The Sentinel by A.C. ClarkePeter Worley is co-founder and co-CEO of multi-award winning charity The Philosophy Foundation, President of SOPHIA, and a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. Peter Worley has written and edited 7 books on doing philosophy in schools. His best-selling first book The If Machine was made into a BAFTA nominated short series for the BBC, his subsequent books with Bloomsbury have all been nominated for the Education Resources Award and The Philosophy Foundation series of books with Crown House have also been nominated, and won Educational Book of the Year, with The Philosophy Shop. Thoughtings, a collection of poetry for thinking, won Best Primary Resource. Peter Worley has worked with children in education since 1993 and continues to teach philosophy every week in the classroom. Please enjoy my interview with Peter Worley.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I facilitate philosophical conversations in the public sphere, especially in education. I get children and teachers ‘doing’ philosophy in schools. I prefer this to saying that I ‘teach’ philosophy, although there is a bit of teaching, too. Philosophy is often associated with a lot of reading and writing, but what we do is philosophy without (much) reading or writing. We get groups of children and adults philosophising, or thinking philosophically. So, rather than reading or learning about philosophers, the children or adults are the philosophers.
A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess (about the Elizabethan playwright, poet and spy Christopher Marlowe). Just before that, I read Nothing Like the Sun, also by Burgess (about Shakespeare’s possible sexual life). I can highly recommend both of these books. I have become somewhat fascinated by historical fiction, inspired – partly – by Hilary Mantel’s excellent Reith lectures for the BBC. I am also making my way through Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Don Paterson (a lot of fun!) and Shakespeare’s Language by Frank Kermode (brilliant but dense). Yes, I am a Shakespeare fan and my wife and I are currently embarked on a marathon to see ALL his plays at the RSC and The Globe. But does or should one read Shakespeare or SEE it? That is the question.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
A book called The Ice Palace by Robert Swindells. I bought it recently for my daughter and read it to her. I was struck by how dark it is (and clearly inspired by The Snow Queen by H.C. Andersen, a better story, which I have also read recently). It left a strong impression on me when I was her age but she seemed less impressed, although it did scare her in places. If I were to provide someone with an early reading memory it would be Shel Silverstein books, particularly Where the Sidewalk Ends and his other wonderfully subversive poetry collections. Philosophy is many things and very many of those in the philosophy-in-schools/P4C community emphasise (and sometimes over-emphasise) the collaborative aspects of doing philosophy. What is sometimes overlooked is it’s subversiveness. Silverstein ensures a healthy dose of subversion from a young age. Read with caution!
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
On Writing by Stephen King. It’s a great true-life story told by one of the great storytellers, but it’s also an immensely informative and insightful manual on how to write. This book is not just great for reading, it also empowers the reader to become the writer. If only J.K. Rowling had read this she wouldn’t have used so many adverbs interminably. A favourite line from the book (including a chapter title) is:
WHAT WRITING IS
Telepathy, of course.
This inspired a classroom thought-experiment and thinking activity called ‘The Time-Phone’ in my book 40 lessons to get children thinking.
‘Fall in love’ is not quite the right expression for me. It was tied in with trauma. I had become introduced to philosophy through literature and through exploring religion as a teenager. I read a lot of Dostoyevsky and was struck by existentialist thinking, particularly in The Idiot, Notes from Underground and Notes from the House of the Dead all by Dostoyevsky. As a result, I went to on to read Existentialism and Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre, which had a huge impact on me as a young person. (However, today I would recommend The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir instead which, though not as much of an engaging read, responds to the problem of freewill much more convincingly than Sartre did – actually, he fudged the issue!). Around the same time that I discovered philosophy I had a breakdown (from eating too many naturally growing mushrooms in Somerset!) This meant that I had a lot of work to do to be able to face philosophy again without experiencing trauma. Four years later, I embarked on a degree in the subject, not without some trepidation.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Also the best: ‘managing’ a classical department in an independent CD shop. The pay was terrible (£2.50 per hour in 1996), the management medieval (the owner/manager used to call the Saturday helpers ‘slaves’!), but I got to explore classical and jazz music really rather thoroughly, being in control of buying the CDs. The books I relied upon for this work were the Penguin Guide to buying classical CDs (and the Jazz equivalent), and the Rough Guide series of books: the classical, jazz and world music ones. My Rough Guide to Classical Music was well-read and dog-eared before I (regretfully) gave it away.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
It’s not so much about what you read, it’s about how you think. For this reason, I prefer anything that models thinking methods. Read Meditations by Descartes, many of the dialogues of Plato (especially Republic, Meno, Gorgias, Protagoras, Euthyphro, Apology, Phaedo), Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect by Baruch Spinoza. These are, of course, primary source materials. In the way of a secondary source material, I really enjoyed An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis by John Hospers. It’s a lot funnier and much more enjoyable than it looks or sounds.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
Interestingly, I don’t particularly like reading. I like stories and ideas, so I read in order to access or encounter them. The intrinsic act of reading is not something that gives me pleasure. As a result, I read very little in the way of prose fiction these days (apparently typically for a man, I read most of the novels – and particularly classic novels – I would ever read in my teens and early twenties). These days, I much prefer to read poetry (depth without quantity), short stories (where the protagonists are the ideas, especially in SF short stories), essays, and non-fiction books. I love to carry a poetry collection around with me: Norton, Penguin or others such as The Rattle Bag and The School Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. I also like to regularly dip into the short stories of Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Guy de Maupassant and Edgar Allen Poe. Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes is something I think is so beautiful that I don’t have a copy because I keep giving it away. As with writing (see On Writing by Stephen King above), don’t just read poetry, write it. And The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry is a fabulous way, not just to learn how to approach poetry with some knowledge and understanding, but also to get going writing it!
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
Anyone interested in philosophy and education should read Plato’s Meno dialogue and Montaigne’s essay On educating the Young. I would say that these two texts are the starting place for progressive education. ‘Observe, Meno,’ says Socrates to his eponymous interlocutor, ‘how I am teaching the boy using only questions.’ For the Romans, ‘educare’ meant ‘to shape or mould’ the child, yet even earlier than this Plato had suggested that questioning was at the heart of education because of its power to elicit from the child what is already there. When I facilitate discussions with young children, around the age of 5 to 7, without being explicitly taught them, children begin using thinking tools such as counter-examples (E.g. ‘Not all birds fly because penguins are birds and they don’t fly’), inference-making such as modus ponens (E.g. ‘If the robot can solve problem then the robot is clever; the robot solves the problem for Jack in the story, so it’s clever), distinction-drawing (E.g. ‘There’s more than one kind of freedom: there’s mental freedom and there’s physical freedom.’), spotting false inferences (E.g. ‘Just because the river caused the flood doesn’t mean that the river is responsible because rivers don’t have a mind and you need a mind to be held responsible.’). So, though we may not, today, necessarily share Socrates’s commitment to the immortal soul, there is definitely something in his pedagogical insights still worth taking seriously. Montaigne, very much inspired by Socratic insights, complained about ‘…those teachers who seek to give instruction to our understanding without making it dance…’ There needs to be more ‘dancing thinking’ in classrooms these days.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
Given that I don’t read for the pleasure of reading but for the pleasure of what I’m reading, I don’t generally read books more than once. I think I may have tried to read a book more than once on more than one occasion, such as Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, but I don’t think I ‘ve ever managed to succeed at it.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Probably The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross: a history of western classical music in the 20th century. As well as being a philosopher I am also a musician, a guitar teacher and a composer. In fact, music is my first and biggest love. Ross is second to none as a writer of music. His is erudite but not ‘snobby’ – he will talk about the song cycles of Bob Dylan (Blood on the tracks) in the same breath as those of Schubert (Winterreise). See also his collection of essays, Listen to This!
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
Plato/Socrates for sheer breadth, richness, drama and insight; de Beauviour for her recommendations about how to exercise one’s freewill in a world we are thrust into, what she calls ‘situated freedom’: do the best with what you find yourself with and where you find yourself. And, finally, Epicurus for his cheerful recommendations on living a good life and living it well: chiefly, by keeping your desires and expectations simple, limiting your short-term pleasures by having an eye on your long-term pleasures, by attending to friends, conversation and thought. And everyone should have an ‘Epicurean garden’; a place one can go to attend to all these things properly.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
Science fiction. This is the genre where a lot of philosophical ideas get ‘tested out’. It is the genre where, as P.K. Dick has pointed out, the chief protagonist is the idea. And it often has a tinge of horror, just enough to send a shiver through your mind. Some favourites of mine: The Last Question by Isaac Asimov, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, The Sentinel by A.C. Clarke, We Will Remember It For You, Wholesale by P.K. Dick, Behold The Man by Michael Moorcock, Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, The Jaunt by Stephen King.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
In The Philosophy Shop (a resource book I edited) there is a story provided by Claire Field taken from Plato about the myth of Thoth and Thamus (try saying that after a pint or two!). Thoth is a god in Egypt who invented things, and Thamus is the king who decides whether the invention is to be given to the people. One day, Thoth invents writing. There is an argument between them about whether writing is a good thing or not. Thoth says that writing will help humans record things in detail, but Thamus points out that they will lose their memory as they will no longer have such a need for it. In the Phaedrus dialogue, Plato has Socrates point out that philosophy cannot really be done through books because philosophy is a living, breathing activity done by humans through dialogue. Books, Socrates says, can’t answer back, qualify, explain and so on. This, of course, Plato says in a book! However, Plato’s ‘books’ are imitations of conversations, some of which might be records of real exchanges between real people (mainly Socrates and his friends and enemies). So, how does Plato get around this tension? He writes in a such a way that his writing is often a stimulus to thought and conversations had by those that read and study his books. Alice, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (itself a wonderful catalyst to thought for the young mind), says, ‘What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’ What is the use of a book that does not stimulate pictures or conversations (with others or oneself!)? Perhaps, to paraphrase Socrates, such a book is not worth writing.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
I hope, one day, to read everything Plato wrote. I am getting there. Otherwise, no.
Maybe not, as we have an affection for all things ‘retro’ (e.g. vinyl). However, it will probably cease to be the standard form for ‘book’ reading. There’s probably also a moral case for giving up books (trees as a resource!). I love to have a copy of the following books wherever I go: a good dictionary, The Collected Dialogues by Plato (ed. Cooper), The Collected Works of Shakespeare (ed. Wells), poetry collections and short story collections (see above). With digital books, I can.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
The Collected Dialogues by Plato (Ed. Cooper). Plato’s dialogues were written just as Greece was coming out of its ‘Golden Age’ and at a time when all the past certainties were crumbling. There was a political and economic crisis, a crisis of ‘truth’ (see Plato’s recurrent concern about the practices of the Sophists, notably Protagoras, Republic and Gorgias) and problems with demagoguery (see Plato’s Republic 562b-569c). Sound familiar?! Socrates turned to the young to challenge and question the status quo. Socrates was put to death for this and Plato responded to his death by giving us one of the greatest works of literature and philosophy the world had seen and possibly would see. But most of all, he gave us methods for meeting, critically, the claims of demagogues, orators, salespeople and others; methods for ‘purging one of one’s false opinions’, namely: Socratic Method and Platonic Dialectic. And people are still making new methodological discoveries in Plato. I would say that methodology in general (e.g. Scientific method, critical thinking methods, Hegelian/Marxist dialectic) owes a great deal to Plato. And, right now, we need to turn to the books that give us good systematic methods of dialogue (surely an invention of Thoth that Thamus let us have, that we still need to learn to use!)
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Moving away from Plato (if I didn’t: Plato’s Meno, by the way!) possibly The Citadel of Chaos by Steve Jackson. You will have heard me speak in this interview of being active, not passive: don’t just read, write! This (and the other books in the series by Steve Jackson and Ian livingstone) was a landmark moment for me. Not only did this book, when introduced to me by my primary school teacher Mrs. Lagden in Clevedon, Somerset, spark an interest in reading (together with Doctor Who books!) it also provided me with something philosophical: these ‘chose your own adventure’ books gave the reader agency. The reader was not just witnessing events, he or she (mainly ‘he’ in those days) was a participant in the events of the book. These books, unusually, were written in the second person (‘You enter a room and find yourself surrounded by darkness…’). Like many boys in the 1980s (see the Netflix show Stranger Things), I progressed from these to role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, created by E. Gary Gygax. Like computer games today, these were immersive experiences but, unlike many computer games, they were active and not passive, making great intellectual and imaginative demands of the players in the creation of these worlds but also in the activation of agency among the players. If you were to take a look through my own books (The If Machine, The If Odyssey, The Philosophy Shop, 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking) you should be able to see the influence of these kinds of role-playing books and games. Every day, in classrooms, I use stories in a similar way, placing children in situations so that I can activate their moral and philosophical agency by asking them questions about what they would or should do and why.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
The Dictionary – any decent fat one (OED, Longsman’s etc.), a good one is as fascinating as any novel. The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and The Book of Chuang Tzu. Peter Adamson’s wonderful history of philosophy books based on his podcasts History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. The Collected Essays by Montaigne.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
More books about Shakespeare (and more Shakespeare), more Plato, more books on music, poetry and more short stories.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
The Annoying Boy at the Front of the Class.