Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy
Edited by Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox

Popular Culture and Philosophy® series

This volume will convince readers that the swift ascent of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to worldwide popularity in the 1970s and 1980s is “the most exciting event in popular culture since the invention of the motion picture.”

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy presents twenty-one chapters by different writers, all D&D aficionados but with starkly different insights and points of view. It will be appreciated by thoughtful fans of the game, including both those in their thirties, forties, and fifties who have rediscovered the pastime they loved as teenagers and the new teenage and college-student D&D players who have grown up with gaming via computer and console games and are now turning to D&D as a richer, fuller gaming experience.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “Heroic Tier: The Ethical Dungeon-Crawler,” explores what D&D has to teach us about ethics and about how results from the philosophical study of morality can enrich and transform the game itself. Authors argue that it’s okay to play evil characters, criticize the traditional and new systems of moral alignment, and (from the perspective of those who love the game) tackle head-on the recurring worries about whether the game has problems with gender and racial stereotypes. Readers of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy will become better players, better thinkers, better dungeon-masters, and better people.

Part II, “Paragon Tier: Planes of Existence,” arouses a new sense of wonder about both the real world and the collaborative world game players create. Authors look at such metaphysical questions as what separates magic from science, how we express the inexpressible through collaborative storytelling, and what the objects that populate Dungeons and Dragons worlds can teach us about the equally fantastic objects that surround us in the real world.

The third part, “Epic Tier: Leveling Up,” is at the crossroads of philosophy and the exciting new field of Game Studies. The writers investigate what makes a game a game, whether D&D players are artists producing works of art, whether D&D (as one of its inventors claimed) could operate entirely without rules, how we can overcome the philosophical divide between game and story, and what types of minds take part in D&D.

Introduction – Rolling a Wisdom Check

I: Heroic Tier – The Ethical Dungeon-Crawler

1. David Merli, Heroes of Virtue?
2. Jon Cogburn, Beyond (Chaotic) Good and (Lawful) Evil?
3. Chris Bateman, Chaotic Good in the Balance
4. James and Mona Rocha, Elf Stereotypes
5. Heidi Olson, Dude, Where are the Girls?
6. Mark Silcox, Elegy for a Paladin
7. E.M. Dadlez, Being Evil
8. Brandon Cooke, Why (Fictionally) Being Evil is (Actually) Fine

II: Paragon Tier – Planes of Existence
9. Mark Silcox and Jonathan Cox, The Laboratory of the Dungeon
10. Jon Cogburn and Neal Hebert, Role-playing Magic and Paradoxes of the Inexpressible
11. Levi Bryant, The Intentionality of Objects
12. Timothy Morton, The Worlds of Dungeons and Dragons
13. Levi Bryant, A Role of the Dice
14. Monica Evans, The Secret Lives of Elven Paladins

III: Epic Tier – Leveling Up

15. Carl Ehrett and Sarah Worth, What Dungeons and Dragons is and Why We Do It
16. Pete Wolfendale and Tim Franklin, Kant on the Borderlands
17. Chris Bateman, Dungeons & Dragons & Dice &… Prop Theory for Role-Play
19. Timothy Christopher, Justice is not Blind, Deaf, or Willing to Share its Nachos
20. Jason Rose, The Gunpowder Crisis
21. David Aldridge, “To Know My Character Better than He Knows Himself”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Hayden White on the Practical Past


Podcast here.

A couple of weeks have passed now since I heard Hayden White giving a guest lecture to the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes, and I’ve had some time to digest what he said, as well as go back over the copy of Oakeshott’s ‘On History’ that a colleague pressed into my hand afterwards. White’s aim was to reclaim the ‘Practical Past’ that Oakeshott was so careful to separate out from the practice and product of the historian, in pursuit of a ‘history’ that might contribute to ethical or deliberative debate.

The best way to understand Oakeshott’s practical past is through one of his examples: his own father’s exhortations to his children, who have tired of walking and become ‘disposed to lag’, that ‘this…is not what Trojans would do.’ The Trojans were, for the young Oakeshott, ‘not long-perished people, the intricacies of whose lives, performances and fortunes only a critical enquiry could resuscitate from record; they were living and to us familiar emblems of intrepidity’ (On History and Other Essays, 1999, 42). The critical enquiry contrasted here would – for Oakeshott – constitute the practice of the historian. But this is not to denigrate the practical past: this ‘accumulation of symbolic persons, actions, utterances, situations and artefacts’ is, for Oakeshott, ‘an indispensible ingredient of an articulate civilised life.’ The point is that these emblems only ‘ambiguously and inconsequentially’ refer to the past which is of interest to the practice of history (48).

Oakeshott’s desire to separate the ‘detached’ disciplines of philosophy and history from practical areas of concern resonated with me during my years as a teacher of philosophy, since I worked in school contexts where Politics and Economics were both well-established as sixth form options. In situations which bore some resemblance, I imagine, to Oakeshott’s own experiences with his students, I often found that even the most able students of politics or economics found it very hard to think philosophically. The whole discipline of economics, at least as taught in schools in my limited experience, comes packaged with its own ready-made understanding of human nature; it only really gets off the ground as a subject, with recognisable concerns and problems, once you ‘buy in’ to that account. Economics students were encouraged, I suspect, to wear their adherence to an uncompromising view of human self-interest as a badge of academic rigour. Politics as an A Level subject is – quite rightly, I imagine – concerned with a whole raft of contemporary and pragmatic questions, which do not allow a significant amount of time for consideration of the nature of a state and the principles upon which its sovereignty might be grounded or justified. This meant that there quite often occurred in my classroom situations in which students were forced to question not only their own deeply held beliefs about human nature or the principles of ethical conduct (all part of the experience they bought into when they opted for the subject), but also the validity of whole areas of concern in which they were not only interested but also to which (at that time of their life, at least) they were required to devote significant amounts of their energy and attention.

Oakeshott’s emphasis on the detachment of the historian, which is ‘without ulterior motive,’ is not intended as a slight to the practical disciplines, but to open up a space in which – away from an immersion in a particular set of practical principles and concerns – other ways of looking at the world, other understandings of human nature, might emerge. This mode of enquiring then achieves its value precisely because it is of no use in deliberative situations; history cannot, for Oakeshott, tell us what we ought to do.

White points out that the practice of history as conceived by Oakeshott has unsurprisingly been found wanting in the social, therapeutic context. Historians have not helped us to deal with, or get over, the past. Thus we have found ourselves turning to novelists and poets to help us achieve what a simple factual description cannot. But White’s thesis is that historians can and should make an ethical contribution to social discourse, once control is wrested from a predominantly scientific understanding of the study of the past. He reminds us that a ‘generic past’ has become inseparably identified with a particular activity that we recognise as history – an activity, we should remember, which is the preserve of a particular kind of researcher who has been trained in the ways of understanding and representing past events. Events don’t become ‘history’ until they are written up in the right way. If we want to find out about them, we go and find the right book in the library. The historian who wishes to contribute to ethical discourse must give up the idea of her writing as a ‘neutral container’ of factual content and borrow the techniques of literary or artistic endeavour.

Much of this is well taken. Historians do well to remember that a historical account is ‘composed’ and that such accounts would be better constructed self-consciously than unconsciously. But the question that strikes me then is what contribution historians really have to make to this therapeutic endeavour? Why should they move into an area that has been successfully occupied by writers and poets, who we have long acknowledged as possessing the ability to ‘tell the truth’ on matters of great importance? Does the historian, because of some particular relation to the past (it cannot any longer be the detached relation) have something distinctive to add to the therapeutic task? Does she have the right to speak with any additional authority? Or is it simply that, having been exposed to be not as ‘detached’ as she claims, tied as she is to a whole raft of contingent disciplinary concerns, the historian finds that she must give up her claim to speak with any kind of distinctive authority over the past and may as well ‘throw in’ with the writers and poets? This is the question White was addressing, I think, in his discussion of the dangers of aestheticisation and his insistence that historical writing needs to be both factually and essentially true. Although he did not develop this in detail (and here, I think, he failed in his talk to do justice to what is the crux of the matter), he was working toward a solution in his brief discussion of poetic statements, which we do not view as either factual or fictional.

A colleague in the school of education has produced ‘narrative research’, which draws on qualitative empirical collection methods but presents the data in a self-consciously composed narrative woven with fictional elements. Here, in a similar move to that advocated by White for historians, he is borrowing the techniques of literary writers. Such research faces a similar question to the one I posed of historians. What motive informs the move from traditional methods of data presentation? Is it simply the recognition that social scientists, under the weight of the critique of positivism and the post-modern assault on foundations, must give up their claim to a privileged methodological take on the ‘facts’, and recognise that their role is simply to produce alternative accounts, to emphasise that there are histories rather than a history, to problematise, to subvert, to proliferate diversity? Or is it the recognition that we do aim to speak the truth through our research, that we do seek the assent of our readers, but that this claim to assent needs to be accounted for and worked through in ways other than the discredited methodologies that have prevailed until now within the discipline? Are we giving up on the truth, or are we seeking the higher truth of the poets?

My contribution to this question would simply be, as it often is, to point to Heidegger. Unlike many of the continental thinkers who took up his work, Heidegger was thoroughly engaged with the issue of accounting for the happening of truth, not least when attempting to understand the claims made on us by the truth of the work of art. In ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, Heidegger emphasises the potential of the artwork to ‘set forth a world,’ to disclose vistas of meaning hitherto concealed. Artworks have the potential to inaugurate new ways of being in those who encounter them, but our assent to their truth relies crucially on a recognition – the work of art is important because it helps us to discover something that was already a possibility in our being. I think Heidegger’s insights here can be extended beyond self-consciously artistic or poetic endeavour (arguably, his key example, the Greek Temple, is not primarily produced as a self-conscious artwork). The great ‘histories’ also, I think, have the potential to found worlds. So it might be with educational research that aims to have an ethical impact on its readers – it commands their assent because it gives words to something they already knew, they recognise its truth in a way that opens up new possibilities for future action.

The question of the distinction between poetry and research, if it is important, might have been illuminated if White had further developed his account of the ‘generic past’, that dark matter, if you will, from which historians and other users of the past forge their competing narratives. I think Heidegger might have something to offer here also, in his elaboration of the tension between the ‘world’ opened up by a work of art and the ‘earth’ that grounds it. The earth resists attempts at calculative and descriptive thought, and is simultaneously concealed even as it is disclosed in some of its aspects. But it is an inseparable component of the artwork. I don’t have time to develop that now, but I will return briefly to the issue of detachment. I think Oakeshott had a legitimate point there, but that he over-egged it. My hope for my own students would be for their philosophical studies to enable them to call into question their practical assumptions, and that this itself would have practical benefits. I think we would do well here to recall Plato’s practical, political concerns. Whereas Oakeshott believes that a philosopher can be rightly considered to be doing philosophy inasmuch as he remains detached, Gadamer writes of the detour that is philosophy. ‘For that detour decisively changed the concept of the statesman for Plato: Socrates himself and his elenctic, disturbing existence now appear to Plato as performing the true political task. Thus Plato’s Republic is not a reformed constitutional structure that is supposed to have a directly political effect, like other proposals for political reform: instead, it is an educational state.’ (Plato’s Dialectical Ethics, 1991, 2-3)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

My Super Sons

This week I had to take a day to look after my older son as my younger was rushed to hospital for observation with an infection (we feared all sorts of terrible things – turns out he is better after a big dose of antibiotics). Anyway, this day of childcare afforded me an opportunity to continue my enjoyment of exercising my parental right to indoctrinate or condition my three year old boy into whatever beliefs and behaviours I deem necessary. We agreed it would be a fun game for Rudy to adopt a flying pose whenever he heard the Superman film theme tune. I could see immense social benefits in this skill. All was going well, but we were playing together in the living room, and Rudy was be-caped and generally in a Superman mood. I wondered about the extent to which this behaviour would be transferable to other contexts and unexpected situations. So I told Rudy that we would try out our game in the supermarket. I directed him to the kitchen and asked him to go and choose the fruit juice he wanted to buy – orange, apple or whatever. Off he flew. I then blasted the Superman theme from my iPhone and went into the kitchen. He was pushing round his pretend trolley. I turned up the phone: “Rudy, what can you hear?”
“I can’t play right now, Daddy. I need to get wholemeal bread, eggs and green milk…”
Looks like the work of conditioning is already well under way elsewhere…

Superman model by Rudy.

(On the subject of My Super Sons, here is an old Facebook status I dug up from last year)

Rudy: Daddy, is Sunny a person?
Daddy: hmm…that’s a tricky question Rudy. Where to start? Okay, do you think Sunny can give reasons or make plans?
Rudy: I think Sunny’s planning to do another poo on the carpet…


(My Super Sunny)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Religion, Education and Critical Realism

Conference Website


Religion, Education and Critical Realism

Inter-disciplinary dialogue about reality, knowledge and the pursuit of truth

7–8 September 2012, Oxford Brookes University

Convened jointly by Oxford Brookes University, King’s College London and Canterbury Christ Church University

The inaugural conference for the International Association for Religion, Education and Critical Realism brings together academics, researchers and classroom practitioners to engage in dialogue at the interface of Theology and Religion, Education and Learning, Religious Education and Critical Realism. It is hoped to foster an exchange of ideas and approaches, leading to the development of theory, research and practice. Selected papers will also be published in an edited volume to further inspire and support the ongoing dialogue.

Keynote Speakers

Professor Roy Bhaskar (Critical Realism), Institute of Education, University of London

Professor Ference Marton (Education and Learning), University of Göteborg, Sweden

Revd Prof Alister McGrath (Theology and Religion), King’s College London

Professor Andrew Wright (Religious Education), King’s College London

Call for papers

You are invited to propose a paper, panel or practical workshop reflecting on any of the following questions:

What is reality really like?

How do we experience reality?

How do we judge whether such experience is authentic?

How can we decide what should be learned about reality?

How can we teach and learn about reality?

How can we teach and learn about God and religion?

Abstract proposals (approx 200 words) to iarecr@brookes.ac.uk by 2 March 2012

Paper presentations will be 30 minutes, including discussion.

The conference flyer is here:


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Some clear thinking about RE and the EBacc?

A (minimally) edited version of a post I wrote on RE for Hodder Education. You can find all three of my ‘guest posts’ for Hodder here:

RE and the EBacc

What’s in a name?

Subject Matter

as well as a great beardy photo here.

So here it is:

I thought I’d kick off a month of blogging by offering some thoughts on the RE and the English Baccalaureate, since the education committee enquiry came out yesterday. There are all sorts of interesting educational questions surrounding this reform, not least of course what it is intended to be – a performance indicator for schools, a required qualification for students, or a statement of educational entitlement? The language employed by advocates and critics alike demonstrates a lack of clarity on this, and the nomenclature certainly doesn’t help.

For the time being I’ll restrict my comments to the implications for RE and RE teachers, introducing some questions about RE pedagogy that I’ll hopefully be able to develop in more detail in the coming weeks. I’d be really keen to engage in discussion about any of this, if anyone would like to make any comments either to this site (below) or to @DaveAldridgeRE.

Despite reasonable expectations that the government might have waited for the publication of the report before confirming the choice of subjects for the EBacc, we already knew earlier this month that RE had not made the cut (see http://www.retoday.org.uk/news/re-is-not-in-the-ebacc: I have relied on RE Today to keep me energetically informed about the various campaigns and developments!) At least for the short term, then, that battle is lost. Nevertheless, the report seems largely to concur with ‘the views of many on the front line’ that it was a bad idea to leave out RE as a contender (alongside history and geography) for the required humanity subject. The report quotes the Catholic Education Service’s view that RE ‘has a strong claim to be the humanity par excellence as it demands knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology’ and that ‘its omission from any measure which seeks to ensure that pupils receive a genuinely broad education is indefensible’. There’s not much to be added to that really: I think it sums up pretty clearly RE’s claim to sit alongside history and geography.

The next paragraph (50) notes the Minister’s defence of the decision. These two arguments are elaborated in detail in the generic letter sent out by Gove in response to written expressions of concern over the EBacc, and they require careful scrutiny: firstly, that RE ‘is already compulsory by law” and is ‘the only subject that has been a compulsory part of the school curriculum since 1944’. There has always been an irony attached to RE’s status as a required (in fact for all key stages in community schools), but not foundational, subject. At the time of the 1988 education reform act, the rhetoric for maintaining this situation was that it ensures for RE a special protection that means it is not subject to revision or removal from school provision on changing ideological or political grounds (in the way that foundation subjects are in principle). In practice, of course, this has meant that RE has not been subject to normal assessment requirements and has not had to follow any national or central curriculum requirements, which has caused all sorts of confusion about its compulsory status. I’ll say more about this in a moment. Suffice to say now that this allows the Minister for Education to argue that RE in fact has a special status at KS4 in particular that history and geography do not, and that by not changing this legislation (he has decided not to review RE along with the National Curriculum) he is upholding and continuing this special situation.

The second defence offered by the Minister is that ‘the EBacc aims to encourage increased take-up of those subjects where fewer students were achieving, or even entering for, GCSEs—such as history, geography and languages—which is not the case for religious education.’ This defence seems to undermine the special status apparently accorded RE in the first, but aside from sitting uneasily with its partner, it seems a bit dodgy in its own right. The intention expressed here is to ensure breadth not among the range of subjects an individual student chooses, but among those subjects selected by an examination cohort as a whole; the upshot of such an engineering measure would seem inevitably to be a restriction of choice for the individual. For the individual student, there is absolutely no educational justification for insisting on a choice of either history or geography unless, in fact, some claim is being made about their educational value over and above RE, which the government have been scrupulously careful to avoid. The expectation that more students will take geography rather than RE demonstrates, in fact, that the government expects pupil choice to be influenced by this measure. In educational philosophy we usually expect a pretty robust ethical justification for the restriction of pupil choice. In the case of the EBacc, a loose argument has been presented about accessibility to a university education for the least privileged, supported by some hastily gathered opinions from leading universities about their preferred A Level choices. It is clear from the committee’s concluding remarks, and yesterday’s media coverage of the report, that they were far from convinced that the EBacc will lead to any increase in the number of less privileged students gaining access to a decent university education. An alternative tack, of course, might have been to attempt some research into why RS has become such a popular GCSE choice, so that geography and history might benefit from these successes.

At this point it’s worth clarifying my position on RS GCSE, because I think there tends to be quite a lot of confusion over means and ends in this debate. Of course RE teachers would argue against any measure that might see a reduction in GCSE numbers: fewer GCSE candidates means fewer sets in years 10 and 11 (and as a result 12 and 13), fewer sets mean fewer periods of RE that need teaching, and the reality of this in many departments is that one less RE teacher might be needed. That’s going to have an impact on the job security of many RE educators, not to mention my own; as a teacher educator my position relies on a consistent supply of RE vacancies in schools. This is a real and serious risk, but not one which has any educational bearing. We ultimately value our jobs in RE, of course, because we are convinced of the educational value of compulsory religious education (at least within an education system as currently conceived) and it is that, rather than the GCSE in Religious Studies, that we should be defending most vocally. In fact, I would argue that the swelling numbers of students opting for RS GCSE is of no particular value in and of itself; the GCSE has been until now, however, of immense benefit – albeit indirect – to the safety of the endeavour of compulsory RE at all key stages.

Let’s be clear about what that benefit has been: it is statutory that all students receive 5% of their overall curriculum as RE provision, either as a regular lesson or in some kind of equivalent arrangement, throughout their time in a community school – that means up to KS5 if they stay on. However, Ofsted do not enforce this requirement. I know from my own experience that offering no significant RE provision at KS5 is certainly no barrier to a school receiving an ‘Outstanding’ write-up overall. Even at KS4, inadequacies in RE provision might be noted but they are not weighted particularly heavily in making judgements about the quality of the school’s overall curriculum. One reason for this is that ‘equivalence’ to 5% provision (effectively an hour per week) can be interpreted loosely. Whatever this means in hours, it can hardly be argued that two or three off-timetable ‘RE days’ across KS4, often combined with other inconvenient impositions such as PSHE and Citizenship, can have the same educational value as a weekly lesson; complex subject-specific concepts are surely best addressed through an extended learning sequence that builds in time for assessment and the ongoing development of a student’s understanding.

The reality is, therefore, that although Gove is right that de jure, RE has a special status all the way up to KS5, de facto compulsory provision has often been squeezed for exam years by other requirements that are actually scrutinised externally, such as GCSE success. This is why the RS qualification, in particular the relatively new short course, has been such a boon to compulsory RE. Headteachers have in many cases made the RS short course compulsory for all students – that way they provide the required 5% RE provision at the same time as contributing to their overall number of A* to Cs. The fact that students tend to be able to do particularly well in RS GCSE on an almost derisory allocation of curriculum time (whatever the reason for this) has also been attractive. Many RE departments will confirm that the Short Course GCSE has been the only way they have been able to secure anything like an appropriate level of RE provision at KS4. The fact that the subject has been examined at KS4 has also offered it a measure of academic respectability in the eyes of students throughout KS3 that has also not hurt the subject (this is also noted in the report, para 52). The big issue to be addressed, then, is not how many students will now opt for a GCSE in RS, but what will remain of compulsory RE at KS4 once the EBacc has done its work? We already have widespread reports of Headteachers deciding to discontinue the RS GCSE in anticipation of the EBacc; will compulsory provision fall by the wayside as a result? Will this end at KS4 or have implications lower down in the school?

The refusal to include RE as one of the possible humanities options in the EBacc can therefore be seen as one of a number of new developments, either intentional or otherwise, that threaten the place of compulsory RE in schools. Other threats have not received nearly as much media coverage, although they look set to do far more damage over the coming years. In particular, the growing number of academies and free schools, since they are not community schools, will not only not be bound to follow any locally agreed syllabus in RE, they will also not be bound, according to the specific wording of the 1988 act, to offer any compulsory RE at all. The challenge facing RE teachers over the coming years is to make sure that all of their students are given an appropriate amount of compulsory RE provision, that it is appropriately challenging, and that it is perceived as valuable by colleagues and students alike regardless of whether it is externally examined. This means dusting off some arguments that may have been allowed to atrophy a little in recent years as RE has been ‘sitting pretty’ – arguments that take into account the nature of the subject matter of RE, the justification for its compulsory status on the curriculum, and the appropriate methodology for delivering it: in other words, digging up all of that philosophical thinking on pedagogy we dimly remember from our PGCE courses! It will also mean, although I know this will be less welcome to RE specialists, engaging with broader questions about the relation of religion, spirituality and education, and questioning whether a discrete curriculum subject is the aspect of that relationship that is most valuable.

Hence my call for some clear thinking – it is not apparent at all to me that there has been any consensus among advocates of RE in the EBacc about the nature and value of the subject they are defending. I do not argue that such consensus is possible or even necessary, but our presuppositions need to be made explicit or there is a danger that parents, RE teachers, academics and faith communities (not to mention the students who are the key stakeholders here!), all potential advocates of the place of religion in education, will be working at cross purposes in the debates that lie ahead.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment