Anarchy in the UK: Philosophy, a luxury or a necessity?
Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 9, 2011
It was during the student riots in the late 1960’s in America that the first ‘Philosophy for Children’ novel, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, was written (1969). Matthew Lipman, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University was troubled by the lack of dialogue and dialogical abilities among students (and between students and faculty members!). The book was intended to help further education students learn to reason and dialogue.
At times like these I’m sure many people are not thinking about philosophy and how it can help, or how it could have helped. Philosophy is generally seen as a luxury, some say the Ancient Greeks had time for philosophy because they had slaves. Most philosophers have come from the middle and upper-classes, and today in the UK it is seen as something done in Universities by academics, not something that is practical or even accessible to many people.
However, every description of the rioters includes ‘unthinking’ and ‘mindless’ within them (and if it’s Theresa May then ‘criminal’ and ‘criminality’ are also a running theme). Disaffected youths are rioting and looting the streets at night in numbers that are overpowering the police. A perfect storm perhaps caused by a lack of trust in those running the country, anger at bankers, police, the media, the economic meltdown, austerity, the example of scenes from the ‘Arab Spring’, and the young being taught about rights, but not about responsibilities? And perhaps a great deal more.
Can philosophy possibly help? More rational rioters? “Do you bite your thumb at me sir? No, sir. But I bite my thumb sir.” Perhaps not philosophy in the ‘history of ideas’ sense (although this can come in to it), but philosophical dialogue and communities of enquiry based on reasoning, reflection and critical thinking really can help. A community of enquiry or philosophical dialogue can help build community cohesion: people talking together to consider the best course of action for their own communities. Rethinking ideas as a group, re-evaluating their own and others ideas, learning to listen and to understand each other, to build on other people’s thinking and to internalize this dialogue so they can critically evaluate their own thinking. Philosophical enquiry not only helps a community as a whole, but also individuals within the enquiry.
In Dr Catherine McCall’s book ‘Transforming Thinking’ she talks about her method of Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI) for children and communities. “Engaging in a CoPI over an extended period of time transforms individual participants and improves their life chances. It is not that the participants learn skills that they can use in other settings; rather, they themselves are changed, and everything they then do is different from what it would have been had they not been part of a CoPI. This is why children behave differently in the playground, at home and in the community – not just in the classroom.”
McCall then goes on to describe a community project she ran from 1994-1995 in a deprived area of Glasgow. The aim of the project was to reduce aggression and violence in Castlemilk. Other initiatives had failed and philosophy was a last resort: the funders decided to take a risk and try to develop a Community of Philosophical Inquiry across the Protestant-Catholic divide. Four groups of children and three groups of adults were created with people from across the sectors to engage in philosophical inquiry. Not only was this the first time these people were engaging in philosophy, it was the first time they were engaging in dialogue with those from the opposite sectarian group.
The results? As the groups of children and adults developed their philosophical reasoning skills and became a member of a community with their traditional ‘enemies’ their behavior changed. Violence decreased and the hold the respective gang leaders had over the communities was diminished.
“The results of the project demonstrated the benefits both for individual children and for the community or society. Individual children improved their performance in school, their behaviour changed, and they gained the opportunity to get to know a whole segment of their community they would not otherwise have known. Society benefited directly from the reduction in violence and the lessening of the gang leaders’ power, as well as from the presence in the community of people who now had the skills and disposition to become active citizens and make further changes in their community.”
The importance of individuals questioning society should not be underestimated. Hannah Arendt called Adolf Eichmann’s unquestioning administrative work during the Nazi regime ‘the banality of evil’. His ‘unthinking’ passive life led to atrocities being committed. But you need to learn how to question, and how to evaluate the answers you are given. Questioning society does not mean throwing bricks and burning down shops and homes. Questioning involves dialogue. It involves listening and it involves thinking.
When we talk of a ‘Big Society’ and communities we also need to consider the individuals within the community and how to help them. It is through individuals learning to think autonomously, learning to question and not follow the crowd, thinking about how their actions will have consequences in their own community and for themselves that we can help develop a more collaborative, cohesive and caring community.
Philosophy has been seen to be a luxury, but it is not. It surrounds us and we cannot escape it, nor should we want to. We should use it to help us. Life: the economy, politics, media, society cannot function without thinking. It is all about philosophy.
By Emma Worley, Lewisham 9th August 2011
See also Peter Worley’s reflection on the riots: “Can philosophy help with rioting?”