Chloé de Canson
Chloé de Canson is a Philosophy PhD student at the London School of Economics.
The Public Life of the Mind spoke to Chloé to learn about her experience of doing philosophy in schools.
Chloé de Canson. Image by Chloé de Canson
PLM: Hi Chloé, so could you tell me a bit about your personal background and your philosophical background?
Chloé: I was born in France, and raised in Paris and then London - I went to a French school in London, so I had a French education until the end of high school. After that, I studied philosophy at the LSE [London School of Economics], as an undergraduate. I left for a year to go to Cambridge to do a Masters, and then came back to LSE to do a PhD. I’m now in my second year.
PLM: What area of philosophy do you specialise in?
Chloé: Broadly speaking, I'm interested in how the way in which we talk about the world, and represent the world with language, has an impact on what we can know and what we can believe. So I work in two very traditional areas of philosophy: epistemology and the philosophy of language. But, I really like the use of formal methods to investigate these questions, which isn’t so traditional. These formal methods are a great tool to increase clarity, and in particular, they are useful to map out the possible ways one can approach a question.
PLM: Could you tell me a bit about the public philosophy projects that you've been involved in?
Chloé: The first one, chronologically speaking, is a charity I'm involved with called The Philosophy Foundation. Their main aim is to bring philosophy into primary schools. I've taught mostly Year 5 and Year 6, so older primary school children, but they've done work with children as young as nursery age. Their general strategy is to present the children with a game, or a story, or a prompt of some kind that contains a philosophical tension, then to get them to talk about it. So, your role as a teacher is really only as a facilitator. You guide them, using questions, to where the tension is, and you get them to talk with one another and figure out what the possible ways out of this tension are and what to do about it.
The second thing that I've been doing is with older children, in Sixth Form; Year 12 and 13. It's with a group of academies called the Harris Federation and they have around 20 schools around London. I was teaching at one of their schools, in Bermondsey. The students there can opt-in if they are interested. The sessions were an hour and half every week, and the theme was political philosophy through short stories. Luc Bovens, who was a professor in the LSE philosophy department who's just left now, created a curriculum for how to teach philosophy based on short stories. Every week, I picked a short story, trying to be balanced in terms of gender, and origin, and literary style.
Then, we'd read the short story together in class, out loud. This was great because they were much more attentive to details than they would have been if they’d just read the stories on the bus on the way to school. At first, I had a lesson plan ready, but I quickly found that this wasn’t the best way to do things, and by the end the sessions usually started with me asking, "does anyone have any thoughts?" and that would last for an hour and a half.
PLM: That's great, that they just led the discussion on themselves. So what led you to want to do both of these projects?
Chloé: The Philosophy Foundation people came to the LSE to give a short presentation of their work. They presented their project by simply doing a session with us, as they would with the children and I thought it was completely brilliant. So then I enrolled in their training and began working with them.
Originally what attracted me towards this was really just to do with philosophy. I thought it was a great way of teaching philosophy; and since I also teach undergrads at LSE, I thought it would be helpful for that. But mostly, it was so much fun, I just really loved it.
Then, I started working in a school in a relatively disadvantaged bit of west London, and I was given a class of children with learning difficulties and/or difficulties with English language. A lot of my students weren't native English speakers. I'm not either, but they had real difficulties with expressing themselves. I had no idea how I would deal with that. But somehow, it worked out incredibly well. I came in every Monday for five weeks. At first the children were really shy, and a lot of them got very frustrated because they had things they wanted to say but didn't really have the tools to say them. But the class dynamic really evolved, they started helping each other out a lot. To give you a couple examples, there was a group of three Spanish-speaking girls and one of them, whose English was really bad, would tell the others in Spanish what she wanted to say and they would translate. There was also a French girl who had language problems so she would talk to me and I would translate to the class.
And so we got this really nice dynamic going, everyone was so involved, and it was really collaborative, which isn't really the case in a lot of academic philosophy and I thought that was great. The children there were so open-minded and once they started feeling comfortable, started coming up with the craziest, most interesting ideas. The discussions were actually incredibly rich - much richer than in a lot of seminars where everyone's just a bit worried about staying on topic, and what are others going to think, and this professor's going to be writing my letter of recommendation so I better not sound too stupid. It wasn’t like that at all with the children, it was really free, really great.
I think it also gave them a lot of confidence in other areas of their life. There are lots of studies that show that teaching philosophy to young children has a significant impact on their progress in reading and Maths, up to 2-4 months progress, I think, after they've finished the philosophy course. I could tell, just in the space of five weeks, how much they'd evolved in how confident they were with playing with ideas and trying things out and helping each other. I felt like they were gaining a lot from it, and that was amazing for me.
Then I was approached by the Harris people. Again, these were young adults, who also come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds - much more disadvantaged than me. I asked them what kind of things they were interested in discussing, because I didn't want the dynamic to be one where I would come in, from my privileged background, to tell them what they ought to be thinking about. They were particularly interested in discussing issues of race, gender, and class; so that’s what we did. The discussions turned into genuine exchanges: they had insights into these questions that were incredibly valuable, and I have philosophical tools to think about issues in a way that’s precise and structured. So we pooled it all together, and the result was really wonderful.
"The discussions turned into genuine exchanges: they had insights into these questions that were incredibly valuable, and I have philosophical tools to think about issues in a way that’s precise and structured."
PLM: That leads on nicely to my next question. So, for a lot of people with a formal background in philosophy who go and do something publicly-engaged it often times, not necessarily radically, but it can have some metaphilosophical implications. It starts to change the way they think about philosophy, especially whether and how they think of it as an activity, but also what a philosopher's role is and so on. With both of your experiences, did you feel those effects afterwards at all? Or did it have no effects at all either? Did you go back to the LSE and think, "Okay, this is something else now"?
Chloé: I think the effects, though definitely very big, came kind of slowly. At first it was very separate: I had my academic work and there I had to do the things that PhD students do, like write good papers, and try to get them published, and give talks. You want to do the things which are popular which will give you some kind of recognition because that's the game, and you need a job, and who gets jobs? Well, the people who publish in good journals, people who write about things which a lot of people are interested in. Maybe that's a bit controversial, I'm not sure that's true, but anyway that was the kind of way I was thinking about it. And how do I write good papers? Well, you know, what I should do is just stay on my own and think very hard! And then write, and then once I have a perfect paper I'll just send it off and everyone will be impressed and it will be great.
But, of course, it didn't work out that way. So, you know, I'm there on my own trying to figure out what my great paper's going to be and... you know, it's kind of hard. I started feeling isolated in my work. We'd have these great seminars, which I'd be really excited to go to, but my own research always happened with myself, in my corner, you know, writing the thing and, when it's ready, sending it off. Kind of like what I did when I was an undergrad, but there the stakes are much lower and what you need to write is much easier; they're just like "well, here's a topic, write an essay about it", you do it in your corner, you send it to your teacher, the end. And so, basically, I kind of carried that way of doing things over to graduate school, but it doesn't work like that there, because what you're asked to write isn't a small 1,500 word essay but something much bigger, much more substantive, and of much greater quality.
Recently, maybe in the past year, maybe the past six months, more than before, I've started to realise that actually the proper way to do philosophy and the things I love about philosophy are conversation. I’m the kind of person who has lots of ideas all the time, but it's really hard for me to channel them through to a completed paper. So, I realised that what I should do is the same thing I ask my students to do: try out things, talk to people, or email them, and say "I've just had this thought, what do you think?" And then they'll say "no, you're idea sucks, here are seven counterexamples" and then you're like "oh yeah, that's a bad idea"! But that's fine, it was just one idea and then you'll have another, and then see where it goes. And then sometimes you stumble upon a good idea and people are really helpful, because they point to which are good bits, which bits need improvement. And then it becomes much easier to make progress.
So when you view philosophy as a conversation in this way you can actually produce much better work, with a lot less labour, and it's much more enjoyable. So I've really tried to learn from what I ask of my students, especially the primary school students, which is like, just tell me what you think about this thing and then we'll see what happens. I've tried to really do that with myself. To talk to people, like philosophy friends or teachers, and try out things and follow them through if they're good. And, on top of being better for my work, this also has the added advantage of being better personally. It really helps to feel like part of a community.
PLM: That's interesting because there are avenues for more formal feedback - your office hours with someone, the talks you give, and so on - but it sounds like something expanded for you after your experience with your students. Was it that you felt "I can talk to people whenever I like", or perhaps "I can talk to different people"? What changed in this respect?
Chloé: When students come into their first philosophy class and they're like, "oh I need to get the right answer", what I try to show them how to do is to view the process completely differently. When the teacher asks you a question, the point isn't to give the right answer, rather the point is to use the teacher's questions and the way the teacher is leading the class as a helpful tool to improve for themselves. When a student proposes an idea, the teacher’s questions aren't there to challenge the idea in the sense that the teacher's showing the idea to be wrong, but rather to help the student. So one of the aims of these philosophy sessions was to get the children from thinking "I was wrong" to "Ah! Now that I've got this I can improve my idea”.
I think that's the shift that took place with me. It's not that any of the structure's changed - I've always had philosophy friends and teachers who are willing to help, and given talks et cetera - but the shift went from viewing these as a kind of performance - so I would give a talk to showcase my work, or something like that - to a kind of discussion. I now try to see giving talks as primarily an opportunity for feedback. It's a great opportunity, you know, you've got a lot of people in a room listening to you, who can help you improve your paper, by asking good questions. So I think that's the most crucial way in which teaching philosophy in schools has helped my academic work.
Chloe with her Harris Foundation class. Image courtesy of LSE Philosophy
"There's a lot more that could be done, I think, and a lot of skills that I have and that I've gained in my training as a philosopher which I could use to benefit society in a wider way"
PLM: So I want to shift the questions slightly now. What led me to start these interviews was a recognition of what I think are two developments which are really getting going now. One is the recent push for greater engagement by academic philosophers with the public, which I think is really coming to a head now in a good way. The other development is in response to the despair people have had about the public sphere, and the decline of traditional forums - decreased trust in the press, people being more atomised - and the hope that was invested in the internet and social media as public fora which has been dashed. There's starting to be real efforts to rejuvenate the public sphere in various ways despite all of this.
So this is why I am doing these interviews now, because if it is true that these two things are happening, I want to understand the experience of people at the fore of this. There's this desire for the public sphere to improve, and at the same time there's this whole area of academia that's going "we're kind of suited to that, and we wanna do it, and we're gonna try and do it now". So I'm interested to know the experiences of people in the midst of this, right now. So, with that in mind, how do these two developments play a role (If they do at all) in how you've thought about the public philosophy projects that you've engaged in?
Chloé: So, I feel that there's a number of things that philosophers could bring to the public sphere that would be helpful. One is methodological: philosophers have tools for thinking in a way that's clear and concise, for making valid arguments, et cetera. The other is more to do with content: often, the questions in public debate are questions about which some philosophers have thought, and so they might contribute in the debate by sharing their thoughts on the issue.
PLM: For yourself, was the academic climate and the broader one concerning the public sphere in your mind - not necessarily as a motivation - when you thought about your public philosophy work?
Chloé: It was. I'm optimistic that through education we can help people think better, so this is why I'm particularly interested in children and doing that kind of public philosophy, rather than maybe trying to, I don't know, reach out to companies. I know that there are groups of people who run philosophy workshops in companies et cetera, but I'm pessimistic about getting a 40-year old accountant to engage with philosophical ideas in a way that's actually going to make a difference to that person's engagement with public debate.
One of the reasons I was drawn to this kind of thing was because it would have an effect in the long term. I think a lot of philosophers don't expect to have an effect in the short term on anything, though a lot of them think that in the long term they might actually be able to influence things in some way or other. So, of course, it's much more difficult to see... Doing something because it might maybe have some effect in the distant future isn't really good enough motivation, but I think it was one of the motivations for me for being engaged in education. Even at the undergraduate level, a lot of students are not going to go on into academic philosophy and last year, for instance, I was teaching on the LSE's Philosophy, Politics and Economics course where a lot of these students will maybe go on to work in policy, or something which has a public relevance, so the idea is we can at least try and give them some good tools for becoming better thinkers. So that's definitely one of the things that's drawn me to teaching.
But, maybe one of the reasons that philosophers don't get involved that much with public debate - I mean, they don't really; some of them, very few, most academic philosophers don't talk to non-academic philosophers, except when they're friends with them - and I think one of the reasons, maybe this is a false generalisation, but it just seems to me that a lot of people don't really care about, or don't feel like it's their place to have an impact on society, and that what they're doing is trying to figure out what the correct answer to some question is, or what the truth is about a certain topic, not to steer public debate in some way. This is especially true if they're working on a field like epistemology or metaphysics, which doesn’t obviously bear on public issues. And I think there's something a bit cowardly about that, because it seems to me that there's lots of ways in which I could participate and which I don't. So, education is nice, but there's a lot more that could be done, I think, and a lot of skills that I have and that I've gained in my training as a philosopher which I could use to benefit society in a wider way.
But, as with everything, you have to make a choice about what it is that you do and I think doing academic philosophy is comfortable in certain ways. You've got your project, you're writing your papers, they don't really matter - I mean, of course, they matter in the sense that they're really interesting and I also think that there's value in figuring out certain things in theoretical philosophy, and in their long-term value. I think it's a nice thing that it might have an impact on longer terms things. So currently I'm working on a bit of decision theory - when we can apply certain decision-theoretic principles to recommend courses of action - and decision theory is widely used in policymaking. So there's a possibility that it could have an impact on people who are making policy decisions, but that's not why I do it. I think that would be nice if there were practical implications, but I do it because I'm interested in what's the correct way to reason. Once I figured it out, if people reason in a bad way, my temptation is to think "too bad for them!". And I think that's a cowardly thing to do, right, because convincing people is an extra thing to do and you're inclined to just think "well, that's not really my problem". In a sense, I think a lot of people are pulling away from these public engagements.
PLM: I'm interested by this notion of philosophers' cowardliness towards engaging with non-philosophers. How do you think about this in relation to efforts to rejuvenate the public sphere?
Chloé: Well, several things make discussions easier: shared opinions, shared goals, and shared methods. The first of these things has been discussed extensively in the press, especially after Brexit and Trump’s election. People seemed particularly worried about the “echo chamber” effect, especially on social media: the idea that everyone on one's Facebook newsfeed has the same opinions, and so these opinions are never challenged. But I think the other two are also very important. If people have a shared goal, maybe to figure out what to think about an issue, or to mount a good argument for a specified view, discussion is easier. Similarly, if all the people engaged in the conversation take a very analytic approach, or any other kind of approach, everyone will have an easier time. I think that philosophers don’t consider disagreement particularly difficult. But, many philosophers I know - myself included here - struggle a lot when there isn’t a shared method, and a shared goal.
Now, when I work in classrooms, I set the goal (“this is going to be a joint exercise, where we all work together to try to answer this question”), as well as the method; this may not be as explicit, but most of my input is to help them think analytically by asking guided questions. But obviously, you can’t set goals and methods in the same way when you’re having a conversation with a distant family member or with another member of the public. I think this is what makes public conversation really hard for me. And it’s so hard that I don’t do it. It’s very cowardly because I know it’s important. I know it would also teach me a lot: it’s a fundamental life-skill to know how to talk to people who reason in different ways and who want different things. My sense is that this is the main reason why I shy away from discussion. I'll be thinking,“He didn’t even see the problem with his views entailing a contradiction! How am I meant to talk with someone like that? I'll just walk away". It’s something I’m planning on working on, and we’ll see where it leads me.
Image courtesy of The Philosophy Foundation
PLM: So, the things we've been talking about up until now have been largely premised on you being a philosopher, but I'd like to explore whether and how these things have a bearing on just you yourself. Obviously, these changes in the public sphere and your line of work, they can affect you politically, or morally, or in how you view society in some way, for example. So how have they affected just you?
Chloé: That's a good question. So, I think at first philosophy was just kind of something that I found interesting, that I like doing, but it's shaped the way I... I now go to a dinner party with people I don't know, and some conversation starts, and I draw on my background as a philosopher. So, I'm not sure, though it used to be the case, that now there's such a stark distinction between the 'Chloé the Philosopher' and 'Chloé the person'. But, I think that this has been good in both ways. Doing philosophy has made me much better at listening and really trying to hear out what the other person is saying in a conversation that's not about something distinctly philosophical, such as, for instance, political questions. It has made me a better person to engage with in the world, as a member of the public, and as a person who participates in public discussion; but also at dinner parties, or just in general with my friends.
This merging of my 'philosopher person' and my 'normal person' has helped me to be a better non-philosopher and better philosopher, and understand that people get excited by ideas and want to discuss them, but that they also sometimes feel afraid to say certain things, or that they say certain things with more confidence than they intend, because they want to appear more certain of what they're doing. Having that in mind in the public debate, which is something I've kind of always had, and to bring that to philosophy has also been really helpful for philosophy because it's helped me try to make the environment I'm in more friendly and with less pressure so these sorts of things don't happen. So, I think both of the aspects have been feeding into each other. But I think it's made me frustrated about a lot of things I hear from my non-philosopher friends now, who tend to have very definite and stark opinions about things. It annoys me particularly because I was very much that way in the not so distant past and I think it's definitely a good thing that philosophy's made me not that way, or has helped me not do these things in the way that I used to.
One of the problems in public debate is that we have experts on the one hand - maybe policy experts and even philosophers - and then people who are neither, and everyone's trying to have a discussion and no one's really capable of listening and everyone's constantly doubting the legitimacy of the other person. So, experts are sometimes dismissed: "You don't know what it's like to be me and to live this kind of life, and you're just over there in your ivory tower, you have no idea". And then experts and philosophers, in the same way, sometimes dismiss the layperson - "Oh, they don't know how to think", or "there's no point trying to talk to them 'cus they won't understand". So, in that situation, everyone is trying to defend their legitimacy; and this happens at the wide-level that I've been talking about, but also at the local level, where you might have several people around the table and everyone trying to act in a way that will exude confidence and that might not lead to actually such good discussions because maybe everyone's afraid they'd be judged if they changed their minds, or they're trying to impress everyone else.
PLM: Did the specific experience you've had with young people and children play a role here? In the way that you mentioned earlier about how they don't have the same inhibitions maybe that you might have in a seminar room or around a dinner table or...
Chloé: It's difficult to go and listen to, and genuinely try to figure out what people's lives are like and where they're coming from when they're saying the things they're saying, without dismissing them. I mean, dismissing is just a, kind of, general protection strategy, right? Like, "I'm better than all this". So in the classroom, with the children it's easy to get them to drop all of this and say, "Guys, it's fine, it's just gonna be an hour, we're just gonna try and figure out how to get away from this Cartesian Demon thing, ya know?" And everyone's like, "Oh cool!" In a way, they see it less seriously, they kind of treat it like a game, but in another way, they take it much more seriously because they're completely committed to finding out, through any means possible, including admitting that they were wrong, what the right answer is.
It’s very easy to just talk at people, you know, "I'm this, and here's what I think" and say it in an eloquent way and everyone's very impressed. But actually having a conversation with someone, especially if that person doesn't share certain things, certain opinions, certain experiences, it’s much more difficult. Teaching the children has shown me just how far we’ve got to go until we are in a place of genuine conversation, and honestly, it has made me a little pessimistic. I see how hard it's gonna be to actually get there, and how hard for me, and for everyone else it is to engage in these genuine discussions about things that matter to all of us. It’s much easier to just answer questions in an interview than it is to properly engage in these important conversations!
PLM: Indeed! Well, thank you for your time Chloé, it's been really interesting getting your thoughts.
Chloé: My pleasure!