Workshop June 14th 2013

BC Workshop on “Engaged Philosophical Inquiry”: UBC, 14 June 2013 from 1-4 pm

Protocol by Steven Taubeneck

            The Workshop on June 14, 2013, arose from the BC Conference on Promoting “Engaged Philosophical Inquiry,” which was held at UBC on May 3, 2013, from 1-4 pm.  In May, many attendees had asked for a follow-up meeting to discuss “engaged philosophical inquiry” more thoroughly, and to give an example of a “community of inquiry.”  What is the history of this project, and what are its structures?  How do we create a “community of inquiry?” Dr. Barbara Weber and Dr. Susan Gardner agreed to hold the workshop in June.  There will be another meeting on August 23 to take the discussion further, and on October 10, Professor Eva Marsal from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany is scheduled to give a talk at UBC. It was also announced that the UBC webpage for these events is currently under reconstruction, in an attempt to avoid the advertisements popping up our present wiki epi page.  We briefly discussed the possibilities of taping the meeting, either by videotaping or with an audio tape recorder.  But the general consensus was that we should forego the taping, in order to preserve the greatest spontaneity in the discussion.

Introduction (Dr. Barbara Weber)

            The Workshop was to focus on “engaged philosophical inquiry” in the context of a “community of inquiry.”  First we would focus on philosophical inquiry; then we would apply it to specific situations from everyday life.  How is good reasoning, for example, different from bad reasoning, and how does this fit into the understanding of “engaged philosophical inquiry?”

With regard to the question of how to promote “engaged philosophical inquiry” in the BC educational system, it was reported that Wayne Henry brought up this topic at the BC Philosophy articulation meeting and he got unanimous support for attempting to do this. The question, now, is “how do we go forward?” Wayne has agreed to spearhead this initiative and will report back to us in August.

The next step was to go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves.

The following is a list of the participants and their affiliations:

Dr. Hillel Goelman, Human Development, Learning and Culture, and Head, ISGP, UBC
Bruce Moghtader, graduate student, HDLC, UBC
Iris Berger, PhD student (early childhood concentration), Educational Studies, UBC
Lyle Crawford, PhD student, Philosophy, SFU
Dr. Steven Taubeneck, German and Philosophy, UBC
Lu-Vada Dunford, Philosophy, UBC, and Yonsei University, South Korea
Dr. Claudia Ruitenberg, Educational Studies, UBC
Dr. Jennifer Vadeboncoeur, HDLC, UBC
Marc Legacy, Education, SFU
James Bigari, PhD student, Educational Studies, UBC
Tiffany Poirier, Surrey school teacher
Dr. Susan Gardner, Philosophy, Capilano University
Dr. Barbara Weber, HDLC, UBC

First Session: Dr. Susan Gardner, “The Community of Inquiry”

            The Workshop was organized in two main sessions, with the first part led by Dr. Susan Gardner from Capilano University. The question of “engaged philosophical inquiry” includes the issue of “philosophy for children,” and how this can be facilitated in schools.  However, Susan uses the Community of Inquiry in all her classes at Capilano University.  For the Workshop, Susan brought a list of six topics borrowed from questions raised by her students in one of her Philosophy and Gender classes.  In her view, the questions must be real questions, that is, they must involve issues that really interest the participants, and be one to which the facilitator does not know the answer.  Her role would be to facilitate the discussion of the questions.  The Workshop participants were to choose one of the topics “as the focus for communal inquiry.”  Susan played a very dynamic role in this discussion.  Her emphasis was not only on the lived experience of the each participant and their personal relation to the question, but she also stressed that the discussion should lead to the potential for a decision, or action, on everyone’s part.  She was frequently insisting on this, and encouraged us all to be more decisive.  For about seventy-five minutes she was able to keep the discussion moving, lively and compelling. The following are the six questions Susan wanted the participants to consider:

  1. Kant argues that in a sexual relationship in which there is no long-term commitment, the individuals concerned always treat one another as things not persons, and hence casual sexual liaisons are always wrong.  I agree/disagree.
  2. Some might argue that women look their best when they look “sexually inviting,” e.g., a lot of cleavage etc., while it is not the case that men look their best when they look “sexually inviting,” e.g., tight pants with a lot of bulge showing.  Is this true?  And if so, why?
  3. Engels argued that the only difference between a prostitute in the street and the financially dependent wife is that the latter “does not hire out her body, like a wageworker, on piecework, but sells it into slavery once for all.”  I agree/disagree.
  4. It could be argued that since modern marriages rarely last a lifetime, all marriages should be undertaken for only specific periods of time, with the option of renewal.  I agree/disagree.
  5. We should have no marriages; only contracts with regard to child care.  I agree/disagree.
  6. It could be argued that having a more permissive view of adultery would decrease divorce rates and that therefore we ought to have a more permissive view of adultery.  I agree/disagree.

Of these six questions, the overwhelming majority of the participants picked number 4.  The discussion in the first session of the Workshop focused on question #4 from about 1.15 until 2.45 pm.  It was an engaging discussion, with everyone participating variously, and with many different perspectives.  The following is a reconstruction of the conversation:

Hillel offered the first comments, and began by questioning the question: why was it posed dichotomously?  In fact, throughout the discussion there were questions raised about the questions and in general the very issue of questioning itself became a central theme of the Workshop.  Susan encouraged us to think of our positions in relations to the questions, and Hillel answered by saying, in response to question #4, that “it depends.”  There were a variety of factors on which his answer would depend, but he emphasized that it would be very hard to generalize about such issues.  Thus too, the very practice of generalization became a theme throughout the discussion.  It was mentioned that perhaps the question could read, “Ideally marriages might be given the option of renewal.”

Tiffany mentioned the idea of the “veil of ignorance” from John Rawls, whereby one is asked to imagine a situation from the position of “ignorance” before entering the situation.  But, it was said: would you go into a marriage totally blind?  What position would one be in, before entering a marriage?  Would it be “ignorant,” in most cases?  Tiffany asked, further, about the point of taking a vow for a lifetime?  Perhaps a temporary vow would take some of the pressure off the marriage, and would allow people to renew their vows or not, depending on their positions.  There was a kind of confusion around the question: what was really being asked? At this point Claudia intervened and made the point that, since marriage is a contract, one should be able to choose the length of time for the contract before entering the situation.  Her view provoked considerable discussion: is marriage really a contract, primarily, or is it rather a question of love, romance, and commitment forever?  Different people took different positions, some for the idea of a contractual understanding of marriage and some against it.  Some were undecided.

Claudia stressed that the response to the question would depend on how one views marriage, but that a culture of making practical contracts at the point of marriage might not be a bad suggestion.                                                                                                                           But, Lu-Vada asked, why not understand marriage for a lifetime?  The idea would be that it would increase the concentration of both partners, their willingness to learn from each other and to share in their discoveries together.  An opportunity for reflection could and probably should be built in to such a process, a moment of taking stock, the chance to think about renewal in the context of a lifelong relationship.  There are clearly advantages for lifetime commitments, why should these be discarded?

Bruce felt that the discussion was developing a contrast between the idea of marriage as a contract and the idea of marriage as a lifetime commitment, but that either way the arrangement would involve a commitment.  Shouldn’t the actual commitment of the two partners simply be articulated and agreed upon in advance?

Jim asked about the benefits of a commitment at all: why make such commitments?  For him the idea of making a lifetime commitment allows for the notion of working on a relationship, and then achieving a kind of excellence, accomplishing a virtuous relationship as well as becoming a virtuous person.  Jim was consistently interested in asking philosophical questions about the practical matters under discussion.  What is virtue, for example, and how can virtue be understood in either committed or non-committed relationships? Barbara considered the benefits of the temporary vs. the permanent commitment, and felt that there could be benefits to both understandings.  For her, one of the central issues is the question of making promises and making a promise for a lifetime (which seems impossible), in actuality might enable us to actualize the ‘impossible’, i.e., to stay and love a person (although both are changing and those changes can’t be predicted or as Kierkegaard says: we are ‘an existence in motion’) for a lifetime.  As Nietzsche said, for example, the human is that being capable of making promises.  Which promises would be made under the different understandings of marriage?  How might such promises involve love, or romance, and are love and romance necessary for marriage?

Iris asked whether question #4 was a philosophical question at all, or a cultural one.  She mentioned, for example, one of the understandings of marriage in Israel, and how the question of a marriage contract has been debated there.  Especially from the point of view of her husband, someone who does marriage counselling as a philosophical counsellor, there would be no point in working on a marriage relationship if it were only short-term.  As the discussion pursued a conceptual clarification of the issues, along with the very notions of “marriage,” “promise,” or “commitment,” different participants took different positions at different times.  The discussion followed the paths of a non-linear, spreading, occasionally intensifying expansion.

Lyle mentioned that, since it is relatively easy to get a divorce, there is not much difference between the current legal situation of marriages and the notion of a short-term, renewable contract.  It seems that the current situation might actually involve less hassle than the renewal process, and therefore, from a strictly pragmatic position, be preferable.

For Steven, one of the main problems was the very wording of the question.  Not only was the dichotomous “agree/disagree” structure a problem, but the idea that “all marriages should be undertaken for only specific periods of time” was too authoritarian and too broad.  In his view, marriage should be left to the wishes of those involved.  At any rate the state should not be involved in the details.

At this point, a number of questions arose: is everyone who marries a hypocrite, since there is always the option of divorce?  Does everyone who marries think it will work?  How many would get married without the option of divorce?  What is the concept of commitment in a democratic society?

Jen responded by noting that the discussion had not necessarily clarified the concept, or the issues at stake, but had raised her awareness of the complexities involved in marriage.   In fact, she said, there is a way out of marriage, so really it is not so much of a problem today. The more demanding path is the one asking for renewal within a marriage, without either state legislation or the move to divorce.

Susan then made the comparison between being committed in a marriage to being committed to one’s children. Do we not commit to our children?  Are we lesser people for not committing?  What does the commitment to a child require?  Don’t we think less of parents who don’t commit to children?

From this point, again, the discussion circled around the questions, the ways of asking questions, and the assumptions about generalization involved in the questioning.  Hillel asked: what about children of divorce?  Wouldn’t the significance of commitment to children, its nature, meaning and evaluation, depend on the situation?  What are the factual issues, in contrast to the philosophical claims?  What is an ideal parent, in the first place?  Should all parents have become parents?  Aren’t there some who manifestly should not have become parents?  What questions need to be asked about parenting, and how do various cultures relate to these questions?  What if you assume that people in love are basically deluded, hence their judgment should be trusted neither as to their own marriage nor their desire to have children?

Here Marc intervened and strongly supported Claudia’s view of the contractual nature of marriage.  In his view, questions about marriage and child-rearing depend on where you are, when you are living, and who you are.  A 13th century woman in India would face different situations regarding marriage and child-rearing than a 21st century woman in California.  He particularly wanted to emphasize the social standing of marriage, and how that varies, traditionally according to hetero-normative assumptions in different cultures at different times.

By this point in the discussion, little consensus had arisen.  The conversation had taken roughly seventy-five minutes, and had unearthed many related issues.  Barbara stepped in, and began to lead a meta-conversation on the conversation that had been happening.                                               Why was the question picked in the first place?  It was seen that there are many layers to the question of marriage, its contractual nature, its social meaning, the various idealizations of love and romance, and all of their ethical implications.  What would be involved for society to change the dominant concept of marriage?  What would or should happen to the promises we make for a lifetime?  Perhaps a certain suspension of the question should be made, whereby both partners are asked to get involved in the discussion and thus become aware of prejudicial judgments.  What kind of conceptual or ethical frameworks would be needed to clarify the commitments made in marriage?

Barbara suggested that the conversation we had been having had built a community of inquiry, and one that, in a classroom situation, would continue over time.  With children, the development of a community of inquiry takes time, practice and persistence.  The tendency for ‘usual dialogues’ is that people tend hold various monologues.  Whereas in a community of inquiry we try to respond to each other, on the one hand, and on the other hand occasionally adding new dimensions to the discussion.   It was agreed that the shifting nature of the discussion had been remarkable.  Some of the most pressing issues were the question of commitments, promises, and the importance of subjectivity.  Objectivity had hardly been sought.  Susan emphasized that her approach had been to personalize the statements, in order that everyone would try to make the issues important to themselves.  For Barbara and Susan, philosophers need to play like children, while children need to reflect like philosophers.  But isn’t it the case that children already reflect like philosophers?  The notion of “engaged philosophical inquiry” would then encourage children in this kind of ‘play with ideas’ and questioning further. This is one of the central questions to be discussed.

Barbara mentioned the idea from Gadamer that questioning is the most important thing we do in philosophy, but that questions always already contain suggestions as to their answers.  Students at every age need to take ownership of their questions, as well as their answers, and to seek to frame the most far-reaching questions along the way.  As against certainty, students should be encouraged to embrace uncertainty, and to pursue the pleasures of the search into the unknown.                                                                                                 Susan was asked about the truth claims that she was asserting in her facilitation of the discussion.  For her, a “false” claim is something that does not survive counter-example.  “True” is what survives counter-example.  Of course absolute truth will never be reached, but we can move towards truth by eliminating suggestions that do not withstand counter-examples and discarding unsuccessful assertions.

Lyle was interested in what happens if one doesn’t think there is any right or wrong: if one does not make the assumption that there are better and worse answers to questions,, then there is no point to philosophical inquiry.  Doesn’t inquiry just become a game?  He recommended that the philosopher should be humble but not shy.

Bruce was concerned that there was a notion of universal truth at stake: if we begin by not going towards truth, but continue by rejecting falsities, aren’t we nevertheless imagining a point where falsity disappears and truth stands revealed?  Barbara mentioned that the question of truth would be revisited in August, and that for the moment we should compare/contrast what happened in our Workshop with the guidelines for a Community of Inquiry established by Matthew Lipman.                                                                                                      On her account, and according to Matthew Lipman’s work on the “Community of Inquiry,” there are eleven markers of a successful community:

  1. Inclusiveness: the discussion aims at plurality
  2. Participation: everyone should participate as equally and fully as possible; listening is also participation
  3. Distributed thinking: the range of thought arising from the participants will lead to deeper thinking
  4. Face-to-face relationships: personalizing the discussion will intensify it
  5. Quest for meaning: as everyone pursues meaning, we should highlight our own and each other’s searches
  6. Feelings of social solidarity: as greater group solidarity arises, deeper and broader thinking will develop
  7. Deliberation: each participant should be encourage to reflect deeply and deliberately on their own understandings
  8. Modeling: a variety of role models should be projected to encourage everyone’s participation
  9. Thinking for oneself: everyone should be encouraged to think for themselves, both with the group and in contrast to group positions
  10. Challenging as a procedure: participants should see that challenging group positions can be productive for their own and everyone’s thinking
  11. Change of opinion as learning: learning involves the development of one’s own thinking

The question was asked about the success of “engaged philosophical inquiry.”  If these techniques are applied, what counts as success?  The aim, Barbara said, is to bring “engaged philosophical inquiry” into schools, and to use it as a teaching method.  The practice of reflecting with children on issues that are meaningful for them, and for older students, has enormous potential in schools and universities throughout the province.  Facilitators should be role models, and should encourage children and students to ask questions and to pursue their questions, in the direction of thinking for themselves.  Barbara closed the first session by citing John Dewey, from his book on The Public and its Problems.  According to Dewey, community can be strengthened through face-to-face, informed and enhanced discourse.  A coffee break was held from 2.45 to about 3.05, during which everyone got up, moved around the room, and chatted.

Second Session: Dr. Barbara Weber, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

            The second session of the Workshop was devoted to reading and discussing the children’s book called The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.  The book was first published in 1964.  According to Barbara, it has often been used in schools to facilitate a “community of inquiry” and to encourage “engaged philosophical inquiry.”  Her idea was to read us the book aloud, in order to give us a sense of the plot.  At one point, she decided to show us the pictures as well, which carried a good deal of the book’s significance.  The discussion of the book would amount to an example of “engaged philosophical inquiry” of the type often used for children.

You should definitely read the book.  But in the meantime, here is a plot summary: the book tells the story of a female apple tree and a boy who grows to be an old man.  The boy and the tree can speak to each other.  At first, when the boy is young, he plays in the tree, climbs on her, puts his head in her leaves, climbs out on her branches and eats her apples.  Both the boy and the tree seem happy together.

 Then the boy stays away for a while.  The tree grows sad.  When the boy returns, he is a teenager and tells the tree that he needs money.  She tells him to take her apples and sell them.  He takes her apples and leaves.  Much later he returns, now as a young man.  This time he says that he needs a house.  The tree tells him to cut her branches and use them as wood for the house.  He cuts her branches and leaves.  Much later he returns again, this time as an older man.  He says that he needs a boat.  The tree tells him to cut her trunk and use that for the boat.  He cuts up her trunk and leaves.  Finally he returns as an old man.  He is tired, he tells the tree.  She tells him that she doesn’t have any more to give.  But you do, he says, you are a stump now, and all I want to do is to sit.  So he sits on the stump of the tree.  The story ends with the line: “And the tree was happy.”                                                                                                                                             The story provoked considerable discussion.  In the first phase, Barbara asked us to get into pairs and to generate questions arising from the book.  The following questions arose: what is giving?  Is there a limit?  Do trees have minds?  What sorts of entities have minds?  Why is she a tree?  Why is he a boy?  What kind of relationship is this?  What is so great about giving?  What if the tree were male?  Did the tree do the right thing?  Which feelings arise in the reader/listener, and why?  Can a tree love a person?  Can a person love a tree?  Can a tree love other people?  What does the tree represent that the boy returns to?  Why is he so violent?  Is this a love relationship?  Is love violent?  What is the environmental value of the tree?  What is its instrumental value?    How do you like the characters?  What values are represented here?  Does the relationship evolve over time?  If so, how does it evolve?  If not, why not?

Once we had collected the various questions, and given some of our rationale for each, Barbara asked us to form overarching questions that would encompass several aspects of the text.  Some of these were: how do you understand the title?  How much should we give?  How much should the environment give?  How would an animist view the relationship?  What would happen if we switched the gender roles?

Once again, discussion turned to the issue of questioning.  Barbara encouraged us, following Gadamer, to avoid questions that assume answers too obviously.  Allow the questions to provoke uncertainty, to be open-ended.  Try to clarify the definitions at stake in the discussion.  According to Gadamer, each question positions the questioner in a certain viewpoint.  Hence there are several ways of questioning that can be recognized:

1. Questions with the intention of provoking an exchange of question and answer

2. Rhetorical questions

3. Pedagogical questions

4. Open questions (versus a ‘slant question’)

For Gadamer, it is the direction of the question that should be considered, and so questions should be pointed in the direction of greater openness.  “To want to know means you know that you don’t know.”  And “the art of questioning is that of questioning better, the art of thinking.”  For both, philosophy centrally involves questions, and is principally needed when we have questions.  Thus, with children, it is important to encourage them to develop the habit of asking and thinking about their questions.  The aim, according to Susan, should be to generate their own positions, to create meaningful self-understandings.  Susan emphasized the importance of making decisions, but Jen reminded us of Kierkegaard, who said that decisions involve a certain “leap of faith.”  For some, science could be used to gather enough information to make decisions, so that the idea of gathering more information could always be applied.  But for others, there is no limit to the amount of information to be gathered, decisions will always need to be reached on the basis of more or less limited knowledge.  The Workshop closed on the question of the tension between the need to make decisions in practical life, and the ongoing disclosure of the complexity of meaning, or significance, in everyday life.  How do we decide what is the most important information needed to make decisions?  The gathering ended at 4.03.

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