Sunday 20 January 2013

It's just thinking

I've been thinking a lot recently about my time at university. When I look back it is mainly to remember the social side rather than the formal learning. It's sad to say I probably learnt more from the social stuff than the academic - how to budget, how to live with other people, being independent (not how to hold my drink - still haven't mastered that!)

I studied English lit, which I thought I would enjoy more than I did. I remember sitting in seminars in cramped lecturers' offices with 7 or 8 others, feeling panic because I didn't have a clue what to say about books like Tristram Shandy or some obscure poetry. Since then I have put this down to a lack of confidence or feeling intimidated by brighter or more voluble students. But lately I have started to wonder if, actually, I hadn't really developed critical thinking skills. I didn't question things much; particularly the meaning of words. My thinking felt 'frozen'.

I recently came across a practice which develops exactly these kind of critical thinking skills in both adults and children - and helps to 'unfreeze' people's thinking. Community Philosophy is a growing practice, aimed at engaging groups with philosophical thought and action. The use of the word 'philosophy' scared me a bit, until I realised, In the words of facilitator Graeme Tiffany, 'it's just thinking'.

The practice interests me in lots of ways, but perhaps the best thing in my view is that individuals and groups create their own questions. Sessions often start with the introduction of a stimulus; a photo, newspaper article, poem, activity - anything really. In responding to the stimulus, groups come up with their own question which they then discuss.

What's philosophical about this? Well, discussion tends to centre around concepts - so that a question around 'community' may lead to debate around society, identity, respect, even love. There is something very empowering about deconstructing the terms we hear bandied about and lazily used in everyday language ('shirkers', anyone?). Try exploring and questioning the concept of 'health' and you will see exactly how complex an accepted concept can be! Community philosophy is a positive activity however, so doesn't leave a group feeling threatened by this exploration - as well as deconstructing, groups build new concepts with real meaning and value. Sessions end with a period of reflection, to discuss - where do we go next? Thinking can lead to action, and of course the very process is action in itself.

The sense of community is important in CP. In many discussions you have the sense that people have a 'story in their pocket' - that they are waiting to make their point and will do so, even if the conversation has moved on. However, the emphasis here is on 'building' the discussion - participants are encouraged to build on each others' points, and often it doesn't make sense to go back.

There's lots more I could say about Community Philosophy but I will leave it to the experts at Sapere who provide lots of useful information about it on-line (see link below). In the meantime I will be setting up a couple of groups to try it in practice, with the hope that helping others to think critically will mean a few less 'frozen' thinkers, panicking in their equivalent of a seminar on Tristram Shandy.

*New date for Community Philosophy and Cake club*

Friday 3rd May, 12.30pm.  Meeting Room inside Fabrication, The Light, Leeds

Please email me to book a place:

Some CP links:


  1. I love this blog! You've really woken me up to Community Philosophy, something I came across years ago in its 'Philosophy for Children' incarnation and of which memory has faded. I am delighted to see that it's transformed into CP - and that it links with the Philosophy in Pubs movement that my friend Caroline was talking about only last week. Would love to get involved in anything you're doing around this; having a refresher myself next week and then will be trying it out in my own practice :-)

  2. Great blog. And fantastic idea. I feel a piece of cake coming on...