Training in Philosophical Practice

For a number of years, Isabelle Millon and Oscar Brenifier (Philosopher and author of numerous books of philosophy for children and teenagers) have been working on didactics of philosophy and on the development of philosophical practice. They founded the Institute of Practical Philosophy, whose goal is to promote philosophy as practice in the city (workshops - in libraries, theaters, jails, cultural centers. individual consultations, seminars) and as pedagogical tools in schools.

Training in Philosophical Practice

What is to philosophize? Is it to know ideas and doctrines, or is it learning to think and exist? Is the philosopher the one who knows or the one who knows that he does not know? Is the work on ourself part of the philosophical process?

Socrates said: I know that I don’t know. This is the paradox of acquired ignorance: we learn not to know.

During a workshop, we work on both attitudes and competencies, what we call as well "philosophical requirements", which we have to examine in order to establish whether a discussion is actually philosophical. What is then the function of the facilitator, if he is not there only to make the participants speak, but to initiate them to questioning and critical analysis?

But there is a recurring obstacle that prevents us from understanding the nature and elements of the philosophical exercise when it takes the

form of a discussion. It is to think that to philosophize is the same thing as to communicate one’s feelings and opinions or defend a thesis. Here, philosophical practice does not consist in presenting a philosophical discourse. We work on the postulate that philosophizing does not only consist of thinking, but also implies to think the thinking, to take the thinking itself as an object of thinking. This means provoking the emergence of ideas while being conscious - or trying to become aware - of the nature, implications and consequences of the ideas we express, and as well the ideas of our interlocutors.


There are some basic attitudes required in order to think, attitudes which are not determined from an ethical standpoint but a cognitive perspective, even though one does not totally exclude one from the other. In physical exercise, the teacher tries to make the student work on his physical posture: so it must be in philosophy. In each case we give as an indication some philosopher that particularly recommends this attitude.

The following attitudes are cognitive and existential, and must be distinguished from moral attitudes, even though they can coincide with them. The purpose of developing such attitudes is to create a disposition allowing reflexive thinking to take place.

Settling down (Descartes, Spinoza): to be able to halt the precipitation and tranquilize the emotional turmoil that presides in much of our daily life, to stop reacting to every stimulus in an instinctive way, like conditioned reflex, in order to engage into a quiet deliberative process.

Ignorance (Plato): to be able to recognize personally and publicly one’s own ignorance. Unless one is conscious of this ignorance and lacks, one cannot think since he cannot hear and understand any new idea.

Responsibility (Sartre): to commit oneself to one’s own speech, to take responsibility of one’s own words. One is responsible for himself, for what he says, for what he does.

Sympathy/Empathy (Plato/Dewey): to acknowledge that the other has ideas different from mine, that our idea is not necessarily the right one, to make room for a thinking that differs from ours, and enjoy it. If one does not trust others, he cannot hear the differences and objections, and therefore cannot self-correct.

Astonishment (Aristotle, Kierkegaard): To pay attention to everything being said, in an active way: to philosophize is to be surprised. Unless one is astonished, for example about the difference of ideas on the same subject, one does not think. When each one merely has “his opinion,” and knowledge is reduced to “objective facts”, thinking becomes a simple thoughtless routine.

Suspension of judgment (Descartes): Unless one momentarily puts aside one’s own opinions and axiology, reading, listening and understanding a new or foreign theory becomes difficult.

Authenticity (Sartre): Unless one dares voice one’s own views, without being held back by concern over the judgments of others or one’s own conscience, one ignores what he thinks, thus risking to contradict himself and get caught in bad faith.

Confrontation (Heraclites, Plato, Nietzsche): "take of your shirt, and come for the body to body", said Socrates. The capacity to confront “otherness” is an indispensable condition for philosophizing, which means to accept being challenged by the others, by the world.


  1. To deepen  (to identify)

To search the content of a thesis or of an idea, which implies a number of activities.

Justifying/argumentation: to produce arguments, not in the rhetorical sense of showing one is right, but to give a deeper sense of the idea, its background and origin.

Explaining: to examine the clarity of an idea, especially for foreign eyes, and develop the content to the necessary extent.

Analyzing: to decompose or deconstruct and idea or an example, in order to make its content visible.

Synthesizing: to reduce a given speech to a short proposition in order to establish its fundamental substance, to clarify its content or affirm its intention.

Exemplifying: to describe concrete situations or objects that can give some substance or body to an abstract idea or thesis.

Interpretation: to give a specific – objective or subjective - understanding of a proposition in order to enrich its meaning.

Searching for presuppositions: to determine what an idea is founded upon, what postulates or theories are implied in its establishment.

“The reality of a speech is in its unity”, Plato tells us. This unity of an idea is both its origin, the subjective content, and its nature, the objective content. The subjective nature of a speech is the reason why it was pronounced, what it pretends to accomplish: to answer, to show, to demonstrate. The objective nature of a speech is what it vehicles, its implications, its universal meaning, its presuppositions. But quite often the speaker is not conscious of the very nature of his own speech; he is not able to qualify what he says. Most of the time, speakers merely express feelings or opinions, which they then try to defend, meaning here mainly that they attempt to justify themselves. In order to identify the nature of a speech, it is necessary to start from the principle that a speech does not belong to anyone: once it is pronounced, it belongs to everyone. We often notice that the person who listens, the auditor, the “other”, is usually more able than the author himself to identify the nature of a given speech. That is why one should here learn to be concerned not so much with “what is meant” but rather with "what is said".

2) To problematize (to critique)

To examine the limits and flaws of a given idea, with the postulate that in philosophy, any idea can be problematized.

This implies as well that any given idea has different possible interpretations, or that any question has different possible answers. What is problematic is what is merely possible, or probable, but not necessary. The two main tools for problematization are questions and objections, thus one should learn to practice those two skills and evaluate their actions.

For Kant, the ‘problematic’ is one of the three fundamental modalities of judgment, the two others being the assertoric (simple affirmation) and the apodictic (proved, scientific). For Cusa, every thought is by principle mere conjecture. Therefore every proposition is a priori a problem. Objections (arguments that are opposed to initial assertions) reveal the limitations, weaknesses or imperfections of the initial propositions, which thus allow us to abandon, modify or enhance those statements. Questions raise issue that pose problem in the initial statements: contradictions, blind spots, etc. Critical thinking is here necessary. It teaches us to distinguish for example “good” questions from “bad  “questions, relevant objections from irrelevant ones. In order to problematize one should consider a proposition only as a possible or probable hypothesis, but never as an absolute, even if we agree with the statement. Thus the facilitator should periodically ask: “Do you have an objection or a question?”, or “Do you see a problem in that sentence?”


Take an initial question “Is it always necessary to help others?”

The process of problematization will be for example to question one of the concepts, in this case “necessary”

  • ·For whom is it necessary to help people? The one who helps us? The one who makes us feel good? The one who is in need?
  • ·What is the nature of necessity? Moral? Social? Utilitarian?

Or the problematization can be about “others”

  • ·Do we want to be helped by others?

Analysis of possible questions.

Hypothesis: Yes, progress of medicine allows saving people

  • ·Does progress of medicine allow saving people?

False question. The answer is already given

  • ·Is it possible that doctors sometimes make a mistake?

False question, disguised assertion, what the questioner thinks is visibly known.

  • ·Does the atomic bomb save people?

False question, off-topic, without any explicit connection with the expressed hypothesis.

  • ·Is it always necessary to save people?

Good question, it prompts to think about the limits of «  save people  ».

  • ·Does medicine always save people?

Good question, it questions the all-power of medicine.

3) To conceptualize

To identify or produce a term or an expression that captures the core of an idea or a thesis, or to work on a given term, to make it operative, to give it synonyms. The concepts can be thought of as the keystones of the architecture of thinking. Definition can be looked at as one particular aspect of conceptualization.

After Kant, Hegel sets conceptualization and the concept as the cornerstone of the philosophical work. This implies first of all to break away from the purely narrative form of speech, and from the singular case. To conceptualize means to universalize propositions, to unite singular situations under broader categories, to qualify and identify essence and predicates, etc. This implies indeed to determine the conditions and the nature of speech in general, as determining the value of the particular speech. This means that one becomes more fully conscious of the content of any given speech. But of course, to conceptualize is a form of ascetic injunction, since it demands to practice a reductionist mode of thinking and abandon the accidental in order to remain only with the utmost essential, as Aristotle recommends.

During the initial implementation of these different skills, the teacher – and students - may feel that time is being wasted and that the “real” object will not be dealt with, or even that the discussion will not be completed, because of those “digressions”. But one will realize that through the regular practice of these competences, step by step, intellectual automatisms will be established in the students mind, and this “lost” time will be regained. The student will be mentally more active, able to listen more adequately, regardless of who is speaking, practice critical thinking, and therefore the impact of the work will be more profound and lasting.


There are three fundamental aspects or registers of philosophical practice: to think by oneself, to be oneself, to operate within the group.

  1. To think by oneself: the intellectual dimension

. To propose hypothesis and concepts

. To structure, to articulate and to clarify, to reformulate ideas

. To understand the ideas of others and self

. To analyze

. To identify the relation between examples and ideas

. To argue 

. To make judgments

. To initiate practice of critical thinking, for example logic

  1. To be oneself: the existential dimension

. To express oneself and to take responsibility for one’s own words

. To be conscious of oneself: ideas and behavior

. To see, to accept, to express and to work with one’s own limits

. To take distance from one’s own way of being, one’s own ideas and one’s own self

  1. To operate within the group: the social dimension

. To listen to the other, to give him space, to respect him, to understand him, and to pay attention to his thinking

. To take risk within the group and to integrate oneself in the group

. To decenter oneself, to reach out to the other, to his thought

. To think and construct with the others instead of entering in competition with them.


1) The role of the animator

The animator’s main function is to initiate the participants to the art of thinking. First of all, he must set up the rules and take care that they are applied. In respect to content, he must ensure the production and examination of arguments, questions, objections, stakes and analysis of ideas expressed, ensuring their exposition, development and criticism. He should avoid to the extent possible interfering in the debate in terms of giving his own judgment.

He should not show any bias or prejudice; any idea expressed by the participants must be taken seriously and be examined collectively, no matter how irrelevant or absurd they might initially seem to him. He encourages the participants to react thoughtfully to each other, he verifies that everyone is listening by asking them to reformulate what the other said, he summarizes what has been said when necessary, and he gets the group to refocus when the discussion goes astray or when the issue seems exhausted. He helps to find new problems, must not try to give solutions: he is here to make the participants work with each other.

2) Starting a workshop

The practice can consist of different types of exercises, where the attitudes and competencies mentioned earlier will be used. We will show later on some of them. It can as well start with a general question, where different hypothesis of answer will be examined and compared. For example: “To be free, is it to do what we want?”, “Is human condition threatened by the progress of genetics?”, “Does work constitute the main purpose of life?”, “Are all opinions acceptable?”, “Can we act badly without knowing that it is bad?”, etc.

One can as well start with a text — for example the Myth of the Cave by Plato, the Piece of Wax by Descartes, or another philosophical or literary text. Folk tales generally present profound philosophical issues. The text should be studied not only in itself, but also as a way to engage a dialogue with its content. Or course, understanding should be the first step, but it should be followed by some critical examination. In a way, anything can be used as a starting point: movie, artistic work, class situation, world events, etc. The reason we privilege exercise is that it focuses on specific competencies and makes the philosophical focus clearer for both the teacher and the students.


1) Production of arguments

A - Answer affirmatively or negatively, with an argument, to the various following questions.

Must I help a person?

Who does not want to be helped.

Who does not ask for help.

Who does not make any effort by herself.

That people close to him do not help.

Who does not help others.

Who I do not know.

When I do not have time.

Who looks frightening.

Who is rich.

Who does not know that she has a problem.

That I would have difficulty helping.

Who could be offended.

Who is afraid of me.

Who hurts me.

When some others could help her.

When I do not feel like it.

When I was forbidden to do it.

B - Is it good or bad? An argument should justify the answer.

To fight.

To protect oneself.

To cheat on others.

To seek revenge.

To kill.

To do nothing.

To tell nothing.

To disobey.

To hit a child.

To steal.

2) Evaluation of arguments

Is it a good or a bad argument? An argument should justify the answer.

I ate because my friend had some chocolate.

I ate because it was Monday.

I ate because the bell rang.

I ate because I was told to.

I ate in order not to die.

I ate because the pebbles were too hard.

I ate because my mother was there.

I ate because there was no meat.

I ate because I had nothing else to do.

I ate because I was at my grandmother’s house.

3) Problematization

A - Find an objection to the following assertions:

People are kind

People are mean

You have to be weary of strangers

Foreigners are not like us

Girls are different from boys

Boys are stronger than girls

Children know less than adults

Rules must be observed

It is necessary to work at school

We feel more comfortable at home

Do not draw attention to yourself

Do not criticize your schoolmates

You must be nice

Do not laugh at people

B - Answer affirmatively or negatively, with an argument, to the various following questions.


The teacher will have to guarantee a minimum of problematization: the group should always produce at least a «  yes  »and a «  no» for every question.

Are we obliged to tell the truth?

When the person we are talking to is ill.

When we are hungry.

When we want something.

When we risk being hit.

When we are ashamed.

When we do not want to harm a friend.

When we do not like what one gives us to eat.

When we acted stupidly.

When a school friend acted stupidly.

When we lied just earlier.

4) Production of concepts

Each student should answer the different questions with one word only.

The different concepts produced by the class should then be compared, and the “best” one only should be kept, at majority vote, after a discussion.  

How do you call someone?

Who does not dare to speak in public

Who gets angry for nothing

Who wants to bother people

Who wants a successful life

Who wants to show off

Who always complains

Who does not trust others

Who stays alone in his corner.

Who is constantly in a rush.

Who always regrets the past.

Who does not listen to others.

Who only listens to his own desires.

Who does not want things to change.

Who never wants to be late.

Who is very preoccupied with his appearance.

Who often argues with others.

Who always wants to behave like the others.

Who never wants to act like the others?

5) Conceptual distinction: same and other.

How is it similar? How is it different?

A white man and a black man

A policeman and a fireman

A poor person and a rich person

A blind person and a sighted person

A merchant and a thief

A child and an adult

A boy and a girl

An arm and a leg

To swim and to walk

To play and to work

6) Identification of presuppositions

Classify these different reasons for fighting from the most legitimate to the least.

Give some reasons for the three most legitimate and the three least.

Justify your choices.

Compare your answers with your neighbor’s.

You would more likely fight:

To defend your territory?

To defend your life?

To defend your fellow citizen’s life?

To defend your reputation?

To stand up against injustice?

To enrich yourself?

To have fun?

To avenge yourself?

To become powerful?

For nothing?

To revenge your family?

To defend your country?

To learn?

Because you were given the order to do it?

To give meaning to your life.

To prevent anyone from attacking you?

Because the other one started it first?

Because you enjoy violence?

7) Logic

Each of these sentences gives a reason why “I went out”. Which ones make sense, which ones are absurd? In a second part, try to see how the absurd ones could make sense.

I went out because it is time to.

I went out because I was out.

I went out because I was inside.

I went out because it was Monday.

I went out because the fox is a mammal.

I went out because the Martians were arriving.

I went out because my mother came.

I went out because I did not feel like it.

I went out because I went out.

I went out because it was my destiny.

I went out because my friend came to my house.

I went out because the television was on.

I went out because I was obliged.

I went out because the teacher did not want me to.

8) Moral dilemmas

A - Different moral problems are presented. A question is then asked, that the student must answer.

A clear option should be taken, and argued for, avoiding some statement that tries to combine both options into one.

A - In each of these alternatives, which option do you take as priority?

To save your life or someone else’s?

To obey your parents or decide by yourself?

To obey the law or decide by yourself?

To follow the morality or your desire?

To act for the good of the group or your own?

To accomplish something or to take time to live?

To fight against death or accept death?

To kill to defend yourself or to run away from fight?

To fight for the one you love or refuse to fight?

To change reality or change your desires?

To accept the world as it is or try to transform it?

To impose your ideas on others or accept theirs?

To risk your life or be careful?

To betray your love or betray your parents?

To betray your parents or betray your country?

To remain as you are or change?

To risk your life or to be comfortable?

To take risks or to act when you are sure?

B - Several situations are proposed, that have to be analyzed in order to understand their various aspects. A specific question is then asked, that implies making of a judgment. Each student will have to clearly take position and justify his answer. Then the class will compare the various answers and arguments.

In the following situations, what would you decide?

1 –I saw my worst enemy stealing the money of my best friend. I know that he already received warnings, and that if I report what he did, he will be expelled from the school. Should I denounce him?

2 - Ronald is in love with Mary. Mary confessed to me that she does not love him, but is taking advantage of the situation so as to make Ronald offer her presents. Should I denounce Ronald?

3 – Someone proposes to sell you for cheap a magic trick that will always get you good marks at your exams, even if you have not learned or understood anything. Should you buy it?

4 – Our mother ordered us not to utilize Internet while she is away. My brother and I disobey and utilize it. She comes back from work, notices that someone used it and accuses only my brother. He is punished: a month without Internet. Should I turn myself in?

5 – A man steals food in a supermarket in order to feed his children, because he has no money. He is condemned to pay a heavy penalty. Is it fair?

6 – The teacher tells us not to interrupt others, but she often interrupts students. Does she have more of a right to interrupt us?

7 – Someone offers you a ring that makes you invisible. You are in a shop. Do you take advantage of the situation in order to steal any products you like?

8 – Three friends, Silas, Paul and Kevin, together in the street, find a 50 dollars banknote. Silas proposes to share the money equally. Paul proposes to give more to Kevin, because he gets no allowance from his parents, unlike the two others who receive some every week. What should Kevin say?

9 – Your father stole an object in a shop and put it in your backpack. A security guard checks you and finds it. He accuses you of stealing in front of everybody and this embarrasses you. Do you implicate your father?

10 – You don’t like at all that your mother kisses you in public. But you know that it pleases her a lot. Will you let her kiss you when she picks you up at school?


If the evaluation of the exercises does not deal with, as “traditional” teaching mainly does, «  the right and the wrong  » or «  the good and the bad  » of the given answers, how to assess the students’ work within those exercises? How to evaluate those competencies?

Here are some elements that will allow the teacher to effectuate this evaluation, and at the same time be more attentive to the possible problems and improve student work.

1 - Comprehension of the instructions

This can be realized by examining the work done by the student, or by asking students to reformulate or explain what was asked to them. It is about considering that the work of listening and analysis of instructions is not a secondary point, but is central to the exercise. Too often, this understanding is taken for granted, and therefore not worked on. One should not fear wasting time teaching the student not to precipitate himself and to patiently examine what is asked to him.

2 – Clarity of the speech

Whether it is written or oral work, the point is not to give a pupil credit for some wordings that are not his, simply because he is confused. The teacher should not allow himself to practice the “I see what you mean” approach, which, under the cover of generosity, simply maintains the pupil in a kind of invalid status where he passively accepts the idea that he cannot express himself adequately. The ideas must be explicit, the sentences completed, by preferably avoiding useless preambles, repetition of terms and misnomers like «  I don’t know, but…  », «  I’m not sure, but…  », «  For me…  », «  In fact…  », etc. If a pupil has a problem expressing himself and needs help to clarify his thinking, the teacher will have to call on the class to achieve that goal, rather than doing it himself.

3 – Knowing what we are saying

The pupil will have to be able to determine the nature of what he is doing, of what he is saying, of what he is going to say, of what he has said, and also of what the others say. In other words, to be able to distinguish, written or orally, if it is a question, an argument, an objection, an example, an explanation, etc. This capacity seems crucial to us as far as it indicates a consciousness of the process afoot. Whether this comprehension is already visible in the pupil’s work, or the teacher will have to ask him to specify it.

4 – Accomplished work

One of the ways to evaluate the work is very simply to examine if the pupil did what he was asked, independently of the quality of reflection contained in the answers. It means to determine if he has made the effort to respond precisely to the instruction. During an oral exercise, it might be in regards to the proportion of his participation in the discussion, to his availability, to his mental presence and his listening, even if he talks a little, to the pertinence of his speech, to the fact that he is not in a hurry, etc. For a written work, we recommend having a notebook of philosophy, which will grant a sense of continuity in the work. In this way, the evaluation will consist in examining first of all the degree of investment of the author, and second of all the attention brought to the realization of the work, even in the presentation and the spelling, if it seems to be appropriate.

5 – To fulfill the instructions

The issue here is to determine if an answer meets the question, directly or not, if a question is a real question or a rhetorical one, if an objection is really contradicting a previous hypothesis or if it presents merely another hypothesis, if an argument is truly an argument and if it is relevant, etc. This implies that a true construction of the thinking takes place instead of the expression of a motley list of opinions.

6 – Empty ideas

One of the ways not to realize the work is the production of empty ideas, of meaningless concepts or arguments. There are a certain number of answers that are recurring:   «I don’t feel like», «I like it  », «They told me», «Because it’s not allowed», «Because it’s not good», «Everyone does it», etc. The teacher will learn how to spot them in the course of the exercises, principally because the use of those standard meaningless expressions becomes a system. These sentences are meaningless because they are preconceived or because they lack in substance. For example, to the argument «because it is not allowed», somebody should ask «  Why is it not allowed?  », or «Who does not allow it?  ».

7 - Same and other

One of the principal problems in this type of exercise is the repetition of ideas, sometimes conscious and explicit, because the terms are practically taken again one after the other. But sometimes it is done in a more surreptitious or subtle way. Some pupils will repeat what the others have said, even what they have said themselves, by taking a unique idea that becomes a kind of leitmotiv in a work. It is then necessary to determine to which extent the pupil repeats the same idea in an excessive way or rather finds some new ideas .