Archive for January, 2013

January 30th – Books And Philosophy For Children

An article previously published on the James Randi website – on how books are a vital part of teaching philosophy to the younger years.

My Experiences With Philosophy For Children:  As a resource writer, high school and now university-level teacher, I owe a lot to the Philosophy for Children methodology – known as “P4C”. What makes my experience particularly interesting is that P4C hails from the USA and I am an Australian – it is more popular overseas than in its place of origin. In April, 2004, I attended a Level 2 training course in Philosophy for Children, which gave me the credentials to train teachers in the Level 1 P4C course. It was hosted at a monastery, the St Clements Retreat Centre located in a remote country town called Galong, in New South Wales.I joined fifteen other teachers for lectures and workshops run by professionals in the field likeA_P4C_teacher_training_session_in_Perth_K_Sturgess Phillip Cam (Associate Professor in the School of History and Philosophy at the University of NSW), Catherine Geraghty-Slavica (SOPHY), and sessions by a special guest overseas presenter – Dr Ann Margaret Sharp.

She was the Associate Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children and a Professor of Education at Montclair State College. She was also the co-author (with Matthew Lipman and Frederick S. Oscanyan) of Philosophy in the Classroom (Temple), Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, Kio and GusElfie and many more in the Philosophy for Children series. Dr Sharp was almost childlike with her enthusiasm – eagerly unpacking concepts and debating with a cheerful laugh – it was a little difficult to connect this person as being the author of many of the books and manuals that led us to sign up in the first place! Dr Sharp was considered one of the founders of the worldwide Philosophy for Children movement, an approach to philosophy teaching that relies on a self-correcting community of inquiry, rather than the authority of the teacher, to provoke and guide philosophic discussion.
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January 29th – The Philosophy Gym By Stephen Law

philosophy gym

This is one of a handful of books that I keep with me as additional source material for discussions and inspiration, and not just for the pre-teen to teenage class.

The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking features short chapters on key questions, peppered with interesting dialogues in a “community of inquiry” vein. By unpacking the ideas, proposing questions and introducing key thinkers and schools of thought, this is an extremely accessible and useful book when stuck for ideas for livening up a topic.

There are dialogues, philosophical stories and thought experiments, illustrations and “thinking tools” sections to explain key ideas and provide the odd diversion. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that philosophy is an activity. The best way to get the most out of any philosophy book is to join in the activity by reading critically and thinking for yourself. Question the assumptions and unpick the arguments as you go along… if you find yourself disagreeing with me and constructing counter-arguments of your own, that’s a healthy sign.

The informal style doesn’t mean that it lacks in detail – in fact, often the questioning of assumptions that are built up are the most useful elements and can provide further food for thought. Chapters are also linked to other chapters for further reading; each chapter is listed as “warm up”, “moderate” or “more challenging”. As an introductory text to several key ideas and concepts, it’s both a useful resource and a fun, accessible read.

Some example chapters: Can We Have Morality without God and Religion? Is Creationism Scientific? Why Expect the Sun to Rise Tomorrow? What Is Knowledge? Should You Be Eating That?

Stephen Law’s official college page
Blogs at Stephen Law and Believing Bullshit
Interview on another text, The Philosophy of Christmas
Stephen Law at the BHA Conference 2011:

January 28th – Sophie’s World By Jostein Gaarder

sophies world

Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (FSG Classics) is one of those “gift” books that arrives and promptly becomes an introductory text to philosophy for teachers and parents – not just for children, but for high school and undergrad philosophy classes everywhere.

I still find it on the reading list for Philosophy 100 classes in colleges (it was sold for a while at my college, for example), although it’s probably dropping in popularity, as it was published back in 1994. Since that time there’s been dozens of “introduction” books that have flooded the market (here I’m thinking of Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy: The Basics“; all the Philosophy Gym and Filesbooks by Stephen Law; anything on the best-seller lists by Alain de Botton; What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel and numerous other authors). Pop-culture philosophy books do sell, they can be targeted at the younger years and Sophie’s World is one of the more early popular examples that has paved the way for others. I even got the Sophie’s Journal: Book of Days back in 1999 and chopped up the pages to turn the attractive philosophical descriptions into pretty information banners for my classrooms.

One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, with one question on each: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” From that irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through those letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning—but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined.

As a book, does it hold up to re-reading long after it was published and I picked it up as a must-read bestseller? At 400 pages, this could be condemned as an “Ikea” approach to philosophy, by jamming in as many references and concepts as it can, with synopses of the world’s major philosophers and concepts. Technical terms are tackled deftly, the selection of thinkers is narrowed down and links to the early pre-Socratics all the way to existentialists are maintained to ensure a sense of  history.

Which is kind of the point of this book – it’s a gentle philosophy history book more than anything else and the wide-eyed Scandinavian Alice-in-Wonderland Sophie doesn’t really develop much as a character, nor the owlish Alberto and his wisdom-from-on-high (although that could be due to the twist in revealing their true “identities”). Some omissions include the thinkers Nietzsche, Heidegger and (as Sophie herself points out) the many women who have contributed to (and often been overshadowed) in philosophy.

As “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” are always going to be posed, this book can serve as a useful text for young people interested in those questions – although I’d be surprised if it’s kept in mind as a gift for that audience nearly two decades after it was published. Hopefully it will remain in print and suggested as additional reading on college philosophy courses.

Some other links about the book:

New York Time Review: “To Mr. Gaarder’s credit, many of these lectures are lucid summaries of difficult thought. But many are canned to provide intellectual quick fixes. Democritus’ atoms resemble Lego blocks; Plato’s ideas are cookie molds. Mr. Gaarder’s tour through the past of Western thought will perhaps have the good effect of encouraging some readers to seek out the real thing. But I suspect that most will be content with the bus ride; if it’s Tuesday, this must be Descartes.”

Sophie’s World Chapter Outlines

Sophie’s World Notes (Doc)

Sophie’s World Study Guide (Doc)

The movie Sophie’s World:

January 27th – Books And Philosophy

There’s a number of famous books that are produced by philosophers, and a great number of useful guides to philosophy. Here’s a few that I can recommend to begin with, and I’ll add more reviews of more recent books over the rest of this week.

The Republic by Plato
This book was the first that many will read upon studying philosophy – and Plato’s writing style is quite distinctive. The Republic is one of many Socratic dialogues written by Plato, around 380 BC, on justice and order in the city-state. It’s one of the more influential works in political theory, with its discussions on what constitutes justice and fairness. It also introduces readers to the famous theory of forms, questions about the soul, and what roles do philosophers have in society.

The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
This is Aristotle’s best known work on ethics; and aims to be practical rather than theory alone. It includes an investigation on what elements create a good life, not just reflections upon good living.

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”
What is the best way to establish a political community? What if monarchs do not have divine rights? An influential book in history as well as philosophical thought, as it inspired political reforms in Europe, especially France.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
A text which applies Mill’s ethical system of utilitarianism to society and the state and the importance of individuality, particularly in regards to the ethical system of Utilitarianism.

January 26th – Australian Philosopher Peter Singer

It’s Australia Day! Here’s some links and resources on the philosopher Peter Singer:

Peter Singer’s Official site (and the FAQ).
On The Animal Liberation Movement: its Philosophy, its Achievements and it’s Future (pdf)
Practical Ethics, 3rd edition – and a study guide to the book, prepared by Prof. Bill Felice.
Reading Journal Response to Peter Singer, “Equality and its implications”, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 16-27.
Project Nim reminds us of our responsibility to the great apes (Guardian – other articles)
The Death of Aaron Swartz, NYR blog, January 18, 2013 (with Agata Sagan)
Ethics and Agriculture, January 2013.

The Case Against Peter Singer by Stella Young.

Peter Singer on Ethics:

Ethics, Evolution & Moral Progress (Global Atheist Convention):

January 24th – Interview With Philosopher Alain de Botton

religion for atheists

A little while back I conducted this email interview with Alain de Botton, about his book called Religion for Atheists (2012). He is a Swiss-born/British writer, philosopher, television presenter and entrepreneur, whose books and television programmes discuss various contemporary subjects and themes, emphasizing philosophy’s relevance to everyday life. He has written Essays In Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Status Anxiety (2004) and The Architecture Of Happiness (2006).

There’s a growing number of books that bring a greater understanding (or at least awareness) of atheism to the general public – what do you hope Religion for Atheists will bring to the table?

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.

Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the minuscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.

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January 23rd – Simone de Beauvoir And Philosophy Bites Back (I Won A Copy!)

Sorry for the rather off-topic post, but a little while back I saw this announced on Twitter: a competition to win a copy of the second Philosophy Bites book, Philosophy Bites Back, by authors Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds.

They asked via Twitter to nominate favourite philosophers and why, which you can can view on Storify – and I won runner-up with this Tweet!

Tweet on philosophy

Since this is the week that I’m posting blogposts about historical figures, I’ll consider this a good day to learn about Simone de Beauvoir, if you haven’t before:

Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy:

Identifying herself as an author rather than as a philosopher and calling herself the midwife of Sartre’s existential ethics rather than a thinker in her own right, Beauvoir’s place in philosophy is now gaining traction. The international conference celebrating the centennial of Beauvoir’s birth organized by Julia Kristeva is one of the more visible signs of Beauvoir’s growing influence and status. Her enduring contributions to the fields of ethics,politics, existentialism, phenomenology and feminist theory and her significance as an activist and public intellectual is now a matter of record.

Paris Review: Simone de Beauvoir, The Art of Fiction No. 35.

And of interest: “The Simone de Beauvoir Institute (SdBI) is a college of Concordia University dedicated to studying feminisms and questions of social justice.”

I also recommend listening to the podcast by the authors: Listen to Who’s Your Favourite Philosopher? and I’ll see about reviewing the book for the blog!

January 22nd – Socrates And Plato


For many students of Philosophy, their first introduction to the topic is via the historical figures of Socrates and Plato. I ended up playing a role in a reading of Phaedo, as a part of a course in Classical Philosophy.

There’s a number of resources online that introduce you to these key figures in Philosophy:

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Plato (429–347 B.C.E.) is, by any reckoning, one of the most dazzling writers in the Western literary tradition and one of the most penetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history of philosophy. An Athenian citizen of high status, he displays in his works his absorption in the political events and intellectual movements of his time, but the questions he raises are so profound and the strategies he uses for tackling them so richly suggestive and provocative that educated readers of nearly every period have in some way been influenced by him, and in practically every age there have been philosophers who count themselves Platonists in some important respects.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The philosopher Socrates remains, as he was in his lifetime (469–399 B.C.E.),[1] an enigma, an inscrutable individual who, despite having written nothing, is considered one of the handful of philosophers who forever changed how philosophy itself was to be conceived. All our information about him is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed, but his trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy is nevertheless the founding myth of the academic discipline of philosophy, and his influence has been felt far beyond philosophy itself, and in every age.

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