A quick glance at the Lipman method

By Oscar Brenifier,
First published in French in Diotime—l'Agora, no 21, April 2004

In the summer of 2003 Oscar Brenifier attended the international ICPIC-conference in Varna, Bulgaria. On beforehand he knew precious little about the Lipman-school, or so he claims, so one reason for going there was to learn more about the methods and the culture of this wide-spread pedagogical tradition. He finds that he cannot applaud everything he sees at the conference. Especially the quality of the philosophical dialogues with the children leaves much to be desired. He also points out the lack of methodological questioning within the Lipman-movement itself. As if no one dares to touch the principles and procedures laid down by the founder Matthew Lipman. Whilst dealing with these issues of criticism, he also presents main items of his own approach based upon the idea of "thinking the unthinkable".

Oscar Brenifier holds a doctorate in Philosophy and is also an experienced pedagogian. He has worked for many years with philosophical dialogues with children and philosophical councelling for adults. He is Chief Editor of "Vilain Petit Canard". Brenifier lives and works in Paris.

Øyvind Olsholt, 2004



The author of the present article has been involved for a number of years in working on the pedagogy of philosophy, as a practitioner, researcher and writer. More recently, he has been developing methods for training elementary school teachers in philosophical practice and discussion. In this context, unfamiliar with the works of Matthew Lipman, he decided to attend one of the international conferences that are held regularly around the world by this movement, this time in Varna, Bulgaria. The following article does not pretend to be an exhaustive and detailed analysis of what happened at this conference or an in-depth study of the Lipman method, but only a reflection on the practice of philosophizing with children and philosophizing in general, as provoked by events and debates that took place in Varna. So we will pay more attention to the general issues raised by attending this conference than about the conference itself. We hope that the persons who may recognize themselves in our comments do not resent the fact we do not mention the specific details of the events and comments. First, it seems to us that this decontextualization of our narration can gain by the meditation. Furthermore, problems are often more productive and enlightening when they do not bear the weight of personalization. Second this article should be understood as a very subjective perception of an event that involved numerous different persons, activities and discussions.

Initial comments

On the first evening of the conference, I went to see a group of pupils who had been involved in philosophical activity over the year, in order to see what remained in their mind about this very particular subject matter. I asked them if they liked what they had done and their answer was affirmative, which did not come as a surprise, since they had decided to spend some holiday time to attend this conference as active participants. Then, I asked them what they liked about this activity, and they told me that what was great was that in philosophy there was no right and wrong, and that each person could say what they wanted. Now, as friendly and visibly enthusiastic as where these students, their response somewhat surprised me. I had always heard exactly this kind of statement, and I try to take it on quickly in the first sessions of philosophy classes. Of course, this kind of statement is necessarily due to occur, for two reasons. The first one is that sheer relativism is a very current and widespread form of opinion. The second is that pupils who for years have been in school, where day in day out they are told what truth is, that they have to learn and have to spit out in order to reach success, will seize the first opportunity given to them to declare themselves free from this boring and gruesome burden, especially when they are teen-agers. On the other hand, in order to repudiate the dogmatic arbitrariness of adults, parents or teachers, they should not reintroduce a sort of simple minded subjectivity, no less shallow and arbitrary as the ideology they pretend to combat. The "it's like this because it is like this" of the adult is being replaced by a "it's like this because it is like this" of the child.

You have to account for your own speech, says Plato, so we have to take full responsibility for it, through the act of analyzing, proving, justifying, problematizing, etc. Certainly the act of thinking is the act of giving birth, but if some ideas are beautiful babies, some are little monsters, says he, and the art of philosophizing is not simply the art of spelling out ideas, but the one of verifying, enhancing and discriminating ideas. Everyone can produce ideas about almost anything, but the art of producing beautiful ideas, and learning to recognize them, is another matter. To put paint on a white board is one thing, to paint is another.

These comments of the pupils mentioned were going to bear on my mind during the whole conference. Was such an idea only a first and necessary step in the process of learning to philosophize, was it only a bias and reductive summary of what the pupils had learned, a sort of first-step assimilation of philosophical practice, where a momentary "Descartes style" suspension of judgment gets translated as simple relativism, or was it indeed the basic cultural matrix conveyed by the school of thought prevailing on those premises? Is philosophizing a mere brainstorming in all directions, or was there in the minds and practices of the pedagogues present some other requirement in order to achieve their goals in education? Many of my discussions and observations during the following days—and in the present article—were to investigate and analyze what was the apparently prevailing conception of philosophical requirements and demands. In fact, when I mentioned my qualms in private, I was told about "true" workshops, or of some mythical "next step", or of "more accomplished" pupils, but I wondered for one why I did not see it, second, why no one said anything about this in public, and third, why the facilitators themselves did not do anything about it—unless, there again, as in psychoanalysis, the community of inquiry is a very lengthy process, time elongating, which can only make sense by being observed over a very long period of time.

The workshops

An interesting aspect of the Varna conference was the presence of young people that were taking part in workshops, so that everyone could see how the work was being done. This is a major positive point, for in the world of philosophy, one tends to privilege abstract speeches and "talking about" more than actual showing, especially in pedagogical matters, which always seem for philosophers to be a secondary and merely technical question, not worth the time and the effort. The only drawback, which is exactly the other side of the coin, is that no time was allowed to analyze and discuss the practices. Furthermore, when the workshops were interrupted and adults could speak, they were more concerned with giving their opinion on the topic discussed than commenting on the functioning and the procedure of the workshop. This is a reaction which in itself is a very enlightening reflex, but we shall come back on this later.

Let us first summarize the "basic Lipman workshop" as we saw it, which might be different from what it is elsewhere, and from what it may be or should be. After gathering in a circle, a short chapter excerpt from a Lipman text or some other is read round robin fashion by the pupils, each reading one paragraph or sentence. When this is done, the facilitator asks for questions raised by the text, and pupils raise their hands to propose one question or another, thereby producing a list of questions. The questions are then classified, and one question out of all these is chosen through a voting procedure. When this is done, a discussion takes place, in which each one says what he wants about the question chosen, as hands are raised and participants called on in chronological order by the facilitator. I will analyze a few points that can pose problem in the functioning of this basic procedural model.

The text as pretext

For one, the initial text is not really taken into consideration. It is often referred to as a "stimulus", meaning some basic initial tool used to provoke the discussion. If this is the case, why use such a constructed text, with precise ideas implicitly present and visibly written by a philosopher, since a number of philosophical issues and concepts are inscribed in the narration, which pretend to represent a vehicle for the reconstruction of the philosophical tradition and a model for dialogical inquiry? It is true that the information does not come already organized and totally decoded, since we have a narrative form, although it is of a very didactic nature: it still tells more than it shows. Two major reasons can be invoked to argue for such a criticism. The first is that learning to philosophize is learning how to read—not only reading books and texts, but reading the world, the self, the other, or whatever else comes to us as well. But one of the major problems students of all ages have in reading is precisely what is encouraged in this procedural form: the given text is not taken seriously and rigorously by the reader. Often, this is why authors—whether a recognized author, a neighbor or ourself—are often misunderstood. We project whatever we want onto it, overlook important content, declare this or that impossible or uninteresting, and we go on with whatever we want to say, by a mere process of associative thought. How often the philosophy teacher realizes that a misunderstanding of a text is only based on a skimpy reading, because the real struggle has not taken place with the "other": a real confrontation with otherness is absent.

One defense against this critique is that the teacher does not want to produce a mere classical text analysis. But we can answer first of all that in the classical scheme it is generally the teacher who produces the analysis, not the student. And even when it is the student, the teacher will declare one analysis right and another one wrong. But in the case of "community inquiry" it seems to us that the pupil could at least be invited to mention where such a question is being raised by the text, or how the text stands on such an issue, and where. If not, any question can be raised which has absolutely nothing to do with the initial text, rendering it meaningless. For if the text is "abandoned", what is the procedure that ensures coherence in the production of questions? Is not following a subject, concentrating on it, and making links based on it a key aspect of philosophical thinking? The same thing can be said about answers to the chosen question: why not, for a moment, wonder together what conceptual hints the text gives us on how to deal with the chosen question? This does not forbid us, in a second moment, to find issues that are not contained in the text, or criticize its bias and its formulations—unless again such ideas were evoked by the text but the pupil just did not see them, or did not see how the text countered a particular answer. Hegel is a useful help on this point in distinguishing internal and external critique. Internal critique is the internal analysis of a given text—searching its presuppositions, blind spots, fallacies and inconsistencies. External critique is the criticism of a text using conceptual tools that are foreign to it—proposing another reading of the subject matter and confronting the content of the text with it, i.e. the confrontation of one hypothesis with another. In the first case one tries to dismantle, strip down and short-circuit from the inside; in the second case, tools are brought from the outside to counter the foundation of the piece.

And even if we stick to the established procedure, which consists of producing questions and choosing one, and that is our second point, why not propose as a rule that an argument always has to be outlined as a justification for a question? Even though argument in itself is not a sufficient characteristic of philosophizing, it does provide an entry into the identification of ideas and the process of thought construction. So let us conclude on the issue of the loose treatment of the text we have witnessed that such a "free for all", involving no confrontation with the ideas of the author, seems to encourage a certain mental sloppiness, a lack of respect for written speech, and for the "other" in general. As a result, the literary form—which could offer a refreshing kind of challenge compared to traditional philosophical texts—too easily becomes a refuge for superficial reading, unless this flaw is checked by some teaching authority.

List of opinions

This criticism of mental sloppiness and lack of respect for the other is visible in another aspect of the process: the absence of connections between interventions. One of the historic battles of philosophy, beginning with Plato, has been the struggle against "opinion". What basically is an opinion, in this view? A mere self-evident statement, unjustified, unconscious of itself, isolated and incapable of taking on what is addressed to or opposed to it. Of course, this is to be taken with some precaution, since one of the modes of teaching philosophy, particularly in the oriental tradition, is to drop a single phrase, an aphorism, which the master won't explain and the student has to meditate on. And who knows where the master hides! Spirit breathes where it wants, how it wants. But in the western tradition, where we have a habit of expecting answers, explanations and proofs, the principle of the game is that ideas are developed by their author, either at the author's own initiative or by answering objections and questions addressed to him. Because of this, in order to back up assertions, ideas have either to follow rules of logic, to be demonstrable by elaborating a compact whole, to be analyzable through the use of examples, etc. The result of this is that linking becomes the main thrust of the philosophical effort. Substantiallinking, says Leibniz, because in unity lies the substance, both for thinking and for being. Now this of course establishes opinion as a disconnected idea or sentence, with no links whatsoever, or else with illegitimate links. So if a philosophical discussion does not construct and articulate those links, what results is a list of ideas, not necessarily wrong, but merely opinions, because insufficient work is being done on clarifying and reconstructing them.

In considering another aspect of the procedural model based on Lipman's work, the simple fact of raising one's hand and waiting for one's turn to speak is already an important step for a philosophical discussion, since as a practice it takes others into consideration. But this can be just a formal trick: I wait for my turn to say what I have to say, since I want mainly to express myself. Maybe what I say when I am finally called on has no connection whatsoever with the subject matter, maybe I am orienting the discussion on a very secondary issue, maybe I don't listen and don't understand anything of what is going on, etc. In fact in such discussions, just the way pupils are behaving—with their arms raised while their comrades are speaking, not looking at them, just waiting for the other to finish—indicates a certain problem. Hardly any questions are being raised that would invite an author to dig deeper in his own thinking. Powerful arguments that are sometimes brought up to counter an idea are hardly picked up, just because they go unnoticed, drowned in the unending flow of opinions: in those junkyards of words, a mother cat would have a hard time recognizing her kitten. Here, the role of the teacher would be to stop the discussion, to grind it momentarily to a halt, in order to induce a thinking moment, a philosophical moment.

Let us give three cases of such possible occurrences, of such opportunities, in order to justify our criticism.

All these type of interventions have one goal: to tighten up the discussion, to focus it, so that real philosophical work is accomplished, as opposed to brain storming, which can be very useful but has other types of pedagogical functions.

Conceptual level

Plato invites the philosopher to travel the anagogic path—i.e. going back upstream toward the unity and origin of the speech, which is exactly the contrary of moving on and producing more and different ideas. This is the reflexive form, in which thinking reflects upon itself, becomes an object to itself, and the thinking subject herself becomes an object of the process. This is the core of the dialectical method. Through this process, it will accomplish roughly the following results:

For this reason, the first level discussion has to stop in order to analyze what was done, thus interrupting the flow of new hypotheses or opinions, in order to enter a metalevel reflection.

The problem is that this process is not natural to the human mind: it implies a sort of hiatus or discontinuity. If it was totally natural, all difficulties in teaching philosophy would disappear. Philosophizing is an artificial process, since most discussions tend primarily to follow a free path of expression, where sincerity, story telling, passionate statements, expression of belief, and associative patterns take precedence over any other type of thinking. The question for us is how and how much is the teacher, who is taking responsibility for engaging the philosophical process in the workshop, actually ensuring that this artificial process occurs. Traditionally, in the lecture form, the teacher does this work himself, and the student just has to listen. The traditional teacher's idea is that if students speak, they will not philosophize, they will simply spit out mere opinions, and this fear is not unfounded. Indeed, in a "free" discussion, even though some ideas might be interesting, no in-depth systematic analysis will occur. But in both cases, lecture and free discussion, things happen as if the pupil were going to learn to philosophize by magic: no exercise is being provided, with given constraints and rules so that the pupil is invited or forced to philosophize, to abandon immediate evidence and work on the ideas. But in the workshops as we saw them, however sympathetic we found it to see pupils dealing roughly with a given subject and exchanging thoughts, it seemed to us that the teacher was not challenging them to think more profoundly. The most we saw was a teacher who took the initiative to somewhat question a pupil after he had forwarded a hypothesis, but he did not take it further, which he could have done either by asking other pupils to question as well, or by asking the first pupil how his answers to the questions had modified his initial thinking, whether he could identify some questionable presupposition in his speech, identify an issue or produce some important concept.

The idea in all this is that pupils have to be both in the discussion and outside of it. They have to be both participants and facilitators. But in order to do so, the facilitator's job has to be clarified: it is not only to frame the steps of the exercise and distribute speech, but to invite at all parties present in the exercise to fulfill the different philosophical functions; they have to put forth questions, formulate hypotheses, interrogate the presuppositions, give counterarguments, pick up contradictions, analyze ideas, produce concepts, problematize propositions, identify issues, etc. If the teacher does not show the path, if he does not give the keynote, the pupils won't know how to do this by chance. And if he does not oblige them through some means or other to shift their thinking and speech focus, they will be too engulfed in their own convictions to do it, like most human beings. It could be that the wager leading to such minimal procedures is to rely on some kind of soft, unconscious, random and intuitive process, which by itself should induce philosophizing. But can we philosophize unconsciously, or is it an oxymoron? And why should we do it unconsciously, if we can do it with a true presence to our own thinking?

Some practical objections might be raised here, for example the problem of student numbers in the classroom, and the restrictions of time. Those constraints do not allow each student to undergo a real process. Second, when one student works on his scheme, accounts for his ideas, won't the others loose attention, get disinterested and bored? There are three levels of answer to these objections:

Another objection bears on group dynamics, whereby some practitioners like to have pupils always wanting to contribute their thoughts, however irrelevant, and to participate in a lively way. But one might consider that to artificially create moments where no one speaks, when all are puzzled by a particular question, and silence weighs upon the group, is a rather productive and desirable situation. Certainly it does not facilitate speech, but maybe it facilitates thinking. Maybe the "natural" learning capacities of the human mind needs "artificial" means to be truly developed.

Thinking the unthinkable

If we take the concept of "community of inquiry" out of its specialized sense and analyze its general meaning, we can assert the principle that the other, our fellow human and mirror image, can and often will think differently than we do. We as imperfect beings always carry a bias, we are always partial, in the double sense that we only look at an infinitely minute scrap of reality, and we perceive being and world through a particular and reductive subjective prism. So the role of the other is to allow us to momentarily escape ourselves, to become conscious of another reality. In this sense, such an encounter is sufficiently beneficial in itself that we should not have to ask more from her than being what she is, and all we have to be is our own customary self. Community becomes then synonymous with opening our minds and with better thinking. But there are two other ways in which this community can be in contradiction with such a progress. The first one, a very natural reflex, is to defend one's position at all costs, to prove one's self right in the face of the others, who are perceived as a threat to our ideas. All our mental energy is then mobilized to produce arguments, to defend inch by inch what we have said, to the point of mild or even blatant bad faith. It is the principle of the legal brief, of the debating team or the argumentative discussion. Now, producing arguments is a useful activity, which forces us to dig deeper in our own minds, but it also stops short of a philosophical inquiry:

In fact, the one who manages best in this type of discourse is maybe the one who has more to lose, since he engages in it in order to feed his own sense of omnipotence.

The second aspect in which community can impede philosophical work is the pressure any group exerts on the individual to accept majority thinking. It may not necessarily be done in a coarse way, but simply by overlooking or too quickly dismissing an innovative, provocative and revolutionary hypothesis. Anyone that has facilitated discussions has seen such situations where the most brilliant insight has gone totally unnoticed, may be even by the facilitator himself, who afterwards realizes what he has missed, misunderstood or discarded. The practical consequence of this is that if some time is not taken for each singular idea, the global mass will drown any singularity. Let us recall here the phrase of the Tao: "When all think this is the good: this is evil. When all think this is the beautiful: this is the ugly." The tendency we identified previously in the individual, to stick to one's opinion and avoid plunging one's mind in some other philosophical matrix, is greatly reinforced when this opinion gets a general approval.

In opposition to such behavior, or as a safeguard, we propose the principle of "thinking the unthinkable". This means that we do not want to think, argue and defend mainly what we think, but primarily what we do not think. What we do not think, what we cannot think is what interests us, what concerns us. How else can we extract ourselves from our opinions, if not by making this journey into the impossible? Thus, philosophical activity becomes a thought experiment. But such a concept implies a major disruption in the idea of experience, particularly for any philosophical scheme which presumes to tightly adhere to some empirical, practical and physical reality. For example, the notion of "reasonable belief" or "sound belief" dear to the pragmatists is here at odds with such an idea. For in a thought experiment the idea is to try out "odd things", somewhat like the wager of Riemann or Lobatchevsky to start a new geometry by negating what was until then the most fundamental postulate of Euclid. There is strong dimension of game and gratuity in a thought experiment that "sound belief", which sounds so reasonable, denies. This refers as well to what Kant, in opposition to the assertorial and the apodictical, calls the problematical. The first one is an assertion, a proposition that affirms what is, the second one establishes or proves what is, but the third one envisages the mere possibility, as far-fetched as it might be. And this simple possibility has, since Plato, a real status, very much connected to the specificity of philosophy. To problematize a proposition is to dig deeper into it in order to identify its limit, its flaws, for in the identification of this finitude lies the truth of this proposition.

So to come back to the actual practice, "thinking the unthinkable" means that at any time, when someone formulates a hypothesis, the first step is to try, before moving on to another idea, to find out through different technical procedures what is the absurdity of the given proposition. And in those procedures the author of the idea is not there to "defend" his baby—rather he should be as involved as anyone else, if not more so, to searching out the flaws in his construction, in order to modify it or start it anew. But then again, human beings do not engage in this type of attitude unassisted: it has to be learned, with someone that consciously confronts our "normal" type of behavior—initially the teacher, then the pupils themselves, with each other, as a form of mutual education.

Fleeing the confrontation

As we mentioned it earlier, we were struck by the fact that after each workshop, hardly any time was devoted to discussing the functioning of the workshop, or if there was any time, participants did not really care to launch this kind of debate. Beyond our puzzlement, given that when practitioners meet they should very naturally discuss and compare their practice, what can be the reason for such a phenomenon? Why are there not issues emerging between the practitioners, on major themes, be they philosophical or pedagogical?

We have two hypotheses. The first one is the authority principle, at least an intellectual one, that seems to have a strong influence on the Lipman movement. The second is the community principle, resulting from a mixture of pragmatic philosophy, American ideology, and political correctness that taints the intellectual activity of this movement. Before we go on, since we seem to be offering some strong judgments, we should simply tone them down by saying that all this is no more of a catastrophe than anything else happening in any other intellectual circle. Any organized institution will necessarily bear as its trade mark the ambivalence of its accomplishments and its defects. Both are generally more visible and amplified in a group of people than in a single person.

Let us start with the authority principle, since it might be the lesser cause. The first observation that strikes us is the fact that such a simple scheme as the "official" workshop—reading a story, making up questions, linking questions, choosing a question and debating it—has not already been replaced or challenged by a multitude of "recipes" or protocols. We did witness a couple of modifications, but it seemed to us to be the prerogative of a very small minority. In addition, after over twenty-five years of activity, why would not such a simple scheme undergo major changes—for the pupils as well as the teacher—in order not to get stuck in the ultimate, eternal and boring procedure? In such an international conference, we might have expected some radically different procedures presented. But if we saw some contributions adding a little extra touch to the basic scheme, it did not fundamentally change the initial pattern. Now, we must recognize that even if the stories of Matthew Lipman are still on top of the hit parade, a number of others are being used, for example those of Ann Sharp, and many teachers are creating their own stories. But it is strange to see that although in this aspect liberties have been taken, they have not in the matter of the procedure itself. In fact, some will readily present their own story as an object of discussion, but the practice itself is not an object of discussion. On the other hand, one might wonder whether it would not be better to stick to the traditional texts of the movement, since we are not sure that all the "new" texts have the philosophical content which the "founding texts" do. But this will take us to another point with which we will deal later: the general problem of the philosophical content.

Let us now deal with the community principle. A key concept of the practice is the idea of "community", as in "community of inquiry". Musical metaphors are used a lot to justify and explain this idea, in particular the one of "harmony". This seems to us a legitimate and healthy response to the Hobbesian atmosphere that is current in intellectual circles, where one's intelligence is assessed through an attempt to strike down the interlocutor, who is viewed as an opponent. The principle we see in the discussions and in the general behavior of the movement is that ideas are supposed to add and accumulate and in this way help everyone's thinking development, as each and everyone contributes to the harmony. And when in the workshop someone does not agree with another, he might say it, but the discussion keeps moving on anyway. Never it seems, would the discussion stay on this particular issue, at least to identify it, if not to resolve it. It is true that in this way any confrontation is avoided, since a confrontation implies a certain persistence in the opposition. And even if someone persisted, since a whole number of persons raised other points in the mean time, and the person he is addressing cannot respond right away, the issue gets drowned. The teacher could here play the role of an "underliner", but it was not the actual case.

Thus particular ideas get drowned in the totality, which for this reason looked to us more like a brain storming than actual thought construction, although the two are not necessarily unrelated. But there is a way in which we have a real opposition between these two attitudes. To examine ideas, to discriminate among them, taking the time to identify their determinations and to penetrate their vacuity, induces a sense of limitedness, of fragility, even of pathology of both ideas and beings. And if a free discussion palliates certain teaching problems, it feeds as well on social prejudice, since it asserts the unquestionable value of our little self and therefore of the ideas it produces. And paradoxically, this view of the collective easily leads to a non-interest in others: I just wait for my turn. For in reality, if we do not have a profound interest and attachment for the singular, how can we pretend to have interest for the collective?

This contradiction reminds us of those suburban American houses, all with the same lawns, where nothing shocking appears except the lack of difference. Everyone does what he wants in his house, especially since those houses with big lawns are far apart. There is very little actual contact between neighbors, but there is an actual pressure to formally behave in the same fashion. We do not pretend that there is some possible perfect neighboring scheme, but let's say that the disadvantage of "community" concern, is that singularity tends to be rubbed out. When true singularity, in opposition to banal individualism, has bearing on the general, it is the true founder of universality, as Socrates, Kierkegaard and others tried to show us.

On the pedagogical side, this fits very well with the politically correct anti-authoritarian excesses we have seen developing over the last few years. The idea that a given pupil or even the teacher, would stand out as someone shedding a more powerful light on the discussion is viewed as a threat. Anything radically standing out has to be chopped of, as a menace to the community, a concept that presupposes the absence of hierarchy. The fact that a given issue raised between two pupils would be more productive than the rest of a discussion is not welcome, at least in the reality of the workshop. Naturally, pupils will not take care of this by themselves: they are too preoccupied with what they want to say, which for them is more this or more that. The result is that some profound philosophical moments go unnoticed. When we all know that in a discussion that lasts for a while, there are some instants, very few of them, that make the discussion philosophical in a real sense. Those breakthroughs are the rare few words that make the global discussion really worth it. Unless one thinks that the whole point of the exercise is just to let everyone express themselves.


Our last insight about this situation bears upon the pragmatic matrix in which the work is installed. Truth, in this philosophical context, emerges on the ground of the collective. It is concerned with efficiency and practical questions, and for these reasons, because it has to adapt to a changing world and society, it is more of a constructive nature than an a priori established transcendent order—a regulating principle rather than determinant principle, as Kant would say.

To clarify our point, let's briefly describe two other possible conceptions of truth, in order to give a background to our analysis and show the reductionist aspect of the pragmatist perspective, like any particular perspective. The first other conception of truth is what can be called the truth of "reason". Reason is here perceived as a transcendent power, beyond space and time, that the human mind can barely pretend to unveil by scattered bits and pieces. It is of a theoretical order before a practical one, since physical reality is in a certain way only a mere reflection of the spiritual order. The second conception of truth is a subjective one. Here truth is singular, although in this singularity lies a profound way which leads to universality. The primary form of this truth would be authenticity, the characteristic of a person that is true. And this person has to give account neither to the community, nor to reason, but primarily to herself, although these different parameters do not have to be excluded.

The consequences of the pragmatic choice is of course that the practical, collective and efficient side of the activity is the main preoccupation. The fact that one does practice "community of inquiry" and therefore belongs to the "community" is the anchor and reference point. How she does it is not an issue: the nature and mode of the relation is not problematized. As a consequence, each one does what he wants in his corner. In reality, this practice can be reduced to something very minimal, a minimalism which from our standpoint has a rather skimpy relation to a philosophical practice. But no one will take this on, since the harmony of the community is a primary concern, and the fact that everyone nominally is involved in such a practice is the primary if not the only concern. The non-confrontational aspect is therefore a constitutive part of the attitude, both in the exercise itself and the relationship between practitioners, in order to preserve "harmony". So rather than challenging someone on the adequacy of his practice, its conformity with the initial idea or philosophy itself, one prefers to just do what he does, talk about it, and not engage in a comparison with his colleague's work: criticism is de facto banned. Whatever he thinks about the other and his way of doing things has to be kept private: it is only his personal concern. The addition of personal contributions will by miracle ensure that philosophy goes on. Any major theoretical discussion bearing on individual practice would be unproductive, since it would imply pronouncing judgments on individual practitioners and potentially generate conflict. One of the consequences of this posture is that the teacher, reproducing this same attitude in his classroom activity, will become a mere facilitator, who does not engage himself in philosophical confrontation and work. But can one avoid philosophizing, challenging ideas, and really make his students philosophize?

Of course, such a system can work, in its own fashion, just like any other system. It will benefit from its own genius and suffer from its own drawbacks. As we have said, it will avoid the bickering so endemic to usual relationships in academia. It will avoid the kinds of inquisitions and denunciations so typical of intellectual life. In this way, it will facilitate self-engagement in the practice itself, since the requirements are somewhat minimal. And one can of course postulate that every practitioner, whether student or teacher, will progress at his own pace, the main point being that he launches himself in the activity. But at the same time, one might wonder about the contribution of each particular practice to the pedagogical and philosophical enhancement of the classroom. Although we can conclude that in view of the hegemony of the traditional lecture, introducing discussion in the classroom is in itself an improvement, even though the content itself may leave much to be desired.

Theory and practice

Nothing is more banal than the gap or discrepancy between theory and practice. It is a usual hiatus, since pedagogical practitioners have a more empirical approach, based on the reality of their classroom, bounded by their own skills, their limitations and their finite time, while theoreticians, freer of these constraints, can in turn fall into the trap of formal constructions, disconnected from the reality of plurality and otherness. In this particular case of "community of inquiry", the specificity of the problem is twofold. First, the initiator and creator of the program is not himself a practitioner, in the sense of someone constantly and regularly involved in the practice, which is relatively the same for other leading figures of the movement. Second, the program is of a philosophical nature, but many of the practitioners do not have a philosophical culture. To that extent, one can wonder if the activity itself is still of a philosophical nature.

The program itself, as it is conceived, is based on two parts: the stories and the manual. Although the stories, as narration, have an implicit philosophical content, the manual, more developed, introduces concepts and issues. But one can very well use only the narration, and this seems to happen quite often. Furthermore, since the text itself does not have to be thoroughly studied, for reasons we already outlined, the actual philosophical content of the material can be totally overlooked, in favor of a mere procedure which leads to a free discussion more than anything else. Now, if the teacher studies properly the manual and the narration, and ensures that his pupils do so as well, a real philosophical work can occur, even though one might want for different reasons to propose to change this or that. But nothing in the discussion of the practice encourages or promotes delving into philosophical culture and context, as we noticed in what we were able to witness.

The principle of starting with a narration and conceptualizing it is an innovative and productive exercise. Although the narrations are of a quite crude didactic nature, and one can wonder why pieces of classical literature, folk tales or traditional myths would not play the same role. They contain as much philosophy and have the advantage of multiple level readings, since they have depth and contain many ambiguities, are of poetic nature and appeal to the fundamental archetypes of human existence, experience and knowledge. In addition, the stories presented by Matthew Lipman and his team can be criticized as being very American, since they are supposed to be used by children of all countries. On the other side, if one wants to reconstruct a very precise philosophical curriculum, the principle of didactic texts designed for each age group can be very well understood.

As for the manual, one can wonder as well about its utility. Either the teacher has a philosophical background and does not need the manual to conceptualize the narration, or he or she does not possess such a background, and he won't really be able to do this work, since it would be too mechanical and artificial to use ready-made questions. This is especially likely since those concepts and issues, which are called "leading ideas" in the procedure, are supposed to be introduced in a classroom discussion, without imposing a content. A certain ability would here be required that goes beyond knowing the list of questions and concepts that are already given. It is one thing to go through ideas and explain them, and another to play with them by subtly introducing them in a discussion at the appropriate moment, making connections with what is being already said so it does not seem to fall upon the class like a deus ex machina. We know by experience that nothing is more difficult than for trained philosophy teachers to convey ready-made established ideas, taken from a curriculum, for the purpose of enlightening student talk: first because the connections are often not obvious—one has to develop a real hearing and a certain flexibility—and second because the teacher is strongly tempted to fall into the trap of the lecture when he is asked to give only hints, in the questioning form for example. But after all, one can contend that there is no method which can do without the artistic capacity and creative talents of the teacher. But as we have already said, the general result is that teachers fall back on the option of a minimalist perspective and just let the pupils freely discuss, with few requirements and demands. And this is where more precise and in-depth work would probably be needed on the actual practice itself. Maybe what should be reconsidered are the modalities of teacher training.


Like we have said at the beginning of this text, we must plead a fundamental ignorance of the subject we talk about—wonderful prerogative of philosophy!—and therefore ask our reader to take our writing with a grain of salt. One should be more concerned, while reading, with the general philosophical stakes rather than the particulars of the Lipman method, of which we are not in any way a specialist. We may even have committed major blunders and oversights. But our contention is that one should be able to risk himself to the practice of critical analysis, no matter how skimpy are his resources. It is a state of mind rather than a problem of knowledge which here is our concern. And like the French say: "Ridicule cannot kill".

How to conclude this superficial analysis, if not by the fact that the Lipman movement has one primary quality: it already exists. And after all, not only does it exist, but it continues to develop in many countries, providing here and there an important contribution to pedagogy, because it is definitely in this particular field that de facto, the activity inscribes itself. Certainly there is a philosophical touch to it, but the attempt to reconstruct philosophy as a curriculum for children seems to fall short. As we have said, the intention is probably there, but the actual practice does not carry through the will of the founders.

So what is left? Let us look at different determinations of philosophy. First, philosophy as a domain is touched upon, since many existential and epistemological questions are being treated. Second, philosophy as an attitude is rather present, since all hypotheses can be expressed, analyzed and thought about. But philosophical abilities and competencies are not encouraged enough: they can be deployed, but their development relies too much on the natural inclinations and dispositions of the teacher. In this aspect, the procedure, as open as it is, is lacking in rigor and needs innovations that could enhance its nature. Fourth, philosophy as a culture is present in the texts, but since the written material is underused for different reasons, it again depends merely on the culture acquired by the teacher and his capacities to exploit them and render it operative.

In our understanding, a majority of practitioners in the movement are specialists in pedagogy, and in most countries, the study of philosophy with children occurs in pedagogy departments. Now, this situation is probably due to the actual state of mind of academic philosophy, which recoils before anything that is not of a very classical nature. Even discussion itself is revolutionary for academic philosophy, since it is an activity that does not result in much success: in the mind of many professors, discussion with students refers to mere expression of opinions, and discussions among scholars are so polluted with ego that they are often impossible. At best, those exchanges are often reduced to a polite, minimal, administrative and formal ritual. Because of this, it is possible that the Lipman movement is compromising its own integrity as a program in order to stay alive, as a mere pedagogical innovation. In this context, the mixture with sociology and psychology that seems a tempting and current orientation might definitely install the practice in purely pedagogical realm, with slight philosophical overtones. The strong concern with democracy might as well lead the practice on a very different path, since it is far from proven that philosophy and democracy make a good and lasting marriage, even though democracy needs philosophy and vice versa.

Philosophy with children reminds us in a certain way of critical thinking—a very broad and indeterminate activity, which oscillates between the meaningless and the essential. But this indetermination, in spite of the risks it involves, may offer the kind of space needed for creative and innovative work by constructing a field not saturated yet by a very precise and loaded demand. It may be that the creative qualities which it relies upon, which might be viewed as a drawback, may as well be perceived as an advantage. It could be that we have here a wager on human reason and intelligence. Does it really matter if it does or does not merit the title "philosophical"? To the extent that a reflection still takes place on the nature and the utility of such an exercise, feeding its hopes on a qualitative growth dynamic, the questioning may in itself and in time confirm the philosophical nature of the activity.

Page created: 12.05.05. Page last modified: 10.01.07 20:32.