The Philosophical Inquiry in Childhood

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These philosophical questions like: “What is time? What is light? What is good?” have something in common with children’s questions. I’ve often thought that.

Children ask these questions to older people. They don’t say, “What is time?” They don’t say that. But what they say is,

“Why can’t I meet Napoleon?”

Supposing a child said that, it seems quite a natural thing for a child to do. And you say,

“You can’t because he’s dead. Why does this prevent one?”

And then, if the father is sophisticated, he has to explain what death means. For instance, he could say the body becomes dissolved in the ground, he can’t be resurrected, died a long time ago. And then, if the child is at tall sophisticated, a sophisticated child would say,

“Well, can’t all the bits be brought together again?”

And then, the father says,

“No, they can’t.”

What kind of “can’t”? And then, a lesson physics follows,

- No, I don’t want that. I don’t want Napoleon now. I want to go back to see him as he was at the battle of Austerlitz, that’s what I’d like.

- Well, you can’t!

- Why not?

- Because you can’t move back in time.

- Why can’t I?

Then we have a philosophical problem. What is meant by “CAN’T”? Is not being able to move back in time the same sort of “CAN’T” as when you say “twice two can’t be seven”? Or the same kind of “CAN’T” as when you say “You can’t buy cigarettes at two o’clock in the morning because there’s a law against it?” Or “I can’t remember” Or “I can’t make myself nine-foot-tall by merely wishing it”? What sort of “CAN’T”? What type of “must”? And then we’re plunged into philosophy straight away. And then you have to say, nature of time. And then some people say, “No no, there isn’t such a thing as time. Time is just word for before and after, and simultaneously with.

To talk about time as if it was the kind of thing is a metaphysical trap. Hence, we’re launched! Well, most fathers don’t want to answer questions with children that way, they tell them to shut up and not ask silly questions. “Go and climb a tree as it were.” But these are the questions that continuously recur. And philosophers are the people who are not terrified of them and are prepared to deal with them.

Children, of course, ultimately conditioned in not asking these questions. More’s the pity! The children were not the conditioned turn into philosophers.

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