Modern Tertulia, Doing philosophy with Pieter Mostert


Quite a few years ago, in 1999, if I remember well, I was on a trip through Australia. On this trip, I met a guy from Belgium, Peter, a gynaecologist who had been working for several years in Africa. I asked him, what's so fascinating about being a gynaecologist in Africa? He said it's wonderful. You see, I've been trained that as a gynae you can only work under strictly controlled circumstances. In the theatre, you work according to strict procedures, or otherwise, you just don’t do it. And there I was in Africa, where women are pregnant and simply start the delivery. And there I was, with nothing. So, I asked him if we can talk about the minimum of what you need to work as a gynae? I asked myself that question quite often, he said, What do I really need? A flashlight is helpful. But a few times there was no light, so I had to do my work in the dark. Well, and then there is the fact that one has only two hands, so having two extra hands is very helpful. Must they be skilled? Wow, that would be wonderful, but otherwise, just do hands. Yes, and a bucket of clean water. That's about it. All the rest is nice if it's there but do you really need it?. For Peter, Africa was where he learned to do his work under the circumstances he found himself in, and just do the work. For me, there was a message in his story. When I got back home [The Netherlands], my personal trajectory started: How can I do philosophy, under all the circumstances that life offers, instead of saying, I can only work here, if the circumstances are as follows: it's quiet, there is no distraction, no more than twenty five children, all the children sit in a circle, etc. Because, as otherwise I cannot perform the ritual of having a philosophical dialogue, step one, step two, all the way and after eighteen steps we've done philosophy. I thought that's not what I want, and that's not what the people I meet want. Year after year, I gave up more of my prescriptions of "it must be done in this way". Instead, I looked at the circumstances and asked myself how a philosophical conversation can be made possible in these circumstances. People ask me to do a philosophical dialogue with them because they cannot think of how it could work under their circumstances. They invite me to come in and say: please make it possible here - we need to talk to each other, but we do not know how.

Pieter Mostert presenting his ideas in Galway at SOPHIA network meeting 2019

Your story reminds me of Socrates and his maieutic method, the midwifery of ideas. The gynaecologist in your story said he needed three things. Let me ask you then, what is needed to do philosophy?

Life experience is needed. For me, philosophy is about thinking about our human lives, and in that, I am totally in agreement with Socrates. We live a human life and then we reflect on it. So if nobody is willing to reflect on personal life experiences, then we have a problem, then doing philosophy is not going to work.

So is a reflection also needed?

Well, not in a trained or skilled manner, just the willingness to think about life so far, plus the willingness to talk about it, to struggle for the right words to express it. Yeah. That's about all you need. And from there we can start our philosophical conversation, whether we are two of us or one hundred fifty, whether we'll be sitting outside under a tree or in a train. Under all circumstances. It can be done anywhere.

Doing philosophy on a train with Pieter Mostert

How about doing philosophy with children? You talk about life's experience. I'm wondering, as adults, we usually talk to children - I'm that much old and I have so much life experience, you have no idea what life is about! Is there a difference in doing philosophy with children? After all, do they not have shorter life experiences?

By definition, it's shorter. And for most children, they have not been living under very different circumstances, unless there was a disaster in their lives: they have moved to a different country, their parents broke up, and now they live apart, really a major crisis. Then they're actually almost like adults, they've really gone through something that shocked them. Otherwise, children work with the experiences they have and they may be all of a similar kind. That makes it interesting for them to do philosophy because not everything they think or read, or hear fits in that framework. Think of those famous moments when you start wondering about whether Santa Claus really exists? Suddenly there is that crack in the wall, and they start wondering. So children have enough experience, enough to raise questions that matter to them. If you do philosophy for children, let's say four years old, you can talk with them about identity in the sense of Aristotle, are there things identical? And how to determine that? Once I had a dialogue with a class of four year olds. Two of the girls were twins, always dressed in the same clothes. Then there were complaints by the parents from other children in the class, because the parents couldn't tell them apart. But the children had no problem with that. They saw the difference. So for them, it was no issue that the two girls were wearing the same clothes. But do they wear the same clothes? Now, it gets more difficult. What do we mean by the same clothes? Of course, both have their own clothes, they don't share one set of clothes. So what is ‘sameness’? Well, that is as if you were discussing Aristotle’s Analytica Priora, heavy university stuff. Without reading Aristotle in Greek we made our way through the same questions as Aristotle did, because those questions arise when we reflect upon our life experiences. Not because of a textbook, but because it's a question that lies in front of your eyes. Is that a good example?

Great example. So I'm just wondering, as well, when we talk about doing philosophy, and I suppose both of us share a passion for it, you obviously exceed me in many years doing that, but I suppose can we do philosophy well? As educators, we want to make sure we do things well, and I suppose philosophers would want us to do it well too. How can you do philosophy well, rather than bad, and how would you know the difference?

In philosophy for children, when do I think it is not philosophy? Simply when it does not touch upon some substantial question. A question that really makes us pause and reflect.

The philosophical question is there at that moment - Uhmm... Now I need to think.

But if it's just a chat about opinions on the topic X or Y and student 1 says yes, because and then student 2 says no, because - that's just an exchange of opinions. And again, back to Socrates, that's not what he wants to hear. Socrates does not care about opinions. So if it's just an exchange, that's not philosophy, you can do it anywhere, you can have that in the pub and many other places, you can have interesting exchanges of opinions without touching philosophy for a second. Is it done badly? No, it's not done at all. Philosophy - you do it or you don't do it. You can't really say it was a bit thin, it was like 10% philosophy. No, it doesn't work like that. It is a philosophy or it is not.