By KENDALL GILFILLAN
We’ve all had a conversation with a child in which everything we say or try to explain is met with “But why?” (Usually more like “But whyyyyyyy?”)
As frustrating as it may be, we typically point to such tendencies and cast them as “childlike wonder.” We look back on such inquisitive minds with nostalgia.
And then we grow up. And a lot of us stop asking “But why?” We may think it’s embarrassing to admit we don’t know things or perhaps we just think asking “why” is a thing for children.
Well. UNESCO declared the third Thursday in November “World Philosophy Day” and so I’m here and I’m asking “But why?”
But WHY is wondering a thing just for children?
But WHY is “philosophy” something we think old white guys sitting in a chair have a monopoly on?
But WHY is philosophy important?
But WHY should I personally care about philosophy?
Former UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova explains the motivation driving the creation of World Philosophy Day, “Faced with the complexity of today’s world, philosophical reflection is above all a call to humility, to take a step back and engage in reasoned dialogue, to build together the solutions to challenges that are beyond our control. This is the best way to educate enlightened citizens, equipped to fight stupidity and prejudice. The greater the difficulties encountered the greater the need for philosophy to make sense of questions of peace and sustainable development.”
Not only do I think philosophy is something everyone can do, I think it’s something we all need to do.
When you stop and ask why we ought to care about philosophy, I think you’ll begin to realize that philosophy is inextricably woven into the fabric of our society- it is in our theology, our political constitutions, our business ethics, our legal practices, our eating habits. It’s everywhere.
And sure—once you get to the top, philosophy can be pretty heady. But philosophy can also be asking “But why?” It can be reasoned dialogue and argumentation for things you really care about. It’s not just something for dead white guys.
I’m a 24 year old woman and I just completed the MPhilStud in Ancient Philosophy program at KCL after getting my BA in Philosophy and Religion, so I will offer myself up as living proof of the above statement.
I also had the privilege of undergoing training and placement with The Philosophy Foundation, which partners with schools in disadvantaged areas (as young as nursery and as old as high school) to run Philosophy Sessions to raise standards in education and give children the tools to think well for themselves.
I got to witness 36 fifth grade students in London do philosophy through running Philosophy Sessions for them this past spring. You’re probably thinking- “Aw, that’s cute.” No- it was impressive and inspiring and refreshing.
I worked with these kids—not teaching them philosophy—but DOING philosophy with them. I watched as they dialogued with reasoned argument amongst each other discussing meaning of life, existence of God, the nature of morality, metaphysics, personal identity and continuity, among other philosophical topics.
“Our overall aim really is to engage the disenfranchised,” shares Emma Worley, Co-Founder of Philosophy Foundation, “Through doing philosophy children learn how to think for themselves. They learn how to question. They learn how to follow a line of argument. But there’s also a lot of soft skills they develop as well- their ability to communicate their ideas with each other, to listen actively to each other and understand each other- understand another point of view.”
If you watch the video included, you might be surprised to see children actively doing philosophy in a way that impresses you. But this is the norm, so far as I’ve experienced, and not the exception. And, I argue, shows not only children’s ability to do philosophy but the impact it has on them and consequently our society and world.
And doing philosophy with children and teenagers has been proven to be effective. You can read the Social Impact Report in full HERE, but it shows that not only did the majority of both boys and girls enjoy philosophy- they were good at it and positively shaped by it as their skills improved.
Throughout my experience of consciously being a philosopher the past six years, I typically explain to people that the basic aim of philosophy is to question, to understand, and to explain effectively the things that matter- the things that are difficult to understand. Historical events or concepts or arguments- but also ourselves and our meaning and our relationships with one another.
Imagine if we all took time to thoughtfully engage in these aims- if we sought to ask meaningful questions, to understand one another and ourselves, and came together to discuss our ideas effectively.
Imagine if we all took the time to ask ourselves why we think what we think and were able to have a constructive dialogue with another person of a different viewpoint- if we knew how to do that- if we understood the value in doing that.
Imagine if we began to engage in philosophy as adults and engage in philosophy with children around us. Imagine if we raised a generation that thinks for themselves- and does so well.
“Well, that’s neat,” you may be thinking, “But that’s in London. We don’t have that here. We don’t do philosophy in our homes and schools and churches here.”
Well to that I say, “But why?”
Kendall Gilfillan is the Associate Editor of Style Home Page. A Nashville native recently returned from London, she is excited to explore and empower Nashville with a new eye. Follow along with her adventures at @kmgilfillan.