Thursday, August 24, 2017

Philosophically Speaking: An Interview with Amy Leask

Colorful aura with black hole center
Philosophy – you can’t live without it and, in fact, you shouldn’t! If life is bread, then philosophy is your butter. To spread (!) this metaphor a little more, the butter melts and unites with the bread and they transform into one indistinguishable oily substance. Put differently, I think philosophy is deeply entwined with life, and vice versa.

When teaching philosophy, my first question is whether philosophy is relevant to life. It is, of course, a rhetorical question but since my students might be inclined to mischievously say no, I have added the subsequent appeal: Please say Yes! The follow-up question is to explain how or in what ways, philosophy is relevant to life.

I have thought to commence a series of interviews on the very topic of philosophy. In fact, I have had the pleasure to pose some philosophical questions to Amy Leask, who is, among many other things, a philosopher, writer and interactive media producer. What I find most impressive about her is not only her passion for philosophy but also the desire to apply it to life and to communicate this to everyone. She teaches children, young adults, parents and educators about the value and importance of philosophy.

In fact, one of the problems with philosophy is that it is often misunderstood or is simply equated with convoluted academic thinking. Yet philosophy has and should have its footprints plastered on our daily life as it is a critical skill for survival and success. It is something everyone can benefit from and it can be applied to many different fields, including film, music, literature, and politics. In order to appreciate the breadth and depth of philosophy alongside its more playful aspects, here is Amy Leask’s interview in full:

1. What do you do for a living? Why?

I’m a children’s interactive media producer. I create eBooks, cartoons, apps and games that teach philosophical questions and critical thinking to kids, so “Why” is my bread and butter. Before I got into this space, I spent over a decade teaching young adults philosophy, and was concerned that learners weren’t learning to argue, or reason their way through information, both of which are vital skills. It seemed like they couldn’t disagree with each other without getting angry, and there were so many amazing questions they’d never thought to ask.

My present work allows me to explore different media as a writer, which is challenging and wonderful. There’s really never been just one kind of thinker, and I love coming up with new ways to reach a diverse audience. I love the community of creators I get to work with, I love our audience of precocious, funny kids, and I love going to bed at night knowing that I’ve put something positive out there.

2. What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Curious, quirky and unrefined. I don’t think I could do what I do for a living if I didn’t have these qualities.

3. What’s something that has always amazed you as a child? Does it still amaze you?

When I was little, I was blown away by words and how powerful they were. I marvelled at how big people could use them to do phenomenal things. If you choose your words correctly, you can make people laugh, or get enraged, or want to get up and change things. I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown that fascination. I still read things that blow my mind, and consider it an accomplishment to write or present something that sounds just right. When someone tells an amazing joke, I want to hug them. 

When someone utters the perfect insult, well, officially I’m offended, but secretly, I want to high five them for their craftsmanship. I can’t sleep after reading something truly inspiring. I find myself looking for evidence of language in other species too, and wonder if they get the same kick out their words as we do out of ours.

4. How would you personally define philosophy?

When I was in first year philosophy, our professor described philosophy as “a blind man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” It’s an interesting analogy, but it makes philosophy seem totally inaccessible and frustrating, and I’d like to think it’s inclusive and empowering.

For me, philosophy has two components. It’s about big questions that don’t have easy answers, but that are part of what it means to exist and be human. It’s also an ever-growing set of rules for reasoning. I would describe it as a combination of the vehicle and the road map.

5. Why did you choose philosophy over say history, psychology or political science, for instance?

I fell in love with philosophy because it’s full of grey areas. I really like having to really work for an answer, and having the opportunity to rethink it. The kinds of questions philosophers ask are so compelling and multifaceted. Where else do you get to wonder what it means to be a person, or what love is, or if we have freedom?

I’ve stayed in love with philosophy because it presents itself in so many different forms, through different media. Filmmakers can be philosophers, as can novelists, cartoonists, chefs, musicians, athletes. A philosophy class or two never hurt anyone, but really anyone who thinks is capable of doing it in some way, shape or form.

6. What can philosophy do and not do for us?

Practicing philosophy is a direct route to developing critical thinking, communication and problem- solving skills, all of which are in short supply these days. It’s so much more than just contemplation for its own sake. It’s a way to sift through the fog of information we’re faced with. It’s also a way to keep in touch with ourselves and our relationships with others.

What philosophy can’t do is present one clear answer to a question. You’re never really done when you take on an argument.

7. Why do you think people are so suspicious of philosophy?

Leading an examined life is a little scary for most of us. It involves admitting that we don’t know, and that we’re sometimes wrong. Being rational and taking on tough questions forces us to be honest with ourselves in ways that are really challenging. Gloria Steinem has this great quote that applies to philosophy: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Some aren’t fond of philosophy because it isn’t a finite science, and it doesn’t often provide a lot of certainty. My students used to badger me for the answer that I would give full marks to, and it took a lot of explaining for them to understand that I was mostly interested in how they were thinking, not what they were thinking.

Many still associate philosophy with academia. They think it isn’t something that people do in their daily lives, but rather, an area of study. I think there’s still a place for academic philosophy, but there’s also a movement to make it more practical, more accessible, and to encourage it in children and other groups who are traditionally left out of the conversation.

8. Who is your favorite philosopher, and why?

I’m an existentialist, so I’m into de Beauvoir, Sartre and their contemporaries. I think this is because so many of them were also writers, and their ideas were conveyed through novels, plays and poetry. However, I see philosophy in a whole lot of other sources too. In my mind, really good comedians are philosophers, as they’re constantly asking “Have you thought about X like this?” I think I’ve had just as many epiphanies listening to George Carlin, Robin Williams, Russell Brand or Margaret Cho as I have reading actual philosophy books.

9. In today’s world, technology has become part of everyday life. Do you think that computers are capable of thinking and / or feeling? Could they fall in love?

Machines that think and feel (or at least the possibility of them) are forcing us to rethink what we consider to be human, which is exciting. It’s possible that computers could be taught to think and feel, or to love, but it would probably be in a different way than humans do. However, non-human animals think and feel and love in different ways than we do too. Thinking/feeling machines would compel us to take another look at other living organisms, which I think is a healthy thing to do.

A bigger question would be whether we want to create machines that can do everything that we do. Technology is supposed to be created in aide of us having better, richer lives. Something I’ve always wondered is why we feel we need machines to be like us. To what end?

10. Do you have a catchphrase? If not, what would it be?

I’m going to defer to Shakespeare: “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” I’d rather look like a dork and  come up with a few useful ideas than be composed and refined and say very little.

11. Now it’s your turn: What would you like to ask me!

(Note: The tables have turned here and Amy Leask is allowed to ask me a question, which ended up being three in number!)

What big ideas do we have that no longer serve us, and how do we let them go? Why are we holding onto them in the first place?

That is a big question indeed, Amy, and I will try to give my small answer to it. The biggest issue here is that people are afraid to be wrong so they adamantly insist on being right all the time! In our day and age, science has advanced in many ways but it has not (cannot?) shed light on a number of important matters, such as life’s meaning and purpose or the afterlife.

So then we have philosophy and religion eagerly stepping in to fill the void. They are in themselves filled with big ideas. Once you have convinced yourself of one of them, say the existence or non-existence of God, you will find it hard to let go of it, especially if you have invested a lot of time and energy into it. 

Say you have been a fervent non-believer (for argument’s sake) for decades now and suddenly you witness what could only be called a miracle. You would wish to dismiss it and try to find a logical answer to what has just occurred. It is hard (but not impossible) to be open to change and to let go of one’s cherished convictions, whatever they may be. We hold onto to them because they give us a bit of comfort in a world that more often than not does not make a lot of sense and does not provide free security blankets.

What happens to socks that get lost in the dryer? Seriously, I need to know. I’ve got a couple of favourites that have gone MIA.

They reappear in another dimension. The dryer actually works as a time-warping device that breaks down the time-space fabric and catapults the dry socks into a spinning black hole. There they are caught up by gravity until the black hole itself implodes and the socks reappear on the feet of another person in another time and place. That’s at least what I think happened to one of my socks but I could be wrong.

Thank you so much for participating in this interview and for providing us with thoughtful responses on these issues! Hope you had as much fun as I did and hope our readers do too!

(If you are curious about Amy Leask's work, feel free to visit her sites at and


Vincent said...

You've made claims in your first paragraph without supporting them subsequently—"that philosophy is necessary to life"—and without giving a clear expression of what you mean by philosophy in this context.

Is philosophy something that you do—by being an amateur philosopher, for example? Or is it something that you read, learn and understand? Either way, there's no doubt that philosophy is not within everyone's reach, unless you have a definition carefully crafted to overcome the obstacle of enormously different capabilities within humankind.

Noting that you are a teacher of philosophy, it's relevant to ask whether this is a mandatory subject for your students, and what are their age ranges. I could imagine constraints of this kind necessitating a dumbed-down interpretation of "philosophy" that would ignore its long history going back to Socrates and beyond; instead starting with everyday 21st century matters, interlarded with questions about "the meaning of life".

Vincent said...

Not having your post to hand I sat in a waiting room this morning, using the time on my hands to ponder the question you had provoked in my mind: “What is philosophy?” so that if I were in your position as teacher I could convey it to the students. I decided there was no point in dumbing it down. The first lesson would establish what it is and include discussion to clarify the understanding. Those who couldn’t grasp what it is by the end of the first lesson would be switched to an alternative class. I came up with the following, hoping you would be in a position to correct me if I am wrong:

1 Philosophy is the expression of certain thoughts.
2 These thoughts concern objects of consciousness, not merely objects of sense.
3 Objects of sense are anything that we can see, touch, hear, smell or taste.
4 Objects of consciousness involve any communicable ideas.
5 There may be such things as inexpressible thought, but they cannot be part of philosophy.
5 The medium of expression is language.
6 Philosophy may employ speculation, but its aim is to establish truths.
7 The above could be illustrated with examples distinguishing philosophy from arts and sciences.

Vincent said...

Pint 4 was not much good. "Objects of consciousness involve any communicable ideas." It doesn't mean that philosophy can propagate doctrines of any kind, or indeed oppose them; such as defining racism, or a concept of just war.

Arash Farzaneh said...

These are, as always, very interesting and acute observations, Vincent, but they have little to do with my post; however, they could be labeled as an interesting digression and I am glad they have served as fodder for further thought.

As you state correctly, I am not giving a definition of philosophy nor would I wish to do so. My only aim here is to introduce my guest and to confirm that I believe philosophy ought to be applied to life and that it is and should be all-inclusive and not elitist, the latter is what you seem to be proposing.

My students are international language learners, and they would be already lost after Point 2 and not necessarily because of intellectual reasons. The idea there is to introduce philosophy as a possible subject of future studies alongside showing and teaching them tools for critical thinking and analysis.

I can imagine that your definition might be a stumbling block when it comes to teaching children and young adults. Yet claiming that our age- and language-appropriate approach is dumbed-down is a rather harsh statement. Simplified might be perhaps a more appropriate word here and there is absolutely nothing nothing wrong with being an amateur philosopher in my view.

Amy Leask said...

Lively discussion! I'd like to jump in, if I may. I'd like to posit that philosophy is both something that we do, and a subject that may be read or studied. In doing what I do with children's philosophy, I aim to serve the former. Plato's Republic is far beyond the reach of a five-year-old, but a discussion of things like fairness, humanity, and beauty is not. When we think of philosophy exclusively as a field of study, or an area of expertise, we alienate an awful lot of thinkers. I would suggest that, at this point in our collective history, that's dangerous. There's just too much information that requires a critical lens, too many problems to solve.

Practically speaking, we're just not going to get everyone to major in philosophy, or even take a philosophy class. We can, however, do much more to encourage the general public to think more philosophically. We can call attention to questions that really matter, and do more to make people aware of pitfalls like fallacies.

As far as "dumbing things down" goes, I'd like to give two thoughts: First, what I've seen from child philosophers is anything but dumb. Their discussions may only last a few minutes at a time, and they may require different approaches, but they ask the same beautiful questions as more "experienced" philosophers. They persevere in their reasoning, and they're open to new perspectives. It's amazing to watch. Second, I'd much rather present a "dumbed down" version and see people run with it, than not present it at all and see people miss an opportunity to become better thinkers. Many people aren't even aware that they're allowed to question things, to argue, to weigh and evaluate different ideas.

In short, I'm not aiming to make everyone an expert. I'm just trying to chip away at a perception of philosophy that is keeping the general public from developing thinking skills that could make their lives better. I'll take a whole bunch of amateurs over a handful of experts any day, especially if the amateurs are asking questions and participating in discussions that could have widespread, positive impact.

Vincent said...

Thank you both for being so patient, gracious and considerate & not making me feel like the gatecrasher I am. Yes, my observations have little to do with your post.

In mitigation for the offence, I plead being under the influence, not of drink or drugs, but a biography I’m currently immersed in of Cyril Connolly, born at the beginning of the 20th century and educated at prep school, Eton and Balliol. Like him I started Latin & algebra pretty early. We didn’t understand why, but it was good mental exercise and didn’t involve being “allowed to question things, to argue, to weigh and evaluate different ideas”. My wife, 12 years my junior, was educated in Jamaica under the same kind of system.

I now see I was wrong to speak of dumbing-down. You in the New World, “at this point in our collective history”, as Amy says, are the moderns, and you must define your own needs. You have helped in the education of this old man.

I would beg just one thing of you, though. When your pupils assume, from their exposure to the ambient culture, that today’s world and values are so superior to those of the past that we must look with shame on our ancestors for their deeds and actions; I wish you felt able to tell them that things are no better today, just different.

Or is the education system these days “progressive”, as a matter of course?