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December 17, 2003

philosophy & the young child

I love Gareth B. Mathews' Philosophy & the Young Child (1980). It's full of dialogues in which kids between the ages of 4 and 10 explore profound issues of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics with an adult who's genuinely interested in their perspective. They supply fresh vision and curiosity; the adult provides some useful vocabulary and provocative questions.

Mathews believes that it's hard to think straight about fundamental philosophical questions once you've been encumbered by a bunch of conventional theories--and once you've been told that most deep questions are really simple and obvious. For example, we're inclined to think that a kid is silly if she asks why she doesn't see double, since she has two eyes. Actually, this is not such an easy question to answer, but most of us are soon socialized to dismiss such matters as childish.

Mathews skewers the great developmental psychologists, especially Piaget, who assumed that children first express naive views and then develop correct adult positions. Mathews points out that many of the "primitive" statements quoted by Piaget are actually more philosohically defensible than the adult positions he espouses without thinking twice. For instance, Piaget asserts that small children confuse "the data of the external world and those of the internal. Reality is impregnated with self and thought is conceived as belonging to the category of physical matter." When you grow up, according to Piaget, you realize that there are two separate domains: thought and matter. But Mathews quotes his own teacher, W.V.O. Quine (often called the greatest American philosopher), who told him, "Let's face it, Mathews. It's one world and it's a physical world." This is exactly the position that Piaget calls "primitive" and expects kids to drop as they "develop."

Another treat in Mathews' book is his identification of a whole genre of children's literature: "philosophical whimsy." In some books that small children love, the plot is not driven forward by a practical problem or threat or a clash among characters. Rather, the protagonists face purely logical or epistemological puzzles. A simple example is Morris the Moose by B. Wiseman, in which Morris keeps trying to prove to other animals that they are moose like him. "My mother is a cow, so I'm a cow," says the cow. "You're a moose, so your mother was a moose," Morris replies. The whole book is about what makes a proof. This is a short and light-weight example, but the genre of philosophical whimsy also embraces Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, and the Wizard of Oz.

Posted by peterlevine at December 17, 2003 02:11 PM


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