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Children are not defective, little adults. If there is one message philosopher and psychologist Alison Gopnik would have us take from her book, that is it. Somewhat surprisingly, this idea flies in the face of much developmental psychological theory from the past, as well as many of our intuitions about childhood in general, and our children in particular. A large reason that children behave in ways that are often baffling, not to mention frustrating, to adults is that children and adults have fundamentally different goals. It is important for children to learn as much as they can, as fast as they can. This involves conducting experiments on the world, making and adjusting heuristics, and overturning their entire worldview multiple times. If this involves removing the dresser drawers, so be it; the dresser might work better without them. In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik addresses a wide spectrum of issues that will help you better understand both what it means to be a child and what it means to have been one.
Chapter 1 introduces the power of counterfactuals and how pretend play allows children to develop causal theories of the world. Gopnik argues against a number of views about children inherited from past psychologists. One is that children do not differentiate between reality and pretend. In fact, when asked for a pencil, children are quick to offer a real pencil rather than an imaginary one. When psychologists ask children for descriptions of their imaginary friends, replies such as "You know Charlie's not real, right?" are quite common. It is curious that Piaget or Freud never seemed to notice the smiles and giggling that are distinctive of pretend play.
Gopnik fills the pages of this book with interesting factoids and fun stories. She explains in Chapter 2, for example, studies have found that 60% of children have imaginary friends, and those with them are likely to be more socially competent. For Gopnik, interactions with imaginary friends offer the opportunity to experiment on, and develop a map of, the social world. Consider the story of Charlie Ravioli, the imaginary friend who is "too busy" for a New Yorker journalist's daughter, who exemplifies the child's complete conception of New York social life. Chapter 3 continues the story by discussing how children, like little scientists, learn from their own experiments as well as the experiments of others.
Chapter 4, What Is It Like to Be a Baby?, is probably the most interesting portion of the book. Here, Gopnik contrasts the "lantern consciousness" of young children against the "spotlight consciousness" of adults. In short, adults focus their attention on a few particular things at any given time. Young children, on the other hand, seem not to focus their attention but instead to be attentively aware of everything within their field of view. In other words, babies' consciousness may be fundamentally different from that of adults. Fascinating as this chapter is, it is marred by argument for the unnecessarily strong claim that "babies are, at least by some measures, more conscious than [adults]" (110). To make this argument, Gopnik equates "being more conscious" with "being conscious of more," but provides no argument for why this should be the case. This would still be the most interesting chapter without a claim of this sort; the book would be better without it.
A common psychological task involves asking a child, say Johnny, about the contents of a Smarties container. Upon surprisingly finding pencils, not candy, in the container, he is asked what naïve Sally will think is inside. Three year olds fail this "false belief task," answering that Sally will think there are pencils in the container. In Chapter 5, Gopnik describes how young children often do not remember their previous false beliefs at all, even those of a few minutes before. Perhaps much of the theory of mind literature should be reinterpreted if Johnny himself thinks HE always believed there were pencils in the container. It's not just that he cannot conceive of Sally believing something false; he doesn't remember that there is anything false to believe at all! Additionally, Gopnik argues that young children do not have "a self" in the same sense as adults. Although very young children are capable of remembering particular experiences, they do not integrate their conscious experiences into a coherent timeline. They are, in a sense, random memory banks, with no time stamps and no real history.
For babies, who are utterly helpless, the most important aspects of the environment to develop causal theories about are their caregivers. In Chapter 7, Gopnik describes how babies develop theories of love very early and how these theories can vary widely between children. For example, babies with "secure" attachment patterns expect that a mother will go out of her way to go comfort a crying baby. Heartbreakingly, babies with "avoidant" attachment patterns are surprised by this behavior.
In the past, psychologists have argued that children do not have a true understanding of morality, but simply follow rules to avoid being punished. In Chapter 8, Gopnik describes a number of lines of research which suggest this is dead wrong. For example, three year olds consistently distinguish between rule breaking and harming others. They say that actions that break rules would be ok if the rules were different, but that harming others would never be ok, no matter who said so. This is found in their answers to questions, both hypothetical and about things that go on at their preschool, as well as in their reactions to people either breaking rules or harming others. It is well known that psychopaths differ from the average person by not distinguishing harm versus; it is not as well known that psychopaths' answers also differ from the average three year old.
These are only a few of the many insightful aspects of Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby, which is sure to be accessible, educational, and entertaining to all, from laymen to veteran developmentalists. Anyone who has children, will have children, or has ever been a child should read this wonderful book.
© 2011 Matthew Hudgens-Haney
Matthew Hudgens-Haney received an M.A. in Neurophilosophy from Georgia State University and is now working towards a Ph.D. in Psychology at The University of Georgia. He has interests in cognitive neuroscience in atypical populations, social neuroscience, embodiment, and philosophy of psychology and psychiatry.