An interview with philosophy graduate Michelle Sowey
Rose: What have you done since studying philosophy? What are you doing now?
Michelle: After graduating, I spent a decade working in intelligence analysis and educational equity before returning to my philosophical roots. A couple of years ago I co-founded The Philosophy Club with my partner, David Urbinder. We run small-group workshops in schools and elsewhere, where kids can immerse themselves in big questions and explore a universe of ideas together.
We want to ignite children’s curiosity, and provoke them to think critically and creatively about philosophical questions. In each workshop, we introduce various stimuli to get kids thinking about a particular philosophical theme. These may take the form of stories, pictures, short films, dramatic role-play, thought experiments, inventions or puppets. These stimuli elicit thoughtful and creative responses and generate rich discussions among the kids.
We want to create an atmosphere of playful adventurousness where children are free to experiment with ideas, express themselves spontaneously and explore new perspectives. We also want to encourage them to take each other’s ideas seriously, to challenge each other in a constructive way, and change their own minds if they find convincing reasons to do so. We use enquiry, dialogue and reasoned argument to help kids deepen their understanding of philosophical issues and develop a more refined articulation of their personal beliefs.
As well as running workshops for kids, we train other people in the art of facilitating philosophical enquiry. In our Big Questions philosophy mentoring program, for example, we run facilitator training for senior undergraduate Philosophy students, and then connect them with primary students from low socio-economic backgrounds so they can share their passion for philosophy with kids who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to this kind of activity.
R: What is philosophy to you?
M: Philosophy is something we do to make sense of our lives and our experiences, and to build a coherent worldview. Open-mindedness, scepticism and intellectual rigour are characteristic of a philosophical outlook.
Philosophy involves us in a whole host of activities: questioning intuitions, exploring tensions, challenging preconceptions, evaluating what’s important and what’s justified, constructing arguments, thinking critically and metacognitively, and imagining how things could be other than they are. All of this takes discipline and creativity!
In a good philosophical dialogue, my interlocutor will challenge me to defend my assumptions, help me see the implications of my beliefs, question my criteria for making judgements, present me with objections, and open me to alternative points of view. With experience, each of us can learn to be our own interlocutor and engage in an internal dialogue that challenges our own thinking in these same ways. Philosophy educator Peter Worley elaborates on this idea in his article Class Act.
I’d also recommend Steve Goldberg’s blog post that explores the nature of philosophy from the perspective of a high school teacher.
R: Why do you think philosophy is important?
M: “Be hard on your beliefs — take them out on the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges. ” This was the advice of comedian and skeptic Tim Minchin to a class of graduating students at the University of Western Australia last year.
The way I see it, philosophy gives us the cognitive equipment – the cricket bat – that enables us to be properly hard on our beliefs. In a similar vein, the poet Seamus Heaney might just as well have been considering the demanding exactitude of philosophical analysis when he wrote:
Who could buff me like you
Who wanted the soul to ring true
And plain as a galvanized bucket
And would kick it to test it?
Philosophy teaches us how to ask searching questions; how to be discerning; how to construct coherent arguments; how to spot irrationality and magical thinking; how to be independent-minded; how to see through rhetoric; and how to resist dogma, indoctrination and group-think. It also teaches us how to live with uncertainty without being paralysed by hesitation (an insight due to Bertrand Russell); and how to genuinely think, rather than merely rearranging our prejudices (an insight due to William James).
I find myself nodding in agreement with philosophy teacher and writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who has this to say about the value of Philosophy:
It teaches [students] to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery.
It’s always a good thing…to be able to think critically. To challenge your own point of view. Also, you need to be a citizen in this world. You need to know your responsibilities. You’re going to have many moral choices every day of your life. And it enriches your inner life. You have lots of frameworks to apply to problems, and so many ways to interpret things. It makes life so much more interesting. It’s us at our most human. And it helps us increase our humanity.
R: Do you have any advice for people studying philosophy right now?
M: I think there’s a pressing need for philosophy students and graduates to apply their skills, sensitively, in the public arena. Philosophers have a unique capacity to empower the general public, helping people to think more clearly about issues in their own lives, to reflect more deeply, to reason more soundly about matters of public policy, to participate more actively in public debates, and to elevate those debates to a more sophisticated level. I would advise philosophy students to recognise the transformative potential of philosophy, and I’d encourage them to take the methods of philosophical enquiry out into the wider world.
In my blog post Are Philosophers Still Relevant? I ask: “Have philosophers managed to shrug off their reputation as semantic nitpickers, quibbling amongst themselves over arcane distinctions? How many of them fit the whimsical description of ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls, permanently sequestered in university or college departments?”
Even when philosophers do move beyond academia and manage to communicate clearly with a wide audience, I believe there’s scope for far greater social impact. While I admire the work of high-profile philosophers who make their academic work accessible to the public, I don’t think that their efforts acquit the broader philosophy profession of its responsibility to philosophise with the public (rather than merely in front of a general audience). Unless we engage frequently and actively with non-philosophers, the practice of philosophy communication is likely to remain more or less a game of celebrity heads.
As well as considering the possibilities of blogging, podcasting and teaching at primary or high school levels, philosophy students might consider the following approaches to bringing the practice of philosophical reflection into the public domain:
- Training people to think critically. Critical thinking trainers like Christina Majoinen appreciate the essential role of critical thinking in citizenship and in personal relationships: “By applying critical thinking tools, you might be able to see exactly what is wrong with a politician’s argument for their fiscal policies even if you don’t know much about economics. You might be able to read an article about parenting techniques and understand where it goes wrong without having a degree in child psychology. You might be able to give more persuasive arguments for your own views, and do a better job of explaining how somebody has misunderstood you… good critical thinking has the power to help us make better decisions, to form more defensible beliefs and be more responsible democratic citizens.”
- Producing journalism from a philosophical perspective. Philosophically-trained writers and educators like Peter Ellerton, Damon Young and Patrick Stokes take a philosophical perspective on current scientific, political and social issues, and encourage people to think rationally and autonomously about controversial questions. Philosophy communicators like Nigel Warburtonrecognise that “The best philosophers convey such an enthusiasm for thinking… It’s difficult to emerge unchanged from a conversation with someone who cares so much about the subject. It’s genuinely important to them. You catch philosophy from these people.”
- Providing philosophical counselling or philosophical therapy. Philosophical therapists like Joanna Polley regard philosophy as a key to “healthier democracies, the flourishing of individuals, and … the future of the planet”, and use their philosophical understanding to help individuals “to ask better questions, to concern themselves with life as it is lived, and to help us to find more productive and healthy ways to see, think about and experience the world.”
R: Do you have a favourite quote you’d like to share?
M: I’m often inspired by the insights that kids have. This week my favourite quote comes from a primary school student who participated in one of our recent workshops:
Featured photo by Poodar Chu.
Michelle Sowey graduated from the University of NSW with Honours in Philosophy in 2001. She runs philosophy programs for children through her social enterprise, The Philosophy Club.