Facilitation Skills 101

This post was originally published on Medium.

In this article I cover (i) what the role of a facilitator is, (ii) how to prepare for a session where you are facilitating, (iii) what to do during the session and (iv) what to do after the session.

Read on to find out why you need the scoop on a group, what a POWER start is, and why having a plant in the room can really help you out.

A facilitator is a person whose role is to help a group of people reach a pre-specified outcome.

Facilitators don’t run a session. Training courses, company status updates, and other meetings which have a one-directional flow of information don’t need facilitators.

Instead, they facilitate, helping the meeting progress towards a specific outcome.

This can be a challenge for some people as it involves relinquishing control. The facilitator is not in control; the team are in control. The agenda, the process and the outcome are all ‘owned’ by the team, not by the facilitator. The facilitator needs to be okay with not contributing content, but instead being there to guide the team to the pre-defined outcome.

Often this outcome is about finding a solution to a specific problem. E.g., at the end of this meeting, we need to have found out how to grow by 10% over the next quarter. But, it can also be a more concrete deliverable. E.g., at the end of this meeting, we need to have a design system for our new branding. The outcome or deliverable of the session should be defined upfront.

Prepare for a session by: interviewing the key sponsor, researching the context, planning the session and communicating with participants.

There are four things you need to do when preparing to facilitate a session.

Firstly, you need to identify and interview the key sponsor. This may be a CEO, a project lead, or similar. Ask them what the purpose of the session is, if they have suggestions for how the session should be approached, and what they expect the outcome to be.

You need to find out what role they are playing in the session. A manager sitting in on a meeting can fundamentally change the dynamic of the meeting, so might not be appropriate, depending on what your outcome needs to be.

You can also take this opportunity to ask them for the scoop on the group. Are any of the personalities difficult to manage? Too loud, too shy, too controlling? Knowing this in advance will help you prepare.

Secondly, you need to figure out the context of the session. What do you need to know about the company culture? What do you need to know about the health of the business? What about the environment? And any current events that might be relevant?

Thirdly, you need to actually design the session. Work out the agenda if you’re in charge of deciding it. Identify any tools or supplies you’ll need. Estimate the timing of each item on the agenda. If possible, visit the room beforehand, to check all the tech works. Drawing out the layout of the room can also help to visualise the space you’ll have available. Make sure the room you choose meets the accessibility requirements of the participants who’ll be attending.

Lastly, communicate with the participants beforehand. Send out the agenda, but be wary of sending out a strict time schedule, as having some flexibility can be beneficial if you need to change things around. Send out logistics regarding location and timing, and any accessibility information about the room you are in.

During the session: kick off with a POWER start, keep the group engaged, and if necessary, record what happens.

The session should be an open and comfortable environment. One way to get everyone in the right mindset is to use a POWER start.

A POWER start involves:

  • PO: Outline the purpose and objectives of the session
  • W: Make sure everyone knows what’s in it for me
  • E: Build the energy in the room so everyone’s feel upbeat, and motivated (music and icebreakers help with this)
  • R: Set the rules (e.g., don’t continiously text on your pocket phone, don’t talk over others, figure out who has final say on decision-making)

If you’ve got a tough crowd, you can pick a plant to be on your side. Approach someone before the session starts, and ask them to be super enthusiastic and upbeat. They’ll be the first to ask questions, offer suggestions, join in with the icebreaker.

Photo of houseplant Not this kind of plant! Although plants are sick and good for air quality so you should also have some in the room if possible!

Make sure to project when speaking and to start on time. If there are latecomers, check with the rest of the group whether they want to wait for them or start without them.

To keep the group engaged you can use a variety of interactive activities. Having ice-breakers, getting everyone out of their seats to throw out ideas on post-its, or voting with a service like Kahoot will keep people interested and help the group reach their outcome.

Make sure to record the decisions and output of the session if required. (This is something to check with the sponsor!) If you aren’t able to record while also facilitating, you can delegate and designate one person as recorder.

After the session, communicate with the group.

Sometime after the session, you should send an email to the group with a reminder of what was accomplished. For example, if flipcharts were used to record the outcome, you can send out photographs of them. You can also use this opportunity to send out self-reflection questions to the participants or a feedback questionnaire.

You should have a debrief with the key sponsor about what was accomplished and if the outcome was reached.

Lastly, and most importantly, you should transfer accountability. Now that the session is over, who is going to continue with the project and facilitate future sessions? Make sure all of the pariticpants know who that person is.

Redesigning the NHS Blood Donation app

This post was originally published on Medium.

In this article I briefly describe my process of redesigning the NHS Blood Donation app based on a set of usability tests.

This was a short project to practice the process of auditing the user experience of an existing app. I therefore didn’t end up redesigning the whole app, but just made a start on it to see the new direction it would go in.

I cover why I chose this app, the research and design processes, and the lessons I learnt. Thanks for reading!


  1. A note on unsolicited redesigns; why I chose this app
  2. Usability tests
  3. Collecting results of usability tests
  4. Other ‘UX Deliverables’
  5. UX conclusions ➜ UI decisions
  6. New protoype and more usability tests
  7. Future additions & lessons learnt

1. A note on unsolicited redesigns, and why I chose to redesign this app

Generally, I’m not a fan of unsolicited redesigns. They are often done mindlessly, without considering the purpose of the redesign. (This article covers some of the problems with unsolicited redesigns.)

But in this case, I am, on purpose, choosing not to look at the visual design elements of this app. I think the user experience parts of the app are much more interesting to examine. The conclusions that result from this UX research can then guide the redesign.

Moreover, I think that (in this specific app that I’ve chosen) the individual design elements are good. The app is part of the NHS, which has some great design and branding guidelines, and the blood donation service itself has a really good logo. What does need work is the usability of the app.

Screenshots taken March 2019

So let’s test the usability and see what we can fix!

2. Usability tests

There are lots of ways of researching how users use a product. Usability tests fit into the following category:

Categories of user research

Instead of focus groups or surveys, which look at what a user reports about their use of a product, a usability test observes the user’s behaviour.

It doesn’t always make sense to do a usability test (e.g. if you are creating a new product from scratch.) But if you’re working on improving an existing product, then arguably it’s the most important of user testing that you can do.

How to do a usability test

I booked out a small room, set up a video camera on a tripod, and invited in participants to do a test one by one. (In my case, these were some friends that I’d roped in — thanks gang!) They were each given a phone with the app already installed and logged in, and were asked to complete four tasks as part of the test.

‘Test’ is a misnomer. There’s nothing that your participants can do that is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing. You just want to watch what they would naturally do.

You’ll want to standardise your script, so everyone is given the same introduction, background and the same tasks to complete.

Unmoderated tests will probably max out at about 15 minutes, whereas moderated tests (like the ones I did) could last for up to an hour.

To decide what tasks you give your participants, you need to work out: what problems people are using your product to solve, who your users are, who your competitors are and what they’re doing differently, what the unique value proposition of your product is, and so on. Take a look at the Lean Canvas if you’ve never seen it. It’s a great, quick way to answer all of these questions.

(In my case, I only had a four tasks, and none of them covered the new user or login flow. This was because I wanted to keep the scope of this project quite small. In a real project, you would provide enough tasks to cover the entire user flow through the app, including signing up. You’d probably also pay your testers for their time, either in vouchers or cold hard cash. Sorry gang!)

The tasks I gave my testers to complete were:

  1. Book an appointment to give blood at a time and place convenient to you.
  2. Find out what blood type you are.
  3. Determine if you are eligible to give blood, given that you had a tattoo 8weeks ago.
  4. Determine if you are eligible to give blood, given that you got back from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia last month.

When your participants perform the tasks, it’s important not to interrupt or break their process. It can be frustrating watching someone repeatedly tap the same button when there’s an ‘obvious’ right way to do something, but that’s the whole point. The participant isn’t doing it wrongly — instead, your product is not designed optimally.

You want the participant to narrate what they’re doing and what they’re thinking. But don’t use leading questions or say anything that could give them a hint about what to do. Instead, use open questions (e.g. “tell me about what you’re seeing”) so that you get an unbiased view.

To decide how many people to run usability tests with, first consider how many user types you can have. Often this segmentation of user types is encapsulated in fictional personas, e.g. Good Guy Greg or Cash-Strapped Casey. (If you have Skillshare, this short course about personas is a great run-down.) As a general rule, you want to try and run 3–5 usability tests for each persona type, and around 10 in total. But running usability tests and analysing the results takes a lot of time, so this will definitely vary depending on budget.

3. Collecting results of usability tests

Now that you’ve set up your usability tests — what are you actually looking out for? We can break this up into quantitative results and qualitative results.

Quantitative results

For each task, you should quantify the participant’s success.

One way is to rank success in three levels: (1) the participant was unsuccessful, (2) the participant was successful but with lots of help from you, and (3) the participant was successful by themselves. For the tasks that are unsuccessful or where the participant needed help, you should note down why that was.

Another way is to measure the time taken to complete each task.

Qualitative results

After each task you should ask the participant questions: did anything about that strike you as particularly good or bad? Did you feel something could have been explained better?

You can also collect initial impressions of the product: what do you think the purpose of this app is? Where would you click first if you saw this screen?

And ask ‘exit interview’ questions: what three words would you use to describe this product? what did you like least about the product? would you pay £X to use this product?

As well as an exit-interview, you can send out a post-test survey, to collect their thoughts after some time has passed. This allows you to see if their impression of the product has changed, and what stood out so much that they remembered it.

These are qualitative questions, but because they’re standardised across every participant, they can be used to spot trends. The results could also be made quantitative by applying a scoring system to the answers you receive.

When doing the test, you should look out for participants who say things like “that was weird” or “Oh, I didn’t spot that, but that was my fault, I was being really dumb.” This is a telling clue: the participant isn’t being dumb — it’s your product that needs work.

It’s important to remember that you want to list down positive things with the app, and things your participants liked, as well as negative things.

4. Other ‘UX Deliverables’

I don’t think there should ever be a concrete list of ‘UX deliverables’ that have to be delivered for a project. What ends up being a part of your UX audit or report will always depend on the specific product, client, customer segments, etc.

Here are some other things that I did for this project, as well as usability tests.

  • Customer Journey Map / Experience Map that outlines a customer’s experience or journey as they go through the app
  • A Funnel Matrix outlines where users are along the funnel and how to ‘acquire’ them as users of the product, and metrics for success (watch this talk for more info)
  • Personas to encapsulate who your user types are, based on the research you’ve done
  • A heuristic evaluation of the app (I recommend choosing a subset of Jakob’s heuristics and seeing if every aspect of the product adheres to them)

5. UX conclusions ➜ UI decisions

Let me start this section by saying that the current app works fine. It’s not unusable. You can use it just fine to make appointments. I’ve personally used it successfully for years. And I imagine that thousands and thousands of people use it every month to book appointments. It does what it needs to.

But it could be better.

Some suggestions specific to thisI gained from my usability testing and heuristic analysis were that:

  • Only days/locations with free appointments should be shown on the search results page

This actually matches up to lots of the recent reviews on the Play store:

from Google Play Store, retrieved March 2019

  • Filtering results needed to be easier / it was hard to spot how to apply filters
  • Health and travel information was duplicated in different places in the app
  • The menus were confusing to navigate
  • The back button didn’t work properly when booking an appointment (i.e. the state wasn’t being saved when searching and booking an appointment)
  • Some copy can be made clearer e.g. hard to know what “donation credits” meant
  • There was an overwhelming amount of info on the health results page (half of my participants failed the task to determine if they were eligible to donate having visited Malaysia, solely because they skim-read the block of text on Malaysia)

One of the main takeaways from these results is about navigation. It’s hard to get around the app as it currently is, because there are hidden menus, there are multiple ways to navigate to the same place, and the back button is unpredictable. Moreover, there’s no clear reminder of where you are in the app.

So one of the main things I add in my new prototype is a persistent bottom navigation.

6. New protoype and more usability tests

New prototype

The navigation in this prototype is always on screen, and you can jump to every section from wherever you are.

Instead of the current app’s slide-in-from-top hamburger menu with 8 items, I chose to only have four sections.

All health and travel info is covered in the eligibility section, and nowhere else. Booking appointments and seeing previous appointments is all done in the appointments section. Viewing and changing profile is done in the profile section.

Each new redesign should go through the same usability tests. My re-tests were limited as I only designed the screens you can see here, but the participants did complete the same tasks faster and more successfully using the new design.

7. Future steps & lessons learnt

Future work could be about combining the location and datepicker. Having to go back and forth between a location and a a suitable day and time is frustrating.

In the above gif, you can see that I started the appointment booking flow by asking users to choose how they want to book an appointment, either by date and time or by a convenient location. But I think that even this simple choice gives the user too much responsibility. I’m sure there’s a way to combine these options into a single slick booking flow.

A good thing about the current app which I didn’t mention above is it’s similarity to the web version. (I think the booking part of the current app may just be a scaled down and embedded web view displaying that portion of the website.) This is good. There should be a consistency between them, as after all, they are doing the same thing, regardless if its a website or an app. A full redesign should account for this, and make sure to update both the website and the app together.

One way would be to make a single responsive design that works at any screen size and scales appropriately. (Some high-fidelity prototyping tools, like Framer, XD and InVision, are moving towards including this).

I learnt a huge amount while doing this project. Lots was in terms of the UX process, as I describe above, but I also learnt lots of UI best practices when designing the prototype in Figma. (I didn’t touch on that in this article, but a lot came from Refactoring UI, which you should definitely check out if you’re interested in UI design.)

Thanks for reading!

(PS: If you don’t give blood and are able to, it’s (a) really quick, (b) it’s a good thing to do, and, (c) weirdly, it’s kind of fun. Check out blood.co.uk if you are in England, and the equivalent service if you’re in different parts of the UK or other countries!)

Startup Weekend: Third Time's The Charm

Last weekend I attended Startup Weekend Oxford: Fintech Edition. It was the third startup weekend I’ve attended, having been to one in Oxford two years ago and one in London late last year. I love them — each time I’ve been, I’ve met really lovely people, and had fun working on really cool ideas. This time the team that I was a part of won first prize!

Our team, the judges and the organisers Our team, the judges and the organisers

What is a Startup Weekend?

Startup Weekends are organised by Techstars in partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs. Over a weekend, 50-80 people self-organise into small teams, come up with a startup idea, validate the idea, and pitch it.

Despite the weekend being full-on, it has a defined structure. (In comparison, hackathons, in my experience, are twenty-four hours of solid coding).

On Friday, everyone arrives, mingles, has some food and drink, and is invited to pitch an idea for a startup that they haven’t yet worked on. People vote on the ideas, and the top 7 (or so) are chosen. Everyone forms into teams: one team per idea. with people they’ve never met before. On Friday night, throughout Saturday, and on Sunday morning, the team works on the idea: coming up with a prototype, a business plan, a growth strategy, and putting it all into a pitch deck.

On Saturday there are workshops. There are about how to validate a problem, pitching, growth strategies and so on. There are also mentors from related industries, who have lots of experience and so can answer questions and offer advice.

On Sunday, all the teams pitch (for just 5 minutes!) to a panel of judges. Each team is judged on three criteria: (i) the validation of the problem and the innovation of the solution, (ii) the execution of the solution, and (iii) the business model. Then the winners are announced. And then, beer.

Getting a team together

I didn’t pitch an idea at the previous two startup weekends I went to. I actually ended up being on teams working on social enterprises at both. The first one was a ‘pledge-swapping’ app, where users could meet other socially-minded users and commit to (for example) going vegetarian for a week in excahnge for signing up to the Labour party membership. The second idea was about encouraging people to boycott brands that had bad human rights practices and offer ethical alternatives.

Photo of me answering a question from the judges at Startup Weekend Oxford 2017 Photo of me answering a question from the judges at Startup Weekend Oxford 2017.

So this time around I was keen to pitch an idea, but didn’t have anything fleshed out. But I did, however, have a (macro) problem that I thought needed solving. Renting is crazy expensive (especially when living in London in your early 20s) and saving enough to get onto the property ladder while paying so much in rent is nearly impossible.

Unlike most pitches, I didn’t pitch a solution. I had no sexy app in mind to solve this problem. I did, however, have a concept in mind that could be used: property guardianship.

In brief, a property guardian is someone who enters into an agreement with a company to live in an otherwise unoccupied building. Property guardian is not an officially recognised term; it is used to denote a resident who doesn’t have a lease agreement so is technically not a ‘tenant’. The company who owns the building saves huge amounts in insurance and empty building tax (in some cases a £110k p.a. bill dropped to £15k p.a.) and the guardian gets to live cheaply in a non-residential building. The buildings could be anything, from office blocks to disused hospitals. Often they have no furniture, and only have running water and a smoke alarm.

People pitching usually say who they want to join their team: designers, developers, marketers, and so on. I just asked for anyone who was keen to research the problem as much as possible, and see if we could find a solution. My pitch got enough votes and eventually we formed a team of 7.

The inital idea

Friday evening was spent doing a brain dump of all potential ideas. Saturday was spent doing a lot of research. There were lots of problems; one we kept coming back to was that potential property guardians don’t know what their legal rights as a guardian would be. We thought of pitching an app that compared different property guardian companies; an app that made it really easy to sign up and apply, and get NFC powered key access to a building; an app that targeted international students looking to live cheaply…

But all our research showed that none of these had a business case.

There are 40 or so companies that offer property guardianships, and only 7000 guardians in the UK. One company had a waiting list of 2000 people. The market was both small and crowded. Moreover, the appeal had disappeared: when these properties first appeared in the early 2000s, places could be ‘rented’ for a third of what normal rent was. Now the cost is basically the same, but you don’t get the same guarantees or provisions that a retner would. There are horror stories of deposits never being returned, guardians having to vacate within 24 hours, and more.

The nail in the coffin came when one of our team tracked down a journalist who had lived as a property guardian in multiple properties in the last ten years, and had written a piece about it in The Times. He told us that we really had no business case. Because of the rising cost to be a property guardian, our startup would make so little money running a service on top. And in his opinion, the whole scheme would “eat it’s own tail” and disappear in a matter of years.

We didn’t really have anywhere to go with the idea. It sounded great: 24,000 commerical properties in London alone are empty, and 11,000 of those have been empty for 2+ years (source). But we had nothing unique, and no way to convince those property owners that a person needing somewhere to cheap to live was better than a good security system until they could be sold.

So, on Saturday evening, three quarters of the way into the competition, we decided to scrap everything we’d done and start afresh.

## Episode IV

We ‘pivoted’. We came up with and refined a new idea: simplifying co-buying a house.

Gif of Ross shouting 'pivot' in Friends

Groups of friends in their early 20s who are already renting together can save money by jointly buying a property and paying a mortgage together, and then, in four or five years time, they can sell it and buy somewhere else by themselves or with their significant other.

This is already possible to do, but people don’t do it, because it’s not easy. There are lots of difficult ‘what if’ questions. What if someone wants to get married and leaves? What if someone goes bankrupt and I’m held liable? What if two people want to buy out another person’s share?

Our app would show people explicitly what happens in these various scenarios, removing any worries, and would also show the savings made by not paying rent and by potential increase (or decrease) of the property’s value. The company would initially be profitable by gaining referral fees from conveyancers and mortgage brokers, and could eventually branch out into subsidiary revenue streams.

Although this idea focussed on a completely different problem, it solves the same macro problem: rent is expensive; how do I pay less rent?

Our team scrambled together a pitch deck, some figures to size the market and present a business case to show it was viable, we put together a quick prototype with Figma (I <3 Figma), and we pitched it. And we won!

Gif of the Figma prototype of our app

Lessons learnt

The weekend was a blast. I already knew from previous startup weekends that the best startups have to actually solve a problem, instead of just creating a solution for a problem that no one has. But I never expected to pivot away from an idea so late into the competition, but still be able to end up winning.

Other lessons: a good pitch and a good prototype really make all the difference. Each team only had five minutes to communicate what we’d spent the whole weekend working on, so at the end of it all, it really came down to selling what we’d done to the judges, and getting them to believe in our idea.

I feel super lucky to have worked alongside such an amazing team throughout. We all listened to each other, worked collaboratively, and bounced ideas off each other. It was this that eventually allowing us to land on something really great.

Our team! Our team!

Stay tuned for more info about our startup-in-progress!

PS: Matt also did a write-up about our team at Startup Weekend; you can read it here.

How Immanuel Kant Solved One Of The Greatest Dilemmas Of All Human Thought

This blogpost was first published on the u2tuition blog. If you want to learn more about Kant, I recommend watching or listening to this lecture series by Dan Robinson.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who was born in 1724 and lived until 1804. He was also one of the most important philosophers who has ever lived. His contributions to the study of metaphysics (questions relating to the nature of reality) and the study epistemology (questions relating to knowledge) have had a profound influence on all philosophers who came after him.

This is all because he went about philosophy in a unique way. Before Kant, philosophers had tried to answer questions such as: what is the soul? Is all matter made of the same substance? What can we have knowledge of? And does God exist?

Kant instead begun by asking a more fundamental question, which he claims has to be answered before asking any other questions. This question is: how do we attain knowledge of the world? What conditions must be satisfied in order to have any knowledge at all? Only when we have an answer to this question can further questions be asked about the nature of the world. Kant’s answer to this question, and the consequences of his answer, form his ‘critical philosophy.’1

The main idea is this: instead of humans passively receiving information from the world around us via the sensory data collected by the sense organs, the human mind instead actively plays a part in shaping the world that we experience. This means that everything which we experience does not come to us already shaped. Instead, we play a part in shaping how our experiences are structured.

This idea is not that controversial: current researchers in neuroscience and psychology agree with this. Anil Seth, a cognitive neuroscientist and the co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, describes it as your brain ‘hallucinating’ the conscious reality you experience.2

It also makes sense of our understanding of how animals perceive the world. Consider two animals: dogs and flies. Dogs are red-green colour-blind, so cannot perceive the same range of visible light that humans can. Flies experience the world in a way we are thoroughly unable to comprehend, as they have prismatic vision, so only experience a ‘prismatic’ word.3

Photo of dog

An example of one of the specific ways in which Kant thinks we shape the world is to do with causal relations. According to Kant, we only ever perceive two events as being causally related because we sculpt them as being causally related. (This view of causality is meant to solve Hume’s famous problem of causality;5 Kant claims that it was Hume who awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber”).

A consequence of this is that all we ever experience is a world of appearances. We never directly experience any kind of objective reality, which Kant refers to as the world as it is in itself (or Ding an sich).6 This view is controversial, but it allows Kant to provide a solution to a problem that raged between the greatest philosophers in the centuries preceding him.

The Greatest Dilemma In All Human Thought

Before Kant, there were two conflicting answers to the question: what can you know using the pure faculty of reason? Think about this for a moment. If you were sat in an armchair with your eyes closed, could you know anything? What would you be justified in claiming knowledge of?

Before we answer let me introduce a distinction between four types of knowledge:7

  • Knowledge that is analytic doesn’t introduce anything new which isn’t already contained within the meaning of the words. The propositions “all triangles have three sides” and “this bachelor is an unmarried man” are examples of analytic propositions.
  • Knowledge that is synthetic adds something to a concept. For example, the propositions “the grass is green” or “tomorrow it will rain” are both synthetic propositions, as new knowledge is gained.
  • Knowledge that is a posteriori is derived from sense experience. The above example “the grass is green” is a posteriori, as we come to know it by looking at the grass.
  • Knowledge that is a priori is derived from reason alone. One example would be the claim “god is supremely good;” if a person were to know that proposition, they wouldn’t be able to know it via experience, so would know it a priori.

The rationalist philosophers (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and others) thought we could have synthetic a priori knowledge. This meant that we would be able to know things only by using our faculty of reason. Descartes’ famous Meditations make use of this. From his armchair, Descartes conducts a thought experiment: what if everything we experience is an illusion caused by an evil demon? He claims that this isn’t the case, by a series of steps that only use his faculty of reason. He first realises that he is a thinking being (this is the famous “I think, therefore I am,” which is often called the cogito). He then reasons that, as he clearly and distinctly knows that he is a thinking thing, anything he thinks clearly and distinctly must be true. He continues to reason in a similar way, to reach conclusions about the existence of God and the nature of his soul. All of this is done without any appeal to the world of experience. It all happens from his armchair.

Photo of armchair

The empiricist philosophers (Hume, Locke, Berkeley and others) thought that we could not have synthetic a priori knowledge. Hume famously writes in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (12:34) “Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” By this he means that we only allowed to claim knowledge of truths that are synthetic a posteriori or analytic a priori, and nothing else.

This leaves us in this situation:

  a priori a posteriori
synthetic Rationalist: yes / Empiricist: no Rationalist: yes / Empiricist: yes
analytic Rationalist: yes / Empiricist: yes na

Synthetic a priori truths are ones that we can’t get from external experience, but still increase our knowledge. Answers to metaphysical questions, like what is the nature of the world, or can events cause other events, or does God exist, are all synthetic a priori. It is supremely important that we are able to give answers to such questions instead of just remaining sceptical about them; if we can’t give answers, all of metaphysical enquiry is doomed, as Hume thought it was. But the rationalist solution is no good either – there clearly seems to be something wrong with laying claim to grand ideas about God and the world purely using reason.

Kant’s Solution

Kant provides an incredibly clever solution to this problem. Instead of siding with either the rationalists or the empiricists, he synthesises their two answers into one position, claiming that the two sets of philosophers before him were just “wrestling with shadows.”

Quick recap of earlier: Kant’s great idea was that we actively shape the world we experience. Sensations don’t passively arrive to us fully formed, entering our brain; instead our brain creates our reality. As he writes, “up to now it ha[d] been assumed that all cognition must conform to the objects… let us now assume that he objects must conform to our cognition [of them].” The direction of explanation changes: instead of the limits of what we experience being the limits of our cognition, it is the limits of our cognition itself that become the limits of what we can experience. The world we experience is thus only a world of appearances, and not an underlying objective reality.

This gives Kant an answer to what we can know solely by using our faculty of pure reason:

  • Our experience of objects is known a priori. This is because we shape that experience using categories which are innate, i.e. using part of our faculty of reason.8 This experience is also synthetic, as having knowledge of objects in the world is gaining new knowledge. So Kant disagrees with the empiricists: we can have synthetic a priori knowledge.

  • Our knowledge is limited to what we can experience. Because we shape what we experience, we can never know anything beyond the world of appearance. So, while Kant thinks we can have synthetic a priori knowledge, he still disagrees with the rationalists. This is because he denies that we can know anything about God, the soul, and so on. There are limits to what we can know because of how we know things.

Kant’s synthesis thus provides a way out of this grand dilemma.

How This Has Impacted Everything Since

Before Kant, philosophers and scientists were roughly the same thing. They both investigated the nature of the world. But during and after Kant’s time, new scientific and mathematical methods were being developed. This led to the distinction between philosophy and science becoming stronger. The job of the philosopher became to support science, by finding a ground that justified all the discoveries of the scientist.

Kant was writing in the time of Newton. Newton was making leaps and bounds in the fields of mathematics and science; meanwhile, the philosophers were unable to even know whether one event had caused another. Kant’s project was thus incredibly important at that time. His writing was hunting for a metaphysical system that was able to ground the objectivity required by the scientists.

*Could there be a more consequential philosophical project? Kant’s ideas about the world respect the cognitive and perceptual resources that come to bear on every knowledge claim that we make. His ideas provide a metaphysical analysis that manages to accommodate the unique stamp of human cognition, without lapsing into rampant subjectivity. And most importantly, Kant’s project is able to inform the sciences on what precisely it is that makes the sciences successful.

Photo of bee

I stand in the garden, observing the beautiful yellow sunflowers that have just bloomed. A honeybee is alongside me. The peak spectral sensitivity of normal human vision is 555 nanometres, whereas honeybees have three types of photoreceptor that all peak in the ultraviolet range of light. I.e., honeybees can see thing that are outside the range of what we have anthropocentrically refer to as ‘visible light.’ The honeybee sees nothing that is yellow. I see nothing that is ultraviolet. Are we both hallucinating? No – we both perceive something that really does exist. Kant’s argument is what allows us to explain that objectivity of shared experience, while also retaining the uniquely human subjectivity that we bring to the situation. Building on this, all of science is possible.

1 Kant’s philosophy is called the ‘critical philosophy’ because he proposes it across the three Critiques, namely the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).

2 See Seth’s TED Talk for more information: https://www.ted.com/talks/anil_seth_how_your_brain_hallucinates_your_conscious_reality

3 We know that creatures different from humans experience the world differently by examining their sense organs. However, we can never really know what the conscious experience of another creature is like. This is related to the hard problem of consciousness. For more on this, see Thomas Nagel’s brief essay on ‘What Is It Like to Be A Bat?’

4 According to Kant, the way that we ‘shape’ or ‘mould’ our experience is done using a set of innately held categories that are schematised. Kant was incredibly precise about this list of categories and how we derive them from a set of logical forms. This has led some to accuse him of an unnecessary “architectonic mania” – meaning that he subdivides things excessively and irrationally, trying to find patterns that aren’t really there.

5 According to Hume, causality is a habit of the mind, fabricated out of repeated experiences. When we experience two events repeatedly occurring together, we assume that one event causes the other, just because of habit. There is no deeper ‘causal power.’

6 Claiming that objects are in some way dependent on our mind is a stance known as idealism. Kant’s idealism is different from Berkleian idealism, however. For Berkeley, all objects exist in the mind. For Kant, objects still exist physically, but the conditions of our experience of those objects is mind-dependent. This results in his idealism being labelled transcendental idealism, as transcendental means relating to preconditions of experience.

7 To be precise, when Kant writes about these distinctions, they apply to judgements (Urteil) about our cognition (Erkenntnis). Cognition is slightly different to what Kant calls knowledge (Wissen) – however, for our purposes these finer details aren’t relevant.

8 Here I am simplifying again; Kant uses the word ‘reason’ in a very specific way differently to how I write about it here, but which isn’t relevant to our purposes.

My master's thesis: theories of representation

I recently completed my degree at the University of Oxford. My undergraduate and masters were combined, so I’m only getting one degree, instead of a BA and a Masters separately. The degree title is Master of Computer Science and Philosophy.

The fourth year of the course was split into three parts. One third was a 20,000 word thesis; I wrote it comparing an aspect of Advaita Vedanta (maya or avidya) in the writings of Adi Sankaracharya, with a very similar idea in the philosophy of a German 18th century philosopher called Schopenhauer.

I have included an extract of my thesis below. If you want to read the full thing, please don’t hesitate to message me!

The other two thirds were two modules. For each, I had to sit a 3h45m exam and submit a 5,000 word extended essay. My exams ended up being on the same day (🙁), so a few weeks ago I sat 7h30m of exams in one day, with a small break in the middle for lunch. Below are some photos of me finishing those exams.

End of exams End of a long day of exams

Photo with Peter My tutor, Peter, who was the reason I made it through my degree

Thesis Introduction

In this thesis, I compare two philosophers: the 19th century, post-Kantian philosopher Schopenhauer, and Sankara, an ancient Indian philosopher from the 8th century. I examine their respective theories of representation and the arguments that they each give in defence. Sankara’s theory is that the world which we experience is illusory in nature, resulting from an individual’s ignorance (avidya) of their true nature. Schopenhauer’s theory is a type of idealism, labelled by him as the ‘representation’ aspect of the world, or the ‘world as representation.’

Examining the relationship between two philosophies can proceed in different ways. The first is by questioning whether one developed under the influence of the other. This is done by examining historical and textual evidence. The second is a comparative approach. This is done through a critical analysis of the arguments used to defend each philosophy; the strategies or flaws of each is used to strengthen or attack the other. Such a comparison can be undertaken without historical consideration. Much has been written on the influence of Indian philosophy on Schopenhauer’s writings; this thesis instead proceeds using a comparative approach.1

I aim to analytically discuss and evaluate arguments given by Schopenhauer and Sankara. Their respective styles of writing present a challenge: they write in different contexts and are guided by different motives. Here I aim to bring out the essence of their philosophical works in a way which allows them to be dissected and to be compared with each other: in the first part, I do this by enumerating the key tenets of their theories; in the second part, I do this by syllogising their arguments into premises, allowing for an examination of validity and assumptions made.

Schopenhauer had a lot in common with Indian philosophy. Magee writes that “[t]here is nothing controversial in saying that of the major figures in Western philosophy, Schopenhauer is the one who has most in common with Eastern thought.”2 Choosing Sankara to compare him to is due to his influence and reputation. He is credited with establishing and unifying large sections Hindu philosophy,3 and is labelled as one of the founding fathers of Advaita Vedanta.4 His writings attempt to systematise early Hindu ideas; he also defends these ideas using methods of reasoning found in the earlier Buddhist Mādhyamika philosophy.5 Furthermore, a comparative study of schools of philosophy can only be done meaningfully when working within a limited scope. There exists a huge range of Indian thought, and so by focussing specifically on Sankara’s writings and the Advaita Vedanta school, this discussion can take place.

I choose to focus on theories of representation due to their continuing relevance in philosophy. A theory of representation explains all experience of the empirical world by positing that we perceive one thing which is merely a representation of something else.6 Both Sankara and Schopenhauer claim that all we ever do perceive are representations; the underlying ultimate reality is something else entirely. Questioning whether our world of everyday objects could be unreal is something that challenges philosophers even now. Moreover, it is a question that has a relevance beyond philosophy: it inspires and challenges poets, artists and authors.

The Indian philosophical texts which Schopenhauer read were only available to him in a double-translation: from the original Sanskrit into Persian, and then into Latin. These translations are considered to be outdated and inaccurate.7 Thus, to facilitate the most accurate comparison, the primary sources I refer to are contemporary translations into English of both Sankara’s and Schopenhauer’s writings.8

Translations given will prioritise philosophical clarity over accuracy of translation. Key Sanskrit terms will be transliterated and provided alongside their translation into English.9 After their first use, I use English translations. The exception to this is my use of the term avidya; as I explain in Section 4, it does not have a direct translation. Many Sanskrit terms have different meanings depending on context, and hence warrant different translations depending on the school of philosophy they are used in; in what follows I give the translation appropriate to their use in Advaita Vedanta.

This thesis proceeds in two parts: the first part examines the two theories, and the second part examines the arguments given to defend the theories. In the first part, Sections 2 and 3 cover the backgrounds of Sankara and Schopenhauer in detail, providing a context for each of their theories. Sections 4 and 5 then explain each of their respective theories of representation, and Section 6 notes similarities and differences between the theories when examined in themselves. In the second part, Section 7 enumerates the arguments given by each to argue in favour of the theories; from this list, I choose five arguments to examine. Section 8 examines one of the arguments used by Schopenhauer, namely the dream argument, and Section 9 examines two similar arguments made by Sankara. Then, Section 10 examines another one of the arguments that Schopenhauer uses, namely the argument from causality, and Section 11 examines a similar argument from Sankara. Section 12 concludes with a summary of my findings.

My examination reveals that, as Schopenhauer himself claimed, the two positions really are very close, to the extent that they even make use of structurally similar arguments. My conclusion lists a number of similarities and differences.

Concerning the theories when examined in themselves, I argue that they are, in essence, identical, and that the main differences are about the knowability of the ultimate reality and Schopenhauer’s pessimism.

Concerning the arguments given to defend their theories, I list certain structural similarities in their styles of arguing, as well as uncovering one fundamental difference: Schopenhauer’s arguments start from examining the limits of one’s experience of the empirical world; from this, he draws conclusions about the thing-in-itself. Sankara, however, starts from assumptions about the nature of ultimate reality, and uses these to draw conclusions about our experiences of the empirical world.

1 See Berger (2004) and App (2006 and 2014) for more on the question of influence.

2 Magee, 1987: 316. By ‘Eastern thought,’ Magee is referring specifically to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. 3 Kruijf and Sahoo, 2014: 105

4 Bartley, 2015: 180

5 Alston, 2004: 1, 23-26

6 A theory of representation could also propose that we perceive through representations instead of perceiving representations. In both cases, the point is that we don’t directly perceive an underlying thing as it is in itself.

7 Here I am primarily referring to Anquetil-Duperron’s Oupnek’hat, a Latin translation of the Persian Sirr-i Akbar, which in turn was a translation of fifty of the Upaniṣads. App (2006) argues that Schopenhauer’s first encounter with Indian philosophy was actually with a translation of the Bhagavad Gītā by Majer. For more, see Cross, 2013: 9-36 and App, 2006.

8 Primarily, I use the 6-volume Sankara Source Book by A. J. Alston, and the translation of both volumes of The World as Will and Representation by E. F. J. Payne. In the List of References, I provide a note on abbreviations used for primary sources.

9 A pronunciation guide for transliterated Sanskrit can be found in Bartley, 2005: 303.