I want to start this series not with a post on how to do philosophy with children, but with an example of how we are doing it already in our home. I think once you see the outline of one of our discussions and the subject matter of our studies, you will see how easy it can be to include the study of philosophy into your homeschool.
Philosophy first starts with a curiosity – a desire to explore and define a question. It can start anywhere. It can end anywhere. And what happens in between is usually a journey of evaluating ideas and arguments until you have determined what you believe about a certain topic.
If you are familiar with the term, I am referring to the Socratic Method.
The Socratic Method is a conversation, a discussion, wherein two or more people assist one another in finding the answers to difficult questions. -from Classical Homeschooling
There are a lot of great ways to start a philosophical discussion. In my first few examples, we are going to be using picture books.
Just like you might have discussion questions for a story to learn about plot, character development, etc. – you can use questions to explore topics in philosophy.
Rules for philosophical discussion with kids
Unlike a literature study, the questions you ask will have no “right” answers. They will most often lead to more questions. The outline I lay out is just that, an outline. It is meant to guide a discussion, but it is perfectly ok to go off in another direction. Kids are often better than adults about asking open-ended questions.
Not all of the questions need to have answers either. We sometimes find ourselves simply ending a discussion night pondering a great paradox that we have unravelled.
Your family might be hesitant at first when trying this out. Assure everyone that there are no wrong or silly answers either. This is free thinking time – the craziest notions will be taken seriously and discussed.
There is a time for the adults to share their own views and beliefs on the topics at hand, but make sure that you are not stifling the ability to disagree or bring up differences of opinion. Remember, this is not worldview boot camp. This is an exercise in critical thinking and definition of terms. If your daughter says she believes aliens are real, let her explore that belief. Ask probing questions (no pun intended) but don’t dismiss the idea or give her a lecture on how it’s not reasonable.
Even Aliens Need Snacks
A young boy loves to help in the kitchen, but when he creates his own culinary inventions he meets the criticism of his older sister. Not one to be discouraged, the boy finds fans of his tasty treats in a most unlikely place – outer space.
This book will help us explore the themes of belief, personal taste, and life forms.
Some definitions you might want to go over (or be ready to explain):
- Epistemology – from the Greek “episteme” and “logos” – the study of knowledge
- Universal statement – a universal affirmative uses words like “all” or “every” and a universal negative says “never” and “nothing”. These phrases are usually easy to prove wrong because you only need one example (unless they are scientifically true – like “all dogs are mammals”)
- Humanoid – something that looks human or has human qualities.
Discussion and questions
After reading the book together as a family, we looked over the pictures again and the main events.
- Why did the boy likes his own creations but his sister didn’t?
- Are we more likely to enjoy something if we make it ourselves? (or know what is in it)
- Why do we like some foods but not others? – the girls brought up great points here about past experience, familiarity, cultural upbringing, sensitivities, and personality
- Big sister made the universal statement that no one would like the boy’s creations. How could he prove her wrong? (hint – only one person needed to like them)
- Was the sister right? Why or why not? (make a note that it is the sister who eats the dish on the last page)
- Why do you think the aliens liked the food?
- Do you think they have similar food on their planets? Why or why not? What else might they eat?
Raven made a very good observation when we were discussing why the aliens liked the food. All of the aliens that visit seem to be humanoid. Most of them are bipeds, have eyes and a mouth, and eat like humans.
- How did the aliens find out about the snack stand?
- How are the aliens alike? How are they different?
- Is it possible that an alien could come that did not like the food? (or could not eat it)
- Do you think aliens exist? Why or why not?
- If alien life forms do exist, what would they look like? Would they be humanoid?
- Can you think of a life form that is not humanoid?
- Could an alien exist that ate in a new and weird way? What are some ways it could eat?
Belief and truth
Epistemology is the study of knowledge, but in philosophy it also includes what we believe to be true, what truth really is, and how we determine truth.
The boy and the sister both expressed beliefs in this story. We can ask ourselves some questions about their beliefs, and how we form our own beliefs.
- The girl believed that no one would like her brother’s recipes. Was she justified in that belief? (in other words – did she have a good reason to believe it) Why or why not? Does she ever find out that she is wrong?
- The boy believed that if he set up a snack stand that someone would come and like his food. Was he justified in that belief? What if no-one had come to his stand? Would his belief still be true? (truth is different from justification – it was still true that someone liked his food)
- Have you ever believed something and later found out it wasn’t true?
- Can we believe something without evidence for it?
- How can we know what is true?
- Can something be true even if we don’t believe it?
These last questions are giants. Philosophers still discuss the different areas of thought on these topics and how those play out in our worldviews. You and your children will probably come to a general consensus about those questions without having to delve too deeply into arguments about the justification of belief or the scope of knowledge.
Adults and older children will benefit from this beginner’s introduction to epistemology at The Galilean Library.