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pathways (guide)

CAN PHILOSOPHY BE TAUGHT? (1)

by Geoffrey Klempner

Read to a joint meeting of the London Group of the Philosophical Society of England and the South Place Ethical Society, Conway Hall, London Monday, March 1st 1999.

Introduction

What is philosophy? I seem to have spent most of what I laughingly refer to as my 'philosophical career' searching for an answer to that baffling question. What I have found are ancient ruins, some absorbing puzzles, and an awe-inspiring obsession with the fact that I exist. Whichever way you place them, the jig-saw pieces don't quite fit.

Some persons search for God, and find philosophy. Others search for philosophy and find God. And some make the foolish mistake — I sincerely hope it's not one I've ever been tempted to make — of making a God out of philosophy. I am mentioning religion, even though I know it will make some of you feel a little uncomfortable (I promise I won't mention it again) because one theme that seems to emerge is the questing philosopher's lack of faith. The knights who sought the Holy Grail were infused with faith. The philosopher demands that everything be reasoned out, made plain. 'How will I know when I've found what I'm looking for', Meno complains to Socrates, 'if I don't even know what it is?'. In Plato's dialogue Meno, Socrates makes the young aristocrat Meno look like a buffoon, but to me he sounds like a typical philosopher.

To say that one doesn't know what philosophy is might seem a shocking admission from someone who professes to teach the subject. Those of you who think you know the answer to my question will be ready with your commiseration — or your scorn. When I've finished my talk you can tell me all about it.

On second thoughts, don't bother. I suspect that if someone told me the answer to the question what, or where philosophy is, and it was a beautiful answer, a text book answer, it still wouldn't make any impression on me. The Good Word means nothing in the ears of the ignorant unbeliever. Each of us has got to discover the answer for ourselves.

This talk could be over sooner than I'd anticipated! It looks as though what my paper is shaping up to say is, 'Philosophy can't be taught. The only way you can become a philosopher is by teaching yourself.' I did think that once, but I don't now. In my philosophical youth, I used to imagine that no-one had ever really taught me anything. Everything of consequence that I had learned, I taught myself. — It was not true. I had some excellent teachers, which I am grateful for. I am proud of my early influences. We all go through an ungrateful phase, it's part of growing up.

One needn't quibble over the supposed difference between being a philosopher and being a mere student of philosophy. That's a matter of status in the eyes of the world. Months before I even attended my first undergraduate lecture my mother was telling her friends, 'My son, the philosopher!' I won't say she was wrong.

You can learn to do the activity — do what philosophers do — and do it very well. No-one is arguing with that. Admittedly, it's harder to play the part convincingly in a seminar than in your own living room, but that's only a matter of degree. I suspect that academic departments are full of people who do the subject 'very well', but don't really understand what it is that they are doing, or why.

Let's start with the present. No-one hired me to do the job I do now. I invented my own job description. 'I run my own school of philosophy.' That sounds like bragging. I don't mean it to. 'I advertise for business over the Internet' is closer, though I worry about being put in the same category as purveyors of erotica and get rich quick schemes.

One of the lecturers at Sheffield perceptively remarked, 'So you're a Sophist, then.' Yes, I thought. The Sophists of Ancient Greece were itinerant teachers of oratory and rhetoric, history, poetry, philosophy, as well as all the arts and skills you needed to make you into an all-round man or woman of arete — accomplishment, or virtue to give the nearest English translations. Those at the top of their profession earned fame and fortune. (In The Presocratic Philosophers Routledge 1982, p 448 Jonathan Barnes lists the 'outstanding individuals' Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus, Antiphon, and Thrasymachus.)

As with many a profession, the few at the top charged whopping fees, while many of those further down the ladder struggled — like myself, like Socrates too, by all accounts — to make ends meet. Could it be that Socrates' famed antagonism towards the Sophists was borne of nothing more than professional envy? Banish the thought.

There is one obvious difference between what the Sophists did and Pathways to Philosophy. Unlike the Sophists, I very rarely get to meet my students. The postal service being what it was, you could grow old and die doing a distance learning course in Ancient Greece.

(The wonderful age of computers and e-mail. You can talk to someone without ever seeing their face or hearing their voice. That's something that would have worried Protagoras, or Socrates. I'll come back to that question later.)

Am I a Sophist? On reflection, there's a second difference, and a rather important one. The Greek Sophists looked upon the efforts of the philosophers from Thales onwards with an attitude of ironic detachment. By the time the Sophists came on the scene, it had become accepted wisdom that philosophy couldn't prove its conclusions, that one speculation about the ultimate nature of the universe was as good as another. Philosophers were ripe for lampooning, as Aristophanes did so brilliantly in his comedy, Clouds. What the Sophists took on board were the methods of philosophy, the use of reason and logic to analyse the case for and against. The tools of the philosopher where an ideal weapon in a court of law or the Assembly.

And here we come to the nub of my dispute with my former teacher Roger Scruton. In a vituperative piece in The Times a couple of years back (August 11 1997) he attacked the work of philosophical counsellors using all the epithets Socrates had used against his old arch-enemies. Philosophical counsellors pandered to the vanity of their clients, preached the relativist doctrine that the truth was whatever you wanted to believe. The mark of the Sophist, Scruton said — the most damning indictment of all — is accepting money from your client for services rendered.

This makes me smile. Are all the lecturers and professors in philosophy departments up and down the country Sophists, then? Or does the fact that the money paid comes indirectly, and to a considerable part out of the purse of tax payers, somehow sanctify the financial arrangement? I think not. The temple of academia is open for business. The respected dons know how to sniff out where the grant money is coming from like pigs searching for truffles.

Scruton is partly right. The issue is about concern for the truth. It is a bad philosophical counsellor who tells their client only what they want to hear. The Sophists of Ancient Greece had given up on the search for Truth, with a capital 'T'. 'Man is the measure of all things,' said Protagoras. What I believe is true for me, what you believe is true for you, and that's all we can say. The Sophists would have been completely unmoved by my quest for philosophy. That is why, though I am full of admiration for what they did, I cannot call myself a Sophist.

So my question is, what is there to philosophy other than the techniques and methods of philosophy? Or, what amounts to the same thing, what does the teacher of philosophy strive to teach, other than mere proficiency in applying those methods? This is where my story begins.

Before all this started, before Pathways to Philosophy was ever conceived, I was teaching evening classes for the Workers' Educational Association, the WEA. It was a hearts and minds exercise. These were people who could just have easily opted for Herbal Remedies or Microwave Cookery, Folk Guitar or Flower Arranging. The need to put bottoms on seats is a powerful incentive. If you fail to attract sufficient numbers, your class folds.

Here then was an excellent incentive for playing the part of the Sophist. I could put on a performance. Spice my lectures up. Perhaps after all I could find a way to smuggle in the philosophy of herbalism or folk music, anything that would hold my students' attention. I gave the idea more than a passing thought, but the fact is I'm no stand-up comedian. If I wanted to hold on to my students, I realised I would have to find another way.

One question that students had repeatedly pestered me with was, 'What is philosophy?' 'Why are you here,' I would respond, 'if you don't know the answer to that already? Microwave Cookery is down the hall!' I told my class that I didn't know how to define philosophy, but that it didn't matter anyway. What we were doing was philosophy. 'What are we doing?' one student asked, and there were nods and murmurs of agreement.

Then it dawned on me that it did matter. It mattered very much. I began to wonder why I was here, standing in front of all these people. What good was I doing? What were my students learning from me? Did I have anything to teach them?

I shall now put on record three attempts that I made, three seminal ideas that began with the struggle to resolve this issue in my own mind, and which developed into WEA courses (and later still into three of my six Pathways programs). Right up to the present, they still seem, for all their shortcomings, the best attempt to answer the question. These are the three jig-saw pieces I mentioned at the start of this talk. (Contd.)