“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” – David Hume
This was the quotation placed on the desk in front of me when I applied to read Theology at Cambridge now many years ago. Just one question accompanied this, and an intimidatingly thick stack of lined paper.
‘On the basis of Hume’s advice, should we burn the Divinity Faculty library?’
I’ve been told since that my response was anything but erudite. I cobbled together some sort of argument, threw in some Big Names and tried to sound a lot more knowledgeable than I actually was: the story of my life. In an ironic entry for Providence, it was Nietzsche who saved the day. I recognised the ‘unseen’ text given to me by my interviewer as a passage from The Genealogy of Morals. I pretended that I didn’t know who had written it, but suggested that it sounded pretty German.
I said in an earlier blog that I would try and tackle the topic of what, if any, philosophy there should be in the KS3 curriculum. This is a topic very close to my heart: I agonised hugely over whether to apply to read philosophy or theology at university. I eventually chose the latter because, although I had little or no belief in God, I seemed more interested than the philosophers were in playing the devil’s advocate.
- RS is different from philosophy.
RS begins by taking as self-evident that religion exists, even if God does not. As I understand it, the purpose of RS is to provide pupils with a knowledge and understanding of the world religions because a) their histories, beliefs and practices are inherently interesting and worthy of study and b) we can’t possibly be considered culturally literate without a basic religious literacy. I would add to this that I think that we’re also asking children to make informed judgements about truth and reality, if either exists at all. We should celebrate competing truth claims (religious and non-religious) and equip pupils with the knowledge and understanding to make critical judgements.
- Philosophy usually involves a different sort of enquiry and different subject content.
I think philosophy is a different sort of enquiry from the study of religion. It sees discussion about religion as nothing more than ‘sophistry and illusion’: religion contains no ‘experimental reasoning’, few (if any) ‘facts’ and no ‘existence’ – at least not the sort that philosophers like. It is a different sort of enquiry because philosophers are usually asking different questions than those of theologians, even if sometimes they’re asking those questions of the same material. I studied both Hume and Aquinas as an undergraduate theologian, but I was probably asking different questions of their work than the undergraduate philosophers.
1 and 2 both being true, why don’t I think it should be a totally separate subject at secondary school?
Political philosophy is not just the study of politics; it is the study of what we know about politics and how we wish to organise our societies. Aesthetics is not just the study of beauty; it is the study of what beauty might be. Epistemology is not just knowledge; it is the nature and quality of knowledge, and what we can know. It is no coincidence that at many universities, Oxford for one, it is not possible to study ‘philosophy’ as a single discipline. One studies ‘physics and philosophy’, ‘PPE’ or, indeed, ‘theology and philosophy’. It may be true, as the Oxford philosophy handbook says, that ‘the study of philosophy develops analytical rigour and the ability to criticize and reason logically.’ But I think it does so because such skills are the corollaries of analyzing something, and criticizing and reasoning logically about something. For children to ‘philosophize’, I think they need something to philosophize about. If you believe (and I think this does qualify as ‘belief’) that such thinking skills can be taught in isolation then I’m not going to even try and convert you; here I offer only heresy.
This being the case, I think there can be a huge opportunity cost in trying to teach philosophy when children do not have the knowledge to be able to make meaningful judgements. Having been trained in the so-called ‘Philosophy 4 Children’ programme, I have some experience of the sort of lessons which might charitably be described as a glorified speaking and listening exercise: pictures of women clothed in rainbow-coloured LGBT burqas used to provoke ‘engaging’ discussion about gender roles and/or sexuality. You can imagine the sort of insightful (and sensitive) comments these elicit from the average Year 7 class. At best, you get some provocative discussion supported by prior knowledge. But the pupils aren’t learning anything new. At worst, they’re just repeating and recycling unsupported opinions in a grubby tumble dryer of mutual ignorance. This is a massive opportunity cost when a) the knowledge deficit is so debilitating and b) curriculum time is at such a premium.
I don’t think that all who argue for philosophy as a separate subject in secondary schools see this as philosophy proper. Unfortunately, many do. Either way, I do think we have to be careful about introducing philosophy too early, not least because I think it does genuine philosophy a huge disservice. I think it’s also unrealistic to fracture the school timetable anymore than we’ve done already. There are a myriad different academic disciplines chomping at the bit for a bit of lesson time (Psychology? Anthropology? Citizenship?), and I think there’s good reason to be conservative rather than adding yet another variable to the mosh pit that is school timetabling. I have considered whether I could introduce some philosophy of mind, aesthetics or epistemology at KS3, but I’ve always come to two conclusions:
- I would rather pupils knew and understood the three Abrahamic faiths than wrestle with a watered down version of Hume’s Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, Scruton’s Beauty or some John Searle.
- This knowledge base already embedded and assumed, philosophy of religion and philosophy of ethics is the right way to begin to introduce pupils to the discrete subject that is ‘philosophy’.
Next time, I’ll write about what this looks like in practice and my attempts at creating an overview that tracks the history of ancient and modern ideas: Christianity at the same time as the Reformation; Islam just before the Crusades and scepticism at the time of the French Revolution.