Sunday, January 18, 2009

personal development through philosophy course starting soon

Of all the courses I teach, this is the one that gives me the most satisfaction - and feedback from students suggest they like it a lot too. I'll be writing more blog entries about ideas arising from the course this year - but if you can reach London, you might like to be part of the course yourself. Here are the details
This 10 week course will show how studying philosophy can help you explore the nature of a flourishing, good life, and begin applying these ideas to your own life. Philosophers studied will include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Nietzsche, Mill , Heidegger and Sartre. Topics will include happiness, wisdom, the emotions, relationships, work , ethics and the meaning of life. The course is suitable for all levels and has had very positive feedback from many students, ranging from those who have had no academic study since leaving school to those with advanced qualifications in philosophy wishing to use this material to develop their own good life and their own courses in practical philosophy.

Course Code CE1944
Course Fee £110
Start dateTuesday 17 January 2009 Time 6.30pm – 8.30pm
10 weekly classes
Location City University, London

What Previous Participants Have Said
“I like the way it challenged my thinking processes and has impacted on the way I want to lead my life”
"Interesting and thought-provoking”
“It was very accessible and helped to de-mystify the topic of philosophy”.
“The course has had a major impact on my life.”

Course Programme
1. Introduction: Socrates: Philosophy and the Good Life
Part 1- What is the Good Life?
2. Happiness, Well-Being & Values – Bentham versus Mill
3. Human Excellence, Character & Virtue – Aristotle versus the Stoics
4. Wisdom – the most important virtue?
5. Ethics – Doing the right thing – Kant, Mill and Hare
6. Existentialism: Sartre, Heidegger and the freedom to choose
7. The Meaning of Life - is it really 42?
Part 2 - Applications
8. Relationships: Philosophy, Love, Friendship & Compassion
9. Work: Philosophy, careers & Work-life balance
10. Conclusions: The Good Life and how to live it - and team quiz

To enrol call City University on 020 7040 8268 between 9.30am and 5.00pm.or
visit the City Uni website (

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Life before Death exhibition

Recently I taught a ten week Personal Development Through Philosophy course, and, though we talked about many interesting things - wisdom, happiness, meaning, love, work - the topic that grabbed students attention most this time was death. I don't think that this was because the group was particularly negative or morbid - it wasn't - but because it's the one aspect of the human condition that is both inescapable and most frequently denied. Many live as if they believe they are guaranteed their full three-score and ten years - as if important things can wait.The truth is that even if we do not suffer an early death, time is our most important and non-renewable commodity. Whilst philosophers may associate a focus on death and time with existentialist philosophers like Martin Heidegger, other rather more populist thinkers have echoed similar sentiments. I particularly appreciate John Lennon's
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." (from the song Beautiful Boy)

It's one thing to nod sagely at the above thoughts, another to let it affect one's life. If you are anywhere near Euston Station in the next couple of weeks, I recommend half an hour spent at the Life Before Death exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road.

The collection describes itself in this way

24 sets of photographs taken before and after death

Nothing teaches us more about life than death itself. Journalist Beate Lakotta and photographer Walter Schels asked 24 terminally ill people if they could accompany them during their last weeks and days. From these vigils came a series of insightful descriptions and photographic portraits taken before and after death.

Far from being gloomy, these intimate concerns of the dying reveal the preciousness and transience of life, and make us question what we often take for granted

You can view a slideshow of photos before and after death here.

The exhibition has received many positive reviews - see for example this five-star review. Even The Sun did a positive feature on it.

Personally, I found the exhibition moving and a further confirmation of the importance of facing the possibility of premature death head on.
One 68-year-old could scarcely believe the way death was cheating her out of her retirement. She had been working hard all her life to finally enjoy herself. "Can't death wait?" she pleaded. It could not - eight days later, she was dead.

Another of the condemned, aged 47, mused "It's absurd really. It's only now that I have cancer that for the first time, ever, I really want to live." Existential therapist Irvin Yalom has longobserved how impending death trivialises the trivial. Wouldn't it be good if we could do this without the sentence of imminent death hanging over us?

The exhibition is free and continues until 18th May.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness - a personal development classic

Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell’s books were described by Time magazine as a modern substitute for the Bible. If this is so, the The Conquest of Happiness must be at the very centre of his works.

Make no mistake, this is no abstract philosophical treatise – it is a recipe for good living, written for the likes of you and me. Russell’s work is based on two assumptions. First, happiness needs to be conquered. You can’t expect to waltz through life reaping happiness without putting in some thought and effort. But – and this is why The Conquest of Happiness is essentially an optimistic book– if you do make this effort, you can, given average fortune, attain happiness.

The conquest of happiness comes in three stages: first you need to learn about the principles that lead to happiness, next internalise them and, finally, put them into practice. Unless you had unusually wise parents, you must forget what you learnt on your parents’ knee; you must also put aside what teachers, friends and, especially, priests have told us. You must replace these ideas with ones that really will make you happy. One way to do this is to read The Conquest of Happiness, for what Russell has done here is describe fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. This is the essential first stage, but it’s important to realise that Russell does not think that it is sufficient. Next, you have to really internalise these principles – it’s not enough to repeat them parrot fashion, you have to really feel them as you do your feeling of wanting to protect your own children. A superficial reading of the book might not pick up the point, yet Russell emphasises it several times.

“Let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon your unconscious and be strong enough to cope with the impressions made by your nurse or your mother when you were an infant.”.

The third stage – the transformation of your life - will happen automatically if the first two steps are carried out. For example, take a theme close to Russell’s heart – that you shouldn’t feel shameful about sex. The first step involves realising at a conscious level that, whatever the priest said, consensual sex is part of a happy life, not a sin. The second step is to fully internalise this belief, to feel it, not just to recite it; if you’ve really done this, then the pay-off will be that a sense of shame will no longer stop you leading a sexually fulfilling life.

If you can follow these three steps for each of the fourteen characteristics described by Russell you will give yourself the best chance of achieving not just happiness but also freedom from what the Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza called ‘human bondage’. You will no longer be flotsam and jetsam, acted on by the forces of society and the commands of your parents, but a self-determining human being. You will be happy and free.

This framework is given flesh by Russell’s analysis of the fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. Each chapter consists of a justification of why the chosen characteristic is good or bad, nice distinctions between its various senses and a discussion of other writers’ views and Russell’s practical advice for attaining happiness. Sometimes Russell digresses to make some rather tangential remarks about society and education and other personal concerns. Since our concern is with how to be happy, rather than Russell’s other preoccupations – such as the difficulty of obtaining good housemaids in the 1920s – this will be our focus.

The Conquest of Happiness in a page


1. Don’t be taken in by melancholy

Melancholy is only a passing mood; don’t mistake it for wisdom.

2. Don’t get caught in the competitive treadmill

Feeling happy is the only true success.

3. Develop the right attitude to boredom and excitement

Excitement is best sought in small doses and in the right places.

A certain amount of boredom is to be expected.

4. Make your worries concrete, don’t suppress them

Get a sense of perspective; Ask yourself ‘what is the worst thing that could possibly happen?’

5. Don’t envy, admire!

Enjoy what you have for its own sake, don’t compare yourself with others

6. Fight back against guilt & shame

Look out for the superstitious voice of your early influences; reason with it and defeat it.

7. Don’t suffer from an exaggerated sense of injustice

Exaggerate neither your own good nor others’ interest in you!

8. Don’t care too much what others think

Respect public opinion only to avoid starvation and stay out of jail.


1. Cultivate zest

Get into the habit of taking a lively and friendly interest in everything

2. Be affectionate

Reach out to other people and give affection; accept, but never demand it, in return.

3. Be a good parent

Give your child time & user your parental your child’s good

4. Do interesting, varied and constructive work

Find work that is varied, builds on a skill and creates something.

5. Cultivate plenty of relaxing minor interests

Enjoy as many diversifying hobbies and pursuits as you can; make sure these provide variety from your day job.

6. Find the right balance between effort and resignation

Do your best and when you have done all you can leave the issue to fate

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Why the good life question?

I sometimes use the "What is the good life?" as the focal point of a whole course. "What's so important about the good life question?", I hear you ask. After all, it's not a question you hear discussed on TV everyday, or in the pub, or - anywhere at all, actually. So here are my three good reasons to give the pub or TV a miss for once and think about this question

1. It can give you a direction is life. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested,

"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable”.
Once you formulate your answer to the question, you will be better able to resist the winds of chance and peer pressure face dragging you off course.

2. It's the big question
Once you know what the good life is, other questions - such as "should I be in a relationship?" , "should I work more or enjoy myself more?" and "Should I have children" fall into place. As management guru Stephen Covey said,
"Many people climb the ladder of success only to find the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall."

3. You can improve your answer
In week 1 on my course I ask people to come up with a provisional answer to the question "What is the good life". Over 10 weeks, they then learn both philosophical methods and ideas of philosophers about the good life and refine their definition. The improvement in definitions is often startling.

I hope that's reason enough to think about the good life question. What would your answer be?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Match of the Day Philosophy Special

The news that Big Brother contestants have been asked to discuss the Meaning of Life has seen other popular shows jump on the philosophical bandwagon. Personal Development Through Philosophy is proud to have secured the script and exclusive rights to one such venture - tonight's Philosophy Special Match of the Day....

Gary Lineker: After the World Cup debacle against Portugal, perhaps we all need to learn how to take life more philosophically. Tonight our usual panel of experts is joined by two very special guests, the new England manager Steve McClaren and the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, Lucius Seneca. Alan Hansen, if I may turn to you first, which philosopher do you think England can learn most from?

Alan: The boy Aristotle's got it all - after two and a half thousands years or so he might be slowing down a bit, but his maturity and common sense more than compensate. Sheer class.

Gary: And how could Aristotle help?

Alan: Basically his advice adds up to 3 secrets of success. Practice, practice and more practice. Who was the only Englishman to score a penalty? The one who plays in Germany, that's who. We've got to practice penalty-taking, and we've got to get into the habit of taking good penalties. If we took penalties to decide every drawn Premiership game, you'd soon notice the difference.

Gary: Aristotle said all that, did he?

Alan: Aye, words to that effect. And he also said that you could'na win anything with kids.

Gary: Let's go over to the stadium now and join John Motson and Mark Lawrenson. Mark, any words of wisdom?

Mark Lawrenson: (deadpan) The two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.

Gary: Is that one of yours, Mark?

Mark: I wish it was, Gary, I wish it was. No, that's from Arthur Schopenhauer - the second most miserable person ever. Pain and boredom - that just about sums up England's World Cup for me.

Gary: Hmm. I wonder if Schopenhauer was influenced by the formative years he spent in Wimbledon. Moving on quickly - John, anything to add?

Motty: (chirpy as ever) You know, I think some people are being a bit too harsh on the England lads. I lip-read some banter between Manchester United team-mates Rooney and Ronaldo the other night, and you might not believe this, but they were actually talking about two philosophers, Foucault and Kant.

Gary: (smirking) Thanks for that, John. Now for a Welsh point of view, over to Mark Hughes.

Marcuse: The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, their flat-panel TV.

Motty: Ho, Ho. I think that someone's confused Marcuse, the Frankfurt school philosopher, and Mark Hughes, the ex Man Utd forward. It reminds me of the time back in 1982 when Top of the Pops mixed up soul icon Jackie Wilson with darts player Jocky Wilson. You've got to laugh ...

Gary: Ian Wright - you look like you’re bursting to say something ...

Ian: Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Marcuse - listen, man, we don’t need any of these fancy foreigners, know what I mean? How about someone English for a change? John Stuart Mill is the man for me. The greatest happiness of the greatest number, that's the answer. Steve - put a smile back on everyone's face and pick some fast wingers, youngsters who can go past players.

Steve McClaren: One of them wouldn’t go by the name of Sean would he?

Ian: Well, you'd be making at least one person very happy.

Gary: Lucius Seneca, you were tutor to Nero, you've seen it all before. Any sage advice for the English?

Seneca: Forget 4-5-1, drop Beckham, play Lennon and Cole as out-and-out wingers, put Rooney and Defoe up front together - oh, and make John Terry captain.

Gary: And any philosophical tips?

Seneca: We Stoics think that people need to have realistic expectations. England always lose in penalty shoot outs and have never won a major football tournament away from home. Expect things to go badly, and you won't be disappointed. And remember, football's only a game.

Gary: Steve McClaren, the new England manager, you're being very quiet. Not impersonating Sven by any chance, are you? Steve, what's the way forward for England?

Steve McClaren: It's all Greek to me

Gary: Seneca, don’t go just yet. It looks like we might need to remember your advice in the next few years. Well I hope all this philosophy has helped -now it's over to Big Brother to find out the meaning of life....

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