Ariane Schjelderup, Øyvind Olsholt and Beate Børresen


Tano Aschehoug, Oslo 1999, 321 p.—ISBN 82-518-3859-2

Table of contents
Excerpts from Part I
Excerpts from Part II

Philosophy in school is on the one hand a contribution to the ongoing debate about our future educational system insofar as it provides lucid instructions as to how philosophy may be implemented and integrated in the grade school. Thus it explains how any schoolteacher in any subject may adopt the model of the philosophical inquiry and adapt it to the classroom situation. It sets out to demonstrate that philosophy is much better understood as a dialogical, communal practise in the spirit of Socrates than as a mere subject matter to be loaded into the memory of the child. The book construes and develops the concept of philosophy primarily as a particularly fruitful method of dialogue, between children and adults or just between children, and not as a venerable textual corpus to be learnt by rote.

On the other hand an even more important aim of this book is to point out and elaborate the Socratic attitude of non-knowledge. The book argues that philosophical openness, questioning and wonderment at the world—human qualities that we today so willingly, though often rather uncritically, applaud and embrace—may prove shallow or even counterproductive unless they spring from the Socratic, dialectical, insight that "I know that I know nothing". Strong emphasis is therefore laid on the reader's own appropriation of such an insight. This intellectual humility of Socrates—a humility on behalf of man's rational and logical access to the truth in itself—is of course equally valid and equally valuable for any person no matter where or when, not just for teachers and not just for adults and not just for children. To make the adults (viz. the readers) realise that yearning for wisdom on the one side, lack of fundamental knowledge on the other and humility as a result of both are not only correlative, but also interdependent human qualities, is perhaps on the whole the major objective of the book.

Philosophy in school is divided into two separate parts. Part I is mainly theoretical and discusses further the aforementioned issues. Moreover Part I gives an account of Matthew Lipman and his Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (at Montclair University, New Jersey, USA) as well as a description of several independent European approaches to philosophy for children over the last couple of decades. A chapter on how the Internet may be utilised to promote and implement philosophy for children is also added. Finally Part I contains detailed commentaries on the Norwegian Curriculum for the Ten Year Compulsory School and shows by way of suggesting a series of philosophical questions and exercises how the proposed general objectives in the curriculum may be reached.

Part II is entirely practical. Based on an array of different textual samples—gathered chiefly from the compartments of philosophy, literature and religion—Part II delivers comprehensive sets of philosophically intriguing questions, exercises, puzzles, experiments etc. hoping that this will evoke philosophical conversations and inquiries within the group. The authors are eager to stress, however, the importance and inevitability of the adult's own wrestling with these very questions and puzzles—before presenting them to the community of children/adults. For only the adult who personally reflects upon and is aroused by the enigmas of philosophy and the philosophical speculations will in turn be able to inspire the children to the same or even to a higher level of philosophical reflection and excitement.

Table of contents
Excerpts from Part I
Excerpts from Part II


1. Introduction 13

2. Children and philosophy 17

2.1 Can children be philosophical? 17
2.2 Can philosophy be childlike? 23
2.3 Freud and Kierkegaard on childhood 25
2.4 A commentary to Piaget 33
2.5 Conclusion 36

3. Adults and philosophy 38

3.1 The adult as a model for the child 39
3.2 The Socratic art of midwifery 42
3.3 What is a Socratic attitude? 43
3.3.1 To define the problem 47
3.3.2 Openness and honesty 50
3.3.3 To strive for the general and the universal 52

4. The philosophical conversation 53

4.1 The art of dialectics 56
4.2 What is a philosophical question? 61
4.3 Philosophical conversations in the classroom 64
4.4 Some critical remarks 73
4.5 A conversation with Socrates 76

5. Matthew Lipman and the P4C-movement 85

5.1 Matthew Lipman 86
5.1.1 Background 86
5.1.2 Lipman's philosophical novels and manuals 87
5.2 Other approaches 94
5.2.1 Per Jespersen, Denmark 94
5.2.2 Research project: "To stimulate children's philosophical thinking", Sweden 97
5.2.3 Gareth B. Matthews, USA 98
5.2.4 "De Kooi", Belgium 100
5.2.5 Barbara Brüning, Germany 103
5.2.6 What happens in Norway? 103

6. P4C and the Internet 105

6.1 Why is the Internet important? 105
6.1.1 The Internet as source of information 106
6.1.2 The Internet as a platform of written communication 108
6.2 Some philosophically relevant Internet-possibilities to date (June 1999) 110
6.2.1 Newswise forum 110
6.2.2 Philosophical Hotel 112
6.2.3 The newspaper "100" 113
6.2.4 "The philosopher" 114
6.2.5 The author's own homepage 115
6.2.6 Other sites of interest 115

7. The Curriculum for the Ten Year Compulsory School and The Framework Plan for the Four Year Teacher Education 117

7.1 The Framework Plan for the Four Year Teacher Education 117
7.2 The Curriculum for the Ten Year Compulsory School—L97 119
7.2.1 Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education 124
7.2.2 Norwegian 126
7.2.3 Mathematics 129
7.2.4 Civics/social studies 132
7.2.5 Arts and crafts 135
7.2.6 Natural sciences and Environmental Subjects 138
7.2.7 English—Languages in general 141
7.2.8 Music 141
7.2.9 Home Economics 145
7.2.10 Physical Education 147

8. Team- and project work—examples 149

8.1 1.-4. grade (the initial stage) 149
8.2 5.-7. grade (intermediate stage) 152
8.3 8.-10. grade (lower secondary stage) 154


1. How to use Part II 159

2. Greek mythology 164

2.1 Heracles and the Hydra-snake 165
2.2 The thread of Ariadne 168

3. Aesop's fables 172

3.1 When the wolf played the flute 172

4. Philosophical texts 175

4.1 Socrates, Plato, Aristotle 175
4.1.1 Socrates 176
4.1.2 Plato 186
4.1.3 Aristotle 193
4.2 Seneca and Marcus Aurelius 207
4.2.1 Seneca 209
4.2.2 Marcus Aurelius 214
4.3 Kant and Mill 219
4.3.1 Kant—deontological ethics 219
4.3.2 Mill—teleological ethics (utilitarianism) 223
4.4 Kierkegaard, Marx and Freud 230
4.4.1 Kierkegaard 231
4.4.2 Marx 235
4.4.3 Freud 240
4.4.4 On Kierkegaard, Marx and Freud 244

5. Religious texts 247

5.1 Hinduism 251
5.2 Buddhism 255
5.3 Judaism 260
5.4 Christianity 263
5.5 Islam 266
5.6 The Bahá'í-faith 270

6. Miscellaneous 275

6.1 Fine arts 275
6.2 Film and video 280
6.2.1 Mollys pilgrim (American short for children) 280
6.2.2 The hermit crab (Norwegian short for children) 287
6.3 Play and activities 292
6.4 Anne Franks diary 297

Some suggestions for further reading 302

Register for questions and exercises in Part II 308

Index 315

Table of contents
Excerpts from Part I
Excerpts from Part II

2 Children and philosophy (p. 17)

What has children got to do with philosophy? Or philosophy with children? Children are so inexperienced, so immature, they know so little about life as it really is. How are they, of all people, supposed to venture on a voyage on the deep waters of abstract thought, the very waters of philosophy? Besides: philosophy is complicated enough for the ablest of adults, why involve children in such an intricate subject matter? Would it not have been far better to leave the children alone, to let them play their innocent games as long as they take pleasure in it—for will they not soon enough grow up and thus become burdened with the inescapable responsibilities and duties of adulthood?

Yes, this is indeed the traditional way of thinking. And wisely does one reason along these lines, inasmuch as this common sense scepticism brings about a critical stance in the individual with which to meet contradicting proposals. One must, however, be wary not to commit the mistake of letting radical scepticism shut down all critical powers. In that case one is no longer endowed with a healthy scepticism, but rather fraught with prejudice. And such a frame of mind is not very useful neither to children nor to philosophy.

So let us then investigate these questions as openly and unprejudiced as we can. If children and philosophy are to have anything with each other to do, we must therefore either establish a new idea of what it means to be a child or justify a new conception of what it implies to do philosophy. Preferably we ought to do both since our assumption is not merely that children and philosophy may have something with each other to do, but that both children and philosophy have something to gain by getting in touch with each other. By saying this we suggest that children may find it both useful and enjoyable to be stimulated philosophically—at the same time children, with their fresh approaches and surprising perspectives, may breathe new life into the theoretical explorations within philosophy itself.

2.1 Can children be philosophical?

Let us first look closer into the question if not philosophical conversations will prove tiresome for the children, if not heavy philosophical investigations are bound to "deprive them of their childhood", expunging the innocent play from their daily agenda. We would like to retort as follows: do we not just as much deprive them of their childhood by taking away from them the questions and the wonder, i.e. by providing them with the answers that we believe to be correct? We shall of course be honest and truthful whenever we deal with children, but is it always naked facts children seek when they inquire about this or that, for instance about how a child come into existence in the first place? May we not equally well interpret such an inquiry as a call from the child to the adult for conjoined deliberation over the mystery of being and becoming—and not over what sort of actions mum and dad once performed in order to become "in a delicate position"? The sense of adventure and the urge for discovery easily evaporates as the hard "realities" are pontificated from above.

Philosophy is all about wondering together. Not to demystify the world, but instead to open up for new questions and hidden depths. Philosophy is just the thing for children because in philosophy one is allowed to continue the play, only this time not with bicycles or footballs, but with thoughts, words and propositions. The children shall not in philosophy turn away from their play and their adventures, rather they shall be given the opportunity to carry their thoughts with them into the play and the adventure. Because, as we shall see in a moment, children are actually fully capable of submitting both playful and imaginative questions. The child's world is a world of play and adventure. The philosophical challenge for us adults is not to deliver them as safely as possible from this world of play, but on the contrary to make towards them there! For play and fantasy are intimately intertwined with the very nature of philosophy.

That children ask philosophical questions or at least questions with obviously philosophical implications, is therefore nothing unusual: children wonder where they come from, or whereto the recently deceased dog or poor old grandmother has gone. Or they wonder why it is that the adults always make all the decisions. Being so ignorant they ask questions like these and we, the adults, try to provide them with our very best answers. What most people probably do not realise, however, is that such questions may also be regarded as philosophical questions (what a philosophical question is and how we can recognise a question as philosophical, will be discussed in chapter 4.2).

Now let us begin by some statements from children which for a trained philosopher are easily identifiable as philosophical questions and philosophical fields of inquiry:


cont. p. 19

Is it bad to be disobedient? Not necessarily, thought Pernille, 5, because when she refrained from doing what her mother had told her to do, her mother didn't become angry (at least according to Pernille she didn't). A necessary criterion for being bad is therefore, still according to Pernille, that other people respond negatively to the chosen action. Ole, also 5 years old, disagreed on this. He contended that being disobedient is bad regardless of how other people respond, that is: being bad is not dependent of other people's reactions, but of the action itself or the person who acts.

Regrettably, due to unfortunate circumstances there and then, we were unable to pursue this conversation much farther. Ole therefore never got a real chance to elucidate his position. But if he were to presume that it was the moral trait underlying our action that settled whether the action was in fact good or bad, then the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) probably would have approved. Whether Ole on the other hand would have consented with Kant's view of what it takes for a motivation to be good, is perhaps more dubious. For it was Kant's supposition that the only good (and hence moral) motivation is duty: only when one acts good because one has a duty to act good, the action is morally good. An action that springs solely from loving another person or enjoying making other people happy, is consequently not a moral act; for such an act will always be accompanied by self-interest: one likes or enjoys to perform the action, the action or it's consequences make one feel well. Here duty as the source of motivation has altogether disappeared (for a closer inspection of Kant's moral theory, see Part II, chapter 4.3.1).

Perhaps not many people would have accepted Pernille's criterion on what constitutes a moral act, she said that all acts are good unless they are met with unambiguous disapproval from any other person than the one who performs the action. Thus it is simple to provide examples of actions that obviously are morally unacceptable, but where no one has ever dared to criticise them, perhaps in fear of becoming a victim of the same actions. And yet Pernille offers us a strikingly neat criterion of an action's moral value. For is it not the case that other people's disapproval or consent is something anybody may observe and apprehend entirely by themselves? Conversely a motive or a moral trait is indiscernible for all save the person himself who is in possession of the motive or the trait. [...]

2.3 Freud and Kierkegaard on childhood (p. 25)

We are now about to examine what two important thinkers, Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) and Søren Kierkegaard (1813—1855), have expressed about the possible philosophical disposition of children. Such statements often mirror our own time as they posit our opinions and attitudes against a background that is in many respects quite different from ours. Why then Freud and Kierkegaard? Are they the only ones who have dealt with thoughts applicable to our context? Of course not. Almost all the so-called "great" philosophers through the history of philosophy assert theories and point of views that could be used to illustrate the contemporary relation between children and philosophy. Yet in our opinion Freud sticks out from the rest. In modern times he is the very first to place decisive weight on childhood and it's indispensable significance for all aspects of adult life (through his work with the psychoanalysis). Insofar as we philosophize at all, this philosophising must, according to Freud, be able to be traced back to fundamental dispositions and activities in childhood, even in very early childhood. And as our topic here is philosophy in the school, we find this a most stimulating and prolific outlook. Kierkegaard's mention is legitimised mainly because he is a thinker who responds most critically to anything even remotely resembling the grown-ups proneness to rationalisation, abstract systems of reason and chimerical theorising. This does not imply that Kierkegaard himself reflects in a senseless or non-rational way, but rather that he employs his reason more like a child employs it's reason: his thoughts emerge as a result of his open wonderment confronted with himself and the world around him. Kierkegaard's thoughts are always accompanied by a consciousness of the inscrutability of existence, of the mysterious fact that "I exist"! Freud's analytical emphasis on childhood and Kierkegaard's existential retention of it, seem therefore to complement each other.

The psychologist Sigmund Freud realised that even 3-year-olds can possess a genuine disposition to ask questions. His ambition was to enunciate a thoroughly psychological explanation to children's "quenchless desire for knowledge". He inferred this desire from another, altogether different desire which, according to him, is the most fundamental desire in any person no matter the age, namely the desire for total contentment and fulfilment—what he called libido. So when the child displays a quest for knowledge, it is a way of revealing it's true, appetitive nature. But why does the child's appetitive desires manifest itself just as desire for knowledge? This is not self-evident. Freud explains:

The curiosity of small children in manifested in their untiring love of asking questions; this is bewildering to the adult so long as he fails to understand that all these questions are merely circumlocutions and that they cannot come to an end because the child is only trying to make them take the place of a question which he does not ask. When he grows bigger and becomes better informed this expression of curiosity often comes to a sudden end. Psychoanalytic investigation provides us with a full explanation by teaching us that many, perhaps most children, or at least the most gifted ones, pass through a period, beginning when they are about three, which may be called the period of infantile sexual researches. So far as we know, the curiosity of children of this age does not awaken spontaneously, but is aroused by the impression made by some important event—by the actual birth of a little brother or sister, or by a fear of it based on external experiences in which the child perceives a threat to his selfish interests. (1)

If this is to indicate that being an only child disables the development of "curiousness" and "love of asking questions", he does not say. Let us therefore just suppose that the child's getting a sibling is but one of several possible events that may instigate it's curiosity. Freud lays particular stress on this event though. For this event is often the immediate cause of the child's preliminary wonder over it's own becoming. And as the child first cast it's eyes on this delicate question, so is it's curiosity launched once and for all. But this incident leads only to the child's discovery of the question, on its own it is still quite incapable of giving it a satisfactory answer:

Researches are directed to the question of where babies come from, exactly as if the child were looking for ways and means to avert so undesired an event. In this way we have been astonished to learn that children refuse to believe the bits of information that is given to them—for example, that they energetically reject the fable of the stork with its wealth of mythological meaning, that they date their intellectual independence from this act of disbelief, and that they often feel in serious opposition to adults and in fact never afterwards forgive them for having deceived them here about the true facts of the case.

Why don't children believe the fairy tales we tell them? Well, many children do believe them. But not all and not always. Freud ties this suspicion to the child's incipient speculations on the creation and emergence of life itself. When we inform a child that all children come with the stork, it is very hard for the child to pitch this with it's own observations. Yet as long as the child fully trusts the statements the adults insistingly put forward, it still tries its best to conform the improbable story with it's own comprehension:

Dear aunt Mali!
I beg you, please tell me how you got Kristel and Paul. You must know since you are married. Last night we [Lilli and her little sister, Trudel] quarrelled about this and now we want to know the truth. There is no one else we can ask. [...] Do you know, dear aunt Mali, we cannot understand at all how the stork delivers the children. Trudel thought that the stork carried them in a shirt. Also we would like to know if the stork picks up the children from the pond and why it is impossible to see the children lying in the pond. I beg you, also tell me how you can know in advance when you are about to receive children. Please write me a detailed answer.
With lots of greetings and kisses from all of us,
Your curious Lilli. (2)

Thus wrote an eleven-year-old Austrian, motherless girl to her aunt approximately a hundred years ago. Lilli is surely naive and ingenuous and at the same time she is open-hearted and amiable, just the way we all want our children to be. Also her observations, propositions and deductions—i.e. her fundamental ability to philosophise—leave nothing to be desired! She knows that her aunt has got two children, Kristel and Paul, and that her aunt is married. And since Lilli (as far as we know) takes for granted that children materialise only in and through marriage, then her aunt must necessarily know how Kristel and Paul came to be. This is indeed an unassailable inference given the premises she holds to be true.

Moreover she takes a keen interest in the question of the process of becoming. First, she asks how the children come to us from where they were originally created: are they really brought to us in a shirt? Second, she starts to wonder where this "site of creation" might be: if it is true that the stork collects the children in a pond, then why can't we see the children there with our own eyes, ready to be collected?

Adults claim to know how children come into being. Some of us have even participated in the "manufacturing process". Or have we really? We all know that a child is created by the male sperm fertilising the female ovum. But an ovum that has just been fertilised, a zygote, is however not yet a child! It is a living micro-organism, an embryo, with the potentiality of developing into a child. But the question is: at what point does this micro-organism become what we commonly understand as a child? An impossible question, it seems. We are almost forced to admit: either we call it a child from the very moment of conception—or—from the moment of birth. Then these are the only transitions in the period of pregnancy available to our powers of observation. But unfortunately both alternatives are quite unacceptable since a micro-organism is not a human being no more than there is any noteworthy difference between a child immediately before and immediately after birth.

Aristotle proposed an original solution to this problem. He imagined that the complete child already existed in miniature in the male's sperm thus reducing the female and her body to a mere brooding-box. The child is therefore not created first as man and woman come together, but exists all the time in the father's body, just as the father himself all the time existed in the body of the grandfather, who continuously existed in body of the great-grandfather etc. Hence Aristotle avoids the above problem of "transition". His solution does entail, however, that all children once to be born already must exist—and has always existed potentially—in one and the same "primeval father". Whether this "primeval father" has himself created these "potential children" or whether both the primeval father and the potential children exist eternally, remains an open question.

Let us consider Lilli's question again: how do children come to us, and how are they created? Aristotle's assumption about the prefabricated human being, however erroneous this fanciful theory may seem to us, suggests at least an answer to her imploring question. We moderns, on the other hand, with all our medical and scientific knowledge, aren't even close to catch the meaning of her question. We may easily explain to her, step by step, how organic matter gradually develops into what we call a human being, but where and how the transition takes place, i.e. how the child comes to be as a child, thereof we know nothing. And what's more: we are terribly apprehensive to approach a question like this fearing that yet another facet of our existential ignorance be pinpointed. But Lilli senses no apprehension, neither does she know any fear. Not as yet.

Later in life Lilli sought psychoanalytic treatment, Freud remarks dryly—the consequent lack of encouragement of her childish desire for knowledge eventually caused her to withdraw completely only to become an "obsessive ruminator" (Zwangsgrübelsucht), as Freud denotes it. This sounds undeniably somewhat exaggerated. However Freud substantiates such a course of events like this:

[The child] investigate[s] along their own lines, divine the baby's presence inside its mother's body, and following the lead of the impulses of their own sexuality form theories of babies originating from eating, of their being born through the bowels, and of the obscure part of the father. By that time they already have a notion of the sexual act, which appears to them to be something hostile and violent. But since their own sexual constitution has not yet reached the point of being able to produce babies, their investigation of where babies come from must inevitably come to nothing too and be abandoned as insoluble. The impression caused by this failure in the first attempt at intellectual independence appears to be of a lasting and deeply depressing kind. (3)

Let us sum up Freud's main argument. Already as little children we are confronted with our first serious intellectual challenge, namely to answer the question: "how have I come into existence". But as little children lack the qualifications to fully grasp the process of propagation, they fail to answer this question in a satisfactory way. Instead they become entrapped by the adult's fairy tales, for instance the one about the stork, and become distrustful of adults as it is later revealed that all this was just idle talk. And all this the child discovers as it gradually becomes aware of it's own sexuality. As a result then of the child encountering itself as a sexual being, the propensity for questioning ceases—yet the mistrustfulness and suspicion towards the adults linger and may alternately spread like a malignant tumour in it's mind, like it apparently happened to Lilli.

In our context we are, however, tempted to ask: must this intellectual disposition that the child so readily displays necessarily give rise to depression and distrust? Must the child necessarily experience unsuccessfulness just because it is as yet incapable of grasping the physical conditions of propagation? On the contrary, could not the intellectual independence that the child naturally exhibits be encouraged and promoted by interested and participating adults so that it's first intellectual attempt was not perceived as a personal defeat, but rather as a thrilling sensation of being a stranger in a foreign land—with an equally thrilled and enthusiastic adult by it's side? We believe so, without thereby confirming that Freud would automatically grant his unconditional consent to this. The realisation of this very possibility requires that the adults recognise their own ignorance, not pretending that they actually know how a human being becomes a human being simply because they happen to be familiar with the physical process of propagation. Philosophically we might formulate this as follows: biology, i.e. the physical and the sexual aspect of propagation, is merely a prerequisite, merely a condition, for life, not the cause, not the raison d'être of life. (4)

In our opinion Freud has focused on a most important aspect: it is promotive for the child's development to be met with an open attitude as it presents it's philosophically indicative questions. Not merely because the child finds philosophical conversations amusing and stimulating, but also because it contributes to a child's healthy intellectual and emotional development.

Another good reason for taking children's questions seriously, is provided by the Danish poet, theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He belongs to those who unequivocally stand on the child's side against adults thinking they comprehend everything and know all that's worth knowing. The following statement is one in an almost endless series of ironical subtleties:

I would rather speak with children; because of them one dare still hope that they may turn into rational beings; but those who have in fact turned into it—Good Lord! (5)

Indeed, one may hope that children will become rational beings. But please rescue us from those who have already become rational beings! What exactly does he mean by this? Well, Kierkegaard doesn't care very much for adults who declare themselves rational, i.e. who more or less publicly prize their own sensibility and sagacity and think that they know the answer of most things, grown-ups who firmly believe that they have unveiled life itself with their infallible "common sense". Actually adults are quite often as conceited as this, especially when they have business with small and unenlightened children. No, Kierkegaard protests, then I would rather have conversations with the children instead. They are far off this ridiculous coast of sham. They are open and inquiring, they take nothing for granted and dig into whatever the matter. Now, if the children were able to maintain this "childish" attitude as they grow older, if this natural philosophical capacity with which they are equipped does not, contrary to expectation, just whittle away, then there is actually some hope of them one day becoming truly rational beings—that is: responsible adults yet simultaneously in keeping with the fundamental openness of the child. This then is Kierkegaard's ideal—both for his own sake and for the sake of mankind.

However he is the first to admit that this is not at all easy to achieve. Everyone who has really tried has experienced this difficulty. It is immensely difficult to be responsible, to show authority, to restrain and on the whole to do everything that adults are supposed to do in society—at the same time as one kindles and nourishes in oneself the child's total absence of preconception and cultural refinement. Kierkegaard knows very well how easily we cloud our natural philosophical (childlike) disposition by too much "common sense" and "worldly sophistication" and, for that matter, by knowledge itself. It is too great a temptation (and far too comfortable) to simply forget that we all stand naked and unprotected confronted with the unfathomable mystery it is that we do exist. Does it then help at all to have a steady job, a couple of children, a beautiful house and a fixed interest rate on the mortgage? Kierkegaard employs another metaphor to describe this relationship:

Self-knowledge is an irksome business; while the rest of the world is so easily understood, the understanding all of a sudden changes remarkably as one is self the one in question. One ought never to forget this; and like the child uses the pointer in order not to overlook a single letter, one should, if life were to get a deeper meaning, not get used to understand everything in general, not hasten wanting to understand everything, but patiently search for the pointer which always points at oneself. (6)

Children are stupid! They don't even know the alphabet. And they need a pointer on every letter so that they can understand how each word is constructed. How ignorant they are. But we adults are in fact even more ignorant, infinitely much more ignorant, thinking that we have understood life fully without any pointer whatsoever. It is us that Kierkegaard so deservingly mocks who wander heedlessly from one day to another and from one meeting to the next—usually without paying the least attention to or even discovering that there is something within ourselves demanding more depth and seriousness, that is: without discovering ourselves. But this is exactly where we may learn from the children. For they are not at all ashamed of resorting to the pointer. To them this is an exciting game and the pointer itself a festive toy. Neither ought we to be ashamed of the fact that we do not know everything, instead this fact should make us humble. Why not instead interpret this very fact as a challenge to bring ourselves to a halt and to start asking questions—just like the children do naturally. We might instead employ our intellectual powers to investigate trivial, yet profound questions with a congener—just like the children have a way of doing. We could simply pay more attention to our innate philosophical disposition—just like the children do all by themselves.

Kierkegaard also criticised a common bias predominant in the society in which he lived (a preconceived notion which still has a firm grip on many of us): that children are incomplete adults, that childhood has no intrinsic value, but is significant only as a preparatory stage to the adult, mature, self-sufficient way of human life. Therefore we keep feeding the children with all sorts of knowledge that we adults consider to be useful and worth while, hoping that they will find good use for it one day when they become adults themselves.

Kierkegaard revolts against this whole scheme. It may indeed be useful to possess a minimum of common knowledge, but it is really of far greater importance that children do experience their own life and future as truly meaningful here and now. If we as parents and teachers fail to nourish the children's natural philosophical disposition, if we fail to stimulate their inquisitiveness and thirst for understanding, we also fail to give them the tool that may render all the facts and knowledge we pour over them interesting and meaningful to them in their own lives. And in that case all knowledge, however reliable and useful we find it, converts into a dull accumulation of worthless matters of fact totally unconnected with and without particular relevance to the lives and projects of the children. In his writings Kierkegaard therefore shows us that what we really should do is to help the children create their own meaning, to help them fabulate and fantasise, to help them feel happiness by being intellectually and emotionally creative—to help them discover the poetical fragrance of existence. And perhaps the best way to achieve this is to let go of our adult pride and our dear, respectable facade, that is: by opening up for letting the children help us to discover the poetical fragrance of our existence. [...]

Table of contents
Excerpts from Part I
Excerpts from Part II

2 Greek mythology (p. 164)

For the Greeks in the antiquity (especially those who lived before 600 BC) life and existence were entirely in the hands of the will of the gods and of the quirks of fate. That was just the order of things and no one ever thought this could be at all different. In situations where we, with mild resignation, refer to mere "coincidence", these people were utterly convinced that there are divine powers behind everything—powers infinitely sublime in comparison to the individual human being, and yet powers accessible for this very individual through her thought and her language.

Altogether the Greeks had a rather dissimilar approach to divinity than we have grown acquainted with. First, they envisaged a whole community of gods, not just one, remote God. Second, they presumed that both gods and humans were under the thumb of the inevitable fate. Fate was something that surpassed also the mightiness of the gods. This meant that the disparity between god and human was much less significant than we today imagine it to be. The Olympic gods are actually very human indeed; they fight and they quarrel and are anything but moral examples. But they did have predominance over human beings.

To oppose the will of the gods or fate itself, as some people even at that time were audacious enough to venture, was considered the greatest of sins—the Greeks called it hybris, dauntlessness; which always led to violent reprisals from the gods or fate. There were vividly imaginative stories about the gods and their lives in circulation thereby enveloping all worldly phenomena within a greater totality. These stories comprised explanations not only of natural events such as the seasons, sunrise, storm, drought, rain, the outbreak of a volcano, birth and death etc., but also of social phenomena like luck and unluckiness, wealth and poverty, war and peace, friends and enemies etc. Explanations like these, referring to the direct intervention of supernatural powers in the world, are called myths. The sum of such stories and explanations are called mythology. [...]

2.2 The thread of Ariadne (p. 168)

On the island Crete in the Mediterranean Sea lived the terrible bull Minotaur. A real monster which furthermore was the outcome of the love between the queen of the island and a particularly beautiful bull! King Minos had received this bull as a sacrificial gift from Poseidon—the god of the seas. Since the fleet of king Minos had just defeated the Athenians, one had reached the following agreement: every ninth year the Athenians were to send seven boys and seven girls to Crete where they would be sacrificed to Minotaur. That is, they would be dispatched to an enormous labyrinth in which the man-eating bull resided. One year the brave Theseus was amongst the seven boys to be sacrificed. But as the daughter of king Minos, Ariadne, caught sight of the handsome youngster, she immediately fell in love with him. Therefore, in order to give Theseus a fair chance against the monster, she managed to smuggle him a woollen yarn. One end of this he thus attached to the entrance of the labyrinth before entering so that he could easily follow the thread to find his way out again. Well, then he located the gruesome bull and defeated it by sword! Now all he had to do was to stroll out of the labyrinth and return home to Athens as a hero.

Philosophical contemplations

  1. Try to make out a small labyrinth on a piece of paper. Draw Theseus by the entrance and Minotaur somewhere in the middle. Finally, draw the "thread" which Theseus followed from the entrance towards Minotaur.
    1. Do labyrinths exist in nature or is it only something made by humans?
    2. How du you make a labyrinth? Does it have to be designed in a special way? How large must it be? What be it made of? How tall must it be?
    3. What is the purpose of a labyrinth? Do people make labyrinths today? Would you like to have a labyrinth in your home? If so, what would you use it for?
    4. Exercise: labyrinths of thought. Start with a word consisting of a conjunction of to single words, e.g. "schoolbook". Then find another composite word beginning with the last half of the previous word, e.g. "bookmark". Then continue in the same fashion, let us say with "marksman", "manservant", "servantclass", "classmate" etc. Sometimes it just comes to a halt. Then you have to go back and alter a word so that you may follow another trail.
  2. Is it possible to end up with the same word you started out with?
    Is there an end to this game or is it possible to go on and on for ever?
    What is the Ariadne-thread of our thought-labyrinths? Maybe the thread is the rule of thought that we make up! Here we made up a rule by deciding that the next word was to be shaped by letting it begin with the latter part of the previous word. And by the aid of this rule we were perhaps able to end up with the word with which we began. Just as Theseus found his way out thanks to the yarn!
  3. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus at first sight. That is why she wanted to save him by giving him the yarn. But what about all the Athenian boys and girls that had been killed by Minotaur in the preceding years—why had not Ariadne, or anyone else for that matter, come to their rescue? They were mercilessly killed. No one thinks of them anymore. We remember only Theseus, the hero, who becomes a hero solely thanks to Ariadne, the daughter of the king, accidentally falling in love with him! (Or is perhaps love not accidental?) Is it unfair that a sudden infatuation has such consequences or is this just the way it has to be? Has justice got anything to do with love at all?
    1. What makes us suddenly fall in love with somebody? Is there something special about the one that we love—or is there something special about ourselves that can explain this particular reaction on our side?
    2. On a scale from 1 to 5, rate the following statements. 1 equals "I would never have said/thought that!", 5 equals "my thought/feeling precisely!":
      • I love him/her because of his/her gorgeous body.
      • I would never have loved him/her if he/she had not loved me in return.
      • I would have loved him/her anyway.
      • I could have given my life for a kiss from him/her
      • If another boy/girl gets hold of him/her, I will kill him/her.
      • I can never remember his/her face, he/she is far too beautiful.
      • In warfare and matters of love everything is permitted.
      • No love without jealousy.
      • Jealousy has got nothing to do with love.
    3. Compare your results with the results of your classmates. Discuss the differences. Think up other statements about love if you find these ones inadequate or insufficient.
    4. Think of a person you are fond of. How would you feel if this person suddenly deceased? Think of a thing you are fond of. How would you feel if this thing was destroyed or stolen? Think of a person who is fond of you. How would this person feel if you died? Think of a thing that is fond of you. How would the thing feel if you died?
    5. Can you describe the difference between:
      • longing for another person
      • feeling compassion with one who is in trouble
      • wanting to own another person
      • loving somebody more than yourself
      • loving somebody higher than heaven
      • doing everything for another person
      • being humble towards another person
      • hating oneself, loving the other person
  4. Theseus achieves the impossible—to kill the dreaded ogre all by himself. Has this got something to do with the fact that he had the yarn? The legend does not tell anything about this, but could it not be that Theseus was blessed with extra strength and power to attack Minotaur just because he knew he would not be imprisoned afterwards, because he knew that freedom awaited him as soon as he had finished off the bull? In other words: is not the way we perform our actions often influenced by the sort of consciousness we carry with us?
    1. You have a strong premonition that the teacher is going to ask you about your homework tomorrow morning. Does this hunch cause you to do your homework more thoroughly than you would otherwise have done? What if you knew for certain that the teacher would not ask you?
    2. You are madly in love with X. Someone has told you that X might possibly be in love with you too. Does this knowledge make you behave differently towards X than if you had not known this? Is there now a greater chance that you will take steps to approach X? What if you instead were told that X think you are a twit? How would this knowledge influence your actions towards him/her?
    3. You have been informed that you have a life-threatening disease. Will this information influence the way you live your life? Does it make any difference whether the doctor says you have a chance to survive or whether he says that there is no hope at all? What if you were told that you would never ever be sick again? How would this influence on your life?


1 Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood, translated by Alan Tyson, cited from Pelican Freud Library, Volume 14—Art and Literature, Harmondsworth 1987, p. 168. (back)

2 Quoted from an open letter from Freud to the doctor M. Fürst in 1907. The letter bore the title Zur sexuellen Aufklärung der Kinder and is reproduced in the book Kleine Schriften zur Sexualtheorie und zur Traumlehre, Vienna 1931, p. 12—13 [our translation]. (back)

3 Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood, translated by Alan Tyson, cited from Pelican Freud Library, Volume 14—Art and Literature, Harmondsworth 1987, p. 168-169. (back)

4 In this respect Freud was probably more of a good, old-fashioned scientist than he was a philosopher—at least by our standards. To him human sexuality was the essence and origin underlying all sorts of questions and mysteries. Hence also the question how a human being do become a human being. (back)

5 Søren Kierkegaard, Either Or—Book One, 3. edition of Collected Works, band 2, Copenhagen 1962, p. 23 [our unauthorised translation]. (back)

6 Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen edifying discourses, Collected Works, band 4, Copenhagen 1962, p. 245 [still our unauthorised translation]. (back)

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