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Addled Essence

David Birch looks for the links between the teen spirit & the philosophical impulse.

Near the beginning of his film Crimes and Misdemeanours, Woody Allen’s character offers his niece some advice. “Don’t listen to what your schoolteachers tell you,” he instructs her: “Just see what they look like, and that’s how you’ll know what life is really going to be like.”

Besides Allen’s presumptions that the role of a teacher is to show us what life is like, and the Wildean suggestion that our bodies give away more than our words, his words also imply that in order to understand something you just need to look at the people who do it. You will, for instance, learn more about the Last Night of the Proms [British concert series] by watching it on mute than by listening to it blind. The audience says it all; and in life, the livers say it all.

It’s an idea we might apply to the old dog-chasing-its-tail question of what philosophy is. Rather than think about what it is, we might wonder who it is for. What, for instance, do we notice when we peruse the people who take up this odd life? What family resemblances do they share? Who is it that we find hanging out in that part of the culture we call philosophy?

Having spent some time in the high-security quasi-corporate environment of the twenty-first century secondary [high] school, I have been led to wonder whether there may be a thread of resemblance running between the adolescents I teach and the philosophers I am taught by, the philosophers I read. Adolescents are often drawn to philosophy, and if adolescents are drawn to philosophy, perhaps there is something adolescent about philosophy, and the philosophers who do it. The logic is loose, but the thought is intriguing.

Analysing Adolescence with Philosophy

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As a way into that thought, let’s start by thinking about something else. Though I teach philosophy in both primary [elementary] and secondary schools, I do not use the same material in both. I am less inclined, for instance, to ask secondary school children to philosophise about, and from, stories. Why is this? Why can’t the same content that is used to teach philosophy to children be used to teach teenagers? What’s the difference?

A defining difference, it seems to me, is that adolescents possess a greater reality hunger. Adolescents are less interested in being told and sold stories; in entering into a situation that bestows temporary omniscience upon the storyteller. Adolescents are less willing to accept neat endings, resolutions of conflicts. For them conflict and confusion cannot be silenced with a conclusion. Adolescence involves a waking-up to the world and seeing that frustration, conflict and desire cannot always be put to bed, even if they can be taken there. Where children are preoccupied with questions of fairness, adolescents become concerned with justice; where children think about play and wishes and fun (ice-cream and games), adolescents are drawn to love and sex and danger (bodies and consequences); where children stretch the rules, adolescents start to stretch the law. Adolescence, in other words, is leaving home: it is exchanging the family for the world; it is finding out what is on offer outside of the family – and that involves leaving behind the stories that hold the family together, the fictions that adults and children conspire to create.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has noted that ‘adolescent’, like ‘immigrant’, is mostly used as a pejorative, and often for comparable reasons. Adolescents and immigrants are alike in that they have left, or are leaving, something behind. They advertise the ways in which the old can be exchanged for the new; they live as though permanence is dependent upon the available satisfactions. And their freedom – their ability to unsettle our sense of borders and place – turns us, the natives, against them. They ruffle our feathers. Their abnegation of their origins strikes us as a kind of betrayal. They confuse our idea of home.

Although the term is generally used with less disapprobation, I would like to suggest that ‘philosopher’ is a cousin to these pejoratives. Wittgenstein wrote, “the philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him a philosopher” (Zettel, 1967). The philosopher, like the adolescent and the immigrant, is uprooted. The philosopher is someone who has left home and is wondering what comes next. “A philosophical problem,” wrote Wittgenstein, “has the form: I don’t know my way about” (Philosophical Investigations, 1953).

The picture of the philosopher as outsider is affirmed in the lives, as well as the work, of many philosophers. Wittgenstein was himself an immigrant, and others come to mind: Hobbes in exile, Rousseau in exile, Socrates the martyr, Nietzsche the nomad (he addressed his readers as “we homeless ones”), Spinoza the excommunicated, Russell the jailbird, Thoreau in his hut in the woods, Diogenes in his barrel, Abelard disowning his inheritance and title, and so on.

Stopping with the writings of Thoreau’s close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s a moment: these are not only notes from the outside, they are rhapsodies on the unceasing pursuit of the outside. He speaks of endless seekers, souls bursting over boundaries, the heart refusing to be imprisoned, limitation as the only sin, old age as the only disease, and the need to be permanently unsettled. We might speculate that the reason America so early and so resoundingly found its voice in philosophy with writers such as this pair, was because, as an immigrant nation that had less than a century before severed the cord that tied the Old World to the New, philosophy was a conversation it knew something about. Whenever things are fixed there is an authority at work, but a philosopher is someone who doesn’t defer to authority. Philosophy cannot be contained by the authority of individuals or communities. It is impelled by uncertainty, dissidence, apostasy, non-compliance.

Another psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, saw adolescence as “the struggle to feel real, the struggle to establish a personal identity, not to fit into an assigned role… [The adolescent does] not know where they are, and they are waiting. Because everything is in abeyance, they feel unreal, and this leads them to do certain things which feel real to them” (The Family and Individual Development, 1965). The philosopher too is in abeyance, a state that Socrates called bafflement (‘aporia’, meaning ‘without passage’), Descartes called doubt, Emerson called a self-evolving circle, and Hannah Arendt called thinking. In Descartes’ mad image of philosophy – an image that combines the strange mix of revolution and regression that is found both in adolescence and in love – we must demolish everything and start again. Bafflement and destruction are necessary for something new. The philosopher seeks reality with all the experimental cloddishness of the adolescent. And just as Winnicott spoke of the adolescent as feeling ‘unreal’, so Socrates spoke of philosophy as beginning in ‘numbness’. Every great work of philosophy is an exhibition of the struggle to feel real.

A child largely lacks the capacity to change reality. They live inside the family; a world that has made them and is not of their making. For this reason there must be consolations and acquiescence. For the child there is such a thing as too much reality. For the adolescent, and the philosopher, reality is not an excess to be avoided, but a desire under pursuit.

The Quest for Reality At School

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A thirteen-year-old recently exclaimed in the middle of my lesson, “I’m so confused about life!” It is within this confusion that there is space for an auspicious meeting between philosophy and adolescence. Philosophy in secondary school provides pupils with a means of staying with their abeyance, and through talking and thinking, of encouraging their quest to feel real.

I do not believe that teaching philosophy in secondary schools is a preliminary to academic study. The attempt is not to produce proto-professionals. Rather than speak of teaching philosophy, then, it may be more useful to speak of teaching philosophical conversation and philosophical writing. The conversations and writings are animated by many of the same questions that concern academic philosophers, but these questions are being used as catalysts, as solvents: they are not demands, nor ends in themselves. Answers aren’t quite the point; questions are asked not to be resolved so much as to fission. The approach is exploratory, experimental, curious. The virtues being sought out are not the virtues of intellectual or scholarly activity, but the virtues of adolescence. Philosophy thus offers pupils one way in which they can be themselves. It is perfectly conceivable for a pupil who loves this approach to philosophy to hate academic philosophy, and vice versa.

The lessons I give work on the basis of negative liberty – that is to say, I seek to remove impediments to thought. The lessons provide the opportunity to discuss questions on value, reality and meaning, and let pupils make of these what they will. Whereas other approaches to teaching philosophy in schools, such as P4C, have an aim in mind – say, to produce reasonable, caring and autonomous thinkers – the aim of such approaches falls more on the side of positive liberty – of imparting freedom rather than merely allowing it. I’d rather not be so goal-oriented, I’d rather jettison agendas: better to let things happen rather than make them happen. Within this ethic is the belief that philosophy does indeed harbour the potential to let things happen. In this there is an overlap between philosophy’s virtues and the virtues of adolescence, namely, as we have seen, virtues of uncertainty, abeyance, non-compliance, apostasy, dissidence, subversion, reality hunger. These are the qualities to be cultivated and permitted. There may of course be beneficial side-effects, such as thinking skills and so on, but these are a bonus and not the point.

Enacted virtues deliver pleasures. The pleasures that constitute this practice of philosophy in the classroom include listening to others – being influenced by, and mixed up in their ideas; riffing off each other; being listened to without correction or praise; the freedom to discover new thoughts and ideas; the freedom to speak without concern for the status quo; to be an idiosyncratic individual in the presence of others; an immersion into uncertainty – the uncertainty of questions, of where the conversation might go, of what you might think; surprise, confusion; treating the world as something to be customised rather than complied with; encountering conflict without having to either resolve differences or agree to disagree; encountering conflicts for which neither violence nor peace are the answer – where conflict is neither a state to be cured nor a condition to be tolerated; finding new ways of talking, new uses for old words; finding out what you believe and the things that matter most to you; or finding out what you disbelieve and the things that matter least to you. The conversational aspect of philosophy lessons hopes to show that through our influence on other people, what we say about the world can change it. Conversation is a way to quench one’s reality hunger.

The virtues that sustain this kind of practice coincide, I believe, with the virtues of adolescence. Yet the breed of virtues that tends to be promoted in schools and in P4C is somewhat antithetical to this approach. Both schools and P4C attribute great value, for example, to the idea of respect. But respect belongs to a morality of distance (of preservation and order) rather than a morality of intimacy (of clutter and flux). And conversation is a form of intimacy – a kind of clutter and a certain flux. It doesn’t work at a safe distance. A philosophical tradition ridden with respect would not, I suspect, have produced Wittgenstein, or Nietzsche, or Diogenes, or Thoreau, or Rousseau, et al. Philosophy is not characterised by decorous stability. The history of philosophy is graffiti: a brick wall cluttered and splattered with the competing thoughts and overlapping words of philosophers seeking to redefine the conversation. Philosophy is a subversive activity. It begins when we think other people have got it wrong. Respect, reasonableness and care are of no particular use to a classroom of subverts, and being an adolescent is itself a decidedly disrespectful thing to be. So though my philosophy lessons are democratic, I am not altogether sure they are civilised. Philosophy teachers, as good democrats, should believe in throwing things in the mix, in being part of the mix, and in sustaining the mix. When we see our thoughts enter the commerce of conversation and alter the constitution of it, we see our thoughts become real and effective. We start to get a feel for the voice.

Lacking clear academic targets, it would of course be difficult for this kind of teaching to find a place in the curriculum. No targets, no measures; no measures, no control; no control, no government-imposed standards – an outcome that sounds as sweet as it is far-fetched. And perhaps this is not so terrible. One of the best things about philosophy for me when I was at school was that it was not taught at school. It was an academic counter-culture, an underground: A.J. Ayer was on a spectrum with punk rock. If philosophy were made compulsory, its dorsal fin may flop listlessly over. It is impossible to centralise vagrancy or institutionalise bafflement.

For Adam Phillips, adolescence is “a state of mind, not some putative stage to be outgrown” (On Flirtation, 1994). For Winnicott it is a period of “struggling through the doldrums” – an affliction with an exit. Despite their differences, both believe that adolescence is something that should be neither cured nor blithely accepted. My suggestion is that offering philosophy in high schools is one way in which adults can go about not curing adolescence, not shouting it down, nor anaesthetising it. Rather, it gives students a chance to be themselves, to speak in search of themselves, for a small portion of the day, amidst so many days spent clock-watching. The presence of philosophy can help prevent high schools from being mere detention centres for the lost – for those who, as Wittgenstein said, don’t know their way about.

© David Birch 2015

David Birch is the author of Provocations: Philosophy for Secondary School (2014) and works with the Philosophy Foundation (philosophy-foundation.org) to teach philosophy in London schools.

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