Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Galilean Library

I found a wonderful website this week: The Galilean Library. The site is a resource for people interested in the sciences and humanities, and in particular philosophy, history, literature, and history and philosophy of science. It includes a library of essays and interviews aimed at all levels, along with a discussion forum on such subjects as free will and the nature of courage. The philosophy section has an ongoing series of essays about philosophy, beginning with the question of what philosophy is and what it means to do philosophy, and moving on to specific areas of philosophy. Great material here for high school classes!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Philosophy and The Purloined Boy

I recently had a conversation with Christopher Wiley, whose num de plume is Mortimus Clay, the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Purloined Boy. The novel was a finalist in the Young Adult Fiction category of the National Best Books 2009 Awards from USA Book News. The plot of the book utlizes themes and ideas from Plato and Aristotle to explore issues about metaphysics, epistemology, and social and political philosophy. The author is a Presbyterian minister who for about a decade taught philosophy part-time to undergraduates at Eastern Nazarene College.

What led you from philosophy to writing young adult fantasy?

For me there wasn’t a direct road from philosophy to fantasy. Both have been part of my life since I started reading seriously as a teenager. I didn’t begin to write young adult fantasy so that I could encode philosophy in order to slip it past the unsuspecting reader. Instead – I’m a philosopher who loves fantasy and got an idea for a story stuck in his head and used philosophy to help get it out.

Do you think that fantasy novels are a particularly good way to facilitate young people’s exploration of philosophy?

Fantasy is a great place to explore philosophical themes. You can even have fun with characters – basing them on philosophers or schools of philosophy. The easiest thing to do is to work with symbolism and foreshadowing. But I think the most fruitful use of philosophy in writing fiction is allowing philosophical problems to arise for the characters to address within the context of the plot. I’d say that philosophy, when practiced well, helps us identify the fundamental issues to respond to in any situation we find ourselves in. Since it is helpful in that way in our lives – it certainly can work that way in a narrative.

You mentioned in our mail exchange that the books are “an attempt to live philosophy from the inside.” What do you mean by that?

Each of us has a life to examine and we examine it from the inside. What makes literature an art that can’t be replaced by any other medium is that it allows the artist to speak within the mind of the reader. All other forms address us from the outside. Even music must be audible to be received. Only the written word enters silently, paradoxically from without and from within at the same moment. As such it enables the writer to propose ideas, images, judgments, etc. with the inner voice of the reader. At the same time the reader is taken out of himself or herself and enters the mind of the author – through the narrator or a character.

Now literally there is no such person as the character one reads about in a book. Even accounts based on real events are not literally true. They’re representations. But they can tell us something true. (Here is where I think Plato was inconsistent. His philosophy of art and his method for teaching philosophy stand in contradiction.) When good fiction does its work disbelief is suspended for a time and the reader can envision the world from another’s perspective. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical questions to someone. One might say propositions do that. But they don’t, really. A proposition is something a thinker holds before himself or herself and considers. One doesn’t enter into it unless he or she has an unusually sympathetic disposition and a powerful imagination. Through fiction I can help readers entertain questions they may not entertain in any other way.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Winter Solitude

Winter solitude—
in a world of one
the sound of wind.

Matsuo Basho
Translated from the Japanese by Robert Hass

December Birthdays

December 2008 post

Friday, December 11, 2009

Philosophy Cafe

On Tuesday afternoon we had a "philosophy cafe" in the 5th grade. I brought cider and cookies, and told the students that in parts of the world adults went to cafes and had something to eat and drink and talked about philosophy. It created a really different kind of environment for our conversation, very relaxed and more intimate.

We talked about how for most of the year so far, we've been talking about questions of metaphysics and epistemology, about the nature of reality and about knowledge, as well as examining some aesthetics issues. I suggested that we now move into talking about ethics, and we spent a little time talking about what that is.

I like to begin a series of ethics sessions with Plato's story of the "Ring of Gyges," as it raises many fundamental ethics issues in an accessible way. I told the students the story, and then asked them what they would do if they found a ring that allowed them to become invisible. Some of their answers were:

Use it like a toy
Play tricks on people
Fight crime
Play hide and seek
Sell it on eBay
Disappear when my sisters annoy me
Put it on my dog
Sneak out of class
I would hope I wouldn’t find it, because I don’t need it & I don’t want it

I noted that none of them had suggested doing the kind of bad things that Gyges did. Why?

“I think some people do good things because they want to, not just because they’re scared of getting caught if they do the wrong thing,” suggested another student.

“But we might not do what we think we’ll do,” argued another. “We don’t really know what we’d do with the ring because we don’t know how we’ll feel once we have it. Most people get greedy eventually.”

“I think that’s right,” another student agreed. “At some time or other, if you keep the ring, you’re going to get a little greedy and want to use it.”

“I would feel wrong doing those kinds of things,” one girl volunteered. “I feel happier when I do the right thing. Like I feel better when I clean up my room and do extra things around the house.”

We talked a little about the idea that doing the right thing makes you happy, and how you know what the right thing to do is. I described for the students the following dilemma : you have plans to get together with a friend of yours who isn’t very popular. You run into another more popular friend, who invites you to go to a movie with a group of people, a film you really want to see and it’s the last day it’s in the theater, but they say that your unpopular friend can’t come. What's the right thing to do, and why?

Most of the students said they would keep their plan with the first friend, because that was their first commitment and because the more popular friend wasn’t being very nice. We talked about the nature of promises and what it is that makes keeping them seem important. Many of the students seemed to think that we would have special obligations to the friend who had few other friends, and that we somehow owe less to our more popular friend.

“I’d say, ‘Uh uh dude,’” one student declared, “’you already have enough friends.’”

We talked about the idea a student voiced that the people with the most friends do not tend to be the truest friends. Can you have many friends and still be a good friend?

One student proposed that she would ask the first friend if it was okay with her if she went to the movies and they rescheduled their plans. “But I’d make sure to tell her that she didn’t have to say yes, and if she really wanted to be with me I wouldn’t go to the movies.”

“I know!” a student exclaimed. “Let’s make a skit of this.”

The students liked the idea and we divided up into groups of four, and each group acted out the scenario. Some of the students playing the more popular friend tried hard to talk the student facing the dilemma into coming to the movies and were offended at a refusal, and some of the students facing the dilemma tried to convince their less popular friends that it was okay for them to break their plans and go. It was interesting to see the varied ways the scenario played out, and quite fun to observe the students’ dramatic skills!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Real Thief

William Steig's The Real Thief is an appealing story for talking about ethics with young people. It's a short chapter book, which can be read to a child over several nights or along with a child who is already a reader. I’ve also used this story to talk about ethics with middle and high school students.

The story is about Gawain, a goose who is the Chief Guard of the Royal Treasury. When jewels from the Royal Treasury go missing, Gawain is blamed. The Prime Minister, Adrian the cat, makes the argument that because (1) the only way to get into the Royal Treasury is through the door, (2) no locks were broken, (3) only Gawain and the King have keys, (4) the King has no reason to rob his own treasury, and (5) “it is unthinkable” for the King to be wrong about any earthly thing, then Gawain must have done it. Gawain escapes after he is sentenced, and the story shifts to the perspective of Gawain's friend Derek the mouse, the real thief.

The story inspires questions about trust, forgiveness, friendship and loyalty. What should Derek have done? Why did he stay silent? Was his plan to keep stealing once Gawain fled and only the King had keys to the treasury a good plan? Was Derek a good friend to Gawain? Was Derek punished for what he did? What about the King? Did he have any obligations to Gawain? What were they? Did the King and the Court act unjustly? Should Gawain have forgiven the King and the rest of the community?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Recently I've begun working on a book for parents and other adults about ways to inspire conversations about philosophy with young people. As part of this work, I've been thinking about the ways in which all of the philosophy discussions I've had over the years with my three children have contributed to creating an open and inquiring give-and-take with them, which really comes in handy (along with a sense of humor) now that they’re teenagers (well, the youngest is 12, but he's really a young teenager!).

From the time they were pretty young (four or five), we've explored together questions like the meaning of life, dreams, knowledge, the nature of thinking, whether something can come from nothing, friendship and time. Much of the time when the boys were young we began talking about these issues as a result of stories we read together, though as they've gotten older the conversations more often than not begin in the car on the way to some activity in which they are involved.

One thing I’ve observed is how comfortable the kids are raising any kind of question, from “How do you think the first word came to be? to “Can a fiction book be true?” I always try to pay attention to when a question is aimed at a larger philosophical issue, and to help it along with some questions of my own. It seems to me that as a result of years of doing this together, the boys are able to talk with my husband Ron and me about issues that come up with teenagers (drugs and alcohol, curfews, driving, college preparation, etc.) in a more calm and thoughtful way (well, at least some of the time!) than would have happened otherwise.

There is an easiness about our conversations that, I think, is in part due to the environment created by being attentive to exploring larger philosophical questions with them. These philosophical questions are unlikely ever to be settled in any final way, and I believe that having talked about them so often has helped us to communicate more straightforwardly about the almost equally difficult issues that arise in the teenage years.