27 November 2017

The power of philosophy

I was most fortunate to travel with the Philosothon team to Sydney in the first week of the school holidays. I must say it was a pleasure to travel with these young men and to hear them perform in various philosophical discussions or 'communities of inquiry' as they are called within the competition. A community of inquiry refers to the process that students are involved in to develop philosophical arguments and collectively look to answer some deep philosophical questions. Topics such as democracy, the role of values in scientific inquiry and a priori knowledge versus necessary truth were all examined. Led by Mr Sam Sterrett and newly appointed Scholar in Residence, Akram Azimi, the team consisting of Felix Jones (Year 11, Brisbane), Conor Patton (Year 11, Ross), Lewis Orr (Year 10, Ferguson), Kobey Rafferty (Year 10, Shearer), Lachlan Norcott (Year 9, Anderson), Sam Wake (Year 9, Brisbane), Xavier Dry (Year 8, James) and Thomas Westcott(Year 8, Gordon) prepared for several weeks in the lead up to the competition and acquitted themselves well throughout.

What was evident from this process was the inherent value of taking a philosophical approach to any discussion and, importantly, this process included being charitable in one's understanding of different points of view before presenting a counter argument. Young children are want to question and ask numerous 'why' questions about the world and assumptions we just accept at an older age. English philosopher, Stephen Law, describes philosophers as continuing the tendency of young children in asking the why questions. Questioning things we take for granted, he says, is an important skill and the foundation of being a philosopher.

There is a further reason why thinking philosophically can be a valuable exercise. The activity of philosophising can help to foster important thinking skills - skills, Law says, we all need if we are to remain sensitive to the truth. They are often highly transferrable skills that never go out of date. The ability to spot a logical gaffe, cut though waffle, make a point clearly and precisely, and so on, are all abilities that always come in handy, whatever your walk in life. The critical skills developed by philosophy are a practical benefit in other ways too. Law, in his publication Philosophy, states that these skills "immunise us against the wiles of politicians, medical quacks, life-style gurus and many other purveyors of snake oil". There are certain basic mistakes we are all prone to make when it comes to weighing up probabilities and drawing conclusions; and even a little exposure to philosophical and critical thinking can contribute towards making us less vulnerable.

It was pleasing to hear from the Philosothon organiser, Matthew Wills, that the organisers had been able to access funding from the Templeton Religion Trust. This will enable organisers to take the Philosothon and the development of philosophy to a broader educational community and specifically to those from low socio-economic backgrounds. This supports the growing body of evidence that encouraging collective philosophical debate, via activities such as Communities of Inquiry, can have measurable benefits for children, enhancing not just their intellectual intelligence, but their social and emotional intelligence too. I certainly believe our boys demonstrated these attributes as they spoke with poise, passion and consideration about the topics for discussion.

Mr Dean Shadgett
Head of Senior School