Philosophical Dialogue and Rhetoric Creating an Alternative Space for Thinking Together
Submitting InstitutionSt Mary's University, Twickenham
Unit of AssessmentPhilosophy
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: History and Philosophy of Specific Fields, Philosophy
Summary of the impact
This case study demonstrates the impact of research on Philosophical
Dialogue and Rhetoric in the context of the marketisation of Higher
Education. In this context, impact was (and is) created through the
facilitation of Socratic dialogues, and the dissemination of reflections
on the pedagogical nature of these dialogues against the increasing
marketisation of Higher Education. This case study aims to show a change
in awareness, attitude and understanding of individual participants,
especially a (philosophical) revaluation of their own experience. It also
aims to change the pedagogical attitudes and practices of participating
teachers and lecturers.
The research which underpins this case study, started with the
examination of forms of writing specific to philosophy. This includes
analysis of the prominent use of thought experiments (Altorf, 2005), as
well as reflections on the idiosyncratic writing style of Iris Murdoch and
the biographies and status of women in philosophy (Altorf, 2008 and
The above research inspired two pedagogical projects, both funded via a
rigorous selection process by the Subject Centre for Philosophical and
Religious Studies (HEA). The first of these projects, `Dialogue as a
Written Form of Assessment' (2009-2010) examined the possibilities of the
use of written dialogue as a form of assessment in an undergraduate
philosophy degree. This project went beyond the initial remit and included
reflections on the growing marketisation of higher education.
The second project, `Socratic Dialogue in Education' (2010-2011) pursued
the issue of marketisation further. It started from the supposition that a
Socratic Dialogue in the Nelson-Heckmann tradition would offer both a
space and a means to reflect on the position of philosophy in higher
education that resists the prevailing use of terms like `delivery',
consumer', etc. It also argued that resistance should come from practice
and not just theoretical reflection. This second project resulted in a
publication in peer reviewed journal (Altorf, 2013), as well as a report
(Altorf, 2011b), which is freely available from academia.edu.
While Altorf (2013) concluded the research within the REF assessment
period, the project continues. Further publications are planned (with C.
Monahan, `Philosophical Dialogue and Persuasion: Rewriting the Gorgias',
to be submitted in December 2013, and Altorf, `Thinking as an Act of
Resistance: Arendt and the Practice of Socratic Dialogue', to be submitted
in 2014) as well as the development of a web resource on philosophical
dialogue and rhetoric
As the resources cited suggest, the key researcher of this case study is
Altorf, who joined St Mary's in 2005 as the Programme Director of
Philosophy. On the first project Altorf collaborated with Geoff Case, who
was at the time the Royal Literary Fellow at St. Mary's. The collaborator
for the second project was Dr. M.F. Willemsen (Free University Amsterdam).
- Socratic Dialogue provides a space and means to resist the growing
marketisation of higher education. It does so through `thinking in
questions' (Van Rossem 2011), through `philosophising instead of doing
philosophy' (Nelson 1927), and in its emphasis on experience. It
resists, for instance, the omnipresent need for `outcomes', and it
allows disagreement to exist without immediately positing a discourse of
winners and losers.
- Socratic Dialogue offers a means of teaching philosophising, rather
than learning about philosophers. There is a specific need for this kind
of learning in the present circumstances, and not just at universities.
References to the research
1. M. Altorf (2013), `Selling Socrates: The Unexamined Life and the
University' [Diskurs: Gesellschafts- und geisteswissenschaftliches
Peer reviewed and at:
2. M. Altorf (2011b), `Socratic Dialogue in Education'. [Report available
3. M. Altorf (2011a), `After cursing the library: Iris Murdoch and the
(in)visibility of women in philosophy'. Hypatia 26.2, pp. 384-402.
Altorf 2011a is a peer reviewed article, that has also been selected for a
special issue of Hypatia, that is freely available. The special issue has
been edited by Ann E. Cudd, and is entitled `Virtual Issue: Hypatia Essays
on the Place of Women in the Profession of Philosophy'
5. M. Altorf (2008), Iris Murdoch and the Art of Imagining.
Altorf (2008) has been reviewed 5 times. Reviewed in Notre Dame
Philosophical Reviews (2009), Literature and Theology (2009), Religious
Studies (2009), Journal of Religion (2011), Heythrop Journal 2011.
6. M. Altorf (2005), `Filosofische verbeelding: Over winkelwagentjes,
grasvelden en de vrouw als onbegrijpelijke afgrond' [Philosophical
Imagination: On Meadows, Trolleys and Woman as an Inexplicable Abyss.] Wijsgerig
Perspectief [Philosophical Perspective] 45-1, pp. 22-30.
Altorf (2005) is peer reviewed. It can be provided on request from the
Details of the impact
The impact described in this case study has been pursued via practice and
presentation. Altorf has organised Socratic dialogues on such topics as
`What is learning?', `Why should you respect someone's autonomy?', `What
is my responsibility to my community?', etc. Most dialogues are held at
St. Mary's University College and are open to the general public. She has
also facilitated dialogues in Amsterdam and Berlin. Participants have
included lawyers, artists, and teachers.
Evidence of impact has been gathered in the form of spoken and written
feedback. This feedback confirms the findings of the research. People who
experience the method for the first time affirm that participating in a
dialogue is a new experience to them, incomparable to anything and
impossible to learn in any other way than by participating. Many mention
the new insight that it is possible to entertain diverging views. Thus,
people are surprised that `hugely different approaches were able to find
common ground to work from', or that `people were able to listen to one
another and not argue'. People also comment on the fact that it was not
necessary to find an answer (`outcome') to the philosophical question
posed. They question the use of experience, and understand that each
dialogue is different, and that this kind of dialogue cannot be
standardised into a product. It should be noted that Socratic Dialogues
are being `sold' to companies. The practice is not without controversy.
(See for instance J. Kessels (1997). Socrates op de markt: Filosofie in
bedrijf. Amsterdam: Boom). The feedback thus suggests that as a direct
result of participating in a Socratic Dialogue participants acquire
awareness of a new way of dialogue, that challenges the limitations of a
model of argument based on competition and result. The potential for
conflict resolution is a topic of future research, and possibly impact.
Interest is also expressed in the method. At the end of every dialogue, as
well as at selected moments throughout the dialogues, participants will
engage in a meta-dialogue, which considers not the content, but the nature
of the dialogue. Questionnaire questions include: `What did you like best
about the day?', `What surprised you?', etc. as well as open ended
questions for any further comments.
Because of the requirements of the dialogue, numbers are limited.
Dialogues have been held on the following dates: November 2010
(afternoon), March 2011 (day long dialogue), September 2012 (two day
dialogue), June 2013 (day long dialogue). In addition, dialogues have been
facilitated at other locations on request: Amsterdam (March 2012), Berlin
(July 2013). The method has also been used in the undergraduate module
`Philosophy in Schools and the Community' at St. Mary's University
College. The topic of the module concerns philosophy with children, where
students were taught to teach philosophy to primary school children and to
reflect on this practice. Thus, ideas from this research were brought to
the school yard. This module ran for the first time in Spring 2013, in
collaboration with the Philosophy Foundation.
The reach of the impact has been widened by presenting findings orally
and in written form. Presentations were given in Glasgow (2012, by
invitation) at a conference of the Public Philosophy Network in Washington
(2011), at the last conference of the Subject Centre for Philosophical and
Religious Studies (2011), at the Joint Session (2011), and the London
Conference in Critical Thought (2013). The written presentations are
listed above as Altorf (2011b) and Altorf (2013). Findings have also been
presented in non-academic resources such as an open web resource (M.
Altorf (2011), `Socrates, Apologie'. Humanistische Canon
and an article in a Dutch national newspaper (M. Altorf (2012), `De
retoriek van Kerst'. NRC Handelsblad 24 September 2012.)
The spoken and written presentations have had the widest reach. For
instance, Altorf (2011b) has been consulted by people from different
countries, ranging from Ghana to the United States, Australia and South
Africa, and is viewed on average every other day. The paper presentations
were attended by international audiences between 15 and 45 people, of
academics and political activists, some of whom are now following Altorf
on academia.edu. The text in Discourse has been distributed to all
universities in the United Kingdom. Its online version received a number
of hits. (95 hits since the closure of the Subject Centre in July 2011. No
numbers available for the period preceding.) The open resource on The
Apology received 3942 hits, of which 3303 unique visitors. NRC Handelsblad
has 203,000 readers. Visitor figures for the digital edition are not
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Participants have been given questionnaires, the results of which have
been collated and are available for further reference.
- The following participants are available for interview: Head of Legal
Operations, Procurement and Sky Media at BskyB, Senior Lecturer,
Department of Sociology, University of Wolverhampton, Pastoral
theologian and organisational development consultant, Daughters of
Charity of St Vincent de Paul Services (DCSVP Services), Lecturer,
Amsterdam University College
- Academia.edu reports are available for further reference.
- For evidence of impact of Socratic dialogue in networks such as
schools and their impact, please see www.sfcp.org.uk.