Oscar Brenifier philosophizes on life with questions

How can you be happy? Why is life so difficult? Why do human beings exist? Do you look like others? Is it better to be alone or to be with friends? These are only some of the questions that Oscar Brenifier, a French philosopher, asks children in his series of books written for them.

What makes Brenifier different from his counterparts is that he travels the world and organizes philosophy workshops for children, for adults, such as teachers, and even for people in prisons and mental hospitals. Brenifier defines his workshops as being about the “art of questioning,” and he tries to make people engage in thinking, questioning and understanding ideas. In addition to being a philosophy consultant, Brenifier teaches courses as a guest lecturer at various universities around the world. He is the chairman of the Institute of Philosophical Practices and in 2006 he founded UNESCO’s international New Philosophical Practices conference. Recently, Brenifier came to İstanbul and spent the final 10 days of December holding workshops in schools and colleges.

Philosophers don’t usually hold such workshops. Why did you decide to launch such a project?

That’s strange of them. I don’t understand them. I don’t understand why they spend life at a library with no dialogue. That’s the question for me. Why don’t these people engage in dialogue? Philosophers are specialists in monologues. When I discovered Plato, I fell in love: I said that’s what I want to do. And it’s so obvious that I don’t understand why people just want to speak to themselves.

What type of reactions do you get from people?

When I was younger and I wanted to engage in this project, I thought that most people didn’t do philosophy because they didn’t know about it. And I thought that I would just tell them about it and then they would discover it and they would all love philosophy and everybody would do philosophy. But then I discovered that there’s a problem with philosophy for human beings in general. I wrote an article where I described why philosophy has something to do with seizing life. What is life? Life is a series of events. This morning you got up, had breakfast, you went to your appointments and then you had lunch, saw you family… For [most] people, that’s what they consider life. When you philosophize, you stop that and you say: “What is this all about? What is that for?” When you start asking those kinds of questions, people get very nervous. They don’t like them. Either they don’t answer or they get angry. Plato did this as well. They don’t want to spend time on those questions. They don’t have time, it is useless, they have things to do, they have to watch TV, etc. That’s the case in general. And when I do workshops, I’m met with a kind of resistance, fear. Fear of different things. Fear of death, fear of being alone, fear of not being loved, fear of not being recognized, fear of being worthless, fear of having nothing. So when you want to engage in a philosophical discussion with someone, that’s what the problem is. Either they don’t want to interrupt their daily routine or they don’t want to want to think about it. Albert Camus said consciousness is seeing absurdity. To be conscious, you have to see how absurd it [life] is. In my books for children, I ask the question, “Do we work to live, or do we live to work?”

Philosophy education is usually based on the history of philosophy. What would change if philosophy was taught in a different way more often, the way you teach it?

The problem of education in Turkey is not only a problem in Turkey; it’s a global problem. It has to do not only with philosophy, but also with the concept of education globally. In Turkey, like many other countries, the traditional education system is listening and repeating. Today there’s a discussion about whether we should move away from that transmissive conception of education to a more constructivist conception of education. That’s not only the case in philosophy, but also mathematics, science… It’s a shift; it’s a very important paradigm shift, and that is difficult. What can it change? It changes first of all, the conception of identity. A conception of identity where there is a less hierarchical vision and a more reflexive vision. The second is that there’s a certain decentering. I was working with children at a private school here, so they were children of a higher social and educational level. They had difficulty decentering themselves. I wanted them to listen to each other. When they spoke, they wanted to speak to me, not to the others. And when the others were speaking, they were not listening. So, I tried to invite them to listen to each other, and it was a big job. They must listen more to each other, and it makes them calm down more and be more responsible in both a cognitive and ethical fashion.

One of your books for children is about living together. Does philosophy help us live together more easily?

Again, during my workshop with children, I was trying to show them different children’s behavior. Then a girl said she didn’t like what was going on, and I asked, “What can I do to change that?” She said, “You can punish them.” I said, “You don’t know anything other than punishment to change that [behavior]?” She said, “No, the only way is punishment.” So, that’s how things work. When we’re not happy with the child, we punish him. The problem is, punishment works, but only for a very short time. And then it starts again, and the child does not understand; he just obeys through fear. You can get some results, but it’s based on fear; it’s very superficial. So, what I was trying to do was to make them look at themselves. One teacher understood this very well, he said, “It’s a mirror principle.” You want them to see themselves, to become conscious of themselves and therefore to work on themselves. And that becomes autonomy, so living together has to do with autonomy, and that has to do with consciousness. That’s why people don’t like philosophy, because autonomy is scary.

Can you compare the children in your workshops with the adults?

Children think I’m funny. Adults think I’m frightening. The child is astonished but afterwards he says, “Hey, this is fun!” But an adult, he’s astonished, but then he’s angry. He thinks this is threatening. Of course, I don’t want to glorify children; they think it’s fun because they don’t [understand] the consequences as much. Children can have fun while discussing death. An adult, not so much, because he’s more worried, more conscious. Children at the age of 4, for example, have a “why” period: Why? Questioning is natural; they’ve got questions. It’s adults who stop questioning, either because they’re too busy or they think they will look stupid if they ask questions or they think they have all the answers already, so they don’t need to question. Children question more naturally than adults.

Is it possible to integrate philosophy into daily life?

It’s like anything else, it’s like physical training. If you do gymnastics, your body will be in better shape. First of all, you have to work on your attitude. We say things but we don’t give reasons. Sometimes this is because we have no time, sometimes because we don’t know. And that becomes a way of being. We never stop and ask, “Why do I do this?” There was a 70-year-old lady at one of our workshops who once said, “Why didn’t I ask myself this 40 years ago?” But it’s like that for certain attitudes, we don’t ask why we do things, we [think we] have to do them. But we don’t have to do them; it’s a decision we make. We create obligations. … Stop moving. Settle and sit down. Sit down and let’s just speak about silly things, but [things] about your being. This is an idea of [Soren] Kierkegaard; he asks why people are so busy taking care of their houses, and so little of their being.

And what about your future projects?

I’ll just go around and philosophize. I’ve no goals. “What do you want to accomplish?” Nothing. I just want to meet people and philosophize.