“You can’t stand in the same river twice” – so said Heraclitus.
“You can’t stand in the same river once” – said Heraclitus’s student Cratylus.
Here’s a question for the likes of Mr Gove. Are these statements facts? Are they facts because they have stood the test of time and are understood and believed by thousands of people? Can they both be factually correct, even though they are dissimilar and possibly contradictory? Can a statement become a fact through a collective belief in it, or is it not a fact because it is open to interpretation?
And here’s another question for Mr Gove. If you wanted to learn about Heraclitus, would you start with a series of facts about him and his work in order to gain an understanding of his philosophy?
Or would it be more appropriate to do what I did yesterday and discuss his theory without even mentioning his name until a considerable and lengthy discussion had taken place?
Yesterday was World Philosophy Day; a day that sadly the majority of the world was oblivious of. The Philosophy Foundation organised a two hour Socratic style of debate in the centre of Spitalfields Market in London, with eminent speakers such as Dr. Angie Hobbs and A.C. Grayling.
A bookstall selling books called “The Philosophy Shop” and “Thoughtings” was set up and a circle of seats was placed in the market so that passers-by could participate in the debates that were taking place.
Dr. Angie Hobbs started with a story, always a good starting point in my opinion.
Lucy, a nine year old girl was celebrating her birthday, and took a group of friends and her mother down to a local river. They crossed a bridge and paddled in the river. They went off and played in a field and then returned once more to paddle in the river.
Question: Were they paddling in the same river when they returned to the exact spot of their first dip in the water?
A year later, Lucy wanted to repeat this way of celebrating her birthday. In a year, storms had changed the river. It was flowing more vigorously, and yet the girls still went to exactly the same place and repeated the activities from the previous year. Were they paddling in the same river? Was Lucy the same person?
An additional series of questions were asked to accompany this story?
· Does a name and identity give something constancy?
· Can we be the same and different simultaneously?
· If there is no water in a river, can we still call it a river?
· Does a collective understanding make something real?
· Can we ever do anything for a second time, or is the course of change so immediate that we can’t even really do it once?
It wasn’t until there had been plenty of creative and thoughtful discussion that Angie Hobbs even mentioned these two prominent philosophers in her teaching. By the time their names were mentioned, the collective audience and participants were already hooked into wanting to learn more, and hence I returned to my computer to look up more about the philosophers and teachers that she’d mentioned.
From this, I am going to spend the day considering change and the unification of opposites. Can certain things remain constant in a constant state of flux or change? Am I still the same person as I was a few years ago? What has changed and what remains the same? Is the path going up a hill the same as the one going down the hill? Can you essentially be the same person you were a year ago? Can you have the same set of values and beliefs?
Can I return to the waters and dip my toes once more or has the river changed to the point that the river will not accept my naked feet? Does, or did, the river ever exist, or did we just name it, and therefore assumed it exists? Do we fear change -which is why we give places, feelings, people identities?
Can all things be united at the same time as accepting difference and change?
Can dark and light unite in their opposition? Does yin ever meet yang or are they united inexorably by their opposite nature? Is there ever such as thing as a whole or even a part? Are we not all “one”?
I could go on, for the whole range of questions that can come from such a simple story is incredible.
Being able to talk about such significant and seemingly unsolvable issues fascinates me. Yes, sometimes, there is a time for silence, but at other times it’s enlightening and enabling to have such philosophical discussions such as these with complete strangers in the middle of a busy and vibrant marketplace.
It’s possible that I won’t ever see some of the people that I discussed these issues with yesterday, and hopefully there are others that I will keep in touch with, but there was certainly a unity between us all as we sat, debated, considered, appreciated another person’s point of view whilst remaining clear in our own understanding of concepts.
And not a ‘fact’ or an element of rote learning was to be had in the entire two hour session.
The Philosophy Foundation are working in a range of schools nationally, offering these sorts of discussions to pupils, though simplified to the point of not mentioning any Greek or even Eastern Philosophers.
In their book, which is an excellent resource that all primary school teachers should consider having in their classrooms, they demonstrate how we can enable children to talk, to debate, to consider, to think, and indeed to know in their own minds. They advocate starting with a poem or something that is accessible to children, and then – let the debate begin.
As one of the Philosophy Foundation members said, they are trying to lead the children along a path without necessarily showing them all the exits, and if they walk past the door that leads them out into the open, so be it. Through dialogue they will find the door eventually, of their own volition.
Of course, the door that they choose may be a different exit to the one that you or I may choose. The joy is that nothing is necessarily wrong and nothing is absolutely right, or more appropriately, everything could be wrong and everything could be right.
Here is an example of their work.
“Can I think?”
Can I think?
My human friends
Don’t think I can.
But I think:
I think I can think.
Okay, so I’m just
Nuts and bolts
And made to work
With wires and volts
But I think:
I think I can think.
But if I’m wrong
And I really can’t think,
I only think I think I can think.
Questions that could be contemplated with children.
· Can a computer think?
· What is thinking?
· What does “I think: I think I can think” mean? Does it make sense?
· What does a robot or a computer need to have in order to be able to think?
· If a computer says that it “thinks that it can think” can the computer be wrong?
3Di Associates have long been advocates of real philosophy in schools. There is an absolute need for children to be freed to talk and ask questions, just as there needs to be time in a school day for meditative reflection or non-thinking.
We are doing a great disservice to children if we don’t enable them to have time for both.
We are doing a great disservice to ourselves if we don’t allow time for dialogue and silence, as and when.
The unity of opposites and the remarkable and ceaseless motion of change is what I shall be considering today, both in silence and in discussion with others.
Happy Philosopher’s Day, and thank you to all who were involved in yesterday’s event.
To finish, here are a few wonderfully thoughtful quotes from Heraclitus that warrant an essay in themselves.
“There is nothing permanent except change”
“Eyes and ears are poor witnesses to people if they have uncultured souls”
“Big results require big ambitions”
“Much learning does not teach understanding”
For more on Heraclitus