Tilt Kids Festival: "When Kids Philosophize" by The New Yorker

April 20, 2017 | By French Culture Arts

This article was published by the New Yorker on April 17, 2017, following the event Philosophy for Kids, held at the Brooklyn Public Library on March 19, 2017.

When Kids Philosophize
By Rebecca Mead

At the Brooklyn Public Library, a group of Ph.D. students from the New School asked thinkers between the ages of six and twelve the big questions.


What does it all mean? Why are we here? These are questions with which philosophers have wrestled from the time of the ancient Greeks to—well, two weekends ago, at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Simon Critchley, a professor at the New School, brought several of his Ph.D. students to the library to conduct seminars with young thinkers, part of the Tilt Kids Festival. “From ages eight to eleven, kids are natural philosophers—before puberty and those awful inhibitions creep in,” Critchley explained. “All you have to do is trigger the question and let it roll.”

First up: the six-to-eight-year-olds. One of Critchley’s students, Joseph Lemelin, whose research interests include the history of ancient philosophy, was discussing the idea of change with them. “What is philosophy?” he asked, in a friendly way, to start things off.

“I want my mommy,” someone whimpered. A boy pulled up his shirt and stuck his name tag to his naked belly.

Lemelin continued, undaunted. “Sometimes you get older, like me, and you forget to ask questions,” he said.

“Why?” a child asked.

“I don’t know!” Lemelin said. He brought out a pack of gum. “I have an exercise I want to do with you,” he said.

“Like pushups?” someone inquired.

“Not that kind of exercise,” Lemelin said. “Are you all O.K. with gum?”

Basically, nobody was O.K. with gum.

“Is it O.K. if I have the gum?” Lemelin said. He held up a piece and asked the kids to describe it, prompting them: “It has kind of a rectangular shape, and it’s greenish.”

“If you were a turtle, you wouldn’t see it as green—you would see it as a different color,” one boy said.

Lemelin held a chewed wad aloft. “Is it the same gum as before?” he asked.

“It has germs on it,” someone observed. Lemelin attempted to move the discussion forward conceptually. “Do you think I’m the same as I was when I was your age?” he asked.

“You didn’t do phafosity—whatever it’s called—when you were younger,” a boy said.

“When you were younger, you didn’t like mushrooms, and now you do,” someone offered.

“Does liking mushrooms make me who I am?” Lemelin asked. “What makes me me?”

“Look it up,” one boy replied.

Next: the eight-to-ten-year-olds. They were far more philosophical, starting with their definitions of the term. “It’s like the study of thought,” a boy said.

“You were right—this makes birding way cooler.”

“It’s the study of everything—like, how is the universe created?” one girl suggested. “I know the one about the two giant balls of mass that smashed into each other. But where did the balls of mass come from?”

“I’ve been asking since third grade—where do we all come from?” another girl said.

Lemelin was encouraged. “What are we supposed to be doing with our lives?” he asked. “We’re here, and then we die?”

“What if we’re not really here? What if we’re in someone else’s dream?” the philosopher-since-third-grade asked.

Lemelin brought out the gum—everyone took it—and asked for definitions.

“What if it’s an object, and it’s gum—but it’s not, because those are just words we use for things?” the first girl suggested.

Lemelin looked pleased and extracted his gum from his mouth. “Now it’s A.B.C. gum,” someone said. Already been chewed.

“So am I the same person that I was when I was your age?” Lemelin asked. There was some discussion of the soul. “You have it locked up in the back of you,” one girl suggested, her hand creeping toward her occipital bone.

“So you’re saying it’s in the back of my head?” Lemelin asked.

“I was scratching my head,” she said.

Finally, it was the turn of the ten-to-twelve-year-olds. Lemelin began, “When we do philosophy, we look at things we see on a daily basis, and try to look at them in a new way.”

“Like, ‘Why is Siri so awesome?’ ” a girl who said she had a blog suggested.

“Or ‘Is Siri a person? Does she have her own thoughts?’ ” Lemelin coaxed, offering the gum. “I’m not supposed to chew it, with my braces,” the blogger said, then chewed some anyway.

“It’s soft, plastic,” a tall girl observed.

“So what I’m hearing is, to be gum is to be changeable,” Lemelin said. He asked everyone to look at their chewed gum. One boy refused, his arms folded across his chest. Lemelin asked if the gum, and by extension he himself, was the same as before.

“The gum is made of the same thing, and you are made from the same DNA,” one boy suggested.

“What is a soul?” the tall girl asked.

“That’s a really big question,” Lemelin said.

“I have one more question,” a boy asked, as the session drew to a close. “Can I have another piece of gum?”