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Philosophy & The Arts

Motivation and Example Lesson Plans

This blog outlines my reasons for incorporating arts into philosophy discussions and gives examples of what I have done, and what I would like to do. 

1. Introduction and Aims

In a world of information-overload, it is paramount that we have the space to go back to basics, work out what we really think and feel, and discuss this with others in an open, accepting and questioning environment. Philosophical enquiries are already the perfect space for the rigorous, critical thinking we desperately need more of. By integrating arts activities into them, I hope to develop philosophical enquiries into spaces that also provide a welcoming environment for people to express themselves, explore issues that matter, and learn creatively.

I understand there to be six reasons for interleaving the arts with philosophical enquiry: 

  • To encourage deep thinking about issues that matter to individuals and society;

  • To encourage emotional and embodied engagement with topics, so participants use their own sense of the world as a starting point for dialogue;

  • To develop ideas that inform artistic practice;

  • To provide enquiries that are more dynamic and interactive, through participants co-creating the stimuli for enquiries;

  • To allow a diversity of activities so: 1. Individuals are challenged to develop different skills. 2. We create an inclusive environment where everyone has an opportunity to do activities they feel confident in.

2. What is Philosophical Enquiry?

Philosophical enquiries involve participants grappling with ideas on their own terms.  This helps them to become better at reasoning, reflecting, and developing their own views on topics.

My sessions include games, activities, and small and large group discussions. The role of the facilitator is to structure sessions to include these elements in a way that is fun and allows in-depth exploration of a particular topic.

Facilitators also traditionally provide a stimulus which acts as a starting point for dialogue. For example, the facilitator may tell a story, which leads to a particular question from the facilitator, or which is used to provoke questions from participants. From this initial discussion, facilitators also identify ‘emergent questions’, or encourage participants to identify emergent questions  - which are questions that emerge from the participants discussion. 

A philosophical discussions can be about almost any subject. Traditional questions concern, for example, who we are and whether we are the same person through time, how to lead  a good life, and what it means for objects to exist. However, we can approach other questions philosophically, for example, what is our place in nature? how should we treat our environment? and, how should we understand social justice issues such as race and gender?

Facilitators encourage participants to think about their views, why they hold them, and whether they should hold them. This helps participants to improve their critical thinking skills, encouraging participants to think independently and develop their views. Facilitators also encourage participants to understand what others believe and why, and to respond respectfully and with an open-mind.  This allows participants to develop their social skills, becoming more able to understand and engage with other people’s perspective. 

3. Philosophy and the Arts - A Rationale

Philosophical enquiry traditionally favours verbal dialogue over other methods of meaning-making. While this is a reasonable limitation in many contexts, as a facilitator I am interested in collaborating with artists to find ways of using the body and the senses to help participants explore multiple ways of understanding themselves and the world. 

Philosophical thinking is often thought of as the pinnacle of abstraction, but engaging exclusively in verbal exchange can lead to philosophy that gets lost in logical puzzles, combative arguments, and an over-emphasis on issues that are irrelevant to our daily lives and the world we live in. 

Creative practices that engage us emotionally could work together with philosophical discussions to help people express their deepest sense of the world, and help participants to develop their views and learn about how others approach the world. 

I understand this interaction to work two-ways - that creative practice is important for philosophical exploration and understanding and that philosophical exploration is important for making sense of creative practice, potentially improving it, and helping us integrate creative activities into our wider experience and understanding. 

Philosophical enquiries traditionally involve a facilitator presenting a stimulus, to which participants respond. A collaboration between philosophy and the arts provides a way to expand pedagogical technique, and include participants in the creation of the stimulus. This immersive environment both allows participants more agency over their learning, and provides further creative space. 

4. Past Sessions

4.1. Creation Stories for RMPS

Along with my colleague Daniela Machado, I created and led a series of lessons on Creation Stories for high school Religious Moral and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) classes. As part of the curriculum, creation stories contain deeply philosophical questions about God and existence. 

We created a series of lessons that included philosophical enquiries, short artistic activities and longer creative projects. 

  • To help students understand what Genesis meant to them, we gave students different parts of the story and told them to create an abstract representation of it using one colour of crayon. Students then walked around the classroom showing their pictures to other students and trying to guess what part of the story the picture represented. In the next sessions, students came up with philosophical questions about the story of Genesis, and chose one to discuss.

  • To help students learn about the Big Bang theory, students were asked to work in groups to create powerpoint presentations that would help a five year olds understand it. After evaluating their own work, they discussed the philosophical questions they had in relation to the Big Bang. 

  • To help students compare and evaluate Genesis and the Big Bang, they organised a “courtroom” scenario where the stories were pitted against each other. The class was split in half and students worked in small groups to create costumes, design flags, write arguments, or decide on the criteria for how to choose between the sides. This was followed by a discussion.

4.2. Pianodrome Philosophy

The Pianodrome is an amphitheatre made out pianos destined for the dump. 

The first session of Pianodrome Philosophy occurred in Inverleith House, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh (RBGE), during the Pianodrome residency and exhibition, before a completed Pianodrome had been built:

  • After a game, participants were invited to walk around the exhibit for five minutes. They were then asked what that experience was like, and a short enquiry on the experience followed. 

  • Participants were then told a story about the Pianodrome being replaced with different bits of pianos through time, and held an enquiry on whether ‘It would be the same Pianodrome?’. 

  • If there hadn’t been an interruption to this session, the next enquiry would have started with the question ‘If you could ask a piano a question, what question would it be?’ Participants then would have chosen one question to focus on. 

The second session was held in the finished Pianodrome, during its run in the RBGE. Participants were told the same Pianodrome story as in the first session, and a deeper enquiry with a few emergent questions was held.

4.3. Take One Action Films

Take One Action is an organisation that shows films on social and environmental justice issues, and holds conversations about them. 

  • I facilitated discussions on environmental films for Take One Action. 

  • After ‘Fractured Lands’, a film about fracking on indigenous territory in Canada, I shuffled the audience members up using a game. 

  • I then asked audience members to talk to their neighbours about their thoughts and feelings on the film. 

  • We then had a conversation that started with a question I had pulled out of the film, and led to several emergent questions from the participants. 

  • We finished with ‘final thoughts’ where each participant had the opportunity to say what an important thought or feeling they were left with. 

5. Future Directions

5.1. Philosophy in Musical Improvisation

This was a grant proposal to work in collaboration with the improvisation trio SiNK, and a storyteller. While the funding application wasn’t successful, it acts as an example of what is possible. 

Bringing together music, drama and discussion, the aim was to enable musicians to explore their theatrical side, and the theory and practice of improvisation. During a two-day workshop, participants would have been led through various activities, where improvisation and drama leads to discussions and vice versa. Discussion would have been facilitated by myself with SiNK, a three-piece experimental band, teaching musical improvisation, and a storyteller-musician working with participants to develop their skills in musical theatre. 

Philosophical enquiry themes would have been co-developed through these workshops with the participants, but initial ideas included exploring the relationship between improvisation and expression/speech, and the spontaneity of improvisation in relation to consciousness and free-will. 

5.2. Who we are

I am interested in working with dance and drama practitioners and teachers to use the body and movement as a starting point into enquiries about who we are. The idea would be to use dance and movement to express our feelings about what it is like to be ourselves, potentially including how we develop and change through time. 

One way to do this would to begin with a philosophical enquiry before engaging with a dance activity, then using the dance experience as material for reflection for another enquiry. 

Participants could begin with the Ship of Theseus enquiry, which is a common way to introduce participants to philosophical enquiry. In this story, Theseus travels round the world in his ship, fighting monsters and foes. As he does so, bit of his ship crumble and break, and are replaced with new bits of wood. By the time he retires, Theseus’s ship has been entirely replaced with new bit of wood. So - is it the same ship as when he first set sail? This enquiry normally continues into questions about whether we are the same person through time. If so, what is it that makes us the same? Other enquiries could be used or created to provoke discussion on what makes us who we are. 

After conceptual reflection about what makes us who we are, participants could engage with creating movements individually, in pairs, or groups to explore their feelings on this further. I would like to work with a dance or drama teacher to develop this idea further. 

5.3 Philosophy in Nature

This interactive and engaged approach to enquiry can also be extended to working outside with participants, including by appreciating our natural surroundings, to begin thinking about our place in the world, and how we treat our environment. Although this isn’t an arts activity, it shares a lot of the structure, by engaging people through movement and experience.

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