The Jazz

My favourite cookbook, Cooking Com Bigode, is both more and less than a standard recipe book. Less, in that it’s low on specificity, with recipes vaguely suggesting “some onions”, “lots of carrots” and “enough water”. But also more, in that you don’t just get recipes: you get patterns. As the author Ankur Shah puts it, “For each recipe the general theory (pattern) is explained and variations are offered.” He calls the process ‘The (culinary) Jazz’. I owe my own cooking skills to this approach: improvising around patterns, learning by trial and error, exercising resourcefulness and creativity with whatever’s in the fridge, rather than shopping for particular ingredients and measuring them precisely.

Art by Romare Bearden

Today I want to offer something similar for workshop designers. In my last post, I demonstrated how I use philosophical stimuli that activate emotions, induce perplexity, challenge intuitions, ignite controversy, and elicit reasoned argument. It’s time now for ‘The (philosophical) Jazz’. I’d like to introduce the Provocation-Complication sequence: a basic pattern for juxtaposing stimuli within a workshop. The sequence consists of an initial stimulus that’s likely to elicit particular responses from students, followed by another stimulus that motivates more nuanced reflection on those responses.

Let me illustrate by describing ‘Stuck in a Loop’, a workshop on free will that exemplifies the Provocation-Complication sequence. I begin the workshop with Dean Wooldridge’s account of the maternal behaviour of the Sphex wasp, whose 

elaborately organized and seemingly purposeful routine conveys a convincing flavor of logic and thoughtfulness—until more details are examined… [T]he wasp’s routine is to bring the paralyzed cricket to the burrow [to nourish her unhatched larvae], leave it on the threshold, go inside to see that all is well, emerge, and then drag the cricket in. If, while the wasp is inside making her preliminary inspection, the cricket is moved a few inches away, the wasp, on emerging from the burrow, will bring the cricket back to the threshold, but not inside, and will then repeat the preparatory procedure of entering the burrow to see that everything is all right. If again the cricket is removed a few inches while the wasp is inside, once again the wasp will move the cricket up to the threshold and re-enter the burrow for a final check. The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in.

I then screen a video clip depicting one such field experiment involving countless iterations of the wasp’s moving-and-checking routine. Students observe the wasp instinctively following this rigid, invariable, and ultimately senseless behaviour pattern, and consider Ruth Millikan’s observation: “The wasp seems not to understand the purpose of its own activity so as to know when that purpose has been accomplished”.

The verbal account, video clip and Millikan quote jointly constitute an initial provocation. In response, students engage in collaborative philosophical inquiry and dialogic argument in response to questions that arise. These questions include: ‘To what extent are we like the wasp?’ ‘Are we similarly locked into rigid and invariable behaviours?’, ‘Does the existence of instincts, reflexes or automatic behaviours preclude the possibility of free will?’ and ‘Are we automata, or free agents?’ While some students may point to habits, fixations, or obsessive-compulsive disorders as evidence of the rigidity of human thought, most regard our capacities for choice, flexibility and intelligence (among other traits) as evidence of free will.

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

We are then ready for our second stimulus, or complication: an evocative visual image depicting memory loss accompanied by an audio clip in which a woman, Christine, recounts her mother’s episode of transient global amnesia (TGA). The audio clip includes an excerpt from a recorded conversation between Christine and her mother, Mary Sue, in the recovery ward. Although Christine varies her conversational responses slightly, Mary Sue unwittingly but persistently returns to the same themes, recurrently using identical turns of phrase. At one point Christine says: “It’s like Groundhog Day in here… Every two minutes we’re doing a loop… We have had the same conversation over and over again for the last two and a half hours.” 

In light of this stimulus—which complicates matters, as it highlights unexpected similarities between human and wasp behaviour where previously the differences were more evident—students are ready to revisit the territory they explored earlier. They investigate questions such as: ‘Does the repetitive verbal behaviour shown by patients with TGA imply that all human behaviour is pre-programmed, even if we don’t realise it?’, ‘Does Mary Sue’s story change your view on the extent to which we humans are like the Sphex wasp, carrying out set routines or automatic sequences of behaviour?’, ‘If all relevant conditions were known, would human behaviour be predictable?’ and ‘Is free will an illusion?’

I hope this detailed example of the Provocation-Complication sequence in action will help you when you’re designing your own workshops, or even just when you’re steering conversations away from small talk. My next post will close this series with some further reflections on the arrangement of stimuli. But of course, jazz is about improvisation, and as Shah says, “remember that it’s all up to you, and you can use these grains in any of the above patterns, as well as develop your own ideas totally from scratch. from good ingredients and careful attention (a symptom of love), you can do no wrong.”


This is the fourth in a series of five posts (beginning here) adapted from my article ‘Unveiling and Packaging’ which is published in the journal Human Affairs as follows: Sowey, Michelle. Unveiling and Packaging: A model for presenting philosophy in schoolsHuman Affairs31(4), 2021, pp. 398-408. 


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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