Ancient Paideia and Philosophy for Children

by Hannu Juuso, published in Thinking. The Journal of Philosophy for Children, 1999, 14:4, 9-20. This article also constitutes chapter 5 in Hannu Juuso's dissertation Child, Philosophy and Education—Discussing the intellectual sources of philosophy for children, 2007, University of Oulu, Finland.


Dissertation abstract


The shifting meanings of "philosophy" and "child"

Education for reasonableness

Discuss / diskuter

The shifting meanings of "philosophy" and "child"

Sophists' elenchus, Plato's dialeghestei and Socrates' negative wisdom

Who were those people who spent their free time in discussion in the shady parks of the Greek polis? According to Plato's early dialogues, it is quite clear that they were men—only one woman is recorded—and quite often young boys. 8 Callicles' and Socrates' debate over the practical versus the contemplative life in Gorgias implies that philosophy was thought to be a natural and respectable pastime for young men. 9 For grown men, as Callicles bluntly argues, it is destructive and ridiculous. It will make them losers in practical life, in which the only thing that matters is power. 10 Socrates' opposes this point of view, and after a scrupulous inquiry into the nature of virtue, they finally come to the question: what is good for the soul? Here Socrates rejects Callicles' hedonistic ideas, and identifies the soul's good as the ability to separate good from bad, justice from injustice—and the strength to act on those distinctions. Socrates then characterizes two forms of rhetoric and their pedagogical implications—one represented by Callicles, which is random and seeks only to please public opinion—and the other which is always understood as an instrument for attaining goodness and justice in the community. It is not hard to see which one of the two positions Socrates favors as the task of philosophy. 11 Moreover, during the entire dialogue he never returns to the question of the age at which one might start philosophizing. When arguing on behalf of the philosophical life in general, Socrates seems to take for granted that it also belongs to the young. This inference is supported by the fact that Socrates was tried for corrupting and misleading just that age group.

Then suddenly, in the seventh book of the Republic, Plato appears to make a dramatic shift. When discussing with Glaukon about the education of philosophers, Socrates clearly rejects the use of the dialectic for those who are "too young." This is because:

... when they get their first taste of it, they treat argument as a form of sport solely for purposes of contradiction. When someone has proved them wrong, they copy his methods to confute others, delighting like puppies in tugging and tearing at anyone who comes near them. And so, after a long course of proving others wrong and being proved wrong themselves, they rush to the conclusion that all they once believed is false; and the result is that in the eyes of the world they discredit, not only themselves, but the whole business of philosophy. 12

Here Plato appears to be proposing that philosophy (dialectic) and young people should be protected from each other. If the "too young" are allowed to philosophize, their deliberations will appear unworthy of adult discourse. In addition it will subvert them, corrupt them and infect them with lawlessness. Lipman argues that it is just this notion in the Republic which has, backed by Plato's authority, denied children philosophy for over a millennium. 13 Lipman qualifies this judgment by pointing out that Plato's statement should be considered in light of the turbulence of the times in Athens, and above all the way in which dialectic was taught by the sophists—as eristic procedures and techniques, in the spirit of an intellectual battle. 14 The eristic method of teaching was based on the idea of winning a debate through attack and defense, and by fostering conceptual confusions—or elenchus—without any consideration of the students' own ideas and interests. According to Lipman this is what Plato, echoing Socrates, is refusing the young—not the practice of philosophy as a form of life. In his book Philosophy Goes to School, he concludes that

... what Plato was condemning in the seventh book of the Republic was not the practice of philosophy by children as such but the reduction of philosophy to sophistical exercises in dialectic or rhetoric; the effects of which on children would be particularly devastating and demoralizing. How better to guarantee the amoralism of the adult than by teaching the child that any belief is as defensible as any other and that what right there is must be the product of argumentative might? If this is how philosophy is to be made available to children, Plato may be supposed to have been saying, then it is better that they have none at all. 15

According to Lipman, Socrates considered philosophy, when reduced to mere sophistic rhetoric, to be inappropriate for the young, because it separated technique from conviction. It was good enough for the preparation of lawyers, but not for those who were seeking guidance from philosophy in order to lead a good life. Here Plato's distinction between two kinds of rhetoric, mentioned earlier in Gorgias, becomes more pronounced. But there is room here for further elaboration. In interpreting Plato's position on the question "Should or could philosophy be taught to or practiced with children?" we must realize that in Plato's time, there was a different understanding of the basic concepts "philosophy" and "child." When Lipman suggests that Plato never drew the line anywhere when it came to Socrates doing philosophy with people of different ages, he seems to be interpreting him pragmatically and not Platonically. Following Rorty, Neiman suggests that the distinction between two quite different visions of Socrates leads to two different views of philosophy and education.

One of these views sees Socrates as his student Plato tended to see him, as a thinker whose life and work was essentially incomplete and unsatisfying until it was perfected through metaphysics. The second, pragmatic view of Socrates finds its earliest expression in the writings of the Greek skeptics. On this view, Socrates becomes the paradigmatic experimentalist, willing to call all dogmas into question and wary of any easy attainment of certainty. 16

It seems to me that in the seventh Book of the Republic Socrates' denial of dialectics for the young is consistent with Plato's metaphysical quest—i.e. with the Platonic Socrates. After all, for Plato philosophical dialectic was the highest form of inquiry, providing as it did an exclusive access to absolute certainty. In order to be able to understand the True Reality, people have to understand the Ideal (eide) which, once grasped, offers an a priori starting point for understanding all of life. It is the task of philosophy to understand the general nature of human beings and society—and that, finally, is why the ideal ruler is a philosopher. In order to gain this philosophical wisdom (sophia), any contingent good or bad action is not enough, but only the ability to identify criteria for judgment, and to subject them to the test of critical discussion. The method peculiar to this was what Plato called dialegesthai. 17 Compared to the art of elenctic disputation taught by sophists like Protagoras, Hippias or Gorgias, the participants in Plato's dialectic searched for the Truth. 18 However, this common effort was undergirded by the metaphysical assumption that there is such a Truth, which contradicts the pragmatic interpretation of Socrates. Later in the Republic, we find this Platonic Socrates giving exact advice on how to pick the best of the youth to be tested in dialectic at the age of twenty and thirty, and after that, chosen to reach the ultimate reality with the help of dialectic. 19 Understood in the context of his own metaphysical quest, it was quite natural for Plato to abandon the subjectivist ideas of the sophists as immoral. 20

Although "philosophy" is often translated literally as "love of wisdom," its etymological meaning is broader, referring to the exercise of curiosity and intellect without any specific limitations as to its object. 21 According to Martens, classical antiquity anticipated the project of the Enlightenment and its rationalistic "method," which led to the collapse of the earlier, mythical way of thinking and living. 22 The transition to a philosophical approach to reality meant a radical break with earlier forms of life. Philosophy called for individual reflection as the director of our thoughts and actions. Certainty and necessity were now valued above myth, tradition, and the conventional customs and everyday habits of the past. According to Dewey, this escape from peril was basically emotional. It was based, he claims, on a personal and a cultural search for a psychological certainty that could not be offered by practical life. 23 Ancient philosophy is thus credited for creating the Western dualistic world picture, which proposes a higher kingdom of eternally unchanging reality that can only be striven for by true science, set in contrast to the trivial, changeable world of experience and practical matters. According to Dewey, these two different worlds imply two different kinds of knowledge. One of them—episteme—is knowledge in the true sense of the word, i.e. rational, necessary and unchanging. It is certain. The other type of knowledge—doxa—is related to the changeable world of appearances—it is experiential, particular and random, and knows only probabilities, not certainties. The division between these two kinds of knowledge corresponds to the division of action into pure, rational action on the one hand, and action based on the needs of the inferior kingdom of physical change on the other. In this way, claims Dewey, the Greeks bequeathed to Western philosophy the notion that the task of knowledge is to reveal what is originally real, and not to apply itself to problems of practical judgment. And it is in the sphere of education that the Greek idea of philosophy as a paradigmatic notion of knowing constitutes itself as a super science capable of revealing Absolute Reality.

The aporetic dialogues of Plato reveal the dilemma in his thinking: universal ideas conflict with the impossibility of gaining Euclidean certainty in practical issues. According to Neiman, this very ambiguity in the relation between the two realms offers the pragmatic Socrates an alternative. The disjunction between the two allows him to react to everyday problems with a common sense view of the world—not through the use of metaphysics, but through the attainment of irony, for an ironist is, in Rorty’s formulation, a person who deliberately undergoes the contingency of his or her beliefs and hopes. 24 On the other hand, Kennedy seems to suggest the same kind of interpretation of Socrates faced with the aporia as is apparent in Plato's dialogues. 25 The height of "negative wisdom"—a concept introduced by Kennedy as the opposite of the Platonic "positive wisdom"—is epitomized in Socrates' famous statement that he is only wise because he knows that he knows nothing (Apology 21d). For this Socrates, no one can be wise in the Platonic sense. For this Socrates, "philosophy is his lover," 26 and cannot be reduced to knowing or applying, but only practiced as passionate inquiry—not in order to achieve the "god's eye view," but in order to examine life and be able to cope with the world. This seems also to be Lipman's Socrates—acknowledging philosophy as a deed, as a form of life which is dedicated to looking for reasons and for meaning, a practice which any one of us can emulate. 27

It is just this interpretation of the pragmatic Socrates which confronts Philosophy for Children with one of its most challenging questions—a question which also confronts philosophy per se. What are Lipman's assumptions concerning the prerequisites for the possibility of doing philosophy? Can we, through philosophizing in a community of inquiry, navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of metaphysical reason and post metaphysical relativism? Or should we question this sort of question itself as a product of our conventional, modern epistemology, as did Wittgenstein and the early pragmatists? In the Philosophy for Children community these dilemmas—which are also current in the contemporary modern versus postmodern debate—are currently being more explicitly formulated. 28 I think that when he emphasizes the role of philosophy as dialogical inquiry, and thus necessarily assumes the possibility of a search for criteria, Lipman is at least partly in conflict with Neiman's pragmatic Socrates. This is so particularly in the latter's concept of "irony" as a source of edification, and in the denial of all systematicity. If, as Rorty claims, all vocabularies are incommensurable, then all options are equal, and as a consequence, that form of philosophy practiced in Philosophy for Children's community of inquiry has come to an end. One way to overcome this dilemma might be to legitimize philosophical argumentation from the standpoint of certain transformational perspectives. 29 Charles Taylor's ideas concerning unavoidable fields of vision for instance, or Steven Toulmin's "cult of systematicity" or "absolutistic presuppositions" might be profitable possibilities. 30 Understood in these frameworks, the practice of philosophical inquiry could avoid both the assumption of an ahistorical reason and truth and the fruitless adoption of a postmodern jargon.


8 For example the boys of Lysis (Lysis and Menexenos) has been estimated to be 11-12 years old. See also Lakhes 181a.

9 Gorg. 481b – 527e, specifically Gorg. 484c – 486d; see also Dodds, E.R. 1979. A Revised Text with Introduction and Commentary of Plato's Gorgias. Oxford: University Press, pp. 273 – 281.

10 Gorg. 185a-d; see also Theait. 172c-177c.

11 Gorg. 502e-503a; see also Dodds, 1979, p.325-326.

12 Resp. VII. 539b-539c.

13 Lipman 1988, 11-15. See also Dunne, J. "To Begin in Wonder: Children and Philosophy," Thinking, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 9-17.

14 Here Lipman is referring to Gilbert Ryle's attempt to paint the picture of intellectual Athens in "Plato" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Eristic was elenctic disputation based on creating conceptual confusions in the opponent. Eristicos and dialektikos can be found for example in Menon and Euthydemos. See also Republic VII 535c and Republic V 454a where Socrates discusses with Glaucon the peculiar might of eristic. In this dilemma the basic idea of the sophists was due to their severe reaction against the former philosophy of nature and dogmatic moral education coming up in Protagoras' well-known homo mensura. In its most extreme form this led to ethical nihilism and hedonism where the questions of good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice were replaced as superfluous by terms of egoism and lust for power.

15 Lipman 1988, p. 15.

16 Neiman, A. 1991. "Ironic Schooling: Socrates, Pragmatism and the Higher Learning," Educational Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 371-384.

17 See Passmore 1967; Ryle 1967.

18 Theait. 167e; Gorg. 505e; 526d.

19 Resp. 537b-537d. Plato's conception of dialectic and dialectical method is linked to his cave metaphor, see Resp. 532a-534d.

20 It seems to me that the options we currently have regarding this issue as a result of the "linguistic turn" were available neither to Plato nor the sophists, both of whom unconsciously assumed the idea of language as a "transparent medium." According to this notion language is understood as capable—if gradually—to represent reality precisely. See Rorty, R. 1989. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 77.

21 Passmore, J. "Philosophy" in Edwards, P. (ed.) 1967. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 6. New York: Macmillan, pp. 216-226.

22 Martens, E. "The Didactics of Philosophy" in Kotkavirta, J. (ed.) 1995. Philosophy at School (in Finnish). Helsinki: Painatuskeskus, pp. 27-47.

23 Dewey, J. 1929. The Quest for Certainty. In Boydston, A. 1988. John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953, vol. 4:1929. Carbondale and Edwardswille: Southern Illinois University Press, p. 16.

24 Neiman 1991. Rorty (1989, p. xv).

25 Kennedy, D. 1993. "Child and Fool in the Western Wisdom Tradition," Thinking, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 11-21.

26 See Gorg. 482a.

27 Lipman 1988, p. 12.

28 See Turgeon, W.C. 1999. "Metaphysical Horizons of Philosophy for Children: A Survey of Recent Discussions Within the Philosophy for Children Community," Thinking, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 18-22; Glaser, J. "Socrates, Friendship, and the Community of Inquiry," Inquiry, Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, vol. XVI, no. 4, pp. 22-46.

29 From the current discussion about this topic see for example Baynes, K., Bohman, J. & Mc Carthy, T. (eds.) 1993. After Philosophy. End or Transformation? Cambridge: The MIT Press.

30 See Taylor, C. 1991. The Ethics Of Authenticity. Canadian Broadcasting Company.; Toulmin, S. 1972. Human Understanding. Volume 1: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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