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Philosophy & Children

How Children Made Me A Better Philosopher

Rory Kraft, Jr. tells us how philosophical thinking can be youthfully enhanced.

There are many reasons why folks could, and should, choose to do philosophy with children. Some of the other articles in this very issue go on at length about the benefits to the children – the wonders of seeing eyes sparkle with joy at the thought that they had an idea that mattered, the wonder of seeing that ideas are important, etc etc. I do not mean to dismiss those noble goals. I must admit they are part of why I do philosophy with young people. But I also have a confession to make. Doing philosophy with children has made me a better philosopher. It is rather self-centered to put it that way, and while most of the time my own interests are not what is salient when I enter into a session at a middle school, I cannot deny that at some level I am always aware that doing philosophy with young people makes me a better philosopher.

It’s The Ideas

Regardless of which method is used in doing philosophy with young people, the primary methods keep coming back to one central theme: ideas matter, and young people are capable of grappling with ideas. This may seem to be a silly aspect to be reminded about, but it is far too easy for philosophers, academic or not, to become enchanted with the intricacies of an argument, and forget what exactly is being argued about. For example, if we consider Kant’s first antinomy – the idea that space and time both must have and must not have limits – it is far too easy to become enamored with the argument itself and forget the point Kant is making: namely, that there are limits to how far our reason can take us. Philosophers can, have, and will continue to be swayed and hypnotized by Kant’s careful arguments against both finite and infinite space and time; but in doing so we have looked past the idea being considered, to the structure of the argument.

Now imagine having a discussion about Kant’s first antinomy with a fourteen-year-old. Is she likely to be enchanted by the structure of Kant’s argument, or is she likely to puzzle over our lack of ability to determine whether space and time are finite or infinite? In my experience, it’s the latter. Young people have this amazing ability to pay attention to what is, well, really cool. All apologies to logicians (and certainly I get worked up on occasion when talking about valid and invalid syllogisms), but in general, what is cool about philosophy is not the formal structure of an argument, but its contents. Or in other words, it’s the ideas that matter, not the skill in arguing for them.

Philosophy Is More Than Just Talk

Perhaps this is just a variant on the prior point, but it’s an important variant: doing philosophy is more than just talking about ideas. And to be honest, some of what passes for philosophy with children is just talk. It can be really easy to slip into the mode of just talking about ideas without engaging with them, challenging them, testing them, or seeing how the ideas connect to other ideas. Being aware of this danger when working with young people has made me aware of the same risk in college classrooms, and in my own writing.

Philosophy is also not just the history of ideas, although the history of ideas can be part of it. Nor is philosophy just the sum of the ideas considered. Consider the difference between these two conversations:

A: In an interesting variant of a thought experiment first put forward by Bernard Williams, a lepidopterist wandering in South America discovers twenty villagers lined up to be shot. The army Capitán says he will let these folks go if the lepidopterist will shoot one of the villagers himself. Should he do it?

B: What is a lepidopterist?

A: That doesn’t matter. Should he do it?

B: Well, yes. He saves nineteen lives.

A: Good. You are a utilitarian.


A: Let’s think about the difference between doing an action and allowing it to happen. If you could keep nineteen people you believe are innocent alive by killing one person, would you do it? If you do not kill the one, all twenty will die.

B: Can I stop all the killing?

A: No. You can kill one, or let twenty die.

B: My, that is hard. I would probably feel guilty either way. Saving the nineteen seems good, but I am not sure I could actively kill someone to do so.

A: What if you hunted butterflies? Then you would be used to killing innocent life. And in that occupation you do not have the benefit of saving other butterflies by your action.

B: I guess we do accept killing of innocents on some occasions, but clearly there’s a difference between a butterfly and a person.

And so it goes. The first situation is one that can all-too-often occur, not only when doing philosophy with children but also when doing philosophy with adults. We have a tendency to show how smart we are by trotting out examples and terms that others are not aware of, and not pressing on to examine the idea behind the question. In the first example, A and B are talking about philosophy, but they are not really doing philosophy. In the second example there is at least the beginning of a philosophical dialogue. Both use a popular variant of Bernard Williams’ ‘Jim and the Indians’ thought experiment, and interestingly, the first sticks closer to Williams’ attempt to display potential weaknesses in utilitarianism. But it is the second version which moves beyond talk to actual philosophy.

There Has To Be A Point

In my experience, philosophers are a wonderful bunch. Set us to work on a concept, and we will come at it from multiple angles, think through the etymology of the terms, delve into the manners in which societies from the Greeks to the Germans have used it, and in the end (far too often) think we have accomplished something. As Catherine MacKinnon notes, you have not actually deconstructed “power relations by shifting the markers around in your head.” In other words, simply becoming clearer on what a term is does not mean that one knows how to go on and use it.

When done well, philosophy has a point: we can move forward from examining an idea to applying it in the world. Children get this (and to an extent, undergrads get it too). If we move too far into the realm of ideas without there being an application, they’re quick to ask “What’s the point?”

I may be biased, in that much of my non-children work is in ethics, and we ethicists like to be able to determine if something is right or wrong. But I hold that the same is true for metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and even the history of philosophy. Yet while we don’t get far discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the status of free will does have an impact when we come to thinking about if someone is liable for her actions or not. But it goes beyond applicability. The ideas which we examine, whether with children or adults, need to be ones where it seems possible to reach an end. We need to keep in mind Wittgenstein’s admonition at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” Many considerations of abortion, for example, would be improved by keeping this stance in mind.

Tell Me A Story

The more that I have worked with children, the more powerful I have found good examples to be. It is all well and good to have a lovely argument, and even better if the argument advances an understanding of how the problem works. But if there is not a clear example, strong analogy, or good story accompanying it, others will have a difficult time joining in.

One of my favorite lines in philosophy comes from Judith Jarvis Thompson. She wrote “Suppose it were like this…” The power in those words is amazing. They draw the reader in, invite the imagination to go forward, and (perhaps most importantly) remind us that we need to grant the premises of thought experiments: we are not to refute the example, but suppose it was the case. These words for me are the philosophical equivalent of “Once upon a time…” – they bring everyone together to a new starting place, with an understanding of what will follow. Only here, instead of a fairy tale, we get the examination of ideas, the opportunity to discuss, and to (hopefully) see the point of examining ideas.

Stories are important. Indeed, I think that those who think about philosophy should be regularly reminded that in Plato’s Republic, the earliest means of controlling and shaping the citizenry was to come through a careful censorship of what stories were allowed to be told. What Plato’s Socrates was well aware of was that stories have the power to provoke the examination of ideas, and provide the foundations of morality and a common set of cultural references, not only for the youth but for the larger population. Whether it is working with middle school students, undergraduates, or writing a scholarly paper, I endeavor to make sure that I have a story, a narrative, or an example which brings together the issue we are struggling with so that we can move forward with a touch-point to continue the conversations.

Be Honest

As I’ve mentioned, the majority of the pre-college philosophy work that I do is with middle school students, aged between eleven and fourteen. I love working with them. By and large they have acquired the skills to think about cause and effect, consider abstract ideas, are open to the possibility of being wrong, and perhaps most importantly, they’re honest in their assessments.

There is a classic story in the Republic where Glaucon is attempting to prove to Socrates that we do good because we’re afraid of being caught doing wrong. Glaucon tells a story about Gyges’ discovering a ring which enabled him to become invisible. In Glaucon’s story, Gyges, free from the fear of being caught, quickly seduces the queen, kills the king, and takes over the kingdom. When I introduce this story into classes, I often ask students what they would do if they could be invisible. After years of doing this, every middle school group I have worked with mentions peeping in locker-rooms or bedrooms. Only one out of about thirty college classes have ever mentioned this. It may well be that college students have multiple opportunities to see nude bodies; but when I ask undergraduates why no one mentions peeping, I always have multiple students – male and female – admit they thought of it but were afraid to mention it. What I make of this is that when we do philosophy we need to be aware of our filters. It is understandable that we do not want to embarrass ourselves, admit too much, or be made out a fool. But there is something quite philosophically significant about not mentioning what one would do if invisible. Glaucon thought we would do bad actions. My students seem to reinforce that not only would we do bad actions, but we’re afraid to admit it even among ourselves. (On an interesting sidenote, I have never had a student of any age mention that if invisible they would sneakily leave muffins for little old ladies. Apparently doing good is not something we accomplish better if invisible – which seems to be a point for Glaucon.)

Think, Then Think Again

One thing we need to be honest about is that sometimes (admittedly rarely), we make mistakes, reason incorrectly, or perhaps are just wrong. For this reason it is worthwhile to return to ideas and problems we’ve previously worked through. Certainly the periodic examination of beliefs is in keeping with Descartes’ challenge to remove one’s false knowledge.

In a more contemporary manner, Heidegger’s examination of the nature of Being proposed to end at its beginning. When I have the opportunity to work with the same group of students over a period of time, I have found it highly useful to introduce a puzzle on the first day that we revisit on the last. This repetition started with middle school students, where we would discuss honesty several times throughout the sessions. In my college classes I also often return to early topics later in a semester, both to display how much better we are now at working through problems, and to give everyone a chance to reevaluate their stances. In my own writing I do this in a more subtle way – revising throughout to ensure that I have remained on point and still believe what I wrote months prior. This reinvestigation of what came before, the thinking again over what has already been thought, is crucial to philosophy. Doing philosophy is not thinking in a straight line, but rather a circuitous path through interconnected puzzles, problems, and ideas.

Remember to Love Wisdom

Early in our education in philosophy, many of us had explained to us that ‘philosophy’ derives from the Greek for ‘love of wisdom’. For many of us, that bit of trivia gets filed away for use in introductory classes, cocktail parties, and first dates. (I do not recommend the last use.) But when I work with young people encountering philosophy, they want to see what the point of it is. The same happens when working with undergraduates, schmoozing at parties, or attempting to woo. This is the great moment of challenge. Do we philosophers get up on our high horses and explain that we who love wisdom are searching for Truth, and will not be diverted by small-minded muddling malcontents who are not worthy of thinking the great thoughts? No. We need to remember what it means to love wisdom, and not just that philosophy is the love of wisdom.

Ideas, wisdom, and knowledge come from many sources, and many different ages. I am far less likely to find an eighty-year-old who plays video games, than a middle school student who is intrigued by the morality of using ‘cheat codes’ for them, so that conversation, and the wisdom derivable from it, can only occur in that audience. Similarly, I can have marvelous discussions with fellow professional ethicists about variable moral valance; but it is only with undergraduates that I am likely to have a conversation about campus parking restrictions. Socrates spoke with the youth, the merchants, the priests and the politicians in his search for truth. We should do the same.

Sum It Up

The last thing I want to point out that I learned from doing philosophy with children, is the importance of wrapping up a discussion by summing it up. This simple aspect, of looking back to see what has been done, is all too often left off as philosophers go forward to new problems. But we philosophers have learned quite a bit. So just as we should end a session with young people by reviewing what has been discussed, we need to recall that we are not in the same place philosophically as the pre-Socratics. We have come far – although we still have far to go in our quest for wisdom.

I’ve found that any time I teach a topic, my own understanding of it improves. But the better understanding of philosophy that I get doing philosophy with young people is not all I have gained. I have become a better philosopher. Whether it is in a classroom or in my own work, I have come to (re)appreciate the importance of ideas, of emphasizing philosophical discourse, having a point, telling a story, being honest, retracing and rethinking what has gone before, and of closing by looking back at what has been done. Individually these seem simple observations – as indeed the transcript of a philosophical discussion with a ten-year-old may appear to be full of simple observations. But if we step back and evaluate that session, we often see some good philosophical thinking occurring – just as, if we step back from these tips, I think we can see how by working with children some basic truths about philosophical methods come back into focus.

© Rory E. Kraft, Jr. 2011

Rory E. Kraft, Jr. is editor of Questions: Philosophy for Young People, an annual journal dedicated to the work by, for, and with pre-college philosophers. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at York College of Pennsylvania, and has been working with elementary, middle, and high school students for about ten years.

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