Caring thinking about caring thinking

by Oscar Brenifier, April 2008
Revision and suggestions by Janette Poulton


Discuss / diskuter


Philosophy is not for children

Plato thought that philosophy was not necessarily good for children. He argued that children should be prohibited from doing philosophy for their own sake ‘for it fills them with indiscipline’. He believed that children should be prevented from practicing philosophy in order to protect both the discipline of philosophy and respect for the adults. This led him to suppose that: You have noticed how young men, after their first taste of argument, are always contradicting people just for the fun of it... like puppies who love to pull and tear at anyone within reach... so when they have proved a lot of people wrong, often themselves, they soon slip into the belief that nothing they believed before was true; with the result that they discredit themselves and the whole business of philosophy in the eyes of the world.

We think this remark is very appropriate to many P4C workshops, as we have witnessed them. Why? For the very simple reason that the icon of the “I” is being made sacred. Some time ago, a Mexican researcher produced a report about a large evaluation done of philosophical practice in Mexico. And she basically discovered that if it was clear that children had learned to express themselves in an open fashion through this practice—which of course is an important advantage when one thinks of the classrooms where the child’s speech has no real statute—but she also discovered that there was no particular improvement in critical thinking, capacity of abstraction or any other thinking competencies. In other words, this report was accusing P4C or being a mere practice of discussion, not even of rhetoric, since in this field one has to be able to distinguish different types of speech and recognize the specificity of each argument. In other words, children were not initiated to meta level discussions; they were not invited to think about the thinking. And when this is the case, “to liberate speech” encourages participants to merely give their own opinion, thought of as being very valuable in itself, in order to practice what we call the “Yes, but...” mode of discussion.

As we see it, the “Yes, but...” is roughly what Plato is referring to—the wiseacre mentality—when he argues against philosophy with children. The “Yes, but...” means: “I have to say something as well”. It is exactly the contrary to what we would call “construction of thinking”, as Hegel recommends, or any kind of caring, for ideas or for the other. In a simple way, what Hegel proposes as a condition of dialectical thinking, which for him is the form of thinking par excellence, is to first produce a clear statement, then in a second moment, produce a counter thesis which produces a real problem in relation to the first. As a result, the necessity of a third moment will emerge, when we will produce a new concept that will account for the tension of the first two, either by defining the issue or by solving it—i.e. overcoming—the initial problem. Some will claim that the “Yes, but...” does exactly this, showing how the students are creative and know how to problematize. But if we analyze in a closer way this functioning, this is not the case at all. For a very good reason: the “Yes, but...” is a meaningless, automatic and unthought-of syntactical structure. First, because the “Yes” is here a totally unclear and confused word. We don’t know if it means “Yes, you have spoken, now it is my turn”, “Yes, I agree with you”, “Yes, you have the right to speak”, “Yes, that is the best you can do”, etc. Same for the “but”. We don’t know if it means “I don’t agree with you”, “You forgot something important”, “I would rather say this in a different way”, “Let me add something”, “I prefer to speak about something else” etc. In other words, we have a speech that is neither conscious of itself nor or of what the other has said. Maybe it is interesting or appropriate, maybe it is not.

Therefore, unless we stop to define what the “Yes, but...” means and determine the legitimacy of its content, the way it connects the previous speech to the coming one, we have not done any philosophical work. But of course, it is not natural to stop the flow of words and hold such analysis. It goes against the immediate impulse to “express one self”, often expressed by the “Yes, but...”, a subjectivity totally impregnated with its own sincerity. And the natural tendency of the young person discovering the power of speech, making the experience of its own power to argue, is to always find something else to say, something to add or argue about: “Yes, but...”. And weirdly enough, if this egotist positioning is what the discussion is about, it is better in a way that the child just stays quiet and listens, rather than abuses of his own opinion, thinking that the value of anything said is a matter of mere “personal feelings”. Unless one uses such occasion to invite the child to analyze the content of his own speech, which implies that he can learn that what he has to say might be irrelevant, false, inappropriate, etc. And to come back to “caring thinking”, this implies that he creates distance from his own emotions, since when one wants to speak, his immediate emotions often drive him primarily to “speaking with his guts”, be it to “say what he feels”, to “show himself”, to “settle an account” with someone else, to express his chronic age linked “spirit of contradiction”, etc. And at such words, the typical “children philosophy romantic”, who himself implicitly pretends to the “freshness of childhood”, will react, for he “loves” children: “they are such natural philosophers”, claims he. But the truth of the matter is that an adult who has a problem with other adults can so easily feel great and powerful with children, that he claims as an explicit narcissistic statement that children are wonderful. And that is one of the main reason why so many teachers do not want, for anything in the world, to introduce critical thinking into the classroom: that is exactly what their undernourished self fears in adults. They therefore prefer to be cared for... In this harsh world, a little supplement for the soul never hurts anybody...


Page created: 26.01.09. Page last modified: 18.11.09 14:41.