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Teaching Philosophy

Exploring Subjectivity in Teaching Philosophy

Rudi Kotnik

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ABSTRACT: In the teaching of philosophy, we need to be connect with everyday life. Students in introductory courses can be more motivated when philosophical problems have personal significance. Take the topic of 'selfhood.' Introductory textbooks generally begin with the oracle at Delphi: "Know thyself!" But this motto is usually treated as the search for general knowledge of the individual or of human nature. Is it possible for a student to acquire some knowledge about him or herself during this course and reflect on it in a philosophically relevant way? Can personal experience help in understanding philosophical concepts such as this one? These are the questions which I address. Since I think that philosophers have yet to develop didactical tools for these purposes, I will present techniques derived from Gestalt therapy which can be useful for the teaching of philosophy. The aim is not change but experience itself, with awareness serving as the basis for philosophical analysis. The characteristics of this experience-based pedagogy are: (1) three dimensional inquiry: questioning basic concepts or assumptions and opening new questions, both based on personal experience; (2) experiential work involving a problem, a theory, and an example; and (3) mutual influence between theory and experience, i.e., an interrelationship between the personal and the 'educational' gestalt.

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"Know Thyself!" This oracle at Delphi which was Socrates' motto inspires many philosophers but also psychologists and even psychotherapists. Each of them has good reasons for insisting that this is his domain. Several questions could be raised: Was Socrates a philosopher or a 'psychologist'? What kind of knowledge is this self-knowledge? How do these domains differ and do they have something in common? How are they related to spirituality? And many others. My interest, however, is more narrow. Although we can suppose there is an overlap between philosophy, psychology and psychotherapy, in this paper I will focus on the overlap between teaching philosophy and psychotherapy. More precisely: how can Gestalt principles and techniques help in the teaching of the topic of selfhood. I will outline some theoretical background of the importance of Gestalt in relation to didactics of philosophy and describe some possible applications.

When I ask whether Socrates was a philosopher or a psychologist, this is also a question about what kind of knowledge is involved. Do I really want to know myself or do I just search for general knowledge about human nature? This is the difference between a subjective knowledge on individuality and a knowledge seeking for objectivity and universality. It seems that Socrates' main concern was to overcome subjectivity. While his partner in a dialogue insisted in the particular, individual, he was interested in common characteristics which would enable him to form a definition and consequently a concept. Truth has been understood in terms of universality and objectivity since the time of Socrates. If we exclude some exceptions like Kierkegaard, who reestablished the concept of subjective truth, we can say that this tendency for objectivity and universality was, and is, the main characteristic of western philosophy. The teaching of philosophy, consequently, followed and still follows the same route. The question is, how can this traditional approach successfully deal with questions of selfhood which by their nature are subjective as well? With regard to didactics, the consequence of the re-evaluation of the concept of subjective truth could be the re-evaluation of didactic principles. How can this be performed in teaching practice?

The difficulty in introductory courses is that students have to deal with philosophical problems at quite an abstract level. The task can be made easier if the problems have some personal significance to them; motivation is higher when students acquire more knowledge about themselves. From a philosophical perspective it is expected that this knowledge would be a basis of a philosophically relevant discussion. Is this possible? Regarding the topic of selfhood many philosophy textbooks (Solomon, 1989; 1994) present different philosophical perspectives. Although these theories of human nature are sometimes preceded by interesting questions and illustrations related to everyday life, they are just an introduction. The answers to these questions are to be found only in the theories and the link is missing. Philosophy itself, or its didactics does not offer tools for this kind of exploration in philosophy class. I have found appropriate tools in the domain of psychotherapy, or more specifically in Gestalt psychotherapy. Although other approaches can also be successfully applied, there is a specific aspect of Gestalt therapy which is in this case advantageous - the emphasis on personal experience. The application of the principles of Gestalt therapy means introducing a new dimension into the teaching of philosophy. On one hand it is a challenge and offers great potentials, on the other it bears considerable risks and requires responsibility.

Dimensions of 'experience based teaching philosophy'

1. Questioning the basic concepts

When describing their experiences, students often use expressions or concepts which need to be examined. One of the aims of philosophical analysis is to become aware of what we assume and to clarify our understanding of basic terms. If we take a simple example, the statement "I knew it was you", questions which should be raised are: "What does it mean 'to know'?" or "What is knowledge?" Other simple statements related to the topic of Selfhood are "I know you!" or "I don't know you." In these cases the questions is: "What does it mean 'to have knowledge of another person'?" This is the level of questioning the basic concepts.

2. Exploring presuppositions and implications

An experience can also be a starting point for new questions which are already present in a situation or can be derived from it. From the statement "I know you!" several questions can be raised: Is it possible to have knowledge of another person? What kind of knowledge is that? Can it be true? What kind of truth is that? If they are different, what is the difference? What are the implications? Each question usually has more than one answer, and consequently new questions are multiplied. Nevertheless, these different answers introduce different philosophical perspectives from which problems can be analysed. Since these differences have their origin in the understanding of basic concepts, it is evident that this aspect is connected and interwoven with the first one. This level is the questioning of presuppositions and implications.

3. Personal experience

The basis of both previous dimensions is personal experience, which either precedes them or is incorporated in them. It is a basis for philosophical reflection and questioning which offers the possibility to students of getting to know themselves better. It can appear spontaneously in relation to certain topics, or it can arise from a teacher's initiative in the form of questions or by planned exercises and experiments. It can happen that a student comes across something very significant to her. In Gestalt terms we say that becomes a figure which can be explored further, but with clear limitations and cautions, since the aim is philosophical questioning and not psychotherapy. Nevertheless, tools are borrowed from psychotherapy and this fact requires an appropriately skilled teacher who can menage and control the process.

In experience-based teaching of philosophy all three dimensions form a whole. Despite common points in the first two dimensions, there is still a difference. While in the first dimension the emphasis is on reflection and questioning, in the second dimension the emphasis is on analysis and argument as the method of philosophical inquiry.

Didactic principles in experience-based teaching philosophy

How to incorporate experience into the teaching process, and where is its place? From a didactic perspective, in the teaching process as well as in the examination process students are supposed to solve certain philosophical problems by using philosophical perspectives (theories) and using appropriate examples. An appropriate example expresses the essence of a given problem, and in course of successful analysis its use demonstrates the student's understanding of a problem and the appropriateness of the relationship between philosophical perspectives and everyday life. In our case of applying Gestalt principles when proceeding from personal experience, this is not just an example but a student's real situation. Personal experience can, therefore, offer a better understanding of concepts, problems and perspectives. Since this is her personal experience and possible new insight (which has its own value), there is a possibility of a higher motivation.

In the teaching process there are three important elements: the requirements of the institution, such as syllabus, the needs of students, and as the teacher I (hopefully) have my needs for creativity. All the three are part of the field, and although it seems impossible to expect complete compatibility between them, acknowledging this reality and seeking a reconciliation is already a significant step further. If I admit that students' needs are not in accordance with aims and objectives of a subject like philosophy, I can consider how they might become in accordance or how the choice of topics and their treatment can contribute to finding a meeting point. Choosing the topic of Selfhood and its related problems is more likely to be in accordance with students' personal experiences than other topics. I look for a need which is not only intellectual curiosity but also a need for self-knowledge which has it background in personal experience. According to my experience this is the most successful way to finding that meeting point. I try to find a way to offer something that would draw the students' attention and become figural to them but in a way that emerges from the phenomenological field of each individual. Regarding my teaching aims and objectives, this should be something that carries a potential philosophical problem or is a philosophical problem itself. There are several group exercises and experiments which, on one hand contain particular philosophical problems, and on the other hand are designed to evoke particular kinds of experiences. If I wait for a discussion to emerge instead of imposing it, I follow a phenomenological method and allow students to raise a problem that really concerns them. The benefit is higher motivation and the possibility of a link between personal experience and philosophical inquiry. Not only do philosophical concepts get meaning, but they also become personally significant. If a student is in contact with herself and the experience cycle develops further, in a practical way she answers for herself the philosophical question, Who am I?

Experience-based teaching philosophy is, therefore, an attempt to make a philosophical inquiry a cycle of experience (Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, 1951/1969; Polster and Polster, 1973; Burley, 1983; Kepner, 1987; Clarkson 1989) where a philosophical problem emerges as a figure, goes through the phases of sharpening, scanning, resolution and assimilation and by withdrawal allows a new need to emerge. I would call this cycle of experience educational gestalt. This cycle is based on a personal cycle of experience and an effective outcome is expected if these two cycles correspond, i.e. if a philosophical problem has its basis in a personal experience either of an individual or of most of the individuals in a class. If we agree that, apart from a personal gestalt or cycle of experience, there is also a group gestalt or group cycle of experience, then I can say that in experience-based teaching philosophy I follow the educational gestalt of a group. Experience-based teaching of philosophy would be, therefore, a correspondence between a personal and educational gestalt.

Forms of experiential work and their purposes

I believe that this phase (part, stage, component) of a philosophy class can be very creative and challenging. Although some basic forms of work can be mentioned, there can be many others with innumerable varieties. The right moment to employ them can be a sensitive question and the outcome unpredictable. It is thus difficult to make a detailed plan. Among the most useful forms of work are group exercises and experiments. These can be combined with working in pairs or small groups or with individuals. The question of confidentiality is, naturally, also a very sensitive and an extremely important issue. So the teacher can suggest, that the students share their experiences or keep them to themselves. It may be that they have very rich experiences but nobody wants to share. It seems that we can not continue with the work. However, we can still perform the task: each of them can keep her own experience private and follow the discussion on its basis. The point is in the purpose of an exercise or experiment and this is the second aspect of experiential work. Let us look at some examples.

1. Personal experience as an introduction to a philosophical topic or theme

If we want higher motivation of students, and present them the significance of a certain topic, it is appropriate to introduce the topic with an experiment that has some general characteristics but also opens different possibilities. Several such exercises and experiments are available from different sources. One of them is 'The Rosebush fantasy' described in J.M. Stevens' book Awareness: exploring, experimenting, experiencing (Stevens, 1971: 38-55), and also by Violet Oaklander in her book Windows to Our Children (Oaklander, 1988: 32-37). Although it is very frequently used with children, older students take it seriously and with interest as well. Confidentiality is a good reason for students to work in pairs, choosing a close friend. They are invited to imagine what it is like to be a rosebush and asked several questions about themselves, their relations and their environment. Then they open their eyes, draw their rosebushes, and tell each other a story. One partner writes it down and reads it back. As a projective technique it is a very rich source of possible self-awareness and self-knowledge. If the students tell their stories, we can relate them to implicit or explicit philosophical questions and their solutions, and always return to the students' personal situations. This can be an introduction to the topic of selfhood in general or to any philosophically relevant question which arises. One of the philosophical problems that can be introduced is the problem of personal identity, which brings us to the next purpose.

2. Personal experience as an introduction to a philosophical problem

One of the most fruitful exercises for philosophical purposes is 'Disidentification Exercise' which originally appeared in Assagioli's Psychosynthesis and was later described by Janette Rainwater in her book You're In Charge. For our purpose it could be summarised to three statements: "I have a body, but I am not my body. ... I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. ... I have an intellect, but I am not my intellect." (Assagioli 1965: 118-119; Rainwater, 1979: 38) It is very rich exercise from the point of view of variety of different experiences, insights, awareness, as well as from the point of view of philosophical questions which arise. The most important is the possibility of experiencing identification and its opposition. Immediately after the exercise several questions can be discussed and clarified as for example: "What is the difference between I have and I am? What does it mean if I identify myself with something? What is identity (in general)? What kind of identities are there? What is personal identity?" There are also some other important concepts such as polarities, self etc. The exercise offers also a specific and unusual look at the basic principle of Descartes' philosophy.

3. Experience of a philosophical concept before its rational examination.

We can propose the following group exercise to students. They are invited to imagine a situation where each of them is treated by another person in a way that she has pleasant feelings, like as in genuine friendship. It could be an experience from the past but as experienced here and now. They are asked to be aware of thoughts, feelings and sensations. Then we switch to the opposite situation of being a little bit mistreated or abused. We ask them again to evoke thoughts, feelings, sensations. To end the exercise we ask them how they would like to be treated in this situation. From discussion of their different experiences we derive the common ground, in this case the opposition between being (and feeling) an end in itself and being (and feeling) just as a means. In this case we were introducing Kantian distinction between means and ends. Although the explanation is clear and uderstandable, it can happen (and it usually happens) that the understanding of conceptual distinction is not satisfactory. In that case this exercise prepares in advance the ground for better understanding which is just a part of holistic experience and remains much more solidly in memory. This conceptual difference can be employed in dealing with Kantian ethics as well as with the concept of person. The same exercise can also be used after the usual presentation, in that case as an illustration.

4. Individual work with students, related to their essays

It happens that a student chooses for her written work (Essay, Guided Coursework) a topic that is related to her personal issue, whether she is aware of it or not. A motive is not necessarily only of theoretical interest. Exploration of this background can significantly contribute to the outcome.

5. Other forms of experiential work

Since it is impossible to predict or plan the course of a philosophical discussion in details, occasions for experiential work can occur at any point. Sometimes an idea to illustrate something or to explore a certain point can emerge suddenly and it is worth-while to trust our intuition and try. Very different things can be done: already known exercises, adaptations to a situation or completely new experiments. A special case in experiential work is working on dreams. This is an extremely challenging field and many important philosophical questions, themes and theories can be related to it. We can discuss the nature of dreams and their role, the distinction between the conscious and unconscious or being aware and not being aware, repression, symbolism, even the transition to collective unconscious and mythology. The field is also of strong personal interest to students: they are curious about the meaning of their dreams. However, apart from the challenge, there is a risk and special attention is necessary.


What are the characteristics of this experiential work within teaching philosophy?

1. Three-dimensional inquiry: questioning basic concepts or assumptions, opening new questions and personal experience.

2. Experiential work involving a problem, a theory and an example.

3. Mutual influence between theory and experience, i.e. relationship between the personal and the 'educational' gestalt.

As personal experience becomes a basis for philosophical reflection, questioning and analysis, it becomes additional dimension of teaching philosophy. Experiencing the self is in this way a value, representing one of possible ways of returning to the maxim, 'Know Thyself'.

There is a danger, however: as in therapy where a successful therapist should think about how not to be the-rapist it is important for a teacher not to be 't(h)e-acher' (with some violation of language).

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Assagioli, R. (1965) Psychosynthesis, London: Harper Collins Publishers.

Burley, T.(1983) 'A Phenomenological Theory of Personality'. Unpublished manuscript

Clarkson, P.(1989) Gestalt Counselling in Action, London: Sage Publications.

Kepner, J.I.(1987/1993) Body Process, San Francisco: Jossey- Bass Publishers.

Korb, M., Gorell, J., and Van de Riet, V.(1989) Gestalt Therapy, New York: Pergamon Press.

Oaklander, Violet (1988)/1978/ Windows to Our Children, Highland: The Gestalt Journal Press.

Perls, F.S., Hefferline, R.F., and Goodman, P.(1951/1969) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, New York: A Delta Book.

Polster E.and Polster M. (1974): Gestalt Therapy Integrated, New York: Vintage Books (first published 1973).

Philosophy Guide (1994) Geneva: International Baccalaureate Organization.

Rainwater, Janette (1979) You're In Charge, Marina del Rey: DeVorss & Company.

Solomon, Robert C (1989) Introducing Philosophy, San Diego: Harcourt Brache Jovanovic.

Solomon, Robert C (1994) The Big Questions. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brache Jovanovic.

Stevens, J. (1971) Awareness: Exploring, experimenting, experiencing, Utah: Real People Press.

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