Weekend Review: The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik

The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of LifeI spent an entire two semesters as a Psychology major. What I was taught in my Child Development courses never really sounded right to me: babies are amoral, their understanding of right and wrong is purely due to reward/punishment conditioning, they are incapable or empathy, and they are basically "imperfect" miniature adults. Unsurprisingly, all of these notions have been questioned, if not outright disproven, in the last 20 years, but somehow Freudian notions about what it means to be a baby still linger. Alison Gopnik writes for the lay audience as she tries to popularize these counter-studies in The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (2009).

Gopnik begins by observing that children are absent from the 2,500 year history of philosophy. In all of these years that we have been asking philosophical questions such as "what makes life meaningful, beautiful, and morally significant" and "Is there something that we care about more than we care about ourselves?" no one had thought to observe babies as the possible holders of the answers. What Gopnik found is that by investigating how babies experience the world, we can solve questions about imagination, truth, consciousness, identity, love, and morality. She believes that "children really do put us in touch with important, real, and universal aspects of the human condition" (238), among them are awe (sense of richness and complexity of the universe outside our own immediate concerns), magic (feeling that there are possible worlds beyond the world we know), and love.

To support this view, the book is comprised of descriptions of psychological experiments done with babies and young children and Gopnik's analysis of them. She demonstrates, through scientific evidence, what most mothers probably already know through instinct and their own observations.  These include the ideas that creative play contributes to learning, imaginative play helps children explore possibilities (learning about counterfactuals), and exploratory play helps them learn about the world (children as causal learning machines). Not only are these studies and this window into our own psyches absolutely fascinating, they have real-world consequences in the daily choices that we make as parents about how to interact with our children, school curriculum development, and the role of children's testimony in legal battles.

By far, the most moving conclusion that Gopnik's research demonstrates has to do with the asymmetry in the relationship between caregivers and children. She points out that mothers and fathers are just particular people with a particular set of strengths and weaknesses. We all have bad days. We all get upset. We all fall short of our expectations. But, from the baby's perspective, the caregiver is their lifeline who defines their conceptions of love and care. This puts a huge weight on the shoulders of mothers and fathers. Who doesn't worry about somehow failing their children? But by understanding that the young children that we love and care for do understand the concept of love, return the feeling, and feel a real desire to care for us too, this asymmetrical relationship is evened. Gopnik cites an anecdotal story of coming home from work completely drained, frustrated, and overwhelmed. She bursts into tears. Unprompted, her two-year-old brings her a band-aid, demonstrating that even at such a young age, this child understands pain, feels empathy, and wants to take action to care for her mother.

Parents can't determine the future of their children, but they are more responsible for what happens to children than children are of themselves. We can't control whether our kids will grow up to be successful businesswomen or junkies on the street. We can tip the scales one way or another, but ultimately we have no control. The only thing parents can control about their children's adult lives is whether they grow up to remember childhood days at the playground and affectionate parents, or distant parents and time spent alone. "We can't ensure that our children will have a happy future--there, all we can do is move the odds around.  But we can at least try to ensure that they will have a happy past" (200). This is applied to collective "we" of community as well. It is all of our responsibility to protect the sacredness of childhood in order to make those positive memories possible.


  1. I enjoyed reading your review- as always . As a mother and as a human I have so many slip ups- daily. It is an on going struggle to forgive myself and carry on with the moment or day- parenting is so hard and possibly the most important piece of ourselves that we leave behind-
    My monkeys have shown me clairity in many forms- similar to the bandaid example they are aware of my emotions in a way no one else can be.
    My peace of mind is that my children know how much they are loved by us and are secure in the family and home we are making for us.

  2. Thanks for your comment on my blog. Glad you left it so I found your blog! I love this book review and will put this on my list of books to read. Babies really ARE conscious beings, even before birth. They deserve the same respect that all people deserve. How nice to see a book that embraces that philosophy.

  3. This is a lovely and important post, and it sounds like a lovely and important book. I'm putting it on hold at the library as soon as I leave your blog! :)

  4. Thanks for drawing my attention to this subject and this book. Your words are insightful.

  5. Thanks for reviewing this book -- I've put it on hold at the library! I've been reading a lot of books about mindfulness and psychology and this one sounds wonderful.