The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

It is misleading to deny adults' continuities with their remarkable offspring, says Barbara Jacobs

October 22, 2009

This book's strength is its central concept: that babies and children are "little scientists" who create theories about the world around them and are capable of conducting experiments, noting causal links and counterfactuals, calculating statistics and changing their hypotheses accordingly.

Gopnik produces evidence for this claim by citing a range of studies that demonstrate children's ingenuity and curiosity in tasks that some may think are beyond their capabilities. Moreover, her central concept chimes with my own research into algorithm formation, based on child and autistic local (perceptual) processing as being adventurous and creative.

That much has been accepted by most academics in the field, as has the work Gopnik references on child language. However, I found this book somewhat unsettling and couldn't quite put my finger on why. Then I realised it was the fact that babies and children are written about here in a way that denies their reality, and so denies our own.

They are "Other". And although this characterisation is positive, it nevertheless places an arbitrary divide between our current selves and our earlier developmental stages. We have become Adults, a finished product - but life, as we live it, is not conceived as a fluid, creative, ongoing process.

I cannot accept this view of my selfhood, or detach the adult I am from the baby and child I was. Yet Gopnik, in her mostly valid eulogy to the brilliance of child consciousness, rarely calls our younger selves "we". It is perhaps objective distancing, this positivist pronomial use. Science, which she lauds as the purveyor of what is "true", a word she uses enthusiastically, regards the environment from a first-person singular to second-person - or more usually third-person - perspective. It thrives on binary oppositions (Adult/Child), whereas empathic writing is at its most socially appealing in the first-person plural. "Only connect," as E.M. Forster urged.

Gopnik, perhaps unconsciously, uncouples our humanistic connections. This is how cognitive dissonance can be created by authorial stance - and its pronouns. More worryingly, if we accept Gopnik's theoretical position, it means that children learn solipsistically and egocentrically, which is much the same position as the learning theorists she claims to defy might, and did, take.

I called on the index and references, but Lev Vygotsky was not cited. Where, then, does that leave social constructivism? Someone amusingly called "David" Dennett is in the index, and will probably appear in a cloud of philosophic indignation to terrorise the indexer with a particularly intentional stance. Jean Piaget is there, but staging really is not quite the same thing as scaffolding. You will have to wait until the final chapters to discover more knowledgeable others, but they have been transformed into Parents who are busily learning about the meaning of life and love and "truth" from their little scientists. Isn't this a two-way street?

The content ultimately becomes curiously familiar, including cute anecdotes such as a little boy bringing his crying mother a plaster, studies on children feeding researchers broccoli, and the famous "blicket detector". This last piece of research, which tested children's inferences about objects' internal parts and their causal properties, is surely 20 years old, rather than new as is suggested here. I remember it from How Babies Think: The Science of Childhood (2001), published a year earlier in the US as The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About The Mind, written by Gopnik in conjunction with Andrew Meltzoff and his wife, Patricia K. Kuhl. That book was a worldwide bestseller, still sells exceptionally well and is far more balanced than this one.

Gopnik's philosophical theory drum is afforded melody by insights from Meltzoff's work on imitation in childhood, his wide knowledge of child development, and Kuhl's tuneful research into the development of language in babies and children. It appears that Gopnik has taken her How Babies Think contributions, added to them and republished them as The Philosophical Baby. The earlier work is not alluded to.

There are many things to admire in this book. I am very comfortable with its understanding that we are, from birth, remarkably curious, talented and able, and that free supported play, not rigid instruction, is developmentally crucial. I would add that for our children's minds' wonder to find expression, Colwyn Trevarthen's "intersubjectivity", and Maurizio Tirassa's "sharedness" theories can inform us. Neither is referenced here.

I am prepared to accept Gopnik's version of theory formation as interesting and useful, although not to the detrimental dismissal of other theories that need not compete. Moreover, her view of the mirror-neuron theory - "this is almost certainly not true" - is petulant: childlike rather than scientific.

I have problems with the breathless tone of the book, its hyperbole, its language errors - "(he said) ... novelists were the engineers of human souls and this may quite literally be true" - and with the relentless casting of the same old Bayesian nets. There is, nevertheless, a parent rather than academic market for this type of book, but How Babies Think is better, I think.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

By Alison Gopnik

The Bodley Head, 304pp, £14.99

ISBN 9781847921079

Published 6 August 2009

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