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  • Grace Lockrobin

  Our Philosophy Late – Where Thought Took Flight

     

                 

Sheffield’s first ever Philosophy Late event took place on Thursday 15th February, 2024; an evening of philosophically inspired activities and enquiries at the Millennium Gallery. Think Together Sheffield planned and delivered the evening’s programme, hosted by Sheffield Museums and funded by The Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy.

We were bowled over by the number and the diversity of the attendees as well as their energy, their enthusiasm and their thoughtfulness. The following gives you a flavour of what it was like from both the facilitators’ and the attendees’ perspectives.

 

Rebecca Gough, from Permanent Education, focused on the table-top activity of ‘What makes a place a home?’.

“What a great evening - the activity got people talking and collaborating with one another to really think about what was important to them and why. It was really interesting listening in and conversing with enthusiastic participants who told their stories of what each item represented to them, the good, the bad and the ugly. We looked beyond the inanimate object and to what it represented - for example, a bed isn’t just where we sleep, it’s where we are the most vulnerable, the most intimate and where we go to retreat from those closest to us. It’s a source of comfort and often evokes an emotional response. The smell of cooking represented not only sustenance but an act of love from a family member or a joining together of friends and family. 

During the evening, many people went away and reflected upon what makes a place a home, discussed it with their group and came back to change their compendium after further consideration. It was a privilege to be part of that voyage of self-discovery and to watch how individuals’ thinking grew, was challenged and adapted.” 

 

‘I didn't have to know anything about famous philosophers. Listening to others - fascinating!’

 

Helen Griffin, from DECSY, invited people to cut and stick from magazines onto a life-sized ‘typical man’ and ‘typical woman’ to open up conversations about gender stereotyping.

“Between the figures on the wall were a number of philosophical questions to ponder and, noticeably, people in couples tended to linger over these. I included questions such as: Are we limited by gender stereotyping? Could we have a world without gender? What would that be like? I spent some time with a couple where the female partner was asking her male partner, ‘Why do men cat call?’ and he was trying to get under the skin of those who do. He responded with ideas such as ‘…because they’re trying to get the woman’s attention…they do it because they need to belong to their group of workmates…they fancy the woman… they think she would like it’ and was challenged by his partner to consider aspects of power.

Another person asked me, ‘So what if we didn’t have gender – what would it mean for

relationships?’.

I responded with, ‘What do you think?’

and she replied, ‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe we’d all just be freer?’. She left having answered her own question with some thoughts which were new to her – thanking me as she went.

Some people just rejected the possibility of a ‘typical’ and said there is no such thing so they couldn’t engage, but this opened up conversations about the purpose of the activity, getting us to think about the pressures from society to conform to gender norms.

If you’re an educator interested in gender equity, please have a look at our Gender

 

‘I liked the variety of different tables/areas to stand/sit and share ideas with strangers from different ages and backgrounds. There was a good energy and openness to learning. Please do this again! Thank you.’

 

Rosie Carnall, a creative freelance facilitator, explored the nature of freedom with flags on an abstract map, the opportunity to make a freedom journal and taster enquiry sessions on the theme.

“The abstract map included representation of urban, nature, sea, sky and imagination.  People were invited to think about where they have felt free, before adding a marker flag to the map. During the evening, this created a collective representation of our experience of freedom.

It was striking to me that flags were placed in all the different environments, more or less equally, and that they were all densely populated! This was quite a quick activity that encouraged individual thinking, but as clusters of people joined in, they talked to each other and began to open up questions about what it means to experience freedom and how we know we are free.

I found myself wondering if dreams are a place of freedom and explored this in conversation with visitors to the map.

"I suppose it depends what your dreams mean to you," someone said.

Another added, "And whether you need to be making a choice to be free."

The freedom journals encouraged people to write prompts and questions that they could reflect on in the future, such as, ‘Where have I found freedom today?’ or ‘What did I do with my free time?’ Making a simple book can be a profound act of creativity and I wanted people to be able to have something to take home with them, as a gift for their future self. The journals were made with maps, decorative papers and a simple binding. It didn’t take long but offered the chance of a pause to reflect and for quiet conversations. One participant said, ‘I enjoyed a really rich, quiet time of reflection alongside two strangers as we made our freedom journals – a kind of freedom in itself’.

At the start of each enquiry session, I invited everyone to share a place they feel free and responses ranged from ‘with my electric guitar’ to ‘in a fast convertible car with the roof down’ to ‘alone in meditation’ or ‘with my family’. We then explored more deeply how these contributions helped us to build understanding about what we mean by freedom. Together we created a collaborative periodic table of freedom, with everyone invited to suggest a constituent element of what is needed to be free. This quickly encouraged thinking to distinguish a deeper understanding of the concept.

Participants were then invited to choose an element that was important to them and explore the gallery we were in – home of the Ruskin Collection – to see if they could find it represented there. This led to new insights on the concept and a different view of the content in the exhibition.

After some time to talk together, the group were asked to come up with questions that they would take away with them. ‘Can I be truly free when others are not?’ one person asked, while another said, ‘Can we only be free alone?’”

 

‘I wasn't sure what to expect but the small groups were great for conversation and very interesting and thought-provoking activities. Very well done.’

 


Rob Unwin, from DECSY, chose a theme which comes across loudly and clearly from the Sykes Gallery Metalwork Collection; that of craftmanship, mastery or the less gendered word ‘artisanship’.

“The enquiry taster session began with the placement of household metal items into a Venn Diagram, based on the criteria of ‘Things created where the main aim is quality’ and ‘Things created where the main aim is profit’.

The objects were selected from the museum’s handleable collection and supplemented with equivalents: for example, a metal jug kettle found next to a skip, a disposable cake tray, a salt grinder from B & M Bargains and cheap metal and disposable plastic cutlery. The participants readily sorted the objects and discussed their reasons. As might be expected, the mass produced, disposable items found their way into the ‘profit’ hoop, but it was pointed out that the more precious objects were also probably made for profit, with possibly greater added value (though this was contradicted by someone outlining the mass production process for plastic items). One person placed the discarded jug kettle in the intersection of the Venn, praising the quality of its design. However, someone else, who volunteered at a repair café, spoke about the horrors of planned obsolescence and the kettle was moved. Interestingly, this person primarily judged the quality of objects by their weight.

Discussions around the notion of quality led to a further concept activity where the objects were next sorted into a Venn entitled, after the three transcendentals, ‘Beauty’ (defined for the exercise as relating to proportion, harmony and aesthetics), ‘Truth’ (does what it says on the tin) and ‘Goodness’ (socially and environmentally conscious). Sorting by these criteria entailed detailed discussions about in which intersection various objects should be placed. It was noted, during the discussion, how the quality of objects reflected the context of the time of their production (many being from an era of early colonialism and sailing ships, where such commodities as tea and sugar were more highly prized).

Finally, we moved onto the enquiry question, ‘Are we more motivated to pursue perfection, or by monetary reward?’. The speaking object (a torque/’talk’ wrench) led to an enthusiastic response from an engineer who spoke about the recent news of a Boeing airliner’s door coming off mid-flight due to the probable lack of such a tool. There was a general agreement that quality and reward (and its inverse) should go hand in hand. Expressions like ‘you get what you pay for’ and ‘look after the quality and the profits will take care of themselves’ were recalled, and reference made to the dangers of deception and planned obsolescence, especially in the IT world.

The sessions ended with considerations about the implications of the discussions – how the value of quality should be enhanced, protected and regulated with a close eye on the impact on people (makers and users) and the planet.”


'Loved the workshops I went to. Listening and speaking without judgement. Connecting. Becoming.’

 

Kate Halliwell, a freelance philosophical trainer/facilitator, wondered how creative people would be when thinking about creativity and, especially, the freedom to create.

“I had two table-top activities on the go; one was a creativity target board where people could place their suggestions for what is, what might be and what is not a creative act, and the other, a creativity quilt which people created themselves by selecting a coloured ‘patch’, writing when they are at their most creative upon it, then choosing where to place it based on whether they could make connections with others or not. My taster enquiry was themed, more specifically, around the question of whether humans are more creatively free when they are restricted in some way, for example, by the Covid 19 pandemic.

The conversational themes were wonderfully wide-ranging but here is a selection that stayed with me:

●       our emotions can act both as a stimulus and a creativity blocker

●       restrictions can focus the mind but also disable creative freedom

●       if you were born into a totalitarian state and had never experienced creative thought in others, could you still be innately creative?

●       Does creativity require a certain level of conscious awareness for it to be productive?

●       Are we at our most creative when we’re dreaming?

●       Can there be any degree of creativity in routine, day-to-day tasks?

●       And is boredom an essential precursor to creativity?

For me, the most thought-provoking element of the night was the apparently contradictory nature of many of the responses, both at the table and in my enquiries. People felt creative when:

With others / Alone                                                They have time / They don’t have time

Doing other things / Bored                                  Active / Still

Sad or stressed / Happy or calm                        Surrounded by sound / In silence

Free / Restricted                                                      Feeling strong emotions / Feeling peaceful

Early in the morning / Late at night

The grey areas mainly consisted of physical activities, such as walking or playing a sport, and mundane tasks, such as making a cup of tea or putting on clothes. The concept of walking stimulated much discussion as to the degree of creativity involved if, indeed, there was any to be found at all. This is a subject that I am sure the philosophers, and keen walkers, Nietzsche and Kant would have thoroughly enjoyed exploring with us.”

 

‘We all loved it, thank you!! We'll definitely be back for the next one - such an energising and at the same time calm space - it felt very inclusive, and it had a really authentic feeling of co-constructing and thinking together!’

 

Philosophy in the City (PinC) is an award-winning outreach project run entirely by student volunteers from the University of Sheffield’s Philosophy department.

“We go into schools and other institutions to facilitate philosophical discussions; encouraging pupils and residents to think critically about philosophical problems and enabling them to develop their ideas. The aim is to promote opportunities for people of any age or background to engage with philosophy and to make philosophy a subject that is of use and value to both the individual and society.

During the Philosophy Late event, we provided a ‘stand up’ philosophy series of short provocations, with a changing audience, exploring four different themes throughout the evening:

1.      Is it ethical or unethical to use a time machine?

2.      Exploring Ethical Dilemmas: The Trolley Problem 

3.      Family in Confucianism

4.      The Feminine Divine

Each of the themes was kick-started with a stimulus from one of our members, who then encouraged participatory discussion in the audience. Throughout the discussions, the whole audience participated by asking and answering questions. Within some of the themes, we  had a few debates between audience members who put forward their considered arguments and listened to others’ points of view. Overall, this event was a success and it’s something we would love to be a part of again.”

 

‘It asked you to consider philosophical and ethical issues, to challenge your own views on subjects, to consider what is important to you.’

 

Grace Lockrobin, from Thinking Space and SAPERE, focused on the kinds of everyday ethical issues familiar to all of us; issues that are at the same time prosaic and yet also profound.

“Working in the metalwork gallery, surrounded by cutlery and other domestic objects, we spoke about the virtues of decluttering, the politics of cleaning, the acceptability of regifting, and whether to show gratitude for unwanted gifts.

As an icebreaker, I invited the group to look around at the exhibits and imagine they were having a clear out: ‘What would you get rid of?’ I asked. A young woman spoke first, she explained that she couldn’t let go of anything, each object had been so expertly made and so lovingly conserved, it seemed wrong to discard any of it.

Later I asked, ‘Can you have too much stuff?’ and the woman’s boyfriend said he didn’t think so, providing you had enough space. ‘If you were rich and lived in a big house, there would be no limit to what you could own,’ he argued. An older woman smiled at him, then wondered whether people’s attitude to clutter depended on their age. ‘When you are young, you’re building your life,’ she suggested, ‘but as you get older you try to shed the layers’. His girlfriend nodded thoughtfully, but then explained that she was currently moving out of a room she was renting. For her this necessitated shedding so much that she wished she could keep.

Another person wondered if age was not so much an issue as housing insecurity, perhaps

possessions feel more precious when everything is precarious. Recognition spread on the faces of several people. Someone sitting back from the rest of the group, pointed out that our attitude to collecting things has social, cultural, historical, and psychological roots. In times of scarcity, like war or recession, we hold on to things out of fear and prudence.

A man, who told me he was autistic and too shy to speak, explained privately that he was trying to declutter every room in his house because he thought it was unfair to pass on the task to someone else, after he died. After I echoed his contribution to the rest of the group, the woman sitting back, moved forwards to tell the neurodivergent man that she felt tidiness is not virtuous, rather it’s just fashion, ‘One decade minimalism is in, the next its maximalism’. He needn’t feel morally obliged to declutter. But after that, several participants acknowledged the burden that similar situations had created for them when their loved ones died.

In the next workshop, the focus turned to gifts. I asked the group to choose from the artefacts in display cases, something they would like to give to someone else. A woman explained how vital gifts are in Sudanese culture, which is how she had grown up. She said she’d gladly gift her mother the giant wooden carriage clock which was the biggest and brightest object in the room. The group laughed.

One woman, standing by her husband, felt aggrieved that her mother-in-law had asked her not to buy her gifts anymore. The request had offended her because she felt no longer able to express her love and thoughtfulness. Another woman, of a similar age, became passionate. Speaking directly to the aggrieved woman and her husband, she explained that she had a friend who insists on giving her expensive gifts despite her saying she doesn’t want them. She was angry that her friend wouldn’t listen to her and she now felt obliged to buy expensive gifts in return. A young man who had studied philosophy at school, wondered who gifts are really for.

One person was too nervous to join in. She explained privately that she didn’t know what everyday ethics meant. Her friend then told us about her husband advising her about how to spend her money. She wasn’t sure why it bothered her so much. Together, they speculated about how important it is for women of their age and circumstances to have financial independence from men.

In a few short sessions with total strangers, we had what I would regard as a truly educative

experience in the Deweyan sense, in that genuine knowledge emerged out of our collective experiences of living in the world. Participants were reminded of how their culture, age, grief, wealth, home, relationships, and a host of other factors, framed their view of  themselves and each other. They were reminded that even in the smallest decisions of everyday life there is deep and diverse meaning.

Imagine if these kinds of conversations were commonplace in schools and in society.

 

‘I felt so happy after your event. It filled me with positivity and hope.’

 


This event was kindly funded by the Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy (SFCP) in memory of their colleague Pat Shipley.

 

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