Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What are thoughts?
















Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds. . . .

From Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens


Over the past six years I have taught philosophy to the same general group of children, starting in kindergarten. Each year I’m amazed on the first day of philosophy when the students are invariably right back in it, as if six or so months hadn’t elapsed since the last time we talked about philosophy together. What I really notice as the students have gotten older is how much more philosophically rich our conversations are becoming, and how much more they talk directly to each other instead of directing all their comments at me. They are so alive during philosophy class, passionately interested in the questions and seeming to have little fear of speaking their thoughts in the group.

In fifth grade we started each session by reading a couple of pages from Harry Stottlemeir’s Discovery, a philosophical novel written by Matthew Lipman for the purpose of doing philosophy with children of around this age. The novel portrays a group of children about this age having philosophical discussions, and when I read it with students it always inspires many questions. One of my favorite discussions that we had this past year was about the nature of thinking.

Do thoughts require language? Can you have thoughts without knowing you’re having them? Can we control our thoughts? Do we think when we’re asleep? One child asked whether dreaming can be defined as thinking when sleeping. It quickly became apparent to the children that what they thought they understood – what thinking is – was actually far more puzzling than they’d expected.

This led to an animated discussion about dreaming, and about whether we can know when we’re dreaming and when we’re not. One young boy said, “Isn’t it possible that everything is a dream? That there is some being on another planet or something who controls what we do, and we think we’re in this class but really we’re always dreaming.” I told the class that this comment echoed a famous argument by the philosopher Descartes, who asked us to think about whether we can ever really know that we are not dreaming or being otherwise fooled into thinking we are doing what we seem to be doing.

At this, one girl who had obviously been deep in thought about these questions, raised her hand and said, “Jana, can I come up to the board and draw what I’m thinking? I can’t express it in words, but I think I can draw what I mean.” She came up and drew two pictures: one of a person lying in bed dreaming, and the other of the dream the person is having. What if, she said, this (pointing to the picture of the dream) is really happening, and this (pointing to the picture of the sleeper having the dream) isn’t real at all?

I’ve thought often about that moment since then. This question about the nature of thought is extremely puzzling. What is thinking? Does it require language? Can newborn babies think? I’m tempted to say no, they can’t, but then I wonder, so when does thinking begin? Does it coincide with the acquisition of language? If so, how is it that this young girl couldn’t, as we say, put her thought into words, and so drew the expression of it instead? Is the thought there before the expression of it? Sometime I will have a thought, but I can’t quite express it, it’s just out of reach. Do I start thinking once I access that thought and can express it? So was this young girl having a thought, say, which she was having trouble expressing, and once she was able to draw it she was able to think about it? Is having a thought different from thinking?

The drawing led the class in a different direction, to a discussion about whether something has to be able to be seen and touched to be real. Is the mental world real? Are numbers real? One child said excitedly, “It’s possible we have all of it wrong!” Another child responded, “No, because if we’re having the dream then we must exist, even if we can’t be sure that the dream is real and what we think is real isn’t.” Everyone thought about this comment for a while, and we agreed to talk more about it the following week.

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