Why it’s crucial that children should learn philosophy
Author of illustrated children’s book, Adventures in Philosophy, on why children need to be exposed to philosophy
The philosopher who was also a saint: St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a Christian theologian and philosopher born in modern-day Algeria. Illustration: Paula McGloin
Introducing philosophy to children at a young age provides a great opportunity to cultivate their sense of wonder; it helps to develop their ability to ask big questions and think independently.
Philosophy can awaken and extend a child’s sense of astonishment. A deep-rooted sense of amazement and awe in a child can give rise to a lifelong passion for learning and inspire them to set out on great thought-adventures. It is impossible to tell where such thought-adventures will lead. By their very nature thought-adventures involve stepping into the unknown. Moreover, a child who is truly prepared to learn might not even know for certain if they are on the right path to the knowledge they seek or if they will ever attain it. Yet the discoveries they make along the way can fill a child’s life with a wealth of meaning and joy.
I was introduced to philosophy when I was 10 years old. My sister Deirdre was studying philosophy, psychology and statistics in UCD. She would often come home from her lectures and excitedly recount what she had learned that day. From her psychology lectures, I can recall being introduced to the likes of Pavlov, and BF Skinner and hearing about the Russian mystic Rasputin. And, while I found these individuals fascinating, it was listening to what went on in Deirdre’s philosophy lectures that really stirred my interest.
When I heard the story of the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, and his encounter with Alexander the Great for the first time I felt I had been struck by lightning. In this story Diogenes, who made poverty a virtue, and lived in a tub or barrel, was one day visited by Alexander the Great. Alexander asked Diogenes if there was any favour he could grant him. Diogenes replied, “Yes there is, you could move out of the way, for you are blocking the sunlight.” On hearing this story, I felt my mind had been illuminated in a way it never had before. I asked myself, “How could someone with nothing refuse the gift of anything he wanted from a person with everything?”
Going to school the next day I was very confused as to why I wasn’t learning about the likes of Diogenes in my class. That sense of confusion and dismay lasted for the rest of primary school and throughout secondary school. I couldn’t understand how the philosophical questions my sister brought home from university were never raised or addressed in any of the classes I attended. It did not make any sense at all to me how such basic and essential questions could continually be overlooked.
Perennial philosophical questions like “What is being?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” appear to always demand attention. However, Nick Bostrom suggests we park some of these eternal questions in order to focus on the more pressing concern of finding ways to make the event of an intelligence explosion – an event that marks the moment AI becomes more intelligent than humans – survivable and beneficial for humanity. John Moriarty asks, “Is humanity in its behaviour a virus to the Earth? Is humanity breaking down the Earth’s immune system?”
Besides these big questions, it is important that children learn how to question themselves and others in a courteous manner. A child who is able to self-question will be better equipped to observe and understand the implications of his or her thoughts, feelings and actions. Additionally, a greater capacity for questioning will enable a child to think about and see the world from various perspectives. This type of questioning helps children to broaden their vision of the world and strengthens their ability to be more tolerant of those who hold different beliefs and opinions.
Above all else, philosophy encourages children to be independent thinkers, and to seek answers for themselves. There is, and always has been, an urgent need for children to learn how to become more daring and innovative in their thinking. Currently, this pressing need stems from the dangers posed by technology – AI, in particular – and the deepening threat humanity poses to the Earth’s natural environment. Philosophy, in collaboration with other disciplines, has a significant role to play in addressing this need.
What can grown-ups expect to get from a book that is primarily aimed at introducing philosophy to children?
I would like to imagine that a grown-up, whether they are a guardian or parent, can experience a sense of shared adventure with the child they are reading the book with. It is quite likely that both grown-ups and children will be left equally puzzled by some of the questions that appear in this book. This state of puzzlement is something quite natural to experience, given that some of the questions that arise in the book have confounded some of the greatest philosophers that have ever lived. A shared sense of puzzlement or confusion can be more beneficial for initiating an interesting and fruitful type of conversation between a child and a grown-up than a child conversing with a grown-up in order to acquire immediate answers.
There are also different layers to the book. Some parts of the book, like the stories and illustrations, may appeal or resonate more strongly with a younger readership. The more discursive parts of the book, and the sections that recount the thoughts of notable philosophers, may be of more interest to more mature readers.
Although Adventures in Philosophy is aimed at children, it might also appeal to grown-ups as an entry point into philosophy. In some ways this book may be more challenging for grown-ups than children. Children appear to have a greater capacity for wonder and are more open to different ways of thinking about things than many grown-ups. After several years of life experiences and thinking in particular or habitual ways, a grown-up’s mind can find it difficult to experience surprise in any profound way. Additionally, a grown-up’s mind is less likely to be amenable to alternative modes of thinking.
William James in Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students of Some of Life’s Ideals claims the thoughts, actions and conversations of most adults are automatic and habitual in nature. James says from the moment we rise in the morning to when we lie down each night, our actions, like eating and drinking, and even our daily conversations with others are so fixed by repetition that they are more akin to reflexes than autonomous and spontaneous acts.
This book seeks to call into question these habitual modes of thinking, seeing, and talking that James refers to by re-opening the childlike wonder-eye in grown-ups. It does so through stories, illustrations, questions and the subversive thoughts of eminent thinkers who challenge widely held conceptions of the world we live in. For no matter what stage of life you are at, you can always challenge and question yourself. Philosophy can help extend this challenge and deepen the questions.
Adventures in Philosophy by Brendan O’Donoghue and illustrated by Paula McGloin is published by Gill Books