Tuesday 21 January 2020

The Philosophy Museum

This post is by Anna Ichino, University of Milan.

Have you ever visited a Philosophy Museum? I bet not. Apparently, indeed, there aren’t any Philosophy Museums in the world. Or better: there aren’t any yet… But together with my colleagues at the Philosophy Department of the University of Milan we have decided that it is time to build the first one. In this post, I’ll tell you about this exciting project.

What we had in mind was not an historically-minded museum collecting relics about the lives and works of important philosophers; but something more dynamic and interactive – built on the model of the best science museums – where philosophical problems and theories become intuitively accessible through a variety of games, activities, experiments, aesthetic experiences, and other such things.

Easier to say than to do, no doubt. It’s an ambitious project, and to put it into action we had to proceed gradually. We started with a temporary exhibition, which took place in our University from November 5th to 21st. There, we created the first two actual halls of what we hope will soon become a permanent museum, together with a third ‘programmatic’ hall where we presented the plan for what still needs to be done.

Thanks to a generous funding awarded to our Department as a part of a MIUR Excellence Scheme, we could rely on professional help from museum experts, graphic designers, and multimedia studios, in order to build an aesthetically appealing environment where complex ideas were communicated in fun and engaging ways.

The first hall was quite introductory– devoted to the nature of philosophical problems and methodologies.

We used images like Mary Midgely’s ‘conceptual plumbing’ or Wittgenstein’s ‘fly bottle’ to convey the idea according to which philosophical problems are in important respects conceptual problems, which amount to analysing concepts that we commonly use in unreflective ways. Visitors were led to realise the difficulties that arise as soon as we try define common concepts like ‘self’, ‘freedom’, ‘time’, ‘moral responsibility’, etc... We then introduced two important tools that philosophers use to analyse such concepts: the construction of thought experiments, on the one hand, and the formulation of paradoxes, on the other.

On this basis, visitors were ready to move to the second hall, where they could literally play with paradoxes and thought experiments in order to appreciate their heuristic role in philosophical inquiry.

In the ‘Personal Identity Goose Game’, for instance, different theories of personal identity were illustrated through a journey into the relevant thought experiments (figure 3). To begin, every player had to ‘adopt’ one theory – choosing between the psychological theory, the bodily theory, or the brain theory. Then, every square on the track corresponded to the scenario of a different thought experiment (scenarios like teletransportation, brain transplant, fission, metamorphoses, etc…); and when one landed on each of them, she had to guess whether or not, according to the theory she adopted, that was a scenario in which she’d have survived. If she guessed correctly, she could roll the die once again. She could also try to ‘kill’ her opponents (i.e. to make them miss a turn) by moving their pawns into squares-scenarios where, according to ‘their’ theories of personal identity, they wouldn’t have survived.

In the ‘paradox of fiction game’, the three mutually inconsistent propositions that give rise to the paradox corresponded to three different cards: players were asked to solve the paradox by discarding one of the three, and finding a suitable alternative from a deck of cards describing different philosophical theories. So, for instance, one who ‘discarded’ the proposition according to which we can feel genuine pity for Harry Potter, could pick the card describing Walton’s ‘quasi-emotions’ theory.

To further illustrate the complex relations between imagination, belief, and emotions, we did also replicate a series of famous experiments in which participants were asked to do such things as eating chocolates shaped as a cat’s excrements, signing a pact where they gave their soul away to the Devil, or wearing the (perfectly sterilized) pullover that (so they were told) previously belonged a serial-killer.

The second hall also included a ‘paradoxes of perception game’, a ‘trolley-problem game’, and several animation-videos devoted to other intriguing paradoxes and thought experiments.

To conclude the visit, the ‘School of Athens’ game’ – in which visitors had to decide whether to back Plato or Aristotle; then they could also take a souvenir-picture portraying themselves in the shoes (or better, in the face!) of one or the other.

Whilst building all this was a really hard work, it was definitely compensated by the enthusiastic response of the public. We had more than three thousand visitors in less than three weeks (including thirty-four high-school classes), who gave us very positive and stimulating feedbacks. We now hope to find soon a permanent home for our Philosophy Museum.

In the meanwhile, you can visit the project’s website and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. There is also a photo gallery published by La Repubblica

You can look at the Museum’s catalogue, and watch this short video presenting the project. (Unfortunately, all this material is currently in Italian only; but English translations are on their way!)

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