Teaching your child philosophy

It is said that James I set out to discover the fundamental ability of the human mind: That he seized a newborn baby and had it reared without any exposure to human language, in order to show that the natural human language was Hebrew.

This was of course a simplistic approach. The human brain has some natural abilities, but human behaviour is very dependent on culture. If the only education provided is of the most primitive kind, then behaviour will be primitive. If Mozart had been exposed to only elementary percussion music for the first 10 years of his life, he would never have written a symphony.

Failure of humankind to grasp certain facts and logical techniques held back further progress until either the fact was discovered or the new technique was developed. It is said that the progress of science was retarded for hundreds of years after Aristotle until the method of seeking truth through revealed knowledge was finally discarded in favour of the empirical method.

It seems rational, then, to try to ensure that children are exposed as early as possible to ways of thinking which have been found, over the millennia of human culture, to be productive. In many areas, parents do this without perhaps realising the essential nature of the foundation they are laying down: We have already noted the cultural basis of language. Counting rhymes and the like inculcate a basic grasp of arithmetic which it took several hundred thousand years of human culture to develop. Stories and systematic mythology build imaginative ability and perhaps encourage theoretical concept formation. In the factual area, pre-school children have no difficulty grasping a heliocentric concept of the solar system rather than a geocentric one. Nor do they have much difficulty in accepting that a light stone falls as fast as a heavy stone. Even such elementary facts as these give children a head start on the natural philosophers of 500 years ago.

Elementary factual material is available to children in abundance, through television and books. However, there are many ways of thinking to which small children are not generally exposed. Many of these ways are heavily dependent on prior knowledge, and cannot be introduced until other material has been mastered (eg concepts of chemistry based on the periodic table of the elements), but many can be introduced early. We have developed a series of documents designed to assist parents in this.

Concepts are introduced by means of Socratic dialogues (as in Plato's Republic), with father or mother adopting the role of Socrates. The materials have been tested on many young children over the years. Many families find meal times suitable occasions for such discussion. Philosophical dialogues can be supplemented by factual quizzes.

Some the responses of "Charlotte" and "Owen" are genuinely drawn from experience of conversation with children, others represent a precis of the actual discussion, and others are made up for the purposes of advancing the dialogue. Of course, if you use these materials with your children, you will not expect to get the same answers as those occurring in the dialogues. However, we believe the dialogues presented here will provide models and ideas for interesting and worthwhile dinnertime discussions.


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