Questions and the Philosophical Self
For the past month I’ve been working on the chapter of my book that examines what I’m calling the “philosophical self.” This part of us, that is naturally inclined to ponder the deeper questions raised by the strangeness of finding ourselves alive in the world, fails to develop for many (most?) young people because cultivating the philosophical self is not something that is nurtured and supported by most (or any) of the adults in their lives.
I’ve been thinking this week about the central role of questions, and in particular the acquisition of confidence and skill in asking questions, in the development of the philosophical self. We are not a society that is particularly comfortable with questions. Many adults have grown up absorbing the idea that asking questions serves to broadcast to the world what they don’t know, and this has the potential to be somewhat shameful, or at least embarrassing. But philosophy is all about questions. Questions are the key to recognizing the philosophically puzzling aspects of our lives, and to making it possible to examine these puzzles with others.
Mat Lipman, in his book Thinking in Education, emphasized the importance, when having philosophical discussions with children, of ensuring that the questions being discussed emerge from the children. I’ve realized over years of working with young people how profound an idea this was.
Ultimately, whether we are parents or teachers or other adults talking with children, this enterprise is not about teaching children philosophy, but about doing philosophy with them by engaging them in questions they are already exploring. We initiate philosophical conversations with children not to bestow our philosophical insights on children, but to facilitate the ability of children to inquire themselves about the peculiarity of human existence and the most ordinary experiences of our lives. It is crucial, then, that the conversations begin by eliciting from young people the questions they are interested in discussing.
When I lead a philosophy session in a classroom, often a good part of the session will be spent listing the children’s questions and helping them to decide which question to discuss. It can be easy, sometimes, in the goal-driven society in which we live, to see this part of the session as a precursor to the real work, the philosophy discussion itself. But I’ve come to understand that the time spent helping students to formulate their own questions and ensuring that the discussion starts with those questions is in the end as valuable as the time spent actually talking about philosophical questions.
Mat Lipman died in December 2010 at the age of 87. He was an inspiration to me when I first began thinking about the possibilities of introducing philosophy to children, and as I’ve thought about him over the past month I’ve realized how much his work, and especially his commitment to the authenticity of philosophical discussions with children, has guided and helped me over the years.
I like your emphasis and attributing importance to the skill and thrill of asking questions. I teach a couple of different philosophy classes at Country Day School in San Jose Costa Rica. It's a fascinating place to teach because I have kids from Canada to Brazil, from Korea to Germany in my class. We do a lot with asking questions, and then asking questions about our questions (underlying assumptions and such). I am reminded of a story that Elie Wiesel tells about his childhood growing up in Signet, Romania. There he attended his Jewish school, and he says that when he got home at the end of the day his parents never asked him, "What did you learn today?" but instead, "Did you ask any good questions today?" Prompts vision of the ancient rabbis and scribes gathering to ask questions of the Torah and the Talmud.