Logically simple

18th November 1994 at 00:00
The Philosophy of Childhood, By Gareth B Matthews, Harvard University Press #163;15.25. 0 674 66480 9.

This book is devoted to the premise that small children are considerably more intelligent than we currently think. Such a view is normally associated with spokespersons from the anarchic left. This time the author is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, who has made a speciality of teaching his subject to pupils in first schools. If his opinions on this issue still seem exaggerated, this remains a stimulating work, worthy of attention even if it fails to make many converts.

A favourite technique used by Matthews is to draw parallels between the sayings of philosophers and various particularly perceptive remarks made by his own children when young. Philosophers' offspring have an unusual advantage here, but even so, the occasional overlapping of short statements made by any child and some great philosophic master is not unusual. But this is not really to compare like with like. For seasoned philosophers who arrive at measured opinions can also repeat these thought processes to order, remembering the way they got there and able to defend themselves against further questioning.

But the four-year-old girl quoted by Matthews who opines that "The world is all made of colours" is in a quite different situation. She may not remember what she said next day, and will find it hard to justify her views when pressed. That is the difference between intuition and scholarship. Most children can momentarily seem like spontaneous philosophers, let alone psychologists, sociologists or whatever else. But they are not generally capable of sustaining or developing such perceptions, nor are they usually interested in doing so.

In particular areas children can indeed know as much or more than adults.But this type of knowledge is always associated with immediate experience. Children suffering from terminal illness, for example, will often know a great deal about their treatment. They may also, as Matthews points out, understand far more about death itself than is common for their age-group. Yet this extra maturity does not necessarily extend to other areas. An educated adult can extrapolate general principles from one field of logic to another. Bright infants can be extremely forward in an area they know well while quite at sea about matters of the same complexity but as yet unexperienced by them.

Matthews argues for children's proficiency in art and literature. As always, he has a point: children sometimes paint very well and often enjoy books that appeal to adults too. But he also insists that because we have no acknowledged model of childhood about which all psychologists can agree, it is therefore dangerous to make any generalisations about children's true intellectual capacities. For him, infants' puzzlement at some of Piaget's experiments in logic could just as well be evidence of their philosophical disquiet at the questions put to them. This is a more tendentious assumption than anything found in developmental psychology. I suspect the author is really playing games here as well as elsewhere in this elegantly written but ultimately rather teasing little book.

Nicholas Tucker is a lecturer in developmenatal psychology at the University of Sussex.

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