Interview with Gareth B. Matthews

This is an interview by Ariane Schjelderup and Øyvind Olsholt from Children and Youth Philosophers with prof. Gareth B. Matthews in connection with his participation on a P4C-seminar at Oslo University College, 12th and 13th November 1999. Transcription by Ariane Schjelderup.

Mr. Matthews: when we prepared the program folder for this seminary, you asked to be referred to not just as a philosopher with children, you also wanted to be titled "father", why is that?

Matthews laughs heartily.

My interest in philosophy with children started with my own children. It isn't that when I had my first child I expected that I would have philosophical conversations with her. But I have a story about Sarah and the flea. The family cat, Fluffy, had contracted fleas. Sarah asked, "Daddy, how did Fluffy get fleas?" "Oh," I replied, "she was probably playing with another cat and they jumped off that cat onto Fluffy." Sarah reflected. "And how did that cat get fleas? She asked. "Oh," I said, "it was probably playing with another cat and they jumped onto it from that other cat." Sarah reflected a bit more. "But Daddy," she said, "it can't go on and on like that forever; the only thing that goes on and on like that forever is numbers."

I think that is the first time that I became aware of the possibility of the children engaging in philosophical reasoning on their own in this ruling out of infinite regresses. It's a very important part of a number of philosophical arguments, but most obviously the cosmological argument for the existence of God. But I didn't do anything much with that idea when Sarah was four. But I had philosophical conversation with her since she was four actually, and they continue today.

A good reason for having a child perhaps...

Yes. So, I guess it's important to me that it started that way. But I like children a lot, I enjoy my grandchildren and I enjoy other peoples children too.

Why did you choose to pursue philosophical conversations with children not merely as a personal field of interest, but also as a professional philosopher?

Well, that came about rather slowly. I moved to Western Minnesota in -69. That was a period of what students most politely called "students' unrest", and I found that some of my students were suspicious of philosophy. They thought it might be some sort of establishment plot to keep them from thinking about the important issues, and of course at that point they were all endangered of being drafted into the army and serving in the Vietnam war. Most of them were against the war, as I was, and I demonstrated with them in the buses of mostly students going to Washington. But the thought that philosophy might be some sort of establishment plot really bothered me because in a way I could see it would have some possibility. After all philosophy in the experience of these students had no precedence in High school and it does seem to be a somewhat detached enterprise. So I could see this would be plausible. But it seemed to me totally wrong and one night as I was reading "Many Moons" by James Thurber to my son (who is our third child), it occurred to me that this was about perceptual illusion. And I was about to give a lecture on perceptual illusion the next day at the university. So I conceived the idea of bringing along the book and at the start of the lecture I read the "Many Moons"—I surprised them!

Matthews laughs again.

So this was a philosophy class at the University?

Yes. And I started doing that quite a bit. I still do that. But at that time my message was that there's some kind of continuity in thoughts that appear in children's books and they might well have been interesting independently of what we were doing in that class. So then I got interested in looking at other children's stories and poems. We had a center for High-school philosophy and a summer conference that was aimed at school-teachers. They wanted something to go on in the evening beyond the classes. I said "Well, I'm sort of working on a little paper on philosophy in children's literature which you might be interested in." They said "Oh yeah, why don't you give that to us." So I gave it to them and they were interested. But one of the people in the staff, he was from California, said "Why don't you submit that to the division meeting of the American Philosophical Association?" I said "Oh, the professional philosophers are not going to be interested in this." He said "Well, my friend Magnus is chair of the program committee, and I think he will probably take it, so why don't you send it?" And I thought that well, who knows, so I sent it off and they took it. I guess I probably had the best reception at that paper-reading of any I've ever had at meetings and I go to meetings in the philosophical association every year. People were enthusiastic, they came down afterward and wanted copies of the papers. I didn't have any copies, so I said they could give me their address so that I could send them a copy. I said "Well, maybe it seems there might be some interest after all."

This was before you published any books?

Yes, I hadn't published anything—I hadn't even published that paper either. That's one thing. The other thing is that I soon realized that if I wanted to pursue the idea of children thinking philosophically, I would have to think about developmental psychology and Piaget in particular. Piaget really makes no room for philosophical thinking in children although, especially in some of his early works, he addresses philosophical topics all the time. But his attitude towards them is very unphilosophical and he's just simply interested in charging some kind of age-related stage of development in children's thinking and is not interested himself in what's philosophically problematic about these notions. It's just an empirical enterprise.

I then did a course at Smith College and a course in the summer-school in New Mass on philosophy and children. In addition to children's literature we did some developmental psychology and looked at that from a philosophical point of view. So that began to develop. At the same time Matthew Lipman came to New Mass. I came to know him almost as soon as I came to New Mass. Lipman had his Harry Stottlemeyer's Discovery. At that point he didn't think that it would be wise to develop a program that was thoroughly philosophical. He thought that it ought to focus on logic. He was worried that parents would be upset if the children's beliefs were being tinkered with, and he was very conservative on that. But at the same time he wanted to start a program.

I was never interested in that, but I was interested in what one could do with children in a more organized way. So that developed. At the same time I gave a course on philosophy and childhood at the summerschool. I gave some wonderful additional anecdotes, and a friend of mine who was on the board of syndics for the Harvard University Press, told the social and behavioral sciences' editor that he thought I had a book in me on that topic. And he was a wonderful editor so I did that. I had a very nice review in the Times Literary Supplement and it's never been an overwhelming response but it's been kind of widespread. So it's just sort of developed.

It was not a one time decision?

No, each thing sort of led to something else.

You mention Lipman and you know him...

Oh yes, I've known him since about 1970.

It seems he has a quite different approach to things than you have. He is systematically minded, he tries to establish a scheme to employ through the ages of the children. What is your opinion of his program?

I think one problem might be a problem for the teacher. He's written this material that sets up philosophical issues, and he's developed the "community of inquiry" methodology. I think that's an important contribution—but then you can do that with anything, any philosophy, even facts that are not obviously philosophical. He's always wanted to have these materials specially written for the purpose of instructing children. But Harry Stottlemeyer is not very imaginative. Some of the others, for instance "Pixie", I think is imaginative. I think he got a little bit better doing this as he went on. But he's not Plato or Aristotle—well, I mean, nor am I! So if you set up a curriculum with material that you have written, I think that if they are well done, the children will certainly get involved. But I think the second or third year the teachers mind might not want to use them...

One ought, perhaps, to distinguish between Lipman's manuals and Lipman's stories. The use of the stories may be limited, whereas the manuals may be used over and over again, with different people?

I think that's true. But they don't purport to be philosophical texts. Whereas his philosophical novels are really kind of philosophical texts. Yet although some of the later seem to be rather imaginative and good, it's a shame to be restricted to that I think.

There are different ways of applying philosophical conversations in school. You can have special classes for it, using for example the Lipman program, but a good approach might be to make all the subjects philosophical in a way—if the teacher is open-minded and philosophical. Then you wouldn't even need a new curriculum perhaps, you could just use all the material that is already there.

Matthews seems to agree that philosophy is an integral part of all school-subjects, but he chews it over before answering...

Well, I think it's important to have teachers who are interested in doing that, who have some talent for it and some training. I think they need some training to do that, but once they can see that the subjects they teach are philosophical originally, the children often respond to this very readily. There's a whole new dimension to their teaching. I have for a while, I suppose mostly in the seventies, in various places in Canada, been doing workshops and courses that are aimed at what you suggest. I didn't have anything extensive enough to train teachers in this—my effort was a very limited one.

But what I would do was to use anecdotes, the basic method of instruction was to give them an anecdote of a child raising some philosophical question or making some thoughts of comment. Then I said I want you to write me a short paper in which you might describe how the conversation could go on from the child's comment, and the papers I got back initially were all very condescending. They would say "I would explain such and such" or "I would reassure him that so or so" or something like this. So I collect the papers and look at them, but then we would go over the anecdote and I would talk a little bit about the philosophical issue that was raised by the particular anecdote.

So they hadn't discovered the issue at all?

No, initially they hadn't. They weren't even open to it initially.

So you hadn't told them anything about philosophical conversations at all on beforehand?

No, I just said "How would you continue the conversation with the child". For example one anecdote that I like to use is one with the child Ursula (from my book Philosophy and the young child—again from Susan Isaac). Ursula said "Mummy, I have a tommy ache", and her mother says "Lie down and it will go away". Ursula thinks a little bit and she says "Where will it go?" Typically, if it was in the beginning of the work-shop or the session that I was doing, I would get responses like "Well, I would tell Ursula that she doesn't need to worry, that it isn't hiding anywhere" or "I would tell Ursula that it doesn't really go away, we just talk like that" or something like that.

Then I would talk a little bit about some of the perplexities of thinking about mental particulars, and my aim was to get them to realize that the issue raised by that question is not settled very easily. Furthermore it's very fascinating and interesting to think about and the child is going to have ideas that will contribute to thinking about it and may help the teacher think about it. So the aim was not to give them a curriculum or even any specific texts but to encourage those teachers to think, whatever they're teaching. They should also be listening to the children and the children sometimes will have some really interesting things to say.

I know of course that they've got all kinds of demands on them and they have too many kids in their class, they have to worry about emotional problems, and curriculum pressure—all kinds of problems, and so in a way it's a luxury for them to listen to the children. But, I would say, if you would give a gift to yourself, if you allow yourself a chance to listen to what the children say, some times follow up the thinking of the child, with the child, there's going to be some very interesting comments out there and things that will lead you in directions that you hadn't thought of yourself. So instead of viewing your relation to the children as one of merely giving, giving information, developing skills, giving them assurance and helping them to grow and develop and deal with their problems and so on—instead of all this "one direction" giving, the relation should go the other way too. Children have a wonderful contribution to your own thinking if you listen to them because they do say interesting things.

But in order to achieve that, don't you think that the teacher must change his own attitude?

Yes, but that is what I was working on. Laughter. That was my aim—limited of course because I didn't have anything like Matthew Lipmans program. I had a day-work-shop or a week or something like that. My purpose was to change their attitude, encourage them to allow for a contribution from the child that would be interesting and worth following up to see where it would go. Most school-teachers have no philosophical training, they haven't worried about philosophical issues much themselves. They might have at some point, but they probably were not encouraged in doing it, and that was sort of the end of it. So if I could get them to respect the children enough, and what the children have to say, to listen and then follow up, and all the time realizing that the child might be on to something, that you as an adult are not very clear about, even professional philosophers who spend all their time thinking about these things might not be completely clear about... That's to use a different attitude towards them.

And that's perhaps also where the anecdotes come in, as showing them these examples of children's thinking. They realize more readily that there are holes in their own perception.

Using this method I can tell by the time I got papers at the end, let's say I made a weeks work-shop, at the end I got very different papers. Not all, but almost all of them, would begin to play with these ideas and give a response to the child that would actually pursue the issue instead of this kind of condescending attitude of saying "Well, I would assure them, I would explain, I would tell them such and such".

This is interesting because your way to change their mental attitude was through writing, and not discussion. We are ourselves very focused on discussion and dialogue. You start by asking them to write something down and then you will discuss it with them.

Yes, and then they can also see, as they have a sort of record of it, their own progress. Because if they catch on, and most of them did, to what I was interested in, they could see that they began with a rather closed mind towards what the child might be saying, and also a closed mind towards what's philosophically interesting. The assumption that most people of our society make is that reasonably intelligent adults should be able to answer any question a young child has or, at least go to an encyclopedia or something and find the answer or tell the child where to go to find the answer. They sort of assume that as an adult you should be able to handle any question that let's say a six year old or eight year old boy or girl comes up with. And that's crazy because the four year old or six year old may be onto some philosophical question and it simply is not the case that the average intelligent adult has good answers to philosophical questions. It's really not a matter of intelligence at all.

You say we don't listen to children. But there is at least one aspect of childhood that we are very concerned about today: the "playful attitude". Here in Norway business-leaders are trained to "play as a child" etc. But maybe this is appreciating childhood on the wrong premises. We try to learn from the gaiety and playfulness of children, but this does not automatically mean that one listens to children.

No. And there's also a clear line between fantasy and reality. So if it's a question about reality, then the adult knows it. But the adult may be lacking imagination and fantasy to see that life would be richer if there were some fantasy. Reality is hard so maybe we can sweeten it with some fantasy and we can learn that from children. But the children urge in their reality.

Yeah, that's the whole point! We applaud children when they're creative, we say it's fantastic whatever they paint and tell them to continue with that. We were talking with some girls at about ten years and asked them what adults could learn from children. And they told us "fantasy", and when we asked them further they couldn't explain what fantasy was, and they weren't even able to show us any fantasy product, they didn't seem to be very creative actually. It seems to us that we are all talking about fantasy, that children have so much fantasy, that they're so creative. But they don't really get an understanding of what's so important about it. We tell them in a way that now it's their time to be playful and creative—later on their turn will come to face reality, to go out to "the real world".

Yes, "the real world" and earn a living and deal with all lives problems.

Perhaps this fantasy is a kind of "real world" too?

Yes. The separation between the two is unfortunate. Certainly children have more opportunity than most adults to develop their fantasy-lives. I play with my grand-children and we play "let's pretend", and that may be our mode of relation for a while. Adults may do a little "let's pretend" but you know... (laughter) ...maybe mostly we don't feel we're free to do that. But children are also interested in what the reality is, they're not just interested in playing, they're also interested in figuring things out.

Right. And the fact that grown-ups are interested in the playful aspect of childhood doesn't mean that they are willing to question their own conception of reality.

No, no.

Maybe we also separate children and adults. We make them live in their world, which is a different one, it's not "reality", and we live in our world, and we have created some kind of children's world for them. We make them do all this creative childish kind of things and all kinds of activities, we send them off to kindergarten and school, so that we can do all our serious work, and there's not much contact between the two, we don't let them take part in "our" world and we don't enter into their world, really. It's got to do with Piagets stage theory and the way we conceive of children. We live in separate worlds because children are only preliminary human beings. At least that's how we understand your point of view, and that's what you criticize too.

Yes. To me two or three philosophers are especially important in the history of philosophy for refocusing childhood. One is Socrates and the other is Descartes. I don't think Descartes was interested in children. I think Socrates was. The Cartesian project of reconstructing what we know from the beginning requires that we sort of start over and in a way become children again. I mean, we can see how we can put it together, we've been socialized to accept all sorts of things, but if we're asked, do we really know? How can we justify our claim to know that? We have to sort of start over and go back to the most basic beliefs that we have. I think that move in modern philosophy invites us to approach children—not just being socialized to accept things that adults accept, but reflecting on the basis for whatever good reason they have for believing the things that they believe.

Now, if you poke around and raise questions like Socrates, you find that even intelligent people are unable to give good answers. There's something problematic about so many notions that we readily accept. And if we decide that they are problematic, we might want to substitute them, but we can't. These are notions that we have to have: we have to have causality, freedom etc. We have to have these terribly problematic notions in order to act. The efforts to substitute less problematic notions leaves us without the ability to live in the world we live in. So we've got to go back to them, and they are problematic. That's, I think, the Socratic ignorance.

I also think that the Cartesian reconstruction project fits with Socrates. A simple example. I like asking children questions that some people may get somewhat bothered about. For example I encounter a little girl with a floral dress, and I say "What are they?" and she says, "They're flowers", and I say, "How do we know they're flowers?" She might not respond to that, she might just think "That guy, what does he want?" But how do we know? I'm puzzled myself. When I'm playful with children, it isn't just that I want them to think about something that I know the answer to. I don't know. I've thought much about this, and this is I suppose a kind of stereotypical flowerpattern and I've learnt that these are flowers. They don't look like flowers. Laughter.

But then of course you may hear similar questions from the children. If the adults response is just to give the answer and not to think about how we know or how we find out or something like that, then I think we sort of failed the opportunity there to explore something that's really interesting. And you might come up with a nice answer or you might not. You might come up with a nice answer and decide tomorrow that it's not so good.

It's probably important to know when to stop the questioning too? So it doesn't take shape of an interrogation?

Yes. Parents often tell me, "Well, I didn't know what to say to my child", and I say "Well, don't view it that way. If you're not able to say anything very good together today, maybe you'll be tomorrow. You can say: "I've been thinking about what we said yesterday. I'm wondering if we should say this..." And the child may pick up on the other." I'm not for force-feeding philosophy.

That's an approach that may seem slightly less pretentious than it perhaps ought to be, but we think it is important still because it displays a form of calmness towards the child and towards your opponent or the one you discuss with. It is vital to bring forth what you want to bring forth in the conversation. But you cannot squeeze a person and get philosophy out. It's a bit of psychology here, you have to lurk a bit, try things out to see if there is a material there, and if it isn't, don't push it. Try again next day.

Yes, there's also another point. Some people, like Matt Lipman some times, says there are no answers. He says we're talking about things that have no answers. I don't like that. There are too many answers, it's not that there are no answers. But I like closure as much as the next person, I like to come to some kind of resolution. To say in the beginning that there are no answers I think is defaitist and that's no good, that's to suggest that it doesn't matter, but it matters to me! And I would like to have an answer. But I think the thing about philosophy is that you might not be able to come up with a good answer today at least, you might be able to do better tomorrow. On the other hand you may think you have a good answer today and you might think tomorrow that it wasn't very good after all.

So there's a way in which things can be reopened and rediscussed and reevaluated in philosophy, but I wouldn't say there are no answers or that I'm not interested in answers. I'm terribly interested in answers, I would like to have answers. And so, if we can, whenever I have a discussion with kids, if we can bring the discussion to some kind of closure, I like to do that. If we can't, well we might try another time. But the thought that it sort of doesn't matter, that you have your view and I have mine, I think is bad. It's defaitist because if you have a different answer from mine, we should be able to talk about that, like "Why do you have a different answer from the one I do?". It seems to me that looking for answers and trying to find the best answers is good. It's nothing wrong with that. But assuming that you're in fact going to be able to find a "best answer", and certainly; assuming that you're going to be able to do it for all time—that's a mistake. Good philosophy is too challenging for that.

We suspect that the lines you draw here may be difficult to draw some times because on the one hand you want answers, you want to reach conclusions. But on the other hand these conclusions are never final...

No; we can re-raise the issue tomorrow, next week or the next year, that's true.

So an answer is an answer, but still not an answer?

Yes, don't start at the beginning saying that there are no answers, I mean there are too many answers. Laughter.

You're talking also about interrogation, and Socrates, well; he was condemned, and many people claimed that it was a good reason for it. He was a pain in the ... well.

Yes, he certainly was.

And he still is our ideal; his attitude is what we're trying to live up to.

Yes. I just published a book called Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy, and in Plato's thought I think there is a constant shift in his attitude towards Socrates. Socrates was the greatest and most influentious person he'd ever known, and that was something he could not forget. But I think that he went through a period when he thought, or almost thought, that perhaps the punishment was justified. If you look at book VII of The Republic, he says if you start asking questions, if you start disturbing the accepted views that people have, they will learn it's some sort of game. It's like puppydogs, you can just sort of play with this and they'll come to no good, they'll be enemies of the state and so on. I mean, this is a period I think in which Plato really worried about nihilistic possibilities for philosophy. But if you look at Theaitetos and in The Sophist there are long passages in which he seems to want to distinguish the kind of questioning that Socrates engaged in—which was not simply playing a game... If Socrates defeats an opponent at a point, he don't sort of "Score one for me". No, he picks him up and say "Now, well, let's examine this together". Plato also talks about justice in inquiry.

So the problem's there and I think that we have in the writings of Plato a kind of record of Plato's own shifting of attitude towards it. But in the end it was so important that you have somebody who can disturb the equilibrium and wake people from their dogmatic slumber. Yet he had to rehabilitate this figure, even though I think, like other people, he was worried about the disruptive potential of philosophy.

Often when people talk about philosophy, it sounds like a very nice thing, that we are to be respectful, open-minded etc. In Symposium Alkibiades is talking about Socrates, he says that he was the only person who made him feel something that nobody expected him to be able to feel, and that was shame. When he talked with Socrates, he understood that he didn't live according to his ideals. When Socrates was not there, he would just run around doing whatever the mass would applaud. But when he met Socrates, he would just be so embarrassed. And he could kill that man, but he knew that if he did that, he wouldn't overcome it. Isn't this a story about philosophy itself? It's not just nice and comfortable, it's also something very challenging!

Yes. That's why it seems to me very important to, once teaching philosophy with children, to take on the issues for themselves. If you do that, my experience is that they'll do a pretty good job of examining the questions at hand... or they may get bored of it too. That's a kind of natural escape. You don't have the responsibility seeing to that they have a coherent world-view, but what you're doing is trying to help them think more clearly, enrich their thinking with more imagination, enrich the range of possibilities they're willing to consider and things like that. You don't really have a responsibility to give them something like a world-view, they'll do that for themselves, they'll work it out. It seems to me that that's life, that's what we all must do.

But not always. The normal it seems is to forget all about it to do something instead, to get a job and a career etc.—and then you don't consider the world-view question. But again: if you from the start invite and encourage children to think, is there not a danger that their thinking run in circles, that they don't find out about things, that they get separated from the world. Is it not possible that they become distressed existentialists?

Sure, but I guess I didn't find that in the groups I've worked with for a period of time. But sure it's a possibility, it's a human possibility. It's not what I would view as a standard outcome from doing philosophy though. And certainly if it's done well it shouldn't be a standard outcome. My experience is that they have a new dimension to their thinking, but that doesn't mean that they become skeptical and nihilistic.

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