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Recently read: Two books on philosophy and children

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on December 29, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Gareth B. Matthews. Philosophy and the Young Child

Gareth B. Matthews. Dialogues with Children

Gareth B. Matthews is a professional philosopher well-known for his work on Ancient and Medieval philosophy. He has also had a long-standing (and often related) interest in pedagogy. These two books of his on philosophy and children, both from the early 1980s, are wonderful, and deserve a much wider audience than they probably currently enjoy.

Neither book aims to offer a “how-to” for engaging children in philosophical dialogue, though they are brimming with examples. One of their main virtues, besides simply offering clear accounts of interesting philosophical issues, is the spirit in which they approach philosophical conversation with children. Here is a nice statement of Matthews’ approach, from Philosophy and the Young Child:
The combination of assets and liabilities that an adult brings to a philosophical encounter with a child makes for a very special relationship. The adult has a better command of the language than the child and, latently at least, a surer command of the concepts expressed in the language. It is the child, however, who has fresh eyes and ears for perplexity and incongruity. Children also have, typically, a degree of candor and spontaneity that is difficult for an adult to match. Because each party has something important to contribute, the inquiry can easily become a genuinely joint venture, something otherwise quite rare in encounters between adults and children.

In the wrong hands, it’s easy to imagine this slipping into an unrealistic, naive or romantic view of children, and indeed, without further discussion, it’s exactly what I would have imagined. But it’s very clear from the dialogues that he produces that Matthews really does succeed in pulling off some wonderful conversations.

Both books are also interesting because they offer a forceful challenge to prior work (Piaget is a special target) on children, philosophy and cognitive development. Matthews argues that researchers are often too quick to try to cram interesting questions and thoughts into unhelpful developmental stages, often misunderstanding the relevant philosophical issues along the way. Chapter 4 (“Piaget”) of Philosophy and the Young Child is especially focused on this issue, and it’s refreshing to see a philosophically sophisticated defense of a child’s end of a conversation with the famous psychologist.

Although Matthews’ focus throughout both of these books is the young child, educators at any level could read them with profit. They’re informed by a genuine love of interesting philosophical questions, and I could imagine myself dipping into them for inspiration as I planned a first year introduction to philosophy class, just as readily as I will in fact be dipping into them again when I am thinking about philosophy with my (due in April) son, when he is old enough to talk philosophy with his Dad.


Author: Paul
Date: 2009-12-30

A son! Congrats!

(of course I would have said the same about a daughter.)

Author: Dana
Date: 2009-12-30

You are so getting a rap-loving skaterboy. :)

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-12-30

I was a Beastie Boys-loving skaterboy myself, so it wouldn’t surprise me, actually.