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Picture a philosopher, and you’ll probably come up with someone old and wise, like Socrates, or avant-garde, like Simone de Beauvoir. Or maybe you’ll imagine an academic, toiling in a tweed jacket. Whatever image you’ve got, you’ve likely pictured an adult. But the truth is that philosophers are more common on preschool playgrounds than college campuses.
That might sound odd, since we tend to think of kids as limited and literal thinkers. For a long time, that’s the picture developmental psychology painted. Jean Piaget famously argued that all kids move through a set of developmental stages, arriving at the capacity for abstract thought at about age 12.
Of course, there’s something to the idea that kids’ minds mature as they get older. But Piaget was wrong about the cognitive capacities of little kids—wildly so. Children are sophisticated thinkers, more than capable of abstract thought. They’re creative too. Indeed, in some ways, kids make better philosophers than adults. They question things grown-ups take for granted. And they’re open to new ideas. We can learn a lot from listening to kids—and from thinking with them.
The late philosopher Gareth Matthews was one of the first people to notice this. One day, as he recounts in his book The Philosophy of Childhood, Matthews told his 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, that their cat, Fluffy, had fleas. Sarah asked where they had come from.
The fleas must have jumped from another cat onto Fluffy, Matthews told her.
“How did that cat get fleas?” Sarah asked.
They must have come from a different cat, Matthews said.
“But Daddy,” Sarah insisted, “it can’t go on and on like that forever; the only thing that goes on and on like that is numbers!”
At the time, Matthews was teaching a class that covered the cosmological argument, which aims to show that God exists. There are many versions of the argument, some quite complicated, but the basic idea is simple: Every event has a cause, but that can’t continue back forever—so there must be a first cause, which was itself uncaused. Some—most famously, Thomas Aquinas—say the first cause was God.
The argument has problems. Why does the chain of causes have to come to an end? Perhaps the universe is eternal—endless in both directions. And even if there was a first cause, why think it was God? But it doesn’t matter whether the argument works. According to Piaget, Sarah should have been in the preoperational stage of development, so called because kids in it can’t yet use logic. But Sarah’s logic was exquisite—far more compelling than the cosmological argument. Whatever you make of an infinite regress of causes, it’s hard to imagine an infinite regress of cats.
Matthews decided to study kids and their capacity for philosophical thought, introducing many people to the idea that kids are serious thinkers. Over decades of conversations with children, he found that “spontaneous excursions into philosophy” were common from the ages of 3 to 7. And he was struck by the subtle ways in which kids reasoned, as well as the frequency with which they surfaced philosophical questions.
I’ve been struck by that too. I’m a philosopher and a father of two boys, Rex and Hank. From the time they could talk, they have asked philosophical questions and tried to answer them.
“I wonder if I’m dreaming my entire life,” Rex said one night at dinner. He was 4 and already a fine philosopher, so the question didn’t shock me.
“What a cool idea, Rex! A guy named Descartes wondered the same thing. Do you think you are dreaming?” I asked.
“Maybe!” he said, happy at the thought that he might be hallucinating. And then we went to work trying to prove he wasn’t. (Give it a try. It’s harder than you think.)
My younger son, Hank, got in on the game too. When he was 7, I asked him whether God was real. We talked about it for a few minutes, then he begged off.
“I don’t like to talk about this,” he said.
“Because God would find it insulting—if he’s real.”
I told him he was making Pascal’s Wager. The bet is named after Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician who also dabbled in philosophy. “You’re thinking the same thing he was,” I explained to Hank: “that you should believe in God, so that you don’t upset him—if he’s real.”
“I’ve always thought that,” Hank said. “That’s why I never want to talk about it.”
I’m not sharing these stories to brag about my kids. In this respect, they are absolutely ordinary. Every kid—every single one—is a philosopher. In fact, they’re some of the best around.
Why? For one thing, kids are constantly puzzled by the world. Several years back, a psychologist named Michelle Chouinard listened to recordings of young children spending time with their parents. In just over 200 hours, she heard nearly 25,000 questions. That works out to more than two a minute. About a quarter of those questions sought explanations; the kids wanted to know how or why.
Kids also don’t worry that they’ll make mistakes or seem silly as they puzzle things out. They haven’t yet learned that serious people don’t spend time on some questions like “Am I dreaming my entire life?” Once they figure that out—at about 8 or 9—their spontaneous forays into philosophy stall out. Before then, they’re fearless thinkers, unconstrained by grown-ups’ ingrained habits of thought.
Developmental psychologists are catching on to kids’ capabilities. Nowadays, most of them reject the idea that kids’ minds improve as they age. In The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik writes, “Children aren’t just defective adults, primitive grownups gradually attaining our perfection and complexity.” Their minds are different, but “equally complex and powerful.” Child development, she says, is “more like a metamorphosis, like caterpillars becoming butterflies, than like simple growth—though it may seem that children are the vibrant, wandering butterflies who transform into caterpillars inching along the grown-up path.”
It would be wonderful if we could help kids hold on to a bit of the butterfly as they get older. The world is a puzzling place. There’s so much in it that doesn’t make sense, especially now. If we can sustain kids’ curiosity—and their willingness to go wherever their minds lead—they just might end up as more discerning adults.
Kids can help adults recapture our own courage as thinkers, too. All we have to do is talk to them and take them seriously. Chances are the cleverest person you know can’t tie her shoes. But with a well-placed why, she can push you past your ability to explain everyday things, or call into question truths you hold dear. She can even help you see the world in a new way.
I realized how wise kids can be when Rex finally found a way to make peace with the possibility that he might be dreaming his entire life. For years, we played a game. Rex would try to find a way to prove he wasn’t dreaming. I would knock it down.
“Wouldn’t it be weird,” Rex said at 7, “if you and I were having the same dream? And we have to be having the same dream if we’re talking to each other.”
“Yeah, that would be weird,” I said. “But what if I’m not real? What if I’m just a character in your dream?”
He took time to process it. And repeat it. And extend it.
“So my friends might be characters too?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
We were rounding the corner into our driveway. His mother, Julie, had just arrived home with Hank.
“What about Mommy?” Rex said, pointing ahead.
“She could be a character in your dream too.”
Rex’s face fell. And he said, softly: “Then I don’t want to wake up.”
This article has been adapted from Hershovitz’s forthcoming book, Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids.