Unthinkable… 50 not out

The Irish Times ‘Unthinkable’ column started out as an intellectual experiment for World Philosophy Day in 2013. Over a year later, it has reached a half-century of columns, covering discussions from the nature of consciousness to the ethics of selfies. Showcasing Ireland’s philosophical talent – yes, it does exist – ‘Unthinkable’ continues every Tuesday in The Irish Times and irishtimes.com


Philosophical top trumps

(c) The Irish Times/Dearbhla Kelly


Humanity: Book Review

Why I love … Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, by Jonathan Glover

A great book must have a big theme. It must be ambitious, and push the boundaries of conventional style. It must leave an impression, or create an impulse for change. Glover’s Humanity ticks all those boxes.

Crisscrossing history, psychology, philosophy and economics, he tries to answer that most pressing of questions: what drives one person to dehumanise another?

First published 15 years ago as Europe was emerging from the bloody Yugoslav conflict, Humanity draws the reader into a century of horror: lest we forget – the Nazi Holocaust; Stalin’s pogroms; China; Cambodia; Rwanda. This is a necessary remembering, a demonstration for all those crying “revolution” and thrusting ideology to the fore that violence once unleashed is uncontrollable.

War, in this analysis, is a trap. Protagonists bind themselves up in tribalism, procedure or pride. Glover’s account of the European psychosis which led to the first World War – basically a mixture of arrogance and stupidity – is not only illuminating from an historical viewpoint but highly instructive for today. He quotes RG Collingwood’s description of the Great War as “un unprecedented disgrace to the human intellect”, and there’s nothing to suggest human beings have become any more intelligent since.

Humanity is, however, a hopeful book. To guard against our worst natures, Glover identifies common causes of inhumanity: among them, normalising cruelty, maximising conformity and the shift to killing at a distance – now more achievable through modern technology. And he pinpoints the circumstances which allow for “a sense of shared humanity to break through”.

A memorable example comes from George Orwell’s account of the Spanish civil war. Orwell later described how a Fascist soldier came within sight, half-dressed and running, holding up his trousers with both hands: “I refrained from shooting at him … I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘fascist’, he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting him.”


Nov 6th 2014, The Irish Times.  Twitter: @JoeHumphreys42

The Catholic Church and the developing world

Essay for the Dublin Review of Books on three recent releases relating to the Catholic church and its impact on the developing world.

Joe Humphreys

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first pope from outside Europe in more than a millennium has drawn fresh attention to the Catholic Church’s role in the developing world. Pope Francis might be seen as an end product of those early European missionaries who stepped ashore in Latin America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries holding the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

In Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, Robert Calderisi tells of one such encounter in 1532 when a Spanish priest encouraged invading soldiers to imprison and then execute an emperor of the Inca civilisation because he had dropped a holy book in his presence. Some seven thousand Inca warriors were slaughtered in the subsequent conflict.

Calderisi aims to assess the Catholic Church’s contribution across at least three continents over five hundred years in about two hundred and fifty pages. It’s the sort of task only a World Bank economist would have the confidence to attempt. As a popular and somewhat breezy treatment of the subject, his book stands at the other end of the spectrum to a brace of studies by Edmund M Hogan, Ireland’s foremost missionary historian.

– See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/fishers-of-men#sthash.Wlornrrf.dpuf

Cross and Scalpel: Jean-Marie Coquard among the Egba of Yorubaland, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 536 pp, £34.95, ISBN: 978-9780812874

Berengario Cermenati: Among the Ebira of Nigeria, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 288 pp, £26.95, ISBN: 978-9780811822

Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, by Robert Calderisi, Yale University Press, 304 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0300175127 – See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/fishers-of-men#sthash.Wlornrrf.dpuf

Would Savita be alive today if Galway doctor’s advice had been taken 30 years ago?

There is something especially powerful about a prophetic voice speaking from beyond the grave. Amid the large volume of correspondence released with the 1983 state papers was a letter from Dr Fergus Meehan, an obstetrician at University Hospital Galway, to then taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald warning him about the likely consequences of the “pro-life” amendment.

One can’t called them “unforeseen” consequences because Dr Meehan, who described himself as Catholic and anti-abortion, spelt them out in great detail – pinpointing the risk to human life of introducing a constitutional ban on abortion that would tie the hands of treating doctors.

Identifying a hypothetical case with echoes of Savita Halappanavar’s, Dr Meehan warned that if the amendment was passed a pregnant woman undergoing life-threatening complications might die in hospital because a doctor “would rather wait until the foetal heart has disappeared”. His letter is reproduced in full here.

Perhaps social historians will give him some credit: a wise counsel to whom we failed to listen.

Image Continue reading

Unthinkable: medicating for morality. Should we develop drugs that make us behave better?

The new year is a boom time for the self-help industry. Books on how to improve everything from your brain power to your sex life rush off the shelves amid a surge of subscriptions to gyms and language classes.

But is there a limit to how far we should improve ourselves? And are there ethical implications about the manner in which it is done?

This has become a hot topic in philosophy, with particular concerns raised about the increased use of pharmaceuticals for human enhancement. It is not only “smart drugs” that are coming on stream; people’s behaviour could be changed by, for instance, boosting levels of empathy.

While some believe this is dangerously close to “playing God”, others welcome the development. Among them are philosophers Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, whose argument in a recently published book, Unfit for the Future, provides today’s idea:
Artificial moral enhancement is now essential if humanity is to avoid catastrophe.

We discuss this, and the broader question of self-improvement, with Prof Bert Gordjin, director of the Institute of Ethics at DCU.

(continues…. with audio link, at:)


Unthinkable: Was Socrates right about the unexamined life?

Joe Humphreys          Fri Nov 22 2013            The Irish Times

In a bid to push beyond “common sense”, The Irish Times explores important ideas of the past, present and future through conversations with different thinkers.

The new column starts today, on foot of World Philosophy Day, and continues each Friday.


“The unexamined life is not worth living” How better to start this celebration of thought than with a classic: Socrates’s defiant statement at the trial that led to his execution. Recorded for posterity in Plato’s Apology, it has become a treasured saying of idlers, bookworms and moody introspectives down the ages. But surely something some guy said in Greece 2,500 years ago has little relevance today? Dr Catherine Kavanagh, president of the Irish Philosophical Society, begs to differ.



Say no to groupthink: how philosophy can transform learning

Why is there such resistance to teaching philosophy in Ireland?

Joe Humphreys          Tues, Nov 19 2013             The Irish Times

If philosophy had been on the curriculum 30 years ago, would we be in the same mess we’re in today? It’s a tantalising thought and the very sort of “what if?” question philosophers love to debate. But it’s being asked with deadly seriousness by an increasing number of educationalists.

“To help children think about what’s important to them, and why, is surely important to their education,” says Prof Joe Dunne who was, until recently, a principal lecturer at St Patrick’s College, Dublin City University. Citing US philosopher Michael Sandel’s idea that “statecraft involves soulcraft”, Dunne says philosophy can help students reflect on the sort of hidden values or “external goods” operating in society.

In a post-primary system where there’s a “fragmentation of subjects”, philosophy also “could get students to think more about knowledge in the round”.




Yes we Kant: How to teach philosophy to kids

Joe Humphreys               Tues Nov 19 2013              The Irish Times

If you’re a teacher and you’re planning to do philosophy with your class then resist the temptation to reference weighty tomes written by dead Greeks or unpronounceable Germans. That’s the advice of teacher-trainer Dr Mary Roche, who has 20 years experience in the field. “The first resource that people need is an open mind,” she says. “To become a critical thinker is as much a way of being as it is about developing skills.” What else do you need?


Chose a story to spark discussion With primary-school children, Roche recommends using “a good quality picture book to act as stimuli for discussion. Choose one that does not yield up its meaning too easily and allows for multiple perspectives and deep engagement.

“The teacher reads the picture book aloud allowing time for engagement with the images as well as the written text. Then she asks: what might that story be about? Any child can begin and the discussion proceeds around until all children have had an opportunity to contribute or pass.”

Arrange a democratic forum Under the Philosophy for Children (P4C) model, pioneered by Matthew Lipman in the US and adapted 30 years ago by Joe Dunne and Philomena Donnelly into “thinking time” for Irish schools, the children engage in an open-ended, “Socratic” dialogue. Conversation passes from one child to the next, the transfer formalised through a tip or passing an object around a circle.

The teacher must wait his or her turn and so is on an equal footing in the debate.

Let the students take over “The children might begin by examining the ‘message’ of the book; the ideology which can be overt or covert,” Roche continues. “But they are doing so at their own level and pace. The teacher needs to take off the mantle of the expert, become a participant in the group and be open to listening and learning.

“The teacher should refrain from interrupting. If the discussion wanders off the point she can ask a question to try to put it back on track when it comes to her turn. But teachers shouldn’t be striving to bring the discussion around to where they want it to go.

“It’s not about looking for consensus. It’s about encouraging children to think for themselves, to dig deep beneath the surface of a story and offer their points of view for others to agree with, disagree with, partially agree with.”

No one is forced to speak It is important not to pressurise the class; it can take some time for some children to be comfortable hearing themselves express their own opinions. “In the beginning, they can be jealous of other kids who have big words or are more outspoken,” says Josephine Russell. “I would always say, ‘We are like a football team, where you have the striker who scores the goals but everyone is just as important on the team’. There is also value in silence, and listening is as important as speaking.”

Don’t turn it into a competition “Thinking time is an act of trust,” says Donnelly, who notes that while Lipman emphasises consensus, her focus is more on participation.

“The best analogy is play. I would see loads of educational value in play but if you mention it to some people they say ‘Play is just a very pleasant waste of time’. The wonderful thing about play is it’s child centred.”

Be alert to the dissenting voice One story Roche has used in class is Yellow Bird, Black Spider by Dosh and Mike Archer (Bloomsbury), which explores the theme of individuality through the eyes of an unconventional bird who is being nagged by a spider about its behaviour.

She recalled one group of eight year-olds who said they empathised with the bird’s desire to “do your own thing” and be free. “I said, ‘Okay, then, when I drive up to a red light I want to go through it because I want to be free’. They said, ‘No, you can’t do that: that might hurt other people’. ‘So doing your own thing and being free is only okay at certain times?’

“The conversation continued with many agreeing that the yellow bird had the right to be himself and live life his way. Then one child said, ‘But doesn’t the spider have a right to be himself too?’ and that opened up a question of the contest of two rights. It took an eight year-old to bring that to my attention.”

Timetable it School timetables are packed but philosophy can be worked into literacy and oral language classes, or alternatively RE (religious education) or SPHE (social, personal and health education), says Roche.

“What I recommend is when you sit down to plan the year ahead you block out your lessons. So, for example, I might choose a story for an English lesson about scaredy squirrel making a friend, which also covers the topic of friendship in SPHE and possibly RE. That allows me to free up time for the discussions.”

Fail, fail better Practitioners at secondary level have adopted a similar format, using a story, or even a passage of philosophical text, depending on the age group, to spark a discussion about ideas. As teaching aids, Donnelly recommends books such as Robert Fisher’s Teaching Children to Think (Nelson Thormes) and David White’s Philosophy for Kids (Prufrock Press).

Roche left the primary sector in 2008 and now works as a lecturer in St Patrick’s College, Thurles, Co Tipperary, where she does a P4C module with undergraduates. She is now producing her own resource on how to use picturebooks “as stepping stones to philosophising” to be published mid-2014 by Routledge. She warns, however, “I do see people saying ‘Just give me a bunch of resources that I can go and teach’. But that is not being open-minded enough to think up your own questions. The bottom line is, it’s about mindset. It comes back to what John Dewey called the ‘reflective practitioner’: you have to be whole-hearted, open-minded and reflective.”

. . . and tips for parents If your school doesn’t offer philosophy don’t worry, says UCC lecturer Vittorio Bufacchi. “I do it with my kids every day at home. If you watch a film such as Cinderella, you can ask ‘Why is she feeling this way?’, ‘Where is her beauty?’ Those are the hardest questions,” he says.

He has two children, aged seven and eight, and they “don’t need to know theories about symmetry and beauty to tackle those sorts of questions”.

Robert Fisher, a UK author in “thinking and creativity” and a P4C advocate, suggests children have four needs: emotional, physical, social and reasoning. To promote the latter, he suggests: encourage children to build on their ideas; try to get them to see the implications of what they say and make them aware of their own assumptions and encourage them to find reasons to justify their beliefs.

As with adults, movies and books can provide the spark for conversation. Take Harry Potter: As one P4C textbook points out, it throws up “questions in ethics (Is power more important than good?); epistemology (How can we know ghosts and trolls?); and metaphysics (How do spells work?)”, among other fields.

“We have made philosophy into a discipline but it’s really about thinking and reasoning, just starting to spark conversation. Then you just become more sophisticated in the questions you ask,” says Bufacchi.

Philosophy resources Educational Action Research in Ireland, eari.ie; the UK Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education, sapere.org.uk; philosophy-foundation.org – includes downloadable resources for the classroom; European Foundation for the Advancement of Doing Philosophy with Children, sophia.eu.org.