I invite the participants to engage in a process that allows them to take place in a thinking dialogue, to learn with the others, to realize that their own speech has meaning, not only for themselves but also for the others. This process implies both a work on attitudes: listen, take distance with oneself,  respect the speech of the other, assume the responsibility of its own speech, learn how to trust oneself, be patient; and on competencies: give meaning to words, identify the problems, ask questions, provide reasoned answers, make judgments, give examples, criticize.

Pratique Philosophique

Critical thinking as a philosophical practice: the art of questioning
(The present program was written in collaboration with Oscar Brenifier)

What is teaching philosophy? Traditionally, this subject refers to the transmission of a culture, bearing on the history of ideas, the different authors, schools of thought, main concepts, etc., what used to be called “humanities”. But for different reasons linked to the transformation of society (democratization of teaching, increase of information flow, etc.) countries where philosophy is historically taught in high schools have discovered a growing gap between the classical curriculum and the average students. Without giving up on the idea of “culture”, a number of pedagogues have tried to call upon another conception of philosophy: learning how to think and learning how to be, rather than mere learning. Figures from a more antique tradition, like the figure of Socrates questioning his fellow citizens have in this sense replaced Kant the professor as the archetype of the philosopher. From this standpoint, different experiments are being realized to introduce philosophy as a practice in the earliest years of schooling, as soon as kindergarten. This concept transforms the idea of teaching philosophy, away from lecturing, to a more participative and confronting endeavor, which can be called reflexive thinking, or critical thinking.

In this program, with the help of some exercises, we will work through the basic competencies of teaching philosophical thinking at any age or at any level, as a pedagogy or cross curriculum activity. 


When a teacher wants to do philosophical work with his students, he needs to be trained. A philosophical activity or discussion is not to merely get the students to speak and express themselves, but to initiate them to questioning and critical analysis. It is a demanding activity, which implies than one has to work on oneself, like in any worthwhile practice. The training focuses first on what can be called philosophical attitudes: responsibility (Sartre), authenticity (Sartre), astonishment (Kierkegaard), sympathy (Dewey, Plato), confrontation with the others (Heraclites, Plato, Nietzsche), suspension of judgment (Descartes), etc. Second, it focuses on philosophical competencies: argumentation and deepening of the thinking, problematization and critique, conceptualization. The main point is that we have to move from exchanges based on opinions to meta-level analysis. 
We will talk also of the function of the philosophy facilitator, and we will give some tools that must allow the teacher to evaluate the philosophical work.

Over the last decades, a number of initiatives related to philosophy have been developed all over the world. They are called “new philosophical practices”: philosophy with adults, philosophy with children, philosophy in firms, philosophical counseling… These practices have in common a paradigm shift: to view the philosophy as a practice connected to daily life, rather than as a transmission of knowledge, mainly based on history of ideas. This practice promotes dialogue between peers rather than the monologue of a specialist. The principle is to learn how to think and to help live our life, rather than gathering information. Nevertheless, these practices, which attempt to give a new life to philosophy, suffer sometimes from certain number of idiosyncrasies: a lack of rigor, a glorification of mere opinion.
It is neither the place to verify the knowledge acquired, not to have an exchange of opinions. It is a moment where one learns to produce and understand ideas, to deepen them through questions and objections, to clarify them by forging and identifying concepts. It allows to elaborate the construction of the thought in a conscious and reflective manner. It is an efficient way to examine the world and one’s own existence. But like any other organized activity, painting or football, philosophical activity has rules one must understand and techniques one has to practice, in order to reach the level of an art.


There are some basic attitudes required in order to think, attitudes which are not determined from an ethical standpoint but a cognitive perspective, even though one does not totally exclude one from the other. In physical exercise, the teacher tries to make the student work on his physical posture: so it must be in philosophy. In each case we give as an indication some philosopher that particularly recommends this attitude.
The following attitudes are cognitive and existential, and must be distinguished from moral attitudes, even though they can coincide with them. The purpose of developing such attitudes is to create a disposition allowing reflexive thinking to take place.

Settling down (Descartes, Spinoza): to be able to halt the precipitation and tranquilize the emotional turmoil that presides in much of our daily life, to stop reacting to every stimulus in an instinctive way, like conditioned reflex, in order to engage into a quiet deliberative process.
Ignorance (Plato): to be able to recognize personally and publicly one’s own ignorance. Unless one is conscious of this ignorance and lacks, one cannot think since he cannot hear and understand any new idea.
Responsibility (Sartre): to commit oneself to one’s own speech, to take responsibility of one’s own words. One is responsible for himself, for what he says, for what he does.
Sympathy/Empathy (Plato/Dewey): to acknowledge that the other has ideas different from mine, that our idea is not necessarily the right one, to make room for a thinking that differs from ours, and enjoy it. If one does not trust others, he cannot hear the differences and objections, and therefore cannot self-correct.
Astonishment (Aristotle, Kierkegaard): To pay attention to everything being said, in an active way: to philosophize is to be surprised. Unless one is astonished, for example about the difference of ideas on the same subject, one does not think. When each one merely has “his opinion,” and knowledge is reduced to “objective facts”, thinking becomes a simple thoughtless routine.
Suspension of judgment (Descartes): Unless one momentarily puts aside one’s own opinions and axiology, reading, listening and understanding a new or foreign theory becomes difficult.
Authenticity (Sartre): Unless one dares voice one’s own views, without being held back by concern over the judgments of others or one’s own conscience, one ignores what he thinks, thus risking to contradict himself and get caught in bad faith.
Confrontation (Heraclites, Plato, Nietzsche): “take of your shirt, and come for the body to body”, said Socrates. The capacity to confront “otherness” is an indispensable condition for philosophizing, which means to accept being challenged by the others, by the world.


There are three basic competencies of philosophy: to deepen, to problematize, to conceptualize.

1 – Deepening (Identifying): To search the content of a thesis or of an idea, which implies a number of activities.
Justifying/argumentation: to produce arguments, not in the rhetorical sense of showing one is right, but to give a deeper sense of the idea, its background and origin.
Explaining: to examine the clarity of an idea, especially for foreign eyes, and develop the content to the necessary extent.
Analyzing: to decompose or deconstruct and idea or an example, in order to make its content visible.
Synthesizing: to reduce a given speech to a short proposition in order to establish its fundamental substance, to clarify its content or affirm its intention.
Exemplifying: to describe concrete situations or objects that can give some substance or body to an abstract idea or thesis.
Interpretation: to give a specific – objective or subjective – understanding of a proposition in order to enrich its meaning.
Searching for presuppositions: to determine what an idea is founded upon, which postulates or which theories are implied in its establishment.

“The reality of a speech is in its unity”, Plato tells us. This unity of an idea is both its origin, the subjective content, and its nature, the objective content. The subjective nature of a speech is the reason why it was pronounced, what it pretends to accomplish: to answer, to show, to demonstrate. The objective nature of a speech is what it vehicles, its implications, its universal meaning, its presuppositions. But quite often the speaker is not conscious of the very nature of his own speech; he is not able to qualify what he says. Most of the time, speakers merely express feelings or opinions, which they then try to defend, meaning here mainly that they attempt to justify themselves. In order to identify the nature of a speech, it is necessary to start from the principle that a speech does not belong to anyone: once it is pronounced, it belongs to everyone. We often notice that the person who listens, the auditor, the “other”, is usually more able than the author himself to identify the nature of a given speech. That is why one should here learn to be concerned not so much with “what is meant” but rather with “what is said”.

2 – Problematizing (Critiquing): To examine the limits and flaws of a given idea, through questions and objections. This competency is based on the postulate than in philosophy or science, any idea can be problematized. This implies as well than any given idea has different possible interpretations, or that any question has different possible answers. What is problematic is what is merely possible, and not necessary. 

For Kant, the ‘problematic’ is one of the three fundamental modalities of judgment, the two others being the assertoric (simple affirmation) and the apodictic (proved, scientific). For Nicolas de Cusa, every thought is by principle mere conjecture. Therefore every proposition is a priori a problem. Objections (arguments that are opposed to initial assertions) reveal the limitations, weaknesses or imperfections of the initial propositions, which thus allow us to abandon, modify or enhance those statements.  Questions raise issue that pose problem in the initial statements: contradictions, blind spots, etc. Critical thinking is here necessary. It teaches us to distinguish for example “good” questions from “bad “questions, relevant objections from irrelevant ones. In order to problematize one should consider a proposition only as a possible or probable hypothesis, but never as an absolute, even if we agree with the statement. Thus the facilitator should periodically ask: “Do you have an objection or a question?”, or “Do you see a problem in that sentence?”

Take an initial question “Is it always necessary to help others?”

The process of problematization will be for example to question one of the concepts, in this case “necessary”

  • For whom is it necessary to help people? The one who helps us? The one who makes us feel good? The one who is in need?  
  • What is the nature of necessity? Moral? Social? Utilitarian? 

Or the problematization can be about “others”

  • Do we want to be helped by others?

Analysis of possible questions.
Hypothesis: Yes, progress of medicine allows saving people

  • Does progress of medicine allow saving people?

False question. The answer is already given

  • Is it possible that doctors sometimes make a mistake?

False question, disguised assertion, what the questioner thinks is visibly known.

  • Does the atomic bomb save people?

False question, off-topic, without any explicit connection with the expressed hypothesis.

  • Is it always necessary to save people?

Good question, it prompts to think about the limits of « save people ».

  • Does medicine always save people?

Good question, it questions the all-power of medicine.

3 – Conceptualizing: To identify or produce a term or an expression that captures the core of an idea or a thesis, or to work on a given term, to make it operative. The concepts can be thought of as the keystones of the architecture of thinking. Definition can be looked at as one static aspect of conceptualization.

After Kant, Hegel sets conceptualization and the concept as the cornerstone of the philosophical work. This implies first of all to break away from the purely narrative form of speech, and from the singular case. To conceptualize means to universalize propositions, to unite singular situations under broader categories, to qualify and identify essence and predicates, etc. This implies indeed to determine the conditions and the nature of speech in general, as determining the value of the particular speech. This means that one becomes more fully conscious of the content of any given speech. But of course, to conceptualize is a form of ascetic injunction, since it demands to practice a reductionist mode of thinking and abandon the accidental in order to remain only with the utmost essential, as Aristotle recommends.

During the initial implementation of these different skills, the teacher – and students – may feel that time is being wasted and that the “real” object will not be dealt with, or even that the discussion will not be completed, because of those “digressions”. But one will realize that through the regular practice of these competences, step by step, intellectual automatisms will be established in the students mind, and this “lost” time will be regained. The student will be mentally more active, able to listen more adequately, regardless of who is speaking, practice critical thinking, and therefore the impact of the work will be more profound and lasting. 


There are three fundamental aspects or registers of philosophical practice: to think by oneself, to be oneself, to operate within the group.

1)   To think by oneself: the intellectual dimension

. To propose hypothesis and concepts
. To structure, to articulate and to clarify, to reformulate ideas
. To understand the ideas of others and self
. To analyze
. To identify the relation between examples and ideas
. To argue
. To make judgments
. To initiate practice of critical thinking, for example logic

2)   To be oneself: the existential dimension

. To express oneself and to take responsibility for one’s own words
. To be conscious of oneself: ideas and behavior
. To see, to accept, to express and to work with one’s own limits
. To take distance from one’s own way of being, one’s own ideas and one’s own self

3)   To operate within the group: the social dimension

. To listen to the other, to give him space, to respect him, to understand him, and to pay attention to his thinking
. To take risk within the group and to integrate oneself in the group
. To decenter oneself, to reach out to the other, to his thought
. To think and work with the others instead of competing with them.


1) The role of the facilitator

The facilitator’s main function is to initiate the participants to the art of thinking. First of all, he must set up the rules and take care that they are applied. In respect to content, he must ensure the production and examination of arguments, questions, objections, stakes and analysis of ideas expressed, ensuring their exposition, development and criticism. He should avoid to the extent possible interfering in the debate in terms of giving his own judgment.
He should not show any bias or prejudice; any idea expressed by the participants must be taken seriously and be examined collectively, no matter how irrelevant or absurd they might initially seem to him. He encourages the participants to react thoughtfully to each other, he verifies that everyone is listening by asking them to reformulate what the other said, he summarizes what has been said when necessary, and he gets the group to refocus when the discussion goes astray or when the issue seems exhausted. He helps to find new problems, must not try to give solutions: he is here to make the participants work with each other.

2) Starting a workshop 

The practice can consist of different types of exercises, where the attitudes and competencies mentioned earlier will be used; I will give some examples later. It can as well start with a general question, where different hypothesis of answer will be examined and compared. For example: “To be free, is it to do what we want?”, “Is human condition threatened by the progress of genetics?”, “Does work constitute the main purpose of life?”, “Are all opinions acceptable?”, “Can we act badly without knowing that it is bad?”, etc.
One can as well start with a text — for example the Myth of the Cave by Plato, the Piece of Wax by Descartes, or another philosophical or literary text. Folk tales generally present profound philosophical issues. The text should be studied not only in itself, but also as a way to engage a dialogue with its content. Or course, understanding should be the first step, but it should be followed by some critical examination. In a way, anything can be used as a starting point: movie, artistic work, class situation, world events, etc. The reason why we privilege the exercises is that it obliges to concentrate on specific competencies and makes the philosophical focus clearer for both the teacher and the students.


The practice will constitute of a series of different exercises that will be done, examined and evaluated during the different workshops. These exercises will invite the teachers to work on the diverse attitudes and competencies.

1) Exercises based on the different competencies
2) Work based on a text
3) Analysis of a video
4) Consultation as a subject (physical or virtual presence)
5) Consultation as a questioner (physical or virtual presence)
6) Self-consultation coached by a trainer
7) Participation to a workshop (physical or virtual presence)
8) Facilitating a workshop (physical presence of an observer or use of a video)

The idea is not to express what “we really believe in” or what is “totally objective” or “absolutely true”, but it is about the capacity to think, give arguments and counterarguments.

Here we will pay attention to the following skills:
– Understanding of instructions
– Execution of instructions
– Clarity of the work
– Ability to give arguments
– Ability to problematize
– Ability to conceptualize
– Ability to interpret
– Critical thinking
– Ability of universalization or abstraction
– Ability to make concrete ideas

The goal is not to find the perfect argument or to write a “complete” work but to produce a clear answer with a sound and simple argument.
Even if some questions do not specify the necessity of argumentation, each answer should be supported by a valid argument.


1) Production of arguments
Answer the following questions, giving an argument:

A — Should you help someone 

1) who does not want your help?
2) Who does not ask for your help?
3) When you don’t want to?
4) Who does not help the others?
5) That you don’t know?
6) When you have no time?
7) That looks frightening?
8) Who is afraid of you?
9) Who does not know she has a problem?
10) Who had hurt you?

B — Is it good or bad

1) to fight?
2) To protect oneself?
3) To cheat on others?
4) To seek revenge?
5) To kill?
6) To do nothing?
7) To tell nothing?
8) To disobey?
9) To hit a child?
10) To steal?

2) Evaluation of arguments 

Is it a good or a bad argument?

1) I ate because my friend had some chocolate.
2) I ate because it was Monday.
3) I ate because the bell rang.
4) I ate because I was told to.
5) I ate in order not to die.
6) I ate because the pebbles were too hard.
7) I ate because my mother was there.
8) I ate because there was no meat.
9) I ate because I had nothing else to do.
10) I ate because I was at my grandmother’s house.

3) Problematization 
Find an objection to the following statements:

1) People are nice.
2) People are bad.
3) Foreigners are not like us.
4) Girls are different from boys.
5) Boys are stronger than girls.
6) Children know less than adults.
7) Everything is subjective.
8) Human beings like to fight.
9) Animals have no rights.
10) It is bad to make judgments.

4) Conceptualization 
Find two different concepts for each statement and say why you choose them:

How do you call someone:
1) who does not dare to speak in public?
2) Who gets angry for nothing? 
3) Who likes to bother people?
4) Who wants a successful life?
5) Who is complaining all the time?
6) Who does not trust others?
7) Who is always regretting the past?
7) Who does not listen to others?
8) Who only listens to his own desires?
9) Who is very preoccupied with his appearance?
10) Who wants always to be right? 

5) Conceptual distinction: same and other

How is it similar? How is it different?
1) A white man and a black man.
2) A policeman and a fireman.
3) A poor person and a rich person.
4) A blind person and a sighted person.
5) A merchant and a thief.
6) A child and an adult.
7) A boy and a girl.
8) An arm and a leg.
9) To swim and to walk.
10) To play and to work.

6) Logic 
Determine if the following statements are logic or not, and explain why.

1) My friend is not in the house, he must be in the garden.
2) This number is not even, then he must be odd.
3) If Batman is a human being, he will die one day.
4) Every boy likes to play football, then everybody who likes to play football is a boy.
5) Everything that is not red is blue.
6) If three days ago I saw one dog, two days ago I saw two dogs, and yesterday I saw three dogs, then today I will see four dogs.
7) All birds have wings, then every animal with wings is a bird.
8) My mother is not nice with me, then I am not nice with her.
9) If an eagle flies and that an eagle is a bird, then all the birds fly.
10) I went out because it was Monday.


The basic principle of this exercise is for the counselor to help someone work through a global interrogation, in order to give it some philosophical rigor. It starts either with a definite question brought by the subject (person coming for a consultation) or seized as it comes by the counselor. Whatever the theme brought up, the subject will be asked to risk himself on a given proposition, answer or definition, in order that this particular formulation be submitted to an exercise of criticism. To do this, the counselor will question him, so that he précises his own thinking and become conscious of the implications and presuppositions of his speech. The key role of the counselor is therefore to question, but also to underline, to act as a mirror by sending back to the subject his own speech, especially when he notices some formulation loaded with unforeseen consequences or when he detects some possible contradictions between two affirmations of the subject.
In this part, the difficulty for the subject is to listen to himself, recognize what he is saying and envisage the unsaid of what he said. Very readily, many will deny their own words or say they have badly expressed themselves, rather than admit what they have in their mind and how it functions. This is why the counselor has to be very attentive, in order to quote as much as possible the precise words of the subject, since in the most natural way the subject will try to escape the interrogation and the recognition of possible contradictions.
In a second moment, once the subject has identified some proposal that seems for him fundamental, he will be asked to engage in a criticism of it. “What is the best argument you can imagine which could be held against such a conception?” A strong resistance will be offered just to understand the exercise, a fortiori to actualize it. And once the subject tries, he will quickly fall back on his own previous position, declaring himself incapable of leading this process all the way. Or he will give very weak proofs, which himself will declare very poor. It often takes a while and many different tries before he comes up with a decent argument, and at that point he is starting to really consider the position adverse to his. Thus he can actually start considering the stakes of his own thinking and conceptualize what until then was a mere opinion. Sometimes, this will even oblige him to change his mind on such or such a question. 
In this exercise, the subject has to identify his thinking, and through the questioning lead an anagogical path in order to identify the presupposition and unities of his own thinking, he has to get involved in a critical perspective, and conceptualize the paradoxical nature of the adequate formulation, in spite of the particular existential and intellectual choices that will be his. We find here the otherness of the world, as information and opinions, rather than as narration, although sometimes an anecdote sets in, which will be analyzed. Then, the otherness of the alter ego who acts as a mirror and an interrogator. And finally a strong emphasis on the otherness of coherency, since the counselor constantly weighs words and expressions in order to confront them to words and expressions already used by the subject.


If the evaluation of the exercises does not deal with, as “traditional” teaching mainly does, « the right and the wrong » or « the good and the bad » of the given answers, how to assess the students’ work within those exercises? How to evaluate those competencies?
Here are some elements that will allow the teacher to effectuate this evaluation, and at the same time be more attentive to the possible problems and improve student work.

1 – Comprehension of the instructions
This can be realized by examining the work done by the student, or by asking students to reformulate or explain what was asked to them. It is about considering that the work of listening and analysis of instructions is not a secondary point, but is central to the exercise. Too often, this understanding is taken for granted, and therefore not worked on. One should not fear wasting time teaching the student not to precipitate himself and to patiently examine what is asked to him.

2 – Clarity of the speech
Whether it is written or oral work, the point is not to give a pupil credit for some wordings that are not his, simply because he is confused. The teacher should not allow himself to practice the “I see what you mean” approach, which, under the cover of generosity, simply maintains the pupil in a kind of invalid status where he passively accepts the idea that he cannot express himself adequately. The ideas must be explicit, the sentences completed, by preferably avoiding useless preambles, repetition of terms and misnomers like « I don’t know, but… », « I’m not sure, but… », « For me… », « In fact… », etc. If a pupil has a problem expressing himself and needs help to clarify his thinking, the teacher will have to call on the class to achieve that goal, rather than doing it himself.

3 – Knowing what we are saying
The pupil will have to be able to determine the nature of what he is doing, of what he is saying, of what he is going to say, of what he has said, and also of what the others say. In other words, to be able to distinguish, written or orally, if it is a question, an argument, an objection, an example, an explanation, etc. This capacity seems crucial to us as far as it indicates a consciousness of the process afoot. Whether this comprehension is already visible in the pupil’s work, or the teacher will have to ask him to specify it.

4 – Accomplished work
One of the ways to evaluate the work is very simply to examine if the pupil did what he was asked, independently of the quality of reflection contained in the answers. It means to determine if he has made the effort to respond precisely to the instruction. During an oral exercise, it might be in regards to the proportion of his participation in the discussion, to his availability, to his mental presence and his listening, even if he talks a little, to the pertinence of his speech, to the fact that he is not in a hurry, etc. For a written work, we recommend having a notebook of philosophy, which will grant a sense of continuity in the work. In this way, the evaluation will consist in examining first of all the degree of investment of the author, and second of all the attention brought to the realization of the work, even in the presentation and the spelling, if it seems to be appropriate. 

5 – To fulfill the instructions
The issue here is to determine if an answer meets the question, directly or not, if a question is a real question or a rhetorical one, if an objection is really contradicting a previous hypothesis or if it presents merely another hypothesis, if an argument is truly an argument and if it is relevant, etc. This implies that a true construction of the thinking takes place instead of the expression of a motley list of opinions.

6 – Empty ideas 
One of the ways not to realize the work is the production of empty ideas, of meaningless concepts or arguments. There are a certain number of answers that are recurring:  «I don’t feel like», «I like it », «They told me», «Because it’s not allowed», «Because it’s not good», «Everyone does it», etc. The teacher will learn how to spot them in the course of the exercises, principally because the use of those standard meaningless expressions becomes a system. These sentences are meaningless because they are preconceived or because they lack in substance. For example, to the argument «because it is not allowed», somebody should ask « Why is it not allowed? », or « Who does not allow it? ».

7 – Same and other
One of the principal problems in this type of exercise is the repetition of ideas, sometimes conscious and explicit, because the terms are practically taken again one after the other. But sometimes it is done in a more surreptitious or subtle way. Some pupils will repeat what the others have said, even what they have said themselves, by taking a unique idea that becomes a kind of leitmotiv in a work. It is then necessary to determine to which extent the pupil repeats the same idea in an excessive way or rather finds some new ideas.


The exercises that were presented here are some examples [1], and on each basic pattern there can be many variations on the theme. Whatever the version used and the transformations accomplished, the basic principle maintains itself: a confrontation between the self, the world and the other, a tripartite operation that constitutes the heart of any practice. We know so many things we do not know how to use, we think so many thoughts we do not know what they are, we meet so many people of which we fail to see the interest. We speak so many speeches, which are there simply as the expressions of opinions, feelings, release, convictions and pretensions. Philosophy as a practice tries to make us identify the nature of those speeches, questions their truth or legitimacy, teaches us this inbetweeness that is the substance and reality of any given speech, and confronts us in the widest and ruthless way to the complex field of being.

[1] These exercises are part of “Notebook of philosophical exercises: 111 exercises to practice thinking” that you can download in the section “Free books”