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Children, Intuitive Knowledge & Philosophy

Maria daVenza Tillmanns argues that teaching children to think must involve more than simply teaching them cognitive skills.

“Philosophy makes progress not by becoming more rigorous but by becoming more imaginative.” – Richard Rorty

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world.” – Albert Einstein

It is my contention that the form of young children’s knowledge of the world is based on intuitive thinking. Let me begin with how I came to this idea in the first place.

I attended a moral education conference at Harvard University in 1983. There Lawrence Kohlberg, who developed a theory of moral education based on Piaget’s ‘stage’ theory of cognitive development in children, and Matthew Lipman, the founder and Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, posed the interesting question of whether young children had the ability to enter into philosophical dialogue. The general assumption was that children who have not yet progressed to Piaget’s cognitive stage of abstract reasoning (that is, children younger than about nine or ten) would not be able to do philosophy. Lipman’s work, however, seemed instead to show that children are natural philosophers (see especially Matthew Lipman et al, Philosophy in the Classroom, 2nd edition, p.31-40, 1980). His work demonstrates that in school after school, young children greatly enjoy sharing their thoughts and ideas, listening to others, changing their minds and pondering the questions discussed. Children are also interested in the purpose behind everything, not just the cause.

The disagreement between Kohlberg and Lipman over whether or not young children are capable of having serious philosophical discussions led me to think that there may be two different kinds of thinking in this regard. It occurred to me that whereas children may not yet have achieved the highest stage of abstract reasoning which enables them to have what academics would recognise as philosophical discussions, they may use a different form of thinking that nevertheless allows them to entertain serious questions about reality, fairness, justice, etc. These questions arise in them naturally, based on their curiosity about the world. They may not be at the stage where they can give well-reasoned arguments for their thoughts and ideas, but this does not imply that they do not have an intuitive understanding of ideas. Doing philosophy with children gives them the opportunity to give voice to those ideas while teaching them to clearly articulate their thoughts and give reasons for them.

I would argue that without first thoroughly appreciating children’s deep intuitive understanding of the world in which they live, we have nothing to build their cognitive skills on. That is to say, teachers need to develop children’s cognitive thinking skills based on the thinking and knowledge they already have, and we are too quick to underestimate the knowledge. We have failed young children for decades here, because although we often find their thoughts and ideas amusing, we rarely appreciate that they have a form of thinking we somehow cannot grasp or understand anymore. However, those who teach philosophy to young children do acknowledge their ability to dialogue about issues of fairness and justice, beauty and morality. Children may not have the developed structures of abstract thought to apply to such topics, but that doesn’t imply that they lack a fundamental grasp of what these issues entail. In fact, it is my experience, that children often have a ‘purer’ sense of these concepts, because their thinking has not yet been contaminated by societal biases and cultural norms.

Kandinsky Autumn Landscape With Boats
Wassily Kandinsky, Autumn Landscape With Boats, 1908

Intuitive Knowledge & Cognitive Skills

Whence does childrens’ intuitive knowledge originate?

In I and Thou (1923), existentialist philosopher and scholar Martin Buber wrote, “It is simply not the case that the child first perceives an object, then, as it were, puts himself in relation to it. But the effort to establish relation comes first… In the beginning is relation – as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the a priori of relation, the inborn Thou. The inborn Thou is realized in the lived relations with that which meets it” (p.27). This a priori (that is, existing prior to learnt experience) relation to the world forms the basis for the intuitive knowledge we have of the world. Intuitive thought then emerges from one’s total engagement with the world, through one’s whole being.

Children aren’t the only ones who have a total engagement with the world. Artists, for example, rely on the knowledge that originates from a total engagement and openness, to which they give expression through their art. But for many people, intuitive knowledge is gradually replaced by the structures of thinking we are taught. Logic then comes to replace immediate experience, although experience is infinitely more complex than reason can behold. And where reason fails us, many turn to religion.

We always have the capacity to retain some form of an intuitive understanding of the world, yet too often it is replaced by the cognitive skills we develop in school. As a result, our cognitive skills are often developed as it were in a vacuum, disassociated from our being. This disassociation creates a dependency on others with authority, or on status, or on following trends and fads. If we cannot self-regulate our thinking, we depend on others who will do it for us. This dependency robs people of their ability to enter into interdependent relationships, where their inborn relationship with the world and with themselves is intact. In his article, ‘The Impact of Philosophy for Children in a High School English Class’ (available at, Chad Miller says, “The continued irrelevance and disregard of the students’ experiences, questions and ideas by schools, has too often left them with the inability to think responsibly for themselves; the school has told them what to think and why to think it.” Philosophy for children on the contrary honors the inborn relationship children have with the world around them. It helps them to cultivate their inner authority, be self-critical, to self-regulate, and indeed truly be in charge of their own thinking and decisions.

Because young children have not yet developed the cognitive skills to express themselves, they use imagination, and they rely on it to convey their understanding of the world. Imagination is the language of intuitive knowledge, borne out of our unlearnt relationship with the world. If we rob children of their intuitive knowledge and imagination in order to develop their cognitive skills as rapidly as possible, we essentially rob them of this inborn relationship with the world. Thus we try to reestablish their relationship with the world and with themselves through developing their cognitive skills at the expense of that very relationship! We can train people to be very smart and knowledgeable, but at the expense of their inborn intelligence, which is rooted in a natural relationship with the world. They thus become disconnected from the world, from other people, and from themselves. And all the therapy in the world cannot make up for the inborn relationship we had at the beginning of life and have now lost. The loss also leads to dangerous consequences. Disassociated logic can allow us to do the most horrible things to the environment, other life forms, and other people, and provide justifications for it. Integrity and character may also become empty concepts, because, as Buber would say, we have replaced the ‘inborn Thou’ with the ‘It’. The I-It relationship is strictly instrumental in nature and serves the individual’s needs at the expense of the relationship they have with the world (I and Thou, p.23).

As an example, David Brooks says in his article ‘The Power of Altruism’, “When you introduce a financial incentive you prompt people to see their situation through an economic lens. Instead of following their natural bias toward reciprocity, service and cooperation, you encourage people to do a selfish cost-benefit calculation. They begin to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’… the institutions that arouse the moral lens have withered away while the institutions that manipulate incentives – the market and the state – have expanded. Now economic, utilitarian thinking has become the normal way we do social analysis and see the world” (New York Times, July 8, 2016). And Chad Miller found that when he administered a survey on the first day of class to examine his students’ reasoning skills, they answered that they “believed school was boring, but necessary to go to college and ‘make a lot of money’” (p.2). Essentially, we have replaced a life rich in meaning for a meaningless life of riches. In the name of progress, we end up working against our own interests, increasing distrust and hostility. Buber describes the world as one in which there is a “constant swinging back and forth” of the I-It and I-Thou relationships. Yet if we are disconnected from our I-Thou relationship and only the I-It relationship determines our interactions and relations with the world and other people, no amount of ‘religion’ can make up for that loss.

Thinking Imaginatively

We need to foster and nourish the ‘inborn Thou’ by strengthening children’s relations to the world around them and other people. The only way to restore the inborn Thou to our society is to allow children to develop their intuitive knowledge by allowing them full reign to their imaginations in the arts and sciences and in doing philosophy with them.

The ‘inborn Thou’ signifies our direct relationship with the world, relatively unmediated through socially-conferred abstract structures of thought. If you will, it finds its expression in a form of parrhesia; speaking freely or frankly. Diogenes the Cynic practiced parrhesia when he asked Alexander the Great, conqueror of the known world, to move out of the way because he was blocking the sun (Plutarch, Alexander, 14). Diogenes bluntly informs Alexander the Great that he’s not the center of the universe. It is this ‘Diogenesian’ voice that we should appeal to when philosophising with children. Doing philosophy with children provides just the context for speaking freely.

What expertise do philosophers have? Philosophers are experts in not knowing. In practicing the art of philosophy, the art of not knowing, we engage each other to think together to explore concepts we only vaguely understand. Thinking together not only binds us, but also allows us to explore unknown and perhaps unknowable territory with joy, curiosity and confidence. Through asking children what they already know through their intuitive knowledge, and putting thinking itself into question, we can help them become aware of themselves as thinking beings. In this way children develop what David Bohm calls the ‘proprioception of thought’ – an ability to “observe thought” which is the “self-perception of thought” (On Dialogue, pp.73-83, 1996). This is the ability to become self-critical in the sense of self-aware through questioning what we already know. In ‘Childhood, Education and Philosophy: Notes on Deterritorialisation’, Walter Kohan says, “We are not interested in this or that information or knowledge, in any specific truth; we do not teach techniques in order that students practice intellectual skills, learn how to answer this or that kind of question, or recognise this or that type of fallacy. Rather, we are primarily interested in students and teachers entering a zone of interrogation – in putting themselves, their lives, their passions and beliefs into question through the experience of thinking together” (Philosophy for Children in Transition, eds. Nancy Vansieleghem and David Kennedy, 2012, pp.178-179).

Once children experience themselves as thinking beings, we can then proceed with teaching them the cognitive thinking skills they need, because only when cognitive knowledge grows out of our intuitive knowledge, steeped in our natural relationship with the world, can we become full human beings, not just talking heads disassociated from our own bodies and relationship with the world. We are not disembodied creatures. It is through our concrete being that we stand in relationship with the world. This relationship keeps us grounded and keeps us human. Otherwise, we become inhuman to the environment, life, other people, and ourselves; we become abusive beings; smart and knowledgeable maybe, but abusive as we disconnect from the world. In ‘Childhood, Philosophy and Play’, Barbara Weber states that “Philosophy for Children is often reduced to teaching children ‘thinking skills’ instead of teaching other modes of being in the world, such as feeling and perceiving. And although ‘creative thinking’ and ‘caring thinking’ were subsequently introduced into the programme, these are classified as ‘modes of thinking.’ However, if we only teach thinking skills based on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ application of logical operations, the content of children’s statements remains secondary or even irrelevant. Consequently, Philosophy for Children would then implicitly reduce childhood to a deficiency (since children are not yet capable of reasoning, although they are able to learn to reason) and also reduce humanity to a ‘disembodied head’ that is able to speak and apply reason, but is disconnected from any emotional or sensuous aspects” (Philosophy for Children in Transition, p.69). In ‘The Other Half of the Child’, Kieran Egan makes a similar point: “We tend to abstract knowledge from the context of its making or discovery and put it into logical structures. One result of this is to dehumanize knowledge” (Thinking Children and Education, ed. Matthew Lipman, pp.301-305, 1993).

I believe we need to be aware of the need not to reduce philosophy for children to just developing ‘thinking skills’ of whatever form, and to truly pay attention to the content of children’s statements. We need to respect their relationship with the world, and not just replace it with how we, as adults, commonly relate to the world. This means we should stay true to the language of their intuitive knowledge, which is the language of play and imagination.

Imagination and play is also the language of artists. Artists paint the way for us to stay in touch with the complex world we are a part of and cannot fully comprehend cognitively. Through art we tap into our intuitive selves. The arts educate us to better understand our world when it surpasses our ability to know it cognitively. The arts educate; yet we have largely reduced them to an often-banal form of entertainment.

Kandinsky Black and Violet
Wassily Kandinsky, Black & Violet, 1923

Imagining Philosophically

I maintain that with age I have actually come to know less and less, but have come to understand more and more. That is, I have developed a greater and broader conceptual knowledge. Conceptual knowledge undergirds factual knowledge and serves to give insight to it. Factual knowledge by itself can appear contradictory: is light composed of particles or waves? Or is it composed of a wave-particle duality? Are humans moral or immoral? And so on. To understand apparent contradictions, we often have to dive deeper and enter murkier waters. And, I believe, every discipline eventually moves beyond the raw facts, to develop insight and understanding. To move beyond the facts does not make them irrelevant. On the contrary, we must ask, how do we ‘hold the tension’ of apparently contradictory facts, and how can this lead us to a deeper conceptual understanding?

This is where philosophy comes in. Imagination is the language of intuitive thinking and can be ‘educated’ in the same way that artists learn to express themselves in their art form in ever more disciplined and nuanced ways. This is something philosophy for and with children does. It honors our inborn Thou – our natural relationship to the world and to other people. It honors the content of children’s statements; and honors the need to develop and sharpen intuitive knowledge and develop that knowledge into well-thought-out cognitive knowledge. Philosophy for children builds the conceptual groundwork for the cognitive knowledge they learn in school, and develops a deeper and broader understanding of our complex world. So, yes, for the purpose of our need to live up to our human potential, we need to engage in doing philosophy, and for this purpose philosophy needs to become more imaginative, as Richard Rorty suggested. Where better to start than with highly imaginative young children? Children wrestle with ideas about how to understand the world, which is where philosophy began as well. Miller addresses this point, saying, “to allow the students to think for themselves resulted in the students doing philosophy. The students’ thoughts and questions often pushed the community’s inquiries and discussions to that of the ‘philosophical’. The students examined issues and paralleled arguments professional philosophers have been writing about for over two thousand years.” Moreover, the students’ “interpretations were grounded in personal connections supported by reasons indicating they were no longer passively subservient to authority, but willing to challenge from their own personal point of view.” (p.7).

Discovery leads to learning, not just to having answers. We do not want to just provide children with packets of preprocessed knowledge which rumble down the educational conveyor belt in the form of teacher-proof lesson plans, text books, teaching-to-the-test exercises… How can we then be surprised when children decide computer games are more interesting than life itself? We have essentially robbed them of the desire to ‘get dirty’ while playing outside and discovering what this place is about – I mean, engaging with this world and all its complexity, filled with wonder. We have created a world too boring for children, and act surprised when they are bored. But the world isn’t boring, and in doing philosophy with children we can keep the fascination alive. Whereas the university focuses on the history of philosophy much in the same way that the university teaches art history, we should consider creating a Philosophy Academy which teaches the art of thinking, similar to how an Art Academy teaches art.

© Dr Maria daVenza Tillmanns 2017

Maria daVenza Tillmanns is a former President of the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling, and Psychotherapy (ASPCP), and is currently seeking funding for a project in partnership with the University of California, San Diego, about doing philosophy with children in underserved schools in San Diego.


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