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Philosophy & Children

“Can Animals Think?”: Talking Philosophy With Children

Robert Fisher finds wisdom in the mouths of infants.

We were reading a story about animals when I asked my boys, aged six and nine, “Can animals think?”

“Yes,” said Tom, “they can think because they can talk.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“If they couldn’t think they couldn’t get away from their enemies. Like my guinea pigs hide under the cupboard to get away from us. If they didn’t have brains they would die,” Tom answered.

“Rabbits can’t talk,” said Jake.

“Yes they can… in fairy stories,” Tom responded.

“Foxes can think,” I said. “They catch rabbits and eat them. They have to be pretty clever to do that.”

“All animals can think. They’re just not as clever as we are,” Jake replied.

“If all animals can think,” I said, “and rabbits are animals, then all rabbits can think.”

“I know some rabbits who can’t think,” said Jake.

“Which rabbits are they?” I asked.

“Stuffed rabbits!”

We then talked about the difference between a stuffed rabbit and a real rabbit. The children concluded that “a toy is not real like us” because toys didn’t think, and that what made us different from real rabbits was that only humans know what they are saying.

What we had found in the story were some interesting questions – not just questions about the story, but philosophical questions, about the concept of thinking: whether animals can think, if any animal which did not know what it was saying was not a clever animal, and about what is real or fake, true or false. What enabled us to do this was that form of intelligence, including critical and creative thinking, which we might call philosophical intelligence. We now know that these elements of intelligence can be developed with children from about the age of six upwards, through talking philosophy.

Asking Philosophical Questions

“All people by nature desire to know,” Aristotle said, and anyone who has spent time with young children will be in no doubt that their way of finding out is to ask questions. Some of these questions, such as ‘Why doesn’t the sky fall on our heads?’ ‘Why do cows eat grass?’ and ‘How old is the cat?’ are about the physical world, and are asked because children are puzzled by what they see and hear. Other questions they ask are about our ideas or concepts of the world – about what we think and believe, such as ‘Why are people cruel to each other?’ ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘What is love?’. They are questions about what we think about the way we make sense of life as human beings. These questions are not scientific. These kinds of questions are philosophical. When Jenny, aged four, asked, “What does ‘love’ mean?” her question was philosophical if it was about our idea or concept of love. When Carl, aged six, asked, “Why did God let grandad die?” his question was philosophical if it was asking about the purpose of death. As Tom, aged thirteen, put it, “There are so many questions in life. School can give you answers from books, but most of the hard questions like ‘Should I steal?’ or ‘Should I tell a lie?’ or ‘Does God exist?’ you have to work out for yourself.” Philosophy relies not on things in the world, but on our thoughts about the world. Because children have so little knowledge they are naturally curious, and this curiosity can be developed through talk with parents, carers and teachers.

Most of the time we are not philosophical. What usually concerns us is ‘What’s next?’ It’s easy for adults to be like that with children, forever hurrying them on to the next thing. A child once asked his mother, “How long will the world last?” She replied “I don’t know dear, we’re late already.” Or as another was overheard saying in a supermarket, “Don’t ask clever questions, we’ve got shopping to do.”

Philosophy begins when we begin to ask ‘Why?’ When encouraged to be curious, children will ask the sorts of questions that have puzzled philosophers for centuries, like the five-year-old who asked, “Where does time go when it’s over?”

A philosophical question shines a light on truth and mystery. When a child asks, “Where is grandma now she’s dead?” there are many possible answers. What kind of answer do we give? One kind of answer may be scientific – explaining, for example, what happened to grandma’s body after she died. But the question may also refer to more than the physical body, but instead to all that ‘grandma’ means to those left behind. Like most questions it can be discussed in different ways, and some ways of answering ‘What is a person?’ or ‘What happens to the person when they die?’ will be philosophical – like the seven-year-old who began trying to answer this question by saying, “She doesn’t live in the world now, but only in our hearts.”

What a child lacks is experience, not the capacity to think about and discuss things. But children need very little experience to be able to discuss some of the important issues of life – for examples: ‘What is right?’ ‘What is real?’ ‘What is true?’ ‘What is beautiful?’ ‘What is puzzling?’, and so on – all questions thinking people have asked since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. This capacity to ask philosophical questions may not be recognised, but any child, unless brain-damaged, has this capacity. So how do we engage children in philosophical discussion?

Ways Of Thinking Philosophically

Children bring into the world an elastic mind capable of being stretched in all sorts of directions, and an ability to ask not only everyday questions like ‘Where’s my food?’ but also deep and challenging questions, like the following from four-year-olds: ‘Why do people die?’ ‘Why do chickens lay eggs?’ and ‘How does an oak tree fit into an acorn?’ This curiosity is early evidence of philosophical intelligence. But a child’s questioning spirit can wither, asking fewer questions the older they get. This may partly be the effects of school and home. As a child once said to me: “I like school. You don’t have to think. They tell you what to do.” When I asked what happened at home, the reply was, “Oh, Mum does the thinking there.” But the death of curiosity is not inevitable.

Keeping your child’s questioning spirit alive can be one of the keys to success in learning. When the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Isidor Rabi was asked the reasons for his success, he said that when he came home from school as a child his mother asked him not “What did you learn in school today?” but “What questions did you ask today?”

There has an upsurge of research into discussing philosophical ideas with children over the last fifty years, providing much evidence of its benefits to childrens’ verbal reasoning, language skills, self-esteem and school achievement. Philosophical discussion can help develop childrens’ intelligences, and give them the skills and confidence they need to become active, thoughtful and effective citizens.

We cannot force our children to be philosophical, but we can help provide the conditions at home or school where questioning, thinking and discussion can flourish. So how do you provide the conditions for your child to think philosophically?

The following are three ways of engaging children in philosophical discussion:

Thinking through stories Thinking about the everyday world Thinking about other worlds, including spiritual and religious beliefs.

Thinking Through Stories

When asked what a philosophical story was, Anna, eleven, replied, “A philosophical story is a story with a secret meaning.”

Stories can provide just the stimulus and opportunity needed for philosophical discussion. For example, after reading a book about a talking robot to her two children, a parent asked, “Is a robot the same as a person?” In the discussion the children were engaged not only in talking about the story, but also the philosophical issues concerned with what it means to be a person: What is a robot? Can a robot be a person? In what ways are people and robots different? In what ways are they the same? What can you do that a robot can’t do? What can robots do that you can’t do? These are concepts that any child can engage with if they have a philosophically-sensitive parent or teacher to facilitate the discussion.

Fairy stories, folk tales and traditional stories provide much to think about. For example, Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes can lead to questions such as: Why did the Emperor want new clothes? What does ‘wanting’ mean? Is there a difference between ‘wanting’ and ‘needing’? Getting children to make distinctions between similar and easily confused (sometimes deliberately confused) concepts develops their philosophical thinking and verbal reasoning.

Fables, such as those attributed to Aesop, have for centuries been retold as stories for children to learn from. All good fables contain philosophical issues – not only about the story, but about dilemmas in real life. For example, Aesop’s famous fable The Boy Who Cried Wolfis about a boy who plays a trick on villagers by pretending there is a wolf attacking their sheep – but it is also a story about what truth is, and what lies, tricks and jokes are. Some questions that could be used to discuss The Boy Who Cried Wolfwith children are:

Did the shepherd boy tell a lie? What is a lie? Should he have told the truth? What is the truth? Why did the shepherd boy play a joke on the village? Was it a good joke? Whose fault was it that the wolf ate the sheep? Should the villagers trust the shepherd boy again? What is it to trust someone? Do you think this is a true story? Why, or why not?

One of the most philosophical stories ever written for children is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s full of weird adventures, and characters that say and do strange, interesting or puzzling things. A good book for philosophical discussion with teenagers is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, a bestseller across Europe when first published in 1995. It’s about Sophie, a fourteen-year-old who faces questions which have puzzled philosophers for centuries, such as ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where do you come from?’ The book offers the answers which philosophers have given through the centuries to the most puzzling questions, and summaries of many philosophers’ ideas. It provides a stimulating read for any thinking teenager or parent.

When I use a story to stimulate philosophical discussion with children, I usually read the story, or part of the story, then I ask “Is there anything strange, interesting or puzzling about the story?” I then collect their questions, and use one as the focus for discussion. I would also think of my own questions to ask, so the agenda for discussion is a shared one.

Examples of stories for use in philosophical discussion with children can be found in my Stories for Thinking series.

Thinking About The World

If we want children to feel responsible for what they think and do, then we must help them to take an active interest in the world: in family issues and local news as well as in national and international affairs. Every day we are faced with challenges about what to do, what to say, and what to think. Within the network of human relationships there will always be issues of a philosophical nature which raise moral questions about what is right and wrong in terms of human behaviour. Living with others poses problems we all have to face. As Paul, aged eight, once said, “Every one of us lives in a kind of soap opera.” His daily world was not quite like his favourite TV soap; but he was aware that his family had problems to face, that unforeseen things happen, and that his older sister had had a number of problematic relationships. Young children need to be told what is right and wrong, but they also need to be helped to work out for themselves reasons for moral choices. The more they can discuss why things are right or wrong, and have a chance to think about choices and consequences, the more prepared they will be when faced with difficulties. As Kirsty, aged ten, says, “It helps to work things out in your mind what is right and wrong before they happen.”

Every day newspapers and TV news carry stories which provide complex issues for philosophical discussion. The following are some questions asked by a group of young children:

Is it right to kill people? Why should we pick up other people’s rubbish? Why can’t I do what I like? What is wrong with using swear words? Is there a Father Christmas? Is it right to eat animals? What’s wrong with cheating?

Thinking Beyond The Visible World

We can talk philosophically with children not only about what is puzzling in the world, but also about the mysteries that lie beyond the visible world. One of the great powers of a child’s mind is the ability to see beyond the everyday world and to imagine worlds that do not exist, or which may exist, but beyond the world we can see. They respond to stories of magic and mystery, monsters and myths. They imagine what may be hiding in the dark at night, and who might live above the sky. They hear of heroes long dead, and of things that happen in countries they have never seen, or which exist only on a screen. Some of what they hear about is true, some is fancy. No wonder children are confused about where reality ends and illusion begins. We need to help them to separate fact from fiction, truth from fantasy, or as one teacher put it, “develop bullshit detectors” through the practice of philosophical discussion.

Religious beliefs and narratives provide a rich store of philosophical themes for discussion. Again the aim is for the children to raise the questions that puzzle or interest them, and for the sensitive teacher or parent to probe for meaning with further questions. Examples of religious questions that children have asked during my philosophical enquiries with them include: Are gods real? Who made God? How old is God? Where does God live? What does God do all day? Why does God let people do wicked things? Why didn’t God help me find my toy when I asked Him? What does ‘eternal’ mean? Are there holy spirits? Are all religions true? What does ‘evil’ mean? If God gives life, why do people die? When you die, do you become a ghost? Why are some people lucky? When confronted with a complex question from a child, there is of course nothing wrong with admitting that you do not know, or that it’s a question that no one will ever answer. There is also nothing wrong with telling children what we think. In doing so we show them the value of explaining things to others. But in philosophical discussion we should aim for equality in speaking and listening, and ensure that children listen to other points of view. As Jamie, aged six, put it, “You should listen to other people because sometimes they have good ideas.”

The best questions may be the ones your child comes up with. They are good to discuss because they are the ones that are of immediate interest to your child. But it is also sometimes good to give them something to think about. Here are some questions that I’ve found have stimulated interesting philosophical discussion with children of all ages:

How do you know you are not dreaming at this moment? How do you know when something is true or not true? Is an apple dead or alive? Is it right to eat animals? What is the difference between pretending and lying? What is the difference between a real person and a robot? Is there a difference between your mind and your brain? Can animals think? Is it ever right to tell lies? What are the most valuable things in your life? What makes them valuable?

The world is full of interest. Through philosophical discussion with children, you can rediscover your own curiosity about the world. Were there any questions you have never found the answer to? Are there any questions you were afraid to ask? It need not be so for your children. For this, a child needs a home and school where they can question and discuss contestable ideas, where people are interested in what they think and feel, where it’s alright to challenge others and ask ‘Why?’, and where it is all right to change one’s mind when there are good reasons for doing so. Here, philosophical thinking can flourish. As Beth, aged ten, said, philosophy happens in a place “where people let you take out your mind and share it with others.”

© Prof. Robert Fisher 2011

Robert Fisher has written more than 30 books on education, including Teaching Thinking and the Stories for Thinking series. His latest book is Creative Dialogue (Routledge, 2009). Until recently he was professor of education at Brunel University in Uxbridge, West London. Please visit his website www.teachingthinking.net.

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