Why Kids (and Adults) Need Philosophy






“Is the hole in the donut part of the donut?” Peter Worley asks a classroom bubbling with children. A Brit, cofounder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation, he had to hunt down an American donut for this project, because England fills theirs with jelly.

“I think the hole is not just inside the donut, but the hole reaches round the donut as well,” one child ventures.

“How big is the hole, then?” Worley asks.

“The size of the universe.”

He blinks. Not bad. He only wanted the kids to think about what a hole is, what a donut is, and how you distinguish between them. This one is thinking about the nature of space itself.

Another student takes a different tack: “Well, the hole isn’t just where you can see the hole. The hole is where the donut is, as well, because if there were no hole where the donut is, there would be no place for the donut to be.

The Philosophy Foundation offers such provocations in schools across the U.K., and I am thrilled to learn that Worley has colleagues in the States who are running similar programs. I would not have thought us receptive. Seems like every time I try a donut-hole sort of conversation, grown-ups back away. “Deep,” they might drawl, the sarcasm pure and heavy.

“In many ways, it’s true,” Worley says, amused. “You can do this in ways that are too deep. Philosophy has that sense of being difficult, hard work, and maybe a little scary.

But it need not be.

The foundation works with four-year-olds, with teenagers, with adults who are incarcerated, with people who love or think they hate philosophy. Worley’s books, Corrupting Youth and 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Questioning, teach this kind of exploration, and I cannot help but wish heads of state would read them too.

Worley came to philosophy by watching his father’s search for religion. Was religion true? “Because if so, then this is something we should throw ourselves into,” he decided, “because if it’s true, it’s no small thing.”

He later decided that religion’s truth was far more complex, and what drew him was philosophy. Instead of making truth claims, philosophy systematically approached every question, assessing what was said, considering what was possible, ruling out what was not. “So while it doesn’t necessarily give you true answers, it gives you access to a truth-preserving way of thinking.”

My own quip, when asked how a philosophy major led me to journalism, was always, “Philosophy doesn’t give you answers, but it shows you how to ask questions.” And kids are great at asking questions. Not yet dulled by expectation or scarred by sharp failures, their minds pop with curiosity, imagination, speculation. Just one problem: they are usually concrete thinkers. How does Worley blow their little minds open?

“There’s actually a technique we’ve developed,” he says. “It was inspired by the Socratic method.” Also by the hokey-pokey, which I always thought of as Midwestern, beer-soaked silliness but which originated as a British folk dance. You take a concrete question—say somebody is taking their own father to court (from Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro). “The question becomes whether that’s the right thing to do,” says Worley. “That’s in many ways a concrete problem. Euthyphro’s actions are based in some ways on piety, so we need to have a think about what we mean by ‘pious.’ Now there’s a concrete thing there and an abstract thing.” The concrete comes in, the abstract goes out, and you shake them all about, bringing the abstract considerations back to the original concrete problem. You do not allow yourself to glide off into abstraction and forget the concrete, which is a mistake many professional philosophers make.

Another technique Worley uses is “iffing, anchoring, and opening up.” He might ask the kids, “Do you think Odysseus should drink this juice that makes you forgetful and happy, or should he go and save his men?” Abstract considerations will arise: “What is it to be happy?” “What’s involved in making a difficult decision?” “What should he be thinking about?” Those abstract considerations will then be brought back to help the kids answer the concrete question: “If his responsibilities are X, if happiness is Y, if duty is Z, should he then drink the juice?”

“You have iffed and then anchored those if’s to the concrete question,” he points out. “And the kids will say yes or no, and then you open it up by asking why.” By doing so, you have let heady, contemplative philosophy have a practical influence on your thoughts, your acts, and the beliefs that guide them. “And this starts to have impact.”

Asked if philosophy is especially urgent in today’s confused world, Worley chuckles. “Well, let’s put it this way. When Socrates started his project, he lived in a time of economic turmoil. The golden age of Greek civilization was in its decline. The belief in the gods was on its way out. Plato’s big concern was the relativists, the sophists. Does trying to tackle relativism sound familiar? Post-truth and all that? We have always lived through these ups and downs, these societal shifts and paradigm shifts and changes of power balance. And we have always needed philosophy because of that.”

In any era of rapid change, societal shifts, altered power dynamics, you need philosophy to weed out illogic, make distinctions, explore nuance. “Then we can make more sense of the questions,” Worley says, “because one of the first things that happens in public debate is that nuance gets lost. The debate always becomes binary—you are either with us or against us. Even if the argument is about whether or not you are binary!”

Where do we turn, I ask him, now that the institutions we used to trust to dig for truth, media and universities, are increasingly suspect?

“I’m a bit naïve about this,” he admits cheerfully, “but I think by avoiding institutionalization.” Avoiding the tugs of profit, the rigidity of bureaucracy, the constraint of politics. “The minute institutions become politicized, they lose their independence. Philosophy by its very nature is anti-institutional; it stands outside of things.”

Apologizing for sounding pompous, he brings up the Hegelian dialectic as a model. Like feisty academics or a team of investigative reporters, philosophers work together to solve problems, but as they do, they challenge and oppose each other, oppose the orthodoxy, in order to reach a new synthesis. “We are at the same time trying to find out what good reasons there are for hanging on to the status quo and how to disrupt and change the status quo.” Philosophy looks for permanence—for definitions everyone can agree on—and at the same time, it pushes for change, by hunting for counterexamples that will refute those definitions.

Worley’s elevator speech for why we need philosophy is one word long: “discernment.” By doing philosophy, you learn to draw distinctions, find nuances, tell differences. “The epiphanies come when people realize that there is a distinction in language, in thought, that actually helps them get a better grasp of the world. They suddenly realize there is more to the world than they thought there was.”

So how do you teach a four-year-old about discernment and nuance?

“One topic might be the difference between different kinds of fairness,” he suggests. “It can be life-changing to realize that fairness isn’t just about everyone getting the same. It can also be about some people getting more because they need it.”

And what distinction does he most want adults to grasp?

“The distinction between cynicism and skepticism. They often get used interchangeably, and they often get misused, and people rely on them the wrong way, to justify faulty thinking. People will hold a cynical belief and think they are just being skeptical.” Skepticism suspends judgement, because there is good reason to hold off drawing conclusions. The skeptic looks for evidence, and a healthy skepticism often yields a more careful, less impulsive conclusion. Cynicism, on the other hand, sees the worst in things and assumes it to be true. “He’s a politician so of course he’s lying.”

“That might be the case—or it might not,” Worley says. “If I could speak to those people who are getting sucked into conspiratorial rabbit holes online, I would say, ‘You might be right, but the question is on what grounds we assess that. It may well be that what you think is healthy skepticism is just unhealthy cynicism.”

A distinction it is never too early to draw.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.