Interview with Gareth Matthews

by Saeed Naji

Gareth Matthews—Professor emeritus in Philosophy at University of Massachusetts Amherst—has taught and published widely in the areas of ancient and medieval philosophy and the philosophy of religion. His latest two books are Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy (Oxford, 1999) and Augustine (Blackwell, 2005). He has also been a pioneer in thinking, writing, and teaching about philosophy and children. His three books in this area—Philosophy and the Young Child (1980), Dialogues with Children (1984), and The Philosophy of Childhood (1994)—have been translated into a dozen languages, including Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian, as well as various European languages. He has conducted philosophy discussions with elementary-school children in Austria, Australia, China, Israel, Germany, Japan, Norway, Scotland and in the USA.

Saeed Naji is a researcher at the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies in Tehran, Iran, cf. He also works as a journalist. Visit Naji's Iranian P4C-pages: where this interview was first published.

Doing Philosophy with Children Rejects Piaget's Assumptions

Naji: No doubt, Piaget was a great psychologist and his ideas are the foundations of traditional education systems. However, it is gradually found that Piaget's theories and ideas, like other theories, have got some false presuppositions and results. We know e.g. that Piaget's assumption that children need to be about 12 or 13 before they can engage in formal operations and inquire about abstract concepts is incorrect. What are your thoughts about this assumption? Could you discuss it's problems, please?

Piaget certainly was a great psychologist. In fact, he was the greatest and most influential developmental psychologist of the 20th century. His early research led him to the surprising conclusion that young infants do not even have the idea that a ball or a toy is a "permanent object." He tried to chart cognitive development in children and concluded that there is first a "sensorimotor stage" (birth to about 2 years), then a "preoperational stage" (about 2 years to 7), then a stage of merely "concrete operations" (7 to 11), and then, finally, a stage of "formal operations" (12 and up).

One serious trouble with this developmental story is that it makes no room for philosophical thinking in children, at least in children under 12 years of age. But we have ample evidence that young children sometimes have interesting philosophical thoughts all on their own. I give many examples in my book, Philosophy and the Young Child.

Naji: Are there any other incorrect assumptions (or deficiencies) in Piaget's theory in this area? Would you please discuss them?

In our modern society we tend to look to developmental psychologists to tell us what it is like to be a child. But, by the very nature of their discipline, developmental psychologists focus on concepts and capacities that can be studied in a developmental way, such that, say, a 4-year-old can be expected to have only a primitive concept or capacity, a 7-year-old, a more complex concept or capacity, and an adolescent a mature concept or capacity.

But the capacity to think philosophically does not standardly develop in this way. In fact the 4-year-old and the 7-year-old are more likely to have philosophically interesting thoughts and questions—even engage in philosophical reasoning—than the "normal" or standard adult. Another way of putting the point is this. To get our conception of what it is like to be a child solely from the findings of developmental psychology is to accept what I call a "deficit conception" of childhood. On this conception to be a child is essentially to be a human being who lacks certain capacities that grown-ups standardly have.

But we know that children are much better at, for example, learning languages than they will be as adults. We should also know that they are better at making aesthetically interesting and worthwhile drawings than they will likely be as adults. Finally, they are much more likely to have philosophically interesting thoughts as children than they will have as adults. So, even though we can learn important things about childhood from developmental psychology, we should not try to understand the nature or value of childhood primarily as a set of deficiencies. Instead, we should open ourselves to the possibility of, among other things, hearing interesting questions and interesting lines of reasoning from our children. Moreover, we should engage them in discussions even on issues on which we ourselves do not have settled opinions.

Naji: What is the opinion of the psychologists' scientific society about the deficiencies of Piaget's view about children's intellectual development? Do they agree with the criticism?

Developmental psychologists today reject many of the specific claims that Piaget made. But, by the nature of their discipline, they continue to focus on concepts and capacities that can be seen to develop toward an adult norm. Since most adults in our society are not very good philosophers, we need to complement what we can learn from developmental psychologists about childhood with what we can learn about children (and ourselves!) by doing philosophy with them.

Naji: We know the traditional education systems were founded on Piaget's view about children's intellectual development (at least in my country) and I think Piaget's approach to education is a (Kuhnian) paradigm of education against Dewey's paradigm of education (in which the aim of education is the strengthening of judgment, and that philosophy as inquiry and critical thinking can and must be taught in school classrooms). And the two paradigms can not work together. (Apparently Dewey himself found that his ideas on education, when immersed into a Piagetan context of education, were interpreted as and transformed into something quite contrary to his intentions.) And now we find p4/wc unable to work if accepting and recognizing Piaget's views. What is your view on it? Can we make some reforms on Piaget's theory in a way that are compatible with Dewey's paradigm of education? Or should we take away Piaget's theory of children's intellectual development once and for all?

I think we have to supplement the findings of developmental psychologists with what we can learn about children by doing philosophy with them.

In your two earlier books, Dialogues with Children (1984) and Philosophy and the Young Child (1980), you claim that young children are natural philosophers. This is a revolutionary, interesting opinion in education and philosophy. In other words, in addition to lay people, neither people supporting the traditional theory of education, nor the proud philosophers can agree with it. Can you explain your view in summary for our readers, please? What do philosophy/philosophers exactly mean in your view? Why can they not accept that children are able to philosophize?

In my judgment, the best way to become convinced that young children have genuinely philosophical thoughts is not to define 'philosophy' and then see whether there is any evidence that children have thoughts that fit the definition. The best way is rather to see whether anything that children say or ask is similar to what some philosopher has once said or asked.

Thus, for example, it is not unusual for a young child to ask how we know that we are not dreaming. Notoriously, this is an important philosophical question that Descartes asked.

In my book, Philosophy and the Young Child, I report on Ian, who, at six years of age, found to his chagrin that the three children of his parents' friends monopolized the television; they kept him from watching his favorite program, "Mother," he asked in frustration, "why is it better for three people to be selfish than for one?"

Ian's mother seems to have suggested to him that three people were being made happy rather than just one, namely, Ian himself. According to Utilitarianism, this outcome should be morally right, since the amount of happiness in the world was being maximized. In effect, Ian's question offers a way to criticize Utilitarianism. If maximizing happiness also increases selfishness in the world, can this outcome be morally justified? Elizabeth Anscombe, a famous English philosopher of the late 20th century, once used Ian's question in a lecture she was giving at Oxford to criticize Utilitarianism. Clearly Ian was thinking an interesting philosophical thought.

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Page created: 12.09.07. Page last modified: 26.02.13 14:53.