are a great uni, but here's what else is going on," and I talked about how their cleaning staff were on strike, their teaching staff weren't getting decent wages, and their students were paying £9000 a year while the uni was pumping money into hiring YouTubers to make ads for them. I couldn't in good conscience take that money, so I publicly donated my fee to the student union and unsurprisingly almost no brand or marketing agency has touched me with a ten-foot pole since, haha!
Good form. Ever consider getting back into academia?
No way! I have not just one dream job but two, professional actor and professional YouTuber, I wouldn't want to give up either! Why spend years and a fortune doing precarious, under-appreciated, backbreaking work when I can reach more people, have more fun, and be my own boss on YouTube? A lot of academics are starting to realise that now I think; I enjoy interacting with the institutional ones that maintain good social media presences, and quite a few are leaving the institutions and doing great work in the wider world. There’s also the safety concern: one thing I'm hearing again and again is that some universities don't have a proper understanding of social media, especially harassment, and with my online presence it’d be tough for me to hold a job in academia I imagine. I’d be too much of an easy target. I've heard horror stories of academics being targeted by far-right harassment and going to their HR departments to try to explain why official inboxes are suddenly filling up with slander and horrific accusations and fake complaints, and the unis are saying, "What's Twitter? What do you mean you tweeted a meme and now Nazis are trying to get you fired?”
How have people in academia responded to your stuff?
I learned the hard way early on that universities were going to be slow on the uptake with regards to what I was trying to do: in my final year of uni I wrote to every major uni in the UK telling them about the show and inviting them to sponsor me to keep doing it after I graduated. (These were the days before I got a bit more politically savvy and wouldn't have turned down sponsorships from unis, the way I did later on like I told you about above.)
A lot of them just didn't even seem to know what YouTube was, and I had to say to them, "Look, I reach more students in a week than your entire yearly intake for every subject. Won't you even watch one video?" This was at the stage where three or four years of A-Level students had grown up watching me and I was starting to get fan mail from people saying they were going to study philosophy because of the show. But the unis just didn't get it. Worse still, my own university led me up the garden path! I emailed them asking them to sponsor the show and they said yes, offering me regular money to put university branding on my videos. For about two days I was on Cloud 9, thinking I had a regular job for my year off after graduation that would mean I could go to drama school auditions worry-free. I even made the first video for them and then sent it with my invoice, at which point the university legal department sent me a strongly-worded email saying they had never agreed to anything, never been informed, never been told, "Nobody should have told you this was okay," there is no such agreement. They even asked me to take the video down, and I had to re-explain to them how YouTube works and that no, I couldn't just take it down because tens of thousands of people would have my head and at that point it had already been seen by 99% of the people that were ever going to see it so I had done advertising for the university for which I was expecting to be paid! I showed them the emails where I had arranged the deal but they washed their hands of me; the university was such an administrative labyrinth that it was impossible to get a straight answer out of them on anything.
I must admit, when I first encountered your stuff, I really wasn’t sure I was on board with what you were doing. I didn’t feel threatened, but I guess I wondered what made you qualified to teach philosophy. Are you qualified to teach philosophy, you think?
Truth be told, teaching philosophy is a bit of a headline – it’s a good hook, but what I really do is a bit more diverse and esoteric than that!
Fair enough! You say you are giving away your degree. Can your YouTube videos provide the same level of educational experience you received from Howard? Or at St Andrews?
They don’t try to. In fact, now that I reach more people that most universities can hope to, I’ve been deliberately trying to not just give the same kind of experience as people would get there. One of my recent videos was very much about that, and about me realizing at once the responsibility and freedom of my position.
Can academic philosophy adapt to the rapidly evolving media landscape? How?
We shall see... I’ve had some frustrating experiences trying to make this happen that sadly can’t be printed, but I believe it’s possible. It would be nice if mainstream academia, and indeed media, took notice once in a while – in terms of numbers, really we’re the mainstream now – but gatekeepers can sometimes be a bit slow on the uptake.
What was election night 2016 like for you?
I never stay up on election nights because it's out of my hands at that point and whatever the result I'm always happier with it after a full night's rest, so in 2016 I was fast asleep.
Philosophy sites you frequent?
Favorite philosophy Twitter feeds?
I’m trying to cut back on Twitter: therapist’s recommendation, haha!
Mary Shelley's The Last Man.
Looks interesting. I’ll check it out. Movie?
Good choice. Magic lamp, three wishes, go!
I think I'd wish for the ability to turn into absolutely anything because that's a superpower that comes with a bunch of other powers built in: flight, agelessness, immunity to disease... It'd be useful for acting, too. Maybe also the ability to play any musical instrument, including singing, to an expert level without practicing. My third wish I'd keep in reserve in case I ever encountered something I couldn't overcome with those two.
Good thinkin’. Last meal?
Not a buffet! Could you be more…specific?
Hah, duck and pancakes, crispy fried squid, and pork chow mein.
If you could ask an omniscient being one question, what would it be?
Not sure. Probably something about my love life, ha!
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]