Philosophy in the Humanities

This post is devoted to a single quote from Alan Bullock (1914-2004)*.

It is taken from his book, The Humanist Tradition in the West (Thames and Hudson, 1985, pp 186-7). It illustrates, I think, the spirit of philosophy for children. In these dichotomous times, I should stress that I don’t think Bullock’s recommendations would necessarily lead to a lack of focus in teaching or learning. Nor would they deprive pupils of a healthy acquaintance with Shakespeare or other great writers. If you are one of the subject-knowledge-is-everything crusaders, try to apply the principle of charity* to your reading of Bullock. If you can accept that there should be at least some time in the curriculum for the sort of thing he proposes, then Philosophy for Children has much to contribute. If you like to see children pondering science-fiction-type thought experiments and paradoxes and you call that kind of thing ‘proper philosophy’, consider Bullock’s vision as an alternative that connects life, learning and philosophising together.

…I have learned, in a world in which older people are continually deploring the disappearance of values, the extent to which young people are trying to work out for themselves new values to live by, their own codes of behaviour, their own concepts of conscience and of the qualities they prize. They are not the same as those of their grandparents, but neither were ours the same as the values of the Victorian age, nor the Victorians’ as those of the eighteenth century.

I suspect that this is the only way in which values can be re-created in the modern world, no longer by direct transmission but by encouraging young people to discover, or rediscover, them for themselves, out of their own experience and insights, often in discussion with their peers, not taken on authority but deeply influenced by the sympathy and above all the example (practice not precept) of older people.

At a time when the place of the humanities in education is under question, young people’s search for values by which to live seems to me to define the role the humanities can play. It will require something of a revolution in the presentation of history, literature and the arts, to start not from the achievements of the past, but from the human needs of young people today. But it is the same role which the rediscovery of the ancient world played for the Renaissance, providing those who were young then with a strange and exciting world which they could explore and on which they could draw to work out their own answers to the questions and conflicts presented by their own experience. Today the material on which to draw on is no longer limited to the ancient world, but includes the whole range of human experience, contemporary as well as historical, that of other cultures as well as our own Western tradition. This material, thanks to film, television and videos, is now accessible as never before.

Here is a great opportunity to make available to young people in schools and colleges, not a traditional course in the humanities, but a direct encounter, taking advantage of these new media, with human experience of the questions that bother and fascinate them. It could focus in turn on such questions as conscience, conflicts of loyalty, rebellion and authority, the ambivalence of feelings, the search for identity, the power of art and myth, passions and compassion, as these are reflected in literature, theatre, the arts, history and philosophical debate – with the same object, to prompt them, as the discovery of Greece and Rome prompted the young people of the Renaissance, to reach their own conclusions.

Any such encounter with the humanities is valuable not only for the results it can produce, but for the activity itself, engaging the imagination and the emotions in the penetration of other people’s worlds and ideas. In an education which is all too inclined to fill students with information and limit itself to teaching them techniques, here is a way of fostering the emotional, subjective side of human nature which is of so much importance for young people, and which needs to be developed as much as the intellectual if they are to acquire confidence and establish satisfying relationships with other human beings.

*Alan Bullock:
*The Principle of Charity:

Open and focused dialogue

The initial discussion with children in response to a question about an artefact, such as a story or picture, sometimes has the feeling of a gathering of ideas rather than a focused enquiry. That is because, in the time available, the best that can be achieved is a sharing of ideas and an attempt to relate the ideas to each other – to draw a map of the territory, so to speak. If we regard some discussions as gatherings of ideas, then we might make a selection from the material of a discussion and re-present the selected items to the pupils in a subsequent session. The items might be interesting, or questionable; they might be inconsistent with other items*; they might be strikingly or enthusiastically expressed.

The work of selection and summary could be done by the teacher, by teacher and pupils in negotiation, or by a group of pupils working on their own. The selected items would provide a basis for further questioning and discussion.

There is a value in passing more responsibility to pupils because the practice of making the selections will encourage them to recognise contributions of significance. When pupils are motivated by a particular question or topic, then the practices described above could build on that motivation and enhance the quality, depth and appeal of philosophy in the classroom.

We might categorise these first sessions as spontaneous and the later ones as deliberate philosophising. In schools we should be talking about a process of recursive enquiry, not a series of one-off performances to be judged in isolation.

I made the short film below after a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park with a group of 10-years-old children from a school nearby. We wandered around together, taking photos and talking. Then we returned to the school, looked at our photos and had an open discussion to gather ideas. The film has some of the children’s still photos of the visit with a selection of the children’s comments over the top. I think one could pick out some things from it in negotiation with the children and develop those for more deliberate and focused philosophising in the future. Points like the ones below might emerge.

  • One child says it’s the ideas behind the sculptures that make them ‘special’? So what makes sculptures, painting or music special to you? Is it possible for something to be special for many different people? How?
  • One child says: ‘I thought that sculpture could be trying to say to you …’ Another says a sculpture can ask you something. How do sculptures or paintings try to say things to you or ask you things? How can you know what they are trying to say or ask?
  • One child says sculptures don’t necessarily have meanings. She thinks they are interesting because they are ‘different’ from everything else.
  • One child says (summarised): ‘with art, nothing is simple, specific or normal. Looking at art should make a difference in some way.’
  • One child says nakedness in sculptures suggests freedom: ‘No one can boss you around’. Another says it suggests the connections between people. It is ‘something they all have in common’.

Filming obviously isn’t a requirement for this kind of thing. All that is needed is for the significant items in the dialogue to be noted. You might argue that children need access to a lot of background information and informed opinion in order to understand works of art. I agree. The point about this kind of discussion is that, afterwards, children tend to want to know more and then relate what they find out back to their own enquiries.

I’ve also attached an extract from the Matthew Lipman novel ‘Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery’ for comparison.

Lipman wrote ‘novels’ to bring philosophical topics alive for students. The young characters in these works talked about the same kinds of perplexing questions he hoped student readers might raise if they were sensitive to philosophical dimensions of their experience. Characters exemplify the practice of inquiring together into questions that matter to them; they demonstrate ways to make that inquiry more rewarding by sharing opinions, giving reasons, considering the reasons of others, asking for examples, questioning assumptions and testing hypotheses. Their teachers are depicted as an important source of intellectual encouragement and stimulation. Lipman hoped all of education could be like this: intellectually encouraging, respectful of the concerns of young people and effective in strengthening their powers of judgement.

Two friends visit a museum/art gallery. An episode from Harry Stottlemeier’s Discoverys Discovery by Matthew Lipman, pages 72-73

* See the blog post on Apories and Philosophical Thinking

When method turns to dogma

I defer to authorities not only on the basis of coercion but because I trust their competence. I trust their competence, not just for what they already know or the degrees they have, but because I observe that they continue to be willing to learn. It’s a mistake to pin one’s trust or obedience on someone who is not willing to learn.’ (Mary Catherine Bateson, ‘Willing to Learn’, Steerforth Press, 2004, pp.88-89.)

Methods help me to get through life. They give me hope that I can do the right thing even when I feel anxious and confused. When I act methodically I think: ‘this sort of procedure has helped me before, it will probably help me again.’ But how do I know if the method I choose in a particular situation is the best? Perhaps others would work equally well or even better. I usually rely on my accumulated experience and on the testimony of others who have faced similar situations. Sometimes I try different approaches and note the results.

When I am philosophising with children I use methods of philosophical reasoning and methods of group discussion. But a teaching situation is dynamic. I am not just applying a method to the children. I am responding to them – to their personalities, their frameworks for understanding, their interests and abilities as I perceive them. So my methods have to be flexible enough for me to improvise and use my own judgement to meet the challenges of the situation. Rigid adherence to methods is mostly inappropriate for teaching.

The practice of philosophising with children has always struggled to gain a foothold in an inhospitable educational environment. Advocates of differing approaches have gained attention, funding and employment only with difficulty. From this state of affairs Methodolatry* can sometimes emerge.

A method can function as a brand. To gain brand recognition, one has to promote it, distinguish it from similar brands and defend its reputation. Methods of philosophising with children, even when they start as plausible procedures for achieving worthy goals, can turn into dogmas when they become brands and then articles of faith. The American philosopher, John Dewey, wrote that ‘another word’ for method is ‘intelligence in operation’. I like Dewey’s terminology because it suggests thoughtful activity in dynamic situations. In a philosophical dialogue with children I rely on methods to guide that activity, not to control it in every respect. And, of course, I am willing to learn if I notice other methods having good effects.

One final thought: a single model of conduct in enquiry or argument is often discouraging to dialogue and inimical to the enquiry itself.

*Methodolatry is a term (combining methodology and idolatry) used by Justus Buchler in ‘The Concept of Method’ Columbia University Press, 1961 (p.105)

Who asks the questions?

It is often said by people working in the tradition of Mathew Lipman that pupils should always create and choose the questions to be discussed. Two of the most common reasons given for this practice are, firstly, that it is democratic and democracy is a thing to be encouraged, and, secondly, that it enables us to discover what children think is interesting or important and this, in turn, will lead to their greater engagement with the subsequent dialogue.

Democracy is a complex concept but to my mind an important thread of meaning is the presumption of worth – a belief that each individual in a community has something to offer that could turn out to be of value in influencing what is done. In the philosophical classroom, I do believe that pupils should have the opportunity to contribute what they are capable of contributing. I won’t know what they are capable of contributing unless I allow them to contribute. Through dialogue, they will grow more accustomed to reasoning with and against their peers about things that matter. I hope that this will enable them to make contributions to the increasing number of public spheres they will encounter as they grow and mature.

So should teachers always ask children to create and choose the questions if (a) they want to be democratic in this sense and (b) they want discussions to be more engaging because they address pupil’s genuine interests and perplexities? I think not.

I have had very good discussions when I present pupils with a question I have prepared. Sometimes I negotiate a question with them after some impromptu dialogue around a shared experience, such as reading a book or script. I do often ask them to create and choose starting questions but this is not a hard and fast rule. In any event, it is important they understand the question and actually want to discuss it. This can’t be guaranteed when I ask them to create questions of their own. After all, they are trying to fulfill my request and sometimes they are not especially committed to the outcomes.

There are other things I can do to create opportunities for pupils to contribute.

  1. I can ask what is important for them and what they think should be important for everyone. I find some materials related to their ideas and I invite them to make suggestions. (I consult children about some of the topics we will cover.)
  2. I can say something like: ‘I think that talking together in a large group is the best way to investigate this question. What do you think?’ (I consult the children about how they want to explore the topics and questions. They sometimes have interesting and useful ideas about alternatives).
  3. I can say: ‘What would be a good outcome for these investigations?’ (I consult the children about the aims of inquiry. This helps them to develop an awareness of the kinds of answers they can expect from certain kinds of questions.)
  4. I can say: ‘We have some rules for discussion. Do you think those rules are working well for you and for the group?’ (I consult them on the conduct of our dialogues.)

These things reflect a democratic belief that each individual in the community has something to offer that could turn out to be of value in influencing what is done. However, it is also important for me to present children with material and questions I think they should encounter. Enquiry is reciprocal. I respond to their questions and ideas, they respond to mine. There may be some misunderstandings along the way but those are inevitable and they provide impetus for further dialogue.

‘Apories’ and Philosophical Thinking

According to the philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, philosophical apories are ‘collections of individually plausible but collectively incompatible theses’ (Rescher, 2006, p.17). The recognition of an apory* often leads to doubt and puzzlement. Philosophising is required to achieve greater consistency and  coherence; it is an attempt to systematise one’s ideas in order to achieve a more cogent perspective on reality – to re-draft our ongoing personal guidebook to life. Philosophising in the face of apories can involve some of the following important moves:

1. Retain some theses and abandon others. 

This calls for weighing the costs of abandonments against the benefits of retentions. Here’s an example:

  1. Philosophy makes progress in matters that really count
  2. Philosophy does not progress in points of communal consensus
  3. The achievement of consensus is a key goal of philosophy

For Rescher, three resolutions are available:

Abandon (1): Deny that philosophy makes progress (thereby effectively negating its claim as a valid cognitive discipline)

Abandon (2): Adopt a ‘true believer approach’, insisting that there is indeed a growing consensus but only within the community of real philosophers, thus, in effect, excommunicating most of the community (namely those who don’t see things our way).

Abandon (3): Reject communal consensus as the pivotal desideratum of philosophy.

Rescher favours resolution (3).

2. Make distinctions in order to adjust our common-sense commitments so that they are compatible but also fit with our experience. 

Here is my everyday example just to illustrate the process. Take the following proverbs on the theme of co-operation:

  1. ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’
  2. ‘Many hands make light work.’

From our experience of co-operating we can recognise both situations. But if we want to develop our own cogent general guidance about the value of co-operation, we make a distinction between would-be co-operators who agree about goals and those do not. We might say: ‘When people agree about the goals of a task many hands can made light work but when they are at odds about the goals, too many cooks can spoil the broth.’ We are beginning to amend our personal guidebook and making common sense into good sense.

So what? Rescher says that a significant part of philosophy over time has involved the making of distinctions but that new apories are regularly discovered. New distinctions then become even more acute and so it goes on. Philosophy in the professional field is therefore necessarily complex. However, philosophical distinction-making is an activity that all (including children) can do and find useful. So an important element of philosophising with children is identifying apories and exploring ways to move forward – either by abandonment of theses for good reasons or by making distinctions to retain all theses. When talking to pupils I may not use the word ‘apory’ but I help them to recognise the problems of consistency that the term describes.

Here is a further example of an apory by Nicholas Rescher’s. I’ll leave it to you to think about it.

  1. All events are caused
  2. If an action issues from a free choice, then it is causally unconstrained.
  3. Free will exists – people can and do make and act upon free choices.

* Apory or Aporia is an word from Ancient Greek: ἀπορία: ‘impasse, difficulty of passing, lack of resources, puzzlement’. It is used in a more particular sense here. I am unable to think of a one-word or simple-phrase translation of this sense into modern English. Perhaps the phrase ‘problem of consistency’ would do the job, although that misses out the something important – that the individual theses are plausible.

Rescher, N. (2006) Philosophical Dialectics: An Essay on Metaphilosophy, State University of New York Press.

Who’s for caring thinking?

People working broadly in the tradition of Matthew Lipman and his colleagues at the IAPC tend to say that an important aim of P4C is for children to become more disposed to be critical, creative and caring in their thinking. But what use are these terms? Are ‘the 3Cs’, as they are often called, simply part of the dogma embraced by an undiscriminating band of disciples? Let’s see.

Philosophers tend to weigh arguments before coming to judgements so developing the capacity for critical thinking seems an appropriate aim that most critics of P4C would accept. Notions of creative and caring thinking are more often dismissed by those to whom these words suggest a lack of rigour in thinking and a concern to be ‘nice’ above all else. I don’t agree.

Invention and judgement (or creative and critical thinking) have long been partners in the practice of philosophising. In the process of trying to express what they really want to say, people often improvise as they explore commonplace arguments or create new ones. Through such a process, people enlarge the field of experience under critical scrutiny. P4C encourages people to invent and to judge – to combine critical and creative thinking.

What of caring thinking? Some people would deny it any place in philosophising. They imagine it must lead people to prioritise pleasing others over more important aims such as seeking clarity and truth. Yet this kind of criticism fails to appreciate the sense in which the term ‘caring thinking’ is understood in P4C. It is used to indicate a willing suspension of indifference – indifference to the issue under scrutiny, indifference to the opinions and emotions of others, indifference to rational standards of discussion.

Seen in this way, caring thinking is crucial to the cognitive and inter-personal aspects of dialogue. In the case of philosophising with children I suggest that if children don’t care what the outcomes of philosophical judgements are, they will not be disposed to make any in the first place. And if they don’t care about their fellow inquirers in a dialogue, the project of regular philosophising will soon flounder. I think that philosophising in schools should be a form of living together in a reflective way. Living together without care would be an abomination.

Another important point is that the three kinds of thinking (critical, creative and caring) are not meant to be discontinuous, discrete or necessarily opposed to one another. They comprise a fusion of dispositions. So, for example, the sort of caring thinking valued here is infused with criticality and vice versa.

Of course, people sometimes have to make difficult choices about what to think and do, how to express themselves and how to respond to criticism – that’s life. The aim of enhancing children’s capacities for critical, creative and caring thinking is, to my mind, a sensible one that links philosophising to living in general by encouraging children to develop a set of dispositions that are likely to help them choose and judge wisely.

Territories of Wisdom

“You, Lucullus, if you have accepted the views of your associate Antichus, are bound to defend these doctrines as you would the walls of Rome, but I need only do so in moderation, just as much as I think fit” (Cicero, Academica, 2.44.137)

American philosopher Nicholas Rescher characterises the modern philosophical scene as no longer dominated by ‘a handful of greats’. He writes: ‘great kingdoms are thus notable by their absence, and the scene is more like that of medieval Europe – a collection of small territories ruled by counts palatine and prince bishops. Scattered here and there in separate castles a prominent individual philosophical knight gains a local following of loyal vassals or dedicated enemies. But no one among the academic philosophers of today manages to impose their agenda on more than a minimal fraction of the larger, internally diversified community.’

The world of philosophy for children* is also becoming more and more diverse. In the beginning, Matthew Lipman and his colleagues bestrode the territory. Their ideas provided the foundations on which many local centres around the world were built. Terms like ‘community of inquiry’  and ‘The 3 Cs (critical, creative and caring thinking)’ became the common language of theory and practice in the field. Models of inquiry adapted from American pragmatists such as John Dewey and Charles Peirce were the norm.

Yet even in those early days of the 1980s a few individuals were developing their distinctive domains of theory and practice and gathering admirers around them. They devised new labels with which to demarcate the territory and distinguish their initiatives from others – ‘philosophy with children’, ‘philosophical inquiry with children’, ‘Socratic method’, ‘philosophical practice’, ‘philosophy in schools’ and so on.

Now in 2013, there is an even wider range of beliefs about how philosophising with children should be carried out. Within individual territories of theory and practice there is bound to be further diversity even if people agree to follow certain broad conventions. In SAPERE, an organisation I belong to, I hear people saying things I can’t agree with and I’m sure they can say the same about me.

In this blog, I’ll try to say what I think and I invite people to respond in kind.

* I am using the phrase ‘philosophy for children’ and the initials ‘P4C’ here to refer to the whole range of initiatives involving philosophising with children and teenagers. Some insist the phrase should be used only with reference to the Philosophy for Children programme devised by Matthew Lipman and his colleagues at the IAPC (Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children). I have not taken that advice but if I am writing about a particular initiative or programme I will make that clear. I will try not to generalise about P4C as if all initiatives are the same.