“What is philosophy?” is a very philosophical question, in that it lacks a clear and straightforward answer.
When they asked it to 49 prominent colleagues, British philosophers Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds received many different definitions, ranging from “it’s a process of reflection on the deepest concepts” and “it’s about making sense of all this” to “it’s conceptual engineering” and “it’s about reflecting critically on social and political and economic arrangements.”
Despite the absence of an unequivocal definition, what emerges from the answers is that philosophy is some kind of activity that entails questioning the nature of reality and existence, trying to find meaning in the human experience.
As a reminder of the discipline’s broad but fundamental scope, UNESCO (the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) created World Philosophy Day in 2002. Celebrated the third Thursday of November each year, the day underlines the importance of this field of knowledge with the aim of fostering its teaching across the world.
In most countries, philosophy is a subject that is taught only in high school or at university level. However, there’s growing interest in the idea of starting some form of philosophical education in primary school.
The thought may strike as implausible: what could a seven-year-old make of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason?
But the same way the term “philosophy” falls short of a clear-cut definition, the expression “teaching philosophy,” too, leaves ample room for a variety of interpretations.
In a primary school environment, the discipline would be less about arcane speculations on the nature of knowledge, and more about stimulating critical thinking, creativity and collaboration from a young age.
For a more concrete understanding of what the proponents of this approach—that is often labelled as “P4C” (Philosophy for Children)—have in mind, let’s have a look at the work of some charities active in this field.
Founded in 1992, SAPERE is an Oxford-based nonprofit that claims to train more than 5,500 P4C education professionals each year. During the courses, the teachers learn how to lead a philosophical inquiry in class during which students debate questions like “What is art?,” “What’s a refugee?” or “If children led society, what would change?”
In 2015, the Durham University School of Education published results of a randomised control trial which found that Sapere P4C could improve children’s development in math and reading and had a particularly strong impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Another charity promoting philosophy education for children in the U.K. is The Philosophy Foundation. Among other activities, the organization runs workshops in primary schools where they act as “visiting philosophers”, facilitating debates around topics like ethics, personal identity and mathematical thinking. For example, in a project called “The Numberverse”, children are guided through a 10-week exploration of the very concept of “number” with the twofold aim of deepening the understanding of mathematics and fostering collaborative problem solving skills.
Evidently, this approach has little in common with the way philosophy is usually taught in high school or at university, to the extent that one may wonder whether we’re talking about the same discipline. Luckily, the Philosophy Foundation did their homework and on their website they provide a rigorous definition of what they mean by the term “philosophy.”
Across the pond, PLATO is an American charity promoting initiatives similar to those of SAPERE and The Philosophy Foundation. In addition, they also publish “Questions,” a unique academic journal featuring essays, poems and drawings by children interested in “the science of the final end of human reason,” as Kant defined philosophy.
In the latest issue of the journal, pupils debate questions like “How does philosophy come into being?” or “What is your favorite philosophical question?”
“My favorite philosophical question is ‘what is a paradox?,’” writes Luca, a 7th grader, “The paradox can be something the goes on forever [...] It is like infinity. Infinity is like a confusing thing that humans can’t really wrap their heads around. Yes, we understand that infinity means ‘never ending’ but you can’t imagine infinity. A paradox has no answer because it is infinite. We can’t answer it but we can only try to understand it.”
A definition that certainly illustrates the beauty of philosophical thinking and the potential of teaching children philosophy.
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