Sophia Stone is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Lynn University and the founder of Wisdom's Edge.
I spoke with Sophia to learn about the work of Wisdom's Edge to promote critical thinking through philosophical inquiry, guided by a democratic process in communities that do not have access to the university.
Sophia Stone. Image by Sophia Stone.
Ciaran: Hi Sophia, so could you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into the work that you do with Wisdom's Edge?
Sophia: Sure. I've experienced a lot of trauma in my life, a lot of sadness. If you don't process that right away - even if you have therapy - you internalize it, and it can become part of your mind chatter and how you perceive yourself. So, one of the things that I had troubles with was my value when I was younger, because whenever people would see me, they would always talk about my external appearance. They wouldn't engage in any kind of deep conversation with me because I was a girl. My parents didn't notice that I loved mathematics, that I would go into a room and I would mathematize the room; I would count stairs and look at the geometry and think about the mathematical principles of a room.
So, I had a rich interior life that no one knew about. I would go to the library during recess, and I would learn numbering systems and I would study ancient languages, just out of curiosity. When I was older, my father - I think out of love, though I think he didn't know what he was saying - encouraged me to lose weight because I was getting a little bit fat as I was developing. These were actually really harmful words, and I internalized this and developed an eating disorder. So even though I was getting good grades in high school, and I went to UC Santa Cruz for my senior year of high school, I also had this eating disorder. So, my father told me that he wasn't going to pay for college, because he didn't want me to throw up my education.
This was devastating to me and I got really depressed, and even though he paid for me to go to a rehab center, when I came out, because I was still depressed and very disappointed that my dreams of going to college were not going to be realized, he and his wife kicked me out of the house and I was homeless for a couple months. All I wanted to do was go to university, all I wanted to do was study philosophy. So, I learned a lot about being homeless, and I learned that there were two different kinds of homeless people: there were the long-term homeless and the recently homeless. I realized that if I didn't get my act together right away very quickly, that I could easily get used to being homeless.
It took me a long time, it took me 10 years of working odd jobs and going to night school, but I got into UC Berkeley, studied philosophy, loved philosophy, got my master’s and then my PhD at Purdue University. My first job after Purdue was at Lynn University, as an Assistant Professor. There, we had to teach not just Western philosophy but also Eastern philosophy. I noticed that with Western philosophy I was able to transform my own negative self-image by listening to and reading Plato's Allegory of The Cave. And it was when I was reading this that I realized that these images of women in magazines and the portrayals of how I should be are all society's constructs, and that I didn't have to identify with those shadows on the wall: I could turn around and decide for myself my own value. So that was very freeing and transforming.
That happened earlier - even in high school, I had read the Allegory of The Cave, but I still had that eating disorder. What really changed for me was studying Eastern texts and studying mindfulness, and learning how to train the mind, concentrate the mind, quiet the mind, recognize that mind chatter. I realized that these Eastern texts along with Western ones, were very transformative for me, and I can see it in my students as well. So, in 2019 I wanted to bring this to the edges of society, communities such as the communities that I had come from, where people are discarded, they're forgotten. I wanted to bring philosophy to those populations so they can start their own self-transformation. So that was when I started Wisdom's Edge.
I was also deeply touched by Plato's writings, and especially where Socrates talks to his accusers and the jury men in Plato's Apology, about how the unexamined life is not worth living. I really believe that. I think that we must examine our lives; on a regular basis, examine what we've been doing, how we can be better and how we can improve the lives of others. I was influenced here also by Eastern texts, especially the idea of ‘seva’ - selfless service - that we hear in the Bhagavad Gita. For me, the way to live a meaningful life was really to help others overcome their own self-image issues, maybe their blocks, maybe their anger issues. The sum of these experiences drove me to form Wisdom’s Edge.
Wisdom's Edge Foundation was incorporated in August of 2019 and then received non-profit status in January of 2020. From the moment of incorporation, I was teaching classes in-person at various places, i.e., the children’s museum, transitional housing, neighborhood parks… that's how it began. So then, you know, the pandemic! But one of the places that immediately allowed me to come in and teach was The Lord's Place, which is an organization in South Florida that seeks to end homelessness, and the cycle of homelessness. And so, I serve at two of their homes, transitional homes for women. One house is really for single women, who either due to homelessness or drug addiction or from human trafficking, go to that house. They get training, like job training, and I come in and I give them philosophy classes, and I teach them mindfulness. The other house that I serve is for women who are coming from prison, so it's a re-entry program for them. I teach them self-esteem.
I was teaching these classes on Zoom, hosting other reading discussion groups, and I am now Chair of the South Florida Social Enterprise Alliance, which is part of a national organization of social entrepreneurs all around the country, and it means I am able to connect with organizational leaders and they can connect me to communities that also need self-transformation. So, I offer those classes too. I have a colleague of mine, John Houston, who is teaching classes to intergenerational communities up in Minnesota. The idea is for philosophers who maybe want to get out of academia, or maybe they want to do some more meaningful work on the side, that they can connect with Wisdom's Edge and they can form their own communities, get their own students, and we would raise money to fund those programs. Philosophy as a social enterprise!
So that's the idea behind Wisdom's Edge. It's a non-profit, it's a social enterprise, it's a way to promote philosophy to the edges of society, but it's also a way for philosophers to become their own entrepreneur and teach communities that they want to teach. So, if they want to teach to children, or the retired, or intergenerational communities, they will go and find those students and then we will fund them.
Dr. John Houston teaching his class philosophy at the Adult Enrichment Community Center for District No. 742 in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Image by Sophia Stone.
Ciaran: That's a really interesting model, supporting people to go to do the particular thing that they would like to do under the kind of broader approach of the whole organization. Thank you also for sharing your story about how you came to this. I'm really struck by the range of settings and communities that you've worked with. What's the kind of process of forming connections with new communities?
Sophia: It's both ways. We do have people who are interested, who contact me and say they would like to have Wisdom's Edge sessions available to their community. If it's online that's not a problem, I can connect a philosopher to their community. But if they want someone to come into their organization and teach, then that would take a little bit more effort as I'd have to find a philosopher in that area. Again, we're very new, so not a lot of organizations know about us yet. Trying to get the word out is challenging, and then the other thing is right now, there seems to be a steep learning curve with getting grants! My fundraising is basically on Facebook, asking for donations, or we do philosophical events. We run a philosophy in nature event which is somewhat successful, where we take people to different areas of nature. It might be under a canopy of trees, at a lake, or the ocean, and we read and discuss philosophical texts. After a time of talking and connecting to one another, we give everyone journals to write in and we all paint with watercolors. We charge for the Philosophy in Nature series as it is a fundraiser to support our programming, but normally we don't charge our participants to learn, we follow Socrates and Plato who never charged their students.
I think that when students must pay at the university for their education, in some sense, the professor becomes the customer service representative. What we offer is a gift and it's not something really that you can pay for, it's something that you receive. However, I don't know if long-term that model is going to work because we really do need to rely on donations and grants, and it seems like we're so different in what we do from other non-profits, that foundations are reluctant to take a chance with us and to give us money. So, I'm thinking about re-tooling that model, but for right now that's our model. We don't charge for our services - we offer them freely. When I teach, I don't get paid for what I teach. It's a pure labor of love. When my colleague teaches, I do make sure that he gets paid, so I raise money for him. In the future, I'm hoping that more foundations will take a chance with us and will give us money, and then we will be able to provide more philosophical outreach to communities that don't have access to the university.
Ciaran: The really explicit focus on accessibility in Wisdom's Edge is not something that I've seen others put so front-and-centre in similar work, but I think it's really good. I'm very much rooting for you to be able to expand!
Sophia: When I do get people interested, I arrange the session on their time. So, if the only time that they can participate is Sunday at seven o'clock, then that's when we have it. If they can only participate early in the morning, that's when we have it. This way, time, or scheduling is not going to be an issue with them. Because oftentimes, people are maybe caregiving, or they're working several jobs, or maybe they're unemployed, or they're homeless, and they don't have a rigid structure to their life where they can be at a certain place at a certain time that I have already set. So they need to tell me when they're available when they can commit, and then I create the class for them.
Ciaran: I can see how that would make a world of difference for people, meeting them where they are. Has doing your work through Wisdom's Edge changed your perspective on the activity of philosophy?
Sophia: When I first started teaching at Lynn University, I was teaching in the traditional way that I learned how to teach philosophy: I had a lesson plan, there were learning outcomes, there were arguments I wanted them to understand and to analyze, and I was looking for specific answers to questions that I would ask. When you're working with the public, the first thing, the most important thing, is human connection. You need to connect with them, and you need to find out where they're at. Sometimes where they're at is a really dark place, and you just listen to where they're at and then you find a way to connect the text to that dark place.
So that's one thing. The second thing is both in my university teaching and in my public outreach, I always ask for examples, I always ask them to offer their lived experience to their answers. One of the most recent discussions I had at The Lord's Place was I decided to talk about Sartre's idea of bad faith, because I felt like it just seemed that in the pandemic, we're experiencing a little bit of bad faith, right? Especially here in Florida, where it seems like nobody wants to wear a mask, nobody wants to get vaccinated. It's like we're in bad faith about the pandemic. So, I gave my class the concept of bad faith: where we believe a comfortable falsehood, or we deny an uncomfortable truth. This is my way of saying that we mistake our facticity for our transcendence, or we mistake our transcendence for facticity. I asked for examples and one of the participants said, "I was arrested for prostitution, but I didn't think I was doing anything wrong. I was providing a means of living for myself. So, who's really in bad faith, am I in bad faith or is the law in bad faith?"
What I loved about that offering is, first of all I'm never going to get that kind of response in a university setting. Nobody's going to volunteer and say that they were a sex worker. But the second thing is that it exposes the hypocrisy that we have, at least in American law, where corporations are allowed to profit off women's bodies. We objectify women's bodies all the time, and in pornography, we're allowed to make movies where people are having sex on camera, and they're getting paid to have sex on camera, and to film it, and then to produce it, and then people are paying to watch people have sex. It seems like there there's a contradiction, other people can make money off women's bodies, but women cannot make money off their own body. I think if we're going to analyze it completely, it's the law that's in bad faith, right? We're giving the wrong kind of messages to women. On the one hand, you're not allowed to make money off your body. On the other hand, everybody else is allowed to make money off your body!
So, when we have that kind of conversation, it gives people a different perspective. I never try to teach things or tell people to change their mind or say the kind of life that they have lived is wrong, or that their belief system needs to be changed, I never do that. But I give them different ways of thinking about the world, different ways of processing it. Another example is, when you work with people who have been homeless, one of the things that happens is, when people are homeless, they feel discarded, they feel that nobody wants them, and I know this, because I felt discarded, I felt like nobody wants me, I can never be loved, no one's going to love me. So, when we have a group of women together, they all have their own issues of self-worth. It breaks my heart when I hear women say that they have low self-esteem, just because of life circumstances. So my goal really is to get them to think in a multitude of ways, different ways, of how to think of their self-worth, and that their self-worth doesn't have to depend on what other people think that they should do. It doesn't depend on society's value. You can determine your self-worth.
So Lao Tzu has in the Tao Te Ching this wonderful quote: “if you care about what people think, you become their prisoner”. This is exactly right with self-esteem, when your whole worth is dependent on what other people think, or your perceived view of how people think of you, then you become a prisoner. So just like Plato's Allegory of the Cave, you can set yourself free by turning your mind around, by turning your whole soul around. By having that shift in perspective, that can be really healing.
Ciaran: Those examples really bring to life the distinction you made with the teacher in the university setting explaining the set examples from the text, or stock examples they might be used to giving. It makes me think about your point before of meeting people where they are: if you're allowing them to bring in their own examples and connect it up to a text as it resonates for them, I can see how it can bring it to life so much more, how engaging in philosophy there would feel very different. Something people have told me in other interviews, is how in the public philosophical spaces they facilitate for people, sometimes participants feel it addresses a need they have - that maybe they weren't quite aware of how much they needed - to have a space to engage in questioning and criticism and so on. Does that ever come across for people you engage with?
Sophia: Oh yes, and it goes back to Socrates. There are two Greek words for care of the soul: epimeleia and therapeia. Philosophy is therapeia. A book I recently read showcases the work of Sei Shōnagon, who was an 11th century Japanese courtesan to the Empress Teishi. She wrote this book, The Pillow Book, where she writes her musings about her life before she goes to bed. One of the things that she does is she writes lists: what is amusing, what is sad, what is exciting. It seems like these lists are balanced, it seems like whatever she does positive, she can list as many that are negative with any kind of category.
So, I use this method of lists with my participants, especially with my healing circles. I had this one participant who hadn't talked to her sister in quite a long time, and her sister had recently lost her son. The death is a little bit mysterious - they still don't know why he died. But she had trouble calling her sister, she had trouble connecting with her. So, I asked her to write a list of everything she loved and adored, that was special about her sister, and then to write a list of everything that was troubling her about her sister, everything that was disturbing about her sister. Through these two lists, she was able to share with me things that she had never shared about her sister. Just to be able to open and share with someone a deep truth you've kept hidden inside of you is the first step of healing. So, the block for her was that she didn't really know how to connect with her sister after this tragedy. Once she looked at that list, she was able to recall that she and her sister had a lot in common when they were younger and that they were good friends but then other things happened in their lives, which is how they became distant. She was able to connect back with the positive things about her sister and that was what led her to be able to open and call her sister and have a good, meaningful conversation, a heartfelt conversation.
So, what I like about philosophy is that it gives people avenues, ways of thinking about their life that they might not have the tools to access until you show them. It's different from psychology, where you have theories of behavior and you analyze these behaviors: you know, we're going to look at Freud, you have this strong desire to be with your mother and kill your father - these silly things; as Bakhtin says, Freud makes the family strange. These theories often can cloud real transformation because you put the box of interpretation onto the patient. In philosophy, you show them different ways of thinking about their life in their world, and they choose what is real, to choose what is true, and what works for them, what sounds right. So, one of the other things that I learned from reading Plato is that others are going to disagree with me and that's okay. I read Socrates as not having judgement. When he asks these questions to his interlocutors, we think that Socrates has these judgments, but he really does go with what the interlocutor says and asks them questions based on the answers they give. It's not so much where Socrates wants to lead the participant, he lets the participants lead the discussion based on the answer. Then of course, he shows how the participant might be thinking inconsistently or in a contradiction, but that is obviously at a different level to the straightforward argument and sometimes the interlocutor is not even aware of it.
In a similar way, this is my approach to philosophy, and this is different from the classroom setting. In the classroom setting you have a particular way that you want the students to read the text, there is almost a set lesson, right? And that lesson is systematized: it has things that you have to prep, that you leave for students to discover, and then anything that they didn't get, you fill in the gaps. So that's the typical university philosophy class, but in philosophical outreach, you let the students do their exploration, and you let them lead and if they're stuck, then you can give a little bit of guidance, a little bit of push, but you really let their lived experiences and where they're at, right there, kind of lead the way. I think it's in that way that philosophy can be self-transformational. When you allow the participants to bring their life into the classroom, and have the discussion really be about them, as it connects to the text. So for example, when we do our Western philosophy and I focus on Plato's Apology, before we even begin, I ask what principles people have because Socrates, if he's anything, is a man of principle. Rarely in society do we have exemplars of principled people to the point where they're going to die for their principles. So, for them to think about the principles that they hold near and dear and to think about, well, would they hold on to these principles if their life was at stake? It's an interesting and deep question.
Dr. Stone teaching 'The Good Ball' lesson to children at the Children's Museum in Boca Raton, Fl.. Image by Sophia Stone.
Ciaran: What has running Wisdom's Edge made you think about the space for reflection in society today?
Sophia: Well, especially right now, with the pandemic, I think a lot of people are really craving a space to talk; a safe space to talk about issues of justice, issues of what is true, and what is false. How should we behave? How should we act? So I think that this is really much needed in our society, and we rarely have balanced discussion on the most important issues. For example, as soon as you start talking about abortion in the public realm, especially here in the US, you get into these real heated debates. Nobody is hearing each other; they're just speaking and making their platform. There was a big debate in Florida about the mask mandates. Our Governor got rid of them, and so schools can suggest that students wear masks but it's kind of up to the parents. They can make a formal objection and that would be okay.
There's this block with public discourse and a philosophical public event can really help get at those blocks, but again, a safe space must be established, people have to be ready to listen - deeply listen - to other people's viewpoints, and to respond on that level without shooting someone down, or calling someone names, or saying someone is greedy or selfish and these kinds of things. So, I think that we desperately need more philosophy in public discourse, however, mixed with a little bit of mindfulness, a bit of non-judgmental awareness, compassion and understanding and real want and desire to make things better. We'll need these kinds of conversations when it comes to what we have to give up in order to save the planet.
Ciaran: I get the sense that your expertise in both Western and Eastern philosophy chimes a bit there with the model of what these philosophical events should look like. They shouldn't just be a very particular strand of Western philosophizing, which can be quite combative. There's something on the Wisdom's Edge website that I found really interesting, it was giving a rundown of what a succession of sessions looks like, and it mentioned a session looking at “contemporary local problems”. Is that particular to a certain project you do, or is that a more general thing?
Sophia: So, we have a complete course if you want to call it a course - it's not really a course as we don't assign readings, we bring the readings and we teach the session. But we teach six lessons from Eastern philosophy, and then six lessons from Western philosophy. We teach the Eastern sessions first, because I like to teach mindfulness within that, because I find that teaching methods of meditation, awareness, and non-judgmental thinking helps us have more productive discussions when we talk about Western philosophy. So, I interpret Eastern philosophy as more malleable, flexible ways of thinking of the world. I think you can teach self-transformation with Western philosophy, however, with a grounding in Eastern philosophy it's easier. Towards the end, after I've focused on the ancients, I focus on modern problems depending on the group. When I teach the women, we focus on feminism and women's voices, or what it's like for an immigrant to have to learn English, to be able to speak and think in that language and feel in the process like an outsider. So, we focus on certain issues, certain texts, certain articles that address these contemporary problems.
I eventually do want to teach philosophy in prison, and I would like to talk to them about incarceration, what it feels to have this rigid life, and to look with them at justice and ethical issues there. When we give sessions to people in retirement, we focus on articles that are relevant to them. Hopefully, we will branch out to people with disabilities and access the disability literature on ableism and discrimination so we can talk about that and process those issues.
So, what I want to do is make these sessions very applicable to people, to bring texts to people. We don't have a set list of texts right now because I leave that up to people. It takes some time to get to know your participants and to see what they need based on the kind of feedback I'm given, and then towards the end I will choose texts specifically for them. That's also very different from the university, where there's a set curriculum, there are set texts, they don't change; they might change an article or two but it's pretty much set. Here, it's very flexible. So, I give them a syllabus of the general things that we're going to read and talk about, but towards the end I'll find out what they're interested in, what they're passionate, what they want to learn about, and then I will bring those texts to them.
"[...] just because someone [...] is homeless or maybe someone is very old and unable to speak, their mind may still be active. Everyone deserves a chance to have a meaningful conversation."
Ciaran: You were saying earlier about the benefits of having more philosophical spaces in public dialogue and all that's actually required for those spaces to function: there's a lot that goes into creating those kind of safe spaces as you said. What for you would be an ideal situation here? What would an ideal picture for having more of this in public life?
Sophia: For me, the ideal public philosophy setting would be a space where we can sit in a circle, where we can share maybe some food and something warm to drink; maybe some tea or coffee or something. You'd have a focus text - not too much, just something small - and then open it up for discussion. I much admire the method of discussion that I learned from Thomas Jackson at an APA [American Philosophy Association] conference several years ago - it was actually right before I started Wisdom's Edge. I was really inspired by the P4C Hawai'i curriculum. He explained this 'plain vanilla' technique. You could have a text or you can just start with questions - with children, actually, you would just ask questions - and then the participants would vote on the most interesting questions, and whoever's question got the most votes, they would start, they would answer. Once they answer, they get to choose who is going to speak next. So, it's not run by the facilitator, it's not run by the professor, it's really run by the discussants.
That would be ideal: you have a regular community where people feel comfortable enough to engage in maybe a difficult text, ask exploratory questions about it, and then raise questions, vote and have discussions to choose who's going to speak next. The idea is everyone has the right to speak, everyone has the right to invite to speak, everybody has the right to pass, and everybody has the right to remain silent. On Friday [I spoke over Zoom to an audience in India and] when I tried this technique it didn't work, because I think I didn't prepare my audience enough for it. People felt a little bit awkward and maybe the audience is less used to the professor or the speakers speaking with them then answering questions directly. They're not used to having the discussants answer questions and offer answers. So, it does take time to cultivate that kind of trust, but I would love these community circles, where people feel comfortable and come on a regular basis when they want to. My ideal would be Wisdom's Edge comes in for 12 sessions, and then after we leave, the group in question gets so comfortable with the format that they continue on their own. That would be ideal, that would be amazing.
Ciaran: I agree! I hadn't heard of Tom Jackson's model, it’s a great approach.
Sophia: Yeah, he is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Hawai'i and he came up with the Good Thinkers Toolkit. It's composed of different questions you can ask to scratch beneath the surface, to get a little bit deeper in a text. You can have one paragraph and you could have a two-hour discussion on that one paragraph based on what people think about it because we all have different experiences, we have our own worldviews that we're coming in with, we have our own biases. That kind of discussion can be amazing and self-transforming, and it can also be a supportive community. I do think that this kind of thing is very much needed, especially with the pandemic, and we do need to connect. I think also what's been lost in the pandemic is the ability to trust one another. We can't trust that everybody's vaccinated, we can't trust that people are well when they're in fact sick. So, we have to learn how to trust each other again.
Ciaran: How has doing Wisdom's Edge changed you personally do you think? If it has. Do you feel it's changed your outlook on the world or how you relate to other people or whatever it might be? Not you as the philosopher, but just you, you know?
Sophia: Well, certainly leading mindfulness and meditation and having that kind of self- awareness, I'm now aware when I get angry, to think "okay, don't respond", because we know from the ancient texts that anger makes you delusional and unable to think rationally. I’m more aware of my negative thoughts and how to quell them rather than act on them.
I learned that people's listening faces can be deceiving! You can think that they're bored or not paying attention, but they are. And so I've learned to try to be non-judgmental when it looks like my students aren't paying attention. So I guess that's one thing.
I'd like to say that I have more patience with people who might not be comprehending things right away. I have a little bit more understanding of where people are at. I used to think that when people used the English language in the incorrect way, that they were somehow ignorant or unschooled. Working with different populations, especially with organizations that really help communities, some of their leaders don’t have a college education and their grammar isn't correct, but they are smart and they are driven and they know things, right? So, one of the things that I guess doing this has changed in me is I don't discount someone based on the way that they speak. You see this in academia a lot: someone makes one little mistake about a text and suddenly there's a lot of judgement about their competency. We have that in the media too: someone makes one little mistake about a reference to a text or a reference to a historical period or whatever, and then anything else that that person says becomes discounted. So, I've become a little bit more forgiving of these kinds of mistakes. With all my schooling, the 10 years of schooling, I was very judgmental of people making these kinds of mistakes. Now I just kind of laugh because this or that mistake doesn't make this person who he is, right? It shouldn't color my judgement about them and their abilities and their competencies, it just means that they made a mistake. So, I've been a little bit more, I've become more flexible in my thinking and judgments.
Ciaran: Was there anything you wanted to touch on or just reiterate that feel we haven’t focused on?
Sophia: Yeah, I have a message for your readers and that is just because someone looks uninterested or maybe someone is homeless or maybe someone is very old and unable to speak, their mind may still be active. Everyone deserves a chance to have a meaningful conversation. Wherever you are, whether you're on a plane, or you're waiting for the bus or you're standing in line at the grocery store, it's okay to open and have a meaningful conversation, even with the stranger next to you. Philosophy doesn't have to be done only in a classroom and it doesn't have to be organized in a discussion: you can have spontaneous philosophical conversations. A lot of times it will be welcome, sometimes it won't be welcome, but I think it's worth initiating those kinds of conversations.
Ciaran: I wholeheartedly agree! Thanks so much for your time Sophia.
Sophia: Thank you! I'm so glad that we got to connect.