A response to those that argue that competition does
not have a place in Philosophy

by Peter Worley

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.

Philosophy welcomes both excellence and competition, but not without qualification. Philosophy 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), Philosophy 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).

Philosophy 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 Philosophy 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 Philosophy is evaluative/eliminative (see page x), then it follows that answers must in some way compete. That is not to say that Philosophy is reduced to a competitive debate or game, there are after all, appropriate and inappropriate ways to foster competition, but Philosophy is not as squeamish about competition as some educational initiatives today. Due to the prominence of proper reasoning in Philosophy, 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 knowledge.

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 refute.

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.”

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