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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?”

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4 Responses to “Anarchy in the UK: Philosophy, a luxury or a necessity?”

  1. Your reference to Hannah Arendt reminded me of another central idea of hers: the need to understand the concept of freedom, and, in doing so, to distinguish between human passivity and activity. Thought, for Arendt, is the only source of action, and so of freedom, not random violent behaviour. But in a society that does not value the activity of thought and the freedom it expresses, instead viewing thought as a mere processing of information in the service of maintaining social norms, the upshot, as evidenced in these riots, is that random violence comes to seem the only way to break “free”. This idea of “freedom” masks our lack of it, and shows us the dangers of not having any real understanding of what human freedom actually consists in. Many thanks for a thought-provoking piece!

  2. In passing, you touch on the key issue: community cohesion. People need to feel included and respected as parts of a community and need to feel they have something of value to do in it. The existence of a forum for discussion where their voices count is, of course, vital, and the ability to put a cross on a ballot paper every so often does not make up for the lack of it. It would be nice if the discussion could get a bit philosophical from time to time, but that is only a peripheral matter. Of more central importance is the existence of a dialogue in which people can work out their point of view in a process that requires understanding the points of view of others. The question then would be: Would the power brokers (hedge fund managers, for instance) actually allow the conclusions of that discussion to affect the status quo?

  3. Leigh said

    Looking forward to reading more. Great post.
    Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool.

  4. R Laird said

    I have a practical philosophy blog at owndrummer.blogs.ru. I would be interested to read your comments on it. Yes, I agree a practical, available philosophy is lacking, and yes– it can and should help the individual to stay in the analytical band of thought, which would result in less or no rioting. Rioting and other ugly activities comes about when a group of individuals have agreed to subordinate their own self-determined analytical thought to what has been called the “mob mentality”. There is an underlying mechanism that causes the mob mentality, but it doesnt have to be understood to be able to stay out of it– just think for yourself. The more success you have had to think for yourself the less likely you will be to give up doing so and join the mob. Practical philosophy gives a “leg up” to the individual in his ability to think for himself well enough to make improvements and successes in his life. A good practical philosophy should also have built-in mechanisms to keep it from being perverted, because there are those who will try to pervert and thwart anything that makes men stronger and more difficult to enslave.

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