Karel and the birth of Philosophy with Children

By Pieter Mostert

Karel after receiving his PhD in 1988

Karel after receiving his PhD in 1988

Karel and I met for the first time in September 1976. I was a master student in philosophy, he was one of the lecturers. One of his colleagues asked me whether I was interested in becoming his teaching assistant. There were hundreds of students in social science that had to be pushed through the obligatory philosophy course and he simply wasn’t motivated to do that any longer. I had been studying philosophy for five years and had slowly but gradually figured out what it was about. And coming from a teaching family I had an interested in teaching. So I got the job and decided that it might be useful to sign up for the course “teaching philosophy outside academia”, which was offered by Karel, as he was the only member of staff with experience in teaching philosophy outside the university (he taught philosophy in a professional programme for social work). I shared my plans and experiences. Karel’s feedback was always sharp and without any compromise, not very practical, but definitely helpful. It made me think better.

Study prize for best dissertation of the Erasmus Foundation (1989). Karel is on the right side, Pieter left of the middle; the man in the middle is Prince Bernhard, the father of Queen Beatrix.

Study prize for best dissertation of the Erasmus Foundation (1989). Karel is on the right side, Pieter left of the middle; the man in the middle is Prince Bernhard, the father of Queen Beatrix.

In 1978 I finished my studies and started teaching in several professional programmes: social work, nursing, library. In those years I looked around for different approaches and teaching methods. Karel and I met rarely. That changed in 1980, when I was appointed to a teaching position at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam similar to his at the University of Amsterdam. Early 1981 we sat together for an outline of a joint research project, which would lead to a PhD, which we finished in 1988. My first contribution to the research project was a literary review: what is going on in different countries, what is the dominant approach and what literature is available. It struck us how national traditions were: in the Netherlands philosophy was mainly taught in a ‘propaedeutic’ way, in Germany it was mainly devoted to reading selected texts from famous philosophers, in France it was devoted to essay writing, and so on.

Karel receiving his PhD in 1988

Karel receiving his PhD in 1988

From all we read two initiatives immediately stood out for us and caught our interest: it was the German tradition of ‘Socratic dialogue’, developed within the school of Leonard Nelson and the materials of Matthew Lipman and his IAPC, creating opportunities for children to engage with philosophical questions. Why?

First of all, it was both Karel’s and my personal experience that at university you may study philosophy and learn a lot about philosophy, but you learn very little about the doing of philosophy. Therefore teaching philosophy outside academia is mainly done through a simplified, watered down version of what is taught at university. Our favourite comparison was tea and teabags: when the philosophy programme at university is like the first cup of tea from a fresh tea bag, the programme outside university may be the third of fourth cup of tea from that same teabag: tasteless.

Both of us were struck, appalled by the tastelessness of philosophy programmes. And we were convinced that the only way to bring back the flavour is by practising the ‘doing’ of philosophy. For us, both the practice of the Socratic dialogue and P4C were encouraging and challenging attempts to practise the doing of philosophy.

But there was more. For me, by that time, doing philosophy should be practised in the questioning style of Socrates and Nietzsche, best summarized in the rule “before we start answering the question we should first enquire whether this is the real (philosophical) question”. For Karel what’s at stake in philosophy was slightly different. His main interest was in Chinese philosophy, not the popular westernized version from the seventies – few things could irritate him more than glorifications of eastern philosophy by reducing them to some westernized mish-mash – but careful reading of classical texts, with all the source books and commentaries on the table. Karel in his own medieval monastery cell – that is where philosophy is done and where it develops. The distance from here to philosophy for children may seem vast, but for him it wasn’t. At least, as long as philosophy for children is devoted to the same scrutiny of concepts and categories. More bluntly said: as long as teachers avoid the mistake which many people make when reading about Chinese philosophy, namely that they read their own concepts into it, whether it is the Chinese philosophical text or the children’s expressions of their thoughts.

Karel mastered the skill of introducing an example or comparison at the right moment and let this example do the work of convincing the listeners. One day, when we were discussing what P4C should be about, he said “Pieter, don’t you know Borges’ story about the classification of the emperor of China?”. No, I didn’t, and when I read the story later that week I knew why Karel was devoted to studying Chinese philosophy and to developing philosophy for children: It’s about categories, how arbitrary they are and how hesitant we should be in assuming that our categories are correct and universal, because they make sense to us [Borges’ story is called “Celestial emporium of benevolent knowledge”; I would say: obligatory reading!].

In 1990 Karel and I took the initiative to found a Dutch Centre for Philosophy for Children. Shortly after we were approached by a group of educational consultants, who were developing a school programme to address bullying at schools. They wanted to hear from us what philosophy can do to prevent bullying. Karel’s reply was as clear and without compromise as always: all we can do is facilitate conversations with children in which we explore the category of bullying and related categories. P4C was born and it immediately showed its stubborn identity.

In 2013 Karel gave his final SOPHIA talk at our meeting in Amsterdam on the theme of ‘Diversity’.


Karel van der Leeuw born 1940 deceased 2015. Much missed by the SOPHIA & P4C Community.

SOPHIA is holding an annual memorial prize for Karel, for details on how to enter to win €500 visit the Karel van der Leeuw Memorial Prize page of our website.

SOPHIA 2016: Crete

We are delighted to announce that our next meeting is being held at the University of Crete in partnership with the Department of Philosophy and Social Studies at the beginning of September.

The theme this year is:

From Ancient Greece to the Modern Curriculum: where does philosophy fit?

And we currently have a call for proposals open (closing date May 1st) – for more please visit our next meeting page.

As usual we are keeping the price as low as we possibly can to make it easier for people to attend. The Network Meeting is only €15 for the two days – in order to attend you need to be or become a member for our minimum period of a year, this is €35. For more on our membership rates visit our Join Sophia page.

The dates for the meeting have been agreed as Friday 2nd September and Saturday 3rd September.

See you then!

 

New Board Members

We would like to welcome Rob Bartels (Netherlands) as our new Treasurer, Joos Vollebregt (Belgium) as our new Secretary and Grace Robinson (England) as a new Board Member.

You can see our full Board and their associations on this page of our website.

 

A Brief History of SOPHIA

A Brief History of Stichting SOPHIA from 1993 to the establishment of the SOPHIA Network 2006, by Dr Catherine McCall, former President of SOPHIA.

At the 2015 SOPHIA Network and Board Meeting in Antwerp  I noticed that new members and some older members were not aware of the history of Stichting SOPHIA prior to the establishment of the SOPHIA Network. So here is a very brief outline of the foundation from 1993 when SOPHIA was composed of the Board of the Stichting (Foundation)  to 2006 when the SOPHIA Network was established by adding Regulations to the constitution. (This is written from memory so may need some corrections).

1993 Stichting SOPHIA established by Karel van der Leeuw registered at the University of Amsterdam

  • President –  Eulalia Bosch , Grup IREF (Barcelona, Catalonia)
  • Secretary  – Karel van der Leeuw, Dean of Philosophy University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
  • Treasurer – Robert Pilat, Polish Academy of Sciences (Warsaw, Poland)

1994 First Meeting of the Board of Stichting SOPHIA in the University of Amsterdam.

  • Berrie Heesen added as Adviser to the Board
  • In order to allow Roger Sutcliff and Karin Murris to join SOPHIA, Catherine McCall suggests splitting the UK into 3 nations – Scotland, England and Wales. Board decides to count nations rather than states in SOPHIA allows e.g. both Catalonia and Spain

1995 Second Meeting of the Board of Stichting SOPHIA in the University of Amsterdam

  • Karel van der Leeuw became both Secretary and Treasurer
  • Project 100 begun
  • PECA Project begun

1996 Third Meeting of the Board of Stichting SOPHIA in Glasgow University, Scotland

1998 Fourth Meeting of the Board of Stichting SOPHIA  in the Catholic University of Lisbon, Portugal

2004 (March) Fifth Meeting of the Board of Stichting SOPHIA at the University of Graz, Austria

  • Karel van der Leeuw informs the Board of resignation as Secretary and Treasurer
  • Roger Sutcliff, Chair of SAPERE, England  Acting  Secretary (March); Radmila Sutton becomes Secretary (June)
  • Karel van der Leeuw becomes the first Honorary Board member and continues as SOPHIA bank account holder

2004 (November) Sixth Meeting of the Board of Stichting SOPHIA at Oxford Brookes University, England

  • Eulalia Bosch becomes the second and Roger Sutcliff becomes the third Honorary Board members
  • Menon and Almatheia project proposals begun
  • Decision made to change basis of SOPHIA from one Board member per nation (28 Board members) to smaller Board of 11
  • Decision made to change basis of SOPHIA from one Board member per nation to a Network of individual members through which the new Board of  SOPHIA will fulfill its aims and objectives
  • Decision made to change annual membership fee of SOPHIA from 120 Euros to 20 euros
  • Ed Weijers , Radmila Sutton and Catherine McCall to investigate legal constitutional method of creating a SOPHIA Network

2005 Seventh Meeting of the Board of  Stichting SOPHIA in … Hotel , St Paul’s Bay, Malta

….  Ed Weijers ratified as Treasurer (?)

2006 (Jan) Eighth Extraordinary Meeting of the Board of  Stichting SOPHIA in the Philosophy Hotel, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

  • 17 SOPHIA Board members resign
  • SOPHIA Board votes in the new Regulations to create the SOPHIA Network

2006 (May) Ninth Meeting of the Board of  Stichting SOPHIA and First Meeting of the SOPHIA Network in Strathclyde University, Glasgow, Scotland.

  • Board draws up a Resignation Schedule for SOPHIA Board members to stand down after 4 years service such as all Board members do not resign at once
  • Decision made to hold a SOPHIA Network Meeting every year
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Ways into Philosophy

Introduction to SOPHIA Network Meeting 2014, Zagreb Peter Worley, President

“For many, philosophy is impenetrable. It is often thought to be, among other things, dense, difficult and dry. To these detractors the idea of taking something as abstract and difficult as philosophy to children must seem absurd.

One way around this is to redefine philosophy so that it is simply no longer dense, difficult and dry. Something broad like ‘an open-ended discussion’ might be an example of this kind of re-definition.

Alternatively, one may take the so-called ‘dense, difficult and dry’ literature (in other words, the philosophical canon) as the starting point and then attempt to find ‘ways in’ to it. This is my preferred way of tackling the problem of the impenetrability of philosophy and the doing of philosophy with children.

On a personal note, providing young people with a way into philosophy is not just about a way into philosophy but also a way (for me, back) into education. Becoming interested in the problem of the nature of numbers is also becoming interested in maths; becoming interested in the philosophy of religion can lead to an interest in the philosophy of science which can (and did me) spark an interest in science.

One reason why I set up The Philosophy Foundation, and also why I am honoured to take up the presidency of SOPHIA, is because I believe philosophy has the power to bring those who find themselves at a distance from education, or at its edges, back into it. After failing school and subsequently leaving education it was through an interest in literature and through exploring religious questions that I discovered philosophy. My interest in philosophy then brought me back into education and at the age of 24 I went to university to study philosophy.”

In our resources section for members you can read Peter’s full introduction to the weekend, which includes ideas about philosophical controversy, helping a class towards the controversy and assessing progress, as well as seeing the film mentioned in this blog. His workshop on different ways into philosophy includes narrative / storytelling; experience, exercises, games, sci-fi, interactive imagination, poetry, visual, auditory and kinaesthetic sessions, children’s literature (both novels and picture books) Shakespeare, physicalisation and drama which can also be found in this paper.

Our resources section also contains papers / workshops / presentations from workshop leaders in Zagreb. Workshops in Zagreb included:

  • Andy West (England) Kinaesthetic Learners
  • Tina Marasovic (Croatia) Graffiti: Philosophizing in Art
  • Mary Bovill (Scotland) Philosophy in the Secondary Curriculum
  • Laura Blažeti? Faller (Croatia) “Blind Bat” Game
  • Milosh Jeremic (Serbia) Wandering Test
  • Grace Robinson (England) Philosophical Enquiry in Role
  • Ed Weijers (Netherlands) Structure & Dynamics
  • Ilse Daems (Belgium) Philosophy Games
  • Renate Kroschel (Germany) What is a Soul?
  • Peter Worley (England) Many Ways into Philosophy
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Plato Not Playdoh: Peter Worley at TEDx Goodenough College