Sunday, November 11, 2007

Happiness and its Causes, London Conference report

This was a great conference for three reasons.

First, it brought together some leading thinkers on happiness. Second, it was eclectic and inclusive and had a light touch - happy in spirit as well as subject matter. Thirdly, it was inspiring - I went away thinking and feeling that this was a vibrant area, and that this was only the first step.

Make no mistake, there were some serious thinkers on show here, including authors of three recent books on happiness.

But this conference was a meeting of East and west, for we also had several Buddhist monks and nuns, which was very fitting since science is beginning to show a link between meditation and both happiness and improved health. As positive psychology expert Felicia Huppert wrote in her paper in the conference proceedings (Learning about Happiness)

By bringing together the Eastern spiritual enlightenment and the Western intellectual enlightenment I believe we can do much to increase our individual and collective happiness

It brought together science and religion, academics and monks, as well as those involved in developing happiness programmes in organisations in one large, well-organised two-day conference in London.

I won't attempt to give a full report here - just some personal highlights and some thoughts about the next steps that might follow from such an inspirational event.

  • Walking in to see actress Goldie Hawn eulogising about how a few minutes mindfulness each day lights up childrens brains in the programme she has founded
  • Hearing the different perspectives of psychologist Daniel Nettle and philosopher Richard Schoch on happiness
  • Hearing the Venerable Sangye Khadro , author of How to Meditate (as Kathleen McDonald) talk about Buddhism
  • Hearing the group from Wellington school talk about their well-being classes
  • Some contributions from the floor, including an impassioned rendering of Amazing Grace

I'm not sure what impression the above list gives - probably sounds like a cross between an academic conference and Woodstock. Which is probably not so far off the mark. Except the drug being consumed was happiness and the variety particularly Buddhism.

The conference felt like it was the start of something more - perhaps even a new movement, bigger than positive psychology, different from Buddhism, aimed at the development of happiness and well-being -a multi-disciplinary movement with real impact. I hope it is.

(Happiness and its Causes took place on 13-14 October, 2007, at Savoy Place, London, UK).

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Wise Living: Some Definitions

This post will be very much a first draft, to be amended, commented on and supplemented in due course. I hope it's useful.

Feel free your own ideas in the comments section.

Goals & Setting Goals


A goal has been defined as "an intended outcome that requires action that satisfies needs". Personally, I'd define a goal more simply as

"a desired outcome that requires action"

We can use the term "wise goal" to indicate

a goal which increases the probability of achieving a truly desirable outcome

Goals and Wise Living

Values (such as "fun", "happiness" and "achievement"), whilst crucial to wise living, can be rather vague and daunting. It's important therefore to link enlightened values with smart goals. For example, just seeing "achievement" as a value may actually make someone feel worse ("I haven't achieved much"). It may even be counter-productive if they feel demotivated. What is need is to set a specific goal related to achievement (e.g. "write an outline of the story I am writing by the end of the week". Goals can also help build virtues and wise habits (e.g. "I will meditate for at least twenty minutes each day").

Goals and Life Coaching

In Life Coaching, setting goals is often considered a critical part of the process. For example, in the TGROW procedure, each session is structure around setting goals (G) for the session's theme (T). SMART goals are routinely recommended in coaching and business.

See Setting Goals Tim LeBon's Guide to smart - and wise - goal-setting

Goals and Psychology

Goal-setting theory Influenced by Aristotle, psychologist Edwin Locke formulated goal-setting theories in the 1960s. According to Locke, goals need to be specific, difficult yet perceived to be attainable. You also need feedback. Goals can increase motivation by increasing effort and persistence and wise decisions. Goals can also stimulate planning, creativity and problem-solving. Researchers have been concerned about a paradox where sometimes setting goals can reduce performance. This can be due to goals being too distant, and by setting outcome goals instead of learning goals when people do not have the right skills.See also Performance Goals - a Paradox

A good academic paper giving an overview of goal-setting theory is freely available - "Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation - A 35 Year Odyssey" by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham.

An article connecting SMART goals with goal-setting theory can be found here.


"Virtue (Latin virtus; Greek ἀρετή) is moral excellence of a person. A virtue is a character trait valued as being good. The conceptual opposite of virtue is vice."

The 4 Cardinal virtues of ancient Greece were


"A Virtue is a trait of character manifested in habitual action that it is good for a person to have" (James Rachels)

Examples of virtues relevant to many people today include:

Assertiveness, Proactivity, Wisdom [emotional, practical, values and existential], Self-awareness, Benevolence, Being Loving, Friendliness, Co-operation (win/win), empathy as well as all the cardinal virtues.


Wisdom is the possession of knowledge about what matters and deep understanding about the universe, the human condition and human nature, combined with good judgement and the disposition to put this knowledge into action

Wisdom has four overlapping dimensions: emotional, practical, values and existential. Practical Wisdom is closely connected with wise decision-making.

See on wise decision-making and Progress.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves testing whether arguments stand up to critical investigation and seeing whether we have good reason to accept them.

Accordingly there are two approaches to critical thinking: learning, detecting and correcting fallacies, and assessing reasons in terms of their truth-value and strength (relevance is sometimes given as a third criteria).

Thought Experiments

A thought experiment is an experiment carried out not in the laboratory but in our minds. It is the use of a hypothetical scenario to test assumptions and isolate what matters

An example of a thought experiment useful to wise living is "The Ideal Life Exhibition" as described by in Jones, Hayward and Mason in Exploring Ethics. For a description of many thought experiments see "The pig that wanted to be eaten" by Julian Baggini.

Conceptual Analysis

Conceptual analysis is a way of becoming clearer about what we mean. It involves a careful investigation of language and usage and includes searching for definitions and drawing distinctions.

Examples of methods of conceptual analysis are Socrates' elenchus and my method as first described in Wise Therapy


Method of question and answer attributed to Socrates. Typically, the process begins with a request for definition, and then refutations and refinement of each definition. Can end either in a refined, improved definition of the term or, as sometimes occurs in Plato's representations of Socrates, aporia, or confusion. The latter is held by some to be an improvement in that at least the interrogated person is wiser in that they are more aware of their ignorance. Elenchus is a form of conceptual analysis and can also be seen as a type of critical thinking.


See Tim LeBon's main web page on happiness

Articles by Tim LeBon on happiness

What is Happiness?

Teaching Happiness

Therapeutic Happiness

Michael Fordyce was an early researcher on interventions to enhance happiness - you can get his free e-book

Two Levels of Moral Thinking and R.M. Hare


R.M. Hare ( 1919-2002 ) - Intuitive and Critical Levels of Thinking

Leading UK moral philosopher of his generation. Hare was originally famous for his books The Language of Morals ( OUP, 1952) and Freedom of Reason (OUP, 1963) where he sounded very Kantian in his stress on the importance of the logical properties of moral words, especially their universalizability and prescriptivity. In his latest book Moral Thinking (OUP,1981) he sounds much more like a utilitarian, and if successful has miraculously combined the best features of Kant and Mill.

Hare thinks that the conflict between Kant and Mill disappears once we realise that there are two levels of moral thinking. At one level, the critical level, we are constrained by rationality to be utilitarian. Hare argues that the only practical way to apply Kant's Categorical Imperative is to imagine ourselves in the position of everyone affected and then decide what on balance we would prefer - which leads to utilitarianism. However Hare argues that it would be disastrous if we tried to do act-utilitarian calculations all the time, for a number of reasons. We are short of time , we lack information and we make special exceptions for ourselves. Given our limitations, we shall not achieve the best outcome by doing a utilitarian calculation each time. Instead, we should cultivate in ourselves a set of principles which lead to the best outcome. These principles will become second nature to us - they are our moral intuitions. At the intuitive level, we behave much like Kantians - sticking to principles and rules whatever the consequences, and only departing from doing our duty with the greatest reluctance and guilt. Critical thinking - utilitarianism -should be used only to select the best set of principles for use in intuitive thinking and to resolve conflicts between principles.

Wise Living

Hare's theories can be extremely useful in constructing a theory of wise living. We need to use critical thinking to construct wise principles and virtues which we can then become second nature - we should teach these to our children and, if we have been brought up differently, we will to habituate ourselves in them. And we need to use critical thinking when principles or virtues conflict in difficult situations. This is rather like practical wisdom.

See also

On RM Hare

Encyclopedia Britannica article on consequentialism

Good summary of Hare's position

A philosophical self-portrait

Tanner Lecture on Human Values by RM Hare


"In lay definitions, values emerge as ideals or morals that are very important to people and provide guidance and meaning in life." (

"A value is simply a preference for some thing or some process. Values are expressed through behaviours and words." (

"A principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable"

Something worth striving for & considered good - either in itself (Intrinsic) or for something it leads to (instrumental).

Virtues are one source of value, in that they are character traits that are considered important (Virtues can in addition be instrumental to other sources of value.

Viktor Frankl identifies three dimensions of value: attitudinal (corresponding roughly to virtues), creations (roughly differences we make to the world) and experiential (which includes but is not limited to enjoyment and pleasure).

Values can either be subjective or objective. In Wise Therapy I describe RSVP, a procedure to help lead one to more enlightened values. In education, values clarification has been developed to help children become more aware of and develop their values.

There are obvious connections also between values and happiness, well-being and the good life.

See also

the values-based life

the power of personal values

Steve Pavlina on living your values, parts 1 and 2.

Richard Robinson An Atheist's Values

Meaning of Life

The good life


Theories of well-being include hedonism, the informed preference satisfaction theory, and objective list theories.



Lectures on utilitarianism

Philosophical Counselling/ Philosophical Counseling

Philosophical Life-Coaching

Psychotherapy and Counselling

Life Coaching

Means and Ends








Virtue Ethics

Deontology/Principle-Based Ethics


Human Nature

See L. Stevenson & Habermans 10 Theories of Human Nature

Practical Philosophy

Practical Philosophy is a discipline that uses philosophical insights and methods to explore how people can live more wisely. Exploring ancient philosophy and more recent academic philosophy it aims to help us understand and pursue the good life, wisdom and meaning in life.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Harry Potter and the Philosophers' Predictions Part 3 - Who will die in book 7?

snape wormtail nevile hagrid



In parts 1 and 2 of this short series, we looked at the questions of whether Snape is really evil [unanimous answer: "No"] and whether Harry will die [less certainty here, but agreement that he will probably not end up dead]. Which leaves the question, who will die. Well one likely candidate is Snape himself - probably helping Harry - and another one who I believe will bite the dust is Wormtail - paying his debt back to Harry.  But I'm afriad we can also expect some good guys - or girls - to get the chop.

Who will it be?


Ed Kern


Within alchemy, the "work" is often cast as progressing through three stages, the black, the white, and the red. I think the
death of Sirius Black signals the end of the nigredo; the death of Albus Dumbledore, the end of the albedo; and perhaps the death of Rubeus
Hagrid, the end of the rubedo.


Shawn Klein hagrid

If I had to guess, I'd say Hagrid is going to get killed. I suspect possibly a Weasley family member(Percy?) and maybe even a Dursley family member (Petunia?) But these are really just guesses, hunches.

Tom Morris nevile


 I think that something important will happen with Neville Longbottom.  He's been such an obvious underdog, struggling with an apparent dearth of natural talent but a good spirit.  I suspect he'll rise up and make a big difference.  But we may have to say goodbye to Neville.  I can't imagine his not playing an important role.  One of the things Rowling has been keen to remind us is that things are not always what they appear.  And I suspect that applies to Neville.


Well, I guess we'll have to wait a few more days to find out the real answers.

Has this predicting got anything to do with philosophy? Ed Kern thinks it has, so lets leave the last word with him?

All this speculation is fun and interesting, but I've
tried to do so in ways consistent with how the texts model
an ethical system, portray characters, and develop
particular themes. A lot of fans treat the works as
mysteries, but they're really not, because of the way each
subsequent book in the series introduces elements to the
story that really could not have been foreseen by readers.
For this reason, philosophy and character (in both senses
of the word) offer the best grounds for speculation.


I'm sure that's not the last we will hear of Harry Potter. Personally, I would like to write some more on the personal development significance of the Potter series, which I have made started here. I'd be interested in your thoughts .... tags: ,

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Will Harry die? Harry Potter & The Philosophers' Predictions: Part 2


Is Harry destined for the graveyard or wedding bells ?


In article 1 of this short series on "Harry Potter and the Philosophers Predictions", published in the week leading up to book 's arrival, we asked whether Snape is really evil. Much disputed in fandom (where people argue in equal measure for Snape being evil, Dumbledore's man or his own man), our 3 philosophical sages agree that Snape is Dumbledore's man and will be redeemed. Which you might think is good news for Harry. But can he really survive in book 7? After all, Dumbledore seriously injured himself just retrieving one horcrux, and Harry has to destroy four- without Dumbledore. And J.K. Rowling famously challenged Paxman's assumption that there would be a tale to tell of Harry the adult with these chilling words How do you know he'll still be alive?

Let's find out what our own three philosophical sages think.

Will Harry die in book 7?

Shawn Klein

image Harry probably lives and flourishes

Harry's death would end the series with a malevolent feel. Moreover, I think it would be in sharp contrast to almost everything in the series. This series is fundamentally a story about moral development; it is a story about Harry becoming a responsible and mature adult. His death is not the logic progression here. The logical end is his independence and the flowering of his power. Harry's development towards independence has been a central theme: from escaping the Dursleys to losing Sirius and now Dumbledore. I think we will see Harry take full control of himself and his powers and take his place in the adult world.

JKR has left it so that she can really do anything. There are 700 some odd pages left and a lot can be revealed that can up-end the best predications. From a fan point of view as well as philosophical/artistic point of view, I don't want to see Harry die. I say personally because I like Harry and I like happier endings. I say philosophically because I don't think killing the hero of the story is consistent with the kind of story of moral development and growth that JKR has been telling. I say artistically because the ultimate point of art is to uplift our souls, provide us with strength, and give us insight into our selves and to our lives. I don't see how Harry's death would serve those ends.

But if Harry must die, I don't want him to die in some grand sacrificial manner that casts him as some kind of Christ-like figure. Such an ending would be personally unsatisfying, but also against the grain of the whole series. The imagery and symbols have largely been drawn from classical and pre-Christian culture and so pasting a specifically Christian symbol on to it at the end would be incongruous.

Ultimately, however JKR close the series, the path she takes us on to that end will be more important than how it ends. Whether Harry lives or dies, whether Snape is evil or not, what will matter is if these last 700 pages tell the story in the way that makes it so when the end comes it is what we will need to see.

Tom Morris

imageHarry probably lives - but ...

I'd be very surprised if we were to lose Harry in the last book. But I can understand the viewpoint of those who think we will, because going out in a self sacrificial and successful effort to save the lives of his friends would be a fitting culmination of his moral development. And Rowling has some Christian "power in the blood" passages related to the self sacrifice of Harry's mother and dad, and some "power of love" passages that could be taken to foreshadow such an end.

Ed Kern
image Harry the phoenix will accept death but will probably not literally be killed off.

I try to make the case in the last chapter of my book, The Wisdom of Harry Potter, that Rowling has structured Harry's adventures as a very traditional hero's quest, which, among other things, employs alchemical symbolism to chart Harry's moral growth and to cast him, at least in part, as a metaphorical phoenix. I think this works pretty well with the Stoic themes I've found in the series. Because of this alchemical symbolism, and because of the way Voldemort's "sin" has been characterized, I'm pretty sure that Rowling will have Harry accept death - as he already did at the end of book 5, when Voldemort possessed Harry and dared Dumbledore to kill him. I think that this is also in line with other Stoic "suicides" occasioned by the demands of reason--at least from a Stoic perspective. I'm not alone in fandom in thinking that Dumbledore himself arranged his own death at the end of book 6 in the service of a greater good. He really is presented as a kind of Stoic "sage" guiding Harry's own development. Rowling has also had him make the claim, several times, that there really are worst things than death. And I really do think that the Harry Potter series is really more about death and the need to accept it than is usually acknowledged in critical commentary.

Within alchemy, the completion of the "work" results in the "death" of the alchemist before his "rebirth." If Rowling follows the path that she has already charted, Harry will, thus, have to "die." But he will do so as a phoenix, a reconciler of opposites and a bringer of life out of destruction.
Now, for what I might call meta-literary reasons, I don't think that Rowling will literally kill off Harry. Despite her protestations, she really is writing children's literature, and if she kills off her hero, I think that she'll turn off her audience. She'll also spoil the series for future readers, who won't invest the time in a lengthy story with a tragic ending, as well as for her current readers, who won't return to the stories again and again, as they've been doing now for some time.

So it looks like Harry will probably survive. But we know that more than two characters will die? Who's for the chop? Not Ron and Hermione surely? What about Luna? Nevile? Hagrid? Find out what our philosophers think in the next article, published very soon ...

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter - the end is nigh, but for whom?


Harry Potter and the Philosophers' Predictions  

Part 1 of 3

Is Snape really evil?


 As the publication date for the final installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, looms ever closer, the questions left unanswered in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince become every more urgent. As a Potter fan, I've been musing over questions like "Is Snape really evil?" and "Will Harry die?" ever since reading the (literally) shocking last chapters of book 6. I've re-asked them when listening to Stephen Fry's excellent reading of the book with my kids. And I became more worried when J.K. Rowling spoke of book 7 involving a "bloodbath" in her recent TV interview with Jonathan Ross (even if she did backtrack on this a bit).

My own hunch is that Snape can't be on the side of the Death-Eaters, because that would turn Dumbledore into a Neville character of the worst kind - Chamberlain not Longbottom. Dumbledore is really wise, right, so he can't make such a howler? Regarding Harry's survival -well I'd hate to see him die, but after JKR's "bloodbath" comment I'm a bit concerned. In the same interview she also said "I think that Harry's story comes to quite a clear end in Book Seven". Are we to see a Hamlet-like ending in which all the major protagonists are killed? As a reader who has  seen none of Rowling's plot twists coming, perhaps I ought to leave the serious predicting to the experts....

But which experts? The fan sites are full of predictions, and I'm sure the correct ones must be there somewhere - but where? It so happens that three excellent books have been written by academics about the philosophy in Harry Potter. Perhaps "lovers of wisdom" who are also lovers of Harry Potter books can set my mind at rest. I tracked down the books'  authors and they were kind enough to share their thoughts with us ...

image image image

    The Wisdom of Harry Potter
  by Edmund M. Kern

 If Harry Potter ran General Electric
by Tom Morris

Harry Potter and Philosophy
 by David Baggett & Shawn Klein (eds.)


It's been said that if you put 3 philosophers in a room together and ask them a question, you'll usually hear at least 4 different answers. Surprisingly - and perhaps significantly - there was almost complete agreement amongst these three Potterphile philosophers.

So, over to Professors Kern, Morris and Klein ...


1) Is Snape really evil?

Tom Morris:

Remember that Dumbledore seemed to plead briefly with Snape right before Snape killed him.  I can't imagine that the Headmaster was asking to be spared.  After all, this is the man who famously said that there are things much worse than death, and that "After all, to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."  I think Dumbledore was pleading with Snape to go through with a plan and use his wand in a way that Snape never would have wanted to do.  So I believe that Snape has been on the side of Dumbledore throughout the books, and has infiltrated the dark lord's army.
Can Dumbledore make a misjudgement?  Certainly, we see him do so in the case of overly protecting Harry and withholding truth from him.  But this is a mistake too big for such a wise man and wizard to make.  I see his trust of Snape as definitive.

Ed Kern:

Snape is a very interesting case, because, I believe, his animosity toward Harry is genuine, but he has also chosen to associate himself with the righteous cause.This conclusion is dependent to a large degree upon speculation, but I also think that Rowling has provided us clues about Snape's true disposition if we look to his eyes... Take a look at Snape's eyes when Dumbledore asks him to return to Voldemort's service: they tell us that he can't wait to exact his revenge. I'm 99% sure that Snape will die while defending Harry. No other character is more overdetermined for redemption.

I think we'll find out that Snape did have a hand in  Dumbledore's death, but it was primarily because the
headmaster himself wanted it  - for a number of reasons, not least placing an agent in Voldemort's inner circle.

Of course, the most important question posed by several characters is why did Dumbledore trust Snape. Simply, we can't know for sure at this point. But I don't think it's stretching things to surmise that the headmaster and potions master entered into a kind of magical contract that was made possible by Snape's genuine remorse over having a hand in the killing of Lily Potter. We are likely to learn that she had shown Snape friendship and understanding, and that he had turned away from her because of her interest in James Potter. Upon the occasion of her death, he felt true remorse. In a sense, the only person Snape detests more than Harry is Voldemort.


Shawn Klein:

I think ultimately Snape is redeemed. If Snape turns out to be truly a Death Eater, then Dumbledore has been made quite the fool. Snape has been the red herring in each of the books, and I think he's still the red herring. Then again, Dumbledore has admitted to making mistakes (at the end of Bk V where he takes some of the responsibility for Sirius's death and for placing Harry into more trouble than Dumbledore expected). Moreover, maybe the biggest red herring of them all is that Snape really is evil. As the saying goes, the best hiding place is in plain sight. This scenario is, I think, unlikely.  It would end the series on such a sour and malevolent note.


So we are all agreed then - Snape is Dumbledore's man, he killed Dumbledore because he was asked to by Dumbledore  he will probably die helping or even saving Harry.  But will Harry survive? And who are the characters (more than two ...) who will die in book 7? Find out what the experts think in part 2 of "Harry Potter and the Philosophers' Predictions", coming very soon to this website...
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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Philosophy in Schools - Interview with London philosopher and teacher, Peter Worley

Increasing numbers of schools in the UK now offer philosophy and philosophy-related subjects such as critical thinking as part of their curriculum.
The momentum for philosophy with children has grown since research in Scotland, which demonstrated an IQ gain of over 6 points for primary school children who had done philosophy with children.
But philosophy with children is happening a lot closer to home than Scotland and is being developed in innovative ways.
Peter Worley, 34, is a philosophical practitioner who for the last four years has been developing his own successful approach to teaching philosophy to London primary school children. I caught up with Peter recently to find out exactly what happens when you mix philosophy and eight-year olds ...
London-based philosopher and teacher Peter Worley

If I was to attend one of your "Philosophy in Schools" classes, what would I see?

I think the best way to illustrate a session is to describe one. For example, I’ll describe this morning’s session at Sandhurst primary school, a state primary school in South East London. It was conducted with 8-9 year olds (year 4) with the full class and their usual teacher present. The tables had been moved to one side and the chairs organized to form a horseshoe shape so that all the children could see each other, the board and myself. The teacher sat with them and became a co-enquirer.

We usually start with a short focusing exercise to help get them in the right state of mind: one of calm concentration. This is done with their eyes closed so that they can focus their minds on one thought for a minute or so. This focusing exercise is followed by a short discussion of what they have just been thinking about.

The next part of the session is a puzzle of some kind. This was my second session with this class. In the first session I asked them to spell philosophy in English. This week’s task was to translate "philosophy2 from ancient Greek into English. The idea of being able to read and write in a strange new language excites the children.

So far they have done a variety of thinking exercises, though one could argue that it is not strictly philosophy. The next part of the session (which is about half of it) is designed to address this. This is the part of the session that I would like to describe in more detail.

I began this part with another short puzzle. I wrote a complicated looking sum on the board:

12 x 9 x 6 x 14 x 4 x 7 x 22 x 0 = ?

At first the response is of consternation with comments like “that’s impossible!” But it was not too long before somebody said that the answer is 0.

I bring their attention to ‘zero’, then I ask them to try another short exercise:

“Sit once again in the focusing-exercise position. Now, I want you to try to think of nothing.”

I leave them for a minute to do this then we stop the exercise. The next question I ask them is: “Is it possible to think of nothing?”

This stimulated many thoughts from them, many of which come from responding to each other.

For example, one person said, “Yes, I just think of black.”

Then someone responded immediately with, “But if you think of black you are thinking of something.”

From this someone else concluded, “It is impossible to think of nothing because you have to think of something.”

For anyone familiar with Parmenides’ thinking on this, they will recognize a similar move. So, after this has been discussed for a while, I then introduced them to Parmenides (and we have some fun trying to pronounce his name). I then presented a simplified version of his argument on the board and I asked them if they recognized anything they themselves had said. This has the effect of identifying them with the material and they consequently read it more carefully.

Here’s the argument:

The early Greek philosopher Parmenides (c. 515-445 B.C.) tried to think about nothing and also about the word “not”, which we often see in ordinary sentences.

But Parmenides reasoned that, if we think about nothing then nothing becomes something.

Why? Because nothing must become something otherwise we would not be able to think about it.

So, if nothing must become something in order to be thought about, then it seems that we cannot think about nothing.

Therefore, Parmenides concluded, nothing does not exist at all.

(This is a simplified version of the argument as it is presented in Philosophy For Kids: 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder…About Everything by David A. White)

On this occasion several of the children recognized their own or someone else’s comments in Parmenides’ argument. The bit they recognized is highlighted in green. I suggest to them that if they were thinking the same things as a famous philosopher then that makes them philosophers. This is empowering for them.

parmenides Parmenides (c. 515-445 B.C.), a Greek Philosopher who attempted to prove that nothing does not exist. Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy fans may recall that Douglas Adams invented a character who proved that black equaled white and then got run over at the next zebra crossing. He was probably a distant descendant of Parmenides

In order to try to take the discussion to a deeper level I then asked them that although we may agree with Parmenides that we are not able to think of nothing as we must turn nothing into something in order to think about it, does that mean that we agree with Parmenides that nothing does not exist? (This is of course a more complex question, and I would only venture this sort of further depth if I judge the group to be capable. On this occasion I did). One girl responded with, “ ‘nothing’ is just a word so it must exist.” But then a boy made an important distinction: “ nothing ’is not just a word. For example if I take the word ‘monkey’, the word ‘monkey’ does not climb off a page and go up a tree. So it’s not just a word.” There was a mumble of astonished agreement, as they begun to understand the point. This boy had touched upon an important philosophical distinction between the ‘sense’ of a word and its ‘reference’. This is a distinction that was made by the philosopher Frege. If I hadn’t run out of time I may well have introduced Frege to the children.

Frege for eight-year olds. I'm impressed! How, in general, how do the children respond to philosophy?

The children – on the whole – look forward to philosophy and often describe it as very different to their other subjects. It’s what they find different about it that interests me. It seems a shame to say it, but this keeps coming up as one of their reasons: that they rarely get an opportunity to say what they think about stuff. On top of this the philosophy sessions give them an opportunity to follow their thoughts through to some depth in a rigorous and controlled environment. They seem to enjoy the fact that there are constraining rules to stop bullying or over-aggression in the group. And time after time teachers comment on how certain children surprise them with their contributions in the philosophy sessions: very quiet or underachieving children in the class often shine in philosophy. Philosophy doesn’t work for everyone and there are children who begin reluctantly or are bored by it and quite clearly do not see its value. However, it is difficult to say that it is having no impact on these children and that it will not affect them positively in later life. I have seen some very encouraging transformations with certain ‘reluctant’ children who have begun with antagonism and ended with a respectful attitude towards philosophy.

I think that there is something naïve about philosophy, and this lends itself well to the naivete of children. Plato said that philosophy begins in wonder, and children have a great deal of wonder. What I hope philosophy will do is crystallize that sense of wonder so that hopefully it will never leave them. I think the description above of the session at Sandhurst School where the children came to similar insights to a pre-Socratic philosopher highlights the connection between children and philosophers and therefore children and philosophy.

The Scottish research relates specifically to the approach invented by Matthew Lipman, and indeed that is the most usual way of doing philosophy with children. I understand that whilst you incorporate some of Lipman's ideas, you try to take philosophy a bit further. Is that right?

lipman Matthew Lipman, an American philosopher who pioneered the Community of Enquiry method for doing philosophy with children. Researchers from Dundee University have recently shown that Lipman's method not only helps children think and empowers them, it also boosts their IQ.

What I am trying to do is to introduce the subject of philosophy to the children, not just provide them with a platform to think and express their thoughts. I am attempting to engage them with the philosophers and the major topics of philosophy. Not all of what I do is strictly philosophy - I do critical thinking, logical and lateral thinking, the interpretation of poetry and stories, and the playing of games, but always from the point of view of philosophy. There is a lot of overlap with Lipman’s approach, for instance, the younger the children are the more like Lipman’s approach my sessions are. I also use the community of enquiry model to conduct some of the sessions, a method borrowed from Lipman, but I use many other structures and approaches as well. Lipman’s approach actively avoids teaching (names, dates, ideas in philosophy) in favour of facilitation, whereas my approach combines teaching with facilitation, particularly with the older age groups.

Any personal experiences that stand out?

When I was at school I was a difficult child, and one of the reasons - suggested by a head teacher of mine at the time - was that it was because I was bright but not challenged enough either at school or at home. For this reason I often identify - and sympathise - with bright and difficult children and try to use philosophy to provide them with the stimulation I didn't get.

Not long ago I went into a room to run a philosophy session with a small group of year 3 children, including one notoriously difficult child, and a teacher coming out of the room whispered to me upon seeing who I was with: "Good luck!"

We did the philosophy session.

I won't pretend it was easy, but when I had finished, I came out of the room exhausted and a little disconsolate. The same teacher saw me and said, "what did you do in there, it was so quiet?" And with these words I realised how successful it had been. The child in question had remained engaged with all the activities we had followed and had made some excellent contributions (as well as some inappropriate ones). I discovered that he was a very bright child and his confrontational, challenging nature had been given a constructive platform. There was still a great deal of work to do with him but I had seen how philosophy had done perhaps what other subjects couldn't do for him.

The moral of the story is that philosophy offers that extra challenge both to gifted and talented children and children with behavioural difficulties; it goes beyond the national curriculum and addresses some of the issues that I wish had been addressed when I was at school.

How would you like to see philosophy with children/philosophy in schools develop?

I would like to see more specialists such as myself in schools, so that it becomes normal for a school to have a resident philosopher. I would also like to see more teachers using some of the techniques of philosophy and particularly Socratic questioning in the classroom and integrate philosophy within the national curriculum. It would be great for a philosophy programme to be run right through a child’s education from reception to secondary school and for philosophy to replace the traditional role of religious instruction and education in schools. I would really like to see more studies done into its effects such as the one done recently by Dundee university.

If any readers are interested in contacting you to do philosophy at their school, how can they contact you?

The best thing is to visit my website and/or email me at to find out about courses.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Beefy, Compassion and the Road to Meaning

Whilst probably not 500-1 - the odds offered against England winning the 1981 Headlingley test before Botham's heroics - the chances of Ian "Beefy" Botham becoming a knight of the realm must at one time have been rated as pretty slim Even his own autobiography [2000 edition] describes itself as "an intriguing cocktail of sex and drug allegations,personal upheavals [and] confrontations with his peers" - as well as "remarkable achievements both on and off the field"

Today few would deny the merits of Botham's knighthood. Raising over ten million pounds for leukemia-related children's charities far outweighs what are now discounted as minor blemishes. Yet the misdemenours didn't seem so out of character at the time. If you had to compare Botham to a Shakespearian hero, it would surely be that epitome of out-of-control hedonism, Sir John Falstaff. As Michael Henderson wrote back in 2000 :-

Watching [Botham] in his pomp must have been like eavesdropping on Falstaff in an Eastcheap tavern, as he feasted on sack and capons - though even the Lord of Misrule might have struggled to keep up with Botham on a heavy night.

falstaff ianbotham

I'd wager that Sir John didnt get his knighthood for good deeds. Whilst it's not too much of a stretch to imagine Falstaff flaying opposition bowlers to all parts of the ground like the village blacksmith, I doubt if would have got past the first inn on the John O'Groats-Lands End road. So what started his twentieth-century counterpart on his unlikely trajectory ? One word - compassion. Botham was passing through a hospital ward for some treatment to a broken toe, when he saw some pretty-normal looking children sitting around playing board games. "You know those children won't be here in a few months" commented his medic. They had terminal leukemia, and couldn't expect to see their next Christmas. Botham was so moved he began to donate money for parties for the children, then began doing sponsored walks until eventually he was organising and taking part in mammoth fund-raising events.

Compassion - a feeling of sorrow and pity for someone in trouble - changed the life of Botham himself and the many others helped by him. When Botham visited that Taunton hospital ward, the success rate for treatment leukemia in children was 20%. Now it is 80%. Of course, Botham cannot be held solely responsible for this incredible improvement - but what a legacy!

Buddhists have long argued that compassion isn't just good for other people, it's good for you too.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." proclaims the Dalai Lama .

After his knighthood, Sir Ian may agree.

bothamolder dalailama

So does the mature Sir Ian now resemble the Dalai Lama (above) more than Falstaff? Probably not. I suspect that the Falstaffian side of his character is still very much to the fore. Botham is no saint. But, guided by compassion, he has used his celebrity status to make a huge positive difference to the world. However problematic celebrity is in the modern world, it can be put to good use. Celebrity plus compassion equals meaning. So, what odds will anyone give me about the latest celebrity, Katie from the Apprentice , eventually using her celebrity status to help those in need? Anyone give me 500-1?

Monday, January 29, 2007

What is Practical Philosophy? (number 2 in series on Practical Philosophy)

If Socrates had read my last article (Why Practical Philosophy?) then I hope he would have nodded sagely at my advocacy of the examined life (even if he would have thought he could have put it so much better himself).
But, being Socrates, I'm sure he wouldn't have left it at that. He believed that you shouldn't really be discussing anything - be it the nature of love, success or practical philosophy - unless you know what it is. The beginning of wisdom may lie in the definition of terms. It makes sense, if you think about it.
So what do I mean by practical philosophy?
Here's my definition:-
Practical Philosophy is a discipline that uses philosophical methods and insights to explore how people can lead wiser, more reflective lives.
It is also the name for the activity that helps people lead such lives.
Its topics include the nature and pursuit of wisdom relating to:- the good life, reason and the emotions, decision-making and the meaning of life. The activities of practical philosophy include philosophical counselling (usually with individuals), the community of enquiry (mainly used in Philosophy with Children) , Socratic Dialogue (used in management) and workshops and courses on practical philosophy.
Practical Philosophy covers much the same ground as religion and self-help books, but its methods are reason and rational argument rather than faith or dogmatic assertion. I'm currently giving a course on Practical Philosophy and the titles of each week's seminars gives a better flavour of the sort of thing it covers.

1 Socrates: Philosophy and the Good Life

2 Well-Being – Bentham versus Mill versus Aristotle

3 Human Excellence – Aristotle versus the Stoics

4 Wisdom – the most important virtue?

5. Existential Wisdom – Being true to yourself and the human condition

6 Love and personal relationships

7 Ethics – Doing the right thing – Kant versus Mill

8 The Meaning of Life - is it really 42?

9 How to develop even more enlightened values

10 Philosophical Counselling and Conclusions
An aspect of this course that Socrates would have approved of is that at the start of the course, each student is asked what they think the good life is. Then they are asked to 'play Socrates' and refute it. Each week, more philosophers are brought into the discussion, and further refutations and refinements are encouraged.
It being practical philosophy, students are also encouraged to take steps towards realising their vision of the good life, which again provides feedback into whether it really is the good life.

I hope that gives some inkling into what I mean by "practical philosophy". In my next article , I'll talk some more about how to do it

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Why Practical Philosophy? (number 1 in a series on Practical Philosophy)

It's little exaggeration to say that I first studied philosophy by accident. As an A Level student my favourite subjects were economics and history.
Out of the blue, my history teacher (God bless him) asked  me  "Why dont you try for PPE at Oxford? That's Philosophy, Politics  and Economics. Don't worry about the philosophy, you can always drop it after a year."
Little did he know that he was igniting  a life-long passion for philosophy. As soon as I started doing philosophy, I was hooked.   It just hadn't occured to me before that there was a subject where people thought about  such things as the meaning of life, the good life, whether we have free will and what makes an action right or wrong..
One of the attractions, despite philosophy's reputation, was that these questions were so very practical.  Take the "good life" question, for instance.
It's quite possible to go though life without the thought "What is the good life?" going through one's head. But once the question has been asked, it demands an answer.
If there is some way to make my life go best, then  surely one ought to devote a little time and  energy to attempting to  find the answer.
So my short response to the question  "Why Practical Philosophy" would mention  both the enjoyment in exploring its questions, and the benefit of discovering some answers.
A longer reply would involve me defining practical philosophy, saying more  about how one does practical philosophy and naming some of the most useful philosophers and their ideas.
But those are topics for another occasion. For now, I'll just mention one possible drawback in not doing practical philosophy. My favourite illustration of this is Tolstoy's short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan, a conventionally successful family man, contracts a terminal illness in his early forties. Only when he is looking death in the eye does he realise that he hasn't really been living at all. He's been living artificially, for the so-called benefits society brings - honours, wealth and a modicum of pleasure. He married  not for love but because it was the thing one was meant to do, he'd never really got to know  his children, and  he had completely lost touch with the fun person  he himelf had been when a child. He'd failed to  realise that this was his life, and if he didnt actively make an effort to decide how to live it, it would just pass him by. For poor Ivan, of course, it was too late to do much but gain some death-bed enlightenment - but for others it can be a timely wake-up call to action. It can be of some help to start thinking about these questions
        When and where were you happiest? 
        What legacy would you like to leave?
        What would you do if you had only 6 months to live?
        What, in your rocking chair aged 80, would you be pleased about having done or experienced in your life?
        Are you living for  external "glories" that left Ivan feeling so empty, or for less material but more meaningful values?
Of course, you may already be leading  your life in accordance with your answers to these questions. If not, a little bit of practical philosophy might just pay off...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

New Year's Resolutions? You must be nuts ..

It was the first day back in the office after the Xmas break and two young men were earnestly discussing their New Year's Resolutions.

"I'm going to give up drinking", proclaimed the first confidently. "I was completely wrecked after New Year. I think my body may be trying to tell me something..."

"I'm going to go jogging every day" chimed in the second. "I went for a short run last night and felt so much better for it. From now on I'll do that every evening."

This solemn exchange of pledges was interrupted by a booming Irish voice.

"I'll give both your resolutions about a week at most". His voice trailed off into a gentle laugh. This elder statesman spoke not with malice but from the wisdom of bitter (and lager) experience.

Of course he was right. And friends, I know, because (many years ago) I was that (would-be) jogger. The three of us went out drinking that very night, putting paid to 2 resolutions in one fell swoop.

I don't imagine my experience is all that unusual. In general, New Year's Resolutions don't last very long. Although I'm a great believer in personal growth, I'm a sceptic when it comes to the value of making New Year's resolutions.

I don't want to cause offence, but I'd go further and say that New Year's Resolutions are not at all smart but are, quite literally, NUTS.

Let me explain ...

Why I think New Year's Resolutions are nuts …

More often that not, New Year's Resolutions are about what you are going to stop doing. "I will stop drinking/smoking/over-eating/gambling ... (- fill in your own personal bad habit)" Why is saying what you are going to stop doing something a problem? Do you remember that old yarn about the little boy who was told he would get a present so long as he didn't think of a pink elephant in the next minute? Its a bit like that. Having a resolution not to do something makes you more, not less, likely to think of it. And if this something tempting - like eating a biscuit , or going for a drink - then having it brought to mind is not such a good idea. It's much better to frame a resolution in terms of something positive (what you want to do instead or what benefits it will bring). For example, don't resolve to stop eating cream cakes – resolve to be able to fit into those trousers again.

In this one respect my resolution to go jogging was better than my friends resolution to stop drinking. The trouble with my resolution though -and most other New Year's resolutions - was that it was totally UNREALISTIC. How likely is it that someone who has not jogged 364 days out of the last 365 is suddenly going to jog every night? Just as old habits die hard, new one's take a lot of effort to cultivate. Moreover there is sound psychological evidence to back up the claim that making a one-off resolution, however sincere, is on its own unlikely to succeed. The gold standard here is
Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente's "stages of change " model In their book, Changing for Good, which applies to addicts trying to overcome drinking or smoking addictions as much New Year's resolution, they says that typically you have to pass through 6 stages to make a successful change. If you are interested in their model, then I strongly recommend buying their book or visiting this web page where I describe the stages of change, how to recognise them, and how to move on to the next stage. The point that's relevant here is that a New Year's resolution squashes the whole change process into one resolution - omitting stage 2, contemplation, when you weigh up all the pros and cons, stage 3, preparation , when you where you break up the change into small, manageable steps and make an action plan and stage 5, maintenance, when, for example, you avoid places and people that can compromise the change. Trying to short-cut the change process into one annual resolution is an unrealistic as thinking you can win an Olympic medal by doing one day's training.

T stands for TIMELESS. Most effective goals are timebound. It's much better to resolve not to eat a cream cake today, than to not eat one all year. It makes the resolution more urgent and at the same time more achievable. It's not for nothing that Alcoholics Anonymous famously recommends that you proceed one day at a time. Another problem with timeless resolutions is the consequence of a relapse. Relapse is common in any change, but if your resolution is to quit forever, or to go jogging everyday then if you miss a day , it's easy to see that as failure and give in for another year . "Bang goes that New years resolution."

My final reason for arguing that New Year's Resolutions are NUTS is because they are too SAINTLY. When we make New Year's Resolutions we are often speaking on behalf of some imaginary, more saintly version of ourselves. Thats why resolutions are often so extreme. For example, I didn't really need to go jogging every day - once a week would have been a good start. My friend (who was by no means an alcoholic) did not need to give up drinking altogether – a regime of 2 nights going out with friends a week would have been fine. Misguided saintliness doesn't just make resolutions unrealistic, it can also increase resistance to them. We subconsciously realise that resolutions are too extreme, so we take pleasure in breaking them. Go on – admit it – last time you broke a (too saintly) resolution, I bet you took some pride in breaking it.

So should I just resolve not to make any New Year's Resolutions?

The last thing I want to be is a personal development grinch. I certainly don't want to discourage you from making improvements to your life But my hunch is that on the whole New Years Resolutions contribute to the cynicism one finds in our culture

about personal development, and we would be better off without them.

So what's my advice? If you want to make a big change, then read about the stages of change model and begin to put it into practice. But there are often better ways to effective personal development than revolutionary changes. In my next article, I will share with you my own method of personal growth which I apply every New Year. It seems to work.