RIYADH: Expert speaker at Riyadh Philosophy Conference thinks philosophizing with children is essential for their personal growth as people and as individuals in society, and for adults to perhaps see different perspectives on their established belief systems.
Christopher Phillips, American author and educator, is a man with a mission: to open the world to the idea of learning from children. He is known for initiating the Socrates Cafe, meetings for philosophical discussion held in places such as cafes, schools, nursing homes and churches. It was also the title of the first in a series of philosophical books he wrote, which also includes children’s books “The Philosophers’ Club” and “Ceci Ann’s Day of Why”.
The Kingdom’s first international philosophy conference was held this week at the King Fahd National Library in Riyadh. The three-day event, which began on December 8, is organized by the Saudi Commission for Literature, Publishing and Translation of the Ministry of Culture. Participants included experts in the philosophy and its theories as well as people interested in its modern applications around the world.
The event was aimed at an audience with diverse interests, experiences and academic and professional backgrounds. The aims of the conference, which is expected to be an annual event, include discussions of the latest developments in philosophy and its contemporary applications
Phillips began his speech at the event using the well-known example of a proverbial partially filled glass and the question of whether it is half empty or half full.
“Why does it have to be one or the other?” He asked. “Why not both or why not nothing at all?” Or what is on the surface of the water in the glass: is it air or water?
These are some of the answers to the question Phillips has been asked by kids over the years, which he says opened his mind to a whole new way of looking at things.
Phillips told Arab News that everyone should look at the world through a child’s lens, with an inquisitive curiosity open to all possibilities of truth, rather than entering into intellectual exchanges and discussions with rigid assumptions. . He calls this being an “openist” or “openism.”
According to the openist philosophy, anything can be challenged, but not in a way that seems hostile. On the contrary, it should open the perceptions of aspects of life to entirely new, hitherto unconsidered avenues of understanding. That’s the beauty of dialogue and intertwining different cultural and ideological backgrounds, he says, and a big part of that is conversing philosophically with children about the “whys” of life.
Phillips, who studied for his bachelor’s degree in the United States, has three master’s degrees in natural sciences with a major in DNA science and a doctorate in communication, for which he wrote a thesis on the Socratic method of inquiry.
“I love academia,” he said. “I regret that we don’t inspire lifelong learners, that we make lessons intimidating. We can often tend to suck in a child’s desire to learn more about chemistry, physics, and biology, which are the building blocks of so much.
“People who take an English course instead of being inspired to write their own works are criticized for grammar; it’s all about grammar. When I was a reading teacher in Maine, I used to tell my kids, “Don’t worry about the grammar, just tell the story.” We’ll deal with grammar later.
Phillips said when he was working on his first book, it was the same approach his publisher took with him. It made him feel like he had the freedom, creativity and imagination to think and write, he explained, which made his work much more insightful and meaningful. The writing shouldn’t be about the details early on, he said, it should be about the bigger picture – the details being ironed out later.
“We have all these people teaching us the most microscopic little things, without giving us a sense of the possibilities and the bigger picture,” Phillips said. “So what I do is give workshops in schools for teachers. I teach them to ask fundamental questions that are timeless in nature, that relate to their discipline, that they feel perplexed about and that they can learn about with the children.
“It’s a very rigorous and difficult exercise, but then it improves their relationship with their students. The idea is to fall in love with the disciplines, to realize that there are no clear boundaries between art and science; that maybe the whole idea is to live a life of poetic science, of poetic sensibility.
Phillips said his methods were well received and very successful in the schools he introduced them to. Some teachers told her that their students are now more engaged in learning because they understand better what it means to learn on their own. Rather than imposing lessons on them, it now feels like a moral and personal duty that contributes to their growth as individuals in society.
Teach them the “why” not the “what” as Phillips says.
“A teacher will kind of say, ‘Chris, what did you do to that kid? Suddenly she is inspired to learn? I say, “Yeah, because now she sees a reason to develop her reading, her writing, her arithmetic, because it helps her in her arsenal of introducing philosophical thought to provide evidence from these various disciplines.”
In addition to philosophizing with children, Phillips also has discussions with inmates and terminally ill people.
“I go to prisons: maximum security, minimum security,” he said. “There are wise people in there who have done some really reckless things. But how many of us can look in the mirror and say, with honesty, that we are not ourselves, perhaps to a lesser degree.
“The deepest part of my outreach at our nonprofit, SocratesCafe.com, is with terminally ill children and adults. During the pandemic, they have been cut even further. So many of them, their loved ones died, you know, bereft of family, and yet they have so much wisdom to share.
“And so, with the time they have left, it’s so important to create a space where they can philosophize and get away from all the other things that are going on in their lives.”
Phillips started the Socrates Cafe in 1996, and now there are around 500 cafes meeting regularly around the world, including eight in Saudi Arabia.
In a Socrates café, people from different backgrounds come together and exchange philosophical perspectives based on their experiences, using a version of the Socratic method developed by Phillips. Its foundation lies in the idea of offering a Socratic dialogue to anyone who wishes to become a more empathetic, objectively critical and creative philosophical researcher.
“Socratic research is akin to the scientific method; it was no coincidence that I studied the natural sciences,” Phillips explained. “It’s about positing or hypothesizing about a point of view, whether ethical or scientific, and then testing it, seeing if it leads to what you thought it would be and if that is not the case, then you readjust, you revisit, you exit.
“This area of ethical moral research, for me, is completely intertwined with the sciences; it is about cultivating a social conscience.