Sunday, August 9, 2009

Philosophy, children, nature

Times notes. The fantasy play of young children is obviously fun for its own sake, but (as noted by Anthony Gottlieb in his review of Alison Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby) it's also instrumental in their growth. So maybe it is sometimes too late to have a happy childhood.

"Playful immersion in freely conjured hypothetical worlds is what teaches us how to make sense of the real one... small children’s grasp of “counterfactual” situations enables them to calculate the probabilities of alternative courses of action.. invisible friends... seem to help youngsters learn how to interpret the actions of others."

I'm pleased to note that Gopnik backs up a point I tried to press upon a Montessori instructor a few years ago who insisted that anything like a moral sense is developmentally absent not only in very young children but in teens as well, as a matter of biological necessity. It's "heartening news for optimists about the human race... that children are naturally empathetic from birth and tend to exhibit altruism (though fitfully) from the age of 1." I've seen it myself.

Gottlieb is less enthusiastic about Gopnik's overall confidence in the philosophical relevance of childhood, and her speculation that its traditional neglect has been due to the patriarchal history of the discipline. "The notion that children's minds have much to tell us about the meaning of life seems rather a fond exaggeration." Maybe, but I'm fond of it too. I'll read the book and report back.

Also in today's Times, Nicholas Kristof has sound advice for us all (and especially for the sedentary young) who suffer from nature deficit disorder. Take a hike, travel light, don't fret about bears. He offers "more backpacking advice on my blog,"

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