Combustible philosophy

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. Stories and other kinds of stimuli 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.

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Unveiling and packaging

Early one summer morning, a young Australian philosophy graduate was awoken by a phone call. It was the eminent professor David Lewis, calling from Princeton University’s philosophy department. “You’ve been admitted to our graduate program,” Lewis said. “Do you have any questions?” Still in the fog of sleep and desperate to think of something to ask, the student blurted out: “How many Australians are in the department?” After an uncomfortably long pause, Lewis replied: ‘Depends how you count Australians.’ This anecdote, recounted by the erstwhile student Alan Hayek, shows that even the most commonplace concepts can turn out to be polyvalent. Especially if you let a philosopher loose on them.

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