How not to teach philosophy

14th February 1997 at 00:00
The Sophie's World Workbook By Peer Olsen, Green Submarine, #163;16

When is philosophy not philosophy? When it is being "taught", is the response I came to after reading this book.

Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World became something of a publishing sensation when it first appeared in 1991. Few would have guessed that a book on philosophy written in Norwegian and intended for teenagers would be likely to hit the bestseller list in several different languages, but that is exactly what happened.

Gaarder's technique was to trace the history of philosophy via a fantasy plot which bore hints of Alice in Wonderland . But what seemingly started as a mere sugaring of the pill became more dominant as the book proceeded, until I was reminded more of Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea and Ged's pursuit of the name and identity of the shadow. Gaarder's genius was that the philosophy was in the fantasy as much as in the facts that Sophie kept discovering.

Now we have The Sophie's World Workbook . It begins well. The introduction declares: "The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder." There is the danger that "as we get older we find our own niche in life and stop asking ourselves questions". Here, surely, is the justification for doing philosophy with children and adolescents.

There is, however, another emphasis to this book. It is that of "building a sound knowledge of our culture and the history of thought". It too sounds unexceptional, but there is a subtle and highly significant difference between it and the earlier aims. Is philosophy about the process or about the stuff, about the verb or about the noun? And if it is about both, which comes first? To philosophise is to learn to think. This is what philosophers do. But to study what philosophers have thought is an altogether different exercise. It is to learn - period.

For example, Wittgenstein's Tractatus caused terrible problems when it was submitted for a Cambridge doctorate. Such theses are usually more than 50 pages long and possess a detailed bibliography. His makes almost no references. He simply argues from one logic-mathematical statement to the next to demonstrate the scope of the rational, of what can be said. It was,of course, pure genius, original thought from first to last. But no thesis on Wittgenstein would dare to take such liberties.

Sadly, this workbook appears not to notice this tension between its aims. It is the learning which predominates. I was left with the unfortunate impression that Gaarder did not fully realise how the philosophical value of Sophie's World lies in its narrative element, as much as, if not more than, in its explicit philosophical material, which Sophie "learns".

We need philosophy in our classrooms. We need sharper discussions to replace much of the mere swapping of second-hand opinions that characterises so much classroom practice, especially in personal, social and moral education.

For me this workbook, for all its good intentions, has got the proportions wrong. Its map of our philosophical world, from Homer's myths to neo-Thomism, would frighten many an honours graduate. Its hard sell is also off-putting: "It is absolutely essential to have sufficient copies of the text (of Sophie's World)." I believe that, like Alice, we should start by saying what we mean and meaning what we say, without thinking they amount to the same thing. Similarly, with Sophie we might come to know when we are reading a story and when we are the story. Then we can start to tackle Plato.

Dr Jack Priestley is Principal of Westhill College, Birmingham. He reviewed Sophie's World in The TES on March 3 1995

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