Monday, September 8, 2008

Is this really philosophy?

". . . That slight uncertainty
which makes us sure."

From Advice from the Muse
by Richard Wilbur

The start of the school year and planning for the year's philosophy classes. Usually I start my philosophy classes by asking students to offer some possible answers to the question, "What is philosophy?" (Of course there is no incontestable answer to this question – philosophers themselves disagree about what philosophy is.)
We talk about what the students think philosophy is for a while, and usually some form of the following ends up on the board:
Thinking about unsettled questions
Talking about fundamental questions
Trying to understand ourselves and our world
Thinking about thinking
Discussing questions that are impossible to answer
This list seems to me not bad for an initial understanding of what philosophy is all about. The more challenging task is, throughout the year and during each class, to evaluate whether what we are doing is philosophy (and not psychology, or history, or science, or telling personal stories) and to push the group (including myself) to keep our discussions philosophical.
It's very easy, especially with younger students, to veer off course and end up talking not, for example, about whether lying is ever morally acceptable (clearly a philosophical discussion, in my view) but about one child's story of her experience lying to a teacher about something one day. Because personal stories often help to illuminate a philosophical position, the fact that a student is telling a personal story doesn't alone take us out of the realm of philosophy. But it is a danger zone. (As fun as it is to get to know the students personally, I'm not there to inspire a social discussion in the classroom.) So I often will ask a student, "How does this illuminate the question we're thinking about? What is the question? Tell us how what you're describing helps us to think about how to answer it."
I tell students that our discussions are philosophy discussions because we're analyzing the questions behind the questions. So not, is this fair? But, what is fairness? Not, is this person leading a good life? But, what are the essential ingredients for living a good life? I frequently ask myself in the middle of class discussions, is this a philosophical question? If it isn’t, what can I do to turn it into one?
I often think of one of my graduate school professors, Larry Bonjour, who was skeptical about the possibility that real philosophy could take place in elementary and middle school classrooms, and I imagine him standing there saying to me, “Is this philosophy, Jana?” A touchstone for me is a paraphrase of a statement by Bertrand Russell: “The value of philosophy is to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.” I remind myself that none of the questions we discuss in philosophy class should be questions that are answerable in any final way.

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