Philosopher Babies

There’s an ancient debate about the right age to study philosophy.  Plato thought that you could only make a start at the age of 30 (after studying almost everything else first, in preparation).  You need to have lived a life and racked up some experience before you could have a claim to wisdom.  However, being Plato, he does consider another view.  This from Callicles to Socrates in Gorgias:  ‘It is a good thing to engage in philosophy just so far as it is an aid to education, and no disgrace for a youth to study it, but when a man who is now growing older studies it he becomes ridiculous…when I see an older man studying philosophy and not deserting it, that man, Socrates, is actually asking for a whipping….’

Think what you like about that, but the waters have been recently muddied by the newish thought that babies are philosophical in some sense.  Here’s an article by Alison Gopnik:  ‘From butterfly to caterpillar:  How children grow up.’ The thought is that human children have adults to do the protecting and feeding and heavy-lifting while they do a lifetime’s worth of mental R & D.  They think and explore and wonder and play — they have the mental freedom, the open minds for original, even genuinely philosophical reflection on what exists, what’s true and good and beautiful.  Their minds, unlike ours, are not made up.  When they grow up, though, the window closes forever, their brains settle down, neural connections solidify, ruts sink in, and the little philosophers become crusty, dogmatic sentinels like the rest of us.  I can’t help thinking it’s not a happy ending, but it does explain why adult philosophers can almost never talk each other into anything.

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  1. Although deserving them I’ve managed to avoid whippings throughout my life. Well I guess one good reason is as good as another.

  2. Don’t worry about possible beatings, Ralph. Callicles, if I remember it, wasn’t making an actual threat. He was giving Socrates the ancient version of ‘why don’t you grow up and get a proper job?’. Philosophers still get that one. It’s hard to find an answer that convinces sceptics.

  3. The question raised here gives me a painful sense of shame and guilt. My eight-year old granddaughter asks (like all children) philosophical questions. I let her strict Orthodox Christian father and her liberally-minded Christian mother (my daughter) give her the ‘correct’ answers. In the circumstances I think that is not only inevitable but is also in a way good. But when, and how, should her intelligent questions be given intelligent answers?

  4. D.R.K.
    A while ago I made myself a rule about telling the truth to the grandchildren. If they direct a question to me, I’ll answer it as truthfully as I know how.
    Unfortunately, none of the multitude of grandkids I have have asked me anything to put me to the test,yet. But one of them seems interested that I,m studying philosophy. Hopefully, he’ll soon be my first “truth” seeker.

  5. That’s great that some people think that babies are philosophical. But one of the simple facts of the matter is that they have absolutely no responsibility for taking care of themselves or others. They don’t have the hard earned (and sometimes joyfully welcomed!) *wisdom* that comes with that. Aren’t philosophers supposed to be lovers of learning and wisdom? I think one should start philosophizing as soon as he or she can appreciate the *value* of learning something. Philosophy as at least a form of self-reflection. At best babies are easily captivated by and are lovers of “good” sights and sounds.

  6. The right age to study philosophy – the age of reason

  7. “But when, and how, should her intelligent questions be given intelligent answers?”


  8. I’ve always thought the subject of philosophy should be introduced to children at primary school level. Not necessarily as a completely separate subject, but as part of a subject like Social Studies (as we call it here in NZ) for example.

    I’m sure children think about ‘the big questions’ from time to time. I’d like to see them introduced to the broad idea that this can be a formal practice and a valid subject(s) to study, and introduced to the idea of critical thinking.

    I also think children should be tought at least one other language at early school.

  9. I second the language proposal. I didn’t get it early enough, and now I feel like I’m always swimming in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak, with my second language. I think Hegel said something in one of the intros to his Logic to the effect that you can’t really get to know the spirit of a people and even moreso of your own self by comparison without knowing the grammars. I think this is particularly insightful. There are constant instances where I find myself rephrasing my “home” grammar in order to make sense in my second language. Sometimes I don’t even make sense in my first language, hehe. But this is beside the point. I’m just trying to say that I think the teaching of a second language at an early age is essential to breeding philosophical, well-spoken, critical thinkers. Some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met have been polyglots since a very young age.

  10. I am strongly for a second language at an early age. One of the best things that ever happened to me was that I learned to read English (Arabic being my native language) as a child. Multi-lingualism is liberating in more than one way.

  11. Does anybody buy the thought that children are doing a kind of philosophy when they wonder about things?

    I do think there’s something to it, but there never has been a real philosophical prodigy. (Ignore Mill, his dad made him do it, and Kripke was just doing formal logic.) You get gifted child mathematicians, musicians, artists, even writers. Six year olds might have imaginary friends, but they almost never crank out new solutions to the problem of other minds. It makes me think they’re not really doing philosophy. We would have had at least one great philosopher under 10 by now, wouldn’t we?

  12. One of my philosophy lecturers used to say that only a few people have ever gotten very good at philosophy, and then they died.

  13. Kyle:
    My impression is that philosophical power seems to peak late in life. Knowing more and caring less perhaps makes things stand out clearer.

  14. I think that starting philosophy young is a good idea. The trick is not to bill it as philosophy.

  15. Children should be taught philosophy from as early an age as possible. They are naturally inquisitive and open to learning and it is the perfect time to introduce them to the notions of critical thinking, reasoning, other minds etc.

    Philosophy ought to be an integral part of every curriculum from an early age: it provides valuable thinking tools that can help aid and elucidate concepts in other areas of learning, whether scientific and mathematical (evidence, the possibility of knowledge, ethics, logic) or more abstract, such as the arts and humanities (aesthetics, the value of art, the existence of supernatural beings, the rights and responsibilities of humans).

    I wish I had been able to study philosophy at school and not only really come to it as an interested adult. Unfortunately those in charge of education (ministers, not teachers, I’m referring to) seem to currently have such a rigid, dogmatic and job-oriented view of the purpose and value of education that something perceived as so impractical, old-fashioned, elitist and abstract is unlikely to gain a central place in schools. Plus there would be a massive barrier in the form of religious objections to the concept of questioning religious beliefs and practices.

  16. I’m now 19 and experiencing being a dad. I must say although it feels good it’s still hard. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but to be honest, the hard part is having to balance time. My daughter is great and makes managing her never dreadful. -Teen dad

  17. Lynne Hinton has made the teaching of philosophy compulsory to all students in her primary school with
    outrageously positive results in learning outcomes, happiness and behaviour.

  18. “Unfortunately those in charge of education (ministers, not teachers, I’m referring to) seem to currently have such a rigid, dogmatic and job-oriented view…”

    Somewhat apropos, this speech from Ken Robinson:

  19. For some reason I only received the notification of the August 11 post from Luke today.

    Anyway, I’m glad I did get it as it prompted me to actually read it and the links properly.

    Thanks Luke, that was really interesting.

  20. Thanks Stephen.

    My post was marked as waiting for verification from a moderator. In future I’ll try not to create posts that look like spam.

    Hopefully her initiative will spread.

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