The Philosophy Shop’s Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘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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The Classroom in One Voice

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on May 29, 2009

Dialectic

Dialectic is a form of enquiry that makes use of question-and-answer, or objections-and-replies as its basic structure. In other words it is an enquiring conversation, reflective and critical. The word ‘conversation’ pinpoints the essential character of dialectic: there is more than one speaker. 

Sophists and Socrates

Dialectic as the standard method of philosophical enquiry probably began with Socrates. He took exception to the methods of the Sophists (from which the word ‘sophisticated’ originates) for engaging in argument. They were a professional group of philosophers that took a fee to teach the skills of rhetoric; the art of the public speaker. What Socrates took exception to was their indifference to truth; they were concerned only with teaching how to win an argument not with which argument was true. Two ancient Geek words capture the distinction between the approach of the Sophists and Socrates respectively: eristic and dialectic. The first of these is ‘combative’ and the second ‘collaborative’. 

Plato’s Dialogues

In fact, we only know about Socrates from Plato’s written works in which he depicts the character of Socrates, and most of his philosophical works were written in dialogue form, detailing discussions between Socrates and various other characters from Athens. Although they represent an internal dialogue in the head of Plato, his dialogues are, prima facie, an externalisation of the enquiry process; that is, something going on outside of the heads of the interlocutors and between the different speakers. 

Classroom Philosophy and Magnets

When doing philosophy in the classroom it is the Socratic model that we begin with because it is very difficult to get children to engage in a philosophical discussion or thought process on their own. Put a group of children together and they naturally engage in dialectic, pushing the enquiry into directions it could never go with just one child. We use the external process of dialectic to magnetise children into philosophical enquiry. And it works.

Descartes swallowed Plato!

Now take a look at Descartes’ Meditations. This is not written in dialogue form, there is only one speaker addressing the reader who cannot object or question; it looks very different to Plato. But take a closer look and you will see that it is not quite as simple as this. The dialogue is taking place but implicitly. Descartes seems to have swallowed Plato and internalised the process of dialectic. If you read the first Meditiation carefully you will notice that there are different speakers but given only one voice: the narrator’s. Descartes makes a point in on sentence and then raises an objection in the next; he then responds to the objection in the next sentence and the enquiry continues in this fashion. This is what has sometimes been called the dialogue in one voice

The classroom in one voice

One of the overall aims of the philosophy project in primary school is to internalise the dialectic process so that any one child can learn to question and challenge their own thoughts and assumptions as if they were someone else. This has prodigious implications for self evaluation, moral development and critical thinking. If this is achieved then the child has learned to engage in second-order thinking.

Why philosophy should be taught in primary school

As you can imagine, a process like this, i.e. the internalisation of the dialectic process, needs time to be properly assimilated by a student, and it is best if the habit is formed at an early stage of a child’s development so that it is more easily naturalised (think of language learning). Because of the obvious difficulties of trying to confer this kind of habit to teenagers, it is therefore best to do this before adolescence, so, learning dialectic is best done when in primary school.

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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. 

 

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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.

 

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