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A place to exchange ideas about philosophy

Is philosophy relevant to the 21st Century? Why?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on November 16, 2011

Obviously The Philosophy Foundation and its supporters think that the answer to this is a resounding YES!

But on World Philosophy Day (this year held on November 17th) we want to hear as many different reasons from our readers and friends as possible. So we are handing over to you. Tell us why you this philosophy is relevant to the 21st Century. And as this is philosophy we’d also welcome thoughts on why philosophy is not relevant today.


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Live philosophy session on radio

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on October 27, 2011

Primary school philosophy live on the Philosophy Now radio show, with children from All Saints School, Blackheath, years 4-6 (ages 8-10). Run by Peter Worley, interviewed by Grant Bartley from Philosophy Now.

Available to listen to here: (Show number 13)

This paper was written to aid our trainees. This is a document of techniques, hints and tips and good practice by The Philosophy Foundation, written whilst listening to this podcast. Particularly interesting contrast between Peter, using the PhiE method, and Grant who hasn’t had any experience or training in doing philosophy with children.

For more on the PhiE method and techniques for doing philosophy with children and developing higher-order thinking buy The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom by Peter Worley. Available here:

‘The best book of its kind currently available, an invaluable resource for teachers wanting to try out some philosophy in their classrooms and a significant contribution to educational theory. Buy it!’ Michael Hand, Reader of Philosophy, London’s Institute of Education.

NB: some of the techniques mentioned here (‘If-ing, anchoring and opening up’), all fully explained in The If Machine, but for a quick overview you can download Peter’s paper ‘What can university philosophy learn from primary philosophy?’

First discussion

  • Notice the clarity of the opening question to the children.
  • Repetition of stimulus and Task Question (TQ): TQ – Talk Time – TQ repeated.
  • Encouraging divergent answers (‘Lets see how many different answers we can find.’)
  • Because of nerves Peter’s responses are slower at beginning because he is taking the time to make sure he is actively listening (‘playing back’ in his head) – this is important to remember in the classroom, particularly when you are first starting out, nerves can be a problem – focus on listening very carefully to the children.
  • Peter reminds them of the hand/finger rule.
  • Trying to develop dialectic / controversy as soon as possible through the use of ‘fingers’ (responses) and Right-to-Reply (See The If Machine).
  • A few ‘echoes’ (repeating exactly back what the children have said) and paraphrases (ask questions – ‘is that right Charlotte?’ – to make sure the paraphrases are exactly what the children mean). Echoing gives everyone time to think about the last comment, and to make sure everyone has heard it.
  • Peter aids Carter and Luke in linking their ideas.
  • If-ing (a technique to encourage hypothetical thinking) with Carter (difference between the pencils) – ‘either-or-the-if’ and then ‘anchoring’ back to the TQ (See The If Machine for more on ‘If-ing, anchoring and opening up’).
  • Gave Carter ‘time to think it through’ (Peter could see that he was nervous).
  • Clarification question (‘could you explain what you mean?’ with George).
  • Linking, with the use of ‘Tension Play’ (playing off ideas that disagree with each other to develop thinking, see The If Machine) George and Luke (pencils count as one thing).
  • George’s ‘Norway example’ providing a counter-example to Luke & Ellie’s idea that there was just one thing there.
  • Ellie (things / objects) – Peter could have if-ed ‘objects’ rather than correcting her about the question.
  • Jack and Ellie – (she asked him a really good question).
  • Clarification question used for Charlotte to understand atoms.
  • Peter makes sure they have a concept of ‘atom’ that they could work with. He avoided telling facts about atoms and molecules – more interested in a ‘working concept’.
  • If-ed to test and clarify Ellie’s idea of the number of atoms (‘if we had one atom… if we had two atoms…?’).
  • Heather –  Peter’s question: ‘Why are they different?’ (Justificatory questioning.)
  • Charlotte – ‘1006 things’ Aristotle, “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.” – Charlotte seems to be moving towards this idea. If appropriate Peter will bring in relevant philosophers and their ideas later on in a session, see the Sibelius Model in his paper ‘What can university philosophy learn from primary philosophy?’ available to download here:

Second discussion

  • Charlotte takes Jacks ‘1000 atoms’ and ‘ifs’ with the idea perfectly well, as do the others. (Advanced hypothetical thinking.)
  • Peter refocuses the question by quoting Charlotte more accurately than she did herself.
  • Looking for agreement with Charlotte (‘Who agrees with Charlotte?’ – Response Detector, see The If Machine).
  • Peter allows Charlotte to respond generally.
  • George ‘But…’ (dialectic is developing nicely here, and naturally) this is because Peter is staying out of the discussion.
  • Peter seeks the less frequent contributors (this gets Luke to put up his hand).
  • New TQ (‘Emergent Question’, i.e. a question that has emerged from the discussion and therefore from the children) is introduced: ‘if we took the thousand atoms away, what would we be left with?’

Grant takes over (NB: Grant has not done philosophy with children before, so this is a brave move on live radio! Many of the problems Grant experiences are something that philosophers new to doing philosophy with children experience.

  • His objective is definitional.
  • He challenges the children personally and thus risks ‘blocking’ them.
  • This is essentially an eristic dynamic (eristic = ‘combative’ in contrast to dialectic = ‘collaborative’).
  • Adult / child disjunction (two conversations happening: Grant’s agenda / children’s limited understanding of that).
  • Discussion dries up in places due to the eristic dynamic.
  • Honeycomb dynamic – each child responding directly to the adult, rather than each other (no dialectic).
  • Grant shows some exasperation because he has an agenda and the children are perhaps not fulfilling his aim.
  • Putting words in their mouths: (the ‘so you’re saying…’ principle)
  • He’s doing all the talking (fear of silence – even worse on radio).
  • He has to keep rephrasing his questions until a child responds.
  • Children are no longer talking to each other but each one to him.
  • These kids are particularly good at dealing with his questions but many other children would simply dry up under this pressure.
  • Grant flicks from one idea to the next where the children are not sure of the rhetorical value of having done so (e.g. body / ghost questions) – because they don’t ‘own’ the conversation it is not clear that they understand it synoptically (the conversation as a whole) even though they understand each isolated exchange with Grant.

Third discussion

  • ‘Can you say a bit more about that?’ – Peter tries to get Carter to say more about his idea. Remember in a philosophy session to always go deeper: ‘why?’, ‘can you say more?’, ‘what do you mean by…?’
  • Corrected Eli’s ‘minicules’ without correcting her directly, merely by using the right word (although ‘minicules’ is lovely!)
  • Anchoring them to Charlotte’s challenge – more advanced level of focus here than at the beginning. ‘If you counted all the atoms you would still have the arms, legs, head and body to count wouldn’t you?’
  • ‘Can anyone answer Charlotte’s question?’ – ‘Anchoring’
  • George and Charlotte have started to take the discussion to another level
  • The discussion is touching on identity (‘is water identical with H2O?’) – this is one possibility of where to go next with the next session. An emergent discussion – the children are deciding on the direction rather than the facilitator, the facilitator keeps the discussion within the realms of philosophy, and uses techniques to deepen thinking and reasoning.
  • Anchored them again and again to Charlottes’ question ‘If you counted all the atoms you would still have the arms, legs, head and body to count wouldn’t you?’

Final question to the children: ‘Why do you like philosophy?’

  • Heather: I like speaking about what I think is right, but I also like finding out what other people think about it.
  • Luke: Philosophy is mainly all about thinking and I really like thinking because I think all the time.
  • George: We do questions which are hard. It helps you understand the question and be more open-minded. If you think about something quickly you’ll get the answer but it helps you to think: ‘is that exactly the correct answer or are there more?’
  • Ellie: There’s never just one answer – and there’s never a wrong answer. So, let’s say if I said something and Heather said something different, we’re both right in our own opinions.
  • Max: I just like solving the questions. I just like trying to ‘work’ it. Trying to get the answer.
  • Carter: I like when we finish the discussion and solve it and we have loads of different answers. I like it because it’s really a fun way of thinking about things.
  • Charlotte: It makes you think really deeply. And once you get really deep into the question there’s even more answers.

With thanks to all the children who took part in the programme, from All Saints School, Blackheath: Heather, George, Ellie, Max, Carter, George, Luke, Jack & Charlotte.


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Religion, Arguments and Editing

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 16, 2011

Oliver Leech MPhil writes a philosophical argument about God, but also invites you in to a meta-level discussion about the problems of working with the press:


The New Statesman (July 25th, 2011) published an article called ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams. In its heading readers were reminded that earlier in the year the magazine had asked public figures why they believed in God. In ‘Faith No More’ another set of public figures, this time atheists, were invited to explain why they did not believe in God.

The atheist public figures included writers, scientists, philosophers and humanists; among them Philip Pulman, Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee and Stephen Hawking.

I read the article keen to learn the key reasons for contemporary atheism and noted that one recurring very frequently was ‘lack of evidence’. For example, Richard Dawkins wrote: ‘I don’t believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.’

From my very basic understanding of the philosophy of religion I realised that this approach to the question of the existence of God was wrongly directed. Why? It assumes that asking whether or not God exists is the same sort of enquiry as trying to find out whether a particular object (from a black hole to a red herring) exists among other objects. A comparable misunderstanding might be looking for a washing machine by opening a door and searching among socks, shirts and underwear. The error is to confuse an item with that which contains the item. What believers take God to be – and whether they are right or not is a completely different question – is that on which the whole universe depends not an item capable of being discovered within the universe.

In an attempt to contribute this point to the discussion I emailed the following letter to the New Statesman. Before reading it please note that it is not in any way meant to present a counter argument, to make a case for the existence of God. The aim was simply to point out that this particular ground for atheism, the lack of evidence argument, is based on a definition of God that serious students of religion do not actually hold.  Now, whether there exists or not such an entity, namely, that on which the universe depends is a very challenging question but not one about which my letter was concerned.

in response to Faith No More by Andrew Zak Williams (New Statesman 25th July, 2011)

‘I was fascinated to read the reasons given by ‘public figures’ for their atheism. Prominent among them was the lack of evidence argument. The practical difficulty of proving the non-existence of God was acknowledged but then came the telling point that in general we do not believe to exist whatever we cannot prove not to exist. Examples offered were leprechauns, werewolves, goblins, fairies, pixies and gnomes. There is no need to show that they do not exist to have no faith in them.

In relation to the question of the existence or non-existence of God, however, this approach can be challenged. Leprechauns etc. are possible items in the universe. Since there is no evidence that such items are to be found anywhere in the universe, we dismiss them. The Higgs-Boson is a possible item in the universe. Experiments in the Hadron Collider are intended to show whether or not there is evidence for its existence. So in the case of items in the universe evidence is rightly regarded as the basis for belief or disbelief.

The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God as usually defined is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence.

The objection raised here is not in any way intended to serve as a contrasting proof of the existence of God but merely to point out what I take to be a mistaken approach to the question.’

The New Statesman (8th August, 2011) published my letter but in a much edited form, just one paragraph of it in fact, as you can see below:

‘The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence. ‘

Not only has all the philosophical argument been omitted but the crucial phrase in the penultimate paragraph after the word God ‘as usually defined’. I can quite understand that a reader would assume from the printed form of the letter that its author was responding to rational argument with a dollop of dogma. No wonder the following letter appeared in the New Statesman (15th August, 2011):

‘Oliver Leech (Letters, 8 August) grandly asserts that “God is … that on which the universe depends for its existence”. He also states that it is a “category mistake” to think that any evidence is require to demonstrate  God’s existence. So that’s all right, then. Would it be judged ironic to ask Mr Leech politely on what he therefore bases his remarkable assertion?’ Max Fishel, Bromley, Greater London

What does this all amount to? It has certainly been a learning experience for me. I now know if I did not before that almost any statement about religion is open to misunderstanding and especially if there is a Chinese whispers effect as clearly happened here when the New Statesman, carelessly or mischievously to provoke, put a spin on an attempt to join in a reasoned debate.




New Statesman Letters, 8th August, 2011 printed one paragraph of my letter in response to ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams (25th July, 2011).

I understand that letters need to be edited and reduced in length but why did you omit from that paragraph the crucial phrase (after the word ‘God’) ‘as usually defined’, a phrase that makes all the difference to the point I was trying to make, except deliberately to change a rational argument into what reads like a piece of religious dogmatism. It can only be a mischievous attempt to provoke a response based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote which is exactly what you got in the letter you published from Max Fishel (15th August, 2011). I thought that the New Statesman was a magazine devoted to serious subjects discussed in a grown-up way.

Oliver Leech

PS Please send a copy of my letter as you received it to Max Fishel. It is not his fault that he got the wrong end of the stick.


Posted in Arguments, Comment | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

Can philosophy help with the rioting?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 9, 2011

The first response to this is that ‘critical thinking’ or ‘reasoning’ is merely the difference between irrational criminals and rational ones. Or, those that get caught and those that don’t!

Here’s an argument for a positive role for philosophy in the context of the motivations behind the riots:

Having conducted many philosophical enquiries with the very children in Lewisham who are – or may one day be – involved in the kind of behaviour we are seeing as part of the London riots, I have also witnessed the following. During (and as a result of) the discussions children very often begin with intuitions and beliefs that they feel strongly about and would clearly be prepared to act upon. However, following a philosophical enquiry that is structured and disciplined, I have also often seen these very children change their mind or realise that their starting assumptions are wrong. I cannot say to what extent this rational reflection impacts on their actual behaviour, but I can comment on what I see taking place with, I believe, sincerely spoken thoughts and reflections from the children.

Now, if it is the case that a child (or anyone for that matter) can change their mind about a belief that they are prepared to act upon through rational reflection then it follows that they may – or may be more likely to – recognise that beliefs they find themselves holding in the future, beliefs they are about to act upon, are also open to challenge and revaluation. They may (or be more likely to) therefore refrain from acting on that belief. They may (or be more likely to) even refine their belief to include other points of view for instance, or logical analysis, or moral considerations etc.

Philosophical enquiry can (and does) provide the tools for the sort of reflection that is clearly not going on when the youths of the August 8th night act upon what they believe to be good justifications (when there are justifications at all) for looting or rioting.

Crazy as it may sound, I believe that philosophy, for the reasons given above, can help to tackle some of the underlying problems that lie behind the looting and rioting that we are seeing happening at the time this author is writing (from Lewisham!)

By Peter Worley 9/8/11

See also Anarchy in the UK: philosophy a luxury or a necessity by Emma Worley

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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?”

Posted in Practical Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

‘The demonstration with the slave in the Meno proves nothing. The discussion is rigged. Socrates has the answers from the outset, so he can lead the slave into giving the answers.’ Discuss.

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on December 5, 2010

Meno asks Socrates to “somehow show that things are as he says”; to show that “…we do not learn but that which we call learning is recollection.” (81e) In response Socrates asks a slave boy to come over to them and he proceeds to question the boy about geometry in order to demonstrate to Meno that he is not teaching him but that the boy is “recollecting things in order” (82e). But is the discussion rigged such that Socrates is really giving him the answers by knowing them himself and then feeding the boy the answers by a series of carefully constructed leading questions? The discussion is indeed littered with leading questions and in some cases Socrates does tell the boy answers in some barely disguised questions, and on a first reading one is certainly left with a feeling that maybe he is just telling him the answers. All readers of Plato are familiar with the Socratic method known as the elenchus and the process of dialectic that Socrates employs with his interlocutors, but readers of Plato are also familiar with the, sometimes, disingenuous use of the dialogue form. Many of Socrates’ opponents or collaborators in the dialogues are made to agree with Socrates for the purposes of the discussion when we – the readers – often feel that objections need to be made; the answers Socrates’ interlocutors give often seem rigged by Plato to go in the direction that he wants. This can seem acceptable in some cases because Plato is simply using the dialogue to expound his ideas and the artificiality of the responses is not relevant to the philosophical point he is making. However, in the case of the demonstration with the slave boy in the Meno, it seems that it matters very much because, as Socrates repeatedly says to Meno, he is at pains to make sure that the boy answers with opinions that are his own. This is important because he must be able to show, for the success of his demonstration, that the boy can reach a conclusion at the end of the discussion that he was unable to reach at the beginning. If Socrates simply tells him this conclusion in the interim then his demonstration would have failed. How can we respond to this concern?


To say that Socrates ‘leads the boy to give the answers’ is vague and unclear so I would like to draw a distinction between two relevant, but competing, ways that can be meant by this phrase. Firstly, we can mean that Socrates ‘tells the boy the answers’, as in “What is p? Is it not q?”[1] Secondly, there is a more complex sense I call the poria-sense[2] that to feed the boy the answers is to ‘provide a path’ from ignorance, through aporia, to eureka. I will argue that it is this second sense that Socrates is using when he feeds the answers to the boy at the crucial stages of the discussion, and that, not only does this sense not lead the boy to the answers in a way that is detrimental to his demonstration, but that the poria-sense of ‘leading’ is at the heart of the method that he wants to demonstrate – what I will call the ‘poria-method’. With the demonstration he will attempt to show that, via the poria-method, the boy can reach true belief about something he has no knowledge of; but the method has a still greater role in the demonstration: Socrates suggests that it will form part of how the boy will then go on to reach knowledge. I will outline what the poria-method is as this is central to Socrates’ method and therefore central to the argument that the demonstration proves something. 


The demonstration as a whole falls into three parts: the first part ending where the boy reaches the false conclusion that a double size figure would follow from a double length side (82e); the second part ending with the boy’s aporetic moment where he declares that he does not know on what line the 8-foot figure would be based (84a), and the third part ending with the boy correctly identifying the diagonal line on which the 8-foot figure is based, line EH (85b). Socrates uses these different stages of the inquiry to identify significant stages of the boy’s progress through the problem to which he deliberately draws Meno’s attention: the first part is where the boy thinks he knows the answer but is ignorant; the second part is where the boy realises that he is ignorant, and the third part is where the boy finally reaches insight and true-belief about the correct answer. The important move that we shall be interested in – and to which I believe Socrates must not tell the boy the answer – is the conclusion: the line on which the eight foot figure is based, indicated ostensively by the boy when he answers Socrates’ question: “Based on what line? – This one.”[3]


So, does Socrates tell the boy the answer at 85b? We can eliminate the kind of disguised-answer-leading-question that is found at 83b and 83c[4] as nowhere in the discussion does Socrates covertly reveal the answer (the diagonal of the square with the side of 2) in this way with his questioning. But to show exactly in what way he illuminates the way to the answer, and to show that this is not counter to his aim, I will now have to say something about the poria-method Socrates uses that I identified earlier: how he provides a path without telling the boy the answer.


Showing the path: the ‘poria-method’


The example chosen by Socrates for discussion with the slave boy is a geometrical one and the conclusion he leads the boy to is a valid conclusion and it is reached by a series of deductive steps. The boy is therefore able to reason logically in the demonstration, but there are a variety of ways that this could be taught or facilitated, some of which involve telling the student the answer. Socrates’ questions facilitate the boy to apply his understanding of concepts to move him autonomously (searching and selecting for himself) by inference towards eureka (insight) and through aporia (perplexity). But how does Socrates facilitate this? He does it by the introduction of salient concepts and then his questions allow the boy to ‘join the dots’ using the concepts he has learned to bring him to the answer. By the expression ‘join the dots’ I mean that the boy has to make the necessary connections between the various concepts that he is considering and therefore he has to make judgements about the selection of the concepts he is searching through and the connections he subsequently has to make. In a word, we might call this process ‘inference’. It is this crucial aspect of the method that preserves the boy’s autonomy for Socrates to justifiably be able to claim that he has not been given the answer and that the boy has answered with his own opinions. Socrates’ questioning is such that the answers to previous questions provide the foundations for the answering of later ones. Socrates’ job, through the use of questioning, is to activate the boy to perform the operations I have just described, and Socrates does this by setting problems to which the relevant (and acquired) concepts can then be applied.


I will now take a closer look at how concepts are introduced; problems set for the application of the concepts; and then the candidate-answers tested in the light of these new, relevant concepts. In the first part the concept of ‘square’ is introduced (82b), followed by a discussion of the concept of ‘size’ (82c) and then the concept of ‘double’ (82d); a problem is then set (82d-e): “Socrates: Come now, try to tell me how long each side of this will be. The side of this is two feet. What about each side of the one which is its double?” The boy is, however, missing an essential concept in order to give the right answer at this stage: he is lacking the concept of ‘area’[5]. Socrates therefore sees it as his role to provide the boy with the relevant concept (83b) and then to enable the boy to test the answer that has been given in light of the new concept. When the boy does this he discovers that the original answer is contradicted by the new – area-informed – answer (83c). A process of logical elimination (83c-d) then enables the boy to see, rightly, that the answer must lie between a 2-foot side and a 4-foot side and he concludes, reasonably but incorrectly, that it must be ‘three’ (83e). I say ‘reasonably’ because 3 must be the only known number to the boy between 2 and 4. This is the boy’s second attempt to answer the question. But when this yields a 9-foot figure (83e) the second answer is also falsified as a result of Socrates’ testing of this second answer. The boy is consequently ‘numbed’ into aporia: “Socrates: But on how long a line [is the 8-foot figure based]? Try to tell us exactly, and if you do not want to work it out, show me from what line. – By Zeus, Socrates, I do not know.” Now, at this point, he cannot see how to proceed: he is without a path in the usual manor of a Socratic dialogue. He knows the line must be between 2 and 4 but he also knows that it cannot be three so no other options appear open to him. What does Socrates do to ‘provide a path’ in, what is an unusual extra step in his elenchus method, where he proceeds beyond aporia? Socrates’ own word for what follows is that the boy will come out of perplexity by “searching along with me.”[6] (84c) He then says, “I shall do nothing more than ask questions and not teach him.” (84c-d) The word ‘searching’ here implies the character of the last stage: that of ‘discovery’. Socrates needs to preserve the element of discovery for his demonstration to succeed because of my earlier argument for the necessity of the boy’s autonomy in the process. He begins the third part by recapping that the combination of the four 2-foot squares gives a square four times the size and not twice the size (84d-e); he then introduces the final relevant concept: that of ‘the diagonal’. Following the introduction of this final, crucial concept Socrates asks a series of questions (85a), which do not contain any disguised answers. The boy is only able to answer these questions because he has understood the conceptual content thus far, and he has understood the conceptual content because he has been applying the concepts as he has proceeded through the inquiry. The boy therefore has to search his own understanding and select his answers appropriately enabling him to say, in the last stretch, not “yes”, “no” or “certainly”, but substantive answers that appear nowhere in Socrates’ questions: “four”, “two”, “double”, “eight” and finally, very much in the spirit of inferential discovery, “this one” (85a-b).


The extraordinary culmination of this inquiry is that the answer is reached at 85b when Socrates asks the boy, “[the 8-foot figure is] Based on what line?” and he answers with, “This one.”[7] But the answer is not explicitly stated[8]. There are two reasons for this: one reason is the parallel process the reader is undergoing whilst reading the dialogue and the other is the fact that Socrates tells Meno that the boy has only true-beliefs and not knowledge at the end of the inquiry. It will later emerge that Socrates thinks knowledge is ‘true-belief plus an account’ (98a). The slave boy demonstrates that he understands the concepts and the reasoning employed in the inquiry but he does not provide accounts – that is: he does not explain why he gives the answers he does. If any accounts are given then they are given by Socrates[9]. So, the demonstration is a ‘demonstration’ in two senses: 1) it demonstrates to Meno that the boy can indeed acquire true-beliefs about something he was ignorant of without being told the answer; in other words, it demonstrates at least part of Socrates’ point (it has not yet proved that this is recollection) and 2) it only demonstrates – as in ‘shows’ – the boy’s understanding in the context of the discussion with Socrates. Meno only witnesses the boy’s true-beliefs and understanding, the boy himself cannot provide an account of his true-beliefs with definitions and explanations etc. One would not know he had true-beliefs without having also witnessed the demonstration. But this is sufficient to meet the problem of the paradox of inquiry, because if the boy can reach true-beliefs without knowledge then there is a sense in which an inquiry can yield something significant (i.e. true-beliefs) without having knowledge of the object of inquiry (Socrates: “So the man who does not know has within himself true-opinions about the things that he does not know?” 85c). This is intelligible in the light of a distinction between knowing (exhaustive, propositional definitions with justificatory and explanatory accounts) and showing (witnessed demonstration of true-beliefs in an applied context). As far as I can tell this is not made explicit in the dialogue but is what we are left to infer from the demonstration itself (the showing) and his later definition of knowledge at 98a: true-belief plus an account (the knowing).


Teaching without teaching


Several times in the dialogue Socrates says that he is not teaching the boy. There is a sense in which he is, and a sense in which he is not. Consider the following senses of ‘teaching’: 1) teaching as the transmission of a body of information and 2) teaching as the activation of the application of salient concepts with a given problem (the poria-method). From the student’s point of view the first of these is passive and it is possible for a student to demonstrate the successful transmission of a body of information without the correct understanding of the concepts and principles involved (for example with a recited-answer or memorised essay). The second of these styles of teaching is active and therefore must include understanding in order to move from one stage to another. It is a collaborative and interactive process where the student and teacher make different kinds of contributions but where they both must make contributions for the inquiry to progress. And, crucially, 1) also involves the telling of answers and then the testing of them with questions, whereas 2) includes only the method of ‘providing a path’. The analysis I have provided above I think shows that Socrates is teaching but only in the second sense of teaching: he is activating the boy to search for the answer.


Hypothesis: entertaining without accepting


In his Metaphysics Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated man to entertain a thought without accepting it.” This describes the method of hypothesis, which Socrates introduces as an explicit method in the Meno (86e) and although it is introduced after the demonstration with the slave boy I think it is used in the discussion, though in a special way. At two points in the discussion Socrates elicits an answer from the boy, which they then go on to test. First they test the conclusion reached at 82e (that a double-sized figure must be based on a double-sized line) in the light of the new idea of ‘area’ (83a-c) with which they reach a different conclusion (that a double sized line would give a figure four times the size), and this shows that the first conclusion must be false. If we call the conclusion at 82e the hypothesis then at 83a-c they test and falsify the hypothesis. A second answer (hypothesis-2) is reached at 83e (“Three”) which is also subjected to a test which again falsifies hypothesis-2 (“So the 8-foot figure cannot be based on the 3-foot line” [as this gives a 9-foot figure]) But it is important to point out that Socrates and the boy have different notions of what the hypothesis is – and this is the ‘special way’ I outlined earlier in which Socrates uses the hypothesis-method. The boy believes it to be ‘the answer’ – in Aristotle’s terms, he has ‘accepted it’ – but Socrates treats it only as a ‘candidate-answer’ to which he will invite the boy to apply a test. When the test is then applied the boy comes to realise that ‘the answer’ was wrong.  In so doing Socrates has brought the boy to a new attitude towards answers, that they can be entertained without yet being accepted: he is learning the method of hypothesising, not by being told about it but by actively engaging with it. To return to the distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘showing’, he cannot explain this method, or even identify it, but he can do it and can, presumably, apply it when it is necessary to do so on future occasions.


Does the teacher need to know the answer?


I have been addressing the common concern raised in regard to the Meno that Socrates has the answers at the outset and is then only able to lead the boy to give the answers because of this and that this shows that the demonstration is fixed. We have already considered the extent to which – and sense in which – Socrates leads the boy to give the answers, but now I would like to look at the relevance of Socrates’ having the answers. Although it is probably the case that Socrates does know the answers before the discussion begins in this particular instance, the poria-method employed does not require that he have the answers; he could have done this just as well without the answers at the start, arriving at the answer himself only at, or, as he approaches the conclusion. All that is necessary for Socrates to enter into the teacher/facilitator role is that he understands how to approach the problem or how to see the way forward; it is not necessary for him to have the answers to be able to do this. As I have shown, understanding how to approach the problem involves, among other things: identifying the salient concepts for introduction to the student; understanding how to test candidate-answers; being able to identify the next step along the path, or, to see what follows from what has been so far established. One objection to this may be that, in order to do all of this, it will be necessary to have the answers so that one is able to identify the salient concepts, and so that one is able to understand how to test candidate-answers etc. But this would mean that no problems could be solved without prior knowledge of the answers and therefore there would be no problems as any answers to them would be known. It is absurd to suggest that there are no problems[10] and equally absurd to suggest that there are no problems that have been solved[11], so it must be possible to identify a path to the solving of a problem without having to have the answer to the problem. In order to test this idea in the context of the Meno one could try the following thought-experiment: re-read the demonstration with the slave boy and assume that Socrates does not know the answer to the problem. Could the discussion unfold as it does with this assumption in mind? Are there any moments where you think he would need to know the answer in order to ask the questions that he does? I would like to propose that the demonstration is able to be read with a ‘supposed naïve Socrates’ and that this shows that the method throws a veil over the status of the teacher in regard to the searched-for answer. This makes it a method independent of the teacher’s prior possession of the answers. All that is necessary for the teacher to know is the concepts that are needed to be introduced to progress through the problem, but this knowledge is distinct from knowledge of the answer per se; this is knowledge of the context of the problem not knowledge of the answer to the problem.


Evidence from the reader’s progress


In order to establish that the demonstration with the slave boy is not artificial and therefore rigged to support Plato’s conclusion, there is the evidence of a parallel with the reader of the dialogue. If they too experience all the stages of cognitive progress that the slave boy experiences then is that not sufficient to show that the demonstration does what it is supposed to do and that it is drawn from a real process rather than simply a rhetorical literary device? This, of course, says nothing of how it is done or what the process is, but just that it is not artificial. A working through of the dialogue by a reader clearly shows the reader going through all the same stages, especially if the reader is not familiar with geometry. What is of note in the parallel-of-the-reader is that the answer at 85b is left without an explicit account and I believe that this is for a reason: that Plato is inviting the reader to progress further than the demonstration goes and to venture forward towards knowledge. The problem that Plato sets for us, the readers – just as Socrates set problems for the boy – is to discover the ‘silent account’[12]for ourselves. This problem is only set by implication, so, we have the further task of identifying that the problem has been set.


From true-belief to knowledge


For the true belief to become knowledge the slave boy would need to be able to provide an account such that he would be able to defend what he believed from attacks with reasons[13]. If he had knowledge he would continue to believe what he believed over time and would be able to explain and justify what he believed to others. This is what Socrates means when he says that knowledge is true belief ‘tethered by an account’ (98a). But, at the close of the demonstration, the slave boy would find doing all the above difficult even though he has reached a true-belief. So how does he move on? How does he up-grade his cognitive state to the status of knowledge? Socrates suggests that repeating the process in various ways would achieve this: “If he were repeatedly asked these same questions in various ways… in the end his knowledge about these things would be as accurate as anyone’s… and he will know it without having been taught but only questioned… [Will he not] find the knowledge within himself?” (85d) Presumably, this will mean something like the following: as the boy approaches the problem from different and various perspectives the conceptual ‘tethering’ becomes stronger and firmer and therefore knowledge is eventually reached. Although, at this stage, it should be pointed out that Plato only says, “his knowledge about these things would be as accurate as anyone’s.” He does not say that his knowledge would be complete and exhaustive. One thing that can be said about the poria-method is that it is a repeatable method that does not simply repeat the procedural steps algorithmically. As Plato suggests, it is progressive, and repeated uses of the method improve one’s understanding of the concepts and problems one is considering, whether or not this can ever be called knowledge and whatever the extent of the knowledge is. On repeated uses of the method one may also find multiple paths to the solution and thereby enrich one’s understanding.


I have said a great deal about what Socrates is doing during the demonstration but what is it, exactly, that the student is learning in being subjected to the poria-method, apart from how to solve the particular problem he is faced with? What also emerges from the demonstration is that the boy is not learning a body of knowledge he is learning a way to approach learning itself. What is significant about Plato’s inchoate idea that the method of the demonstration is repeatable and able to bring the student to knowledge is that the process is a meta-attitude to learning. That is to say, the boy is learning to learn by observing the poria-method as it is modelled for him by Socrates. He is not taught the method propositionally but assimilates it by imitation, or at least, he would over time. The method is the tool that the boy can then use to approach learning any subject, and, Plato hopes that this would be as true of virtue as much as of geometry, though much more would need to be said about this conceit. However, presumably – and less controversially – the poria-method can be used with any subject, problem or subject-area that would include clear, logical, inferential thinking. And whatever the empirical content of a subject, most subjects of learning require good, clear thinking in the handling of the subject matter. So, I think, therefore, that the poria-method is a universal method of learning not limited only to the a priori sciences (maths and geometry) but applicable to any subject that requires clear, logical, inferential thinking. This is, I think, the gift Plato confers on us with his poria-method. So, far from proving nothing, the demonstration gives us a universal method of learning to learn.




It is essential that Socrates be shown not to have told the slave boy the answer – the conclusion at 85b – and I have shown this by a detailed analysis of the text revealing that there are no disguised-answers at the crucial moments of the discussion. Next, I have shown that Socrates shows a path towards the answer using a method I have called the ‘poria-method’. This is an active, collaborative process that tests candidate-answers with set problems, and then moves, stepwise, from what has been established to what has yet to be established by the introduction of salient concepts; leaving the student with an autonomous role of selection, connection and judgement (inference) so that he engages his understanding to search for the answer which he seeks to discover for himself. Socrates is a teacher only in as far as he provides the conditions for the process of the poria-method to take place. Socrates also employs a method of hypothesis with the boy to test candidate-answers where the boy learns to ‘entertain an idea without accepting it’ in order to move the inquiry forward. All this goes to show that Socrates does not give the answer and, given that we need to show that Socrates does not give the answer to prove the success of the demonstration, we can conclude that the demonstration proves that the slave boy (and the reader) can go from ignorance about the side of the 8-foot figure to, at least, true-belief about the side of the 8-foot figure. Through the demonstration the slave boy is able to show that he has true-belief though he cannot account for it. But, finally, and perhaps most importantly, the demonstration has also furnished us with a critical method of learning that can be applied in many educational contexts and could play a crucial role in any attempt to gain knowledge.

[1] Examples of this in the text are at 83b: “How big is it then? Is it not four times as big? – Of course.” And 83c: “Then, my boy, the figure based on the line twice the length is not double but four times as big? – You are right.”

[2] Poria being the ancient Greek for ‘path’ and a-poria therefore meaning ‘without a path’ – the latter more commonly translated as ‘perplexity’ or ‘confusion’.

[3] See footnote 9 for a full, explicit account of the answer.

[4] See footnote 2

[5] There is a sense in which this answer seems reasonable when one is without the concept of area: if you want to double the figure then it might seem reasonable to double the length of the side, as that is what you are using to derive the size of the figure.

[6] My italics.

[7] Socrates then informs the reader, with his next question, which line it is that the boy has pointed to: “That is, on the line that stretches from corner to corner of the 4-foot figure? – Yes.”

[8] The silent account: The diagonal slices the area of the 2-foot side square in half; if the area of the 2-foot side square is 4 feet then the triangle within it is 2 feet, given that it is half; if there are 4 x 2-foot triangles in the enclosed larger square EHFG then the enclosed square must be 4 x 2 feet, which is 8 feet; So, the area of the enclosed square EHFG is 8 feet, based on the diagonal of the 2-foot line figure.

[9] Not explicitly, only implied justifications through the questions asked.

[10] Goldbach’s conjecture, for example.

[11] Euclid’s proof for the infinity of prime numbers, for example.

[12] See footnote 9

[13] Such as the account at footnote 9.


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A Socratic Method for Problem Solving

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on December 1, 2010

This is a method for problem solving that I have developed over some years inspired by Socrates’ demonstration with a slave boy in Plato’s Meno. It is a method I have found to be highly effective with a 100% success rate so far. It provides strong motivation in uncertainty and encourages collective intelligence and collaborative effort.

Have the children sit around a board in a horseshoe shape. Set a problem with an answer such as a logical problem but follow this model.

  • Tell the children that the problem may or may not be solvable. It is for them to decide.
  • Tell them that they can ‘give up’ if they want to but that you will only consider the class to have given up when there is nobody in the classroom who wants to ‘have a go’.
  • Emphasise that if they give up then no answers will be given by you: they will have to live with the inconclusiveness of having given up.
  • Make sure you that each attempt is witnessed by everybody in the room (by drawing on the board for example).
  • Strongly encourage them to get up and have a go even if they don’t solve it and keep reminding them that each go will in some way help the others by providing clues.
  • DO NOT INTERFERE OR TRY TO SHOW THEM THE ANSWER. Offer no advice but only tell them where they have broken the rules or stipulations. Say nothing more.
  • Answer no questions. If they ask questions then direct them to the board to try it out.

Provide a clue after a set number of goes but always try to find the clue in what has already been done by the others. Point out that the clue is not proof that the problem is solvable. It may be a red herring.

  • Make the clue as minimal as possible with as little explanation as possible (for example simply point to an attempt that includes an important clue).
  • Do not put anyone on the spot but try to choose people who have not yet had a go.
  • If they solve the problem then congratulate everybody who had a go and ask the person who solved it where they found their clues (very probably from other attempts).
  • Ask those who are familiar with the problem to remain silent for the task.

Variations depending on the problem:

  • You may decide to provide them with paper.
  • You may decide to let them talk it through with each other.
  • You may decide to have them solve it in silence simply by watching each other.
  • If the problem involves something on the board then all attempts should be recorded for all to see throughout the process.

(Originally published in Teach Primary magazine)

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Tell them the answer!

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on December 1, 2010

Reasoning is like joining the dots. It is all about making connections, step by step, between different points in a chain to reach a conclusion. Sometimes, in order to establish a route, you need to know the starting point and the end point. So, it can sometimes be logically fruitful to tell your class the answer but to withhold the reasons why it is the answer. Explaining the answer then becomes the task for the class and they have a clear end-point to navigate towards. To make things a little more challenging you could give them a choice of answers with the stipulation that they must justify the answer they choose. This is a process-orientated style of teaching rather than goal-orientated. Try the following puzzle in this way and see how the children deal with it much better than if you simply give them the problem, which will often leave them very confused. Use this puzzle with the problem-solving procedure I described in an earlier issue of Teach Primary (Vol. 4.6) ‘Any answers?’ (included on this site as ‘A Socratic Method for Problem Solving’).

The Way to Larisa

You are standing at a fork in the road and you are trying to get to the city of Larisa but you don’t know whether to take the left fork or the right fork. There are two brothers at the fork and you know that one of them always lies and the other always tells the truth. What single question could you ask them that will reveal the correct path to take?

The answer is: ‘Which way would your brother say to take?’ I shall leave it to you and your class to say why this is the correct question to ask!

(Originally published in Teach Primary magazine)

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Finding the holes

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on October 24, 2010

Socrates: This knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning. [The student] will recover it for himself.

Plato, The Meno (circa. 4th century BCE)

To transform your teaching try the following experiment for the next week. Begin by adopting the following principle: maximise your question-asking in your teaching.

When you have a puncture the first thing you do is look at your inner-tube to see where the air is escaping, but this is a futile exercise as you can’t examine the entire surface carefully enough. This problem is solved if you place the inner-tube in water. It is as if the water examines the inner-tube for you. The process of questioning acts like the water revealing exactly where new information needs to be introduced but only where it is necessary to do so.

Teaching does not consist only in asking questions; at some point you will need to teach your students something. Just teaching, however, results in passive students; questioning engages students actively by requiring that they think in order to consider and then respond; the dialogue that follows between the teacher and student builds their understanding. So, clearly you want to maximise the thinking, the considering, the responding, the dialogue and therefore the understanding among your students. Adopting the principle of question maximisation will help to achieve this.

The point at which you can think of no further questions that you can ask until the student has some further information, is the natural point to introduce the information. But do so asking questions where you can and by introducing the relevant information step-by-step; followed, at each step, by a question to engage the student with the new information. By following this method you will only ‘tell and explain’ where you really need to just as you know exactly where to apply the adhesive to your puncture only when it has been placed in water.

Next time a student asks you a question ask yourself the following question: can I get them to answer their own question by only asking them questions? If you succeed, notice how much better they understand than if you had just told them.

(This article was first published as a Break Time feature in Teach Primary magazine entitled ‘Ask only this’).

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Speech from The Philosophers’ Football Match 9/05/10

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on May 11, 2010

Are there any women here today?

It’s great to see so many living philosophers in one place at this bizarre, ridiculous, wonderful event.

I think the collective noun is a ponder of philosophers. If there are not very many does it reduce to a ‘pond’ and if there are too many then does it become ponderous?

It will hopefully build some bridges between the different sections of philosophy education. We have people from the primary sector, secondary schools, university lecturers and professors, and philosophers in the media. There are footballers and Monty Python fans! And this whole event is about making more people aware of philosophy. Bizarrely, there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to this event that is all about reason.

But, as many a philosopher has said before: ‘what’s it all about?’

Today is about the 4 Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic… and reasoning!

The day is of course also about enabling kids from all backgrounds and ages to benefit from doing philosophy – and this has never been more important, since providing access to philosophy to youngsters is under threat even at university level. Witness the close of Middlesex philosophy department and the threatened job cuts at King’s and at Liverpool.

The critics say that we should focus on the foundational skills and not waste our time with new-fangled subjects. Well, first of all, philosophy is hardly new-fangled but secondly and more importantly: What could be more foundational than concepts and reasoning? Understanding how things connect to one another and learning to critically evaluate what is presented? Reading, writing and arithmetic count for very little if children do not reason – if they do not think. So, deepening understanding through reasoning skills and habits will improve the 3 Rs not hinder them.

The Cambridge Primary review, which came out last year, says as much: that reading and writing hasn’t improved in 55 years – you only have to look at the 3 Rs themselves to realise that: “reading, writing, ‘rithmetic”? The reason the Cambridge review gave for this was that education does not deepen understanding; it teaches to the test.

So, we should think seriously about the need to address good thinking in education

And that’s where philosophy comes in!

My view is that philosophy shouldn’t be squeezed in as an added extra – it should inform the whole of education to make education about good thinking and not just about a list of unthinking skills. There’s a sense in which, historically, education came from philosophy so philosophy’s coming home!

Maybe there are those who would see a ‘thinking citizen’ as a threat.

I will leave you (and possibly Mark Steel) to ponder that.

I would like to finish with a quote from the 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne. He said:

“Take Palvel and Pompeo, those excellent dancing masters when I was young: I would like to have seen them teaching us our steps just by watching them without budging from our seats, like those teachers who seek to give instruction to our understanding without making it dance.”

Today we have made understanding dance!

Thanks to…

Our sponsors and partners: firstly, our trophy sponsor Routledge – thanks very much to them, also Introducing Books, the marvellous On Idle for having done so much for today, Rebellion, Mitre, Open University, Performance Ticket Printers, TPM, Philosophy Now and Prospect and Dr. Stephen Law for donating copies of his books The Philosophy Files. A huge thank you of course to all our wonderful players of the beautiful game – thanks to your enthusiasm and generosity we have had an amazing and memorable event. Thanks go to everyone – but especially to our captains Arthur Smith and Dr Jim Parry, Ref Nigel Warburton, and special guests Bettany Hughes, Simon Hughes and Mark Steel – as well as our managers AC Grayling and Graham Taylor, and to our wonderful match day commentator for today’s event Laurie Taylor. And a quick thank you to The Dagenham Girls Pipers Band as well for their fabulous music. We would also like to thank the Monty Python team for allowing us to us their material as inspiration for today’s event. And finally, thanks to all of you who came to this fantastic event today.

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