At what point did philosophy become a luxury, rather than a necessity? We’ve never needed critical, rational thought more than we do now, and there are more reasons to embrace our inner philosopher than I can cover in a blog post. Yet it’s often a bit of a hard sell. I don’t get it.
Here’s something even more strange about our aversion to philosophy: while we moan and groan about it being too hard, or not necessary, our kids are doing it (and doing a pretty good job). Right under our collective, grown-up noses, there is philosophy going on amongst those who aren’t old enough to vote or even stay home alone. I know because I’ve seen it, and I’ve marveled at it.
How do we keep ourselves from being lapped by minors, when it comes to philosophical thought? Well, maybe we need to put on a pair of kid goggles and try seeing philosophy through their eyes. How does a child do philosophy, even before they know what it is?
For starters, children aren’t hung up on the notion that big questions belong solely to academics. They aren’t afraid to join in this very ancient, human pursuit. They don’t ask permission, and they don’t shy away from an argument. For them, asking these questions is just part of being a person. This isn’t to say that children (or anyone, really) can’t benefit from a little formal practice, a little structure, and some feedback, but kids seem to know that philosophy is still available to them, years before they’re ready for university. The fact that they’re so willing to ask us so many big questions seems to indicate that they know it’s available to the rest of us too.
To a child, philosophy doesn’t have to be written down or published. Some of us grow up and dive into the thousands of years of documented philosophy, and we find it inspiring and even life-changing. That’s all well and good, but as a child will demonstrate, there’s also philosophical content to be found in a crayon drawing, a puppet show, a discussion over an afternoon snack, a story, or an anecdote. It happens in many forms.
As little thinkers show us, the practice of asking big questions doesn’t always have to be serious. Philosophy does ask us to use reason and logic, to be objective and respectful of opposing viewpoints, and yes, philosophy does tend to take on some fairly heavy issues. But why should this have to negate play and fun? Why shouldn’t there be humour in trying to find our place in the universe? Why shouldn’t playing with ideas be acceptable? We thrill when we see our children learning through play, including when they delight in asking big questions. Why do we deny adults the pleasure and joy of thinking big?
What’s more, children remind us that philosophy shouldn’t be a solitary practice. It can’t be. We insist that children learn to share, to be kind to one another, to cooperate, even when their ideas and those of their fellow humans don’t match. Somewhere along the line as we mature, we become unable to examine two sides of an issue without going at each other’s throats. All the lessons we learned while sharing a sandbox seem to disappear. Child philosophers teach us is that we’re in this together. Philosophy demands that we learn to talk to one another, learn from one another. There’s just too much to process, too much ground to cover for us to do it alone.
A final, and very important lesson that wee folk teach us is that the big questions asked by philosophy are applicable to real life. Talk to a child about a philosophical question, and they’ll tell you about an instance when they encountered it in their daily activities. They immediately see connections between the big questions they ask, and the way they live. That’s why they ask them in the first place. They need to talk about fairness so that they can play well in the school yard. They need to talk about beauty so that they can express themselves through art and appreciate nature. They need to know what makes a human because they have rapidly growing minds and bodies that beg to be understood. They need to understand the difference between true and false, real and imaginary, so that they can make decisions and keep themselves safe. Children see that philosophy questions are rooted in real life.
As I see it, we have two options. We could go on thinking of philosophy as an outdated practice stashed in an ivory tower somewhere, an amusing hobby, or a conversation starter at cocktail parties. We could continue to paint it as too abstract, too intellectual, too impractical. Or we could take cues from our children, and examine philosophy through a different lens. We could sharpen our minds and embolden our spirits to look difficult issues square-on, with the critical, yet curious eye of a kid. We can go back to a point in our lives when it was still cool and acceptable to see ourselves as relentless, unapologetic, and joyful, question-askers.
I’m for the latter. Who’s with me?