Philosophy for children—A Norwegian approach

Speech given at the International conference "Philosophy in Society"
July 26th 2001, University of Oslo, Norway
by Øyvind Olsholt


My wife, Ariane Schjelderup, and I are both philosophers with a Master degree from the University of Oslo. We only started to work with children some five years ago. When we first began, we didn't know very much about the international movement called P4C—Philosophy for Children. We went straight to two kindergartens where the staff were interested in P4C and started having philosophical dialogues with the 5-year-olds, also we had dialogues with older children in various contexts. At the time we were using philosophical dialogues as a technique to help children talk about philosophical questions that mattered to them. But we sensed already back then that there is more to philosophy than technique and method—as there is more to dialogue than words. In this talk we will try to explain why we think this is so.


The methodological pitfall

Many people today are quite convinced that their children are philosophical, or at least that they can be, if stimulated in the right way. Most parents and teachers today know that their child is a virtual goldmine of fundamental questions, philosophical wonderment and innocent originality. To look upon children in this fashion is one of the latest pedagogical fads. So when a brand-new method enters the scene promising to detect and reveal these hidden, philosophical qualities in the child—just like the Philosophy for Children-programme promises to do—it is usually met with unanimous, and mostly uncritical, approval.

Many parents and teachers see no need to question such a programme because we intuitively feel that the programme offers precisely the method we have been waiting for. And we have been waiting for such a method because we already "know"—a priori as it were—that every child is potentially philosophical, that every child is meant from the beginning to participate in philosophical dialogues. Thanks to this preconception we are mentally prepared to accept any method which promises to promote these qualities in the child. But the irony is that it is exactly this preconception that sometimes prevents us from actually doing so.

Now, please don't misunderstand. We are not saying that children aren't philosophical, because they certainly are—sometimes at least. But we want to point out that the uncritical embracing of any method may function as a comfortable safeguard against a closer focus on ourselves and our role as parents and educators. Clinging too strongly to a method makes it very easy to forget about ourselves, makes it very easy to leave out the questioning of paradigms and prejudices unconsciously underpinning our adult lives.

Believing blindly in a method not only makes it easy to overlook our own lives, it also makes us overlook the child, the "whole" child. Too heavy concentration on a pedagogical method makes both ourselves and the child invisible. We see and hear the child insofar as it fulfills the anticipation of the method, and we see and hear ourselves insofar as we follow the rules and strategies of the method. In short: we see the child and ourselves through methodologically tinted glasses. The great benefit, and the main reason why we do this, is of course that by doing so, we always have a pre-defined plan to follow and we are never left alone to face the self-challenging, philosophical abyss. This is a methodological pitfall.

The Socratic challenge

So this benefit is at the same time the main reason why we fail to see ourselves and the child more deeply. We feel insecure and incapable without a celebrated method to lean on and rely on. And quite naturally we don't want this insecurity to show, especially not in front of children (perhaps). But in our opinion it would be far better if we dared to be more honest in this respect, if we engaged more in the demanding and challenging philosophy itself than in the method of how to utilise philosophy, if we were more concerned with the child staring at us on first row than the prospect of it's future intellectual achievements promised by the method. It is much more difficult of course, but also much more rewarding in the end.

Philosophy must therefore become a way of life, a continuous belief in the puzzling nature of human life—a belief that involves the adult's life too! Then we would perhaps finally grasp the underlying identity between adult and child: that we are all truth-seeking human beings. Then we would perhaps realise that openness, questioning and wonder—the cornerstones of philosophical dialogue—ultimately spring from the Socratic insight: I know that I know nothing—and not from any pedagogical programme! Like Socrates we would have understood that our questioning and wonder is a way to seek the truth itself, and that we seek the truth itself because we know that we can never really possess the truth. Let's expand this point a little.

1) It is the truth itself that we seek—not just any given formulation of something that is true. This is a crucial, metaphysical distinction, although often difficult to discern. Seeking the truth means stretching out for the absolute, the infinite, the total perspective, the final answer—an answer that fulfils us as human beings, i.e. not an answer that may readily be expressed in words. If we should think it meaningless to seek such infinite goals—because we feel that such goals cannot possibly exist—we do no longer seek the truth itself, but only some partial truth, some truth that may be altered or even discarded at a later stage. But then we would be unsocratic and also unphilosophical.

2) Secondly we hold with Socrates that we do not possess truth. But this doesn't necessarily imply that it's impossible for us to attain truth. Attaining truth is the opposite of possessing it. If we possess truth, we are not interested in the truth as such, we're only interested in making it a part of us, a part of our intellectual repertoire as it were, a repertoire that we may control and apply in accordance with our will and desires. Attaining truth on the other hand, is possible only when this will and this desire is altogether disengaged. Then there is no longer a need to adapt the truth in order to make it fit our boundaries, rather it is we who seek to become part of the truth.

So if we just seek some partial truth (for instance scientific truth), we seek to possess the truth, we seek to use it and manipulate it to achieve some specific end (e.g. to pass an exam). But if we seek the truth itself, like Socrates always did, we seek instead to become a part of the truth, to belong to the truth, to be filled with the truth. And this we can only do if we forget about the method for a while and just try to be what we already are: ourselves.

The Matthew Lipman-method

Now, given this whole outlook it should come as no surprise that we have certain objections against the widespread Matthew Lipman-approach to Philosophy for Children. Matthew Lipman started out some 30 years ago writing philosophical stories for children. He was then professor in philosophy at Columbia University, New Jersey. Over the years Lipman and his associates at his Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), developed a philosophy curriculum for the entire grade school. IAPC produced one philosophical "novel" for each grade level and each novel was accompanied by a massive teacher's manual consisting of huge amounts of philosophically flavoured questions and exercises. The Lipman-method is the P4C-method today that is most widely used and so far the most successful attempt to make P4C into a full-blown pedagogical system.

In our view, however, the Lipman-method too narrowly focusses on the child's logical reasoning and the appropriation of specific argumentative skills, thus leaving out completely the question of the adult's self-understanding and self-appropriation, not to mention the adult's attitude towards truth itself. The adult is merely supposed to function as an organiser and facilitator.

The standard Lipman-approach also largely fails to address the children's spiritual and artistic aspirations and abilities, probably because art and spirituality are far more free-floating aspects of the human soul and thereby more difficult to structuralise and conceptualise.

Ultimately this method presupposes that philosophy can and should be used as a tool to achieve certain desirable ends, for instance improved writing, reading and reasoning skills, improved results in other school subjects and—to top it all—an open-minded, inclusive and democratic attitude. The Lipman-variant of P4C suggests that philosophy is the supreme method to produce well-adapted citizens in a modern, technological and multi-cultural society.

But in so doing, the Lipman-approach is in danger of reducing philosophy to a mere technique, to a pedagogical, educational strategy. And we're afraid that this kind of pragmatism, however well-intended and apparently successful, in the long run will prove insufficient simply because it is impossible to convert philosophy into an instrument to achieve some extra-philosophical target. Then it is philosophy no more, at least not in the Socratic, wisdom-loving sense. Then philosophy has been reduced to a method, a way of doing things, a way to behave with children, a curriculum.

The adult's task

Existentially speaking there's no difference between children and adults: we are all ignorant and therefore in search of the truth about our lives. If we're not in search of this truth, it is generally not because we have found the truth, but because we have forgotten about our ignorance. This often happens with adults, but seldom with children. And that's what we should be eager to learn from the children. We have so much to gain from being there with them, as co-explorers of philosophical truth, as fellow human beings—not merely as more or less well-functioning, facilitating, "professional" educators.

In order to achieve this, it isn't quite enough to learn about philosophy or to learn how to be a philosophical catalyst in a pedagogical context. Rather we must ourselves become philosophers in our own life. And as philosophers we should of course not pretend that we know what we don't know, nor pretend that we do not know what we actually do know. And what then does a philosopher really know? In the end only this (not surprisingly): that he—like Socrates—doesn't know anything!

Doing philosophy, being philosophical, thinking philosophically is the sole purpose of doing philosophy, being philosophical and thinking philosophically. If this wasn't so, philosophy couldn't be what is actually is (or at least: what we want it to be): love of wisdom for the sake of wisdom itself.


The philosophical dialogue

To start a dialogue, we often do a so-called Philosophical Café. This means to let the participants come up with questions and themes for discussions. When we have collected 6 or 7 suggestions, we have a vote to find out which suggestion the majority wants to discuss. On other occasions we have had works of art to trigger the discussions. Of course, we have also used texts, but this has actually been less successful than more free approaches.

When we talk with the children, there are certain principles or rules that we try to observe. And not only observe: ideally these principles ought to be an integral part of our whole personality. They shouldn't just be a mask we put on before a session. As P4C-philosophers it is our constant aim to develop such a personality. Let's have a closer look at three of these principles:

1) Seeking the universal
Just as we need a technical-scientific language to describe the reality of nature, we need a philosophical language to describe the reality of human life, the reality that unites the people of the world, past and present, young and old. This language must be universal, meaning that it will not attempt to describe particulars in the physical or psychological realm, but rather the universal structures that lay beneath both the physical and the psychological realm (i.e. our description of the physical and the psychological realm).

Suppose a child has been told to come inside at a given time. But the child is playing a game and (apparently) forgets all about the time. Or that's what the adult thinks: that the child has forgotten about the time. The child itself on the other hand, if ever asked, would perhaps describe it's own psychological state like this: "I have not forgotten about the time, but I want to come when it suits me!" Here the adult and the child have their own separate descriptions of the child's "psychological reality". Now, the purpose of the philosophical dialogue is to lift the discussion out of the psychological realm into the philosophical and universal realm. This may be done by suggesting philosophical questions instead of insisting on one's own opinion of the child. In this example, where one of the main concepts is "forgetfulness", questions like the following might just do the trick:

Questions like these aim at the universal because they search for answers that apply to every human being, no matter where or when. Questions like these are therefore of an impersonal and non-accusing quality, which makes it much easier for the child to open up.

The aspiration towards the universal is also the aspiration towards the unspoken premises that underlie our opinions and attitudes. Such premises are always of more or less universal nature. They can say things like this: "children are naughty" eller "Norway is a good country" eller "sex is sin". They are mostly hidden to us, and that's exactly why they can have an even more decisive role as motivation for action. Like any other gray eminence they sit comfortably hidden in the back of our head, pulling the strings of our life.

2) Equality of contributions
That said, we need of course individual opinions to get the dialogue going. The main rule is that every opinion is treated with equal respect no matter how problematic or unsympathetic the viewpoint appears to the adult. The adult is the "moderator" of the group indeed, but shouldn't therefore reject thoughts that he or she doesn't approve of. That's not moderating, that's censuring.

However: whether the opinions are in fact worthy of respect, is another question altogether. That's what we're supposed to find out through the dialogue. What the adult should do, is to help the dialogue become as universal as possible—regardless of the utterance that starts off the dialogue. This means to love the children for what they are in themselves, not for what they say! If we love the children thus, it is not so difficult to treat controversial and non-controversial claims with equal respect.

The adult may here encounter a problem of integrity: if the adult really thinks that a certain statement is totally unsupportable whatsoever, shouldn't then the adult be honest with the child (and him- or herself) and say so? Wouldn't it be terribly hypocritical to respond by saying something methodologically correct like "Well, that's an interesting viewpoint you've got, can you tell us why you support it?"—if the adult is perfectly convinced that the viewpoint is in fact pure nonsense, perhaps even dangerous nonsense?

This problem goes straight to the core of the Socratic challenge mentioned above. Socrates himself could respond to any statement asking for reasons and explanations—without being the least hypocritical or dishonest! Why? Because he really knew himself! Because he really knew that he knew nothing! So again, the challenge for the adult is ultimately: know thyself—in Socrates' own language: gnothi seauthon. If this deep consciousness is truly embedded in the adult's whole personality, then first he or she need not be dishonest when he or she replies with an attitude of curiosity and truth-seeking. Then first he or she is a true truth-seeker.

3) Voluntary participation
To take part in a conversation, the children should feel an urge to express themselves, a sincere wish to participate. The adult shouldn't force a child to come to the fore, trying to make the dialogue more effective. The whole point about philosophical dialogues is to help children give birth to their own insights. Just like Socrates did. And every true insight is necessarily deep and deep-rooted. Hence an insight cannot be squeezed out of a child like juice out of a lemon. Only in a climate of freedom and love, in a climate of mutual trust and confidence, insights can be brought to the surface of consciousness.

So it is quite all right to remain silent throughout a session. Silence is after all golden, as the saying goes. Yet, of course, we want as many children as possible to take an active part in the dialogue. Then the best we could ever hope for—and really the only objective to strive for here—is the creation of an intellectual and communal spirit among the participants that makes it just unbearable to remain silent!

Some examples

Over the years we have had many dialogues with children in different ages. It seems to us now that there are certain recurrent patterns. One thing we have noticed, is that the cooperation between the children has always been at it's best when we managed to raise the dialogues to a universal and philosophical level. Then the children worked splendidly together, despite the age span. A 10-year-old could very well say something that a 15-year-old had to respect—simply because it was a most relevant and meaningful, even clarifying thing to say—and not because it was "cool".

Some times the participants have lacked concentration, especially the boys. Many boys in their teens have great difficulties to express what they carry inside them, both thoughts and feelings. Which is not so strange really. It is a difficult age. Girls on the same age seems, however, to have less problems in this respect. They often behave exemplary—not in the traditional "good-girl"-manner being quiet and polite, but being alert and attentive, active and questioning, intellectually playful and innovative.

A 12-year-old girl once said, after a session that had been less fruitful than usual: "Although I found it difficult to philosophise tonight, I long for it and hope it will happen again soon." She had obviously not forgotten how exciting philosophical explorations can be.

Page created: 26.02.05. Page last modified: 29.09.06 19:33.