Huh? Ha! Ohh… The Role of Laughter & Bewilderment in P4C
I have really enjoyed flicking through David Birch’s recent book ‘Thinking Beans: A Year of Classroom Philosophy Lessons’ which contains so many fantastic ideas and therefore thought it was time for another guest blog. David teaches philosophy and religion at Highgate School in London. He has worked for many years as a trainer and facilitator at the Philosophy Foundation. David’s blog focuses on the role of laughter and jokes in P4C, as co-creator of ‘Philosofuns’ with Jane Yates, this is something I am definitely keen on! Over to David…
Wittgenstein once said that a serious and valuable work of philosophy could be written that consisted entirely of jokes. With respect to doing philosophy with children, I’d like to go further and suggest that serious and valuable work should consist of jokes. Laughter in a philosophy lesson is a litmus test that something is going right; ruminative stillness is a cause for concern.
With philosophy, we should not, I think, be aiming to bestow any sort of wisdom or guide our students down any particular path. Philosophy should not be where children come to make sense of the world, but rather where they go to lose it. This, of course, isn’t an end in itself, but it is where philosophy begins. Bewilderment is a constitutive and foundational part of philosophical thought. By destabilising the conceptual structures of the world and purposefully bewildering children in this way, they thereby have the opportunity to refashion and reshape the world in new and enlivening ways.
Consider, for instance, a philosophy lesson on friendship. The questions below offer three possible approaches:
· Why are friends important?
· Are friends important?
· Can you be friends with a stranger?
The second question is certainly preferable to the first since it removes the constraining presupposition that friends are important. Nevertheless, the second question doesn’t actually play with or stretch the concept of friendship itself, and thus is still a conservative, rather leading, and not particularly bewildering question. The third question I think is the most effective and catalytic. This is because it takes the concept of friendship beyond its common applications, thereby presenting the conditions for a kind of conceptual liberation in which the child is able to take their thoughts about friendship in exciting new directions.
Bewildering questions also enable children to discover new metaphysical dimensions in their experience of the world. We might, say, click our fingers and present these two statements, asking which is correct:
I hear the sound made by clicking fingers.
I hear clicking fingers.
Suddenly a commonplace experience has become alive with confusion. Or, to take a brief and quite ludicrous task from Thinking Beans, we might ask the class to sit with their mouths open while a volunteer (x) loudly says a word, and then ask ‘Did x’s voice enter your mouth?’
With this question the child’s concept of the voice, and concomitantly their experience of it, has been liberated from its everyday banalities. The voice will usually be spoken of in the context of discipline and monitoring: Speak up. Quieten down. With a bewildering question, however, we can liberate the concept, presenting the possibility of the voice as something that can pass between bodies, cross boundaries, and dissolve the difference between inside and out. Suddenly, new possibilities of thought have been opened up.
In her biography of Jack Kerouac, The Voice is All, Joyce Johnson relates a transformative moment in Kerouac’s early life. On a cold February day while he was pulling his sled through the snowy New England streets, he ‘stopped to look at the sad windows of the houses. Why, why? I asked myself, aged six... I wanted to know, and I couldn’t make it out, and I still cannot make it out, which is a nutshell the story of the inward war raging inside of me…’
Kerouac described this as ‘the day I was born’. Till that day life had not yet begun, but ‘with a sweep of bewilderment I began to live’. Bewilderment, in other words, is constitutive of life. It wakes us up to the conceptual pliability of the world. It unblocks the banalities that occlude and impede thought. Thinking is vitality and, to reach for another metaphor, bewilderment is its updraft. By undermining conceptual conventions, children are free to discover the exciting (etymologically: outward motion) possibilities of thought.
How, then, do these ideas relate to jokes and laughter? Well, essentially, it is absurdities that bewilder, and so it is an absurd language that we, as philosopher teachers, aim to speak. Extricating concepts from their mundane uses, inducing bewilderment, necessarily involves speaking (apparent) nonsense. And this nonsense is silly, often funny. If I tell you that in my school we have very firm rules and you then ask to squeeze them, well this is ridiculous, but in a philosophical context it is a sort of tonic, waking us up to questions about the ontological status of rules.
In short, and to condense my suggested approach into a series of simple phonological steps, a philosophy lesson should be built around the following sequence of sounds: Huh? Ha! Ohh…
David is also the author of Provocations: Philosophy for Secondary School. His next book, Pandora's Book: 401 Philosophical Questions to Help You Lose Your Mind (with answers), is out in June.