by Karin Murris


Some philosophers claim that young children cannot do philosophy. The aim of my paper is to examine some of those claims, and to put forward arguments against them. Our beliefs that children cannot do philosophy are based on philosophical assumptions about children, their thinking, and about philosophy. Many of those assumptions remain unquestioned by critics of Philosophy with Children. My conclusion is that the idea that very young children can do philosophy has not only significant consequences for how we should educate young children, but also for how adults should do philosophy; and that further research is urgently needed.


“Philosophy is often thought of as a body of knowledge; but this idea makes little sense, because for virtually every significant statement that one philosopher makes, it is possible to find another who will disagree with it. It is better to consider philosophy as a method of enquiring into very fundamental questions that do not yield to the methods of science. In the Western tradition, since the time of Plato, this method can be characterised by a form of relentless questioning, in which the answer to one question only leads to a further question, and so on, and on and on. Readers of Plato will know what I mean. And so will parents of small children.”
                                                                                         Peter Singer

The debate as to whether philosophy is suitable for children is an ancient one. Philosophers since as long ago as Plato have had plenty to say on the subject – most of it negative. The debate continues unabated, but is often complicated by the confusion between ‘doing’ philosophy as a subject – i.e., studying the idea’s of the world’s great thinkers since the Greeks – and ‘philosophising’, i.e., thinking about any question in a philosophical way. The debate is complicated further by disagreement over what the term ‘philosophy’ actually means.

British philosopher John Wilson, for example, has argued that the ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C)1 movement suffers from educational ideology. The ideology he refers to is the assumption that philosophy is something like: a focus on questioning, enquiry, and being critical (Wilson, 1992, p. 17). Wilson criticises the P4C movement for not being entirely clear about what exactly is understood by philosophy. Similarly, John White and Richard Kitchener object to the lack of “higher-order thinking” when young children philosophise about concepts and principles.

Apples and pears

The way in which critics of Philosophy with Children (PwC) often compare child philosophers with adult philosophers is based on a category mistake. They are not comparing one group of apples with another group of  apples, they are comparing  apples with pears. PwC proponent Gareth Matthews admits that children can be less “disciplined” and less “rigorous” than some adults, but he cautions comparing children with just any adult (Matthews, 1994, p. 17). After all, there is a great variety among adults in the ability to be involved in rigorous and disciplined philosophical enquiry.  Young children will discuss the kind of problems and raise the kind of questions academic philosophers are puzzled about when they have just started doing philosophy. For when comparing children’s ability to do philosophy with that of adults it has to be clear whether we are referring to:

·               trained and qualified academic philosophers;
·               adult students in philosophy (who have just started);
·               non-philosophically trained adults.

The only fair comparison is that between children and the second group of adults (students who have just started); and even then we have to be cautious, because:

·         it is tempting to evaluate children’s thinking through the language they use, and the younger the child, the more likely that they cannot verbalise properly some of their thoughts;

·         it is possible that young children’s thinking differs from that of adults. In evaluating their talk, adult researchers run the risk of evaluating children’s thinking by comparing it with how adults reason in order to make sense of their experiences. Children’s fantasy could be a different – but not less rational – way of making meaning (see below).

Even if Richard Kitchener were correct in his claim that young children cannot engage in “higher‑order thinking” - he refers to “considerable evidence”, but fails to explain what this evidence consists of (Kitchener, 1990, p. 422) - not many non-philosophically trained adults are capable of what Kitchener describes as “formal operational thinking”, that is, the ability to not only hypothesise about contrary-to-fact situations, and to draw logical conclusions, but to apply this knowledge to other, similar cases. Neither are many non-philosophically trained adults capable of ‘post-formal operational thinking’, that is, doing meta-ethics, meta-logic, etc. (Kitchener, 1990, p. 440). In contrast to non-philosophically trained children and adults, philosophically trained children do have the inclination to think about their own thinking (e.g. in the meta-dialogues) in that they think and talk about their ideas and relate them to what other children have said, showing the structure of the dialogue as they speak (See e.g. McCall, 1990; Murris, 1997).

The issue is further complicated by the fact that even if it were true that young children (who had just started doing philosophy) in comparison with adults (who had just started doing philosophy) were less capable of doing philosophy, the conclusion does not follow that children should not be taught philosophy. After all, primary children do not ‘do’, for example, mathematics or history as capably as professional mathematicians or historians. Does it, therefore, follow that, either they do not do ‘real’ mathematics or ‘real’ history, or that they should not do those subjects?

Philosopher Mary Midgley in her response to journalist Jenny Turner’s rejection of philosophical enquiry with children in The Guardian, points out that:

 “Of course children’s arguments are not the same as the discussions of university students. But then neither is a child’s eager participation when his or her parents are mending the garage just like the work which that child may do later as an engineering student. In both, what matters is to pick up the general spirit of such activities, to start seeing them as interesting and possible. And if one does not do this as a child, it is much harder to do it later. Philosophy has never been a quarantined enclave for professionals, any more than literature has, and it would die if it were to become so” (“Letters to the Editor”, The Guardian, 18 June 1996, p. 14).

What is important is that children can, and do, pick up “the general spirit of such activities”, and, as such, are being taught a philosophical form of life. Or, as Clyde Evans put it, the children are introduced to philosophical issues and philosophical commitments – the sort of commitments to certain procedural principles that make philosophical discourse possible. He mentions: impartiality, objectivity, consistency, comprehensiveness, respect for other persons, searching for defensible reasons, and consideration only of relevant criteria (Evans, 1978, p. 162).

Abstract concepts do not simply ‘develop’. In order to use concepts in a sophisticated manner, thinking about them in a disciplined and systematic manner helps to ‘expand’ them. This is something non-philosophically and non-academically trained adults find hard to do (something they share with non-philosophically trained children). Training in philosophical enquiry, rather than age, seems the crucial factor here; and until children have done philosophy throughout their nursery and primary education we should not generalise about children’s abilities to do philosophy.

On the other hand, it could be argued that philosophy is somehow an exceptional subject, which renders it’s teaching to young children either inappropriate or impossible. Unlike other subjects, it is thinking itself philosophers think about. This, as I will argue below, actually works in favour of the argument that young children can do philosophy.

Lack of meta-level reflection

Would it be possible to invalidate the criticism that children cannot do philosophy, by giving examples of children saying the same thing as a famous adult philosopher, only formulated in a simpler vocabulary? This is a tactic often used not only in PwC (Matthews, 1994, pp. 10, 11, 37; McCall, 1990), but also justified by PwC proponents as the correct procedure. 2

    This would be unlikely to convince Kitchener, who argues that examples like these merely show that children are capable of “single, one‑time performances” or “philosophical one‑liners” (Kitchener, 1990, p. 426). I agree with his methodological objection that short anecdotes, or philosophical “one-liners”, can be misleading. The danger of using short anecdotes is that particular theories are easily projected into children’s words; and the problem with “one-liners” is that, even if children express a philosophical thought, only questioning will bring out to what extent they are capable of sustaining this philosophical way of thinking. I disagree, however, with what would count as evidence for Kitchener. What would convince Kitchener is if children “questioned on a one‑one basis about their comments” could “elaborate upon their views, and rationally defend them” (Kitchener, 1990, pp. 426, 427).

Kitchener misses the collaborative dimension of groups of children thinking together like ‘one big head’3, building on each other’s ideas. The goal of philosophical enquiry with children transcends the thinking of any one individual. The insights acquired could never have been reached by the individuals alone. So, the question should rather be, ‘Is a community of young children such that its members are capable of critically questioning each other and defending their points of view over a long period of time?’.

John White specifies evidence as follows: children should be able to demonstrate, not only that they can be logical, or that they can reason, but that they can take a “higher‑order stance to reasoning” (White, 1992, p. 75). (The founder of the Philosophy for Children Movement, Matthew Lipman reportedly claims that children start philosophising when they ask the question ‘why?’; elsewhere Lipman claims that philosophy begins when children start to question the meaning of words. 4)

Like White, Kitchener is sceptical of the idea that young children can do ‘real’ philosophy. He claims that although children are capable of doing ‘concrete philosophy’, they are not capable of doing ‘abstract philosophy’ (Kitchener, 1990, pp. 427, 428). Matthews, Lipman, Pritchard and others, show only that children are capable of concrete philosophising when giving examples of children talking about: ‘death’, ‘dreaming’, ‘bravery’, ‘time‑travel’, ‘the material composition of cheese’, ‘the ship of Theseus’, and ‘sharing the television set’. Kitchener claims that those philosophical dialogues are about concrete examples, rather than general principles, and that children cannot grasp the principle qua principle underlying a concrete case, e.g., the ontological principle of, for example, what constitutes identity over time in the case of the ship of Theseus.

Is it indeed true to say that children cannot abstract from concrete examples to make more general conclusions and apply those to other, similar, concrete cases, make analogies, etc.?
The Ship of Theseus is one of the subjects of a philosophical dialogue among children facilitated and reported by Gareth Matthews (Matthews, 1984, pp. 37‑48). The Ship of Theseus was an ancient ship of which all the boards had been replaced one by one over a period of time, until all the boards were new. This raises the philosophical problem whether this ship can still be called the same old ship, and, if not, when and why did the old ship cease to exist. Also, the problem of identity5 is further complicated by the fact that the planks which have been taken out could be used to construct a second identical ship (Curnow, 1995, pp. 25,26).

A child called Donald6, formulates the problem as follows: “Is the ship the old ship, or is the ship just a model, a replica, a copy of the original ship?”. After a transcript of the subsequent dialogue, Matthews comments on the ability of some of the children in this classroom to distinguish between knowing whether it would be the old ship, from whether people would recognise it as the old ship (Matthews, 1984, pp. 41, 42). What Matthews shows is that at least some children can make this distinction. But does Donald understand the ontological principle qua principle? Could he apply the principle of what constitutes identity over time, not only to this particular case of the ship Theseus, but also to other similar cases?

The dialogue that follows shows that the children subsequently use analogies. They transfer the problem to castles (how many bricks can we replace before it is not the same castle any more) and cars (windows, wheels and doors can be replaced but unless the engine stays the same it is not the same car any more). However, these are concrete examples. Would children struggle more if they had to apply this distinction to the more abstract problem of, for example, personal identity?

This issue could be settled perhaps by empirical evidence of children doing exactly that. Matthews reports elsewhere of children making the analogy between the gradual replacements of planks with the gradual displacement of cells in their own bodies (Matthews, 1994, p. 6). But this would not satisfy the critics. They claim that children would have to show that they can think about the principle itself, like Aristotle did, when he postulated his theory of substance (Kitchener, 1990, p. 427).

However, Matthews does not seem too concerned to meet his critics’ demands. He settles for less, and argues for a relative and not an absolute distinction between philosophy for adults and philosophy for children (Matthews, 1978, p. 68). He refuses to use adult philosophy as a criterion for judging the philosophical dimension of children’s thinking. Children are natural philosophers (Matthews, 1994, p. 6), not cultivated philosophers – the two can never be the same, he claims.

The ‘cultivated’ adult philosopher cultivates the innocence necessary for philosophising, and can therefore better rationally defend views expressed, but the adult – according to Matthews – has lost a child’s natural sense of wonder about the meaning of concepts, which disappears when a person starts to take for granted the difference between the literal and the figurative use of language (Matthews, 1978, p. 72).7

Therefore, it would be better to say that Matthews does not claim that children philosophers are like adult philosophers, nor does he claim that they should be like adult philosophers. He seems to claim the reverse – that adult philosophers would be better philosophers if they had more of the natural innocence of a child (Matthews, 1978, p. 72).

Matthews gives way unnecessarily to his opponents. What is this ‘real’ philosophy adult philosophers are supposed to be doing? – ‘real philosophy’ as being the examination of principles underlying particular cases. Such philosophical activities have been heavily criticised by, for example, adult philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, as a typical way of unnecessarily creating philosophical problems.

Wittgenstein says that philosophical problems, metaphorically speaking, are like a disease. 8   They arise when philosophers are misled by the superficial grammar of our language. In the case of the philosophical problem of identity (as in the Ship of Theseus), when a police officer asks you: “Please prove your identity” it is possible to be misled into thinking that “identity” is the name of a thing –  emphasised by the fact that a usual response would be to prove our identity by showing a thing – passport, driving licence, etc. – in response to the demand. It is the language learned from an early age that spreads this ‘disease’ – i.e., assuming a name  presupposes the existence of an object (Curtis, 1985, pp. 10‑19; Clark, 1990, pp. 247‑265).

What is the cure to this ‘disease’ of philosophical problem seeking? According to Wittgenstein, it is the task of philosophers, not to solve, but to dissolve philosophical problems by looking at the everyday use of the concepts involved. He writes:

“...The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by rearranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our intellect by means of language” (Wittgenstein, 1958, par 109). 9

That is, look how words are actually used in everyday language. It is our misunderstanding of how everyday language actually functions that has created philosophical problems. If we apply this to the example described above, then – following Wittgenstein – we could say that the attempt to find an ontological principle to explain identity over time, in order to postulate philosophical notions such as “essence”, “substance”, etc., are a blind alley. Philosophers should not ask themselves “What is identity?”, but instead concentrate on how words such as “identity” are actually used in everyday circumstances. An enquiry about the meaning of concepts embedded in their lifeworlds is exactly what young children do when engaged in philosophical enquiries.

It is when concepts are taken out of the context of everyday life in which they are used, that philosophical problems are created. One such problem is to look at a principle qua principle. Some adult philosophers argue that this should be transmittable to child philosophers if they are to do ‘real’ philosophy. Wittgenstein argues – and I agree with him – that this ‘disease’ should be ‘cured’ in adult philosophers. Making it a criterion with which to judge children’s philosophy is insufficient without offering further arguments.

What is peculiar about children?

What is so peculiar about children that we are prompted to ask the question as to whether they can do philosophy in the first place? Neo-Aristotelian assumptions often underlie criticisms of  PwC. The generally accepted belief  is that we are  a ‘tabula rasa’ when born (or conceived?); and that all our knowledge comes from experience, and doing philosophy requires knowledge upon which to reflect. Therefore, the older we are, the more is ‘written’ on our ‘slate’, and therefore the more knowledge we have acquired. Children have insufficient experience (i.e. knowledge) and as a result are not capable of doing philosophy, the argument goes (e.g. Flay, 1978). For example, Anthony O’Hear claims that children under the age of twenty do not know what love is. Children should not be allowed to challenge moral or epistemological authority, since children have neither knowledge, nor experience.10 Even accepting that children have less experience (is it possible to quantify experience?), it does not follow that they do not have sufficient experience to reflect, or that  philosophical reflection will not help them make their experiences more meaningful to them.

Neo-Aristotelian beliefs do not blend well with Neo-Socratic or Kantian inspired pedagogies. Socrates’ aim (according to Plato) was not to teach anything new, but to assist people in giving birth to their knowledge, i.e., to help them remember what they already knew (before chained in their present body). According to Kant we have a priori knowledge (e.g., causality, time, space, justice, freedom) that make experience possible - experience is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for knowledge. It may be the case that not all conceptual knowledge is acquired  through learning a language and growing up (through experience).

I detect similar Neo-Aristotelian assumptions in John White’s criticism - he claims that the acquisition of knowledge of concepts takes place empirically. He  argues for a difference between the kinds of questions children ask and the kinds of questions adults ask. Children ask questions in order to find out how to use concepts. Adult philosophers, on the other hand, already knowing how to use the concepts “...are interested in mapping it from a higher‑order perspective” (White, 1992, p. 75). In his paper The Roots of Philosophy, White rightly points out that a question is not, in and by itself, philosophical. It is the context that makes a question philosophical, in the sense that the context would determine if a question “calls into doubt a very ordinary notion” (White, 1992, p. 74).

White also points out that the intention of the questioner is very important in determining whether a question is philosophical. It is for this reason that he believes that, because children’s intentions differ from those of adults, children are not philosophers. He writes:

“Children want to know how to use the concept; philosophers, who have no trouble using it, are interested in mapping it from a higher‑order perspective, and usually in the pursuit of larger theoretical enquiries. Needless to say, too, philosophers are only interested in those concepts which present philosophical problems, whereas the point just made about children can apply to their acquisition of all kinds of concepts – of cats, rivers, computers” (White, 1992, pp. 75, 76).

Children are not philosophising, but “simply on the way to acquiring the concept” (White, 1992, p. 76). Is it true to say that children merely want “to know how to use the concept”, and that adults “have no trouble using it”? Also, is an enquiry about “cats, rivers, computers” always non-philosophical?

Teachers who do philosophy with young children accept that ‘being reasonable’ is not a sufficient condition for calling an enquiry a philosophical enquiry. It is not just the fact that someone is reasoning, but also what s/he is reasoning about that is a criterion for distinguishing philosophical talk from ordinary talk.

This is acknowledged, for example, by Ann Margaret Sharp and Laurance Splitter who insist that an enquiry should focus on the analysis and formation of concepts of a certain kind. They are problematic, but significant, abstract concepts. These are the sorts of concepts we use to think and communicate with, and we also use them as a basis for our actions. We use them in everyday life. They are central and common. All of us use those concepts to make sense of the world we live in, or, put differently, to structure reality with (Splitter & Sharp, 1995).

Philosophical thinking is complex thinking (Lipman, 1991; Cam, 1995). It is, because “[p]hilosophical concepts distinguish themselves from those of everyday life by their generality, by their abstract character, but especially by their complexity: most philosophical concepts are not simple class concepts which can be dealt with by prototype learning” (Leeuw & Mostert, 1987, p. 94). For example, we do not learn the concept ‘person’ by simply pointing at various concrete individuals. It does not tell us anything about what it is that makes us different from our goldfish. However, for young and old alike, it is not only very difficult to answer questions such as “What is a ‘person’?”, or “What do I mean by ‘time’?”, but also crucial to making sense of our experiences, ourselves and the world we live in.

The class of concepts enquired into by children, however, is larger than that of traditional philosophy. The reason is that children themselves generate the concepts and the questions they find important. It does not follow, however, that such enquiries cannot be philosophical. A great deal depends upon the teacher’s skills in facilitating the thinking of the children, and in helping them to build on each other’s ideas, while at the same time ‘probing’ for the philosophical. I have witnessed an enquiry starting off with the statement “Cows can’t fly”, which quickly turned into an enquiry about the moral implications of calling a group of molecules ‘beef’ rather than ‘cow’.11 Similarly, starting off with the concept ‘computer’ and asking the question ‘Do computers think?’ can easily lead into philosophical discussions with young and old - both knowing how to use the concept, i.e., referring to a particular physical object. Of course, there are times when children ask questions and enquire into concepts, because they do not know how to use a particular concept, but this is not always the case. Even when we know how to use a concept, philosophical puzzlement remains - especially when we have just been initiated into a particular language and culture. This could be young children’s philosophical advantage (see below). 

What is involved in understanding or knowing concepts is in itself an intriguing philosophical topic. Kieran Egan argues that very young children already use abstract concepts (without being to define them), and that they do this through fantasy (Egan, 1988, p. 26). The concepts involved in making sense of stories with such characters as smurfs, talking teddy bears, giants and monsters, are, for example, ‘good and bad’, ‘big and little’, ‘fear and security’, ‘nature and culture’. Egan maintains that pre-literate children’s thinking is different from that of older children or adults. He calls it ‘mythical thinking’: a kind of thinking with “its own complex logic and...this logic is not an opposite to rational thought” (Egan, 1988, p. 39), but a foundation for rational thinking. It involves techniques of thinking that rely on resources available in oral cultures (Egan, 1988, pp. 42, 43) – the kind of thinking prior to the internalisation of literacy. As a result of literacy – the technology of writing – thought is restructured to focus more on knowledge content or psychological development, and makes it easier to reflect upon the meaning of what has to be memorised (Egan, 1988, pp. 51‑53, 59). Egan argues that this kind of thinking is certainly not ‘primitive’, and only less ‘abstract’ when we mean by abstraction the kind that depends heavily on writing. The written word is much less charged than the spoken word “...with the direct energy of the speaker’s body, and so the speaker’s hopes, fears, wants, needs, intentions, and so on” (Egan, 1988, p. 70). It is the written word (internalised literacy) that makes our rationality ‘disembedded’ – i.e., not embedded in one’s lifeworld (Egan, 1988, p. 65). Since the Enlightenment, the notion of ‘disembedded rationality’ has become prevalent in Western culture in order to keep separate what one is thinking about (objective knowledge content) and the subject who is doing the thinking with all her feelings, hopes, and fears.

The ideal of ‘disembedded rationality’ makes it possible to discuss the meaning of a word‑as‑such, outside the particular context in which the word is used. In this light, the work of many philosophers can be seen as a search for the absolute, universal meaning of a particular concept independent of its use in particular circumstances (e.g., the Platonic Forms). This is still an ideal for many philosophers, and is used as an argument against the idea that children can do philosophy – e.g., Richard Kitchener’s claim that children can do only ‘concrete philosophy’ and not ‘abstract philosophy’; or, John White when he argues that ‘real’ philosophers are interested only in those concepts which present philosophical problems, not concepts such as ‘cats’, ‘rivers’, or, ‘computers’.

As pointed out before, Wittgenstein warns us against catching this ‘disease’ suffered by many philosophers – the unhealthy activity of philosophical problem-seeking by taking concepts out of the context of everyday meaning. It does not make sense to establish the meaning of words outside the contexts in which they are being used (‘embodied’) in everyday life. With the philosophical critique of the Western notion of ‘disembodied rationality’, awareness is growing that children’s thinking is not inferior to that of adults, and that children deserve to be listened to.

Egan argues that children do think abstractly in the sense that they use abstract concepts, such as ‘brave’, ‘fair’, ‘good’, ‘friend’, but not dissociated from their lifeworld as literacy enables and encourages them to do (Egan, 1988, pp. 75, 90, 91). This would have consequences for what adults understand the discipline of philosophy to be. Mythical thinking is excluded from philosophical thinking only when we adopt a narrow meaning of rationality.

What have adult philosophers lost?

Much of our current educational thinking has been influenced by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. An underlying philosophical assumption of Piagetian theory is that children’s reasoning will develop automatically as children get older. Moreover, an attempt to hasten this process will be a waste of time – perhaps even regarded as educational malpractice (Gazzard, 1985, p. 11). In this view, it is assumed that children’s development goes through irreversible, necessary age‑related stages. This stage‑theory of cognitive development is reflected in how educational curricula for primary education have been designed. The sort of educational material taught, and how it is being taught, has to conform to the particular intellectual capacities characteristic of the child’s age. Thus, the educator focuses on the child’s age, and not the child itself, running the risk that too much importance is given to what children have in common (their age) instead of what makes them different from one another (different abilities). Secondly, at most, the different stages describe what children of a particular age group are intellectually capable of, but, as Ann Gazzard points out: “ [stage theory of cognitive development] serves to define the range of thought children are capable of” (Gazzard, 1985, p. 11). We do not know yet the effect on the intellectual development of the young child, of long‑term exposure to proper philosophy‑tuition.

In the last two decades, much effort has been put into reinterpreting Piaget’s conclusions drawn from psychological experiments. Margaret Donaldson argues that, not his findings as such are suspect, but that the conclusions drawn from those findings are wrong (Donaldson, 1978, p. 23). Empirical evidence for this conclusion is given by constructing similar experiments, but in situations that make sense to the child (Donaldson, 1978, p. 23; Sutherland, 1992, p. 15). For example, in an attempt to demonstrate how ego‑centric children are, Piaget conducted an experiment to show that children under the age of eight do not have the ability to take account of someone else’s point of view – literally. In his experiment, a child sits at a table with three different mountains on it. A doll is placed somewhere else round the table. Most children cannot show or describe what the doll sees. Donaldson contests Piaget’s conclusion that children are “unable to ‘decentre’ in imagination” (Donaldson, 1978, p. 20), which is a crucial requirement for thinking and reasoning well – because if a child cannot shift between different points of view, she cannot make valid inferences (Donaldson, 1978, p. 41). I have plenty of anecdotal evidence from my own children that they can decentre in imagination. For example, my youngest son, when he was 18 months, expressed sympathy for his favourite Teletubbies doll (called ‘Lala’) lying on the radiator. Walking towards the radiator, he said: “Lala hot”, picked her up and cuddled her.

The unquestioned assumption in developmental theories is that the goal of the process is maturity – each stage is followed by one that is ‘better’, more mature. This is what Matthews calls “evolutionary bias” (Matthews, 1994, p. 17). The point he makes is that this kind of bias might not be appropriate for philosophy, the reasons being that the better handling of philosophical questions is not guaranteed by just growing up. Secondly, maturity often brings “staleness” and “uninventiveness” (Matthews, 1994, p. 18) to the exploration of philosophical ideas, while children are often “fresh and inventive thinkers”. It opens up the possibility that philosophy as a discipline could learn something from children engaged in philosophical enquiry. After all, each generation has to find its own answers to philosophical questions (Leeuw, 1991, p. 13; Lipman & Sharp, 1978, pp. IX & X). There is a danger in philosophy that too many conventions remain unquestioned. Therefore, rather than an asset, Van der Leeuw argues that it could be a disadvantage for adults to be acquainted with the philosophical tradition. Children’s lack of knowledge of many of culture’s conventions might put them in an advantageous position (Leeuw, 1991, p. 13). Matthews claims that good teachers of philosophy remember the questions they had when they were a child. Otherwise philosophy loses its urgency and much of its point (Matthews, 1994, p. 14). Robert Mulvaney stipulates that philosophy with children may help “to preserve the child in the philosopher”. He argues that:

“One of the tragedies of the grownup is his loss of a sense of wonder, curiosity and playfulness, in short, of childhood. But these emotions are central to philosophical enquiry. Perhaps by starting philosophy earlier and seeing to it that it continues throughout school, grownups will rediscover suppressed reservoirs of playfulness and leisure” (Mulvaney, 1993, p. 400).

Thirdly, following Plato and Descartes, philosophy is the epistemological pursuit of ‘starting all over again’, i.e., finding out for ourselves “...that I really do know whatever it is I claim to know” (Matthews, 1994, p. 18). One necessary condition for this philosophical exercise is the abandonment of cherished beliefs and assumptions – something that is much harder for adults, whose beliefs often have become firmly ‘rooted’ habits of thought. After all, it was American philosopher, William James, who said: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices”. 12

Children’s lack of knowledge about culture’s conventions forces them to take a ‘Cartesian stance’, and to start from scratch when thinking about philosophical questions. As a result, their answers to philosophical questions are bound to be more original than those of adults (Leeuw & Mostert, 1987). Van der Leeuw claims that it is for this reason that “[c]hildren’s thinking shows us another side of the world, that is how the world could have been” (Leeuw, 1991, p. 13). The world as‑it‑is, is too often taken for granted by adults – including adult philosophers. So children’s lack of experience could be an advantage rather than a disadvantage when they do philosophy (Leeuw, 1991, p. 14).

Throughout Gareth Matthews’ works we find the idea that children are the ‘natural’ philosophers, in contrast to adult philosophers who cultivate young children’s sense of wonder. This is clear, for example, when he claims that philosophising adults “...try to be little children again – even if only temporarily” (Matthews, 1994, p. 18). Philosophy is not ‘immature’. Philosophy is naive perhaps, but it is a “profound naiveté” (Matthews, 1994, p. 34).

To summarise, what we mean by ‘being a child’ or ‘childhood’ is crucial to answering the question of whether children can do philosophy. Merely assuming that childhood is connected to a particular biological, psychological or social age is unsatisfactory. It also limits cognitive development to include merely logico‑mathematical thinking, and ignores imaginative development.

This bias has its philosophical roots in Plato’s philosophy, in particular the Simile of the Cave (Murris, 1997, pp 63-65). Plato associates episteme (knowledge) with adulthood, and doxa (belief) with childhood (Egan, 1988, p. 47). Both Plato and Aristotle believe that rational theoretical understanding gives superior knowledge of reality (Egan, 1988, p. 47). For Plato, only educated adults can acquire knowledge of the unchanging reality (the Platonic Forms, such as Goodness, Beauty, etc.) through rational enquiry. Less rational beings – including children – have access only to the world of appearances, i.e., of the world as it is perceived through our senses. We perceive this or that beautiful object, we judge this or that action to be a good one, but Beauty or Goodness‑as‑such (the Platonic Forms) cannot be perceived through the senses.

Children cannot get out of the cave – this world of appearances, which is the object of opinion (doxa). According to Plato, it is the (adult) philosopher who is in love with the truth, i.e., wants to know how the world is, rather than how it appears to be, and because episteme is reserved for adults only, children cannot ‘love the truth’, i.e., be a philosopher. Children can only have ‘mere beliefs’ about the world.

An important criticism of Piagetian frameworks is the one‑sided emphasis on the logical aspects of children’s thinking – using mathematical thinking as its paradigm. Canadian educationalist, Kieran Egan, argues that the “other half” of the child as learner – the imaginative side – has been neglected by many educational researchers (Egan, 1988, 1992, 1993). Education is about not only what we gain, but also about minimising losses; and what has been lost is “the ability to see that world as the child sees it, transfigured by fantasy” (Egan, 1988, p. 20). This is an area of thinking which is neglected in Piaget’s writing with his emphasis on logical‑mathematical thinking.

Piaget called children’s imaginative responses “mere romancing” (Matthews, 1980, p. 39‑41). It ignores what is perhaps special about childhood. Is it indeed true to say that childhood is something we leave behind, and replace by the same, albeit more mature? Or, can we make a claim for the uniqueness of childhood? What exactly falls under the concept ‘child’ or ‘childhood’? Apart from culturally and historically problematic, the concept ‘childhood’ is also philosophically problematic, because it is philosophically very difficult to say exactly what the difference is between children and adults (Matthews, 1994, p. 8; Bottery, 1990, p. 237). 13

What is philosophy?

Most philosophers have struggled, but failed, to give a definition of ‘philosophy’ everyone agrees with. It seems that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions which can be formulated for calling something ‘philosophy’. Instead, Richard Kitchener refers to philosophy as a ‘form of life’. What would such a philosophical way of doing things look like? How can you recognise a particular way of doing things as ‘philosophy’? Richard Kitchener suggests the following characteristics:

·               thinking about a philosophical issue (e.g., determinism versus free will);
·               raising philosophical questions and being puzzled by things ordinarily taken for                granted;
·               reading the great philosophers;
·               constructing arguments in support of certain kinds of conclusions;
·               engaging in various kinds of conversations about philosophy;
·               not being able to stop philosophising
            (Kitchener, 1990, p. 425).

Kitchener describes what professional academic philosophers do. However, it would be a naturalistic fallacy to assume that therefore this is what philosophers ought to do. And this is precisely Kitchener’s mistake. He claims that, independent of how old they are, philosophers’ way of life ought to approximate the above list. He derives ‘ought’ from ‘is’; or, formulated differently, a prescriptive statement from a descriptive statement, without, as David Hume pointed out, providing further explanation or reasons (quoted in Williams, 1985, pp. 122, 123). Kitchener uses the above criteria of a philosophical form of life to argue against the possibility of children doing philosophy. In doing so, he jumps from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without further justification. He argues fallaciously that because many academic philosophers do philosophy in a particular way, children ought to do it in the same way.

Also, there is not one (ideal) form of life. Forms of life differ, depending on factors such as language, ways of doing things, ways of thinking, place, and time. A 20th century philosophical form of life is very different from that of, for example, Ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago with  its oral dimension  and  practical orientation - philosophy as the art of living in preparation for death  (Hadot, 1995; Nussbaum, 1994). 

Academic philosophy versus philosophy with children

Academic philosophy is not PwC’s paradigm. On the contrary, it is partly a criticism of it. The founder of the P4C movement, Matthew Lipman, compares academic philosophy to memorising the inscriptions in a graveyard; the memorising of a collection of names and dates.

Lipman writes:

“...when I advocated philosophy in the schools, I was not talking about the traditional academic philosophy taught in the graduate schools of the university. What I was talking about was a philosophy redesigned and reconstructed so as to make it available and acceptable and enticing to children. Moreover, the pedagogy by which the subject was to be presented would have to be just as drastically redesigned as the subject itself” (Lipman, 1991, p. 262).

Lipman uses the notion of a ‘form of life’ to highlight the oft‑made distinction between philosophy as a ‘body of knowledge’ and philosophising as the activity of doing philosophy. He writes:

“The paradigm of doing philosophy is the towering, solitary figure of Socrates, for whom philosophy was neither an acquisition or a profession but a way of life. What Socrates models for us is not philosophy known or philosophy applied but philosophy practised. He challenges us to acknowledge that philosophy as deed, as form of life, is something that any of us can emulate” (Lipman, 1988, p. 12).

A similar view is expressed by Dutch philosopher and PwC proponent, Karel van der Leeuw, who claims that many philosophy students learn a great deal of philosophy, but that they barely learn to think. Rather than using academic philosophy as a paradigm, he urges that “Philosophical thinking has to start with our experience and has, in the end, to return to it” (Van der Leeuw, 1993, p. 36). According to Van der Leeuw, the reason for this is that philosophical concepts – in contrast to other abstract and general concepts, such as, mathematical concepts – cannot be clarified and developed by definition alone, or without referring to concrete experiences. Therefore, philosophy cannot consist merely of learning the history of philosophical ideas. Each person has to connect abstract philosophical concepts to concrete experiences. Philosophical enquiry is an activity generated out of pure necessity, because all of us already give answers to philosophical questions, either explicitly, or implicitly through our actions (Leeuw, 1993, pp. 9, 36); and it makes a difference whether we do it well or badly (Emmet, 1991, p. 18). Philosophy can be a suitable subject for children if “...reconstructed in ways that suit their talents and their interests” (Cam, 1995, p. 13). This reconstruction should be such that children do not learn about philosophy, but do philosophy.

It would be wrong to say that the distinction between practical philosophy, or philosophising, on the one hand, and academic philosophy, or the study of a body of knowledge on the other, is that clear-cut. Doing an academic degree in philosophy involves studying the ‘great philosophers’. This means (ideally) entering into a dialogue with those philosophers – all the time asking oneself (and the philosopher) questions and looking for possible answers to those questions. There is also continuous dialogue with fellow students and tutors, and the written dialogue in essay and paper form. Preparing for dissertations or papers will, for example, involve reading articles in philosophy journals. Despite its sterility, this is still entering an ongoing dialogue. One hopes that people start the study of philosophy because they feel that certain questions deserve pondering and desperately need answering. The dialogue with others – including famous, albeit mainly deceased, philosophers – should inspire many new questions.

However, the way philosophy is taught at universities, or at A-level, often does not reflect this internal dialogue with other philosophers, and these external dialogues in written form. The structure of many lectures and workshops at philosophy departments worldwide does not have the form of a genuine enquiry where real philosophising is taking place. This does not do justice to the very heart of the philosophical enterprise  the activity of philosophical questioning and concept‑analyses with an attitude of open-mindedness. Without such an attitude there would never have been philosophy (however defined) in the first place.

Philosophical questioning, concept-analysis and an open-minded attitude are necessary conditions for being a philosopher, and an awareness seems to be growing among teachers of philosophy that, in order for students to acquire the necessary skills and attitudes, the way the subject is taught needs to be changed. A method needs to be used that reflects the dialogical character of philosophical thinking. The ‘community of philosophical enquiry’ methodology does justice to the very heart of the philosophical enterprise in most respects, and therefore ought to be the philosophical form of life. It is what McCall calls an “authentic” environment for reasoning to develop, because:

“...the children are inquiring into issues about which there are no definitive answers, and so the procedure of inquiry, in contrast say to asking the teacher or consulting an encyclopaedia, is a generation procedure” (McCall, 1990, p. 41).

In other words, there is a homogeneity between form (how we teach) and content (what we teach). The community of enquiry pedagogy could also change traditional academic philosophy to be more relevant, accessible to all, and non-elitist. PwC could also change the traditional philosophical ideal of the passive, solitary, rational thinker, to include dialogue, embodiment and the imagination. Slade acknowledges the necessity of a reflective enquiry about the principles of reason itself, and points at the moral duty to make that reflection available to all students (Slade, 1994, p. 31).

I conclude that answering the question ‘Can children do philosophy’ is much more philosophically problematic than the critics of PwC make it out to be. Reasoning defensively from an established academic position does not suffice - further research is urgently needed into, for example, the thinking peculiar to very young children, what concepts they are capable of  reflecting upon, and how philosophy is taught most effectively. An extensive and  long term research project following children’s philosophical progress from the age of three into adulthood  would be a good step forward.

Until we have the benefits of  further research, my temporary answer to the question  ‘Can children do philosophy?’ is poignantly formulated by Ann Sharp and Laurance Splitter. They write:

“...there is some truth in the Piagetian tradition which it would be perilous to ignore. Children do not benefit from being bombarded with ‘adult’ words and theories which mean little to them, and they (pretty much like the rest of us) are unlikely to grasp concepts which cannot be instantiated or illustrated within the realms of their own experience. On the other hand, abstract concepts to do with conservation, causality, the mind, reality, personhood and truth may be within the grasp of young children provided that they can find pathways to and from their own more concrete experiences” (Splitter & Sharp, 1995, p 22). 

It is up to us adults to lay the “groundwork for the construction of these pathways” (Splitter & Sharp, 1995, p 22). To do or not to do, is a choice we make. It is a choice we adults are morally responsible for.


1           The abbreviation ‘PwC’ is used throughout this paper to refer to the practitioners of philosophy with children. The term ‘P4C’ is used as an abbreviation for the proponents of the ‘Philosophy for Children’ programme developed by Matthew Lipman and colleagues from the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) in the USA. ‘PwC’ stands for a larger group of people than ‘P4C’ because not all children’s philosophy teachers believe the IAPC material is the best educational material with which to introduce young children to philosophy.

2           For example, Matthews explains what the philosopher can do for the non‑philosophical parent or teacher. The philosopher can “...collect examples of philosophical thinking in young children and then, by linking those childish thoughts to our philosophical tradition, help parents and teachers to recognise philosophy in their children, respect it when it appears, and even participate in it and encourage it on occasion.” From: Gareth Matthews. The Philosophy of Childhood. Cambridge (Mass), Harvard Univ. Press, 1994, p. 37.

3           I have taken the idea of ‘thinking with one big  head’ from Jos Kessels. Socrates op de Markt. Amsterdam, Boom,  p 218.

4           In an interview with Matthew Lipman for the BBC documentary series about educational pioneers called The Transformers. The documentary about philosophy for children, called Socrates with six olds, was broadcast in Autumn 1990.

 5          For example, adult philosopher Trevor Curnow understands this so‑called philosophical problem of the Ship of Theseus to be both impossible and simple at the same time. It is impossible for the logic of either/or, the logic of being, to provide an answer to a problem about becoming, he says. I quote: “We cannot transpose a logic from one world to another and expect it to work automatically. The logic of either/or is derived from a world of fixed identities. It is scarcely surprising if it begins to struggle when it is applied to a world where change is a constant fact of life. The world of becoming needs a logic of becoming”. From: Trevor Curnow. “Transcendence, Logic, and Identity”, In: Philosophy Now, No. 12, 1995, pp. 24‑26.

6           It is not entirely clear how old Donald is, but somewhere between eight and eleven.

7      For example, Matthews writes: “When a child assimilates from our culture the desensitizing thesis that many uses of words are merely figurative or metaphorical, she or he loses the fascination with the weft of words that inspires poetry and animates philosophy.” From: “The Child as Natural Philosopher”, in M. Lipman and A. M. Sharp (eds.). Growing up with Philosophy. Temple Univ. Press, Philadelphia, 1978, p. 72.

8           From: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1971, p. 255.

9           My translation. Literal quote: “Alle Erklarung muss fort, und nur beschreibung an ihre Stelle treten. Und diese Beschreibung empfängt ihr Licht, d.i. ihren Zweck, von den philosophischen Problemen. Diese sind freilich keine empirischen, sondern sie werden durch eine Einsicht in das Arbeiten unserer Sprache gelöst, und zwar so, dass dieses erkannt wird; entgegen einem Trieb, es misszuverstehen. Diese Probleme werden gelöst, nicht durch Beibringen neuer Erfahrung, sondern durch Zusamenstellung des längst Bekannten. Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache.” From: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1971, par 109.

10       According  Anthony O’Hear when presenting his paper Philosophy and Knowledge on 15 April 1997 at an International Philosophy for Children Conference at King’s College, London.

11         This was a philosophical enquiry skillfully facilitated by Roger Sutcliffe at the American Community School, London, December 1997.

12         I found this quote in a leaflet announcing courses in philosophical enquiry, organised and written by British philosopher Barbara Rae, and brought to my attention by Myrna Shoa.

13         The concept of childhood is historically problematic, because childhood is in a sense a modern (adult) invention, and also oppressive, according to John Holt. See: Judith Hughes. “The Philosopher’s Child; In: Thinking, Vol. 10, No. 1, p. 40. Children used to be regarded as “little people”  no substantial differences were assumed between the ways grown‑ups think and children. However, their status and role in family and society has dramatically changed since industrialisation. Children’s ‘experts’, ‘authorities’ on childhood have since “construed them as creatures apart from their parents...” From: David Kennedy. “Why Philosophy for Children Now”; Thinking, Vol. 10, no 3, pp. 2‑6. See also: Gareth Matthews. The Philosophy of Childhood. Cambridge (Mass), Harvard Univ. Press, 1994, p. 8. It for this reason, for example, that there never used to be separate children’s literature, and infants were artistically represented as ‘miniature grown‑ups’ – with their heads drawn one‑eighth of the body, rather than the one‑fourth which it is in reality. The concept of childhood is also culturally problematic: children are seen to be substantially different in various cultures. See, for example: Sheila Kitzinger and Celia Kitzinger. “Obedience and Autonomy”, Chapter Four in: Talking with Children; About Things That Matter. London, Pandora, 1989, pp. 48‑74.


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