The Philosophy Shop’s Blog

A place to exchange ideas about philosophy

Response to The Observer: What dilemma would you give a five-year-old?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 14, 2009

I was very interested to read the questions – and the reasons for the questions – that four personalities put forward as philosophical questions for five-year-olds inspired by our work in The Observer this weekend.

Diane Abbot’s question reflected a current fear of youth in our society. I watched a very disturbing film recently called Eden Lake, which reflects the same fear. Her answer to the Observer’s question raises further pressing questions about moral education and some may wonder about the value of asking children to consider the nature of good and evil and whether a philosophical discussion of the topic would have any power to shape their moral behaviour especially as philosophy often remains morally neutral.

I think, however, that philosophy does engender moral mindfulness and philosophers are among the most moral people you will meet. Outside of religion, philosophy is the only context in which moral considerations are taken seriously and I think that it benefits from not having a particular agenda – children naturally kick against that which they feel is too prescriptive. The writer and philosophy-with-children practitioner, Robert Fisher, has distinguished between operational and received beliefs. Received beliefs are the beliefs that the children hear from parents and teachers and operational beliefs are those that the children hold implicitly – often formed from their own experiences and peers – that function to produce their actual behaviour. Received and operational beliefs are often at odds but philosophical discourse provides an opportunity to explore these discrepancies in greater detail and results in a higher degree of concordance between the two. On many occasions I have seen children reconsider their moral behaviour as a result of discussions they have had in the philosophy groups. Unsophisticated moral discussions, on the other hand, tend to follow this pattern: ask the children straight-forward moral questions and they will answer according to what they perceive the teacher to be expecting. All this does is provide an invisible barrier between what they will tell you and what they will do. It is much more difficult for the children to make this distinction in a natural discussion that includes motivations, contexts and real behaviour patterns and they will be less likely to want to manufacture perceived desired-answers if they do not detect judgement in the questioning.

Donald Macleod’s response I found puzzling, but, as I understood it, he seemed to be expressing exasperation at the sort of questions he gets from children. It reveals more about him than it does children. Perhaps because he is a representative of a religious perspective, he feels that he must have answers, but the key to the insistent use of “but why?” (Proof, by the way, that we are hardwired with a Leibnizian pre-disposition from the earliest of ages: the principle of sufficient reason, it’s just that children are able to spot that adults reasons are, on the whole, insufficient) from children is to properly engage them with their questioning. So, rather than answering with a definitive answer-structure, try answering the child’s question with a dialogue, an investigation or a conceptual exploration, at each point, allowing the child to answer their own question as far as they are able. It sounds like Donald Macleod is used to providing definitive answers to questions, it’s just that children uncomfortably bring to his (and our) attention the extent of his (and our) ignorance about things. The lesson? We need to learn to become more comfortable with our ignorance and lack of knowledge, especially when we find ourselves in the position of a teacher. As Socrates said: “wisest is she who knows that she know nothing.”

Mary Warnock sounds to me as though she has experience of speaking with young children on philosophical matters, as what she says sounds very familiar to me: colour and robots are perennial favourites with children. “How do I know that what I see when I see red is the same thing as what you see when you see red?” Asked one of my year 5 (age 10) students. “CB [a robot friend built for a boy by his father] only has emotions because of the emotion chip inside him. So it seems like he’s got emotions but inside he hasn’t really,” said a Year 4 (age 9) girl. This point is a very sophisticated observation that the outward display of behaviour is not conclusive evidence that there is accompanying experience matching that behaviour (sometimes known, in philosophy, as ‘the problem of other minds’ and is a big question in artificial-intelligence debates.) A question that emerged from a discussion with some Year 3 children that I think Mary would be very interested in was: can you blame a chair if it breaks when you sit on it? A fittingly existential question I think.

Barbara Gunnell’s question raises some very interesting questions itself about the relationship between philosophy and the disposition of children towards asking questions. Plato said that “philosophy begins in wonder,” and, although I agree with this wholeheartedly I think something needs to be clarified about this idea. Philosophy begins from a state of wonder that children naturally inhabit but it is important to recognise that ‘philosophy’ is not the same thing as ‘wonder’. In other words, there is a difference between asking questions and doing philosophy. Just like a seed in the soil, children need the right conditions for their question-asking to germinate into genuine philosophical enquiries and this depends very much on how we respond to those questions. In a way, philosophy is about asking ‘why?’ but it is also about how to turn the why-asking into something interesting, constructive and of value. Arguably, science, learning – and education generally – has come from doing just this, so, if we can learn, both as parents and teachers to respond in the philosophical spirit we can provide those conditions at an early age, and by doing so, prepare the children to continue in the spirit of philosophy their entire lives. All the other curriculum subjects depend on it.



2 Responses to “Response to The Observer: What dilemma would you give a five-year-old?”

  1. Red Baron said

    Diane Abbot has clearly been in politics too long to let her mind wander freely, perhaps this is inevitable, but it shows a distinct lack of depth that she should need to characterise this indeed very horrific crime as a question of good and evil and not as a question of where as a society have we gone so sufficiently wrong that children should see this as acceptable behaviour. Children are the mirror on society, if we don’t like the reflection we must seek to change ourselves.

    It is unsurprising that a churchman would not have all the answers children seek, for they like logic and reasoning rather than blind faith which they are far less inclined to accept. It is perhaps a small consolation that he is prepared to admit that he does not know the answers though perhaps this casts more of a doubt over what he believes in than he is comfortable with. He is the epitome of the educationalist who wants to endow children with facts so long as it shuts them up.

    I like Mary Warnock immediately and I want her to babysit my children!

  2. Martin Hargreaves said

    I’d second that – actually having a five year old, he likes that sort of thing. Good and Evil and mainly ways he characterises his siblings (or Useless/Godlike, which is a current favourite).

    My seven year old the other hand really wants to know what it would be like to be dead (random question from him), and spends a lot of time thinking over “big” questions.

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