Philosophy in the Art Room

This post is adapted from a talk we recently presented to artists and teachers at an ArtPlay event entitled “But Why? Philosophy and Art with Children”.

Are art and philosophy poles apart? Their styles of thinking certainly seem incompatible at first glance. Doing philosophy requires cool-headed and unerring focus, whereas art practice invites open and playful experimentation.

When we’re being philosophers, we emphasise critical thinking, because we’re concerned with making sound judgements and getting closer to the truth of particular matter. We rely on logic to ensure that our arguments are valid and consistent. On the other hand, when we’re being artists, we emphasise creative thinking, because we’re concerned with bringing something new into the world. We want to surprise ourselves, to generate something novel and arresting, to find striking ways of connecting disparate ideas. To this end, we often ignore logic, or even purposefully fly in the face of logic, as the Dadaists and Surrealists did.

But let’s take a moment to reconsider. If we are to be successful in either domain –– philosophising or art-making –– then we really need to engage in both critical and creative thinking. Counterintuitively perhaps, creativity is important to us as philosophers because we need to imagine many possibilities if we are to select among them judiciously. Equally, critical thinking is important to us as artists because we need to discern what’s working among our experiments if we are to produce art that’s worthy of the attention of others.

“Critical and creative thinking” is a popular catch-phrase in the Philosophy for Children movement. What’s rarely mentioned, however, is that the art of philosophy consists (in part) in knowing when and how to shift between the two modes. To my mind, when we talk about critical and creative thinking, what we’re really talking about is effective thinking – and this is just as indispensible to artists as it is to philosophers.

Grant Snider outside the box (adapted)

This adaptation of a cartoon by Grant Snider highlights three aspects of creative thinking that we hope to foster in our philosophy workshops: imaginativeness, or thinking outside the box; open-mindedness, or seeing things from different perspectives; and inventiveness, or deconstructing our assumptions and coming up with new ways of thinking. Let’s explore each of these aspects, and how they can further children’s artistic efforts.

Imaginativeness is what we practise when we engage in adventurous thinking, fearless speculation and thought experiments. The broad question prompting imaginative thinking is: “What if the world were somehow different to what you supposed?”

Warning parallel universe

In our workshops, we frequently imagine scenarios that require hypothetical thinking. Philosophers call these “thought experiments”. They require us to imagine sometimes quite outlandish situations, and consider the implications. This helps us to test out our philosophical intuitions. We ask questions like these:

    • • If somebody developed an immortality pill that enabled you to live forever, would you want to take it? Should you be allowed to take it?

• If you could plug yourself into a machine that enabled you to experience a perfect simulation of anything you could possibly desire, would you do it? If so, would you be missing out on anything?

• Is it possible to imagine what it’s like to be another animal, like a dog, or a bat?

The following scenario from one of our workshops provides a vivid example of imaginative play:

A satellite reveals a fleet of alien ships approaching earth. We send out a welcome message, but we get no response. Still the ships creep closer to Earth. We send another message, and another, but all we get in return is their silent approach. How should humanity respond?

We asked a group of kids (aged 7 – 9) to share their thoughts. After embarking on some wild speculation, they began to question whether there was any way to determine if the aliens had peaceful or malevolent intentions. One girl proposed that we send “the friendliest people on earth” to greet the aliens, “and if those people get zapped,” she said, “then the rest of us could evacuate earth.” Another suggested that we could plant “a garden of daisies in the shape of a giant peace sign” that could be seen from outer space. A boy in the group raised the objection that the peace sign might not be understood. He asked: “If we give them a flower, how do we know they won’t think it’s a weapon?” Another girl added: “To the aliens, peace might mean war, and war might mean peace.”

Dear Aliens

The creative response pictured here might not have been as rich or reflective without the preceding group discussion. Note how the young artist has anticipated a possible threat, and is even trying to reason with the aliens. This exemplifies the useful role of the philosophical imagination in deepening children’s art practice.

Open-mindedness is what we practise when we’re feeling curious, seeking different perspectives and exploring alternative possibilities. The broad questions prompting open-minded thinking are: “Could my assumptions be wrong?” and “Is there a different way of interpreting the evidence?”

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

Let’s take a look at an example. During a workshop with 11-year-olds on the theme of ‘luck’, we played an audio clip from Radiolab about a series of remarkable coincidences. Here’s a summary of the story (and it’s a true story):

In the north of England, a young girl named Laura Buxton let loose a helium balloon with a note attached. The note said “Please return to Laura Buxton” along with her address. The balloon travelled 225 kilometers south, before landing near the yard of another young girl, also named Laura Buxton. The second Laura contacted the first Laura, and when they met in person, they discovered an astonishing number of similarities, including age, build, hair colour and eye colour. They both wore pink jumpers and jeans to their first meeting. They each had a grey rabbit, a guinea pig and a three-year-old black labrador.

In our workshop, this story gave rise to an interesting discussion about luck, chance, coincidence, destiny and miracles. Most of the children in the group believed that the story provided evidence of the existence of luck. Following the discussion, we played a second audio clip that re-framed the story as less extraordinary than it first appeared. For instance, it emerged that the two Lauras were dissimilar in various ways –– for example, they had different favourite colours and studied different subjects at school. It also became clear that many of their similarities were not at all improbable. For instance, their name was a common one, and their pets were also common choices for girls their age.

In light of this second audio clip, we asked whether any of the children in the group had changed their perspectives on how to interpret the story. One child responded: “Well, I found that the first part of the story was pretty unbelievable. I thought it was impossible that this could happen! But when I heard the second part, it started sounding like this can happen… Well yes, it’s pretty unlikely that it will happen, but there is still the possibility of it happening.”

We then reiterated our question from earlier in workshop: “Is there such a thing as being lucky or unlucky? Has anyone changed their mind on that?” A thoughtful child volunteered this nuanced response: “I’ve sort of changed my mind. I’ve kind of broadened the circumstances where I wouldn’t use luck as an explanation. But I still think there is luck, actual luck, in some cases. It depends what you define as luck.”

These remarks suggest that the children were exercising open-mindedness in the sense that they were explicitly considering different ways of interpreting evidence and, in some instances, even modifying their views on the basis of these alternative perspectives.

In the art room, this kind of open-mindedness could play a key role in children’s criticism of their own and others’ work. In fact, openness to different perspectives is just as crucial to critical thinking as it is to creative thinking. It helps young artists establish criteria for judging artistic merit, discern degrees of excellence, and improve on or curate their own work. As Robert Anton Wilson said: “Bad critics judge a work of art by comparing it to pre-existing theories. They always go wrong when confronted with a masterpiece, because masterpieces make their own rules.”

Inventiveness is what we practise when we generate original ideas, find new connections between ideas and think up innovative solutions to problems. The broad question prompting inventive thinking is: “Can I come up with a new and better response?”

Following a discussion about whether it was possible for a robot to possess a mind, we invited children (aged 10 and 11) to design their own robots. We asked them first to choose a real-world problem, and then to design a robot that would solve the problem.

Turbo Robot Maker (cropped)

This boy took a decidedly inventive approach not only to the solution, but also to conceptualising the problem. If robots are so effective at solving humanity’s problems, it makes sense that we should solve the problem of how to make more robots. This response beautifully demonstrates how the higher-order thinking that characterises philosophy can give rise to the inventiveness that characterises the creative arts.

The last word goes to Arpan, a primary student who worked with us last year:

blockquote-archer1 (medium quote)Their thinking and their thoughts is what makes someone a great artist.

Postscript, 17/06/2021

I’ve just come across the following reflections by Erica Preston-Roedder, which bear on the topic of this post. The following quote is from her paper What Can Philosophy Learn from Improvisational Theater?, Precollege Philosophy and Public Practice, April 2020:

Philosophy can and should involve a kind of intellectual play, albeit one which involves intense concentration and focus (like chess or soccer). The power of describing philosophy as play is that it calls attention to the motivation which drives a person to philosophize. That is, philosophy can, and often should be, a practice where the activity itself sustains and recruits one’s attention…

The notion of philosophy as intellectual play draws attention to how philosophy, at its best, is sustained by normal human impulses, e.g., towards wonder, questioning, and reflection… Philosophy is play, that is, because humans possess the kind of impulses that make rumination on complex philosophical problems intrinsically rewarding…

While some play is absorbing because it is fun, other play sustains our attention because it is interesting, challenging, gripping, etc… philosophical play need not be conducted playfully; philosophy can be a form of play, in virtue of the way it absorbs or grips us, even when it is not conducted light-heartedly…

When the topics are difficult ones, such as ethics and mortality, a playful attitude may make it possible to squarely face that which we might otherwise shy away from contemplating. In addition, playfulness can shake us loose from defensiveness and thereby allow a more open-minded discussion of controversial topics; instead of sticking to ‘safe’ opinions, we become willing to creatively explore and question…

[W]e might think of philosophical teaching as providing young people a much-needed opportunity to engage in intellectual play, i.e., to allow their minds to engage in creative problem-solving, within constrains, drawing on their own, intrinsic motivation to do so.


The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children, and training for workshop The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

3 responses to “Philosophy in the Art Room

  1. I once wrote about the artist and the scientist. I created the dichotomy to compare the two perspectives, but also to make the point that both are incomplete apart from the and are completely compatible in their best forms.

    Anyhow, great post!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Joel and Norah.

    I’ve just come across a Guardian article about how we teach the arts, published last year, in which the celebrated children’s novelist Michael Rosen made a resonant point about the intersection of critical and creative thinking in arts education. He wrote:

    Children and young people involved in the arts … should be encouraged to think of the arts as including or involving investigation, invention, discovery, play and co-operation and to think that these happen within the actual doing, but also in the talk, commentary and critical dialogue that goes on around the activity itself.”

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