Philosophy Education As Practice for Working and Thinking Together

“I think one of the most profound effects that we could have… is to give people practice in having productive conversations about important issues that are unclear to us and that we disagree about.”

[Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Three Women Conversing” (detail)]

That’s Greg Restall, professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, in an interview with the Undergraduate Philosophy Journal of Australasia. It was in response to a question about whether learning logic changes the way students engage with the world. He says:

I think one of the most profound effects that we could have—which I think is shared with other kinds of philosophy we teach—is to give people practice in having productive conversations about important issues that are unclear to us and that we disagree about (for which, at least in some cases, the stakes are pretty high). We have discussions, try to reason together about things where the issues are not settled beforehand and we care about the answers. For example, a lot of people care about the relationship between the mind and the body, how we are to live together, or whether or not God exists. In many of those discussions the personal and social stakes are high, we disagree about the answers and we don’t even know what the rules of the game are.

Having an intellectual discipline where we can do that, and not only do that but practise… I think that’s a very profound and special thing to be able to learn… and something the world needs more of! I know I sound preachy… but that’s why I teach philosophy. We just practice doing this, and hopefully we learn how to do it better and better, and we can learn the merits of understanding what’s getting said when somebody gives a reason for something. And what I try and get my logic students to do is to understand the different ways you can clarify things by understanding the difference between: (i) ‘I disagree with you just because I think the conclusion that you’ve said is wrong’ (aka ‘I just want to reflect on the fact without really knowing what to say about the path that you’ve taken to get to your conclusion’) and (ii) ‘I actually agree with you about your conclusion but I don’t think there is a really good reason for it, and here’s why’. Being able to change the way we work together and think together is meaningful. When we do that well, does it change the way we view the world? Hopefully, yes.

In response to another question about misconsceptions about philosophers, Professor Restall emphasizes the creative aspects of the discipline:

I think the biggest misconception that people have about philosophers, or at least as I would like philosophers to be, is that we are the kind of people who are sitting back and evaluating and criticising everything rather than engaging in conceptual creativity for themselves and for others. I think that the most interesting critical work in philosophy is critical in order to open up space for creation of new possibilities and understanding. And that’s where the fun, the life, and the interest lie, in opening up forms of possibility and understanding for people.

You can read the whole interview here.

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Robert Bloomfield
1 year ago

I am just about to launch a course that puts deliberation front and center. There are also plenty of preconceptions about what I teach (Accounting), namely that it’s all about numbers. But really what we do is take extremely contentious issues–how to hold people accountable, and how to account for their performance–and deliberate to find good answers. Another preconception about Accounting is that it’s boring. That has a lot of truth to it, but it’s more a feature than a bug: it’s hard to find consensus on issues when everyone is riled up!

I want to caution that if anyone wants to focus on deliberation as I or the original post describe, be prepared to make a LOT of other changes. As soon as I took the deliberation approach, walking students through how to discuss something like “How do we improve our compensation system?”, I had to completely rearrange the order in which I introduced the relevant course material, because students need to understand the basic problem they are trying to address before they need to know detailed terminology, distinctions, or tools to address that problem.

Here’s what I tell my students about deliberation at the very beginning of the course:

Accounting and Deliberation
People often ask “Is Accounting an art or a science?” The answer is neither: Accounting is a craft, because it has the three elements of a craft spelled out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. First, we make things. Carpenters make furniture; accountants make accounting systems. Second, the things we make are designed to serve a practical goal—to improve performance, however we define it. Third, achieving that practical goal requires a lot of skills that we can articulate and teach to others. Many skills are best learned on the job, because they have to be tailored to each system’s specific hardware and software, and that changes from one organization to another, and one year to the next. But there is one skill that is best learned in school: how to lead a deliberation that will help us make our systems better. This skill is universal and timeless.

Deliberation is a special type of conversation, in which people work together toward a shared goal. In accounting, that goal is to serve the beneficiaries of performance, who might be investors, employees, customers, citizens, or societies. Deliberation isn’t negotiation, because people aren’t trying to use their power to get their way; they are trying to use understanding to serve their shared goal. Deliberation isn’t debate, because people aren’t trying to win an argument, they are trying to understand how the shared goal can best be achieved. Of course, deliberation often devolves into negotiation, because the common goal gets overshadowed by conflicts of interest, and often devolves into debate because differing understandings lead people to pick different sides of an issue, and dig in.

It takes skills to keep deliberations on track, and you’ll learn those skills in this course. You’ll learn to keep the conversation focused on the questions that matter: What shared goals are we not achieving? Which shortcomings are likely to have accounting solutions? What does the accounting system need to do better?  What tools can you use to improve the system? What new problems will come with those changes, and how can they be minimized?

Every topic in this course comes with a Deliberation Guide that you can use to lead deliberations about how to improve some aspect of performance, by remaking some aspect of an accounting system. All of the videos, readings, and activities associated with a topic are designed to help you use the Deliberation Guides as effectively as possible. The result is a course that is heavy in hands-on, how-to skill building. You’ll practice those skills in class, where the stakes are low, so when you’re ready, you can put them to work where they really matter.