What is fairness? What does it mean to be brave? Can you step in the same river twice? It is not only adults who can discuss philosophical issues. Peter Worley picks the best philosophy books for children
What is philosophy and why is it important that children have a chance to discuss it?
I think of philosophy as an activity more than anything else. So for me, working with children, it’s important that philosophy is rooted in conversation. The reason it’s important for children to do philosophy in this conversational style is firstly, to get them to respond to problems they encounter. Secondly, to reflect on those problems, and to reason about them and then, most importantly, to reevaluate. Those are what I call the four Rs of philosophy: respond, reflect, reason and reevaluate. So, for instance, you might come across a problem in the classroom — or with your friends — which leads you to ask ‘What is fairness?’ They might be faced with a situation where one boy or girl in the class is getting more attention than the others. When they reflect on it, on the one hand, they might think this is fair because the child needs that attention. On the other hand, they might think it’s not fair because fairness is to do with equal share and equal treatment. Straightaway there’s a conflict which leads to the question of what exactly fairness is. Children often don’t get to that point and, if they do, they often won’t get past it. So it’s important to provide a structured dialogic approach for the children to start reflecting on these things.
What’s also clear is that these questions, like ‘what is fairness?’, are relevant to children. They’re not just for adults. Once you’ve given children a structured environment, and, most importantly, you’ve got them responding to each other, then they will start to move to the reflective, the reasoned and re-evaluative aspects. They might start by giving a whole different bunch of answers within a class, leading to all sorts of conflicts and problems. You then move them to the next part, which is the reasoning part, putting it into an ordered, sequential, logical process. Of course, you move back between these stages at all times. The most important bit to me is that philosophy isn’t philosophy unless it has this fourth R: re-evaluation. So, OK, we’ve got all these reasons as to what fairness could be, is that account right? Are there any possible problems with this account?
Children don’t need much prompting to ask questions that are philosophical. They ask, ‘What happened before the universe began?’ or ‘Is there a God?’ or ‘Why are you treating me differently from someone else?’ Those questions seem to come quite naturally to them. But it strikes me that children are often more concrete in their thinking than adults, and less happy with abstract argument. And philosophy is often characterized as a very abstract subject…
There has been a lot of academic debate about this, whether children are capable of reasoning abstractly or not. In Piaget, there are strict rules about what children can do at certain stages of development. There’s also been a lot of literature on how Piaget was wrong. I’m very much a practitioner, I’m in the classroom working with children. What I see is that children are much more capable of abstract reasoning than a lot of adults might think. They’re certainly capable of approaching abstract concepts and odd abstract questions, like, ‘Does the hole in this doughnut exist?’ I can take that question to pretty much any age group, and they will become quite interested in it — at least until you get to age 12-13 when suddenly those abstract pursuits and ideas become less interesting.
But for your example you’ve chosen a physical thing, a doughnut. If you just said, ‘Is nothingness a something?’ that would have lost most people, wouldn’t it?
That’s actually a question that engages children straightaway. ‘Does nothing exist?’ is a great way to get children involved in thinking about stuff, provided that they understand how the word exist works, which they usually do, from quite a young age. Those sort of questions are perfect. There are strategies and techniques that we use with very young children to help them with this, which brings me to the first book I’ve chosen.
This is the Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel.
Yes. So there’s a wonderful story in there called “Dragons and Giants.” Frog and Toad are trying to work out what brave is, and what it is to be brave. They start off by saying these characters are all brave and they look in the mirror and ask, “Are we brave?” They say, “Well we look brave.” Which is great, because you can then ask the children ‘What does brave look like?’ You get them to do all sorts of poses. The next part of the story takes you through how the two characters try to test for bravery, by going up a mountain. They come across various things — like an eagle and an avalanche — and each time they get quite visibly scared and shout out, “I am not afraid!” and move on to the next thing. At the end of the story you start with a simple question and ask, “Were Frog and Toad brave?” It connects to the story in a concrete way by referring to the characters and the concept. You get some responses. Then, after a while, we move to the abstract. I might say to the children, “What exactly is brave?” Sometimes they need a bit of help. They might come up with some concrete examples of their own. We start to put together a picture of what it is to be brave.
“I can take the question “Does the hole in this doughnut exist?” to pretty much any age group.”
Once we’ve come up with some kind of account of what bravery is, we’ll move back to the concrete question. I’ll say, ‘OK if bravery is X, Y and Z are Frog and Toad brave?’ I call this the Hokey Kokey [Pokey in the US] method, because it goes in (concrete), out (abstract) and in (concrete) again. It’s a really useful general principle for using stories with young children. It’s also very Socratic. Socrates would take concrete examples to test theories against. If someone came up with a definition — say of justice, beauty or courage — then they would have to come up with an example that might refute that.
How do you stop the children all talking at once?
Sometimes we don’t stop them. After a story and asking a question, you always give them a few minutes to just talk. They need to do that. Then we come back to a structured approach, so we have a ball and various rules so that one person speaks at a time. My job is to try and get people to respond dialogically to each other. So if, for instance, somebody says ‘Yes I think they are brave because this, that and the other’ my next job is to find if there is someone who has a response of any kind to that comment. Or to find out if there is anybody who thinks they’re not brave. By facilitating in this way, the children, as a group, start to do what a philosopher does as an individual. This is really key to how we work. It’s connected to the Socratic idea of the silent dialogue, where a philosopher will be thinking of something in their own head and coming up with possible objections and problems and alternative views themselves — and then moving on to deal with those. What we do is get the children as a group to think through in a way that we might characterize as philosophy. And that will include the re-evaluative aspect. Children will often say, “I think bravery is this,” and then stop. But another child then picks up the baton, and says, “But what about this?” It might even be the first child who then responds back in defense of the first thesis. Or it might be another one. But the point is this dialogic movement is starting to happen. The children watch each other and the aim, hopefully, is for them to internalize this process so that, later on, they start to do the same thing in their own head.
What about the silent child, the one who watches it all happening?
Many of these children will be engaging in some kind of silent dialogue themselves. The usual sign that they’re not engaging is if they’re being disruptive. Silent members are often encouraged, because if they’re sitting there silently, it’s usually a sign that they are engaging. But my job over time is to bring them out of themselves and get them to join in with the group. We find all sorts of things play a role in this: How shy a child is, what cultural influences they have from their backgrounds. For instance, some girls are very reluctant to speak because it’s not encouraged at home. My job is to try and find a way of drawing them all into the conversation. We have two aims: One is the dialogic philosophy building and the other is inclusion, trying to get as many children involved as possible. The key is to try and get the balance between those two: that they are all involved at the same time as there is some kind of linked, sequential movement in the discussion.
Let’s take another book then. You’ve got the Odyssey on your list which is also a book of stories, cobbled together by a journey. How do you use it?
I’ve written my own version of the Odyssey which I use in classrooms. I tell it very much in the oral tradition, I tell the story to the class.
Do you ask, ‘Is it OK to stick a sharp stick in the eye of the Cyclops if he’s holding you prisoner?’ — that kind of thing or is that too gruesome?
That story is a favorite of theirs. The question we usually use around that story is not an ethical one, but exploring the nature of mythical creatures. So we use that story as a springboard for discussing whether or not Cyclopes exist, how many eyes Cyclopes would have, and things like that. But you’re right, most of the stories in the Odyssey focus more on ethical than metaphysical issues.
Can you give an example?
There’s the classic dilemmas. So, for instance, Scylla and Charybdis, where you’ve got the two monsters on either side of the rock faces the ship has to pass through. There’s a whirlpool to the right, and what the crew don’t know is that there’s a six-headed monster hidden in the cliffs to the left.
There’s no easy way through the rocks between Scylla and Charybdis. What’s the dilemma? Seems like you lose either way.
I’ve done versions of the trolley problem with this story. Odysseus knows about the six-headed monster, but the crew don’t. So as they’re going through, if they go too close to the whirlpool the whole ship will be sunk and everyone will die. Odysseus’s dilemma is: Should I tell the men about the monster on the left they can’t see? Because if he tells the men about the monster, he risks them being too nervous to go near the cliff on the left hand side and jeopardizing the whole ship by going too close to the whirlpool. If he doesn’t tell them, they won’t be prepared for the six-headed monster and he’ll lose six men.
So this is close to the famous moral thought experiment of the trolley problem, where a train is running out of control towards six people on a track. You have the possibility of diverting it onto another track so it only kills one. Should you do it? Most people think you probably should sacrifice one to save many. Here you’ve got the sacrifice with the added element of concealing information…
Yes, it’s much more interesting when you add in the issue of information, which crops up again and again in the Odyssey. it’s absolutely full of it, because Odysseus — and other characters but mainly Odysseus — gains information through prophecy or demigods and so on. Very often, his dilemma is what should he reveal? Interestingly this is also the storyteller’s dilemma. The Odyssey is an oral story, and the storyteller’s dilemma is always, what should I reveal and when to the audience?
The Odyssey is a compelling set of stories that have obviously been honed over time. They’re very seductive in themselves. Presumably you have the children all listening eagerly and then you get into the dialogue with them about it. Do they then transfer that back to their own lives, do you think?
That’s the plan. One of the things I’ve written about in my own book about the Odyssey, The If Odyssey and also a book about storytelling, Once Upon An If, is that these stories enable us to rehearse bad situations without actually having to be in danger. What we would do under these circumstances? It’s a kind of rehearsal for the moral agent, particularly when you’re discussing the ethical dilemmas and issues that come up in the Odyssey over and over again. My aim with the use of stories is to activate the audience as a participant, as an active moral agent. One simple device with a story would be not to read it to the end, but to simply stop it at the point where the characters are faced with a dilemma or whenever there’s a tension or conflict. Then you say to the audience, ‘What would you do?’ Or, ‘What would you do if you were him or her?’ These are different questions and you can engage the children in these different ways.
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Another interesting thing about role-play and making use of the audience in this way is that you can give dilemmas their bite back. Very often, in philosophy discussions, the children inhabit a kind of netherworld of sitting on the fence. You’ll often find them saying “I think yes because of this and I think no because of that.” We don’t want to be too violent with the children. I’ve actually had a discussion with someone who said the trolley problem is a form of ethical violence, because it puts a person in a very uncomfortable situation. You’re saying to an 8 year old, “Are you going to pull it or aren’t you?” It seems really unpleasant. However, to say to them, “I’d like you to imagine that you are Odysseus, who is the captain of a ship, which means you have to make the decision one way or the other. Would you tell the men or would you not? I know you’ve given me reasons for both sides, but now I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you, as captain of the ship, to make a decision. It’s a really powerful way to give the dilemma its sting, as Nietzsche used to call it.
We’ve been talking about using ancient stories to introduce moral discussion. There’s also a great tradition in philosophy of creating thought experiments specifically designed to test out the feelings and intuitions we have about situations. As your next book, you’ve chosen a compendium of these by Julian Baggini The Pig That Wants to be Eaten.
Thought experiments are great. They have a stickman quality to them, I think they’ve been described as stickman stories, they lack a real life dimension.
Yes, that’s normally missing because they’ve controlled the parameters — the variables — to such a degree that you don’t have fleshed out characters, you don’t have complex situations.
The reason why I’ve chosen Julian’s book is because I find thought experiments a really lively way to get children involved with philosophy. It’s the fun bit, the evocative bit. They’re very powerful. If you want to get children involved in thinking about philosophy, most philosophers will start with a thought experiment of one kind or another. This book gives us lots of examples of how you can take a thought experiment into the classroom.
They’re also bite-sized. They don’t require the sort of investment that telling the Odyssey does. A thought experiment you can just drop it in, you can parachute it into someone’s consciousness and it can have a really powerful, catalytic effect.
Plus there’s what you already mentioned, which is that the thought experiment does try to hang onto the variables. This is also one of the problems with thought experiments, of course. When you go into a classroom, and you present the thought experiment to a bunch of people that don’t know what a thought experiment is, you do have often have children saying, ‘Maybe this and maybe that.’ They bring back the variables that have been removed in order to test whatever it is you’re testing.
It’s not just children that do that, it’s undergraduates as well. They’ll say that if it’s a runaway train it depends who is on the line, if it’s Hitler, I’d let it run…
Yes, they just throw these things back in and it can be quite tricky. In order to help with this, we’ve developed a series of questioning techniques at the Philosophy Foundation, along the lines of ‘iffing’. A classic example would be brain swapping. You get into a discussion of, if they swapped brains, where would Connor be and where would Matthew be? It’s a great discussion, but often children will come in with things like, ‘But we can’t do brain swaps yet.’ Then we simply say to them “Well if it were possible to do these, then where do you think that these two people would be?” With a thought experiment it doesn’t matter if it’s wrong in the real world, as long as it’s wrong in the right kind of way.
Baggini is asking the reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of working something out. But there is then the issue of whether you can move smoothly back to the real world with its particular imperfections. Do the children ever ask, why should I even bother with that question? The child skeptic saying, ‘This is the way it is, and I’m not going to talk about hypotheticals’?
Some children do respond in that way, not with that kind of sophistication, but they’ll just dig their heels in. The strategy usually is not to put them on the spot, but to invite the whole class to think about the question and see what people think. The more sophisticated problem of how valid thought experiments are when they’re only hypothetical is not really something you can get into with very young children. With adults and teenagers you certainly can, it is a great issue to explore with older children.
Your next book is more accessible than the one we’ve just been discussing. It’s The Philosophy Files by Stephen Law. What is it about this book that appeals?
Like Julian’s book, this book enables a young child to read something that is close to ‘real’ philosophy.
I think both books are real philosophy.
Yes. They’re much more representative of the things you might get into when you’re at university doing a philosophy degree, certainly in this country. That’s why I like to include them, because it’s great for very young children. Just to give you an example, I’ve had children in sessions actually explain to me the difference between qualitative and numerical identity — and even use the right nomenclature. The reason they’ve done it is because they have just read the chapter in Stephen Law’s book on whether or not you can step in the same river twice, which is a perennial favorite of mine in classrooms.
Perhaps you can spell out what the difference is between those two?
The numerical identity is those particular materials that something is actually made of. Qualitative identity describes the properties of that thing. So, if you’re talking about water flowing in a river, some children will talk about the stuff the river is made of and they’ll say that because the water is always changing and evaporating you can’t step in the same river twice. Others will talk about the fact that it’s got water in it and it flows and follows the same path and it doesn’t matter that it’s not the same exact water.
So what you’re saying is that young children are actually capable of discussing some of the philosophical issues that are typically reserved for first or second year undergraduates at university?
Young children are very good at identifying these sophisticated ideas. I’ve had children identifying an infinite regress, even though they don’t use those words. They might also notice that someone is working on an assumption. Or, as I’ve said, they might make a distinction between numerical and qualitative identity. These are the sorts of things children do, descriptively. On the whole they don’t have the nomenclature, so it’s rather nice, with Stephen Law’s book, that they can go off and read on their own and come back having learnt this and then apply it in the context of these dialogic sessions they’re having.
He’s also got a great, quirky, sci-fi, storytelling technique which draws adult and child readers in doesn’t he? With a good sense of humor too.
That’s right. My favorite one, which captures all these qualities, is the story of Brad Baddely and the time loop. It’s about a man who is on a planet which is about to explode. He’s stuck there, his spaceship has broken down, and then, just before the planet explodes, he’s visited by his future self who has time travelled back to save him. So he steps into his future self’s spaceship and is taken back to the space station where he came from. It sets up this whole possible paradox and Stephen has got this nice way of framing it so he doesn’t get into too much trouble. At the end of it, he pans back and the two characters are watching this on the tv.
You’re immersed in the paradox, because it’s logically impossible that that could happen. It just becomes the plot of a sci fi film…
Exactly, Stephen puts it into a frame within the book which works really nicely – it’s nice to get the kids thinking about the paradox before you reveal that it’s actually just a tv show.
In a sense, this is in the same tradition, though with a more futuristic twist, as the next book you’ve chosen. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, are full of far-fetched scenarios which are entertaining in themselves, but also raise interesting questions, suggest paradoxes, dilemmas and complications in thinking things through.
Yes, also because of course Lewis Carroll — or Charles Dodgson as he was — was a logician. He wrote lots of books on logic, so what you get is properly informed problems. The great thing is that it doesn’t really come across as that. This is slightly different from Stephen’s book. Stephen’s book is introducing people to philosophy and in that sense it’s quite pedagogical or didactic. What Lewis Carroll does is he just tells a story, and then you notice that the whole thing is peppered with little problems and things to think about.
“This is the great thing about using books with children, very often the question you need to ask is already there in the book and all you need to do is stop and put it to them.”
A good example of this, for me, is Humpty Dumpty. When Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, he starts to engage with her on questions about language. He starts off by asking her what her name means. She replies, “Must a name mean something?” Later, she picks him up on his use of the word glory, which he describes as ‘a nice knock-down argument.’ And she says “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument.’” He says, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” What’s great about this is that while it might seem like a whole bunch of nonsense, he’s actually taken a classic debate within logic and inverted its usual use. Most people would say names don’t mean anything in themselves, that they just refer to someone. And, yet, most people would say we do have fixed meanings for words such as ‘glory’ or whatever it may be. What Humpty has done is reversed that issue, so that the name is the thing that has fixed meaning for him and it’s the other words which can mean whatever he wants them to mean. There’s a clever reversal of a classic problem within logical nominalism.
How would you use this book with children?
It just so happens that I have a chapter in my new book devoted to this. This is the great thing about using books with children, very often the question you need to ask is already there in the book and all you need to do is stop and put it to them. I could stop at virtually every sentence of the Humpty Dumpty story, but it starts with a description of him sitting on the wall and Alice says she’s as certain of who it is “as if his name were written all over his face.” Before you even tell the children that it’s Humpty you can ask them, ‘Who do you think it is and how do you know?’ Or, ‘How does she know?’ Then, when Humpty Dumpty asks what her name is you simply ask the children, ‘What do names mean? Do names mean anything?’ And see what they say. When he says, words mean exactly what I choose them to mean, nothing more or less, you can then say, ‘Can words mean exactly what you choose them to mean?’ This is the great thing about good writing, and about books that have been written to get you thinking, which a lot of these have: very often they give you the question and you just need to put it back to the child and see what they think.
And the stories of Alice in Wonderland are a rich source of such scenarios?
It’s dotted with them.
Do you recommend volumes containing both stories like The Complete Alice or The Annotated Alice, which gives readers a few pointers as to what is going on? The thinking behind the examples is sometimes quite cryptically concealed…
The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner is the one I use. In some ways, it might show a lack — that to make this book really shine one needs to read something extra to get from it what’s there. In a way, perhaps, that reveals its hidden didacticness. One almost needs a teacher’s handbook to go with it, and that’s what The Annotated Alice does. It gives you a kind of handbook and, when I’m reading it, I read the annotated stuff as keenly as the rest. That’s where I get a lot of pleasure from. But of course children can access all this from the main text.
If you had one bit of advice for a parent trying to engage their child in philosophy, what would it be?
It would be to shut up and let them think things through and let them talk. This is the key thing I see constantly with parents and even with teachers. A really good exercise is to watch yourself when you’re working with a young child doing a jigsaw puzzle. If you don’t watch yourself, you find you do it all for them. You start saying a few things to them and the moment they don’t do what they’re supposed to, you just pick out the right piece for them. But the best thing to do is just to ask them questions: ‘What do you think you should start with?’ ‘What do you think we should do?’ ‘Can you find the right piece to go there?’ And if they just can’t do it, according to your questioning, then you stop. You don’t finish it for them. It’s the same with reading books and stories.
Because the whole point of the exercise is to get the children to think for themselves, not to parrot the parent?
One of the problems we have as parents is that our criteria for success is that they have to have completed the puzzle, or to have correctly interpreted the story. Actually, all you need to do when reading a story is ask them, ‘What do you think this means?’ ‘What do you think he did that for?’ And if they have nothing to say, so be it. But if you keep asking those questions on a regular basis, eventually they start to say things. And if, after they’ve given their interpretation, you think they’ve got the wrong end of the stick, you don’t just give them the correct interpretation, as you see it, because then you’re doing all the work for them. Parents need to allow the child to misinterpret it. So that’s why I would say the key thing is to stand back and let the child to approach the story in their own way. Not perhaps all the time, there is perhaps a time for interpreting a story for a child, but you want them to think for themselves.
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