Reflections on ICPIC & SOPHIA Part II

On deliberation, enquiry based actions and practising philosophy with children without philosophy

By Pieter Mostert

What happens to notes taken during a conference? Usually very little, at least in my case. This time I decided to do it differently – after the ICPIC conference in Madrid and the Sophia Network meeting in Aveiro – and pushed myself to structure and unfold my notes into short essays, representing my ‘inner dialogues’ on a number of topics. Here is the second of 3 blogs on my reflections. You can read the first one here.

You can find some of the presentations that were given at SOPHIA on our resources page for members.

On deliberation

I notice the rise of the word ‘deliberation’, both as an adjective in the coined phrase ‘deliberative democracy’ and as a noun (and noticed that ‘dialogue’ has become less in use). Don’t get tricked by the middle ‘e’ in ‘deliberation’; its meaning is not connected to any ‘liberation’, but to ‘libra’, the pair of scales, used to weigh the different ‘goods’ (that’s why the sign for a UK pound is the £): what was most important, what was most striking, what was lacking, what do we take with us and what do we leave behind?

When Socrates claims in his famous quote, that an unexamined life is not a life for human beings, or positively stated: a human life = an examined life, I read this as a double claim, as the concept of ‘examination’ (or – closer to the Greek word he uses: assessment) includes two aspects or phases: the aspect of enquiry / investigation and the aspect of ‘judging’ or ‘valuing’ what you have enquired / investigated. An exam / assessment leads to a judgement, of a yes / no type (“yes, you qualified as a doctor”) or on a scale (“your performance ranks in the top 20%”) or qualitative (“what you have submitted is a genuine and thorough attempt to grasp …”).

When a philosophy for children session only covers the first part, the enquiry / investigation, we’ve finished too early. The enquiry should lead us to some kind of ‘position’, provisional (as the enquiry could have gone on) and maybe disputed, as some may hold this ‘position’ and others another one. And in some cases we will conclude that we honestly “do not know”, and that is a position too, like a doctor can tell you that after all the tests have been done (s)he has no idea what is the cause of the symptoms. So I feel attracted to the use of ‘deliberation’, as it encourages us to make that second step of ‘coming to terms’: at the end of the enquiry we take some time to decide where we stand, individually or as a group. This conference has made me more aware of the relevance of this second step.

Deliberation is quite different from reflection. Reflection is the process of looking back and into what we have experienced and thought before. As such it is part of the first step of enquiry: collecting all the material that is relevant ‘to be put on the scales’. Deliberation is the specific process of weighing, of daring to say what is more important / puts more weight on the scale than other things. It reminds me of the famous booklet ‘Regula’ by St. Benedict, founder of the Benedict convents. He wrote the booklet for the abbots who struggled with their ‘leadership’, as one would say nowadays. St. Benedict explains that when you need to make a decision as the abbot, make sure that if it is an important issue, all the monks take part in the deliberation (and let the young ones speak first!, he adds), so that everything that should be taken into consideration in the final decision by the abbot is brought forward. This reminds me of the staff meetings of the engineering department of the university for professional education in Rotterdam, which I facilitated for a year in Benedictian style. Good memories.

On enquiry based actions

Is philosophy only thinking / reflection or does it also include action? If so, what kind of ‘actions’ are we talking about?

First of all, we usually consider a certain minimal set of ‘actions’ as required: children should sit in a circle (although this is not always possible and that does not make a philosophical enquiry impossible, as I have experienced), the teacher should take the role of facilitator and enable to students to engage in their enquiry (which means that we don’t want that our enquiries look like Socrates’ dialogues, in which there is no facilitator and one participant behaves in a very dominant manner), and we want that this ‘engagement’ of the students takes place in a fair and respectful manner. These – and similar ones – are ‘actions’ we feel obliged to when doing philosophy for children. But is that it?

A second category of ‘actions’ is a person’s decision to develop philosophical enquiries for specific groups or circumstances: gifted children, who do not feel ‘recognized’ in the standard school system, or for underprivileged or disabled children, for the same reason, exclusion. For most of us it is not irrelevant where we facilitate philosophy for children enquiries. Some settings we consider more relevant than others, because of the contribution (to social change) we want to make. Some have strong preferences to practise philosophy for children outside the school or at least in mixed age groups, others prefer to incorporate it in the teaching of other subject areas, and so on. Fortunately we differ in our considerations, so as a total a wide spectrum is covered.

More complex it becomes for me when I ask myself whether I think that a philosophical enquiry should have ‘consequences’: if children come to some shared conclusions, about what is fair / good, should we support / encourage them in applying these conclusions to and testing them in their direct environment? Example: should an enquiry about health and sustainability lead to changes in what is offered in the school’s cafeteria and vending machines? Or can that only be decided when the whole school has participated in philosophical enquiries on this topic? Which makes it rather unrealistic in most cases. So what should happen / change after the students have finished one or more philosophical enquiries? Nothing? That seems too little. But what should it be?

It sounds awkward to me to do philosophical enquiries for gifted children as a weekly activity in a school which for the rest of the week expects from these children that they behave ‘like normal’ and accept how schooling is done. Feeling recognized / valued / seen is not something which one can restrict to a short time. It is unlikely that a student will feel ‘included’ when most of the time (s)he is ‘excluded’. But at the same time our powers for changing our environment, most directly and a little further away, are limited. Does it mean that we should only do philosophical enquiries if the values underlying these enquiries are shared and practised throughout the whole institution / school? Or should we think that for these students it is better to have at least some opportunity to feel included, instead of refusing them this opportunity because it is too little?

There is something called the ‘political’ dimension of P4C. Personally I would not have chosen that word, ‘political’, but I can understand when people do so. It’s about the question that I took with me to the ICPIC conference: If in P4C we enquire ‘the good life’, shouldn’t part of P4C be the practising of ‘a good life’, or at least an attempt to do so, and what counts as a ‘good’ attempt? How far should this go? Is it only within the space of the philosophy enquiry (make sure that the enquiry is done in a good, respectful, democratic, inclusive, etc. way)? Or should we support (or even encourage) children to engage in some kind of social action, as an act of persecution of the outcomes of their enquiry?

This question is not to be answered with a simple Yes or No. It is about to what degree / extent and with what aim? One of the PhD students at the ICPIC conference told about an initiative to take the P4C class outside the school to the community and involve adult members of the community in the enquiries. The students discovered that the adults seemed to be quite reluctant to share their thoughts and at the same time that the adults found it quite rather difficult to really listen to what the students had to say. The students were disappointed by this experience, but at the same time they learned about the world outside the classroom, the real world and how it is ‘to be in the world’.

On practicing ‘philosophy for children’ without philosophy

I myself come from both an educational and a philosophical background. In my biography there is not a first and a second, and I have always felt privileged by what was given to me. Conversations at the ICPIC conference have convinced me that I need to accept the reality as it is and will remain, namely that philosophy for children is mainly practised by school teachers with little knowledge of philosophy. So I set myself the task to think more and clearer about a concept / description of what philosophy in ‘philosophy for children’ is, which meets this reality and does not presuppose knowledge of philosophy.

I do not know yet whether it is possible, but I would like to come to a description of philosophy for children in which the philosophical dimension / content is present, but in such a way that it can be understood and identified by a person who is not familiar with (the academic tradition of) philosophy. This would not be a first attempt. It has been tried before, for example in telling teachers that they must distinguish between empirical and philosophical questions. But this is an example of an attempt which does not work nor help; it confuses and makes teachers reject very useful questions for philosophical enquiries. Two of my favourites: “Can music get wet?” and “What if our knees would bend the other way?”.

About Emma Worley

I am the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of The Philosophy Foundation, a UK charity that trains philosophy graduates to do philosophy in schools, and then places them in schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged children. I am the SOPHIA Network Meeting co-ordinator. My life is one big organising trip.