The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life
by Alison Gopnik. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009
Most parents want to believe their children are brilliant. But how much do babies really understand about the world around them? In her provocative new book The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, asserts that babies and young children are in some ways “actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring, and even more conscious than adults are.”
These claims are bold, but Gopnik backs them up with dozens of empirical studies, many conducted in her own lab. At the heart of her argument is that children have evolved to be the “R&D department of the human species.” While adults are kept busy seeking food and avoiding danger, children are free to let their minds wander in the “useful uselessness of immaturity.” They can ask questions their parents would not conceive of, occasionally stumbling on solutions no adult could have taught them.
In this way, Gopnik claims, babies behave like little scientists. Toddlers build theories about the people and things around them not just by observation and imitation but also by running “experiments” on their surroundings—experiments their parents might not always appreciate, as they may be messy or disruptive. Comparing young children with researchers is a suggestive analogy, although one that doesn’t seem to capture the scope of childish curiosity.
So what is it like to be a baby? Gopnik ventures a guess. If adult attention is like a spotlight that can be directed at will, baby consciousness is more like a lantern beaming in all directions. She cites the work of psychologist John Hagen of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who found that younger children were better than older children at recalling playing cards they had been instructed to ignore. Adults who want a taste of this kind of open-ended awareness, Gopnik suggests, should try travel or meditation.
It may not seem intuitive that a three-year-old playing with her imaginary friend is “exercising some of the most sophisticated and philosophically profound capacities of human nature,” as Gopnik proposes. But even when Gopnik ventures to the limits of what can be inferred from behavioral research—taking on the human predilections for love, imagination and awe—she remains both credible and accessible. In the end one doesn’t need to know much about cognitive science to grasp the essence of her argument: if we could only get inside our children’s heads, we would learn something deep about ourselves.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Reviews and Recommendations."