What Philosophy is not

What Philosophy is Not

I was taken aback to discover an opinion piece in The New Yorker denouncing the teaching of philosophy in schools as ‘a terrible idea’. The author, Richard Brody, reflects bitterly on his own school years during which he read a lot of philosophy; he goes so far as to suggest (a tad melodramatically) that his youth was ruined by a devotion to books. It seems his philosophical interests deprived him of practical experience to the point that he later felt the need to catch up on lost time.

It’s a sorry tale, and one I can hardly quibble with: after all, Brody’s childhood experiences are his own to interpret as he sees fit. His ideas on public education, on the other hand, are fair game. And since his criticisms of philosophy education are so gravely misguided, quibble I will.

Firstly, Brody presents a misleading picture of the very character of a philosophical education. Learning philosophy is not about a devotion to books – at least not primarily. Reading the great works of classical or modern philosophy, if you choose to do so, serves a larger purpose: stimulating your own philosophical enquiry. At the heart of a philosophical education is learning to think philosophically, and this means developing the cognitive tools to question, to deliberate, to reason and to make thoughtful decisions concerning all aspects of your life.

Children are more than capable of insightful speculation, and take evident delight in philosophical enquiry.

Secondly, whatever else may be said of it, doing philosophy can’t fairly be accused of turning young people into ‘detached ruminators of life … theorists, critics, or…assholes’ (as Brody bizarrely claims). The temporary detachment needed for critical thinking and philosophical reflection in no way represents a worrying disconnection from real-life experience. On the contrary, philosophical thinking serves to engage young people more intimately in their everyday lives and relationships.

Philosophy sharpens your perception

Philosophy, perhaps more than any other discipline, helps you make sense of your own experiences and the experiences of others. It sharpens your perception. It acquaints you with alternative possible ways of conducting yourself and your life, and encourages you to re-evaluate what you hold to be important and meaningful. A good philosophical education helps you develop curiosity, scepticism and the courage to think for yourself. At the same time, it helps you develop reasonableness, humility and open-mindedness – qualities essential for anyone intending to engage in a respectful dialogue.

Doing philosophy means approaching important questions with genuine curiosity – and learning to think clearly, seriously and with purpose.

That young people are capable of thinking philosophically continues to be demonstrated around the world wherever children and teenagers are encouraged to doubt, question and build on each other’s ideas. In the US, the intensely philosophical character of children’s wondering has been well documented in books and articles by Gareth Mathews, Sara Goering, Jana Mohr Lone and Tom Wartenberg, among others. My own experience leading discussions at The Philosophy Club has revealed that children are more than capable of insightful speculation and take evident delight in philosophical enquiry and reasoning.

Brody’s misconceptions are, unfortunately, commonplace. Philosophy is wrongly supposed to consist of memorising the doctrines of philosophers from bygone eras – clearly an activity of little practical relevance to students’ lives today. A far better understanding of what it means to do philosophy is approaching important questions with genuine curiosity – and learning to think clearly, seriously and with purpose. Far from being a terrible idea, doing philosophy in this way could be just the ticket.

Illustration above by Isabelle Arsenault. Top image via Papergreat.


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


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6 responses to “What Philosophy is not

  1. I’m with you. Brody reminds me of a parent I know, who, just because she was caned through years of hated piano tuition, has denied her children the joy of learning to play an instrument. While schools are so busy teaching our children to stop thinking, to sit still, listen passively and absorb knowledge from dubiously qualified sources without challenging it, philosophy offers a different point of view. Philosophy invites the child to challenge, to debate points of view, and to defend their position. It teaches athleticism of mind, and a certain freedom of spirit – some the education system possibly fears. Philosophy offers children who are not so good at the rote memorisation of bland data another arena, in which their inquisitive, explorative, imaginative and agile minds may excel. Broad thinking minds who challenge the status quo are the sorts of people who make a big difference in our world – not people who can spell flawlessly, or remember their times tables by the age of 7. Teach our children to think, to question, to have an opinion, to respect that of others, to support their view with facts and consideration, to realise they may be wrong. Teach them to challenge accepted paradigms and demand an intelligent answer to their eternal question – why?

  2. As I read your response, I cannot help but think that ‘philosophy for children’ is actually more than just an extra curricula program for those who happen to be young in years. It is a program for all of us who are still just beginning to touch the tips of the great philosophical icebergs. Let us put the ‘great philosophers’ into perspective as interesting and passionate – but very human – beings with or without whose acquaintance we can still live an amazing and conceptually rich existence. Hopefully Richard Brody will sign up for some of your workshops and find a way to write more than just confusing column-filler for the elite subscribers of ‘high’ end magazines.

  3. As my first contribution to this blog I wish to point out that I am more than happy to wave the flag of Philosophy as a verb, primarily, and even as a noun. I also believe that its tuition and practice in Primary and Secondary schools is important to vaccinate students against the ills of unquestioningly swallowing in the views of teachers and others in positions of authority. It provides the cognitive tools to flesh out our beliefs and develop them into systems. And while those belief systems will never be entirely consistent, philosophy allows us the lens to discover those inconsistencies, in some cases weeding them out and in others learning to sit with them while recognising their pitfalls.

    Personally, I am happy for philosophers to have the labels of theorists and critics. It recognises that they have the power to both build, attack and in some cases destroy others belief systems (cf. Russells postcard scrawled criticism of Frege leading him to renounce his theory of Mathematics).

    However, I do believe there is an element of truth in the claim that the study of philosophy can turn people into detached ruminators. Some could even accuse me of doing this for a few years before I threw away my PhD studies to teach children how to think well as a Primary teacher. Yet I don’t think there is much risk of ending up like the main character in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I don’t even think being a detached ruminator is particularly problematic. In fact, a week without a small dose of detached rumination leaves me feeling muddled, hectic and stressed. Three or more weeks without a significant dose and I feel my life to be in serious need of a change. Like Michelle, I find philosophical thinking helps me to engage more intimately with the happenings in my life and my relationships, to find meaning in them and, in turn, to consider new and or better ways of being in the coming weeks or years.

    PS: I have a friend who also wishes to add something to this discussion. He doesn’t have an email address so I’ll write his words for him. His name is George Berkeley. Some people think him to be a hopelessly detached ruminator, however, his ruminations led him to start a little university on Mexican land. They named it after him.

    George writes: “Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth, it may with reason be expected that those who have spent most time and pains in it should enjoy a greater calm and serenity of mind, a greater clearness and evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed with doubts and difficulties than other men. Yet so it is, we see the illiterate bulk of mankind that walk the high-road of plain common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed. To them nothing that is familiar appears unaccountable or difficult to comprehend. They complain not of any want of evidence in their senses, and are out of all danger of becoming Sceptics. But no sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds concerning those things which before we seemed fully to comprehend. Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and, endeavouring to correct these by reason, we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation, till at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find ourselves just where we were, or, which is worse, sit down in a forlorn Scepticism.”

  4. Sara, Warren and Tristan – thank you so much for your well-considered comments. I’ll be keeping in mind your vibrant phrases ‘athleticism of mind’, ‘tips of the great philosophical icebergs’, and ‘philosophy as a verb’ – as well as Berkeley’s unforgettable ‘uncouth paradoxes’ and ‘forlorn Scepticism’.

    I, too, see Philosophy as a kind of fortifying inoculation against unquestioning acceptance of authority – and at the same time a humbling enterprise that reminds us of the incompleteness of our understanding. Tristan, thanks for pointing out the value of detached rumination for restoring peace of mind in the midst of frenetic activity.

    It’s been really heartening to receive such thoughtful (and thought-provoking) responses from readers, and I’m very encouraged by your interest. I hope you’ll enjoy following the blog.

  5. A nice piece, for me, in coming to terms with how learning philosophy a few times at university, yes, I encountered it more than once left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, one that I would rather not taste again.

    So it was some surprise knowing Dave’s mind for philosophy that you also had a similar bent. And so, slowly, along with the children you teach, I feel myself being dragged in, to the fires of my mind, the fear, toward philosophy again.

    But this time, maybe the experience will not be so scarring, maybe, this time, I may finally win my small fight with this subject after all.

    Nice work as always Michelle ;o)

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