philosophy with children at Pacific APA

I’m currently attending the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in San Diego, California. Today I attended two sessions on doing philosophy with children–one on “Raising a Philosophical Child” and one on a book by Jana Mohr Lone called The Philosophical Child.

I decided to tweet about a few of the issues and questions raised in these presentations, and Mariana Funes suggested I keep tweeting about things I was interested in and use these tweets as a springboard for a blog post. Good idea, I thought. 


This idea really hit me right off the bat. It’s from a quote by Charles Payne in I‘ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. He was talking about being surprised at the capacities of ordinary people when they do extraordinary things, and this may say more about our view of people than anything else. The speaker, Marisol Brito from the University of Minnesota, said that we are often surprised at what children can do, what they think and say, but perhaps this is just because we have an impoverished sense of children’s capacities.

Yes. How often am I surprised at what my child can do, what he is capable of asking about, of discussing at the age of 6 (or 5, or 4, etc.), but should I be? After all, if we continually have the experience of being surprised by what kids can do, and we have it with many kids over time, perhaps it is time to rethink our expectations of children. With parents, I suppose it makes sense, though–we have seen our children start off as beings who can hardly see straight (literally) to ones who can say a few words, to ones who can reason out complex arguments. At each stage we see they can do more and more, and in comparison to what they could do before it seems surprising. But there is also a more general sense of what children are capable of doing and thinking, and anecdotally I think it is often impoverished amongst those who don’t work with children often (I expect teachers and caregivers are less often surprised by what children can do!).

That the idea of doing philosophy with children seems strange and even impossible to some, who are then surprised to find out that they are very philosophically-minded (myself included, when I first started thinking about this issue) says quite a bit, I think, about what we think children capable of.



I wish I remembered which speaker today said this; it was only this morning and already I forget which it was (in my defense, there were five speakers in the first panel and four in the second, so lots of people to remember). I think it was Jana Mohr Lone. Regardless, this one really struck home for me too. I think I’ve been guilty of this sort of ageism myself. I can imagine my son, or another child raising a philosophical issue and I think it’s either “surprising” or something to put on Facebook or some such, but not something to have as sustained a conversation about as with one of my university students or another adult. And I’m a philosophy professor; I should know better.

But then, maybe that’s the problem; maybe it’s because I’ve been trained to think that philosophy is just the sort of activity we engage in with those who have studied the history of philosophy to some extent (and sometimes only the history of Western philosophy) and who can speak in terms of the conceptual frames and terms that are used in professional philosophy. Or at least, who could learn those frames and terms (undergraduate students, for example) and start speaking with them even if they don’t yet. So when a 6-year-old raises the same issue, it doesn’t seem like we’re doing philosophy in some way because the conversation has a different tone, uses different words, can’t get to the same level of deep subtlety.

But of course, an adult raising the same issue who has not been trained in philosophy can’t get to the same level of subtlety that we can get to with our colleagues or even our university students–imagine, for example, someone at a dinner party with no formal training in philosophy, with whom you end up talking about a philosophical issue. I can still imagine myself taking that conversation more seriously than I might with a 6-year-old on the same topic. Why? What does it mean to take a conversation seriously? Does it mean that one thinks the conversation can be beneficial for both parties, maybe? If so, that can certainly happen with children, who bring perspectives to such conversations unfettered by more solidified beliefs, and who can lead one to view the issues differently than before, perhaps (an experience reported by several people on the panels today). If taking a conversation seriously means it is worth one’s time to really engage, because one can learn from the other or vice versa, I think this can certainly happen with children.




These two thoughts go together. Doing philosophy with children involves getting them to talk about and give reasons for their views, and engage with the views of other children–agreeing, disagreeing, saying why, etc. There is less in the way of giving answers than asking them to come up with their answers, to say why they think so, and to be open to changing once they’ve talked with others. But when I compare this to what I do on a day-to-day basis with my son, I realized that most of my time with him is spent in answering questions rather than encouraging him to come up with answers.

Now, this makes sense in many contexts; for some things there just are answers to be given, and he really has no idea what those answers are or how to try to find them (he’s six, remember). But in other situations, the answers are less clear, the questions more philosophical, and I am missing opportunities to engage in conversation with him, to move together towards what we think the best answer should be. I just jump to telling him what I think, even when I know (and sometimes say) that there are different views on the subject that could be legitimate. Or, sometimes I just say “I don’t know” because there isn’t a clear answer and I am too tired to try to explain why. And yes, the lack of philosophical engagement with my child is sometimes just a matter of being too busy and too stressed to take the time.

But here’s an opportunity I could easily take that I don’t, usually: many children’s books raise philosophical topics, and I could ask him questions after reading the books that would get him thinking about things like ethical questions, questions about friendship, personal identity, and more. There was a demonstration of a philosophy with children session at one of the panels today, where some kids from a local school (I think around 8-9 years old) had a conversation about such topics with a teacher, after having heard a story being read to them that started the conversation. They were very, very eager to engage with these questions, a phenomenon reported by several presenters today. I’m a philosopher and I’ve never really tried this with my own child. Why? Mostly because I think I don’t know how. It’s like I can teach Plato and Hobbes and Foucault to undergraduates, but I don’t know how to ask similar questions of a 6-year-old. Is it really that different, though, once you get over the fact that the text being discussed is different? By the way, there are numerous books and resources about just how to have philosophical conversations with children, including with children’s literature. A list of several such books can be found at the website of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children.



This question was asked by Norvin Richards of the University of Alabama, commenting on Jana Mohr Lone’s book noted above. Many have experienced how excited children are to engage in philosophical questions, and yet we also see a similar reticence (or “distaste,” in Richards’ words) in many adults. What happens in between? What changes? We can blame “the schools” for taking curiosity out of children, the standard answer (and maybe there’s some truth to that), but is there something about these two different stages of life, or the nature of the developing human brain and mind, that could account for the difference? This was an open-ended question, as we none of us have a clear answer. Here was one of his guesses (I think he used the word “guess”):



This makes sense to me, but then again, I don’t know much about this subject at all! Jana Mohr Lone replied by saying she thinks this may be the case, and because children have less experience with the world so perhaps what seems like it must be true may be more malleable (with less experience, less cementing of particular views of how things must work?). In response to these tweets, Jill Fellows suggested:



Yes, maybe so. But someone at one of these panels also said it can make sense to give kids what seem like “right” answers to philosophical questions because it provides them with more safety–doing philosophy with kids opens them up to uncertainty and the potentially frightening space of not being sure what to think. Now, this wasn’t given as a reason not to do philosophy with children, just a reason why some might not want to, or want their children to engage in philosophical discussions (this might be particularly true of those who want to instill certain philosophical or religious views in their children and don’t want these to be questioned). Still, I wonder if children are more or less open to uncertainty than adults; I honestly don’t know.

This sounds like a question for the psychologists!


I’m glad I decided to send out some tweets today; there is no conference hashtag (philosophers and twitter…hmmmm…), but I thought I’d tweet out a few things anyway. It provided a great way to take notes on what I found most interesting, and thus a good basis for a blog post. Thanks for the idea, Mariana!



  1. Thank you, as always, for sharing these discussions to the general public. I feel that this kind of transparency is still very much lacking in the academic world, and I hope that more professors start sharing the discussions which take place in these academic conferences. By doing so, the public can either appreciate or question the content of these conferences. In the case of your current session, Philosophy with Children, it is definitely a very important issue to raise, and the more particular questions are also quite pointed too, addressing not only technical concerns but also the everyday concerns of ordinary parents and would-be-parents.

    Let me suggest one way of thinking about the relation between children and philosophy. First of all, there is a distinction between philosophy and “thinking philosophically.” The same distinction can be made with other academic disciplines, e.g. zoology versus “thinking scientifically” or economics versus “thinking economically.” In the former case, there is a body of knowledge, and the first priority of a student is to digest it in his or her mind. In the case of philosophy, the history of philosophy is mandatory – if reading the original texts seems too old-fashioned, then at least get familiarized with the terms which philosophy requires, such as “universal,” “particular,” “categorical,” “hypothetical,” and so on. In the latter case, namely “thinking philosophically,” there is no such need to learn the language and history of the discipline. This is because the goal here is not to learn a body of knowledge. Rather, the goal is to respond to a contingently given stimulus (whatever that might be) in a style or mood which can be called “philosophical.”

    Now I would say that just because a child is able to think philosophically doesn’t mean that the same child is therefore immediately ready to study philosophy. For example, one could ask a child to work out a problem “logically”; the child might succeed, but then one is not entitled to infer from that that the child is now ready to study logic as a science of the forms of thought. Or, one might find a child asking questions such as “who is God?” or “am I doing the right thing here?” And one might have a fascinating dialogue with the child. But that doesn’t mean that the child is therefore ready to study theology or political philosophy.

    If this distinction is plausible, then I think that there are two separate issues to be resolved in philosophy education. First, how to nurture a habit of thinking philosophically. Here, in one sense the adult needs to give answers, not in the sense of answering directly the questions asked by the child, but rather in the sense of setting an example of how to ask the right questions and how to answer questions in a critical way. The second issue is how to judge whether a child is ready to take on the study of philosophy as such. This problem is somewhat akin to that of a master craftsman who is trying to decide whether a young craftsman is worth taking as an apprentice. Particularly for the second issue, it seems impossible to express in language exactly why this or that child is now ready. But at least I think that this distinction provides a key to understanding why adults (and especially philosopher-adults) tend to feel that children are still “too young” to study philosophy. (As to why some parents might be reluctant to have a child think philosophically, I have no idea – let’s ask them.)

    Behind these two issues, there is of course the more general question or whether thinking philosophically or philosophy itself ought to be recommended to all children. Again, it is easy to give immediate and intuitive answers to this question, but the challenge is how to assess such answers, or how to justify them.


    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments here, Kenji. I haven’t done enough study in the area of philosophy with children (or what is sometimes also known as “engaged philosophical inquiry”) to be able to say why someone might want to say that doing philosophical thinking and discussion with children is still doing philosophy, but I do think some people want to say that. At least, what I’ve read/heard so far indicates that many in the field may think that raising and discussing philosphical questions, regardless of whether tied to philosophical texts or not, is still doing philosophy. I myself am not too worried about making a distinction one way or another, except that I think there could be some rhetorical merit in calling such activities the actual doing of philosophy, in order to recognize how much philosophical work goes on around us all the time and reject the kinds of arguments that say “philosophy” is an archaic and useless study. Unfortunately, those kinds of arguments are cropping up again in terms of funding for education in BC, with the provincial government stating that some money for postsecondary education from the province will now be funneled to skills training programs in areas for which there are high demands for workers. And apparently that means that things that aren’t immediately tied to skills needed for in-demand jobs (e.g., the humanities) could see less funding. This all relies on the assumption that the sorts of skills needed aren’t taught in humanities courses, which may be false if such courses are good at thinking, writing, communications skills–another set of data we need to gather! My point is just that from a strategic point of view (not that there aren’t other sorts of arguments that could be made), it might be worthwhile to recognize the link between what we do in academic philosophy courses and what lots of people do and need to do well for their lives and careers. What we do in philosophy at university might be said, then, to be not too terribly different from what could be called “philosophy” outside of academia; it’s just that we do it with a certain set of texts that not everyone outside of academia may read.

      I do agree, all terminology aside, with your general points here though. There is definitely a difference between doing philosophy outside of university, with one’s kids, in primary schools, in philosophers’ cafe’s, etc., and the sort of activity one does while participating in the academic discipline of philosophy. And I don’t have any thoughts yet on when students are ready to do the latter. I know there are some programs for high school students that use texts from the history of philosophy, but I have no idea if they work well. And I don’t know what criteria would be used to decide if they do!

      There is much research to be done in the field of philosophy with children, but I think there is already starting to be a good base to start with. I have seen a couple of presentations here and there about the value of having sessions in primary and secondary schools where students do philosophical thinking and discussion, but I don’t recall what the criteria were for saying this was valuable. I need to start working to gather what research there is, because I would someday like to consider engaging in a research project in this area myself. On top of all the other things I’m also interested in doing…never enough time…

  2. I am well aware of the funding issues which make research and teaching in contemporary philosophy so political. I was especially surprised to see how certain scholars even make explicit mention of funding issues which motivated them to take the particular approach that they took in this or that essay which they have written. And I do not idealize: money is a real issue, and practically speaking scholars ought to do something about it. But I did find the explicit mention of funding in academic publications to be rather tactless.

    I’ve put together my thoughts on this topic in the following blog entry:

    Once again, I appreciate that fact that you are investing so much of your time and energy into these kinds of questions which really do matter to a lot of students.

    1. Just to clarify: I don’t think I’ve read anyone writing in an article or book that we should call philosophy with children “philosophy” b/c of the rhetorical value that I listed in my comment. That was my own thought, not what anyone has published to my knowledge. Or perhaps you’ve seen it elsewhere and are not just talking about my comment?

      I’ll read your post and comment there! Thanks for the link.

  3. I apologize for not being clear enough in my previous comment. Yes, I had in mind comments made by other scholars in other academic articles. One example is a scholar mentioning funding for doing experiments in psychology. The same scholar, in the same article, also suggested that getting this kind of funding is part of the importance of “experimental philosophy.” I should have been clearer: I meant to point to funding in general, not just funding related to teaching philosophy to children. And by “tactless” I just meant to criticize scholars such as the one I just mentioned here who make explicit mention of funding in academic publications, regardless of whether the article or the funding is related to philosophy education.

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