As part of the book I’m working on, I’ve been thinking a lot about the development of our philosophical selves. In my experience, most children begin to exhibit a “philosophical self” around age 5, when all of the questions that demonstrate “wonder at the world” often start to emerge. This curiosity about and exploration of some of the basic facets of human life — why we’re alive, what it means to be good, what obligations we have to others and why, identity, the nature of reality — seem to me fundamental aspects of what it means to be human. Yet, for many (most?) people, this development gets cut off at some point between age 5 and graduation from high school.

Recognized as important are the development of children’s physical selves, intellectual selves, moral selves, and social and emotional selves, but there is little attention paid to the development of our philosophical selves: the part of us that recognizes and ponders the intense strangeness of the human experience, that thinks deeply about the concepts that underlie our collective understanding of the world. For me what has always been most important about engaging in philosophical discussions with children — my own, and students in pre-college classrooms — has been helping children to think more clearly about questions they are already thinking about. I remember my first class in philosophy, which I was lucky enough to have in a public high school, and how thrilling it was to be able to talk about these questions I’d thought about since I was little and that I imagined no one else ever considered very much.

I think that the development of children’s philosophical selves is of crucial importance to learning how to evaluate the difficult questions of life thoughtfully and imaginatively. Encouraging children to cultivate their natural inclinations to wonder about life’s perennially unsettled questions and to think about these questions carefully and coherently helps them become effective independent thinkers. Our philosophical selves are central, I think, to the uniqueness of human consciousness, to our awareness that we are experiencing whatever we are experiencing. Development of this part of us can profoundly enrich and deepen our lives.

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I have discovered your blog by way of reading Abby Goodnough's recent New York Times article, "The Examined Life, Age 8" — her article mentions the University of Washington as having an outreach program. Your post lucidly and beautifully makes the case for "helping children to think more clearly about questions they are already thinking about." I have been an early childhood educator for almost 30 years, and can testify that philosophical questioning does begin around ages 4.5-5 years. I look forward to reading the book you are now writing, as well as to continuing to read your blog. –Mike Kasprzak


Here is an idea: it isn't that the philosophical self is just silenced at around 5, it is that at that point the child often runs into a wall when it comes to answers to these question (from their parents possibly), and they start gathering bits and pieces from other sources.