Asking Philosophical Questions

What Makes a Question Philosophical?

  1. You cannot look up the answer in a book or on the internet.

Philosophical questions need to be discussed, thought about, and figured out. We use debate and logical reasoning to figure out what we think.

The Thinker

  1. You need to be able to disagree about it.

There are some questions whose answers cannot be looked up but which are still not philosophical. Take, “Is it raining outside right now?” If I say it is, you can go outside and check. If you don’t get wet (without an umbrella etc.), I will have to admit I was mistaken. Philosophical questions aren’t like that. If I tell you I think that stealing is wrong, but you think it is okay, there is nowhere you can go to check and confirm whether I’m correct or not. I have to work hard to convince you that I am right. Furthermore, even after you’ve listened to my case explaining why I feel the way I do, you may decide you still disagree with me.

  1. You have the potential to change someone’s mind using reasons.

Some things that we can disagree about cannot really be resolved using philosophy. If I like chocolate desserts best but your favourite is vanilla, most people would say that we just have different preferences. On the other hand, if you make the aesthetic judgement that the Mona Lisa is a great work of art, and I disagree, you can present a rational argument using reasons and evidence to prove that I am wrong and you are right (even though we may also have a basic difference in preferences, just as with the chocolate vs. vanilla distinction).

Having a Philosophy Discussion

Matthew Lipman with a group of young philosophers
Matthew Lipman with a group of young philosophers

In this project, I will generally refer somewhat interchangeably to a community of inquiry (term originally coined by John Dewey and applied to P4C by Matthew Lipman), philosophy community or a philosophy circle. This refers loosely to a group of young people with a designated facilitator (often a teacher or family member) who have made a commitment to come together to investigate philosophical issues through reasoned and respectful debate. Philosophy discussion sessions are centred around a formal discussion in which participants take turns, listen carefully and respectfully to one another’s disagreements, and give reasons for their beliefs. The circle is preferable to the typical “teacher/rows of students” classroom setup because it allows everyone’s voice to be on equal footing. Depending on the nature of the group and how much time is available, this discussion can be followed by hands-on group activities, writing reflections, etc. to extend the inquiry.

Ideally, the first philosophy discussion can focus on determining what it means to be a community of inquiry. During the first or second meeting, the members of each philosophy circle will spend time on a discussion to decide together exactly how they will determine what makes a question philosophical. Use your own language (if you’re a teacher, encourage your students to use their own language) to make a list of criteria that will best help you further your own inquiry.

What Makes A Good Philosophical Question?

Once you’ve figured out what makes something philosophical, you still have to decide what makes a good philosophical question. Many topics might fit the “philosophical” criteria, but won’t generate a good discussion. My first go-to check is that it must be important to you. If a question is philosophical but no one cares much about it, there seems little point in spending a session on it. Again, ideally, students will generate questions themselves, and after a quick vote, the group can tackle one particularly juicy issue head-on. However, if working with a group that has less experience or has very limited time to meet, a facilitator might come in with a list of proposed questions, like the ones offered on this website and many other resources. They are meant to be used as discussion starters to be thrown out carefully, one by one, until a group grabs onto one and wants to take the discussion further.

Having trouble getting going? Check out this list of suggested Question Starters for ideas.

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