Learning To Philosophize Is Like Learning To Swim
In the best case, take Socrates as your instructor.
PARIS —It has apparently become fashionable to learn how to philosophize, to think about the world differently and develop our critical mindset. This no doubt is good news. We're offered the guidance of the great thinkers, we're encouraged to dive into the history of ideas, to take a step back and view the world —and ourselves —critically. In itself, this is all a noble and commendable undertaking.
And yet, it appears we have gotten just slightly ahead of ourselves with this newfound intellectual enthusiasm. To sum up the zeitgeist, we're pretending that all you need to do to think better is read the great thinkers. It's a little bit as if we were told to learn to swim by watching the Olympics freestyle final. Better to go to a swimming instructor for lessons.
Why on Earth are we expecting to do with our thoughts something we'd never be asked to do with our bodies? We know full well that in order to learn, we need to practice, to train, to face the real world. Want to learn judo? Put on your kimono, step on the tatami and start by falling on your back without putting your arms out. Do that a thousand times and you'll begin to grasp the need for the rigor and learning this martial art requires.
The same goes for philosophy. When facing a real person, you first need to learn to question, to experience what your questioning provokes in that person and then to take his answer into account, with all the imprecisions, hesitations and confusion it may contain.
Treat this material as a sculptor would a crude stone: Smooth it down, carve it, polish it until you turn it into clear and consistent speech. You will then have a first perspective on what your subject just told you, with his own words, and a first level of truth.
Then, pick your "question chisel" back up and start over, this time working with the answer. And so on until you reach the heart of the problem, the heart of the subject, the heart of the living being. This is what we call Socratic questioning. It's no wonder that Socrates never wrote anything: He knew that you learn by doing, not by reading books that are made to kill dialogue. Socrates was philosophy's equivalent of the swimming instructor.
Socrates can show you the way —Photo: C Messier
That hardly means we should just toss away 2,500 years of history of ideas. The ideas, concepts, propositions and issues posed by the world's great authors are important landmarks for the universal thought we all reproduce as individuals.
But we must take a questioning approach to these works instead of using them as out-of-the-box products of knowledge. The great thinkers provide precious help in that they've already identified a certain number of questions that we humans have always asked ourselves. The problem is that people are quick to realize that thinking is hard, demanding and sometimes unrewarding.
Children ask questions not after they've read Descartes, but out of a genuine surprise at their observation of the world. When a little girl asks "Why do I have to go to school?" her father can either give her the conventional answer and explain the benefits of France's Republican school system, or he can throw the question back to her in a Socratic way —"Why do you think you have to?" —and watch as her thought develops.
"I think it's to learn things about the world, but I'd rather watch cartoons," she might say. And just like that, without conceptualizing, she would have raised the issue of constraint in education.
The philosopher father will then be able to attempt an analogy with Plato, who teaches us that "to grow up is to learn frustration," while pursuing the Socratic questioning with his daughter. Then, and only then, could we say that together, they're learning to philosophize.