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Socratic Wisdom & The Knowledge of Children

Maria daVenza Tillmanns uncovers the natural philosopher in us all.

Reading Plato’s dialogues always left me thinking that in the end one could never fully know or describe the nature of the concepts their star Socrates and his friends were discussing, for instance, what it means to be courageous in Laches, or the nature of friendship in Lysis. Nonetheless, one could still have some grasp of their meanings and how to apply them; a grasp that can be improved by debate and criticism. In this way, my reading of the dialogues usually showed me the limits of our rational knowledge of the world while leaving me with a deeper understanding of something, be it bravery, friendship, or love. For example, this deeper understanding would not only help us to recognize an act of courage, but confirm what we intuitively understood it to be in the first place.

Several strands of Eastern philosophy try to give us a deeper sense of reality through showing the limits of rational thought. Ultimately speaking, the yin and the yang, the opposite principles, do not contradict each other, but rather complement each other. The aim of Zen koans (the most famous one being ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’), is to guide students to enlightenment by way of giving the rational mind no way through. Where the rational mind hits a wall, enlightenment can emerge. Socrates brings his interlocutors to a place of not-knowing similar to that of masters of Zen Buddhism, which is the place of enlightenment or wisdom. Many of Plato’s dialogues leave us with a sense of aporia ( α π ορια ), meaning ‘at an impasse’ (of puzzlement). We are ‘at a loss’, perplexed. What we thought we knew, we have to admit we do not know. On the other hand, we may also have developed a deeper sense of what, say, love or courage means. This shows that where purely rational knowledge fails us, we may still develop a deep sense of understanding.

‘Philosophy’ – philo-sophia – means ‘love of wisdom’, and not ‘love of knowledge’ (which would be philognosis). Reading Plato’s dialogues clued me into what mattered in life. The dialogues clearly show that a lot of what we think we know we cannot give words to and explain rationally. But the process of finding this out gives us wisdom. Perhaps this is why the Delphic Oracle told Socrates that he was the wisest Athenian: he knew that what he knew he could not impart to others through gnosis, but rather through sophia.

Wisdom reaches our grasp deeper into the world. It sometimes seems as though we have tried to replace thinking with knowledge. The more I know, the less I have to think. I have the answers, so I do not have to live in a world of uncertainty, ambiguity, feeling perplexed or ‘at a loss’, even though this uncertainty is exactly the place where true thinking begins as we suddenly have to ask ourselves, “now what?”. It is the place where understanding develops through a deeper sense of connectedness. It’s as though our ability to explain the world resembles the tip of the iceberg, and what we understand but don’t have words for exists below the surface. What’s below the surface is certainly as real as what exists above it, but we cannot explain it in the same way, so we need metaphors, analogies, poetry, music; or sometimes scientific ideas, such as spacetime, or gravity, or the Higgs boson. But we know gravity when we drop a shoe to the ground; we know love when we read the Song of Songs; we know courage when we read in the Iliad about Hector’s bravery.

Philosophy as a Moral Compass

Just as we might read fairy tales to young children with the hope of imparting to them some moral understanding of the world, I thought Plato’s dialogues could accomplish that too, if re-written for children. They too would appeal to the child’s intuitive grasp. Plato’s dialogues certainly give us plenty to think about, just as myths, legends, and fairy tales do. What they don’t give is a rational, cognitive account of bravery, friendship, or love, for these don’t exist. They set up a kind of compass, guided by the sense of understanding they induce, by which I can learn to recognize the value of something, the potential danger of something, and to navigate the world. To sail a ship we need a range of technical skills, of course; but without navigational skills to orient our ship, we are lost at sea.

The compass we use to navigate life needs to be educated from an early age. The arts, including Plato’s dialogues, help to educate our navigational sense. They don’t tell us what is good or bad. Things aren’t that simple. Instead, we need to develop a sense for judging what may be right or not in any particular situation. Or we may have a general sense, but need to learn how to apply this general sense to specific, unique, situations. In every new situation we have to figure out what the right thing to do is. And it will be different for different people as well. Too often we look for a one-size-fits-all solution, including for our sense of right and wrong. And this is where we so often end up resorting to a violent ‘solution’.

As a philosophy undergraduate I attended a Plato seminar, and told the professor running it I would like to rewrite some of Plato’s dialogues so children could understand them. He suggested I write my final paper on a topic in philosophy that could be understood by children. That’s how Stella (twelve years old at the time), my landlady’s niece, ended up writing a story with me in dialogue form, How Come the Opposite of What I think is True is Usually Really True? This paper focused on how fear often interferes with our thinking and makes us do things we might not do otherwise, and often regret. We explored our understanding of how fear influences our thinking – often not in a good way. Instead of being open-minded and fair about some issue that affects us, we may become closed-minded and unfair, for instance. We take sides, we want to retaliate, or we cannot see any reason to trust or believe what the other person thinks or has to say. We dismiss their arguments, we belittle them, we see no merit to them. Fear is another good example of what cannot be explained rationally, but how it works in real life does need to be understood intuitively. For example, how do I know when my thinking is motivated by fear rather than fairness? It’s easy to justify my hitting back as being ‘fair’ – but is it?

Wise Children
© Amy Baker 2019 instagram.com/amy_louisebaker

Children Are Natural Philosophers

That was the beginning of my interest in philosophy for childre. In the years since, I’ve often been struck by how insightful they are. I believe children come into the world with a moral compass built-in. Children see connections between things intuitively, and this is what I want to build on in my philosophical discussions with them.

Because young children have not yet developed standard cognitive skills to express themselves, they use their imagination, and they rely on it to convey their understanding of the world. Imagination is the language of intuitive knowledge, springing from our inborn relationship with the world. Imagination is also the language of fairy tales, legends and myths. It reaches far into the world beyond the evidence of our senses, and is therefore philosophical in scope. Intuition and imagination are why children are natural philosophers par excellence.

As a philosopher, I like to explore the nature of things, such as the nature of friendship, the nature of fairness, the nature of fear… and what better way to explore the nature of something than by seeing how it relates to other things? How does fear affect thinking, or how does it sometimes force us to be brave? Let me give some examples I’ve recorded of children’s intuition working in relation to these questions.

“I think you’re afraid when you’re angry.”

“If you’re bad to people, you can’t be very smart.”

“You’re brave when you can trust yourself.”

“You need to be a little afraid in order to be brave, so you know the danger you’re in.”

“I didn’t want my baby brother to get punished for accidently breaking his favorite toy, so I took the blame.”

These comments are from elementary school children. They reveal an intuitive grasp of the connection between fear and anger, or courage and trust, or intelligence and kindness. I believe it takes philosophical acuity to pick up on such connections. To me, doing philosophy with children is about exploring such connections, asking the children how they see the relationship between fear and anger or intelligence and kindness. I invite them to give reasons and explanations as to how these ideas may fit together, and if they in fact do.

I find a lot of excitement and joy among children when discussing these ideas. Children are excited to learn about these puzzling concepts. They build on each other’s ideas, agreeing or disagreeing with what others have said. They can be quick to change their minds. It is as if they’re painting with ideas. And it flows. They are learning how to express themselves, how to be clear in expressing their thoughts and feelings, and explain why they may agree or disagree with someone. Whereas fear may be a good thing in some instances, it may not be in others. Lying may be necessary in some instances, and in other cases it may be harmful and hurtful. So how do you decide? This is where our navigational skills come into play. What may work in some instances may be the entirely wrong thing to do in other cases. So how can you tell? This is where you need to learn how to respond to complex situations, and not reduce all situations to a one-size-fits-all solution. It is, and remains, complex.

It also amazes me how the children remember what we’ve talked about regarding stories we’ve read, and how they find fascinating connections here too. For example, we read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and Tico and the Golden Wing s by Leo Leonni. One of the main themes in both stories is the nature of giving. Very quickly, the children felt that while Tico gave one of his golden feathers to those who needed help because they were poor, the giving tree gave her whole tree away, until nothing was left but her trunk. And, the kids noted, the boy to whom the giving tree was giving all was never really happy. He just wanted more and more and she kept on giving. The people Tico gave his feathers to were grateful. Eventually, Tico gave all his feathers away too, but with every feather he gave away, a new feather, a black one, came in its place, so Tico was able to still fly. Although the children do not come away with a full explanation of the nature of giving, they do get a better understanding of what it means to give. They are building their compass to navigate the world. The compass has not only North, South, East and West, but also all the degrees in between, and every degree can make a difference in how to steer your ship.

Intuition versus Cognition

So where does children’s intuitive knowledge originate?

In his classic 1923 book I and Thou, the existentialist philosopher 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, my emphasis). Intuitive thought then emerges from one’s total engagement, one’s ‘lived relations’ with the world. In other words, we are born ready to begin developing our compass.

Children aren’t the only ones who have a total engagement with the world. Many artists, for example, rely on the knowledge that originates from a total engagement and openness, to which they give expression through their art. And it is through their art that they convey their deeper understanding of the world. But for many people, their intuitive knowledge is gradually replaced by structures of thinking they are taught. While we can always retain some intuitive understanding, too often this is replaced by the cognitive skills we develop in school. Our cognitive skills are often developed in a vacuum, disassociated from our being. This disassociation creates a dependency on authority, or on status, or on following trends and fads. If we cannot self-regulate our thinking using our own moral compass, we depend on others. This robs us of an ability to enter into interdependent relationships. As Chad Miller wrote in his article ‘The Impact of Philosophy for Children in a High School English Class’ (available on inter-disciplinary.net), “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. It helps them to cultivate their compass, their inner authority, to be self-critical, to self-regulate, and indeed to truly be in charge of their own thinking.

If we rob children of their intuitive knowledge and imagination simply in order to develop their cognitive skills as rapidly as possible, we essentially rob them of this inborn relationship with the world. We try to re-establish their relationship with the world and with themselves through developing their cognitive skills at the expense of that very relationship! They thus become disconnected from the world, from other people, and from themselves. The loss has 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 their relationship with the world (I and Thou, p.23). And all the therapy in the world cannot make up for loss of the inborn relationship we had at the beginning of life.

Buber says there is a “constant swinging back and forth” between the I-It and I-Thou relationships. Yet if we are disconnected from our I-Thou relationship, only the I–It relationship determines our relations with the world and other people: we begin to see them as objects rather than fully people. So we need to foster and nourish the ‘inborn Thou’ by strengthening children’s relations to the world and other people. We can restore the inborn Thou by allowing children to develop their intuitive knowledge, by giving full reign to their imaginations in the arts and sciences, and by doing philosophy with them. What expertise do philosophers have and what can they bring to a philosophical discussion with children? Philosophers are experts in not knowing! In practicing the art of philosophy, the art of not knowing, we engage each other to think together in an exploration of concepts we only vaguely understand.

Thinking together not only binds us, but also allows us to explore unknown, perhaps unknowable, territory with joy, curiosity and confidence. Through asking children what they in some sense already know through their intuitive knowledge and putting thinking itself into question, we can help them become more aware of themselves as thinking beings. And as thinking beings with a fine-tuned moral compass, children can learn the skills they’re taught in school, but not at the expense of their own thinking. With their thinking intact, they can skilfully apply what they learn in school to the world in which they live.

© Dr Maria daVenza Tillmanns 2019

Maria daVenza Tillmanns is a former President of the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling, and Psychotherapy (ASPCP), and currently practices philosophy with school children in San Diego.

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