Young children are natural philosophers, says Scott Hershovitz, a professor at the University of Michigan. They ask the questions we’re embarrassed to, because they’re not worried about looking dumb. And, well, the world still seems pretty strange and new to them.
If you know a child aged 4-8, we’re sure there are times when you’ve been stumped by inquiries such as “What is it like to be a dog,” “What’s the biggest number in the world,” “Why are people bad ”or“ Why can not I just do what I want? ” You may have had a response for them at the moment, but wished you’d been able to answer more meaningfully. Or the question might have sparked your own desire to know more.
Either way, Scott can help. Submit your child’s philosophical brain-teaser here, and he’ll do his best to come up with a well-informed answer. Use the form below and read on for an excerpt from Scott’s forthcoming book, Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids.
Answers will be posted in due course, and we’ll inform those readers whose questions have been selected.
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I was a philosopher almost from the time that I could talk, and I am not alone in that. Every kid — every single one — is a philosopher. They stop when they grow up. Indeed, it may be that part of what it is to grow up is to stop doing philosophy and to start doing something more practical. If that’s true, then I’m not fully grown up, which will come as a surprise to exactly no one who knows me.
I remember the first time I pondered a philosophical puzzle. I was five, and it hit me during circle time at the kindergarten. I thought about it all day, and at pickup time I rushed to tell my mother, who taught a preschool class down the hall. “Mommy,” I said, “I do not know what red looks like to you.”
“Yes, you do. It looks red, ”she said.
“Right. . . well, no, ”I stammered. “I know what red looks like to me, but I do not know what it looks like to you.”
“Red looks like that,” she said, pointing to something red.
“Right,” I said, “but I do not know what that looks like to you. I know what it looks like to me. ”
“It looks the same, sweetheart.”
“We call the same things red,” I attempted to explain, “because you pointed to red things and told me they were red. But what if I see red the way you see blue? ”
“You do not. That’s red, not blue, right? ”
“I know we both call that red,” I said, “but red could look to you the way blue looks to me.” (Philosophers call the puzzle I pressed on my mother the shifted color spectrum. The idea is typically credited to John Locke.)
I do not know how long we went round on that, but my mother never did see the point I was making. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m happy to try again.) And I distinctly remember her concluding the conversation: “Stop worrying about this. It does not matter. You see just fine. ” That was the first time someone told me to stop doing philosophy. It was not the last.