Childish Questions

TAoN No. 86: At the intersection of astonishment and philosophy. Plus a new icebreaker, and more.

“Around age four,” Jana Mohr Lone wrote in an essay for Aeon earlier this year, “children start asking what we call ‘why questions’. Why are people mean to other people? Why do I have to go to school? Why don’t dogs talk?”

To some (to me?), this sounds vaguely annoying. But not to Lone, who is director of the Center for Philosophy for Children and author of a book called The Philosophical Child. To oversimplify a bit, she argues that children are basically practicing philosophy. As she writes of her center’s work:

“Rather than teach philosophy, we try to do philosophy with children by creating spaces for them to explore the questions that interest them.”

The underlying insight here — that there is value in the wide-open way that children look at the world — may sound like a familiar one. Many others have written on the subject of childhood wonder, of course; I’ve made a case for acting childish in this newsletter and included a related prompt in the book.

But still, framing child curiosity as a form of philosophy intrigues me. Lone again:

“Sometimes described as living in the world of the possible, children are open to considering creative options; viewing the world from a perspective of wonder and openness, they seem less burdened by assumptions about what they already know. As one 10-year-old put it: ‘Because adults know so much about what is real and what isn’t, they have less imagination about the possibilities.’

“…. In fact, research confirms that because children are less burdened by expectations about the way things should be, they are, in some settings, more flexible thinkers and better problem-solvers than adults.”

I read this essay after hearing Lone on the public radio show Think, but as much as I liked it I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Then I suddenly remembered Astonish Yourself! 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life, by French philosopher and academic Roger-Pol Droit.

Friend of TAoN Mark Frauenfelder (of BoingBoing, Recommendo, and The Magnet, all excellent and heartily endorsed) first told me about this curious little book around three years ago. TAoN (the book) was finished but hadn’t come out yet, and when I described its “assignments and prompts” structure, it made Mark think of Astonish Yourself; I promptly bought it, with some trepidation that it would be really similar to what I’d just finished.

Happily it was quite different — more of a series of philosophical thought exercises. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but filed it away as more of an entertainment than an inspirational tool.

But upon reflection, I now realize there is something childish about Astonish Yourself — and I mean that as a high compliment.

Consider the second of the book’s 101 “experiments” — “Empty a word of its meaning.” This consists of repeating a word over and over until it sounds meaningless and weird, just an abstract sound. As Droit writes: “You probably experimented like this as a child.” Well yeah! We’ve all done this at some point, right?

Droit’s method is to add a philosophical layer to his exercises, in this case promising a “desymbolizing” effect: “Just a few seconds are enough to tear that fine film within which we make sense of things, smug with the power of giving things a name.”

Um, OK Philosopher. But let’s go back to the part where we all did this as a child? Because that’s why Lone’s work made me give Astonish Yourself a fresh look. This time through I paid more attention to the everyday adventures in which children find questions worth asking. Maybe, with a little effort, we can do some adult version of the same thing.

“Be aware of yourself speaking,” Droit suggests at one point, promisng the effect will be “disconcerting.” He sums up the resulting epiphany: “We can only speak on condition that we ignore the fact of our speaking.” Perhaps. But the real value here is that Droit has compiled so many exercises that a child would take for granted, but that could lead an adult in unexpected directions.

Here are a few childish philosophical prompts from the book that, upon revisiting this idea, struck me as having a lot of potential:

  • Walk in the dark (effect: “disorienting”)

  • Follow the movement of ants (“reflective”)

  • Watch dust in the sun (“reassuring”)

  • Count to a thousand (“critical”)

  • Try on clothes — really meaning to try on different lives and personas in the dressing room of a ready-to-wear shop (“reverie”)

  • Contemplate a dead bird (“meditative”)

  • Invent lives for yourself (“disturbing”)

For more, and for Droit’s clever short essays on each of his experiments, check out the book. Could be a good parent/child project — or, perhaps, something for Lone’s center! Approach these tasks with a child-philsopher’s spirit. Per Lone:

“Children bring a fearlessness about thinking creatively, without worrying about making a mistake or sounding silly, and a willingness to share their thoughts openly.”

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here.

This week’s icebreaker is from reader David Krug:

Tell me about a person that you met only once, and who is not related to you, that really made an impact on you, and/or was memorable.

Thank you, David!

As usual, I’m still working through the disorganized backlog of icebreaker submissions. In fact this is another really old one, submitted about two years ago. I’m getting more organized, I swear.

But as always, I want more:

Please send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to

Programming Notes

  • This Thursday’s post for paid subscribers: Recommending a fun newsletter, and a great noticing checklist for the fall.

  • Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, the new series sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.

  • As always, if being a paid subscriber is not in your budget but you’d really like access to those posts, drop me a line, I’m reasonable. If it is in your budget, then subscribe — that’s what makes TAoN possible :)

In Other News

@suzukitriangle, @mysobergirlfriends,

Okay that’s it!

  • As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: Or use the comments!

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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