The MWS Podcast: Episode 19, Peter Worley

In this episode, we are joined by Peter Worley, the co- founder of the Philosophy Foundation and author of the ‘If Machine’ and the award winning ‘Philosophy Shop’. The main topic is teaching philosophy to children and philosophy’s wider role in education.

MWS Podcast 19: Peter Worley as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_19_Peter_Worley

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

5 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 19, Peter Worley

  1. A great interview. I very much support what the Philosophy Foundation is doing. I’ve taught A Level Philosophy and Critical Thinking for quite a while now, but these courses typically only reach a small minority of young people, because they take quite a formal and demanding view of their subjects. Philosophy teaching at A Level can also be very frustrating because it is so content heavy, so one is obliged to instruct students about lots of theories before they have developed the skills required to fully digest them and respond to them critically. This kind of Philosophy teaching at a younger age is in many ways much more incremental and much more likely to have a positive impact on society.

    I also very much appreciated Peter’s points about the Middle Way and objectivity at the end, and this is a good example of the podcast at its best – bringing in different views of the Middle Way from different bases of experience and showing that it’s not just about a particular formulation – whether mine or that of Buddhism – but rather a universal principle that can grow out of what Peter usefully calls ‘revaluative’ experience.

    I have one question for Peter that has more of a critical edge. When he talked about reasoning as the Fourth ‘R’, I wondered exactly what he meant, and whether if taken up there is a danger that it could end up being interpreted as narrowly as the other three R’s have been. What I mean here is that you could see ‘reasoning’ just as the deductive drawing of conclusions from premises: a process that can be reduced to a merely logical one, and can be performed by computers. Children do need this skill, but I wouldn’t see it as more basic than the other 3 R’s, nor would I see it as the most important part of either Philosophy or Critical Thinking. Instead, the reflection and revaluation that Peter talked of suggest more important skills: that of recognising the assumptions with which we begin reasoning, recognising their limitations, and where appropriate revising them. Is he using ‘reasoning’ as a shortcut to actually talk about all the three skills he previously discussed in philosophy, or is he just talking about reasoning itself? My experience is that teaching does not really have much impact on reasoning skills as such – this is the stuff of IQ tests, which you can practise and get better at, but only to a limited extent. Rather, the overwhelming value of both Critical Thinking and Philosophy training is the way that it makes us aware of our assumptions.

    1. When I say ‘reasoning’, of course, I include this narrow sense of ‘reasoning as inference’ but I do not wish to reduce it to this. Reasoning has a judgement part to it as well. I found this rather nice quote in the Longman’s English dictionary:

      “Reason, understanding, discernment, judgement, and intuition all mean ‘the power by which we reach truth or knowledge’. Reason implies the orderly process of arriving at logical conclusions. Understanding stresses mental grasp of what is perceived, and the ability to apply concepts to it. Discernment emphasises discrimination in the selection of what is relevant or valuable, to which judgement adds the idea of reaching sound conclusions. Intuition, by contrast, is the spontaneous perception of the underlying nature of things without evident rational thought.”
      Longman Dictionary of the English Language

      In philosophy we often begin with intuitions and then test those intuitions by putting them next to or through this kind of process. By ‘reasoning’ I mean to include all these aspects from discernment to intuition – I fell on the word ‘reasoning’ partly because it has an ‘R’ at the beginning (unlike two of the other three Rs)! Other senses of reasoning I mean might include ‘creative reasoning’, ’emotional reasoning’, ‘collaborative/collective reasoning’.

      I don’t claim (though it certainly sounds like it) that reasoning is more basic that the other 3 Rs but I do claim that concepts are; after all, the three Rs depend on concepts, and some level of conceptual understanding, to be useful at all. Reasoning is to do with concepts. That is the link reasoning has to being ‘basic’ or foundational.

      I agree that reasoning is not more important than reflection or revaluation as there is, it seems to me, a mutual inter-dependency between them (like Socrates’ ‘unity of the virtues’) when one thinks of doing philosophy well. To reason well one needs to be both reflective and revaluative; to reflect well one needs to do so reasoningly and revaluatively etc.

      If it is true that one can (to an extent) get better at thinking by practicing it (Tricky and Topping’s research showed IQ increases of 6.5 points through doing philosophy) and it is better to be better at thinking (to have a higher IQ than a lower one), then surely it follows that it should be practised however much that ‘extent’ is. The claim about philosophy’s overwhelming value being the recognising of assumptions is what I call the revaluative aspect but as I say I see this equally and necessarily as important as the other aspects.

      My colleague Andy West told me a very moving story about a 13-year-old student he was working with at a hospital. The student was dying whilst doing philosophy with Andy and died, very sadly, last week. This story informed me why, ultimately, philosophy is worth doing. This student would gain nothing instrumental from his engagement with philosophy; but by engaging philosophically he engaged fully with life and with the world and with himself and with Andy. He was dying but through doing philosophy it seemed he was able to live.

  2. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for this clarification. I do very much agree with you about the interdependency of the three elements. I think I would put less emphasis on reasoning-as-inference out of the three just because it seems to be the one we can do least about. Although reasoning can be developed to some extent (and a 6.5 point increase in IQ is impressive), people do also hit ceilings in their reasoning ability. This is where in my experience (with adults or older teenagers, particularly) they start saying things like “I am not a philosopher”, when, as I’m sure you’ll recognise, we’re all philosophers to varying degrees. The emphasis on reasoning can be rather unfortunate, because it can reinforce the tendency to block off philosophy for those who have more limited reasoning ability and thus find activities that put an emphasis on reasoning harder, when actually they are still capable of making loads of progress in terms of reflection and revaluation.

    Your claim that ‘reasoning is to do with concepts’ does have various potential issues around it, depending on what you take that relationship to be. If you take the embodied meaning thesis seriously then this implies that concepts have a more basic relationship to our experience than reasoning does, and reasoning is in no way constitutive of concepts. Reasoning takes place within cognitive models, which are in turn constructed out of the metaphorical extensions of basic schemas. So on this account of meaning – which to my mind is far more convincing than the representationalist one more traditionally used in analytic philosophy – reasoning in the sense of inference can at best be something we do to clarify our cognitive models when we’ve formed them. Reading, writing and arithmetic could also be said to clarify our cognitive models in a similar fashion, but reading and writing can also just be used to represent concepts before we reason with them.

    If I was to isolate one term to connect the different potentials of philosophy I would choose ‘awareness’ – which also gives full credit to the need for emotional as well as rational cultivation and reflection.

    I have Andy staying with me at the moment, so I heard the story about the dying student directly from him. It does illustrate movingly how engaging with philosophy can be very much a way of engaging directly with what is valuable in experience, in a way that matters however much or little time we have left.

    1. I like your pinpointing ‘awareness’. I think this came through in my retelling of Andy’s story. As Walter White says in Breaking Bad when asked by Jessie why he’s breaking bad he simply says ‘I’m awake!’ Is this what the Buddhists call ‘mindfulness’?

  3. Hi,
    Reflection and revaluation are qualities I hope will grow stronger as I have probably reached my ‘ceiling’ of critical thinking!
    What an excellent series of DVDs is Breaking Bad, I watched all five.

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