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Philosophy for Communities - thinking more together

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

I wrote an article for The Friend magazine a couple of years ago about offering a P4C enquiry for a group of Quakers. I've adapted it below to give an overview of the enquiry process, which can work in any community group or setting.

To what extent is it OK to deceive to right wrongs?

A group of twelve people, many meeting each other for the first time, agree that this is the question they wish to discuss. I’m the facilitator for the process, which on this occasion takes place in a Quaker setting. The age range in the group is from around twenty to about seventy and we're sitting in a circle together to start our philosophical enquiry. We’re entering into dialogue and discussion and using the Philosophy for Communities methodology.

Thinking together

I first learned about the methodology over ten years ago, when my son took part in an enquiry at a youth club session. The starting point was the story of the First World War Christmas armistice football match. I was impressed with how the group’s deep thinking brought the story to life for them. Since then I’ve trained in the facilitation method, which when used with adults is known as Philosophy for Communities. When used with young people it is known as Philosophy for Children. Both are abbreviated to P4C.

This is not a way of learning with expert input to provide ‘the right answer’ and it is more than an opportunity to share experience. The facilitator uses a simple process to engage the group in reasoned dialogue and to support their progress on the chosen question. The aspect of progress is important; this is not a debate with fixed positions taken and points to be scored but an opportunity for developing shared thinking as a community.

The methodology frames ‘4Cs’ of philosophical thinking: critical, creative, collaborative and caring. To start with the last, the caring is for each other but also for the chosen question – the focus of the discussion should have meaning for all involved. This shared interest is the foundation for the group to work collaboratively, building on each other’s thoughts and ideas to find their way into new and creative thinking. And the final, vital, element is to be critical, to make use of reasoning and judgement.

Thinking about thinking in this way helps the facilitator and the group to be intentional in their participation during the enquiry. A stimulus is used as a starting point. This is usually chosen by the facilitator and is often a story in some form. Children’s picture books are often a rich source for opening up big questions but, as with all the steps of the process, the approach taken can be flexible. Pictures, objects or short films can work well or even a shared experience. Concepts are explored, questions developed and refined, and the discussion then ensues.

Different aspects of what truth is

On this occasion, I’d chosen a stimulus – Lion vs Rabbit by Alex Latimer – which included openings to lots of different themes that I thought might relevant to the group. However, as always, the stimulus was merely a starting point. It was up to the group to decide which question they wanted to discuss, on this occasion: to what extent is it ok to deceive to right wrongs?

It is always fascinating to see focus emerge and thinking develop. The process was balanced between individual thinking time and pairs talking, as well as discussion in the whole group. One person started us off with a clear suggestion that it’s never acceptable to deceive for any reason but was then challenged by someone who raised the example of people hiding Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. This led to an exploration of different aspects of what truth is and what difference a context makes to the response an individual might choose, or need, to make in a range of circumstances.

A simple review tool was used at the end to check in with the group about how well they felt the process had worked in being thought-provoking, feeling enjoyable and encouraging a range of opinions to be shared. Responses showed that it had done all three of these things but with a slight weighting towards being thought-provoking and enjoyable, suggesting that it was felt the range of opinions was more limited.

Perhaps this was likely, given the context for the enquiry but the method can work well in all kinds of groups, including for open access public sessions. All are welcome and lots of different ideas and opinions can be share, so long as those participating are willing to have their thinking challenged and to explore more fully what others mean.

Enjoying the process and valuing disagreement

For people who like discussing ideas, P4C is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. But it can also provide the way for people to understand one another better and find out more about different opinions.

One particularly strong part of the method is that gives rise to the possibility of understanding that disagreeing with someone doesn't have to mean rejecting the person. I think the P4C method of philosophical enquiry provides a useful means to help any community to do this. It offers an established practice for engaging in rigorous discussion that values disagreement as a way in to rich thinking. Joining in can help build authentic and resilient relationships that provide a good basis for developing healthy, diverse communities.

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