Wisdom, critical thinking, well-being or faith?

article-new_ehow_images_a07_lr_kg_learn-prison-800x800Apologies for the lack of newsletters recently – I’ve been in the depths of a project to design and teach a course based on Philosophy for Life. This month, I started teaching it in three organizations – a mental health charity in London called Manor Gardens; Saracens rugby club; and Low Moss prison in Glasgow (via New College Lanarkshire, which runs learning courses there).

Why try the same philosophy course in three such different organizations? Why these three in particular? Why indeed. I have no idea, other than a sense (a faith, really) that ancient philosophies have something to say to all of us, and could usefully be taught in all kinds of contexts – schools, universities, adult education, prisons, armies, hospitals and mental health trusts, armies, companies and online. Might as well start somewhere!

It’s been full-on. Low Moss has been the most intense and time-consuming, partly because I’m teaching two sessions there back-to-back every Friday, which takes a lot of preparation and energy; partly because it’s all the way up in Glasgow; and partly because….well…it’s in a prison, teaching to a group of long-term prisoners inside for serious crimes, so that brings its own challenges. It’s never been scary or threatening, thank God, but there’s just the challenge of ‘is this actually making any difference?’

There isn’t much philosophy happening within British prisons at the moment. I recently met Kirstine Szfiris, who’s doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons at Cambridge, and she tells me the only place it’s happening regularly is at Low Moss – although other prisons have occasional philosophy events or have run courses in the past. There is interest in expanding it to other prisons, and I went to a seminar on that last month.

Three approaches to philosophy in prisons

It became clear there are different ways to try and teach philosophy in prisons. Firstly, you use an idea or a stimulus as a springboard for Socratic discussion, which you allow to go where it wants. This is the Socratic approach of Philosophy for Children (P4C), as used by organizations like Sapere and The Philosophy Foundation. Nikki Cameron more or less uses this approach with her Philosophy Club at Low Moss. The participants seem to really enjoy it.

The other approach is to try and teach particular ideas from ancient philosophies, and then open them up for Socratic discussion. This is what I try and do. For example, I teach some ideas from Stoicism – such as Epictetus’ idea of focusing on what you can control while accepting what you can’t – and tell a real-life story or two of people using that idea today. Then, in the second half of the session, the group discusses this idea as well as what they think of Stoic philosophy in general.

The first approach aims to teach ‘critical thinking skills’. The second approach tries to teach ‘wisdom’. The wisdom approach has been particularly developed by Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy, and one of my colleagues on the Stoicism Today project.

Then there is a third approach, which tries to teach ‘wellbeing’ or ‘flourishing’ using purely Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Positive Psychology. This approach is very popular within prisons – indeed, the Scottish Prison Service spends a lot of money on CBT courses like Constructs and Good Lives.

So three different approaches:

Critical Thinking – leave it entirely open to the prisoners to come to their own conclusions.
Well-being / Flourishing – teach psychological techniques from CBT, without any room for the discussion of values.
Wisdom – teach ideas from ancient philosophy and CBT, and incorporate discussion of values. Allow participants to discuss and disagree.

My approach tries to take a middle-ground between the complete freedom of Socratic enquiry, and the more doctrinaire approach of CBT. It has a more specific normative goal in mind – it believes ancient philosophies have useful things to tell us, things we might not simply discover for ourselves, things it’s worth learning – wisdom, in other words.

However, it doesn’t teach just one particular wisdom tradition, but several of them (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism). It explores the connections and similarities within these approaches – the core of wisdom that they share – while also exploring their value differences, and allowing participants to disagree and perhaps to reject them all.

The course I’m teaching also explores some of the similarities between ancient philosophies and modern psychology, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I believe inmates are far more open to these ideas when they’re presented in the context of ancient philosophy – and when it’s permissible to discuss and reject them. Perhaps they start to feel less like a clockwork orange, and more like a free thinker being encouraged to be the ‘doctor to themselves’, as Cicero put it.

In general, I think this is an advantage that the wisdom approach has over the more strictly psychological ‘well-being’ approach – it treats people as free minds and moral agents who can think for themselves and who may reject your ideas, rather than as thinking machines who simply need to download a better running script. If you let someone criticize and reject your ideas, they are more likely to accept them.

The difference between the ‘critical thinking’ and the ‘wisdom’ approach, then, is that I have less faith in wisdom simply emerging when you put a group of people into a room and get them to talk. From my own experience, when I was very unhappy, I didn’t figure a way out for myself, I benefitted from the wisdom of previous generations – although I didn’t simply swallow that wisdom whole, but chose which bits of it made sense to me.

Which of these three approaches works best? It’s too early to say. The CBT approach is the most scientistic, with more narrowly emotional goals – it’s easier to measure depression than wisdom. However, Sfrizis’ early research suggests that the participants of Nikki’s club at Low Moss say they also learn ‘coping skills’ from studying philosophy. They learn how their perspective can cause their emotions. They become more tolerant of different opinions. All of this is encouraging.

My experience so far, after seven sessions at Low Moss, suggests the following points to me:

1) The idea that participants seem to find most useful is the Stoic idea of focusing on what you can control and not freaking out over the things you can’t control. I think this is also the idea that participants at Saracens and at the mental health charity find most useful. There’s a reason Epictetus repeated this idea over and over, in lecture after lecture – it’s a very simple idea, yet one we constantly forget.

2) It’s also useful to repeat the idea of philosophy as training – we can’t just have a good idea once, we need to repeat it over and over until it becomes a cognitive habit, and then practice it until it becomes a behavioural habit. This emphasis on habits is very important in all the wisdom traditions we study – but it’s not part of the ‘Critical Thinking’ approach (indeed, habit is anathema to free open Socratic enquiry).  I would try and reinforce certain ideas using postcards and art-work around the classroom. The idea of reinforcing good habits would seem like indoctrination to the Critical Thinking approach – I think there is an optimal balance between wisdom / dogma and criticism, and that the Critical Thinking approach leaves people too adrift.

3) There’s a challenge of how to get the course to spill out into the rest of a person’s life, outside of the classroom. For paid participants, you can set them homework or fieldwork to try out each week. In Low Moss prison, they’re not that into ‘homework’! But you can at least try and make sure the prison library stocks books from the wisdom traditions that you’re teaching.

4) Both the ‘wisdom’ approach and the ‘critical thinking’ approach seem to reach the moral goal of helping people see things from others’ perspectives. Yesterday, one participant – a member of the BNP – got really into the Islamic mysticism of Rumi, for example. Racism and religious sectarianism presents quite a challenge to Socratic philosophy within prisons – and there may be times when the discussion can get quite heated – but it seems to be able to meet that challenge over the long-term (with proper classroom management). Getting inmates to think constructively about politics, however, is very hard – they are deeply disenfranchised and conspiracy-theorist. That may be a bridge too far.

5) There is another approach to philosophy in prisons, which is basically ‘faith’. You teach inmates one particular religious path to salvation. This is what the Alpha course does, for example, which runs in prisons around the world. This approach has various advantages (besides any supernatural assistance it might have). Firstly, when inmates leave, they can join a church – that’s a massive advantage over any philosophy or psychology course. Secondly, it teaches one particular ethical approach, which it can reinforce over and over. Thirdly, it involves inmates as mentors, helping each other keep the faith. Fourth, it understands the power of story – both the stories of Moses, Joseph, Christ etc – and the story of the inmate and how they came to be saved.

And finally, it involves transformation at a deep level – it tackles the prisoner’s belief ‘I am a worthless, bad and unlovable criminal and will always be that’. It meets that low status belief with an incredibly high status response – you are the child of God, who loves you, who particularly loves sinners like you. You are an heir to the Kingdom.

Both the ‘Critical Thinking’ and the ‘Wisdom’ approaches have to ask how they can achieve those ends, or whether that’s impossible. In a session I taught yesterday, I discussed Plato’s idea that we have forgotten who we are and need to remember we’re royalty (as it were) and how that idea influenced Christian and Muslim mysticism. But obviously a pluralist wisdom approach can’t be hung solely on such a supernatural hook. Still, I think of St Paul’s idea that knowledge without love is ‘a noisy cymbal’. It really is love that transforms. How do you teach that? How do you pass it on?

All these four approaches are at play in various social institutions and structures today. This is what I and others have called ‘the politics of well-being’, and it really is political. Whose approach will be taken up? Who has a powerful coalition and political backers to get their approach ‘rolled out’?  It’s also economic – who has the funding, who gets the profit? It’s scientific – who has the evidence base? And it’s a lot about egos – whose trade-marked approach gets all the respect and credit?

I feel like an infant in such political matters. I don’t really have grand political plans. At the moment I’m just trying to refine the wisdom approach and perhaps the best way to ‘roll it out’ (in that awful political parlance) is through an online course. In fact, I think the best way to roll it out is just to put it out there and let other practitioners take what they see fit. After all, these are not ‘my’ ideas or ‘my’ approach – these are very old wisdom traditions which belong to everyone. There’s a wise quote that the best way to exert influence is not to seek the credit. As Epictetus put it, do what is in your control and accept the rest as God’s will.


  • I am truly stimulated by your latest blog – I might say your previous one was not of interest to me as I do not share your faith in a Supreme Being.
    I have been facilitating small groups for the past seven years for the University of the Third Age – an international organisation that offers informal activities for seniors who have time for extra stimulation of mind and body.
    I originally called my group Memory Training, from there it proceeded to Cognitive Training, I realise that ‘Training’ sounds rather didactic, but in fact the groups are run in an informal way – I consider myself the facilitator, and encourage all group members (8 – 10 people) to contribute to the discussion.
    Later realising that emotional understanding is important in the senior years, I called my group Emotional Enhancement for Seniors. In fact what I now feel is my role is to help myself together with group members to achieve “Wisdom” or understand “The Meaning of Life”
    It is my belief that by pursuing wisdom in the widest sense we will automatically practice our cognitive skills, and enhance them in terms of the understanding of neuroplsticity – what you use gets stronger whether it is a group of neurons or a muscle.
    I relate to your middle of the road approach. I like to include information about recent research discoveries regarding the cognitive and emotional fitness of seniors, whilst at the same time encouraging participants to share their own experiences and stories which illustrate the theoretical underpinnings.
    Your weekly blogs is one I recommend to the participants of my group. I also find the site brainpickings.org very fascinatingly eclectic.
    I have bought and read with interest your book on the Greek Philosophers and agree with your understandings that many of the ideas they articulate are as relevant today as all those years ago.

  • Gerard Mikols says:

    Good stuff, Jules and Grace.

  • Jules says:

    Very interesting to hear about your work Grace – the practical philosophy approach has been very successful with seniors, eg Philosophy In Pubs or the Pinner Philosophy Group. Would love to hear more about your approach.

  • Rob Lewis says:

    Hi Jules,

    Sorry to say this but whilst I agree with much of what you say, I don’t agree with the characterisation you offer of the three ways of doing philosophy. P4C and community philosophy (using the Socratic method, which is to say ‘Socratic Dialogue’) is much more than ‘critical thinking’. It is about ‘dialogue’, dialogical activity, connection and interaction essentially, of which critical thinking is just one key component. Dialogue is also about a shared experience, deepening sense of connectedness between interlocutors, a search for authenticity and truth/understanding with mutual support and sensitivity. Thus, it’s about a process of ongoing awakening and transformation. It is to learn how to be a human being that can connect with others at the deepest levels of our hearts and our minds. It is to learn how to critically explore and challenge with compassion for the other, which includes the world and other creatures that share it with us. It is to develop and enable what Buber refers to as ‘I-Thou’ relationships. To reduce such richness to ‘critical thinking’ is a bit of an unfair misrepresentation that borders on doing a disservice to such movements and their focus on the development of ‘dialogue’. I have a piece of writing on this front, which I’m finishing off at the moment, I’ll send it on when I’m done and see what you make of it.

    Keep up the good work, Jules. I am a great supporter if what you’re doing and I think some of the above may also go someway towards explaining/justifying why philosophy should be offered to people in all walks if life or better still, as you do, offer philosophy as ‘a way of life’. Here, though, I’d want to qualify ‘philosophy’ in this context to be considered more in terms of a ‘dialogical’ rather than an ‘academic’ practice – but wouldn’t seek to divorce the two either.

    Best Wishes,

    Rob Lewis

    Philosophy in Pubs

  • Carly Friesen says:

    Jules, I’m surprised at your conclusion about ‘rolling it out’ through an online course to let practitioners pick what they see fit. I mean, I suppose it’s similar to how you put ideas out there via your blog, but the actual approaches you propose have always sounded intensely personal wherein seeing another’s face, or being physically present with the person, plays a vital role. I don’t believe that love can be effectively cultivated online (maybe through videoconferencing, but even that seems to mediated). If love is as vital as you say, I wonder whether something would be missed if the practitioners received the information online. I know my thinking isn’t very clear in this post (sorry). Having trouble making all of the links. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think there’s merit in ‘training the trainer’ the same way you would actually administer a program to a client (or teach a students, or however you want to word it).

  • Jules Evans says:

    Yes I see your point. I guess the reason I’m interested in setting up an online course is partly that I don’t want to be teaching the same ideas over and over – I want to try and make a course that will last when I’ve moved on to other things. And also create materials that others can use.

    But yes, face to face contact, trust, empathy and the therapeutic alliance between teacher and pupil is massively important. I’m pretty new to face to face teaching in fact. But I think a lot of the success of Nikki Cameron’s philosophy group in Low Moss prison is because she’s a great face to face teacher.

  • Stephen says:

    This was an interesting post for me. In a previous career, I was a Prison Officer in HMP Brixton, HMP Haverigg and finally HMP Barlinnie (of which HMP Low Moss is an annexe of)
    I therefore understand the clientèle you are working with at a deep level: all by no means lost souls, but many are hardened recidivists.
    As a Teacher now, I can also glimpse the potential that a few of them might have for a meaningful life if they would only break the cycle of crime and punishment.
    Years ago I would have been much more cynical and viewed these ancient coping strategies as merely a way for them to get through their sentences in a selfish insular way. Now I would like to think that ancient philosophy, properly presented to them, might in fact help them and thus the community on the outside,

    No mean feat Jules, if you can pull it off. Have you any plans to track course attendees and monitor their progress post incarceration?

  • Sean Walker says:

    Hi all who have contributed to this, very encouraging and Jules great blog.
    Its what I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time. I used to be with a charity, Through the Gate, at Brixton prison and I struggled to find a way to put across to the the the people coming out about cause and effect, and they would all have benefited with one of these courses.
    I want to see REBT taught as a philosophy, not a therapy, as I think this will help a lot of the population.

    Jules, I do think that religion over the last x years has created a society of musts’, and dogmatic commands, although I see you are talking about the church of forgiveness, not damnation.

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