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The Philosophy of Childhood

The Philosophy of Childhood

Gareth Matthews

ISBN 9780674664814

Publication date: 10/01/1996

So many questions, such an imagination, endless speculation: the child seems to be a natural philosopher--until the ripe old age of eight or nine, when the spirit of inquiry mysteriously fades. What happened? Was it something we did--or didn't do? Was the child truly the philosophical being he once seemed? Gareth Matthews takes up these concerns in The Philosophy of Childhood, a searching account of children's philosophical potential and of childhood as an area of philosophical inquiry. Seeking a philosophy that represents the range and depth of children's inquisitive minds, Matthews explores both how children think and how we, as adults, think about them.

Adult preconceptions about the mental life of children tend to discourage a child's philosophical bent, Matthews suggests, and he probes the sources of these limiting assumptions: restrictive notions of maturation and conceptual development; possible lapses in episodic memory; the experience of identity and growth as "successive selves," which separate us from our own childhoods. By exposing the underpinnings of our adult views of childhood, Matthews, a philosopher and longtime advocate of children's rights, clears the way for recognizing the philosophy of childhood as a legitimate field of inquiry. He then conducts us through various influential models for understanding what it is to be a child, from the theory that individual development recapitulates the development of the human species to accounts of moral and cognitive development, including Piaget's revolutionary model.

The metaphysics of playdough, the authenticity of children's art, the effects of divorce and intimations of mortality on a child--all have a place in Matthews's rich discussion of the philosophical nature of childhood. His book will prompt us to reconsider the distinctions we make about development and the competencies of mind, and what we lose by denying childhood its full philosophical breadth.


  • Matthews' guided dialogues with children show that they consistently and happily develop philosophical trains of thought, evaluate those of others, and try to think things through, often reaching solutions that are essentially the ones propounded by the big people who are lucky enough to be paid for doing it...With careful listening and without distorting preconceptions about what children might or might not be capable of doing, Mr. Matthews has unearthed a seam of would-be wisdom. His open-minded attention to the way children's minds work has also yielded a new concept of childhood intelligence that may bear on the question of children's rights, children's art and the status of literature for children. He argues that the philosophy of childhood should be a respectable branch of philosophy, like the philosophy of science or the philosophy of law. This strikes me as too modest a goal. Mr. Matthews' incisive investigations into the relations between the world of children and the world of adults are too thought-provoking to be confined to one branch of one academic subject...He subjects Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development and Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development to simple and searching criticisms that make his book essential reading for anybody interested in early childhood education.

    —Anthony Gottlieb, New York Times Book Review


  • Gareth B. Matthews is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Book Details

  • 136 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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