Podium: We are all philosophers now

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The Independent Culture
From a lecture by the philosopher to the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in London

TODAY, PHILOSOPHY in universities is centred upon written texts. Thus literacy is a prerequisite to the study of philosophy. For this reason alone, many people such as small children and non-literate adults are automatically excluded from the discipline. Average standards of literacy, by which I mean the ability to read and understand a newspaper, are not sufficient to read philosophy texts.

I set out to design a practice which would re-create with non-philosophers what, ideally, professional philosophers do - with some differences. I set out to design a way of working that would allow people to address concepts, but without the requirement of years of academic study.

Rather than individuals or the group applying logical analysis to theories and arguments, this is supplied by the director or facilitator (who has been trained as a philosopher). The group is also aided in their focusing on the philosophical aspects of everyday experience by being exposed to a specially written story which is seeded with philosophical puzzles in a way that makes them accessible to everyone, including small children. This particular practice is called Philosophical Inquiry.

I should start by saying that of course there are problems, which are not at root philosophical. I am not claiming that every problem is at root philosophical, but just that a surprising number are.

There are different ways of knowing and understanding the world. The physical world (mountains, rain, stars) is understood fundamentally by means of physics. So, for example, in order to know how get from A to B you need to know the terrain; to know the terrain you need to understand some physical features. Looking at the concept of "mountain" may be interesting, but will not much aid your knowledge of how large the mountain is or where it is.

However, the kinds of situations that most concern people in the Western world are problems or worries about things such as loneliness, their children's education, the crime level and work relationships. There are also enjoyable experiences, such as weddings, music and jokes. While these are not susceptible to physics, they are highly suitable topics for philosophical inquiry.

Problematic situations can often result from inconsistencies between concepts that have been created by human thought. For example, during a community project with mothers and children, one of the topics that emerged from the initial questions concerned housing Do people have rights over where they can live? Does anyone have the right to evict a family, or to force families to move to an area in which they don't want to live?

One participant stated that it is unfair that people who want to move cannot. If you are not a drug addict or an alcoholic, if you don't beat your children, you have no priority on the list - you are doomed to live and try to bring up your children in the midst of crime and drugs.

This was a particularly topical issue as one of the participants had to miss that session because her six-year-old son had stepped on a needle on the landing outside the door to their flat. The boy had to get treatment for possible hepatitis, and everyone was worried about his contracting Aids

The dialogue continued with another participant who disagreed that everyone should have an equal right on the housing list, because the children in most need have to have priority.

As the discussion proceeded the group uncovered a conflict between the concept of "equity" and the concept of "need". With limited housing available, you cannot both give abused children priority and treat everyone equally.

It seemed insoluble. The housing authority (the council) cannot overcome this conflict - not because the housing authority is uncaring or corrupt, but because in this situation the two concepts of equity and need are in conflict. The problems were about ideas.

Being able to uncover these philosophical concepts in the real situation, and then being able to place these concepts upon a kind of conceptual map and to reason about them, enabled the mothers to have a much fuller and better understanding of the nature of the problem - and the nature of this real problem is philosophical.

It is eminently practical to be as critical as possible of our theories - prior to, and during, the time in which they are implemented. For we have the advantage of being able to let our theories die in our stead. But in order to do so we need practice in recognising and understanding theory without which bad theory lives uncriticised and people suffer.

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