On empirical questions, exposition and voting
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 first of 3 blogs on my reflections.
You can find some of the presentations that were given at SOPHIA on our resources page for members.
On empirical questions
Are there empirical questions? I doubt that. I doubt whether the ‘empirical’ is in the question. It’s more likely that how we plan to deal with a certain question determines whether it is ‘empirical’. Example: there are religious communities which deal with the question whether God is good as an empirical question: can we see that God is good? There answer is: yes, because look at …. Personally, I would not consider this an empirical, but a highly philosophical question, but that’s not a dispute about the nature of the question. The question is what it is, the difference is between me and this particular religious community.
It is not necessary to draw a sharp distinction between empirical and philosophical questions / questioning. In some cases, it is evident which way to take the question (“Which way is Central Station?”), in other cases it is more of a mix, where we participants can decide which way to take the question, or how to combine both ways. There is no reason why one could deal with a particular question (like: ‘How many colours do you see here?’) only in one way, either empirical or philosophical. One can do both, in the same enquiry. And the sequence is open. It is not necessary to start empirical and then turn philosophical.
‘Empirical’ does not mean that one needs to do empirical research to answer such a question. When we do a Socratic dialogue on the question whether what X did was an act of bravery or of foolishness, we consider a large number of empirical ‘facts’. Without a thorough enquiry of ‘what actually happened’ such a dialogue would remain empty. But the empirical facts don’t decide for us, we have to do that. Example: in the case of The Netherlands, Amsterdam is considered to be the capital, but this is a title without any meaning, because the government (and the king) reside in The Hague.
Enquiring empirical questions is an established didactic method of making students aware of their knowledge, its quality, its gaps, its inconsistencies, etc. I can ask students questions like “Why is it that when it’s winter on the northern hemisphere, it’s summer on the southern one?” or “You’ve all heard about the invention of the printing press, what was actually invented?”. Such an enquiry is a critical examination of what we think we know, which – quite Socratic – may lead us to the conclusion that actually we know very little. The argument that there is only one correct answer to these questions and that that very fact makes these questions un-philosophical is short sighted, because the philosophical enquiry is not about finding “the only one correct answer”, but to assess the quality of our circumstantial knowledge (and of our knowledge in general). Empirical questions are most beneficial for such assessments.
In Socrates’ dialogues exposition plays a major role. In some of them, like ‘Symposion’, it is the only thing that happens: seven speeches in praise of love. Nevertheless, we experience little hesitation to call this dialogue philosophical. So, exposition and enquiry are not in opposition, similar to a point I’ve made previously at several occasions, that debate and enquiry are not in opposition. In a fruitful debate both sides challenge each other and give space to be challenged – and that keeps the enquiry going.
In the German tradition of Socratic dialogues, as initiated by Leonard Nelson one of the rules is that participants are not allowed to deliver such expositions. I’ve always appreciated that rule: it encourages the participants to thinking instead of lecturing and to speak briefly, not at great length. But how about the facilitator? Should (she) refrain from exposition, from telling the participants: “now listen, I’ll explain a few things first, because I’m sure you can make great use of them in your enquiry on the question we’ve selected”. It reminds me of the day when I observed a Socratic dialogue among adults and saw + felt how the participants were struggling. The facilitator noticed the same and decided to say: “it looks like you are confusing ‘equal’ and ‘equivalent’; I recommend to use this distinction”. Within minutes the agitation reached a new height, when the participants turned to the facilitator: there was no confusion, just disagreement + such a distinction would complicate matters even more, while they were looking for an answer with some simplicity. A long tea break did help. The participants decided to return to the enquiry at the point where they left it, before the exposition by the facilitator.
One experience is no proof, but afterwards the facilitator told the participants that he had seriously underestimated the complexity of the relation and communication between facilitator and participants. It’s delicate, to say the least.
But there are more considerations a facilitator should take into account – whether it is with adults or with children – before deciding to ‘help’ the participants in their enquiry by delivering some kind of exposition.
First, teachers are tempted to overestimate the impact of their expositions, no matter how clear they are, no matter how often they have asked the students “is this clear now?”. In the language of a Bloomian taxonomist the exposition should be followed by a variety of ‘exercises’ in which the students can experiment, try and learn to apply the content of the exposition. These exercises must be carefully constructed and the teacher must give clear feedback to the students about their performance. This cannot be properly done as a part of an enquiry, because it would turn the enquiry into a teacher-led exercise. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with a teacher-led activity within philosophy for children, but it’s simply something else.
Secondly, when the teacher takes the role of a facilitator, (s)he is not one of the participants. Should the facilitator step in at a particular moment and say ‘wait a moment, there’s an important philosophical distinction or argument that I want to explain and I think it is very relevant for what we’re enquiring now’, it’s like the referee joining the playing of the game. “No, I just want to show it to you, and then I’ll be back in my facilitator’s chair”. Well, it does not work like that. Some students will apply what has been explained to them in an incorrect way, others miss the relevance because they’re within their own thoughts and some will love it and run away with it. The facilitator will focus more on the effects of his / her intervention than on facilitating the enquiry as a whole.
As mentioned above, there are ‘teacher-led dialogues’, which serve as a tool of instruction. Whether as a teacher one feels comfortable with a questioning / dialogical style of instruction and whether students like it is something else, but it is an established way of teaching, which in no way is less efficient nor effective than ‘exposition’.
Theoretically, teacher-led dialogical instructions are quite distinct from teacher-facilitated enquiries. In the dialogical instruction the questioning is done by the teacher – in a rather primitive form this is what happens in that famous section of Plato’s “Meno”, in which the slave figures out how to double the area of a square – the students follow. In contrast, in a teacher-facilitated enquiry the students do the questioning, ideally at least. The daily reality, however, is different, I noticed, when I saw extracts from transcripts at the ICPIC conference: teachers in their role as facilitators tend to ask most of the questions, quite often guiding questions, like questions in which they draw inferences (“but does that mean …”), generalize what has been said (“so all … are …?), make implicit or incomplete arguments explicit /complete or relate them to other arguments (“… made a similar point, but …”), summarize what has been said so far, and so on. Here the distinction between facilitation and instruction blurs. Facilitation becomes an implicit and indirect way of instruction. I recommend keeping them separate: when a teacher decides to instruct, please do so but be explicit about it. Don’t hide it behind a veil of doing something else.
Thirdly, a facilitator has many opportunities to introduce philosophical concepts, distinctions and arguments without having to go into the mode of exposition, opportunities which harmonize better with the enquiry-style as practised in philosophy for children. Let me give three examples:
- Matthew Lipman designed “Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery” (novel + manual) as a textbook, which would keep the students busy at least for a full year. Nowadays very few teachers use it this way, in the early years quite a few did. Section by section the students worked through it, in an enquiry style;
- Pete Worley showed us in “The Philosophy Shop” how knowledge of philosophy helps to design ‘settings’ (in a narrative style) which guide the students in their philosophical enquiries. A teacher who takes the students through the Philosophy Shop day by day, at the same time takes them through philosophy, both historically and systematically;
- Thought experiments have been used by philosophers throughout the ages, because they enable them to ‘torture’ a specific concept, argument or distinction until it collapses. Robert Nozick’s “Experience Machine” is – in my words – designed to ‘torture’ the commonly accepted view that happiness is a feeling (in that sense: an experience). Thought experiments need little adaptation to make them suitable for enquiries by the students themselves.
In conclusion, for me the basic rule for a facilitator remains the following: observe the content (of the enquiry by the students) closely, but guide the students through interventions in the process (of their enquiry), not through interventions in the content.
The general problem with voting, it seems to me, is that it comes too early, in the perception of those who are going to vote. The Brexit referendum is a good example – only afterwards people started to realize things they should have considered and ‘weighed’ before they went to vote. And the Dutch – me included – who voted on March 15th are still without a coalition cabinet which takes responsibility for governing the country.
The same is true for all those enquiries in which students are asked to vote for a particular question, so that the enquiry can start. But only through participating in such an enquiry one gradually grasps a certain understanding of these questions. So how can one vote for or against a question without having explored it first? I have never understood this strategy and never applied it myself. It is my ‘ceterum censeo’ in whatever I think or say about philosophy for children: no matter what we’re discussing, I want to state that I don’t think voting is a good idea.
I had a similar experience in one of the workshops in which I had to raise or turn down my thumb in order to indicate whether I was for / against, in agreement or disagreement, in preference of A or B, etc. I felt like in a psychological test in which I have to produce judgements at a pretty high speed. It’s like Adam having to decide which animal gets which name, let’s say at the speed of 10 seconds per animal, 6 in a minute, 360 in an hour, 3000 in a day. What a job!
Such a practice of voting in an enquiry gives me the feeling that I have to dig my heels in the sand and take a firm stance. But that is not why I am in an enquiry. I am there to suspend my judgement, consider options I haven’t considered before, try out arguments or positions I have not tried out before. An enquiry is an exploration. Yes, it is more than just that, but the first part is explorative, it is a ‘lateral’ activity, as Eduard de Bono would say. It is about what we tell each other when we look at a one of those triptych paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. We point at different scenes, draw attention to some spectacular creatures, have a closer look at the faces, detect hilarious scenes, wonder about the freshness of the colours and are baffled by the contrast between the triptych and the painting which is displayed when the triptych is closed. Any judgment – thumbs up or down – would come too early. It would distract us from observing, from taking into account the multitude and diversity of what is displayed. Foster the exploration, especially when the question is controversial, like 12-year olds about “Are your parents your best friends?”.