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Recently read: The Philosophical Baby

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

Posted on November 10, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Alison Gopnik. The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here yet that Yoon is (19 weeks and one day) pregnant. I’ll try not to turn this into an awful baby blog, but the fact that I’m going to be spending a significant amount of time in the company of an infant come the Spring has got me interested in reading about babies.

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik (sister of the New Yorker’s Gopnik) tackles some really interesting questions: What is it like to be a baby? How do young children think, experience the world, view moral issues? Gopnik is pretty effective at challenging the classic view of children as cognitively defective adults. When you consider just how much children are absorbing, and how quickly, they start to seem anything but cognitively defective. Gopnik proves a thoughtful and engaging guide through some recent work by cognitive psychologists on these issues.

I thought the least effective part of the book was Gopnik’s discussion of morality and moral intuitions in children. Gopnik at least avoids confusing altruism and morality—they’re really completely different, the former being a kind of motivation, and the latter having to do with what we owe one another—as some writers sometimes do. But the connection between them seemed to me somehow muddled in parts of her discussion, as betrayed by a proliferation of vague expressions connecting them. I also noticed that her discussion of morality treated it as entirely concerned with what we owe other people. But that’s only half of it! Morality is also about what they owe us, and that side of it is important to understanding essentially moral emotions like indignation, to give just one example. It seems to me that there are also fairly rich and interesting connections between self-conception and morality (“Am I that sort of person?”) that would have served Gopnik better for reflection than the trolley problem, to which her discussion failed to add much.

But that’s just quibbling from a grad school drop out. This is a fun book, and people interested in kids and how they see the world will probably find lots here to enjoy.


Author: paul
Date: 2009-11-11

But that’s just quibbling from a grad school drop out.

That’s exactly the sort of quibbling that keeps me coming back to this blog for more!

Author: Anne
Date: 2009-11-14

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Explanadino! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Author: Maynard Handley
Date: 2010-10-07

People interested in Gopnik’s views may be interested to know that audio of her course (on infant development) at UC Berkeley is available as a free podcast: