This week I started a series of philosophy sessions with a fifth grade class. This was a first introduction to philosophy for this group of students. I started by asking them if they had any idea what philosophy was. We talked about that for a few minutes. I described some of the questions I associate with philosophy — What is kindness? Why is it important to be fair? What is the mind? What is time? One student raised her hand and commented, “I think about those questions all the time!”

We then read a few pages of Mat Lipman’s Harry Stottlemeir’s Discovery and then I asked the students what questions the reading raised for them. The questions we talked about included:

What are thoughts?
What are feelings?
Why do we think?
How is it possible to imagine ideas that are copies of things in the world?
Is it possible ever not to be thinking?

We had this marvelous half-hour conversation about thinking, feeling and dreaming. The students were very interested in examining what constitutes thinking and what doesn’t. One student asked if the responses of a newborn babies to their environments is thinking. Do you have to have language to think? Some students thought so. Another student asked, “Well, if you have to have language to think, how did language come to be? Didn’t someone have to have thoughts before they created words for those thoughts?” We talked about the phenomenon of having many thoughts at once. One student commented that she wanted to try to understand “the concept of a thought within a thought.”

Do thoughts exist in the world? One student contended that thoughts aren’t real because they are just in our minds, and they only become real when we act on them by doing or creating something in the world. “I disagree,” said another student. “Thoughts are in our brains, which are physical, and so in that sense thoughts must be part of the world.”

Are feelings the same as thoughts? Most of the students wanted to say no, there is a distinction between thoughts and feelings. “Feelings are in your body,” one student ventured, “while thoughts are only in your brain. You don’t experience sensations when you’re thinking the way you do when you feel something.”

What about when you dream? Do you think when you dream? Do you feel? The students seemed to want to claim that you certainly feel things when you dream, but thinking was more problematic. Does thinking have to be conscious? Can you think without knowing you are thinking?

As part of our conversation, several students raised the question of whether we can ever know whether we’re in a dream or not. (“Our whole lives could be a dream!” one student exclaimed.) One student also wanted to know if we could ever know what other people really think or experience (“What I see as red could be what someone else always sees as what I see when I see blue,” he said.) We agreed that we would talk about these questions in one of our next sessions.

Very affirming to observe how interested in these questions the students are and how easily they are able to discuss them with one another.

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