Ancient Paideia and Philosophy for Children

by Hannu Juuso, published in Thinking. The Journal of Philosophy for Children, 1999, 14:4, 9-20. This article also constitutes chapter 5 in Hannu Juuso's dissertation Child, Philosophy and Education—Discussing the intellectual sources of philosophy for children, 2007, University of Oulu, Finland.


Dissertation abstract


The shifting meanings of "philosophy" and "child"

Education for reasonableness

Discuss / diskuter


Both Plato (427-437 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) considered wondering to be the original impulse and the basis of philosophy. 1 The historical circumstances that made possible this "free deliberation" about matters—and thereby the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece some 2600 years ago—were, according to Aristotle himself, due to the increased leisure (skhole) that people had. Since they no longer needed to spend all their effort satisfying the necessary practical needs of everyday life, they had time for philosophizing—for seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself, as distinct from its direct practical utility. 2 Plato's excursive dialogues also demonstrate this atmosphere of leisure that was typical of ancient philosophical practice.

The philosophical thinking of Plato and Aristotle concerned itself with the problems of education—or paideia—from the perspectives both of educational philosophy and practical pedagogy. These two perspectives, which are closely interwoven, are evident in their broader reflections on the goodness of human beings and society on the one hand, and on the other, in the conclusions they derived from these reflections about the social significance and role of philosophy itself in concrete pedagogical arrangements. Plato in the Republic and Aristotle in his Politics, constructed a system based on class division, which they justified with arguments about how to realize the "good life." 3 Aristotle, whose philosophy was built largely on the foundation provided by Plato, considered virtue (arete) and happiness (eudaimonia) to be the greatest goals of man. The realization of the good life presupposes social structures that support it, and thus it was the goal of the state to be the structure which guarantees "the highest and most complete good." 4 The goal of the state is realized when children are brought up to be adults capable of virtuous lives. 5 As an educational arm of the state, philosophy in its original Greek context became a political project, in which "the one who has been freed from the shadows of the cave" as a result of philosophical education is under an obligation "to descend to the dusk again and unchain the others as well." 6

We are all aware that the ancient metaphysics with its "first principles" has met with serious difficulties during the last few centuries. Yet in spite of the conflicting elements it contains, classic philosophical thinking has not been obliterated. Although each era and each culture introduce—due to its unique historical conditions—their own special questions, many themes introduced by Plato and Aristotle have been repeated in the history of Western philosophy. Questions surrounding human action, being and knowledge are the legacies of antiquity, and have challenged Western thought over and over again. In the last few centuries, these various ethical, metaphysical and epistemological patterns of thought have sought their contemporary shape, and undergone the crises of modern and postmodern science and philosophy. In fact the whole crisis of modernity could be said to be an instantiation of the internal tensions present in the ancient philosophers. I think that certain "second principles" deriving from Socrates and from Aristotle's criticism of Plato still have importance from the viewpoint of education as well.

This essay is about the appearance of these classical aspects in some of the basic ideas of Philosophy for Children. For this purpose I will explore the program from two interpenetrating and complementary perspectives. The first is related to the question of whether Plato considered that philosophy should—or could—be taught to or practiced with children. According to Matthew Lipman, philosophy has long been denied to children due to misinterpretations of Plato's ideas in the seventh book of the Republic. 7 Although Lipman's argument is highly relevant, it still leaves room for further elaboration. I will show the problems connected with this question of Plato’s influence. One of them has to do with the concept of "philosophy" adopted by Plato, and the second with the concepts of childhood and of education characteristic of his historical period. It can be argued that Plato's general metaphilosophical positions, and certain ambiguous themes in the dialogues, should encourage us to re-examine his position. In order to do so, I will make use of the distinction—introduced by Alven Neiman—between the "pragmatic" and the "Platonic" Socrates, although neither interpretation of this great teacher is unproblematic from the point of view of Philosophy for Children.

Although the alliance between philosophy and the child in the contemporary educational context is constructed upon very different meanings than those of the ancient paideia, it seems to me that a certain, immensely interesting classical idea is still present today. In particular, I see a strong connection between Philosophy for Children and Aristotle's idea of practical wisdom, or fronesis. I will provide a brief sketch of Aristotle's theory of virtue, and then show its significance for Lipman's deliberations on the terms "judgement" and "reasonableness."


1 Pl. Tht. 155d; Arist. Met. I. 2. 982b 11-13.

2 Arist. Met. I.1. 982b 23; see also Pl. Tht. 155a; 172c-d.

3 Politics by Aristotle was based to a large extent on an examination of real Greek city states, as Aristotle thought that it was necessary not just to examine the ideal state but also the realistically and easily accessible state that was suitable for everyone (see Pol. IV-VI; see also EN 1181b 13-23, in which Aristotle summarizes the contents of his forthcoming work called Politics). Although Plato's point of view was different from that of Aristotle when he constructed his utopian view of the state, it is likely that even his idea reflects some kind of a realistic basis. It is essential to notice that education, in addition to the laws, has an important meaning in the political thinking of both of them. Plato discusses education in e.g. the Laws and Book VII of the Republic. Aristotle's educational thinking is described especially in Nicomachean Ethics and in the VII and VIII Books of Politics.

4 Pol. I, 1252a 1-7.

5 Pol. VIII, 1337a 12-33.

6 Pl. Resp. VII, 519d – 520e; 540a-b; see also Kohan, W. O. "The Origin, Nature and Aim of Philosophy in Relation to Philosophy for Children,” Thinking, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 25-30.

7 Lipman, M. 1988. Philosophy goes to School. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 11-15.


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