Philosophy — Child's Play*

September 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.
So wrote deTocqueville 175 years ago. Perhaps the converse is also true – that in no country is more attention paid to philosophy than in France. (Or is that the obverse? the transverse? the freeverse? I’d know if I’d ever taken a course in philosophy or logic, which, like a good American, I haven’t.)

I cited this French penchant for philosophy in a post a couple of years ago, where I also quoted Adam Gopnik’s speculation that French magazines might have “theory checkers” – he might just as well have said “philosophy checkers” or “logic checkers” – the way American publications have fact-checkers. “Just someone to make sure that all your premises agreed with your conclusions, that there aren’t any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream—that kind of thing.”

It seems that in France, kids are weaned on philosophy. It’s as though they go straight from breast milk to Descartes (and St. Emilion). Here’s a photo taken by the wonderful water colorist Carol Gillott and posted on her Paris Breakfasts blog.

It’s from a display at the Paris Salon de Livre. The books, by Oscar Brenifier, are philosophy for kids. Savoir, C’est Quoi? Le Beau et l’Art, C’est Quoi? Moi, C’est Quoi? And so on.

The cover of Savoir, C'est Quoi promises “Six questions for juggling with ideas and looking behind appearances.” Questions like, “How do you know the universe exists?” and “Is it important to think [réfléchir]?”

In France, it seems, it’s important for kids to be exposed to ways of thinking like a grown-up, thinking seriously. In the US, we remain suspicious of philosophy, the love of thinking for its own sake.**

* The title is a variant on a cookbook for kids by Michel Oliver, La cuisine est un jeu d'enfants. Translating it as Cooking is Child’s Play just leads to too many obvious puns, especially now with “Julia and Julie” in the theaters. Like philosophy, cooking is something the French take seriously, and they convey that attitude to their children.

** Not completely. I should add that Montclair State for many years has had the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.

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