How to know when you’re doing philosophy – and why we should teach it in primary school.

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The subject of philosophy is notoriously difficult to define. A couple of hundred years ago, the term was used for almost all areas of academic pursuit; a hangover over from this is evident in our current nomenclature, the top accolade in graduate study is to receive a Phd, or to become a Doctor of Philosophy.

These days, the term ‘philosophy’ on its own is pretty meaningless. To exclaim that philosophy is basically just thinking or considering, and “Oh you’re reading this article so wow, you’re doing philosophy!” is as vacuous as it is irritating. Of course it must (at least) involve a systematic and analytic method, with a premium on questioning fundamental beliefs and values.

Whilst studying the subject at university, I viewed what I was doing as a sort of mental training; I was equipping myself, not unlike Batman, with a very particular method of thinking and analysis. There are core tenets to the discipline, I suppose: logic (the study of reasoning), metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality), ethics (the study of morality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). But philosophy has suffered losing a multitude of its arms to its own bastard child: ‘science’.

Its greatest strength is also it’s Achilles heel, you can put ‘philosophy of…’ in front of pretty much anything, and what you’re left with is ‘let’s think critically about [subject] and form logical arguments’.  But empiricism has kind of stolen philosophy’s mantle in most areas. Philosophy of the mind: psychology and neuroscience. Social philosophy: anthropology and sociology. Philosophy of football: Becksistentialism. And on and on.

For a while, I became hugely disillusioned with my chosen degree as I discovered this divide. I had picked the wrong side, I thought. The only intellectual arenas philosophy still has an authority in are arenas that can’t involve a research project, and such arenas and their associated arguments are by definition unverifiable and therefore meaningless.It was for these reasons that I avoided all philosophy of religion modules, and focussed on philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, hopelessly trying to convince myself that I was basically doing an BSc.

These days, even traditionally ‘unscientific’ areas of philosophy like ethics are becoming claimed by neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists and cognitive psychologists. And physicists surely make a far more meaningful contribution to the subject of metaphysics than philosophers, especially since quantum theory. Armchair philosophy is all that is left, and that’s just ivory-tower-navel-gazing with no end point. Just big words and slightly amended definitions.

Since completing that damned degree, however, I have fallen back in love with the subject, and even challenged my plucky undergraduate self. I was, of course, nailing my flag to the ‘science’ mast, not ever really thinking about questioning precisely what science was. It was then I realised that to unravel science and its method – to explore its boundaries, claims and conclusions – I had to do philosophy. I had to define my terms, lay out my premises and see what conclusion followed. I had to challenge my previous beliefs based on rational thought and logic.

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These skills, few would disagree, are exactly the sorts of skills that we should be teaching in all of our schools. Wherever you stand on the core knowledge debate, An ability to critically analyse is, and always will be, well…critical. Philosopher Stephen Law notes that the common factor in people who sheltered Jews during Nazi occupation was not their religious affiliation (or lack thereof) but their philosophical upbringings, which taught them to question authority if what was being asked violated evident principles and morals.

Why do I drag up all of this nostalgia, I hear you ask?

Well, the feature article in this week’s TES is Tom Bennett’s defence of RE in school. Before the release, in a shameless attempt to piggyback off Tom’s success, I joked over twitter that my confirmation bias would read a defence of philosophy, and not RE. I know that Mr Bennett was formally trained in philosophy, and so the omission of the term even once in the article surprised me. Especially when the article’s strongest arguments were deeply philosophical in nature. Indeed, there is even a subtle epistemological distinction drawn between ‘learning about’ and ‘learning to’.

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Sidestepping the powerful argument of which religions we should teach, it is argued that because we live in a democracy, whichever religions are most prominent should take the focus. Unlucky if you’re a humanist or a Taoist, majority rules I’m afraid. It is interesting that most people would abandon this line of thinking when it comes to actively promoting other minority groups. Few agreed that we should scrap Black History Month or LGBT+ History Month, for example, because they felt that these minority groups should have a guaranteed place in the curriculum.

Mr Bennett argues that if we scrap RE, we will lose the subject that explores  “the role of reason and the senses in appreciating truth: where else are these subjects explored in the curriculum?” Examining role of reason and pursuit of Truth is as close to a definition of philosophy that you”ll get, and it is startling that the subject is not even mentioned as an afterthought. RE does not have a monopoly on free thinking or critical analysis, these are philosophy’s domain.

It is for these reasons that, in my year three class, I have taught more philosophy  this year than RE (although still not as much as I’d have liked to). Do issues of religion crop up? Of course – philosophical thinking naturally lends itself to topics of belief and existence. But it is, by and large, topic-neutral – a strength that RE lacks. Issues around “Darwinism, quantum mechanics, the Iraq War, homosexuality, superheroes and the causes of the Reformation” which all feature in Mr Bennett’s RE lessons would be better explored via philosophy, although I have a sneaky suspicion that these lessons were just philosophy by another (national curriculum, check) name.

Tom is right. Religion, and the study thereof, does indeed “wrestle with aspects of human existence”. To an extent, it wrestles with the whys and whats. But only if it is studied philosophically. And to gain a fuller picture, it has to be studied alongside questions of reality, knowledge and perception. If our kids can do that – which they should – then, well “Wow, you’re doing philosophy!”

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