Philosophy through literature: Gareth B. Matthews’ method

Radhika Chhaparia

During the 1970s, several American philosophers and educationists were engaged in bringing philosophy to young children and adolescents. While they were united in this endeavour, each of them advocated a distinctive rationale and approach. Gareth B. Matthews (1929 – 2011) was one among the proponents of the ‘Philosophy with Children’ movement. After obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Harvard, he began his teaching career as an assistant professor at the University of Virginia in 1960. The first instance of his drawing a connection between children and philosophy can be traced back to his interactions with his own children during the 1960s. His book Dialogues with Children is a collection of his conversations with 8-11 year old children at St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, Scotland. Throughout his career, Matthews visited schools in the US and abroad to hold philosophical dialogues. He was also a contributing editor (1979-2006) of the journal Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children in which he had a column titled “Thinking in Stories”. In this column he reviewed 58 children’s stories that are interesting from a philosophical point of view. These stories ranged from novels such as Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt to picture books like Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr. He also co-authored a series of teacher guides titled Wise Owl: Talking and Thinking about Children’s Literature.

Matthews’ work with children has at least three striking features:
• One, use of existing children’s literature as a rich source of philosophical problems and concepts.
• Two, his unique story-beginning method.
• Three, his belief that philosophical discussions between adults and children are not only enriching for the child but also for the adult, primarily due to the inventiveness, imaginativeness, playfulness, and freshness in children’s ways of thinking.

Why philosophize with children?
In the modern world we typically think of philosophy in the context of college education. A lack of formal and informal opportunities for engaging young children in a philosophical dialogue is usually the norm. Partly, this is a result of the ways in which we have come to think about both philosophy and children. Philosophy is usually, though incorrectly, considered an abstract and difficult subject, making it unsuitable for children and best reserved for adults. Through his interactions with children, Matthews learned that they are likely to raise and be perplexed by most of the basic questions of philosophy without any formal introduction to philosophical thought. After all, children experience life and life itself is the source of perennial questions of philosophy. In his observations, children were far more imaginative and inventive in their philosophical thinking than most adults are and were able to offer a fresh philosophical perspective. They also displayed non-attachment to ideas during philosophical investigations. Several of them could ask piercing questions, articulate analogies and sustain the rigour of a philosophical dialogue. However, adults are often unable to recognize children’s questions and remarks for their philosophical content. Due to their own socialization into other ways of thinking, adults’ ability to revisit questions they themselves once regarded with wonder becomes rare. Further, children are not necessarily considered persons in their own right – with ways of thinking and questioning which could add value to an adult’s life, and in the way we go about participating and shaping the communities we inhabit. According to Matthews, 20th century developmental theories contributed to this attitude towards childhood and children. He was particularly critical of Jean Piaget’s* work and held the view that Piaget’s experiments failed to make allowance for children’s philosophical thinking. Conceptions of childhood that view this phase as one of ‘deficit’ in comparison to adulthood have impacted adult-child interactions.

Illustrations: Sunil Chawdiker

What constitutes thinking philosophically?
Consider the questions: “Papa, how do I know if I am not dreaming right now?” and “Am I living in somebody else’s dream?” When children ask such questions they are puzzled about how to tell apart the states of being awake and dreaming, which many of us may unquestioningly assume to know. They are also wondering about what is real and how one can know it. To approach these questions philosophically is to be in conversation with and allow the child to explore ways in which the child is able to arrive at a distinction, even if tentatively. Talking about the differences one notices between being awake and dreaming is one way to approach the problem.

Let’s look at another example. “Aunty, look your flowers are happy.” Adults often personify objects and so do children. However, when a young child remarks about the state of a non-human yet animate entity like a flower, they may be communicating something about their conception of flowers and happiness. Asking the following questions could help uncover the philosophical potential of the remark: Can flowers be happy? Can a flower have feelings if it doesn’t have a mind and a brain? Is happiness a feeling? What is happiness for a flower? Is it the same as happiness for humans? How do you know the flower is happy? Does the flower know that it is happy even as it looks happy to us? Of course, it’s entirely possible that the child may themselves pose some of these questions as part of the philosophical exploration.

Now, consider another question: “Do you ever wish that you could live forever?” Upon hearing this, adults and children alike may laugh it off or merely state that everyone has to die someday instead of pursuing the thought experiment proposed by the question. To think about this hypothetical situation philosophically would require us to delve deeper into the concept of death and what it means, but also what it means to live forever. To pursue these questions, is to slowly begin to philosophize.

Philosophical perplexities in children’s literature
Some of the most familiar and frequent ways of engaging children of various ages through a literary work are comprehension-based questions, understanding the literary devices used, the themes and symbolism, vocabulary work, and character analysis. What Matthews noticed about some of the children’s literature was also its ability to directly, and often humorously, raise philosophical problems.

Let’s consider an example. The Garden by Arnold Lobel is a story with simple vocabulary and ideas. In this story, Toad follows his friend Frog’s example and plants seeds in his garden. When the seeds don’t grow immediately, Toad shouts at them expecting them to grow henceforth. When the seeds still don’t grow and Frog points out to Toad that he must’ve frightened the seeds, a worried Toad lights candles, sings, reads, and plays music to the seeds. The seeds still don’t seem to grow. Finally, when the seeds sprout, Toad tells his friend Frog that he was right all along – growing seeds is hard work (for Toad).

In a conventional classroom a discussion is likely to stay limited to questions such as: Why did Toad sing to the seeds? Have you ever grown any plant from seeds? Were you anxious like Toad or patiently allowed your seeds to sprout? What do you think about Frog and Toad’s friendship? However, the profoundness of the joke and the question it raises about causal explanation is missed out, to say the least.

Matthews discusses this story in the Wise Owl series to show the philosophical potential in the story with the following questions:

  1. Is Toad’s hard work what made his seeds grow? How do we know?
  2. Toad doesn’t have enough patience to wait for his seeds to grow. What is patience?
  3. What causes fear? Who or what is afraid?
  4. To these questions, we could add: what is causal relationship?

Matthews’ story-beginning technique
Through his informal interactions with children, Matthews established that it wasn’t unusual for children between the ages of three and seven to think philosophically. To engage with children of ages eight and above he developed a unique story-beginning method. He wrote and presented to children an original story-beginning which contained a philosophical problem. Then he would ask them to further develop the story. Children would launch into a discussion around the problem – arguing, reasoning, thinking analogies, questioning each other. The story-ending would be written by Matthews after and based on the children’s discussion. Later, he would return to the group with the story-ending to determine if it did justice to their ideas. Given below is an example of a story-beginning that draws on the Ship of Theseus.

“It’s a very beautiful ship,” Freddie explained.
“It’s all gleaming and white. It’s like a ship from a movie. In fact, it has been used in making pirate films.”
“How old did you say the ship is?” asked Freddie’s father.
“I think the guide said it was built about 1840 or something,” replied Freddie, “but only a few years later it got sunk in a big battle. It stayed on the ocean bottom for years and years. Then about two years ago it was salvaged, brought up from the bottom. It’s now the oldest sailing ship afloat.”
“Really!” put in Freddie’s mother. “Then it must be quite dilapidated.”
“Oh no!” Freddie assured her, “not at all. The guide told us that when they brought it up…uh brought her up…” – Freddie suddenly remembered that ships are considered feminine – “they found that much of the decking was rotten. So they replaced most of that, board by board. Then they found some of the ribs were rotten too, so they replaced them. Finally, they got worried about the sides, you know, the outside of the hull. They ended up replacing much of that as well, one board at a time. Now almost all the boards on the ship are new and very smooth and solid and well painted. She’s a beautiful ship.”
“Then it can’t be the oldest sailing ship afloat,” sneered Alice, ignoring the rule about calling the ship “her”. “It can’t be, if almost all of the boards are new. It’s a new ship. It may be modelled after an old ship, but it’s a new ship.”

Matthews took this story-beginning to a group of 8-11 year-olds in a music school. A snippet from their discussion is given below.

Matthews: “What’s the problem?” (In order to check whether the students understood the problem.)
“The problem is that…we want to find out which is which,” replied Donald. “Is the ship the old ship, or is the ship just a model, a replica, a copy of the original ship?”
David-Paul: “That’s easy.”
Matthews: “What’s easy?”
David-Paul: “If there are still a few planks left, it’s the old ship.”
Esther: “There must be some planks left.”
David-Paul: “Perhaps the spirit of the old ship would still be there. It’s not really a new ship if it’s got some of the old timbers…and the spirit of the old ship.”
Matthews: “…suppose the only thing left from the ship is the keel. How many say it is still the old ship?”
Matthews: “So the keel is the important thing?”
David-Paul: “I think the ribs and the keel are the most important parts of it.”
Matthews: “But so long as the keel remains, it’s the same ship?”
David-Paul: “No. People never see the keel anyway.”
Donald: “It doesn’t matter whether you can see it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t the old ship, just because people can’t see that it is.”
Ise: “[Suppose] it’s still got the old cabin on it.”
Donald: “It doesn’t matter whether you build something new onto it, as long as it’s the same ship underneath.”
David-Paul: “So they mean to say that if you’ve got this castle that’s completely rebuilt and that’s got only this one stone from the old castle – all the other stones are new – that it’s the old castle.”

In the course of this conversation, continuity, change, and whether an object remains the same even as it undergoes significant changes become the focal points of discussion.

In his story-ending Matthews incorporated significant aspects of the discussion and steered clear of resolving the problem on his own.

“Wait a minute”, said Angus; it was his turn to be skeptical. “Suppose you just have one tiny piece left that belonged to the ship at the beginning – a tiny, tiny piece, maybe just a splinter – everything else new, [as recent as] 1982. How could it still be the old ship?”
“That would be going too far,” agreed Freddie, “if there was just a splinter.”
“Well, suppose it was bigger than a splinter, but just one small piece of board,” suggested Angus.
Freddie hesitated, “I guess that would still be going too far,” he admitted.
“But how far is too far?” pressed Angus…

Now compare this with all the cells in our body getting replaced every few days; yet we ascribe sameness to who we are across time.

Conclusion
The above discussion demonstrates children’s capability to engage in a philosophical dialogue, relevance of philosophy in our lives and the potential for such conversations that lies in children’s literature. Certainly, adults interested in using literature to hold dialogues with children could take a few cues from Matthews’ method. Though an equal participant in asking questions, listening to others, inducing perplexity and pointing out unsatisfactory ideas, an adult must avoid steering the conversation in any particular direction or intervening between two arguing children to find a quick resolution. Undoubtedly, as part of the process, adults would need to examine their conception of childhood and ask themselves whether children’s thoughts and questions could add value to their own ways of thinking and living. Of course, selection of literature, pre-reading, and thinking about philosophical issues in the story would all be part of their role too. For these, Matthews has left us plenty of resources as guidelines. There is no reason for us to believe that the potential he recognizes in Western literature is not present in Indian children’s literature. Also, to our advantage, translations of stories such as Many Moons by James Thurber and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry are available in many Indian languages.

References

  1. Gregory, Maughn Rollins, and Laverty, Megan Jane, editors. Gareth B. Matthews, The Child’s Philosopher, Routledge, 2022.
  2. Gareth B. Matthews, The Philosophy of Childhood, Harvard University Press, 1994.
  3. Gareth B. Matthews, Dialogues with Children, Harvard University Press, 1984.
  4. https://www.montclair.edu/iapc/wise-owl/.
  5. https://www.montclair.edu/iapc/thinking-in-stories/.

*Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist well-known for his theory of cognitive development. In his theory, he proposed an account of cognitive development along four stages: the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage and the formal operational stage. In this account, the ability to reason theories and engage with abstractions were associated with the last stage, and in children of roughly 11-12 years and above. (Siegler, Robert, Alibali, Martha, Piaget’s Theory of Development, Children’s Thinking, Prentice Hall, 2004)

The author has obtained an MA in Education (2016-18) from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. She can be reached at radhika.chhaparia16_mae@apu.edu.in.

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