Combustible philosophy

“It’s been pouring all day… the firewood is totally soaked.” It’s the lament of every soggy camper. Fire-lighting is hard in these conditions, and the quality of the tinder and kindling will make the difference between roaring success and miserable failure. 

Throwing a philosophical question out cold to a group of kids in hopes of sparking a lively discussion is as unpromising as igniting a bundle of damp wood. This is where philosophical stimuli come in. The stories and other kinds of stimuli described in my last post serve as tinder to get things started, and as kindling to keep it all going. A good philosophical stimulus has the virtues, as Peter Worley says, of engaging attention, helping students to grasp otherwise arcane concepts, activating students’ moral agency, and helping them rehearse for life.

So while each of my student workshops revolves around a particular theme, I make sure to set it alight with a series of carefully-designed stimuli, allowing space in between for collaborative inquiry and dialogic argument to emerge.

When I look back over my experiences of workshop design and facilitation, five criteria for an effective philosophical stimulus come into focus.

Illustration by Sato Kanae

The first criterion is that the stimulus should activate emotions. This is crucial for engaging students because, as Mary Helen Immordino-Yang explains, it is “neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion… [W]e only think about things we care about”. With this in mind, I look for stimuli that will kindle emotions like empathy, delight, shock, unease, indignation, or contempt. Immersive stimuli that make use of humour and suspense are particularly effective in eliciting emotional responses. If, as Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio argue, “reasoning divorced from emotional implications…lack[s] meaning and motivation and [is] of little use in the real world”, then we educators have every reason to attend to students’ emotional responses to the stimuli we present.

One of John Dewey’s aphorisms affirms that “the most important attitude that can be formed is … the desire to go on learning”. Since I see it as part of my role as an educator to induce this desire, I’m not satisfied if a stimulus merely arouses students’ interest; I want it to induce perplexity, which is my second criterion for the effectiveness of a stimulus. In philosophy, suggests A.C. Grayling, “we’re peering out into the dark and don’t yet have a good sense of what we’re doing”. Accordingly, I look for materials that will intrigue, puzzle and eventually disorient students, leading them to an aporetic impasse. To grapple with doubt and confusion is, after all, the basic philosophical predicament––and often a precursor to insight and clarity.

The Socratic gadfly is a defining image from the annals of Western philosophy. Just as the Athenian people needed the prick of a stinging fly to stir them into life, our students need incisive stimuli that can spur them to rethink their concepts and values. My third criterion for an effective stimulus, then, is that it should challenge intuitions. Philosophy thrives on contestation, and students might need some prompting to interrogate their hunches, entertain counter-intuitive positions, examine received wisdom, and stress-test their assumptions. A well-made stimulus offers these prompts.

Illustration by Brian Rea

It’s often said that a stimulus for philosophical inquiry should give rise to contestable questions. I go a step further in proposing the power to ignite controversy as my fourth criterion for an effective stimulus. A good stimulus is deliberately divisive: it elicits disagreement and provokes students to make explicit their various moral or epistemic commitments. Students begin by staking out their respective territories, and in the course of dialogic argument—aided by alternative perspectives—they get the chance to moderate or nuance their views. So, an important function of philosophical stimuli is, as Peter Worley says, “to create controversies with which children can then think more deeply”. To this end, I sometimes choose a stimulus that presents a partisan case, advocating for a particular position, while at other times I choose a two-part stimulus that presents a counterpoint of pro and con cases. The former encourages students to produce thoughtful rebuttals and counterarguments, while the latter puts more emphasis on students’ evaluating the arguments provided.

My fifth criterion for an effective stimulus is that it should elicit reasoned argument. As Nicholson Baker observes, we often “stride into a discussion with our squads of unexamined opinions innocently at our heels—and, discovering that, yes, we do feel strongly about [the issue], we grab the relevant opinion and, without dress rehearsals, fling it out into audibility… only to discover, seconds later, its radical inadequacy”. Since radically inadequate opinions thrive in the absence of cogent arguments, supporting the careful development and cool-headed evaluation of arguments is an essential function of philosophical inquiry. When examining arguments that students themselves have articulated (or arguments that they have heard their peers voice), the experience is far more compelling than when they encounter mere ‘toy’ examples of argument that are abstracted or detached from real life. For this reason, I think it’s worth developing our philosophical stimuli with the prospect of student-led argumentation in mind.

In my next post, I’ll describe one of our original workshops for high schoolers, and demonstrate how the five criteria set out here are reflected in my choice of stimuli.

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This is the second in a series of five posts (beginning here) adapted from my article ‘Unveiling and Packaging’ (pre-print available) which is published in the journal Human Affairs as follows: Sowey, Michelle. Unveiling and Packaging: A model for presenting philosophy in schools. Human Affairs, 31(4), 2021, pp. 398-408.

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The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

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