When teaching academic philosophy, one never ceases to be amazed at how little a subject once termed 'the love of wisdom' has to do with 'wisdom', let alone 'love'. Studying philosophy in an academic context has come to mean studying the history of philosophy, whether historically as a continuum of theories dependent on cultural context, or ahistorically as a series of logical problems. Academic philosophy has moved away from the contemplative sense alluded to above, and is too often limited to the critical study of rational thought. Such limits can cause difficulties to an honest and passionate truth-seeker such as many of our students, since the academic pursuit of philosophy seems to offer everything except the possibility to actually do philosophy. At best, students are expected to summarize and comment on how others may have done it.
My contention in this article is that it is possible to remain true to this spirit of passionate interest whilst not necessarily bypassing an engagement with the body of work now called philosophy. Teaching philosophy at Brockwood Park has led me to explore ways in which this relationship between a freedom of inquiry that is authentic to the students and the insights and concerns developed in the philosophical tradition could be maintained and nourished. Thus, the philosophy classes at Brockwood have moved away from being lecture-based (the staple diet of much traditional education) or teacher-based to being text-based. It is my sense, in fact, that far more than being a lifeless preventive for true inquiry, a philosophical text can turn into a surprising ally in our quest for wisdom. This, however, means that the text must change status—from being a structured written piece closed in on itself, which students must learn to decode, analyse and comment on, it must become an open mirror, a reflective participant in our journey into self-understanding.
The text as mirror
But how is this to be done? To be sure, studying a text can be one of the most deeply unrewarding of school activities. In fact, a text—whether a book, a poem, or a short extract—is often presented to students as already imprisoned in a sort of cultural and curricular straight-jacket: a straight-jacket made up of facts surrounding the author, of cultural background, of socio-political 'context', of exam requirements, and of layers and layers of minutiae-based academic analysis. The text, destined to a death by a thousand contextual qualifications, has no room to breathe; and neither, therefore, has the student. And to add to this general sorry state of affairs, the student of philosophy will often be presented with philosophical writings always already with the assumption that what is before them is to be understood as a written record of rational theories and doctrines about things, a body of dry logical arguments to be analysed and understood, with no existential, 'lived' dimension. To give an example, philosophy textbooks are likely to propose that 'Plato believed this' or 'held so and so to be true' without ever taking into account that the dialogues of Plato are precisely that—dialogues. As such, they are written in the mode of question and answer, where the various characters of the dialogue consider fundamental questions together, examining and exposing assumptions, and deepening various modes of coming at the questions. And of course, most of these questions have no answers. 'Answers' in Plato fall away, for a dialogue tells the story of a way of understanding rooted in inspired questioning, a questioning which ultimately seeks to move beyond strictly rational knowledge and the limits of the human mind, precisely because it is primarily motivated by what is beyond those limits. As such the Platonic 'dialectic' lets the truth appear through speech (dia-logos) and not within it. What is true becomes manifest as a result of this careful, attentive journey into inquiry, and is not limited to any particular verbalization within the inquiry itself.
Philosophy, for Plato, is a fundamental attitude of being, a way of seeing things that involves an openness and caring dedication to the beholding of wisdom. In Plato this wisdom is always a seeing, a beholding of what things are, as they are, and can never be reduced or limited to a mere theoretical grasping. Thus wisdom cannot be 'taught'—as Socrates shows again and again by refuting the leading sophists of his day—as it can never be at the disposal of the human mind, which would reduce it to a technique or method. Seeing the truth—Noesis—implies a movement of the mind through and beyond its rational structures. I stress through, because this is how, specifically, philosophical inquiry comes into play. 'Going beyond' theoretical grasping cannot be equated to simply 'bypassing'. For Plato, philosophical thinking is, in essence, 'a dialogue of the soul with itself'.1
The whole structure of questioning reflection, of inquiry, of staying with profound questions, comes to light through our mindful engagement with the world and happens in dialogue with it, and not by simply forcefully silencing it or switching it off. This also expresses itself through our mind's engagement and an insightful understanding of the mind will not take place if the concern is to bypass it on account of its supposed 'negative' influence. Thus philosophical questions are about things that ultimately concern us. They spring from the relationship with our life as a whole, from our response to the world, from our encounter with others, from the things we hold to be ultimately meaningful. We are now a long way from textbooks and their 'Plato believed this' and 'held this to be true'!
Of course, translating this lofty pursuit to the situation of the classroom can be tricky, especially if one's starting point is the somewhat artificial situation of being a 'teacher', having to impart some kind of knowledge, knowledge about an author or a school of thought. But as we have seen, 'knowledge about' is not the aim of a true philosophical dialogue—the Socratic 'knowing that one does not know'2, far more than an elegant and somewhat tautological platitude, indicates that the truest knowledge happens when knowing and not knowing are engaged together, for only in this way can the structures of knowing be exploded by the luminous insight that is not-knowing.
This may all be very well, but how does this knowing-not-knowing work with regards to a text? Is not a text the opposite to this movement, a statement of 'the known', a gathering of information, the reflection of the author's views and theories, something that, in fact, can only and ever be 'known about'? It is here that a reappraisal of the text as a springboard for philosophical reflection is required. Academically, much helpful work has been done by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whose textual hermeneutics seek to show that3 the encounter with the text is ultimately an exercise in self-understanding. Ricoeur's work is primarily motivated by a concern to move beyond contextual and structural studies of texts, in which an encounter with written work is motivated with what may have been behind the text (contextual factors) or within the text (structural factors) to what is in front of the text—the world of the reader, which comes to light, Ricoeur ventures, through a careful engagement with the world of the text. In Ricoeur's hermeneutics, this encounter between text and reader is a mutual dialogue between two worlds, a dialogue which, if attended to, yields a new possibility of self-understanding. By co-relating the world of the text to the situation of the reader, the text is liberated and becomes alive again, for it is engaged in a living conversation based on real concerns and questions. For Ricoeur, then, the text is not a record of 'mere' knowledge or conditioning for, when correlated to the present situation, to the living concerns, thoughts and feelings of the students, the text comes to life. Hence, a crucial stage of being with the text, too often bypassed in classrooms, is to stay with what is being said—simply, to listen carefully, without analysing, seeking meanings or translating into what is already known and thought.
Working with the text in philosophy class is inspired by the path of knowing-not-knowing. The classes are not lecture-style, very little knowledge is being 'imparted', and not much 'knowing-about' is being done. Rather, we sit together and consider the text, reading out loud together, noticing words and phrases that strike us as perplexing, illuminating—even infuriating! —and staying patiently with what is actually written rather than jumping to translating it into our own words and thoughts. This initial perplexity at the unknown is, in my view, profoundly fruitful to the philosophical approach, for it allows students to dwell with words, meanings and phrases without the burden of the body of academic pre-interpretation. Here an initial co-relation of text and situation can take place, for the questions that naturally arise from this initial 'blind' reading often end up consuming us for the whole class.
Patience seems to be an essential ingredient of this letting-be, the allowing of things to reveal themselves: the questions of the students as well as those raised in the text. This event of co-relating, furthermore, does not happen according to a fixed, established method, but springs out of its own accord, often unknowingly. Thus, with surprising regularity, the text comes to our help at a later stage in the class, offering a particular insight or way of looking at exactly what we had been pursuing; here the impression that we had been getting away from the text into our own worlds gets turned on its head, for the text now participates in our discussion, offering insight in its own way and in its own voice. Of course, to clarify this voice, contextual and structural approaches may be required, but the point here is that their previously undisputed claim to academic primacy, to 'knowledge', has been relinquished. 'To know', in philosophy class, can never merely be 'to know about'. And knowing must always be in direct participation with that which seems to be its opposite but is, in fact, its twin partner: 'not-knowing'.
Student and teacher as mirrors
The text, having become a surprising third partner in our classroom inquiry, also redescribes the roles of the other two characters in the dialogue: the teacher and the student. Liberated from the expectation of having to impart knowledge, the teacher here is engaged in a kind of 'Socratic midwifery': the role becomes to enable the students reveal, articulate and engage with their own pre-understandings and thoughts about things. These articulations and revelations happen by themselves and must not be forced, but they can be helped. For this work as midwife, helping thoughts and insights come to birth, the teacher must have in himself a deep and patient connection to the text and questions at play within it—the teacher truly becomes the student. Thus the teacher will be able to call upon the text as a partner in the classroom inquiry when connections may have been missed, or its voice not properly heard, or too easily dismissed. Yet in fact, this attitude of caring perplexity, of hermeneutic generosity, is extended to the students who are, in some sense, the principal characters in the dialogue. The teacher too listens, ponders and is perplexed. In this sense, the work of midwife enables insight to come to light, but also lets students become what they already are, that is 'co-teachers'. This blurring of roles does not create an artificial sense of equality, but rather fosters a sense of companionship in our 'love of wisdom'.
Yet in a school like Brockwood—one might ask—where a culture of inquiry is strongly encouraged, what might be the place of this philosophical approach? It should be noted that the advantage of working with texts is that they provide a new way of coming at things, through different expression and language, making different connections with a different vocabulary. Often a Brockwood 'inquiry', so much a part of the ethos of the place, might end up gravitating towards pre-established lines of questioning, a vocabulary that can sound too familiar, and questions that seem to return once too often. I would suggest that a philosophical text provides a new 'world' through which to move towards essential concerns, which are of course ultimately the same that move inquiry at Brockwood. But this encounter with an unfamiliar horizon can help students to liberate their imagination and seriousness, and consider these questions anew without the burden of an ethos.
In essence, teaching philosophy with the text as mirror displaces philosophical writing from the world of information, imparted knowledge and the 'known about' to a partner in our 'knowing-not-knowing' approach. This approach, in my view, also transforms the traditional roles of 'students' and 'teachers' to that of characters in a dialogue, a careful and inspired conversation whose movement of inquiry opens up a space where insight might take place.
1 Sophist, 264a. 9-10.
2 Although intimated in the Apology, the Meno and other Platonic works, the phrase, as a truism-like motto, actually appears nowhere in Plato, a fact which certainly accounts for its genuine spirit, rather than as expressing a simplistic 'method' to be relied upon.
3 See for example Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action and Time and Narrative, 3 vols.