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What is the book about? 

“The philosophical conversation. The basics” is a manual for anyone who wants to lead philosophical dialogues or participate in them. Throughout the book, the metaphor of the gypsy orchestra is used. Having a philosophical conversation is indeed like making music: it requires mastery to do it correctly and with gusto. Moreover, philosophizing together teaches you to think more sharply, to pay attention to the interests of others and to tell your own story with more conviction. It takes you into a free world full of new thoughts and feelings.

In the book you will find the most important philosophical skills. The book shows you how to get started with them. A philosophical score, which teaches you proper posture, technique, and performance, sets the rhythm. A variety of exercises help you think more precisely and show how to communicate that to others. In this book, you will discover the pleasure of making music with words.

Why did you feel the need to write this book?

As a student of philosophy, I was intrigued by how I could use philosophy to improve people’s thinking in daily life and work. I became an independent trainer and I have been working with all kinds of people, from detainees to top managers. As I didn’t find any decent book describing how you keep dialogues on an elevated philosophical level, I decided to write one myself. The book is now used in a lot of schools and institutions. It’s as well the manual of my annual course “the didactics of philosophical conversation” at the Philosophy Institute of the University of Leuven. 

What is characteristic of this book is the mixture of profoundness and lightness (humour). It is as well how I am as a person. I found some parallels between what I do with groups as a facilitator and what I do with music. I am playing a.o. gypsy music on my accordeon and I have my own band. So the music became the central metaphor throughout the book. Every chapter starts with a QR code that brings you to Romania.

How is this book relevant to the contemporary world?

1. When you are a philosopher, this book will show how you can conduct a philosophical practice in a good way, be it with groups or with individuals. Most books in the field up until now tell you how important philosophical practice is and what it can bring you but they don’t show you how to do it well. This book does.

2. When you work in an organization, this book is your guideline to uplift the quality of reflective conversations. You will a.o. find ten valuable tips to ask questions and you’ll learn how to listen with an ‘empty mind’. 

3. Lots of young people live in their ‘digital bubble’ interacting mainly online and with peers that think the same. The discursive practice in which you relate respectfully to other people that don’t share the same opinion as you has become increasingly rare in schools and other institutions. But the conversation as the locus to look for truth together without conflict is the basics of our democracy. This book shows you how to ‘train’ democratic skills again. 

4. It is a witty and musical book full of positive energy that will encourage you either to start playing music or to engage in meaningful dialogues with people around you. 

Which tips can you take along from the book?

1. Listen like a midwife

Your interlocutor constantly thinks and speaks differently from you. You can therefore never quite grasp him. The good thing is: you don’t have to try. Switch off your thinking when you listen and be available to the other than yourself. When your interlocutor speaks, you assist like a midwife in the birth of each of his/her thoughts. You don’t have to do anything for that. You don’t need a caesarean section. If you are patient, it will happen by itself.  

Plato has Socrates say about this : 

“For I have this in common with the midwives: I am sterile in point of wisdom, and the reproach which has often been brought against me, that I question others but make no reply myself about anything, because I have no wisdom in me, is a true reproach; and the reason of it is this: the god compels me to act as midwife, but has never allowed me to bring forth. I am, then, not at all a wise person myself” (Theaetetus, 150c). 

2. Ask questions like a chameleon

When you ask a question, do so briefly, without introduction or digression. So not “What I would like to ask is…”. This detracts from the power of your question. Ask open-ended questions. So not “Aren’t we all a bit short of time?” but simply “How much time do we have?”. And finally: use your interlocutor’s words as much as possible in your question. Like a chameleon, take on the color of the tree. In this way, your partner does not have to think about your question but has all the space he needs to think about his own words. 

3. Think like a gadfly

Don’t make it too easy on yourself and the other person. If you just express what you have been thinking for a long time, no reflection happens yet. It only happens when your thinking is disturbed. In a philosophical conversation, you are to each other like a gadlfy on a horse : you sting, you get on each other’s nerves, you challenge each other. All assumptions, presuppositions, truths may be questioned : that the house needs to be cleaned, that you are busy, that being healthy is the most important thing in life : it is all not true, at best probable. 

Plato has Socrates say about this : 

I am that gadfly which the god has given the state and [31a] all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.  (Apology, 30 e – 31 a) 

4. Play like a gypsy musician

Having a philosophical conversation is like playing music. To play well, you need the right posture and technique. It is a skill that you perform with precision and schwung. And just like a gypsy, you can keep at it day and night. In conversation, you will discover the pleasure of making music with words. 

5. Play like a child

You may say anything you like in a philosophical conversation but you must also be prepared to revise your views if they are wrong or inadequate. It is an exploration by trial and error. Along the way, you learn to express yourself more accurately, you learn to think more clearly and argue better. And you also learn to enjoy that process. You let go of your pursuit of a ‘solution’ and you view the world anew through the eyes of a child.

How have readers responded up until now?

The Dutch version of the book has up until now reached its fifth edition and won the ‘Berrie Heesen’ prize of the Centre for P4C (philosophy for children) in Holland for best contribution in the Dutch speaking countries in the field of philosophical dialogues for children and youngsters. The jury called it ‘the most light and in the same time theoretically the most profound book in the field’.