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Teaching Philosophy vs Teaching To Philosophise

Pablo Cevallos Estarellas reviews the developments that caused professional to triumph over amateur philosophy in education, and proposes a way forward.

If to do philosophy is to ask questions of a special kind about central human problems and then to grapple with them in a rigorous way, most people can in principle learn how to philosophise. This means that unlike most academic disciplines, philosophy has two legitimate manifestations: the professional practice of philosophical inquiry, with reference to the canon of historical philosophical works, and the amateur practice of philosophical inquiry, without reference to previous philosophy. In this article I’ll distinguish between these two expressions of philosophical practice and explore their educational applications.

Two Manifestations of Philosophical Practice

We need to begin with a definition of philosophy. This is tricky, as it seems that there are as many conceptions of philosophy as there are philosophers. However, many philosophers work with a shared notion of what philosophy is, even if it is often left unarticulated: they conceive philosophy as an activity or a process, more than an accumulation of contents or products. This sketchy conceptualization of philosophy has at least two properties that are relevant to this discussion. The first is that philosophy is defined mainly in procedural terms, identifying it with the activity of philosophizing (what philosophers do, ie, the method) rather than with the products of philosophy (what philosophers have accomplished, ie, the results). The second is that it describes the philosophical method as the combination of two basic elements: (a) a specific kind of thinking (reflective, critical, creative, striving for understanding, etc) and (b) a specific kind of issues or questions (fundamental or conceptual ones, which cannot be solved by mere observation or calculation).

If this ‘procedural’ definition of philosophy is accepted, then one important implication that follows is that, as hinted, anybody can in principle practice it without having studied it at an academic level. This sets philosophy apart from many other academic disciplines, which can hardly be practiced in any meaningful sense without one having a substantive knowledge of the discipline’s canon and without one keeping abreast with the knowledge produced in the field. For example, it is very difficult to conceive somebody who practices sociology nowadays and does not know anything about the works of, say, Max Weber or C. Wright Mills, or somebody who practices biology and ignores Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, and Stephen J. Gould’s corollary of punctuated equilibrium. By contrast, philosophy can be practiced without knowledge of the academic tradition that exists behind it.

‘Professional’ philosophy. Philosophy can indeed be practiced without knowledge of its academic tradition, but can does not imply must. There is an extensive written record of the ways in which past philosophers have dealt with philosophical questions, and how successive generations of philosophers commented on their answers. Knowing that rich tradition has an intrinsic intellectual value, for as English philosopher Nigel Warburton has remarked, “without some knowledge of history philosophers would never progress: they would keep making the same mistakes, unaware that they had been made before” (Philosophy: The Basics). Thus, within the realms of academia, to philosophise means more than just grappling with philosophical questions from scratch; it involves arguing with the answers given to philosophical problems by other philosophers, in what can be seen as a conversation spanning many generations. According to this narrow view, a (Western) philosopher is somebody who continues the tradition started by the ancient Greek philosophers. Since universities are more or less the only institutions which pay people to philosophise, it follows that a professional philosopher is nearly always a university teacher of philosophy.

‘Amateur’ philosophy. While the professional model of philosophising has undeniable merits, the fact remains that the rich tradition of philosophical texts needs not be known (let alone mastered) in order to be able to philosophise. People who have no acquaintance with the philosophical tradition naturally struggle with philosophical problems. This is probably because these problems are grounded in everyday experience. As Thomas Nagel puts it, “the philosophical raw material comes directly from the world and our relation to it, not from writings of the past” (What Does It All Mean?). According to him this explains why is it that philosophical issues “come up again, in the heads of people who haven’t read about them.” (By the way, I use the adjective ‘amateur’ simply as the antonym of professional, ie, as the activity engaged in by those who philosophise without necessarily referring to the canon of philosophical works.)

The professional (academic) practice of philosophy has become the dominant and by far the most prestigious one. This might be due to the fact that at least since the late Middle Ages professional philosophy monopolized universities and other academic centres, where it eventually acquired, according to Kwame Anthony Appiah, “the highest-status label of Western humanism” (In My Father’s House). In the contemporary world, philosophy as a professional practice enjoys great health, at least within the boundaries of universities. In his article “What is philosophy?”, Barry Stroud argues that this is good because it protects the existence of philosophy as a relatively free activity, by isolating philosophers from the restrictive controls of society and government. But at the same time this is bad for philosophy, because the more it becomes professionalised, the more it becomes an esoteric activity to which amateur practitioners of philosophy have no access.

Philosophy’s increasing professionalisation has had at least two lamentable consequences. The first is that as philosophy grows apart from society, philosophers’ interests (and their publications) become increasingly abstract and less applicable to the real problems of regular people and societies. The second is that as society grows apart from philosophy, it becomes less philosophical, fostering an attitude that Martha Nussbaum has fittingly dubbed ‘philosophical recalcitrance’, which encourages simplistic answers to real life problems.

One possible antidote against the increasing public image of philosophy as an esoteric and elitist activity (and its resulting isolation) is the fostering of the amateur practice of philosophy. And yet, paradoxically, one consequence of the dominance of professional philosophy has been, precisely, the impairment and weakening of the amateur tradition, which was always predicated on the non-elitist assumption that everybody could learn to philosophise, an assumption that came under attack by professional philosophers. Especially during the heyday of philosophical professionalisation (which in the English-speaking world coincided with the dominance of the analytic movement during the 1950s and 1960s), some academic philosophers openly ruled out the possibility that the regular folk could practice philosophy – a contemporary equivalent of Plato’s snobbish conclusion that only a tiny minority of intellectually advantaged individuals are able to philosophise.

However, there have always been dissenting voices among academic philosophers who questioned and severely criticized the ‘elitist’ tradition. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer publicly ridiculed the academic ‘book-philosophers’ who dedicate most of their time to the study of what other philosophers said instead of thinking for themselves. Later, John Dewey argued that philosophy had become a rarefied discipline infatuated with a quest for certainty, and thus he proposed a reconstruction of it. In his classic Democracy and Education, he says that although philosophical problems arise in everyday life, most people do not identify them as philosophical because philosophers have developed a specialized vocabulary that can only be understood by those who belong to the guild, so to speak. A more recent critic of the elitist tradition is Bryan Magee, a renowned populariser of philosophy, who says: “The notion that only those who have studied philosophy at a university can philosophise is on par with the notion that only those who have made an academic study of literature can read a classic novel” (Confessions of a Philosopher). What unites all these criticisms of the exclusively professional (and elitist) tradition of philosophical practice is the conviction that, given the opportunity, laypeople are likely to philosophise. That takes us directly to the next topic, namely, the educational implications of philosophy.

Educational Implications of the Two Traditions of Doing Philosophy

When thinking about the educational implications of philosophy, the above distinction between the professional and the amateur traditions becomes extremely important. Under the predominance of professional practice, philosophy as a school discipline has become a quasi-arcane subject dedicated to the study and interpretation of texts written by famous philosophers of the past (or secondary sources referring to them), instead of engagement with pressing philosophical problems relevant to students’ lives. The use of this educational approach, which I will term ‘didactic’, has the practical result of alienating many people from philosophy, not because they are incapable of studying it, but simply because they lose interest.

When academic philosophy is included in high school or university curricula, the courses usually take the didactic approach. Perhaps with the commendable purpose of having students learn to philosophise from being exposed to the inspiring ideas of academic philosophers, or perhaps with the less commendable one of making it easier for instructors to test students, these courses as a norm are limited to the teaching of the history of philosophy, either in chronological stages or according to the traditional problems of philosophy. In so doing, they fail to teach students how to philosophise, instead merely teaching them what the philosophers of the past said. This is a problem for two reasons.

The first is that even when executed well, the didactic approach does not help students to understand the world and themselves better. Only rarely are students new to philosophy in a position to fully appreciate what others have written about philosophical problems until they’ve engaged with those problems on their own. A similar criticism, expressed in stronger terms, is Schopenhauer’s tirade in his essay ‘On Thinking for Yourself’:

“The man who thinks for himself becomes acquainted with the authorities for his opinions only after he has acquired them and merely as a confirmation of them, while the book-philosopher starts with his authorities, in that he constructs his opinions by collecting together the opinions of others; his mind then compares with that of the former as a automaton compares with a living man. ... This is what determines the difference between a thinker and a mere scholar. “

The second problem is that in many cases the didactic approach is not applied well, and then fails even to help students understand the philosophical ideas of famous philosophers, instead making them parrot ideas that they do not understand. It also confirms students’ prejudice that philosophy is an inert subject, completely disconnected from their lives. When this happens – and unfortunately it happens a lot – not only is the original purpose of teaching philosophy absolutely nullified, but students are also likely to develop strong feelings against it.

In response to the elitist professional tradition and its ‘didactic’ educational approach, advocates of amateur philosophical practice have drawn on Socrates’ example to propose a completely different approach to teaching philosophy. This alternative approach, which can be called ‘dialogical’ because of its emphasis on dialogue in the classroom, aims to teach students how to philosophise by doing it, even if that means that beginner students may not learn what the main philosophers of the past have said, or what the traditional philosophical problems are. In so doing, the dialogical approach recreates a significant aspect of philosophy’s dialectical origins, whereby in order to philosophise it was not at all necessary to know what others had said about philosophical issues (mainly because there was no accumulated record to refer to). In emphasising method over content, the dialogical approach makes philosophy accessible to those not necessarily trained in the professional tradition of philosophy. Showing characteristically democratic leanings, this pedagogical approach is based on the premise that every person is a potential philosopher.

How is dialogue used to teach to philosophise? The word ‘dialogue’ comes from the combination of two Greek words: dia, which means ‘through’, and logos, which means ‘word’. Etymologically, dialogue suggests a movement or exchange of words between two or more persons. ‘Dialogue’ is sometimes used as a synonym for conversation, but they refer to very different types of communication. Matthew Lipman, the founder of Philosophy for Children, perhaps the most famous K-12 philosophy curriculum that uses the dialogical approach, observes that while dialogue is “a mutual exploration, an investigation, an inquiry,” conversation is a simple “exchange: of feelings, of thoughts, of information, of understandings” (Thinking in Education). A philosophical dialogue, then, is a collaborative exchange of ideas and arguments among people, with the purpose of gaining a better understanding of the problem at hand. The dialogical nature of philosophy derives from the simple fact that, as the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater explains, “philosophy does not occur as a revelation made by someone who knows everything to someone who knows nothing.” On the contrary, philosophy ideally occurs when two or more people who see themselves as equals, to quote Savater again, “become accomplices in their mutual submission to the force of reasons and their mutual rejection of the reasons of force” (The Questions of Life). To the extent that dialogue aims not at persuasion at any cost, but at understanding, it will take the form of philosophical investigation or inquiry. And because it presupposes fallibility of the interlocutors, who are nevertheless willing to go wherever argument takes them, philosophical dialogue is also a form of critical discussion. The term ‘critical discussion’ was coined by Karl Popper to refer to a model of dialogical interaction aimed at the resolution of disputes governed by what he called ‘critical rationalism.’ Under the influence of Popper and also of Jürgen Habermas’ notion of the ‘ideal speech situation’, Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst defined a ‘critical discussion’ as an ideal communicative context in which arguments are used to resolve disputes, that is to say, differences of opinion. They explain that disputes can be either settled or resolved. To settle a dispute means setting it aside to go on with life. On the other hand, to resolve a dispute means that one or more of the participants in the discussion retracts her/his standpoint in the light of the other party’s arguments. In what ways can the theory of dialogue have educational applications?

Many contemporary theorists of education have written extensively about the benefits of using discussion in the classroom, or what some of them call “dialogical education.” While important, these contributions seem to be made from a purely educational/psychological perspective, and tend to miss the philosophical (ie, normative) dimension of dialogue, which has been so well explored by the philosophical tradition. The question is how the educational/psychological perspective and the philosophical perspective can be combined in a theory of dialogue that can be useful for the classroom.

Another way to ask the same question is to ask how dialogue can be at the same time philosophical and educational. That might seem like a simple question until one realizes that it is a variant of R.S. Peters’ ‘paradox of moral education’. If the educational goal is to construct rational and moral individuals, how can we educate them when they are too young to understand reasons? We are confronted with two apparently equally undesirable options: either we wait until they are old enough to understand reasons and only then teach them to be moral (at which point it might be too late), or we teach them to be moral when they are still very young, when we must inculcate those ideals in a way that seems contrary to reason – by indoctrination. This paradox is indeed very old, and I think it has been solved by Aristotle and Dewey, with the theory of the acquisition of habits. When children are too young to be persuaded by reasons, the only way to teach them to be critical is by developing in them the habit of being critical. But because this habit is non dogmatic – it can be questioned – we avoid indoctrination as much as we possibly can.

Building on the tradition of Socrates, it is possible to offer a theory of doing philosophy that has educational application. In the Greek cradle of Western philosophy, dialogue was the communicative context in which both the practice and the teaching of philosophy took place, as illustrated by the interactions between Socrates and his interlocutors in Plato’s dialogues. The ‘Socratic method’, as it is often called, is a misleading term because it seems to suggest that Socrates had just one method. A closer study of Socrates’ behaviour in Plato’s dialogues shows a more complicated picture. David H. Calhoun has made such a study (published in his article ‘Which Socratic Method?’), and he concludes that the general opinion which identifies the Socratic method with a pedagogy “in which the teacher coaches and cajoles students to take an active role in the learning process by asking probing, leading questions and strategically guiding discussion”, is incorrect. Plato’s Socrates, as Calhoun explains, showed a range of pedagogical strategies, which makes it more accurate to speak about Socratic methods, in the plural. Calhoun identifies at least two main styles of teaching or pedagogical modes into which all of Socrates’ acts can be categorized: transmission and inquiry. By the transmission mode, Calhoun refers to the act of “communicating a body of information ... to another person in a straightforward and unambiguous fashion.” By the inquiry mode, Calhoun refers to a pedagogical relationship that “focuses on active learning by the student, and thus requires the teacher to structure the learning process in such a way that the student must take a heightened degree of responsibility for learning.”

The transmission mode has a more authoritarian dynamic than the inquiry mode, but there are important similarities underlying them. What these two styles of teaching have in common, Calhoun argues, is that both aim at the same ultimate goal. As Calhoun puts it:

“Is there some identifiable object to which all of Socrates’ activities are aimed? To what, if anything, does Socrates seek to convert his interlocutors? The best place to begin is with those methods for which Socrates clearly identifies objectives. As he insists, refutation is intended to instil intellectual humility, and to motivate further inquiry into the things that are most important for human life. . . . The same holds true for Socratic exhortation, which reminds interlocutor of the stakes of inquiry, and thus urges on the activity of philosophising about the most important things.”

In other words, the final educational goal of all Socrates’ methods is to persuade students of the importance of philosophical inquiry. As Calhoun reminds us, however, this does not mean that Socrates is valuing inquiry “for inquiry’s sake, irrespective of its contribution to clarifying how human beings ought to live.” Rather, the purpose is to use philosophical thinking in order to evaluate one’s society and life. In Calhoun’s words, Socratic methods intend “to seek truths about how to live, but to recognize that these truths, however firmly established by repeated argumentation, are always theoretically corrigible, and thus always subject to ... further inquiry.”

The behaviours that characterize what I have called amateur philosophy are model behaviours that ideally should be found in any academic or scholarly inquiry, not just philosophy: conceptual analysis, identification of assumptions, careful reconstruction of arguments, attentive listening, striving for relevance, self-correction, and so forth. The reason why I call this kind of education philosophical is that philosophy is the paradigmatic activity (but certainly not the only one) that utilizes a critical, creative, and careful style of thinking. As Martha Nussbaum suggests in her article ‘Public Philosophy and International Feminism’, “philosophy in our culture has high standards of rigor and refinement in argument; debates on related issues in other professions often seem sloppy by comparison.” In the educational environment that I am envisioning, students who are exposed to philosophical education share the abilities and dispositions ideally possessed by philosophical inquirers. Education is philosophical, then, to the extent that it is fundamentally dialogical, though in a wider sense – which might mean, for example, accepting some forms of lecturing as dialogical, provided that the instructors engage in self-correction and encourage students’ reactions and questions. Pierre Bourdieu once famously protested (in Acts of Resistance) that “the logic of political life, that of denunciation and slander, ‘sloganization’ and falsification of the adversary’s thought”, had permeated all discourse, even academic, instead of having “the logic of intellectual life, that of argument and refutation,” to be exported to public life. Philosophical education aims at this latter goal.

© Pablo Cevallos Estarellas 2007

Pablo Estarellas teaches Educational Foundations at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY.

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