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Philosophy in Community and Culture

In opening, I offer some background to the beginnings of Philosophy In Pubs (PIPs) group, which is both philosophy in Culture (or Community) and Philosophy for Adults (P4A). The history of the PIPs is rather brief and is inspired by an appreciation of the role of wonder in our life, coupled with a desire to bring about good community (social) interaction for all through shared understandings, which are wide, deep and rich. Philosophy seems well placed to bring such ideals about, because it explores ideas, beliefs and values using a critical and creative thinking method, in order to gain clarity and refinement of thought. In turn, this approach can lead to a refinement in our motivation, in our being and daily living. However, if an individual or a community is to achieve such a state of existence, then it is not enough just to understand the idea of such a life, one has to practice such a life, this means adopting philosophical habits as a way of being. Furthermore, I think it important to bring about a shift in the role of philosophy, moving it away from the socially disjointed role it currently has, as commonplace amongst an academic elite and closer to the grass roots of community. I like the idea of philosophy as a kind of feed and weed for the community (as lawn), feeding the roots to bring strong healthy growth. A flourishing if you like, and weeding out all that restricts or impoverishes that growth. It is this appreciation that motivates the PIPs as a community project, seeking to engage the community by offering opportunities, training, support and guidance for those who wish to gain philosophical enlightenment.

In this brief overview of P4A either in community or classroom settings, I think it is important not to present an over sentimental or idealistic view of this social practice. To do otherwise would mislead and serve little purpose, particularly for those trying to prepare as facilitator in a P4A setting.

In starting out with a group it is worth being clear about the seven ‘C’s that guide the facilitators role and the groups’ practice in The Community of Philosophical enquiry model. These being, Caring, Co-operative and Collaborative, these first three can be said to be the ethical and emotionally intelligent motivations and attitudes of the enquiry. Critical and Creative, can be seen as the modes of thought aimed at striving for understandings closer to truth, often revealing complexity by widening and deepening thought, leading to greater appreciation of philosophical enquiry. It is important to allow time for reflection in order to refine and increase understandings through Clarification of Comprehension.

The next stage is usually a look at what philosophy is, by encouraging people to talk about it and what attracts them to philosophy. Followed by a view of philosophy as form and content, a view that is coupled with any understandings previously reached in order for the range of views to inform, enrich and clarify each other, rather than the view of philosophy as form and content being designed to supersede their own understanding.

It is not essential that enquirers practice and grasp all these understanding immediately, however, there should be an ongoing guidance by facilitators, aimed towards gradually bringing about these understandings and practices through the enquiry process. It is also important, to be aware that it may be sometime, 3, 6 or 12 months+ before the group as a whole comes to appreciate the seven ‘C’s of a Community Practicing Philosophical Enquiry. Bearing in mind, some people gain ground more speedily than others, here the idea of collaborative thinking practices can help to share and spread understandings amongst an enquiry group.

There are many challenges when working with adult groups in community settings and I have tried to sign post, according to my experiences, the main difficulties. Working with enquiry groups in Pubs, Café Bars, Bistros and Community Centres means environments and the people within them are wide ranging, it can be noisy or smoky in the background, it can be difficult to use flip charts or video stimulus and seating may be cramped.

The environment itself therefore creates a challenge all of it’s own. I suggest that a good relationship with staff and management in such venues can help them to appreciate the needs of your group; any effort to improve the venue and practice coupled with a dash co-operation and of ingenuity from the group, will often make for a conducive, although, rarely an ideal setting, a little like everyday life.

The adult groups seem to attract, what appear to be like minded people, in that they are keen to explore and enquire, however, a closer look reveals the occasional intellectual bully, who judges all around her/him by how many books others have read, the level of qualifications obtained and the type of school and background one has. Such people have little interest in how much understanding a person has gained through the life they have lived or the few books one has read and are keen to show off, quoting sources and dropping grand names readily into the enquiry. I find that it is helpful to acknowledge their efforts but to ask them, for example, what do they think about what such and such (source such as Plato, E. Fromm, etc. or one of the enquiry group members) has said, about Love, Beauty, Reality, Justice, etc. And try to couple their understanding with the groups, to show they are not so far removed in their thinking from those around them. However, there are times when such characters will try to intimidate others with insincere rhetoric and sophistry rather than acting in a co-operative or collaborative spirit, sometimes trying to lead individuals or the group down a path, to their one right answer. I have now started to challenge these people more directly when they persist in doing this, because, it is not good for the group as a whole, nor for me as a facilitator and I suspect it is not such a great way of being for them to be locked into either.

Occasionally, this has meant saying things like, I think your treating this as a game, as an opportunity to show off and score points, your bullying people into positions or leading them, possibly misleading them, to answers and ways of thinking that you believe are right without giving others a chance to weigh up a fuller account. Depending on the circumstances, this can be done to one side during the break and at other times, it is necessary to act in the moment. As facilitator one has, a tight rope to walk, aiming for fairness and collaboration throughout an enquiry, this though is a difficult position to achieve and maintain. I recognise the responsibility I have for the progress of the group, its integrity and the spirit of enquiry lies mainly with me. However, it is very encouraging when other members of the enquiry group feel sufficiently empowered to raise such challenges and concerns of their own accord toward those, who would turn their intellectual capacity into arrogant, snobbish and or bully like practices. I have found in the early stages it is a good idea to remind people that we are here to challenge ideas in themselves and ideas that drive social practice, not each other as people, we practice in order to increase our understanding and not to increase our ego.

One of the other challenges, are people wanting to speak more than others or just taking too long to make their points. Some people will speak more frequently because they are fully connected with the enquiry and are highly stimulated by it. Some people will speak often but frequently repeat earlier points, others wish to say what ever comes into their head whether it connects with the enquiry or not. It takes a while to get a feel for which is the case and it helps when you’ve worked with a group of people over a period of time, as all concerned gradually gain a better feel for each other. I tend to gently encourage people to think through their point before contributing and if things are vague encourage them to take some thinking time until they are clear what it is they wish to say, even if it means backtracking. Also, encourage people to connect with the direction of the enquiry, commenting if they think it will aid progress, and to think whether or not, their point has already been aired or if their contribution will add something subtler, which may help to clarify (meanings or distinctions) and/or increase the account so far.

Occasionally, enquiring members of PIP groups, and some more than others, think-talk in romantic or mystical terms, expressing themselves in what some may call the language of the pseudo profound. This can be a distraction and cause the group to loose focus, if only momentarily. I say this because meaning is often unclear and the ambiguity of that which is abstract is traded upon. I think people do this occasionally because they like to revel in wonder and they enjoy using and playing with language. However, I believe it helps the group and the individual if you can ask for any ambiguity or vagueness to be clarified and if possible firmed up in an example. Examples are a good way of helping us to gain some purchase on abstract (qualities or states, separate from matter, metaphysical/ontological, existential) and vague thoughts, by making them manifest in that which is more concrete (physical, observable or measurable, material, individual and social interactions).

Whilst working with various groups I have come to notice the importance and value the practice of note taking. This may seem an obvious point but I believe it is most important to encourage enquirers to jot down notes during a session. There are many reasons for this but for me there are three main reasons. These being, firstly, you can keep a record of the enquiry as a whole and can review or retrace your steps, where you started, where you ended up and how you got there, which can help with the sort of contribution you make and with later reflections. Secondly, you can record what others say and when the opportunity comes to speak you can backtrack to clear up meanings and distinctions or build on previous points with greater ease, with this in mind, taking notes can be seen as an aid to collaboration. The third and final point on note taking is that it helps one to keep hold of ones own thoughts, so many times I find myself and others saying sorry, I have forgot what I wanted to say, at such times an inner voice now reminds me that this is something that could have been noted down. My friend Paul Doran often makes this point clear for me when he talks of thoughts being like freshly cut flowers, they are beautiful when we catch them in bloom but all too soon, they wither and die.

The final points I wish to make regarding the challenges of P4A are in connection with silences, many adults are uncomfortable with silent pauses and often there is a state of panic when they come, there is an awkwardness followed by, an urgent desire and faltering attempts to fill them. When they do arrive, it can help if one can encourage people to be at ease with them, they are an opportunity to reflect or for our brain to process the information we have received, taking time and care with our thoughts and living is very much at the core of philosophical practice.

Also, some people are more silent during the enquiry than others this can be because others are dominating, some people may be talking too much, and perhaps, the group has one or two who intimidate. Sometimes though, it is because certain individuals are happy to sit and listen. I think it is fine if people do wish to listen and contribute when they are ready. I have learned to become more aware of those who sit back and I believe it only fair to provide them with opportunities to contribute. Therefore, I will occasionally encourage those silent members to share their understandings or to put forward what they think about what has been said so far, of course, it’s fine if they don’t feel like doing this. What I believe is important though, is that regular attempts are made to show they are valued and there is both interest in their ideas and support around their emotional and intellectual being. In addition, it is important as outlined above that overbearing factions in the group, for whatever reason, are discouraged and if necessary challenged in order to create a caring and collaborative spirit of enquiry in practice.

For all the challenges it is most uplifting when you can observe individuals becoming more aware, more fair and open in their thinking, clearer in expressing their thoughts and feeling through dialogue. There is also, great pleasure when people observe in them selves an increasing in the range and richness of connections they make through enquiry and in the relationships they have with each other in the group and beyond.

Recently, I was taken back and found myself marvelling in admiration, at the courage it took for one enquiry member, whom during an enquiry (in The Pari Centre for New Learning, Tuscany, Italy), which touched on quantum theory said, “ I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in god, magic, or any of that stuff but after today, I am not so sure. Maybe I do. And that’s a bit scary for me.” This is, for me, the power of philosophical enquiry; I have no more to add, for this simple quoted statement says so much.