What Policy for Experimentation in the Teaching of Philosophy?

What Do We Mean by Experimentation?

1The concept of experience, [1] although it is part of the syllabus for philosophy in terminale, is in my view a theoretical blind spot in our skill set. It seems to be spontaneously understood in an epistemic perspective as the validation (or refutation) of a hypothesis (scientific experimentation) or, in an empiricist perspective, as the subject of an experience; finally, in a practical perspective, it is a matter of measuring the efficacy – of weighing the effects – of what is tried, what is sought. Experience is conceived as experimentation, but without consideration of the passage from an epistemic conception to a pragmatic one. And yet, do knowing and acting obey the same logics? Moreover, practical experience is grounded in real life, in what constitutes the matter of habit and the professional skills that the practitioner of "experience" develops.

2When we inquire about experimenting, does this mean validating a given set of hypotheses? Which ones? Or does it mean gaining experience? What kind of experience? A professional one, an existential one, one for the teacher, one for the students? [2] When I chose to join the staff of an alternative school in the national education system – the Clept[3] – where the intent was to innovate and experiment, I did not really know what was expected of me or, most importantly, what I would demand of myself. Unsure of the educational issues, and wishing to be wary of an excessively dogmatic approach from an ideological perspective, I opted for an approach centered on doing, on the experience that doing places in us, and therefore for a pragmatic approach in the philosophical sense, which is almost along the same lines as Sartre’s existentialist formulations. Teachers who experiment are what they do, are what is done; they rush into existence/experience without seeking to adhere to a concept, instead discovering what it has become after the fact. Ultimately, the model for the experimentation was really one of lived experience, in other words, of an experience that, once lived, is formulated, taken in and considered, while being problematized. In a way, experimentation was a method for constructing a unique professional experience.

3It was a political experience, since it was unique and could have been used to examine a certain doxa of philosophy teachers, or question the professional category that was involved, through what Yves Clot [4] calls a "professional style" that needed to be invented. How did that practice examine the standards of the profession? Can it help make the profession evolve toward more openness, or allow the students to construct another relationship to knowledge than one of a missed opportunity in their youth with philosophy or philosophizing? But what good will it do to experiment if that experience is left within the confines of one’s own class? What collective effects, what professional questions can experimentation generate?

4In this sense, experimentation is neither a preliminary detour, functioning as a condition of possibility for teaching philosophy, nor is it the verification of a hypothesis, whose conditions change with each class, in each context. Instead, the point of experimenting is to bring out the potentialities and virtualities that have been discovered – perhaps like Columbus who, in setting off for the Indies, discovered unknown lands. I try to map out these discoveries and share them around: a form of cultivated serendipity, through the attempt to construct the traces they leave behind. There are other terrae incognitae, and other possible explorations. I prefer to argue for the collectivization of these practices and explorations, so that we can train ourselves, in order to create an authentic work culture, and not so that my experience, unique in many respects, is put to general use: that is impossible.

Why Experiment?

5It seems to me as though we don’t innovate, or experiment, if we are satisfied with what we do, and with the effect that it may have on the students. Experimenting presupposes elements of a critical diagnosis we are carrying out on the "simple truth" of teaching. What unsatisfied diagnosis of our profession are we making, if we contemplate the bold act of experimenting outside of the syllabus? Could we share such a critical diagnosis shrewdly?

6Entering this profession means conforming to its institutional expectations and demands. It means establishing a tension between our way of apprehending our philosophical style intellectually, and its disclosure to unprepared audiences who are subjected to paradoxical injunctions. We experiment when we consider that the training that students receive and the standards it contains do not correspond to what the profession requires, to the needs of those benefiting from that initial training. Ergonomists call this the tension between prescribed work and real work: [5] in the space between the two, the desire is born to do things differently, to be more effective, to try and get more students to sign up for classes, to help them do better, to get them more interested in philosophy.

7Why experiment? Because experimenting is political, in its questioning of the instituted or implicit standard, enabling one to question what was obvious. Furthermore, experimenting means giving primacy back to practical experience with regard to an out-of-touch theorization of teaching that targets what has to be done (prescribed work) but never what is done (real work) and its distance from what is prescribed, while taking into account the constraints, the realities of the target groups, and teaching conditions. Experimenting presupposes searching, trying out a practical heuristic, and therefore reassessing the multiple professional habitus that have formed us in order to allow for others. This also means abandoning the sole realm of discourse to take a chance with other teaching practices, thereby giving up the doxa so that philosophy may construct its own pedagogy. Experimenting means inventing, establishing a new relationship to teaching: the philosophy teacher is first a teacher, then a philosopher!

Experiment On What? Objects? Methods? Systems? Groups?

8We may try to experiment in various sectors of the field:

  • This may mean getting students to declare a new field as their major, one that is appealing because of its aura of reflexivity, because they can talk about themselves and at last "give their opinion," but one that also quickly becomes unpleasant through its complexity, its intellectually demanding nature when working out ideas, its rhetorical formalism, and perhaps most of all through the fear of thinking it inspires instead of the liberation of thought they were hoping for. What can be done in order to build a culture of questioning, of intellectual surprise, instead of the search for ready-made solutions? How can we move ahead on the steep ridge between the dogmatism of doctrine and its counterpart – the philosophy guru – on the one hand, and on the other, the spontaneous pseudo-thinking of students trying to be popular? How can we enable the conversion of the fear of thinking into the desire to think and the pleasure of thinking?
  • Or it may mean getting students to talk and to listen, and giving those skills a more or less central place. It may also mean getting them to form groups in order to reawaken, through various experiments, the sense of the individual and the collective; the diligence of each student in order to increase the thinking capacity of every student; and the power to think together, or collectively. How can we test out that we are more intelligent together [ensemble], when schools as a whole [l’ensemble de l’école] only seem to recognize individual "performance"? How can the collective empower the thinking of each person?
  • Finally, it may mean reevaluating the topic of grading, which is particularly subject to tension and nonsense. In the absence of any real considerations related to our profession, the students are more often than not made to feel that they are unable to think, that they have failed in learning how to philosophize, when quite often we don’t really know what we are grading, prisoners as we are of the reproduction of a normativity produced by the elites of the Third Republic. [6] Innovating or experimenting means permitting oneself to explore other exercises in writing, speaking, and producing, in which the students get a sense of their ability to reflect, strengthen it, and feel the pleasure of doing so.

9I’ll give an example of an unusual teaching situation. For five years, the philosophy workshops at the prison in Nîmes consisted of putting a "Cinephilosophy" workshop into practice with incarcerated adults who volunteered to participate. This practice is not a new experiment, apart from the target group. However, it deserves to be mentioned, as incarceration constitutes a horizon for broadening the practice of philosophy, a horizon that remains invisible much of the time. Prisoners are quite often dropouts, not just from school but also from society and its norms. The wretchedness and existential violence that make up prison life are most often accompanied by intellectual destitution, for those who didn’t go to school, who were unable to benefit from it, or didn’t know how to, whereas it was "made" for them, or was at least aimed at them.

10Practicing philosophy in prison means attempting to get through to people deprived of philosophy and allowing them to have what is often an unprecedented experience of distancing, working through, collective reflection, and support in thinking (the number of prisoners varies between three and twelve, so one can provide support for each person who ventures to express their thoughts). This open-ended approach, without a syllabus or definitive pedagogical framework, provides an opportunity to let thought take time to find itself, to wander occasionally, but also to take a chance with others in the context of putting what can be expressed to the test, in the presence of a mediating third party who avoids the issues that are too overtly emotional (and the power relations that go with them).

11What’s more, the film that is examined is seen as a work of art, to which they have occasional access in detention, but without imagining the food for thought it contains in abundance. In this respect, the workshop is truly formative for those who actively participate in it, since they construct a sensibility that is bottled up in detention. They also think about the characters’ emotions that are theirs as well: they’ve never had the chance or the experience needed to distance themselves from those emotions in order to reflect on them once they have come to the surface.

12The workshop is an opportunity for strange, memorable experiences: the prisoners watch films portraying criminal activity that present it from the perspective of normal, normalized spectators. The films nonjudgmentally lead the prisoners to identify with positions and attitudes that diverge or are even the opposite of those they adopt in their social milieu and in the prison environment. What is the result of this experience of "contrary" [7] identification? It is difficult to know, and even more so to analyze. But it shows that the current values of society, presented in films, are shared, and that the prisoners identify with them, except on occasion, when they are trapped in their "tough guy," "macho" image. But that attitude can often be problematized fairly easily in today’s society, to such a point that it proves to be short-lived, and essentially defensive.

13I became a teacher because I wanted to have experiences like the workshop. As it came to a close, I said to myself (on several occasions, much more clearly and intensely than at the high school) that I chose this profession to go through that kind of situation, one that revealed the expectations – in both senses of the term (what was expected, and what was hoped for) – concerning my teaching skills.

What Policy for Experimentation? Towards a Policy Allowing for Experimentation in Teaching Philosophy

14What role can experimentation play in transforming the profession? What policy of experimentation should be constructed collectively? What collaborative practices should be invented in order to teach philosophy differently?

15These questions led us to draw up a proposition for the self-institution of the Grreph: [8] a think tank and research group on teaching philosophy, by and for philosophy teachers. On the one hand this would be an Observatory of teaching practices in philosophy, and on the other a Workshop for experimental practices in philosophy. The experience of the Clept allowed me to prefer pedagogical clearheadedness to normative hypocrisy, but that took place within an experimental institution of the national education system, i.e. a research institution. Returning to an "ordinary" school in 2010, I realized to what extent the institution – state education in its traditional form – prohibited the transfer of what had been explored at the Clept, and how it made us bear the weight of the ambivalence of its constraints. The experience of the Clept put me on a rapid path of professionalization and really allowed me to free myself from a large number of self-evident or ambiguous aspects of the job, and got me into the mindset of a reflective practitioner of research, who questions the reality of teaching and learning, and gropes around in search of answers (to be criticized) while accepting any lack of them. Can this experimental practice be generalized? It is pretty hard for me to give a comprehensive answer. In a way, I hope so, and moreover I know how long the work of denormalization was for me, what explorations and doubts I went through and still go through, so I could not insist on my colleagues enduring a similar ordeal. What is certain is that I remain extremely surprised that those colleagues feel prohibited from drifting too far away from the syllabus and the rigidly structured exam that constituted their training. They allow themselves too little. Many of them see neither the interest nor the need. Ultimately, for the relationship to school to be structured differently, a much richer – and therefore more liberating – training activity would be necessary, because for the moment we (students and teachers) all go by the paradoxical injunction "Be free (while obeying me)!" But freedom in relation to certain standards cannot be decreed: it is worked out over time, through jolts where we cannot master the ins and outs before the fact, but must reflect on them after the fact. It seems completely paradoxical to me that the philosophy teachers who claim reflexivity as their specialty in the field are so infrequently reflective in practice.

16We must have the courage that befits the institution and our discipline to create a real testing ground for our profession, and promote a wide variety of experiments, as well as their evaluation and dissemination. In other words, we should start with the knowledge and skills that teachers develop, instead of seeking reforms from the top of the hierarchy, while infantilizing teachers instead of considering them as the civil servants they are, or should be.

17This should also be accompanied by a substantive training policy for philosophy teachers, centered on their practices, and not allowing them to get out of doing it as is often the case. Actually, what kind of training do fellow teachers benefit from today, in the areas of initial training and continuing education? How is it possible that these training programs are almost exclusively centered on "updating knowledge," on the current state of philosophy, largely neglecting teaching practices and developing a philosophical method? Strengthened by advances in research on (classic and experimental) teaching practices, a Workshop on Potential Training should work on problematizing the formative image-repertoires of the profession, and on promoting the formative modes that allow teachers to feel free to develop other ways of teaching their classes, as well as modify the respective positions of learning a philosophical method and teaching philosophy, by questioning the changes in our profession.

18The critical look we are taking at the system mainly concerns teaching itself, its contradictory goals, its implicit and "obvious" standards, and its pedagogical practices. Experimenting means daring to question what we have learned, and the way we learned it, even if a large section of the profession considers it self-evident: in other words, it means fighting against the doxa of teaching philosophy. It means the practice of teaching takes precedence over great principles and ideologies. By trying out new methods, by teaching differently, [9] we can transform the conditions of practicing philosophy for both teachers and students, so that this discipline – an unlikely one for most adolescents, feared by some, yet desired by many – makes sense to them, contributes to their initial intellectual training, and becomes an opportunity that, for once, they do not miss out on. The policy on which this experimental perspective focuses consists in problematizing the unquestioned political effects of teaching practices, questioning those effects while using those practices by pursuing their goals through other methods, trying out experiments in philosophy that had previously seemed impossible, and drawing the necessary conclusions from them.


  • [1]
    The author plays with the two meanings of "expérience" in French, which can be translated in English as either "experience" (i.e. something lived), or "experiment" (a test made to study a phenomenon) [translator’s note].
  • [2]
    For more on the professional experience of teaching philosophy, see Rémy David, "En quête d’une théorie de l’expérience professionnelle de l’enseignement de la philosophie," Diotime 79, www.educ-revues.fr/Diotime/, 2019, Web, 11 May 2021.
  • [3]
    Le Collège Lycée élitaire pour tous, "The Elite Junior High/High School for Everyone," in Grenoble [translator’s note].
  • [4]
    See Yves Clot, La Fonction psychologique du travail (Paris: PUF, 2015).
  • [5]
    This seems to be a categorization specific to the francophone world of ergonomics. See François Daniellou, "The French-speaking ergonomists’ approach to work activity: cross-influences of field intervention and conceptual models," Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science 6.5 (2005): 409-427 [translator’s note].
  • [6]
    The period during which the third revision of the French Constitution was in force, from the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to France’s surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940. The Ferry laws were drafted early on in this period [translator’s note].
  • [7]
    In the sense that one can speak of "Contraries" among the Native Americans, as in Arthur Penn’s film Little Big Man.
  • [8]
    Groupes de réflexion et de recherche sur l’enseignement de la philosophie [translator’s note].
  • [9]
    See the work of the collective "Enseigner la philosophie autrement": www.enseignerlaphilosophie.fr, tab "Enseigner la philosophie autrement."