Flint and stone

I get the same charge from the juxtaposition of colors as I do from the juxtaposition of chords.
Joni Mitchell

The creative is always an act of recombination…as making a spark requires two things struck together.
Jane Hirschfield

…two separate shots … [spliced] together resembles not so much a simple sum of one shot plus another shot as it does a creation.
Sergei Eisenstein

What we’re trying to do is find two or more shots the juxtaposition of which will give us the idea.
David Mamet

Songwriter, poet, film director, playwright: What they mutually recognise is the creativity inherent in combining disparate elements in novel ways, and the powerful impact this can have on an audience.

Left: Photograph of Greta Thunberg by Marcus Ohlsson. Right: Pencil portrait by Jesse Lane

In philosophical workshops, too, I’ve seen what can be achieved through the interplay among carefully-chosen stimuli. Beyond arranging stimuli in a Provocation-Complication pattern (as described in my last post), we can use more complex combinations to generate diverse intellectual puzzles for students to grapple with. By way of example, today’s post will describe ‘So Entitled’, my philosophy workshop concerning rights and legal personhood.

The first segment of the workshop is inspired by the work of Thomas Suddendorf. I begin by presenting students with cards, each inscribed with one of 36 putative characteristics of being human. These include cognitive capacities such as forethought, reasoning, moral agency, self-control and self-awareness; social behaviours such as engagement in politics, trade, and a moral community, physiological features such as opposable thumbs, the FOXP2 gene, and the capacity for vocalisation; and a broad variety of other biological, development, technological and cultural characteristics. In each of their small groups, students examine a subset of the cards and sort them on a scale indicating to what extent each characteristic is significant to our entitlement to human rights. A plenary session follows in which students defend their conclusions. They then investigate which of the characteristics deemed most significant to rights entitlement are shared by non-human animals, and whether the animals that share those characteristics should be awarded the same rights as humans.

Photo from a workshop by The Philosophy Club

Next, students watch three short videos. The first, excerpted from the documentary The Corporation, reveals how corporate executives are able to exploit the legal personhood of corporations to escape liability for harms caused in the pursuit of profit.The second, excerpted from The River Is Me, describes how New Zealand’s Whanganui River, having been long exploited by government and commercial bodies, was finally granted legal personhood status, meaning that “the law now sees no differentiation between harming the [Whanganui] tribe and harming the river”. The third video, Animals: Property or persons? makes an argument for the existence of non-human rights and raises the question of whether certain non-human animals, such as chimpanzees, should be granted legal personhood. After viewing these videos, the students discuss whether legal personhood (and thereby rights) should be granted to non-human entities such as corporations, rivers, and/or chimpanzees. The students further discuss whether rights ought to be granted on the basis of capacities or on the basis of needs; and whether rights should always be accompanied by duties or liabilities. Finally, the students ponder where rights come from, and whether it is contradictory to suppose that rights are both inherent and negotiated by international communities.

The cards and videos used as stimuli throughout the workshop represent intellectual puzzle pieces which the students attempt to fit together. There are points of both congruity and conflict among the ideas that the various stimuli suggest or elicit. For instance, the card-sorting game and the third video on non-human rights hint at the idea that rights should be granted on the basis of capacities (such as the capacities for self-awareness, autonomy, language, culture and planning), whereas the second video concerning the Whanganui river suggests that rights should instead be granted on the basis of needs (such as the need for protection). Additionally, the notion that non-human entities should be granted legal personhood is affirmed by the second and third videos which concern the push for environmental and animal rights, yet this notion is challenged by the first video which concerns the avoidance of corporate liability. Whether rights should always be accompanied by responsibilities is also in contention. To investigate what accountability might mean for non-human persons such as corporations and rivers, students consider case studies such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal and a hypothetical scenario in which the Whanganui river floods its banks, destroying artefacts in a nearby museum. Each stimulus individually raises its own contestable questions, and the stimuli combine in cross-cutting ways to frame a series of deeper controversies. 

I hope this example demonstrates that with careful thought, we can use stimuli not merely as discrete and self-contained provocations to inquiry but also, arranged strategically with other stimuli, as a way to help students confront complexities and nuances that might otherwise pass them by. If artists can use the juxtaposition of colours, chords, scenes and shots like flint and stone to spark an idea or make an audience feel all the feels, well, why shouldn’t philosophers use it too?


Postscript, 21/03/2022

Reading Sarah Anne Carter’s 2010 paper On an Object Lesson, or don’t eat the evidence, regarding the 19th century pedagogical practice of delivering ‘object lessons’, I came across some passages that resonated powerfully with this post:

“Individual objects might be touchstones for novel stories, but through comparison and contrast collections of related objects could reveal even more…
Unlike a text…object lessons challenged teachers and students to draw their own connections among objects…
Even when mediated by text or detailed lesson plans, the objects themselves presented some of the instruction… [C]hildren… learned to think with things.”


Published on World Philosophy Day 2021, this is the last 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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