Shh… The Philosophy of Secrets

The theme of this week’s online classes has been The Philosophy of Secrets. It’s been one of those sessions that just flies straight out of the box. There’s a brief PPT of the three stimuli to help with it here. 

We’ve started by collecting any light-hearted examples of secrets that people have confided, kept or blabbed in the past, and then I’ve told this story written by my colleague Marley Davies. Let them know that the question you are going to ask is…

Stimulus 1: When is a secret born?

During a game of hide and seek in the woods, Belle finds a fallen tree and hides under it. Sebastian can’t find her anywhere, and after a while, he calls out, “You win!” 

Belle walks the long way round back to Sebastian. He begs her to show him the hiding spot and, with some persuading, Belle eventually gives in and shows him. 

The two children create a den under the fallen tree with sticks and moss. Without discussing it, they both know that they won’t tell anyone about their new den. 

When Sebastian gets home, he considers saying where they’ve been but decides to say nothing. 

Belle is asked by her parents what they’ve been up to but she just says, “Playing, in the woods.”

The next day, they meet in the woods again and make a pact to never tell anyone about their hidden den.

When was the secret born?

Try to quote a few words from the story that mark the moment. (Good time to deploy mini-whiteboards)
What is a secret? 
Can you keep a secret from yourself?

Stimulus 2: Keeping and Spilling Secrets

Show these dialogues:

X asks Y, “Can you keep a secret?”
Y: “Yes”
X: “…”


W asks Y, “Do you know …?”
Y: “I can’t say”

Has Y spilled the secret or kept it? 
Should they say, “I don’t know” (which would be untrue), or something else?
Can an honest person keep secrets?
Does keeping a secret force you to lie?

When should secrets not be kept?

Every discussion so far, common-sense stuff about not keeping secrets that might put someone in danger have come from the group. I’ve then contrasted how teachers are trained that we can’t keep secrets that put people in danger, but that the secrecy of the confessional is absolute, which is an interesting example.

3. Secret secrets and unsecret secrets

This is a fun puzzle to unpack but also a useful distinction in thinking about secrets (and can apply to the dialogue above). 

The secret to understanding secrets is to realise that there are secret secrets and unsecret secrets. In a secret secret, not only is it secret what the secret is, but it is a secret that there is a secret. In an unsecret secret, the secret of the secret is secret but it is no secret that there is a secret. For example, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s precise combination of spices is an unsecret secret, since they keep it secret but it is no secret that they are keeping it secret. I can’t give you any examples of secret secrets because if I did, they wouldn’t be secret secrets any more, but you might be able to think of some ex-secret secrets that went from being secret secrets to unsecret secrets to not being secrets.

Can they give some examples of secret secrets and unsecret secrets?
If someone turns a secret secret into an unsecret secret, have they spilled the secret?

Some other questions that have come up:

What makes secrets valuable?
Is humanity better off with secrets or without them?
What is the secret of secrets?


Best wishes,

Jason & Marley

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