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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.

Philosophy for / with children with Pieter Mostert

Is there a difference when doing philosophy with adults? Or is it the same principle?

Yes, it's the same principle. Often with adults, their conversation is just a polite exchange of opinions, of listening and behaving well. People love to have a conversation, that's our basic need. But we are afraid that somebody will say something that upsets others, and that there will be friction, or even turmoil, which may threaten our desire to stick together. So the fear of friction may smother the conversation. In such a situation, the first step is re-create a conversation. But that's only a preliminary step to having a philosophical inquiry.

First, you need the willingness to step into a conversation, the next step is the willingness to pause and reflect upon life experiences.

Usually I distinguish those two steps with adults, because in many cases, people don't know how to talk to each other anymore. Restoring the conversation is the work to be done first.

In your experience is doing philosophy with children easier than with adults?

Not that it is easier, but with most of the children, it is just more playful. There is a tendency on their side to do conversations more playfully. With adults, you really have to teach them again, that conversation can also be done in a playful manner. Once they go back in their memory to their early years, they’ll say: Oh, yeah, that's how we used to talk to each other.

You said that it's more difficult to have conversations these days, people don't know how to talk to each other. Very often when we hear the word philosophy, we think of an academic philosophy rather than a philosophical conversation reflecting on our lives. Is there a place in today's world for these Tertulias, places where philosophy just happens, far away from the ivory tower where the philosophy is done academically? What do we need from philosophy today?

Today, we need different things than in the past. For me, two things stand out. The first one is that Tertulias, modern ones, are multilingual. The time that a conversation can be done in one language is over. It simply means that we exclude very many people because it's not their language. I've been in too many conversations, which were in English or in German, while actually nobody was a native speaker in English or German. So everybody was punishing his or her own brain by reflecting on their own lives in a language that was not theirs.

One of the things I've learned over the past years is that if you really want to do philosophy, it must be in your mother tongue, because that is the language you speak to yourself. That's the language of your heart. That's the language in which you ponder, that wakes you up at night and makes you say to yourself, Damn it, I made a mistake or I don't understand it.

Our conversations must become multilingual - that is the new standard. If there are people with seven different mother tongues sitting together, then we need to organise the conversation in a way that those seven mother tongues can be spoken and can be heard. For me, that is what Tertulia is, the diversity. And it starts with the diversity of language.

Pieter and Lukasz doing philosophy together at SOPHIA network meeting in Galway 2019

The second one is also about diversity, it is the diversity of interests and of topics. We may share a topic, because we think it affects all of us. Say, for example, we want some clarity on the topic of gender and transgender. We must accept that people not so much have different opinions on the topic, but rather they come from very different angles.

Tertulia for me is the agreement that everybody is free to come in from his or her own angle.

If somebody wants to tell you about his experiences at the football club, that is his angle. If somebody wants to talk about raising young children nowadays, or about her trip to Japan, and about what happened one afternoon, we should not say, No, no, this does not work. We must restrict ourselves to one question and one example, otherwise it gets too complicated. So let’s vote. But that is what facilitators have been doing in philosophical inquiries: collecting questions, collecting examples, and then selecting one, because - as they believe - we can only work with one. One topic, one question, one example, in one language. But the thing is, we don't live in that kind of world anymore. Many topics, many questions, many examples, many languages. So for me, Tertulia is where this diversity is present. And yes, you need a skilled facilitator so that people experience the pleasure of such a diverse conversation, and start realising that conversations do matter.

So the question is how is it possible to have these seven conversations? Does this require a continuation, does it require a space that one can come back to, rather than just a once-off conversation, because it really is difficult to have seven conversations at once.

It is, and it requires practice. For most people, it's the first time in their lives that they are in a conversation like that. But at the same time, it's so rewarding for everybody in the conversation to go back to their mother tongue, to their perspective, to their experience, that is very encouraging to do. And at the same time, it is fascinating to listen to the contributions of other participants, telling stories in languages you've never heard before. And yes, such an experience works like an invitation to come back to and do it again. When I was in South Africa, I managed to facilitate philosophical dialogues with students who spoke four different African languages, none of which I understood.

It sounds challenging, Pieter.

It is a challenge and it does make you a modest person too. Going back to the gynaecologist and his story: here are the circumstances and they dictate what's needed, instead of the facilitator.

As a facilitator you're not a tour guide, who leads a group, stopping here now and then moving there later. No, you're not a tour guide. You're stumbling around, just like the participants, ears and eyes open for new, unexpected perspectives.

And how can philosophy sessions happen without procedure - question, voting, inquiry, etc., without structure?

Let me give you a few examples. One way is to have a philosophical dialogue in which only a short part of the time is devoted to speaking and listening; the larger part is devoted to writing. Like, in our conversation, after two minutes, you could have said, Pieter and Lukasz, now take a piece of paper or iPad, or whatever, and write a little bit about what has been said and what has struck you, or caught your attention. See if you can collect some of your thoughts. Maybe you can come up with a metaphor, or a headline, or maybe an example from your life. So you stop the conversation and create time for personal reflection in writing.

Another one is called the vox pop, the popular voice. Take a difficult issue, like climate change, and you try to look at it as if you're a very simplistic thinker. You refrain from the tendency to see complexities, to see distinctions, to see arguments. Instead of that, you say Well, we can talk about that for a long time. By the end, it all boils down to ..., and then two sentences, no more. And that's a great relief, when you're in this dense conversation with all these considerations, you say Imagine somebody just walks by and hears a section of your conversation, and this person says: Well, I think it's pretty simple. They should just do this. Write that. Such an exercise will change the course of the conversation, and is very, very fruitful.

This third one, going back to the point I made earlier, is when you start asking each other about your language. Thank you for telling your story in a language which I can understand. But please now tell it in your own language. Let me listen. In a school in Johannesburg, there was a child of Greek immigrants; her English was still poor, so she did not participate in the conversation. Only later in the conversation I found out that she was Greek. At the end of our conversation I invited her to tell us a story in Greek, maybe one of the classic myths. She stood up and in fluent Greek, she told one of the great myths, and then the class said Wow! Can you tell us another one next week?

These are ways of breaking through the barriers of how we usually run conversations. Three examples of how to become aware of the barriers, and how to crush them. And then, how to enjoy the freedom that opens up later.

Great examples. I recently invited teachers during an online presentation, inspired by the Lego-Logos method, to think with their hands and gave them five minutes to take whatever they have at hand to build “a human connection”. Some used play doh but some moved plants to create a piece. There was some great thinking happening there without any philosophical dialogue.

I think that's another good example of what we can do and what we can add to conversations. We usually say no to this. If we're in a philosophical conversation, we’re only allowed to do that, just that. Clean desks, preferably no desk at all, sit in a circle, clean minds, just focus, one question, only thoughts that directly relate. But why not have a piece of paper, why not draw, why not take out crayons and make some beautiful drawings. If children want to make drawings, or do whatever in the meantime, that's fine. Let them go ahead. I think we've purified the philosophical conversation far too much, and lost all the different flavours that such conversations can have. Your example fits well in this same movement. Let's stop the purification of the philosophical dialogue. We went far too far there. Let's enrich it again. Let's bring the dialogue back to natural life with all the flavours and odours that belong to a philosophical conversation. That's my message.

Pieter Mostert - [*1952] grew up in The Netherlands, stuttered during his adolescence, studied philosophy, became a specialist in creating conversations, trained himself in non-violent communication, lived in South-Africa, lives in England and is a specialist philosophy teacher at The Philosophy Foundation.


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