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The Philosophical Conversation

Updated: Jun 13

Lukasz Krzywon talks with Kristof Van Rossem about his new book

 

Lukasz

It was wonderful to have you join us at our Philosopher’s Hat Club meeting recently. It’s been a great learning experience for all participants, including myself. In your book and during our meeting, you compared the philosophical conversation to music. Why did you choose music as a metaphor, and what kind of music?


Kristof

Well, firstly, because I play music myself. I love to play Romanian music. I am part of a band and play the accordion. On my own, I play Balkan music because it's very fast and exciting. During my training, my teacher mentioned Ionica Minune, who later became the main character in my book. He is the greatest accordion player in Romania. I thought there was a comparison between my hobby and my work. It involves speed but also certain skills, particularly listening. If you're focused only on your instrument, you’re just playing notes, not music. When playing with a group, you must master your instrument well enough to concentrate on others and play together. This is comparable to what a philosophical practitioner or facilitator does. If you focus only on your own methods and ideas, you cannot listen to others or understand what’s happening around you. Jazz music would also be a great metaphor because it requires careful listening and concentration to play exactly what is needed.

Philosopher's Hat Club with Kristof van Rosen
Philosopher's Hat Club invites the public to engage with philosophy

Lukasz

How did you get into facilitating philosophical conversations?


Kristof

I was a traditional master’s student in the 90s, interested in the didactics of philosophy. At that time, something new was emerging in the Netherlands. Karel van der Leeuw from the University of Amsterdam had written an article on the German tradition of Socratic Dialogues following the work of the Kantian philosopher Leonard Nelson.  When I finished my studies, I quickly got employed in a school for adult education. My task was to develop philosophy courses for the public, similar to the Philosopher’s Hat Club, where people of all ages come in their spare time. It had to be attractive and practical. I came across this new practice from Germany, which focused on independent thinking without big lectures. In 1999 I met Hans Bolten and organised a conference in Brussels about Socratic dialogue. Hans and I developed a new interpretation of the German method, which was slow and thorough but somewhat sect-like and politically involved post-war. To make it interesting for the public and attractive for companies and organisations, it needed to be sped up. This was controversial, and an article titled "The McDonaldisation of the Socratic Dialogue" was published in Germany about this Dutch interpretation. We indeed made it faster and more accessible, marking the start of this new approach.


Lukasz

I see. Speeding it up and making it more accessible made it easier to adapt to any group's needs. The title of your book is The Philosophical Conversation. What distinguishes a philosophical conversation from any other conversation?


Kristof

In a conversation, people have habitual attitudes. They listen selectively, associating things and not paying attention to many words. A philosophical conversation distinguishes itself by focusing on every word, as they either refer to something or they don’t. It’s an art of literal listening with an empty mind, which is challenging because people naturally interpret what they hear in their own way. There is an investigation into the language used to express thoughts.


I’m interested in how people think and organise their reality through words. In the style of philosophical conversation I write about, words are seen as references or expressions of parts of reality, and this is what we question.

Lukasz

In your book, you mention five key elements or movements that a facilitator has in their toolbox. What are they, and what do they do?


Kristof

There are many methods in philosophical conversations, most of which follow chronological steps, which have their use. However, I think it’s more interesting not to focus on the chronological structure because conversations often take unexpected turns if left open and spontaneous. To maintain control while allowing spontaneity, the facilitator asks questions. I don’t use rules like being concrete or letting others speak. It’s all about the facilitator's skills. If someone isn’t listening, ask, “Can you repeat what the other person said?” This is the movement of listening. For positioning, if someone is hesitant or hiding in particularities, ask, “Do you say he’s right?” to make them take a position. Argumentation involves asking, “Can you explain why?” to ensure arguments are given. The movement of questioning up and down involves respectively asking for the link with concepts and reasonings when you hear stories and asking for concrete examples when people talk in general terms. The last movement, the most difficult one, is called investigating. It involves comparing different positions and arguments. It entails as well asking participants to question one another.  When it’s facilitated in this way, philosophical conversations can be done in various contexts, using the same skills of listening and questioning.


Lukasz

Who is the book for? Is it for someone interested in running conversations like this or understanding philosophical conversation in general? Is it an instructive book?


Kristof

It’s rather technical and aimed at those who want to improve their facilitation skills and understand it from a participant's perspective. There are tips like the 10 tips for good questioning. And it’s full of exercises that will help you get along with it well.


Lukasz

During our short training session, one of the members commented: "Kristof, you ask such great questions! Where do you get them from?" So, Kristof, where do you get these good questions, and is it a skill that someone can develop?


Kristof

Yes, it is a skill. It’s not spontaneous; it’s studied. When you understand what’s going on, you can apply the appropriate technique, listen, and formulate clear, concise questions. People often complicate things, thinking and speaking simultaneously. Direction is crucial, and a key technique I use is the up and down technique. It involves investigating spontaneous reasoning to unravel their structure and uncover hidden assumptions. For example, questioning general arguments or assumptions behind someone’s reasoning or asking for concrete examples. It often gets people into trouble!


Lukasz

That’s how I remember my first experience with you a few years back – you really challenged us, and that was what I liked. For my last question, I’d like to know your thoughts on the outcome of philosophical inquiry. This is what interests me after my own practice of running philosophical inquiries for many years. Do you think the aim is just to delve deeper into the meaning of each word, or is there something more? Can we achieve a better understanding of the topic we are investigating and find answers to our original questions?


Kristof

That’s a great question. In the last chapter of my book, I attempt to answer this. What is the quest for truth? Most people are interested in the content of the dialogue, seeking to understand big concepts like love, freedom, and happiness. While this remains important, I have grown increasingly interested in language philosophy. I believe that by studying the structure and use of language to describe reality you can become a better thinker.  For me, this is a practice of freedom. In our perception, we often mix up facts, interpretations, and normative aspects. By organising these thoughts better, one can think more clearly. It’s not natural to think well.

Through exercises and philosophical conversations, you can make people better thinkers.

Lukasz

Certainly food for thought. It’s been true for me that practising philosophical conversations has made me a more careful thinker, challenging my natural responses and ways of thinking.

Where can people learn more about your work?


Kristof

Apart from reading, I conduct workshops and training courses. I also offer individual consultations to demonstrate Socratic skills one-on-one. After a free session, we usually determine if someone is interested, and then proceed with a series of five sessions online. There are also group training courses, mainly in Dutch. In the summer, we have week-long courses for groups to learn these skills, both online and offline. International training courses are also available.


All information is announced through the Socratic Dialogue website. www.socraticdialogue.be



Kristof van Rossen

Kristof Van Rossem - (°69) MA Philosophy (KULeuven). He is an independent trainer in Socratic Dialogue and teacher trainer of philosophy at the University of Leuven where he conducts an annual seminar in „didactics of philosophical conversation“. He also teaches Business Ethics at the Odisee University College of Brussels. He leads an annual training course in Socratic Dialogue facilitation a.o. at the ISVW (International School of Philosophy). He has worked with all kinds of organizations engaging in dialogue and reflection. He is the author of ‘The Philosophical Conversation. The Basics’ (JohnHuntPublishers, 2024)


Philosopher's Hat Club - an inclusive club that exposes people to interesting ideas and invites participants to inquire deeper. Monthly online meetings are open to new members. The club often invites authors and academics to present their chosen topics and create opportunities to discuss ideas with experts in their respective fields.

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