Updated: Feb 21
Before establishing Argent Education, I worked as a specialist philosophy teacher in a local sixth form college. It was wonderful for many reasons. The freedom of thought, the logical rigour and of course, the debates. Many of my students went on to read philosophy at university and a number are now academics in their own right. As a teacher, it made me immensely proud.
But I did have worries.
Philosophy has often had a bad rap. Unsurprisingly, I think its reputation as a 'soft' subject is undeserved, but, to a degree understandable. Many people do not necessarily have a deep understanding of the subject, and quite frankly, why should they? In part this is the subject's fault. Many contemporary philosophers delight in the seriousness of their subject and if I was being unfair, I might say they enjoy making it deliberately inaccessable. You can have pleasant views from an ivory tower.
But there are also cultural issues. Some might say Britain is not really a country that admires intellectuals in their own right. Historically, the builders and makers and shakers have been the figures of admiration. People who have expertise in a particular field and can then do something with it. Philosophy can diagnose an issue, but can it provide solutions?
My worries changed about six years ago during a conversation with a student towards the end of the day. He was working in my classroom on his history work and asked me whether I thought "history was real" (Full disclosure: he was also a philosophy student). Struck by his question, and not really sure of my own thoughts, I asked him for his view (a tried and tested teacher technique to give precious thinking time). His reponse was impressive.
"Yes, but only as real as any other idea. It exists in the mind and can change depending upon the culture of the time in which the historians lived"
I can't really remember the rest of the conversation (I think we broadly agreed) but the eloquence of his answer and the evidence of deep, serious thought made a great impression. This student was 17 and preparing for his AS exams (as they then were), but had clearly thought quite seriously about something on which he would never be tested.
It was rejuvenating to see intellectual scrutiny alive and well. He was revising for his history exam but also thinking on a deeper level, "what is history?" and "is it real?". As a philosophy teacher it was marvellous to see.
But so what?
Well, it was an important answer. It was evidence of a student that was not just thinking about his examination or only the answers that would get him the top grades. He did as it happens achieve top grades, but I don't believe it was in spite of his intellectual excursions but because of them. It was evidence of a flexibility of thought and an intellectual confidence to pursue an idea to its logical conclusion.
And this is the key point. Philosophy is not and never was, a soft subject. The application of logical thought is paramount to the subject and something A level students begin at 16. The process of formal argument, with a coherent structure will help an individual in any stage of their life. Actually, help isn't the right word there. It will enhance their life by ensuring they think critically about life.
The ancient Greeks had a difficult relationship with philosophy. We often think (and teach) that Western Philosophy began during the pre-Classical period and developed with the rise of Athens. This is true, but the cynicism with which philosophy was viewed by many is often downplayed.
In fact cyncism itself derives from a philosophical approach. Diogenes developed the Cynic (derived from kynikos: dog-like, root of the latinised canine) school of thought, which was essentially to treat everything with a heavy dose of scepticism. (Diogenes eschewed the perceived hypocracy of civilised Athens and roamed the city with his trusty mutts). Diogenes fell out with Plato and famously, in response to a request from Alexander the Great to name any wish, he replied "move out of the way, you're blocking my sun".
The most famous philospher, Socrates, was no exception. Many were sceptical of his motivations and although approving of his war service to Athens during the war against Sparta, resented his constant and dogged questioning.
This approach of asking questions became known as the elenchus, the Sorcratic method. It is a wonderful way to ascertain the validity of a premise or enrage someone. My young son is a natural with the Sorcratic method.
"Why is the bus big?" he asks
"To carry more passengers" I respond
"Why?" he asks
.... I pause
"Why?" he persists
"Its more efficient to carry lots of people at one time" I offer lamely
"Why?" he asks (again)
"Because... its better to be efficient than inefficient"
"It just is" I mutter, beaten, by my four year old.
Children are natural philosophers and they hold to the path of Socrates. Children do not take answers for granted and insist on a clear chain of thought. Each "why" is an attempt to seek more clarification, to build a bigger and more detailed idea.
Socrates asked those questions of people with considerable political power. The answers they gave did not satisfy him and eventually, he was executed on dubious charges.
So, philosophy might be dangerous?
Well, yes. It doesn't quite seem as soft now does it? Applied to more modern times it is not surprising that during the dark history of the 20th century, many academics, many of them philosophers, were killed due to their tendancy to ask difficult questions of dangerous individuals.
If we look at contemporary Britain and the current quality of political discourse, we might wonder to what extent the quality of critical thinking has declined. Equally, we might consider it quite marvelous that there are heated debates about the finer points of constitutional law. An engaged polis is surely better than a disengaged one?
I would love philosophy to be a compulsory element to the National Curriculum. There certainly seems to be a stronger case for it than Religious Education, which often examines philosophical themes through certain lenses.
It is important to address the main criticism levelled against philosophy. The old joke, "what's the first question a philosophy student asks after graduating?" "Do you want fries with that?"
Leaving aside the elitist and snobbish aspect of the joke it does raise a legitimate concern.
With students taking on large amounts of student debt (and interest) often there is an assumed importance of utilising study to maximise returns. This maximisation of pleasure and happiness is itself a philosophical approach but many students interested in Philosophy, Classical Civilisation or other humanities might choose a more 'mainstream' (for want of a better word) subject. The route of this may be due to the (arbitary) distinction of facilitating subjects which argubly narrows student choice too early. It is important that students move towards the subjects which interest them, as this will lead to greater success and it will benefit them in the long run.
Here at Argent we offer introductory philosophy clubs for kids over the summer holidays as well as year round one to one tuition. Young philosophers are introduced to ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics of mind and elementary logic. It is an opportunity for them (and us adults) to move back to the elenchus and begin to ask "why?" again.
By breaking down our assumptions and building them back up, using logical reasoning, we can grasp truths we may have taken for granted or never considered. A philosophical individual can think in a clear and rational way. It leads to the development of problem solving and critical thinking skills which can benefit the study of any subject. It is not easy and nor should it be. But it can make a wonderful difference to a child (or adults) approach to society and the world.
So, is philosophy a soft subject? No. Its hard, and that is what makes it essential.