A grassroots philosophy hub

Cafe scene 1940s

Kids can benefit from joining a philosophical community as soon as they begin to question the world around them and their place in it. That’s what I suggest in my piece ‘Community Philosophy: Starting young’ (reproduced below), which was published on the (no longer active) The Philosophy Hub blog.

While it lasted, The Philosophy Hub was a website that connected people everywhere to their local grassroots philosophy groups: social forums where people can share big ideas, reflect on their lives, develop themselves, and possibly even respond collectively to global challenges.

“Without street philosophy, academic philosophy becomes irrelevant. Without academic philosophy, street philosophy becomes incoherent.” So says Jules Evans, founder of the Philosophy Hub, who charted the history and resurgence of public philosophy groups in his detailed history of grassroots philosophy movements from ancient times to the present day: Connected Communities: Philosophical Communities (large PDF). It seems that “street” or “cafe” philosophy is alive and flourishing, with self-organised discussion groups mushrooming around the globe.

So without further ado, here’s a copy of my guest post for the now obsolete website, The Philosophy Hub.

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Readers of this blog will be acquainted with the many rewards of doing philosophy in a group. We’re often motivated by a desire for meaningful, intelligent conversation that will challenge our ideas and open up new ways of thinking. We also enjoy the social experience of meeting other philosophically-minded people. But how early in our lives can we reasonably expect to start engaging in this kind of philosophical dialogue?

It’s my view that children can benefit from joining a philosophical community as soon as they begin to question the world around them and their place in it. The Philosophy Club is a social enterprise in Australia designed to offer just such a community to inquisitive children as young as five years old. Through the club, I run extra-curricular workshops that help small groups of kids to explore philosophical questions by engaging in open dialogue with one another. I use the curiosity-driven method of ‘collaborative enquiry’, which sees kids wrestling with philosophical problems for the sheer fun of it – and honing essential thinking skills in the process.

Doing philosophy can be empowering for children, no less so than for adults. Given the opportunity to think for themselves about deep and perplexing issues, they learn to examine their beliefs, refine their concepts, reason carefully and make well-considered judgements. In an atmosphere of trust, children also work up the courage to speak their minds and give voice to unpopular opinions.

Philosophical stories and dialogues among children

Each of our workshops at The Philosophy Club consists of a series of dialogues, interspersed with various other activities, all centred around a broad philosophical theme. To begin, I usually read aloud a narrative, rich in ideas, that resonates with children’s experience and fires the imagination. Sophisticated picture books (such as those on my other blog, Playground Philosopher) offer useful stimuli for philosophical dialogues, as do the wonderful stories in The Philosophy Shop and other publications of The Philosophy Foundation in the UK.

After reading the narrative, we jointly consider any philosophically puzzling questions that capture the children’s interest. For each question, I invite the children to propose a range of possible answers and, crucially, to support their claims with reasons. I encourage the children to take all views seriously – but this doesn’t mean that all views are to be endorsed as equally reliable, convincing or true. While philosophical questions generally have no clear ‘right answer’, there are various ways of being wrong. Learning to recognise logical and interpretative mistakes is a powerful tool for critically evaluating beliefs. Throughout the philosophical enquiry, each child is responsible for making up his or her own mind, evaluating the arguments given, and deciding if a change of mind is warranted.

As a facilitator, I try to appear philosophically neutral. I want children to express their own sincere opinions, so I create a safe environment where they can speak their minds freely. While ground-rules require that the atmosphere remain respectful, tensions between conflicting beliefs and values make for particularly rich and thoughtful dialogues. I regularly post excerpts from these dialogues on The Philosophy Club’s facebook page so that our wider community of friends and supporters can have some insight into the collaborative enquiry process and the children’s often striking philosophical ideas.

Fun and games

I always incorporate creative play into my workshops. Philosophical enquiry itself is substantially creative, as children are encouraged to imagine the implications of hypothetical scenarios, consider alternative interpretations, and produce examples and counter-examples. All the same, kids need frequent breaks from the intensity and stimulation of philosophical thinking or, as one ten-year-old described it, ‘tying your brain in a knot and then squashing it into a pancake’. So we mix it up with drama games, drawing activities and musical play, to release some of the energy that invariably builds during our philosophical dialogues.

Intellectual and moral development

In my experience, the collaborative aspect of philosophical enquiry is vital to the intellectual process. Children build on each other’s ideas and are provoked to reflect very critically when they encounter divergent opinions. This helps them develop habits of constructive scepticism: they come to recognise that no claim (not even their own) deserves to be unquestioningly accepted. With some experience of philosophical enquiry, children can begin to assess things like suitability of criteria, weight of evidence, reliability of sources and robustness of ideas in the face of criticism. With these skills under their belt, kids can draw tentative conclusions in the face of doubt – enabling them to act more rationally and decisively in the world.

The collaborative element of philosophical enquiry also has a moral dimension. It seems likely that by seeking genuinely to understand one another, participating children will become more empathic, attentive and fair-minded – and increasingly skilled at cooperating, negotiating and using reason to resolve their disagreements.

Try it yourself!

I’ve found it a real privilege to do Philosophy with the enthusiastic and sparkling children who are part of The Philosophy Club. The depth and rigour of their thinking is remarkable, and I’m often amazed by how deftly and spontaneously they recapitulate the philosophical positions of great thinkers throughout the ages.

If you have experience in conducting philosophy groups with adults, I’d encourage you to extend your repertoire by gathering together a group of eager young philosophers. The experience will be memorable for everyone involved.

Title image via Hotel de Ville

 

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.

 

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