Can you doubt that you exist?
Do we control technology or does technology control us?
“I am lying.” True or False?
Two or three mornings a week, the boys and I start our academic day with these sorts of questions from David A. White’s Philosophy for Kids: 40 Fun question That Help You Wonder…About Everything. Philosophy for Kids is aimed at children 10 and up but could easily be used with somewhat younger gifted children, depending on verbal skills and their ability to think abstractly. My boys, 13 and 9, are chugging along without much trouble and with a good deal of learning, and I imagine even adults could spend a good deal of time dissecting these issues with pleasure and debate. I know I’m having fun.
White’s Philosophy for Kids is broken down into four sections: values (ethics), knowledge (epistemology), reality (metaphysics), and critical thinking (logic) — each divided further into 10 questions. While this rather order-driven mom is covering the chapters in order, one could easily jump around through the book, following the kids’ interest, as the author suggests. Most chapters end with a reference to another questions in the book, which could guide the leader’s path as well. Either way would work.
Each chapter begins with a brief discussion of the question and (for the first 29 questions) a short introduction to the philosopher whose viewpoint is under examination for the lesson. Midway through the discussion, the reader/listener does a brief exercise designed to deepen understanding about the question and examine personal thoughts and beliefs. For example, question #16 (Knowledge) explores Immanuel Kant’s examination of knowledge, asking, “How can you tell when you know something?” The introductory exercise asks how the reader knows that 2 +2 = 4 and how you know an apple you are holding is red. The answers are multiple choice, and after one answers (and we do these aloud), White identifies the answers that would follow Kant’s philosophy, and further explanation of subjective versus objective knowing follows. Each chapter ends with two to four questions for further thought. Some are quite challenging, and the first “For Further Thought” in this chapter is no exception, as White poses the question, “What is the difference between knowledge and belief?” White guides the reader somewhat, suggesting to first differentiate between an opinion and a belief then move to the distinction between belief and knowledge. Brief notes in the back of the book give a bit of additional information about the philosopher (or, in the last 11 chapters, question) at hand as well as add some guidance for leading a discussion on the topic. I’m not sure who appreciates the additional information more, the boys or I.
White includes a general introduction to philosophy and guiding philosophical conversations with kids (and he has a number of years experience teaching philosophy to children and college-aged folks). The book ends with a resource list for further philosophy reading for children and adults, a brief list of suggestions for integrating philosophy across the curriculum, and a glossary complete with references back to the questions. The book is easy to navigate and enjoyable to simply browse and explore, which is White’s intent.
However, I’ve chosen to use the book as a text, working from start to finish on the questions presented. Each discussion takes 20 to 30 minutes, with some questions grabbing my children’s interest more than others but all engendering curiosity. One could add additional readings from either the back of the book, or, in the case of the ancient Greek thinkers, Joy Hakim’s The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way (to be reviewed later). Using some of the “For Further Thought” questions as essay questions crossed my mind for my older child, but while he writes a smashing technical essay, I’d be likely to frustrate him greatly by asking him to reason philosophically and write at the same time. Those with prolific and willing writers may find this a suitable way to add some product to a book that’s more about process. I’d love to see this book used with a group of homeschoolers live or online (nudge, nudge, Online G3).
Even if one choses to add writing or additional reading to this book, the process of philosophical thought should remain the focus of study. Philosophical thought comes more naturally to some people than others, and while some may poetically say that children are “natural philosophers”, and my kids certainly ask questions ad infinitum, the jump from questioning to philosophical thinking still can take some encouragement and practice. As with many gifted kids, my boys mastered some degree of abstract thought at very early ages. My younger toyed with reality by age 5, musing whether we were all fiction or nonfiction. (He determined he was nonfiction and the rest of us were fiction.) However, when I started posing questions that had no right or wrong answers, he struggled mightily with the ambiguity of many of the questions. Some of this struggle is simply age, and some is his Asperger’s, which makes some abstraction really tough for him in certain areas. My older son is not at all troubled by ambiguity, and he’s made progress in his ability to support his answer to a an open-ended question. He’s also able to tolerate a good amount of further questions about his reasoning and respond to requests that he defend his answer or expand upon his thoughts. In short, his philosophical thinking is progressing, and that’s the point.
Our next philosophical stop is likely David White’s The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids, although probably we won’t begin that journey until the next school year. That’s likely to depend on the direction the boys want to take next. As for me, once my philosophical brain starts grinding away, I’m eager for more grist for my mill. It’s been over 20 years since I’ve had a philosophy class, and I’ve missed that sort of thinking. Thanks to David White for setting that mill into action again.