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Three Steps to Plato's Heaven (1997)

To kick off this series of Pathways Newsletters, the Editor puts a word in for the philosophy classes run by the Workers' Educational Association.

STEP ONE

'Anyone can be a philosopher.' — The quickest way to annoy academic philosophers is to suggest that their subject should be accessible to all, and not just the brainy few. The ability to think fast has its uses, but is overrated. What counts for more is the ability to see a problem. It is not in learning to analyse ideas into their smallest elements, or spin out long lines of argument that one becomes a philosopher, but in training one's capacity for vision. Anyone who wants to can learn how to appreciate a philosophical problem, to feel gripped by it.

At least, that is what I tell my students. After two and a half thousand years, none of the important philosophical problems has ever been solved, even with the best minds on the job. From this standpoint, the most valuable mental quality that the student can aspire to is intellectual modesty.

We are not suggesting that one can make a philosopher out of someone who does not want anything to do with the subject. But if philosophy is something you do want — if the sense of wonder about the world and our place in it has ever gripped you, if only for a few moments in your life — then in acknowledging that fact you have already taken the first step towards becoming a philosopher.

STEP TWO

Go to the philosophy section of your local library and pick out the fattest book you can find. Carry the book around with you everywhere, with the title prominently displayed. Already you will find that your friends and family seem to regard you differently. For a while, you can bask in the glow of their admiration and respect. Then, as the glow begins to fade, you might pluck up the courage to open the covers. Now the hurt begins.

What you find, as you being to read, will frustrate you and thrill you. How can words supposedly in English make so little sense? Yet still you persevere, and occasionally light breaks through. You glimpse a world that you never thought existed. When that vision comes, you will feel a rush of enthusiasm that is better than any mind-altering drug. Hold onto the memory, because — to begin with — it won't happen very often.

STEP THREE

The only philosopher who was completely self taught was Thales. Being the very first philosopher, he was the only one who had nothing to learn from his predecessors! He was the first link in a chain that has continued more or less unbroken for two and a half thousand years. But reading books will only take you so far. The mute page brooks no argument or response. You need the rich feedback of communicating with a person who cares enough to listen and respond to what you have to say.

But where does one go to be taught philosophy? You could do a degree course — if you have the money and the time. Here is an alternative suggestion, however. Look up the further education classes at community centres and colleges in your area. Tucked in amongst 'Microwave Cookery', 'French for Beginners' and 'Folk Guitar' you may find an 'Introduction to Philosophy'. If you live in the UK, the course will more than likely be run by the Worker's Educational Association. As you walk through the entrance hall, don't be fooled by the chattering hordes who have come for an evening's light entertainment. Go along expecting your mind to be blown.

Geoffrey Klempner