Children, Imagination, and Philosophy[1]

Children, Imagination, and Philosophy[1]

Blog – August 2009

Sam Gill

Philosopher Anthony Gottlieb spoke about children and philosophy, as reported by an interviewer, “Philosophy is the human mind at play and we all have a deep hunger for it, Anthony Gottlieb believes. Just look at how children pose philosophical questions to the point of being tiresome, he says, confident any parent knows whereof he speaks. But children’s questions are tiresome in the way all philosophical questions are, Mr. Gottlieb contends. When we grow up, too many adults underestimate themselves, shy away from addressing those big questions.”[2] In a, to me, occasionally mean-spirited and insensitive, review in The New York Times[3] of Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life[4] he has more to say of children and philosophy, “perhaps children have been left out [of consideration by great philosophers] simply because they are on the whole not all that relevant.”  And he ends the review with these words, “the notion that children’s minds have much to tell us about the meaning of life seems rather a fond exaggeration.”  Speak of tiresome.

The review however got me to thinking about the role of imagination during a period of critical brain development.  I have done a lot of reading lately about research that has demonstrated—contrary to long held views that the brain is fixed by the age of seven or so—that the brain continues to physically and neurologically develop throughout the teen and early adult years.  I have also been interested in the studies of neuroplasty that show that throughout life the adult brain is capable of change and development.  These studies have raised the question about the impact of environment on the continually developing brain.  In other words, what is the best way to care for and feed the brain in its ongoing development?  Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Health wrote, “What if we find out that, in the end, what the brain wants is play, that’s certainly possible. … What if the brain grows best when it’s allowed to play?”[5] As a long time student of play[6] I take this seriously.

But the question that Gottlieb’s review raised for me is the role of play and imagination in brain development.[7] Apparently Gopnik’s book (which I have yet to read) shows that “when children are playing, they know they are just playing.  … that playful immersion in freely conjured hypothetical worlds is what teaches us how to make sense of the real one.”  Gopnik discusses in this context the crucial role in human development of imaginary friends, pretend play, and active imaginations.  I will be curious to see if Gopnik correlates the age range of the most active imagination, 2 to 6, with the traditional critical period of brain development.  I wonder why after age six the playful imagination including make believe friends and pretend play gradually dissipates to become markers of pathology in adults?  How remarkable!  How awful really.  Why don’t adults have imaginary friends or admit to them if they do?  For adults pretend play and imaginary friends must be framed in terms of work rather than play.  We produce novels, paintings, musical scores or recordings, movies or films, plays, and stuff.  Jean Baudrillard made an important distinction between seduction (the pure play of signs) and production, arguing that the meaninglessness of seduction is always stronger and more enduring than production.  Seduction aligns with play, the feminine, and children’s imagination.

The realization that there is a correlation between the level of imaginative play and physical brain development, may offer clues to the question regarding the most affective environment continuing brain and human development during the teen years and throughout life, that would be to cultivate and sustain the playful imagination.  It is well known that our greatest and most creative people are those who continue throughout life to be childlike, by which I think we mean that they are open, imaginative, and allow themselves to ask those huge questions adults have learned are somehow inappropriate to ask or impossible to answer; or to ponder and delight in things that seem obvious to everyone, but are anything but obvious.  As Gottlieb himself noted, children have an uncanny ability to come up with the most profound and confounding questions, the very sort of questions that endlessly occupy philosophers.[8] So too should the playful imaginations that characterize children’s minds perhaps hold a greater place in all adult minded bodies as well.  There is much to ponder here.

What accounts for the origination of imagination in young children?  It is not something that parents dutifully and consciously teach children.  It is not something that children gain from adults by imitation.  It seems a strong candidate for a natural process in the healthy developing child.[9] It would seem that it is of our nature to have an active pretend play imaginary-friend-creating imagination and, if this is so, how can it not be powerfully interconnected with not only brain, but our human development which is raging during this period.   Is not then the imagination a key to what distinguishes us as human beings?  Is not the very structurality of imagination and play—that is, knowing that something is not what we say it is—also the structurality that is essential for the acquisition and use of language, symbolism, metaphor, art, and ritual?  Is not the question of how human beings are capable of living their lives in this reason-defying way, something of immense importance?  Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s consideration of this structurality, which he termed “ontology of flesh,” in his study of perception, declared it to be “the ultimate truth.”[10] Isn’t this structurality is also what Jacques Derrida approached in his discussion of “différance” and Friedrich Schiller in his consideration of “play?”

[1] Copyright © by Sam Gill 2009


[3] August 10, 2009.

[4] Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009.

[5] As quoted in Barbara Strauch, The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 44.

[6] See a range of my writings on play at

[7] I find that much brain research tends to divide brain/mind from body and movement, a division that I think impossible and irresponsible, or at least narrow-minded.

[8] Given that Gottlieb’s recent book is titled “The Dream of Reason,” it makes sense that he might be motivated to put away childish things like imaginary friends.

[9] Gopnik apparently indicates that “autistic children almost never create imaginary friends or engage in any kind of pretend play.” Gottlieb’s review.

[10] For my further comments on such a declaration in the postmodern period see my “Play and the Future of the Study of Religion … and the Academy” and other discussions of his work in my Brain, Body, Movement Lecture Series.

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