Love of Wisdom: Exploring Improv as Method for Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry

Aline Nardo*, Ramsey Affifi, Sara Hardman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferenceOtherpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In this paper we present reflections from our philosophical and experimental investigation of Improv as a method for collaborative philosophical inquiry and begin to explore its implication for educational practice.

Academic conferences create opportunities for a variety of different actions and interactions – some individualistic, others collaborative; some combative, others marked by openness and curiosity. At the same time, how we ‘do philosophy’ with others in institutionalised contexts is also limited by many factors, such as the cultural norms of academia and deeply established, habitual forms of interaction. These norms lay out an implicit curriculum (in Eisner’s 1979 sense) that enables and constrains particular kinds of knowing, interacting and learning. For example, typically, ‘doing philosophy’ together often implies debate, and tends to be competitive; we seek flaws in our opponent’s arguments and focus on defending rather than changing our own points of view.

We believe that philosophy understood as a “a game of wits” (147) and “epideixis - an exhibition” made up of an audience, strategy and clear goals for demonstration, as described by Huizinga in Homo Ludens (1949), is educationally and philosophically disabling. It sets certain limitations on our ability to learn from and with each other, and generate new ideas in the pursuit of philosophy understood as the “love of wisdom". While forming nuanced arguments in favour of one’s position can deepen an idea, it can also close off potential symbioses, disruptions, and cross-pollination. Similarly, through years of cultivating certain ways of thinking, we can get straightjacketed by our cherished concepts, either through force of habit, attachment to professional capital we believe they bring, a simple fear of change, or some other limitation.

Our premise is that when overemphasised, this way of doing philosophy, runs counter to playful and exploratory approaches to philosophising that have occurred historically, and continues to occur in informal contexts, other cultures, and in children (Huizinga 1949; Kline Hunnicutt 2009). Importantly, we believe it also runs counter to philosophy in its original meaning. Philosophy, as we all know, has as its etymology the “love of wisdom.” If loving wisdom is worth pursuing, and indeed loving the very pursuit, are our current practices optimised for such aims? Or do we foreground values, practices and relationships that divert personal and collective attention from such pursuits? We investigate Improv as a complementary kind of ‘game’ that foregrounds an understanding of philosophy as the collective pursuit of wisdom, and prioritises this aim.

Improv, as we understand it here, is a particular kind of playful transactional relationship that is both productively disruptive and generative. Its guiding principle is ‘yes, and…,’ which means participants have to respond affirmatively to what their fellow collaborators do. They are challenged to find a way to take on board whatever is offered, and to contribute an offering in turn as a new point of departure for subsequent responses. Through their contribution, each participant sets the possibilities of what will follow, and yet the process remains open-ended and capable of evolving in indeterminate ways. Improv asks us to set fixed habits, concepts of self, other beliefs and epistemological commitments aside, and adopt a more open orientation towards others and their experiences and ideas.

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
Improv itself presents certain potential hurdles relevant for participation, that emerge experientially, in Improv practice, rather than through theory alone. Therefore, in this paper we combine philosophical inquiry with practical experimentation.

In our experimental investigation into Improv, we observed a range of features and issues relevant for engaging in collaborative philosophical inquiry. We have summarised these into three themes: structure in improv; relationality in improv; and individual dispositions in improv.

As is to be expected in philosophical inquiry, our results are often themselves new questions, alongside attempts to develop clarifications, distinctions, and generalisations. We have separated our general observations from our specific reflections and questions for philosophical method in the context of pursuing a love of wisdom.
Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings
Our aim is to explore, both theoretically and practically, the potential of Improv to inform new ways of ‘doing philosophy’ collectively, in the spirit of an understanding of philosophy not as simply the burrowing in on truth, nor an exhibition of knowledge or demonstration of intellectual prowess, but as the love and collective pursuit of wisdom. This occurs against a backdrop where we recognise an implicit curriculum (Eisner, 1979) in philosophical academic spaces, and that the pursuit of wisdom sees philosophical method as always also a potential educational act. Because wisdom has a practical dimension, Improv functions as method in two interconnected senses, opening philosophical spaces theoretically and pedagogically.

Based on our improv practice, we identified and described a range of aspects of Improv and reflected on how they might productively disrupt established and habitual forms of philosophy and their social, cultural, emotional, ethical, conceptual, logical, epistemological limitations. These reflections showed potential pathways for the fruitful integration of Improv practices in philosophy (and the accentuation of such practices already present in professional/institutionalised contexts, such as academic conferences). In addition, our practical experimentation with Improv has brought to the fore otherwise potentially under-acknowledged aspects of transactional relationships. Both Dewey and Gadamer fault ways of interacting with our surroundings in which we impose ways of acting or interpretation on the world such that it cannot respond. They both recommend a relational and more playful approach, but give less to work with practically. Based on our experimentation with Improv, our sense is that transactional engagement has particular emotional, relational, cultural, ethical dimensions lacking in their accounts, and our research set out to more deeply understand such factors and their import on the process of philosophising.

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●Eisner, E. (1979). The Educational Imagination. New York: MacMillan.
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●Huizinga, J. (1998). Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Routledge.
●Kline Hunnicutt, B. (1990). “Leisure and play in Plato's teaching and philosophy of learning,” Leisure Sciences 12(2), 211-227.
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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2023
EventEuropean Conference on Education Research (ECER) 2023 - Glasgow, United Kingdom
Duration: 22 Aug 2023 → …


ConferenceEuropean Conference on Education Research (ECER) 2023
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period22/08/23 → …


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