The Philosophy Shop’s Blog

A place to exchange ideas about philosophy

Archive for April, 2009

The Music of Dialogue in Philosophy

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 26, 2009

Philosophy has a symbiotic relationship with dialogue stretching all the way back to Socrates who used dialogue to facilitate the philosophical process and thereby distinguished philosophy from the rhetoric of the Sophists. The latter group of philosophers applied argument in an eristic way, which is to say, in a combative mode where the two parties were pitted against one another in a battle, one of which would come out on top as victor. Socrates developed the dialectic mode of argumentation which united the interlocutors in a collaborative task to seek understanding together, challenging one another within this spirit of collaboration. To illustrate this distinction think of the concerto form in music (the word ‘concerto’ has its roots in combat and opposition): for the eristic model think of the piano concertos of Prokofiev or Rachmaninov where the instrumentalist is pitted against the full forces of the orchestra, and for the dialectic-model think of the A minor piano concerto of Schumann where the piano part is integrated into the orchestral part to produce a richer but collaborative overall effect.

To help understand the role of dialogue in the philosophical process I would like to ask you to listen to some more music. First of all, we shall listen to Beethoven’s masterpiece in disciplined, sustained thought: the first movement of the Fifth Symphony in C minor. The first thing we notice is the clarity of the opening idea: dun-dun-dun-dah (this is one of the only pieces of music where this wording will make sense). The second thing we notice is how everything that follows is generated from this single-cell idea. However, everything seems to respond in a dialogue with whatever came before. It begins to sound like people talking but always on the same topic and in direct response to each other. This is not café-chat – it is a philosophical argument. A good philosophy discussion or essay should follow a similar structure and be held together by the same discipline as Beethoven’s first movement.

However, this is the art of the philosophical expert. When learning philosophy the model is different. Before the interlocutors have learned the disciplines needed for such a taut argument they need to explore more freely but be moving toward the discipline of Beethoven’s Fifth. For this we shall turn to the first movement of Sibelius’ Second Symphony in D major. In common with the Beethoven this symphony also begins with a simple idea but in contrast it then introduces another simple idea until there are a number of what seem to be unrelated fragments rather than fully formed ideas. The fragments then spend the next five minutes or so toying with each other and restating themselves in various ways – inversions and modulations etc – interweaving and dancing with each other until they begin to find some cohesion which reaches its climax in the development section when all the ideas combine to be able to make a sustained and glorious argument which culminates with the huge brass statement. The symphony then returns to the fragmentary ideas but seen from a different perspective: all the original ideas have been in some way altered by their journey, and any good discussion should leave its participants slightly changed by the end.

Whereas Beethoven’s exposition is fully formed and stated in the first few minutes of the symphony, Sibelius’ full expression of the ideas of the opening of the symphony do not find their voice until about two thirds into the movement. This is how a philosophy discussion should be played out when it is the Socratic dialectic that is being pursued. The Beethoven is the essay and the Sibelius is the dialogue such as you would find in Plato’s works and also in Hume and Berkeley among others.

When working with children doing philosophy it is the Sibelius-model that we are looking to for the shape and form of a discussion. The facilitator provides the first theme to which the children then respond in various ways and sometimes in seemingly unrelated ways, but then the facilitator brings the fragments together and allows them to develop in relation to each other building and growing. If introducing the ideas of the philosophers (with any age-group) then allow the play of ideas to outline and intimate their ideas so that you have a context in which to then introduce them. This avoids arbitrariness and engages the students with the philosopher’s ideas, as they will resemble the ideas of the students themselves. 



Posted in Education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Life’s not fair.” Discuss.

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 17, 2009

As someone who works in Schools – and many of them primary schools – I often come across teachers who explicitly teach the children the following well-worn lesson: “life is not fair.” I wonder whether it is fair to tell the children that this is how the world is. Preparing children for an uncertain world is one thing, instilling cynicism is quite another.

One of the philosophy sessions I do with primary school children is an exploration of the nature of fairness – a topic very close to any child’s heart, and one of the first things the children will say, if you ask them what we mean by ‘fair’, is that fair is ‘getting what you want’. However, it is not long before they start to see how this conception conflicts with other conceptions that they offer, such as, ‘fair is equal share’ or ‘equal treatment’ or ‘fair is’ based on ‘who needs it most’. It is a very important insight for the children to realise that there are often greater demands on conceptions of fairness than desire-satisfaction.

On the occasions when I have had an opportunity to discuss with a teacher why they feel they need to teach the children that ‘life’s not fair,’ they have often responded with words to the effect that ‘in life, you can’t always get what you want and the sooner they learn this the better.’ But, as you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, I think this response – and therefore, the lesson the children are going away with – is premised on a misconception of fairness, the very misconception the children begin with but quickly realise the limitations of.

So, it seems that many people believe that life is not fair because you can’t always get what you want. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume said that there would be no need for justice in a world where everyone got what they wanted, and this suggests the opposite of the common view: that fairness is invoked precisely because ‘you can’t always get what you want’ (to quote the Rolling Stones). Politics, which is largely concerned with ideas of fairness in one way or another, is needed for the very reason that there are many people with conflicting interests and there is only a limited amount of resources, so, deciding ‘who gets what’ and ‘why’ is where the idea of fairness comes into being.

But, here, I will hand this question over to you: is the lesson that ‘life’s not fair’ a valuable lesson that all children need to learn?  

Posted in Education | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Response to The Observer: What dilemma would you give a five-year-old?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 14, 2009

I was very interested to read the questions – and the reasons for the questions – that four personalities put forward as philosophical questions for five-year-olds inspired by our work in The Observer this weekend.

Diane Abbot’s question reflected a current fear of youth in our society. I watched a very disturbing film recently called Eden Lake, which reflects the same fear. Her answer to the Observer’s question raises further pressing questions about moral education and some may wonder about the value of asking children to consider the nature of good and evil and whether a philosophical discussion of the topic would have any power to shape their moral behaviour especially as philosophy often remains morally neutral.

I think, however, that philosophy does engender moral mindfulness and philosophers are among the most moral people you will meet. Outside of religion, philosophy is the only context in which moral considerations are taken seriously and I think that it benefits from not having a particular agenda – children naturally kick against that which they feel is too prescriptive. The writer and philosophy-with-children practitioner, Robert Fisher, has distinguished between operational and received beliefs. Received beliefs are the beliefs that the children hear from parents and teachers and operational beliefs are those that the children hold implicitly – often formed from their own experiences and peers – that function to produce their actual behaviour. Received and operational beliefs are often at odds but philosophical discourse provides an opportunity to explore these discrepancies in greater detail and results in a higher degree of concordance between the two. On many occasions I have seen children reconsider their moral behaviour as a result of discussions they have had in the philosophy groups. Unsophisticated moral discussions, on the other hand, tend to follow this pattern: ask the children straight-forward moral questions and they will answer according to what they perceive the teacher to be expecting. All this does is provide an invisible barrier between what they will tell you and what they will do. It is much more difficult for the children to make this distinction in a natural discussion that includes motivations, contexts and real behaviour patterns and they will be less likely to want to manufacture perceived desired-answers if they do not detect judgement in the questioning.

Donald Macleod’s response I found puzzling, but, as I understood it, he seemed to be expressing exasperation at the sort of questions he gets from children. It reveals more about him than it does children. Perhaps because he is a representative of a religious perspective, he feels that he must have answers, but the key to the insistent use of “but why?” (Proof, by the way, that we are hardwired with a Leibnizian pre-disposition from the earliest of ages: the principle of sufficient reason, it’s just that children are able to spot that adults reasons are, on the whole, insufficient) from children is to properly engage them with their questioning. So, rather than answering with a definitive answer-structure, try answering the child’s question with a dialogue, an investigation or a conceptual exploration, at each point, allowing the child to answer their own question as far as they are able. It sounds like Donald Macleod is used to providing definitive answers to questions, it’s just that children uncomfortably bring to his (and our) attention the extent of his (and our) ignorance about things. The lesson? We need to learn to become more comfortable with our ignorance and lack of knowledge, especially when we find ourselves in the position of a teacher. As Socrates said: “wisest is she who knows that she know nothing.”

Mary Warnock sounds to me as though she has experience of speaking with young children on philosophical matters, as what she says sounds very familiar to me: colour and robots are perennial favourites with children. “How do I know that what I see when I see red is the same thing as what you see when you see red?” Asked one of my year 5 (age 10) students. “CB [a robot friend built for a boy by his father] only has emotions because of the emotion chip inside him. So it seems like he’s got emotions but inside he hasn’t really,” said a Year 4 (age 9) girl. This point is a very sophisticated observation that the outward display of behaviour is not conclusive evidence that there is accompanying experience matching that behaviour (sometimes known, in philosophy, as ‘the problem of other minds’ and is a big question in artificial-intelligence debates.) A question that emerged from a discussion with some Year 3 children that I think Mary would be very interested in was: can you blame a chair if it breaks when you sit on it? A fittingly existential question I think.

Barbara Gunnell’s question raises some very interesting questions itself about the relationship between philosophy and the disposition of children towards asking questions. Plato said that “philosophy begins in wonder,” and, although I agree with this wholeheartedly I think something needs to be clarified about this idea. Philosophy begins from a state of wonder that children naturally inhabit but it is important to recognise that ‘philosophy’ is not the same thing as ‘wonder’. In other words, there is a difference between asking questions and doing philosophy. Just like a seed in the soil, children need the right conditions for their question-asking to germinate into genuine philosophical enquiries and this depends very much on how we respond to those questions. In a way, philosophy is about asking ‘why?’ but it is also about how to turn the why-asking into something interesting, constructive and of value. Arguably, science, learning – and education generally – has come from doing just this, so, if we can learn, both as parents and teachers to respond in the philosophical spirit we can provide those conditions at an early age, and by doing so, prepare the children to continue in the spirit of philosophy their entire lives. All the other curriculum subjects depend on it.


Posted in Comment, Education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mind-play: philosophy with children and its critics

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 10, 2009

In an article in the Daily Mail on the 9th April in which our (The Philosophy Shop) work was featured, Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education was quoted as saying: “considering how many youngsters leave education without a fundamental grasp of the basics, schools should concentrate on building a foundation of knowledge for youngsters in the limited time they have.”

I would like to respond to this and, at the same time, respond to the more general objection to philosophy with young children: ‘what’s the point?’

Philosophy is not a well-meaning add-on to normal lessons that interferes more than helps with the national curriculum element of children’s learning. Philosophy deals with the very fundamental building blocks of all knowledge, namely concepts, and it seems to me that the problems children have with education are mainly conceptual problems. They learn a great deal of facts and procedures but whether they properly understand these facts and procedures is contentious (see my blog Good Thinking vs. The Right Answer for a discussion of this). Children need opportunities to apply these new concepts so that they begin to understand how they are used. Testing is one very artificial way of doing this but philosophy is a natural context for trying out new ideas and lines of reasoning and argument playfully but also very seriously. And philosophy has the unique ability to be applied to almost any subject from maths to R.E. and enables the children to gain the understanding of these subjects that simply learning the procedures involved in them fails to do.

Teachers that I work with have recognised a real value in using the philosophy sessions to aid their national curriculum work and assessment. For example, after spending a few weeks putting the children through a science module on ‘sound’ in Year 5, then following this with a philosophy session on ‘sound’ asking children questions like ‘can you see with sound?’ (like bats or dolphins) and ‘if a tree falls in a forest with nobody around to hear it, would it make a sound?’ visibly allows the children to apply the knowledge they have gained in science to imagined situations. The teacher is able to see exactly who has understood the concepts they have been introduced to and also what has not been understood. It also enables the children to work through their understanding together so that by the end of the session the understanding level within the class will have been raised.

When lions are growing in the wild they play almost continuously and it is this play that develops the skills that will be so necessary to them as adults and in the same manner the best playground for the children to develop their essential thinking skills is the philosophy session. Maybe there is something here for future testing reform. If testing should continue – which I think it probably will need to – then a more natural context that tests children while they play might be the future of assessment and using the philosophy model could be the way to approach this.

Karin Muriss has argued that there should be a fourth R: reasoning. It boils down to this: what use is reading, writing and arithmetic if one does not know how to apply it properly? Socrates said that true opinions are a fine thing but they do no good if they are not accompanied with understanding and good reasoning. If the three Rs are the water then the fourth R provides the channels through which the water is given direction and purpose.

Posted in Comment, Education | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »