Philosophical Sensitivity

The first day of fall and it’s a beautiful clear day in northeast Washington State. I am returning to this blog after spending much of the summer working on the book I am writing for parents about ways to inspire philosophical conversations with one’s children.

One of the ideas on which I’ve been spending a lot of time recently is what I’m calling “philosophical sensitivity,” by which I mean an awareness of and attentiveness to the philosophical dimension of life. I’ve been developing this concept as part of my thinking about what it takes to be a competent philosophy teacher and/or to be able to inspire and facilitate philosophical dialogue in general. I thought I’d offer a brief sketch of this concept here and see what people think.

I’m conceiving philosophical sensitivity as a kind of perceptual capacity, in the Aristotelian sense of an ability that can be cultivated through education, experience and interest. There are three aspects to this capacity: the ability to identify a philosophical question, the skills necessary for inspiring a philosophical conversation, and a facility for paying attention to and shaping the progress of a philosophical discussion.

Identifying a philosophical question requires an ability to recognize the more fundamental, deeper issues underlying much of what we think, do and say, as well as skill at uncovering the assumptions embedded in our ordinary views about the world. Philosophers notoriously disagree about what makes a question philosophical. One basic way to identify in at least a rough way when something is not a question of philosophy is to ask if it can be settled by empirical facts. If so, it is not a philosophical question. Philosophical questions examine the meaning of a concept or idea, and aim at helping us understand better what we think we already know. They are generally abstract questions that are not likely to be answered in any final way. I often tell my students to keep asking more and more abstract questions about the subject under examination (for example, friendship: Why is she your friend? What makes someone a friend? What is friendship?); this can often lead you to an interesting philosophical question.

The second aspect of philosophical sensitivity is the ability to inspire or motivate a philosophical conversation. What makes a conversation philosophical? Three things, I think: (1) an examination of an abstract, general question that cannot be answered empirically; (2) arguments given to support the views offered; and (3) a progression or development of either the meaning of the idea(s) being explored or the participants’ understanding of a concept or concepts. To be able to inspire a philosophical conversation, the facilitator must be familiar with at least some of the most fundamental questions of philosophy (in epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, etc.), and have two primary abilities, I think: the ability to listen carefully to what is being said (and to recognizing some of the assumptions behind the participants’ statements) and the ability to articulate both connections and distinctions between the views offered by the conversation’s participants.

The final element of philosophical sensitivity is an awareness of the development of a philosophical conversation. The conversation should ultimately proceed in a forward movement. This doesn’t mean that the discussion won’t loop back and forth, touching several conceptual issues and coming back to earlier questions, rather than developing in a straight line. However, there should be some progress – at the very least, a better understanding of what the participants in the conversation think, greater conceptual clarity, the identification of key assumptions, and/or the construction of an alternative way of understanding the subject. Part of philosophical sensitivity is the ability to help shape the conversation so that it does proceed in a forward movement, by, for example, pointing out unidentified issues, recognizing when the discussion is going in circles and not moving forward in any meaningful way, or recounting the conversation’s path and asking for ideas about what’s next.

It seems to me that philosophical sensitivity is an essential bedrock skill for being a competent philosophy teacher, or being able to inspire philosophical conversations. One obvious question, of course, is how is philosophical sensitivity cultivated? I’m working on that one!