Never too young for the essential questions of life

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
Forget Descartes, Kant or Sartre: many of the most important philosophical questions can apparently be found on bookshelves in primary schools.

Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy at Wisconsin University, and Wisconsin school librarian Lynn Glueck highlight many essential questions about life that are raised in works of children's literature, in a recently published book.

The picture book Where The Wild Things Are, for example, generates questions about the existence of monsters and the nature of love.

Max, the book's protagonist, journeys to the land of the Wild Things, who name him their king.

The Wild Things implore Max not to return home: "Please don't go - we'll eat you up - we love you so." This raises questions about the nature of love: is it violent? Does it require domination, or the complete assimilation of the other?

Charlotte's Web, the tale of a runt pig and a gifted spider, poses different questions. Charlotte, the spider, saves the life of the pig, with no apparent gain to herself. "Why does Charlotte act altruistically?" the researchers ask. "Does true altruism require that one extracts no personal gain?"

Other novels raise questions about the nature of identity and self. Alice, during her adventures in Wonderland, is asked by the caterpillar: "Who are you?" She finds herself unable to answer: she has changed size several times and can no longer remember things she once knew. Is she the same person?

The Wizard of Oz raises similar questions. The Tin Man, for example, has no parts of his original self remaining. Is he therefore the same person?

These books question the very essence of identity. "Is it our particular physical being?" the researchers ask. "Is it our memories? Is it how others perceive us?" They say they are not suggesting that children should debate the existence of God or the definition of identity. Instead, children's literature provides a gentle introduction to intellectual questioning.

The researchers say: "Reading is perhaps the most important activity we can engage in with children, in order to foster their intellectual capacities and to give them new intellectual adventures or experiences."

`Philosophy in Children's Literature' by Lynn Glueck and Harry Brighouse appears in `Philosophy in Schools', published by Continuum.

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