How did you first become interested in philosophy?
When I was 11 my brother started A level philosophy (an English academic qualification for students aged 16 – 19 years) and he had an introductory philosophy book with simple language and lots of pictures. It charted important western philosophers from Greece until modernity. I was fascinated by the ideas and questions and found that kind of abstract, conceptual thinking very natural and exciting. When it came to my turn to choose my A levels, I opted for Philosophy too. I had great teachers – Chris who was flamboyant and enthusiastic, and Ian, who was sarcy and dry, and they had this funny double act between them. I remember my first essay question, something like ‘explain why knowledge can be understood as justified true belief’. We were given it before we had been introduced to the idea in class. Thinking it through for myself without relying on facts or others was really satisfying. It felt like home, and I was hooked.
How did your interest in facilitating philosophy with children and the public begin?
I was doing a Philosophy PhD, and my friend who studies legal philosophy told me that our philosophy department were starting a philosophy in prisons project. When I expressed my interest, I was introduced to a philosophical facilitation method called Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI). Included in the training for CoPI was the experience of being part of an inquiry myself. It was an interesting experience, touching on topics relevant to my PhD, but because of the format I was required to respond organically to what people in the group were saying, rather than being able to rely on my specialist knowledge. Then I became the main facilitator in a women’s prison – Corton Vale – and it was an extraordinary experience that I will never forget because of the way the women engaged with it – they were very willing and learned so much over six sessions about how to have discussions and how to think philosophically.
A year or two later, my PhD supervisors asked me where I wanted to go with my PhD, and I mentioned teaching. One supervisor seemed disappointed, but the other suggested I apply for a grant to fund The Philosophy Foundation to travel to Edinburgh and deliver training to myself and other philosophy PhDs in philosophical facilitation, which I did. I really enjoyed the experience and being in one of their inquiries felt quite novel – it was dynamic and exciting, and I felt that this was the best way to do philosophy.
What do you think is the most valuable aspect of engaging in philosophical dialogue?
I think there is something important about collaborative sense-making. By sense-making I mean allowing our inchoate experience of the world to be acknowledged and, sometimes, given form. Our sense-making broadens through listening to others and their way of seeing things, so our fixed ideas are placed among a plethora of possible ways of perceiving and understanding topics. Through dialogue, we lay out the questions and issues around a particular topic, and explore how ideas can be articulated, deconstructed, and connected. I think this sense-making is basically therapeutic: either through acknowledging complexity and ambiguity, or by becoming clearer on what we believe, we gain a firmer sense of our relationship towards ideas, others, and the world. Even if what we gain is the realisation that these relationships are muddled or layered.
What direction do you want to take your facilitation in?
I really want to encourage a way of discussing where participants learn to explore ideas through putting into words their inchoate sense of things, rather than taking positions mainly from what they’ve heard or to win an argument. My intuition is that this requires connecting philosophy to our feelings, body, and creativity, and so my aim is to create sessions that incorporate all these dimensions and supports participant’s attempts to truthfully articulate their sense of things.