Philosophy and the Young Child. Gareth Mathews

Tim (6) ‘Papa, how can we be sure everything is not a dream?’

Father  ‘I don’t know. How do you think we can tell?’

Tim ‘Well, I don’t think everything is a dream, ‘cause in a dream people wouldn’t go around asking if it was a dream.’

Ian (6) (chagrinned that three friends are monpolising the T.V. and preventing him from watching his favourite programme) ‘Mother, why is it better for three people to be selfish than for one?’

Ursula (3) ‘I have a pain in my tummy’

Mother ‘You lie down and go to sleep and your pain will go away.’

Ursula ‘Where will it go?’

Dan (6) (worried about the beginning of the world) ‘You see, you might say that first of all there was a stone and everything came from that – but (with great emphasis) where did the stone come from?’

Jane (11) ‘Well, I have read that the earth was a piece of the sun, and that the moon was a piece of the earth.’

Dan ‘Ah but where did the sun come from?’

Tommy (5) (who has been listening with a quiet smile) ‘I know where the sun came from.’

Others (eagerly) ‘Do you Tommy? Where? Tell us?’

Tommy (with a broadening smile) ‘Shan’t tell you.’

Everybody laughs.


Listen to what children say, Matthews tells us, and you’ll perceive a world of epistemological puzzles, moral concerns, and metaphysical anxieties in the process of creation. Ian’s bafflement leads Matthews straight into Utilitarian ethics, Tim’s worry initiates a thread of philosophical musing that goes from Russell’s commonsense dismissal of solipsism, through Descartes’ Cogito, to St. Augustine’s dream in which he tried to convince a man that he was only a figment of the dream. Or take Michael (7) who is concerned about whether the universe is infinite, and is asked by Matthews’ student why such a question was important:

Michael ‘It’s nice to know you’re here, it’s not nice to know about nothing. I hope (the universe) doesn’t go on forever. I don’t like the idea of it going on forever because it’s obvious it can’t be anywhere.’  Questioned further about space and death Michael’s reply is devastatingly pointed:

Michael (firmly) ‘It’s more important to know where you are than what happens after you die. Most people don’t think about death, It’s more important to think about maps in a Chinese city than dying. I think I would rather have the maps.’

Michael is not a typical child (mother a computer scientist, father a mathematician) and, of course, most children don’t reflect so determinedly on the fundamentals of being here. For Matthews, however, Michael’s atypicality is a virtue, since it is in the non-conforming eccentric questions (undestroyed by parental impatience and adult dismissal) that he finds fertile ground for philosophizing. His method takes the form of reflecting what children say through a kind of prism of cultured naiveté in which their questions have the philosophical pregnancy of enquiries made by friendly aliens having difficulties with earth languages. Wittgenstein was the master of this sort of prismatics. ‘We ask “Is there really a God?”, and to the answer “It is not certain” do we never retort “But then what does the word god name?” ‘. I do not think Wittgenstein ever said that, but Matthews discussion of the following exchange makes you feel that he easily might have done:

Girl (9) ‘Daddy, is there really God?’

Father ‘It’s not certain.’

Girl ‘There must be really, because he has a name.’

This exchange is taken from Piaget’s book The Child’s Conception of the World, and Matthews has sharp things to say about Piaget’s approach to children. He devotes a chapter in his book to spelling out what he takes to be a patronizing dismissive and at times contemptuous attitude to the subtleties of children’s thought. To anyone who has tried to sit through the Kantian murk of Piaget’s multi-part epic Genetic Epistemology and come out well before the end shaking their head, Matthews’ chapter will feel like a liberatingly subversive cartoon. He gives many examples which illustrate that Piaget’s famous child-centered approach is often no more than a Piaget-centered insensitivity to the complex paths of children’s imagination. When Fav (8) reports ‘I dreamt the devil wanted to boil me’ and accompanies his report with a drawing of the dream where Fav appears both in bed and confronting a horned devil in the middle of the room, Piaget’s response is to try and get Fav to accept (i) ‘the dream is in Fav’ as true, and (ii) ‘Fav is in the dream’ as false. Fav’s unwillingness to do this is interpreted by Piaget as the result of Fav being ambivalently suspended between two stages of cognitive development. For Matthews philosophical puzzlement doesn’t progress in ‘stages’ (towards some socially accepted adequacy), and he defends Fav’s right to think both (i) and (ii) and be puzzled.

Matthews is similarly critical of Bruno Bettelheim’s reductive view of children as emotion-dominated primitives pre-occupied by fantasy (as opposed to ‘reality’) and incapable of initiating or responding to philosophical puzzlement. In fact, it is not to those who psychologise children but to the writers of children’s stories that he turns to find a sensitivity and alertness to the puzzles of dreaming, desiring, being, and naming that fill children’s minds. Frog and Toad in Arnold Lobel’s story struggling with their desire for cookies sends Matthews to St. Paul and Aristotle. Frank Baum’s Tin Woodsman of Oz reminds him of Theseus’ ship that is replaced plank by plank (is it still the same ship?), and Locke’s theory of memory. The title of another story – The Bear that Wasn’t – allows Matthews to tell us that the double meaning of ‘wasn’t’ might have been the source of Parmenides’ discussion of non-being. Winnie the Pooh and Humpty Dumpty conjure up Wittgenstein, and so on.

Playful exploration (of a certain kind) delights Matthews. He enjoys whimsy, romancing, verbal play, and puzzles as long as they are in the service of a somewhat unexamined and earnest conception of rationality: one that fears disorder and is pre-occupied by explanations, charity, coherence, and argued literalness. These are, of course, the ideals of Analytic Philosophy and (not accidently) the characteristics of mathematical languages. They are not particularly compatible with, and are often opposed to, other equally important facets of the human psyche such as imagistic thought with its poesis, figures of ambiguity, allusions, masks, and acceptance of anarchy. Thus, in terms of its title, Matthews’ book is limited by its strength: what he takes to be ‘philosophy’ and celebrates as an aspect of ‘human nature’ is just on particular arena of Western thought. And it is this very parochialism that allows Matthews to have such a humane patient and interesting appreciation of children’s puttles (buttles?).

But philosophers are given to philosophizing about philosophy, and I would have liked Matthews not to have suppressed this natural inclination and to have put somewhere within his book a note on the character of his brand of philosophy. Anglo-Saxon Analytic Philosophy has modelled its ideas of ‘reason’ on that governing mathematical thought. And one should at least be aware of the fact that mathematics achieves its admired clarity etc. at the price of replacing feeling by aesthetic response, eliminating the subjective self, and discoursing within pan-cultural signs that are (or would be) independent of human physicality. Philosophical reasoning, of the kind that Matthews encourages, is thus as potentially excluding of human potential as it is vivifying, and promoting it involves a complexity of educational choice that ought to be acknowledged.

Notwithstanding this, Matthews’ book will delight anybody who has ever tried to reason sympathetically with children.

The children on the cover of Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, blissfully immersed in manipulating a robot called TURTLE, seem not to be in danger of saying anything philosophically pregnant – or indeed of saying anything at all. They are communicating with TURTLE via a punch-button alpha-numeric console in a computer language called LOGO, and they appear to have just taught TURTLE how to draw a – somewhat over-regular – teddy bear. TURTLE + LOGO are part of a ‘microworld’ constructed for and by them, a ‘province of Mathland’ where certain kinds of mathematical thinking can ‘grow and hatch with particular ease’. The purpose of dwelling in a microworld is to facilitate the grasp of what Papert calls ‘body-syntonic’ and ‘ego-syntonic’ mathematics; which appears to mean mathematics conceived actively from the child’s point of view, rather than passively from an authority-based teacher. Microworlds also function ‘mathetically’ – that is, they are designed to promote learning about the process of learning by making the activity of the self (or some cybernetic fragment of it) transparent to the child. What can be said and thought in LOGO + TURTLE is excrutiatingly simple, and the book re-assuringly gestures to other microworlds in the pipeline which will promote self-involved learning of Differential Calculus, Physics, etc… What can be said and thought in these will be drawn from other computer languages such as BASIC, SMALLTALK and LISP.

All this microchip Futurism, fresh-faced and enthusiastic, seems like mildly educative FUN for KIDS. Less militaristic and more flexible than robotic pinball machines like Space Invaders, TURTLE and its descendants look set to provide the hardware for ‘math labs’ where, plugged into computers and watched over by utopic wide-eyed Cognitive Scientists, children will expunge ‘math phobia’ forever.

The vision here, though cosy monocular and obsessively technologized, seems a fairly benign piece of educational techni-fiction; and, given the small number of children richly enough endowed to be affected by it, harmless enough. But what are we to make of a Science of Cognition that so happily equates human thinking with certain very elementary programmable forms of instrumental reason? The vocabulary – feedback loops, equilibrations, sub-routines, availability parameters, de-bugging procedures, file accesability, etc., etc. – tells its own thin story: no cultural presence, no subjectivity, no humanly recognizable significance, no images, no linguistic texture. The mechanized simplicities of Artificial Intelligence are in the end only of passing interest to a description of mathematical thought (Papert’s light on mathematics – and as a mathematician he is better informed than most of his coworkers in A.I. – is dimmed by a thick mist of uncriticised Piagetianism): they are a universe apart from any interestingly characterized account of ‘thought’ or ‘mind’.

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