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P4C Weeks 5 & 6

Dear Parents,

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, and that your dinner table was filled with philosophical discussions!

Here’s what each of the groups discussed in the two most recent sessions before the break.

Lower El: In their Philosophy book, Pixie, the main character makes several comments that seemed odd to the students, such as: “His ears stick out a little, the way mine do. But I can make my ears wiggle, and he can't. (I don't mean, he can't make my ears wiggle. I mean, he can't make his own ears wiggle!).” This introduced the concept of Ambiguity, a word or phrase that can mean more than one thing, and it’s not clear which one is meant (as opposed to Vagueness, which is something whose meaning is simply unclear (such as “How much did George Washington weigh?” when we don’t know at what age you are asking about).

The discussion of ambiguity led in several directions, including a book by Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster, for those of you old enough to remember it) called The King Who Rained, which is composed of spreads illustrating what the sentence probably didn’t mean. We also played a game called “Teakettle,” in which one student leaves the room while the others are given a word that has more than one meaning. When the student comes back, they each have to give a sentence in which the chosen word is replaced by “teakettle” and the student who left has to try to guess what the word is. For example, can you guess the word from these sentences? “I teakettle the plate on the table.” “We are going to Mary’s teakettle.” I accidentally cut myself in three teakettles.” “I dropped the book and lost my teakettle in it.” “Take your teakettles at the table.” “In pi, what teakettle is the 4 in?”

Upper El: The students continued to try to sort out and define the differences between “mind” and “brain.” In the course of this discussion, they made a list of many different types of thinking or mental acts that go on inside us, and tried to specify whether they occur in the mind or brain. Feelings were especially confusing, as they recognized that saying that feelings are in the heart is really a metaphor, but they were unsure where the seat of feelings really is: some thought that thoughts were in the brain and feelings in the mind, but others disagreed. As usual in P4C, they did not reach a consensus or final answer (nor was that the goal), but rather deepened their thinking about and understanding of these two commonly used ideas.

The next week, we dipped back into fallacies, and took a look at the Appeal to Emotion (it’s true because it feels true), and its subcategory, the Appeal to Fear (Argumentum Ad Baculum), and looked at some of the many ways that politicians use these fallacies to manipulate us, including a really delightful clip from Newt Gingrich, in which he states very honestly and forthrightly that, as a politician, he is not interested in what is actually true, but only in what people feel to be true.

Middle School: The students continued their discussions of animals and their place in our society. They discussed how animals are treated by humans, and why different species are treated differently from others, and differently in various cultures; why it’s considered ok to eat certain species but not others; and whether animals have, or should have rights. They looked at a video of an experiment that shows that some animals seem to have a clear concept of fairness, and wondered if we judge animal intelligence by comparing it to our own and whether that’s the best or only criteria.

They then heard a funny short story about a man who is given the ability to understand animal speech, and discussed whether the version in the story is likely to be accurate, whether animals have thoughts and feelings, or whether we anthropomorphize them and assume they have thoughts and feelings based on physical characteristics, such as big eyes, that we interpret according to human assumptions.

I hope you have been enjoying lots of family time: hot cocoa, warm fires, sentimental movies and books, and other delights of the cold season.


Matt Berman

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