Cogito

Bertrand Russell and the case for ‘Philosophy for Everyone’

Bertrand Russell’s ‘Philosophy for Laymen’ invites everyone to engage philosophically. Flickr , CC BY

One of the interesting questions we face as philosophers who are attempting to make philosophical ideas accessible for a general audience, is whether or not everyone can or should ‘do philosophy’.

Some philosophers wish to leave philosophy in the academy or university setting. Whereas others claim the downfall of modern philosophy came in the late 19th century when the subject was institutionalized within the research university setting. By condemning philosophy as only appropriate as a serious subject of study, philosophers have lost much widespread support and public recognition for its value.

Philosophers working in the public arena, such as those contributing to The Conversation and Cogito Philosophy Blog will defend the argument in favour of ‘philosophy for everyone’.

Bertrand Russell’s ‘Philosophy for Laymen’

In 1946 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled Philosophy for Laymen, in which he defends the view that philosophy should be ‘a part of general education’. He proposes that,

even in the time that can easily be spared without injury to the learning of technical skills, philosophy can give certain things that will greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen.

Clare Carlisle refers to Russell when she writes,

Russell revives an ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life in insisting that questions of cosmic meaning and value have an existential, ethical and spiritual urgency. (Of course, what we might mean by such terms is another issue for philosophers to grapple with.)

We see here the idea of philosophy as a praxis; something that we do, and a way of thinking that is beneficial for every rational human being. As Russell puts it,

To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.

Russell believes that philosophy can be taught to ‘laymen’ readers which will assist them to think more objectively about emotive issues. Carlisle concedes that this is easier to do when one is not faced with a stressful moral dilemma or the burden of making a quick decision while in an emotional state.

Yet, the idea is that we practice the habit of philosophical thinking, and that we get better at it.

Philosophy with young people

I recently attended the 2016 Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA) Conference in Wellington, New Zealand and was struck by the conversation surrounding the idea of what kind(s) of philosophy should be taught to everyone, and particularly to young people.

The presenters and attendees at this conference are all committed to offering philosophy as a subject to school aged children, from ages 3 to 17. I have previously written about Philosophy for Children (P4C) and the benefits of teaching philosophy to young people.

Namely, P4C offers students the chance to learn and practice not just critical thinking skills, but also caring, collaborative and creative thinking skills. It does this using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) pedagogy favoured by P4C practitioners. The CoI involves students engaging in dialogue with one another in an inclusive and democratic manner. Such dialogue is facilitated by their teachers using age appropriate philosophical texts and stimulus materials in the classroom.

But should every student study ‘all’ philosophy?

One of the papers given at the FAPSA Conference, presented by Michael Hand from the University of Birmingham argued that, well, perhaps not. Hand says,

Not only in philosophy, but in all branches of academic study there is a distinction between what has cultural value and what is only of professional interest.

It must be noted that Hand defends the teaching of philosophy to young people and also to offering it as an option for school aged students. He notes that it is ‘easy’ to defend the inclusion of Philosophy as an option on the curriculum because,

  • like other academic subjects, it is an intrinsically worthwhile activity
  • like other academic subjects, it is instrumentally valuable in cultivating intellectual virtues and improving the quality of thinking

Yet, when asked whether we can defend the inclusion of philosophy as a compulsory subject within the curriculum, we would need to prove that it offers every student a distinct benefit that they would not otherwise get.

The distinct benefit gained by studying philosophy

Note that Carrie Winstanley does defend such a claim. She, in a book co-edited with Hand, claims that even if other subjects also teach critical thinking skills, philosophy is the best subject to teach students critical thinking skills, precisely because critical thinking is the essence of philosophy.

Philosophy is the best possible subject for helping children to become effective critical thinkers. It is the subject that can teach them better than any other how to assess reasons, defend positions, define terms, evaluate sources of information, and judge the value of arguments and evidence.

Yet if other subjects also teach critical thinking skills to students, why should we make room in a crowded curriculum for philosophy?

Hand considers this point and suggests that what would be uniquely beneficial for students would be to study moral and political philosophy. He tells us that,

Moral and political philosophy do not, of course, tell us the best way to live. But they do enable us to think more deeply and rigorously about the choices we make and the goals we pursue. And they do justify certain moral and political constraints within which we must make our choices and pursue our goals.

Hand concludes that,

moral and political philosophy confers on those who study it the distinctive benefit of being able to think intelligently about how they will live and the moral and political constraints on their conduct… [and] everyone has a strong interest in this benefit because everyone faces the problem of how to live and the responsibility of complying with moral and political constraints.

This results in an argument in favour of teaching moral and political philosophy as a compulsory subject in schools, even if other areas of philosophy (aesthetics, formal logic, epistemology, and ontology) are additional or optional extras.

Philosophy for everyone

When it comes to who should be doing philosophy, I believe that everyone can ‘have a go’ as reasonable citizens who reflect on the meaning they make of their lives. Yes, philosophy is best suited to the university setting in which experts are trained. Yes, philosophy can be done with children in classrooms. And yes, surely philosophy is something everyone can and should do, albeit at differing levels of competence.

But I am also sympathetic to Hand’s focus on moral philosophy, and ethics in particular. When speaking about ethics, philosophers regain their foothold in the public arena in which they can demonstrate how careful thinking skills can be usefully applied to difficult and complex scenarios.

Sure, there is not ‘one perfect answer’ to these moral dilemmas, but, critical, caring, creative and collaborative thinking skills are valuable in ruling out the worst answers. Such philosophical thinking skills also help guide decision makers towards better policies, public understanding, and widespread engagement with issues that affect people’s lives.

To extend philosophical dialogue into schools and public spaces is to engage and encourage careful consideration of fundamentally important ‘big’ questions that have always occupied human thought. And centrally, these days, those questions are moral and political, as these effect our individual autonomy and our collective humanity.

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