Excellence (excellence, competition)

The Greeks loved competition and the pursuit of excellence: they were fascinated by, for
instance, the most beautiful (Helen of Troy), the most resourceful (Odysseus), the wisest
(Socrates, according to the Oracle at Delphi) , the strongest (Heracles) and the fastest
(Achilles). For many, this is the most problematic of the Greek values for today as the word
excellence is associated with the word elite. However, it is important not to conflate these
concepts. A related word, competition is another that sits uncomfortably with modern values, as
winners imply losers, and in today’s ‘everyone’s-a-winner’ culture, there’s no time for losers.
     PhiE welcomes both excellence and competition, but not without qualification. PhiE seeks the
best – meaning ‘the most reasonable’ (Reznitskaya and Wilkinson 2017) – answers and for this
the group needs to excel. The group will excel, it will be the best it can be, if its members excel, if
they perform at their best. And in my experience of many years doing philosophy in schools,
children of all ability levels can contribute important yet different insights and ideas that further
the enquiry in significant and various ways, whether that is a reasoning insight, a creative one, a
social one, or in some other way.
     So, excellence does not necessarily imply exclusion (as elite does) nor does it appeal only to
the higher ability children (as elite does), PhiE seeks an excellence within each individual child or
participant (according to a relative scale internal to each individual) in addition to the excellence
of the highest performers (according to a more external scale).
     PhiE does not neglect the evaluative and eliminative aspects (see ‘The purging of false
beliefs’ on page x) of doing dialectical philosophy. For instance, if a child says, in response to
the question, ‘What is real?’ something like, ‘For something to be real it has to have a
heartbeat,’ although it is accepted by PhiE that the child has the right to say this and the child’s
opinion is valued (that is: properly considered – see page x), it does not mean that the child’s
opinion is protected from error or criticism; and the child’s statement in this case is clearly in
need of some work.
     So, when another child responds by saying, ‘I disagree because a table is real but it doesn’t
have a heartbeat,’ he or she has successfully provided a counterexample to the statement,
therefore revealing its error. Dialectically speaking, the error should be addressed, either by
revising the statement or by rejecting it and starting again.
     If PhiE is evaluative/eliminative (see page x), then it follows that answers must in some way
compete. That is not to say that PhiE is reduced to a competitive debate or game, there are
after all, appropriate and inappropriate ways to foster competition, but PhiE is not as squeamish
about competition as some educational initiatives today. Due to the prominence of proper
reasoning in PhiE, it implies an aspect of ‘healthy competition’, so, if the culture is right (see
page x), if the participants trust the format, the facilitator and the quality of the criteria (i.e.
reasoning, openness and defeasibility), then there is no reason to suppose that any healthy
competition present in a search for a best answer will be – in a way harmful to the enquiry –
negatively felt.

Excellence and competition: the paradox of Socrates

One of the most difficult squares-to-be-circled when thinking about Socrates as a source for
doing philosophy with children, or as an emblematic figure, is whether he was the truth-seeker
he claimed to be, in contrast to the Sophists , or whether he was a Sophist himself, with his eyes
on the prize of ‘winning the argument’?
     P4/wC is often associated with ‘the four Cs’: creative…, critical…, collaborative…, and caring
thinking, and it is easy to see how Socrates exemplifies the first two, but less easy to see how he
exemplifies the last two. It is often said that Socrates preferred the dialectic (collaborative) mode
of conversation over the eristic  (combative) mode of the Sophists, but does his practice bear
this out? Many would describe Socrates as a ‘bully’, and a competitive ‘pugilist’ in conversation.
This is the paradox of Socrates, but is it possible to resolve this? Yes, and it can be done, once
again, by appeal to the unity of opposites. First of all, Socrates’s biography:
     D’angour (2019) identifies how Socrates would have been brought up, like every other well-
to-do Athenian boy, with the ambition to be a hero, and so his youth would have been spent
seeking glory in athletic games, on the battlefield, in poetry, drama and even philosophy, which
was primarily proto-science at that time. As well as being educated in poetry and music, he
would also have been educated in gymnastics, athletics and wrestling (Plato, for instance, was a
good wrestler). These would have been very common ambitions in young Greek men. Socrates,
having gained some glory on the battlefield as a young man, at some point in his later life,
changed and renounced the usual trappings of being a successful Greek man and instead
turned to a life of philosophical contemplation and investigation in search of philosophical
     These humbler characteristics that we associate with Socrates were also present in stories
told by his contemporary, Herodotus, for example, contrasting the high-life with the more self-
effacing, reflective life – see, for example, the story of Solon and King Croesus of Lydia,
Histories Book 1: 29-33. So, following a suggestion by A’angour, it’s not that there was one
ambitious man, and then there was another more intellectually-orientated man; these ‘two’ men
collided, the one informing the other.
     Socrates the elder, though in service to knowledge-seeking, would still bear the
characteristics of Socrates the younger, the wannabe hero. And we see this in the dialogues
themselves. We see a man bent on seeking truth, but also willing to fight for it; he has become
the unity of these two supposed opposites. So, at his best, Socrates is a collaborative thinker,
although Plato is not afraid to let us see a less collaborative side; and he is also a robust
thinker, who will not let a bad idea survive or a good idea go where the reasons support this. He
did become something of a hero, albeit in a very different way to the Homeric hero he would
have wanted to be as a younger man, and he is now probably the most well-known ‘philosophical
hero’ of all-time.
     Drawing on one of the ancient Greeks’ central values, competition (see Hall 2015),
philosophy is not harmed – in fact, it will be improved – if we include an element of ‘Socratic
competition’; what you might call ‘healthy competition’ rather than ‘win-at-all-costs’ competition –
that of the Sophists. And it is in this way that Socrates is acquitted of the accusation that he was
just another Sophist, albeit one that didn’t take any money.
     Speaking of Sophists, though Heraclitus gave the world the dialectical question that is so
central to philosophy – a question-type that invites, by its very nature multiple views (McCabe
2006, 2015) – it was Protagoras who explicitly relativised it, being the first person (recorded) to
have said, ‘There are always two sides to every question, opposed to each other’ . So, as is
shown on page x, dialectic is marked by a logical dimension that ostensibly presents (at least)
two sides to a problem, ‘yes’/‘no’, ‘true’/‘false’, that demands unpacking and resolution (McCabe
2006, 2015). But Protagoras goes one step further by suggesting that it can never be resolved,
that there is always more than one side because there are always different points of view (See
multiplist and evaluativist epistemologies on page x).
     Competition, and the investment in an idea (see page x) this can bring about, may help to
protect philosophical enquiries from becoming bland exchanges of opinion where nobody is
particularly invested in any one view or position, where there’s always another side to the coin. A
little competition may thereby preserve the notion that, certainly from an evaluativist point of
view, some ideas are better than others (i.e. better reasoned), because, no matter how much we
may prefer to say that ‘all ideas are equal’, they are not. Of course, all ideas are equally
welcome (deliberately offensive comments aside), and deserve equal consideration, but not all
ideas are logically valid, or successfully support or refute what the speaker set out to support or
     Some of the best exchanges I’ve witnessed in philosophy sessions in schools are those
where two pupils ‘lock horns’ competitively, but in an appropriate way: they are respectful, they
respond explicitly to the challenges made, they are not going to back down easily, but they will
when they are shown that there’s good reason to do so. They might even back down, continue
thinking about it, then offer their retort later. And sometimes the retort is a good one, and one
that was arrived at by a spirit of competition, through a need to prove oneself. Collaboration is
good, and should be sought in a philosophical enquiry, but competition can push one to greater
heights where collaboration may be content, even complacent.
     So, does competition have a role in philosophical enquiries in schools? Well, if we learn
anything valuable about doing philosophy from Socrates it is this: how to compete towards
wisdom without (quite) becoming a Sophist.  

Peter is the founder and Co-Chief Executive Officer (with his wife Emma Worley) of the
Philosophy Foundation based in Britain. This is an extract from his latest book "Corrupting
Youth: Socrates in the Classroom." More information can be found here;
A response to those that argue that competition does
not have a place in Philosophy
by Peter Worley