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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / science

The Philosophical Baby

Alison Gopnik

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To purchase The Philosophical Baby

Title: The Philosophical Baby
Author: Alison Gopnik
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 247 pages
Availability: The Philosophical Baby - US
The Philosophical Baby - UK
The Philosophical Baby - Canada
Le bébé philosophe - France
Kleine Philosophen - Deutschland
Il bambino filosofo - Italia
  • What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

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Our Assessment:

B : useful research-summary, accessibly written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist . 9-10/2009 Ethan Remmel
Financial Times . 27/7/2009 Charles Fernyhough
The Guardian . 8/8/2009 Josh Lacey
The NY Rev. of Books . 11/3/2010 Michael Greenberg
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/8/2009 Anthony Gottlieb
The Observer . 9/8/2009 Sally Vickers
San Francisco Chronicle . 16/8/2009 Mark Sloan
Times Higher Ed. . 22/10/2009 Barbara Jacobs
TLS . 7/1/2011 Herbert Zimiles

  Review Consensus:

  Accessible, interesting

  From the Reviews:
  • "What distinguishes this book from others on children’s cognition is the author’s emphasis on philosophical issues such as consciousness, identity and morality. She argues that the psychological study of children provides a rich source of insight into these issues, one that philosophers have traditionally overlooked. (...) The Philosophical Baby offers a refreshing alternative to the current dominance of an evolutionary perspective in popular books on cognitive science" - Ethan Remmel, American Scientist

  • "Gopnik is at her most persuasive when she turns her attention to the nature of infant consciousness. The same openness to new experience that makes babies sponges for information also makes them uncannily aware of everything that is going on around them. (...) The Philosophical Baby is on shakier ground when it tries to bear the weight of concepts such as love and morality." - Charles Fernyhough, Financial Times

  • "Gopnik writes with a nicely personal touch, often referring to her three children and five siblings (who include Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker essayist). She uses a clear and very readable prose, squarely aimed at the general reader and sensibly divided into short sections, ideal for anyone burdened by babies or toddlers. Her pages are packed with provocative observations and cunning insights. I'd highly recommend this fascinating book to any parent of a young child -- and, indeed, anyone who has ever been a baby." - Josh Lacey, The Guardian

  • "The Philosophical Baby is both a scientific and romantic book, a result of Gopnik's willingness to imagine herself inside the consciousness of young children." - Michael Greenberg, The New York Review of Books

  • "Gopnik does not go so far as to propose that we fire Timothy Geithner and march in a phalanx of preschoolers to fix the credit crunch. She does, however, make the bold suggestion that thinking about small children can shed new light on ancient philosophical problems. Whether or not this is true, her account of what the science of recent decades has had to say about infants’ minds tells a fascinating story of how we become the grown-ups that we are." - Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This book is to be welcomed and I hope it may correct the influence of books, such as Gina Ford's child-rearing manuals, that seek to accelerate the inescapable process of inhibition by advancing the cause of adult control. That said, its chatty style is slightly wearisome, distracting from the beauty and gravity of its important conclusions." - Sally Vickers, The Observer

  • "Gopnik is a fine writer, and her wit enlivens a subject that could easily veer into the overly abstract. Her willingness to poke gentle fun at herself, her own parenting foibles and her hometown of Berkeley make for enjoyable reading." - Mark Sloan, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "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. (...) 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.(...) I have problems with the breathless tone of the book, its hyperbole, its language errors (...) 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." - Barbara Jacobs, Times Higher Education

  • "In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik aims to describe the important features of cognition in infancy that she and others have uncovered; she examines the influence of the earliest stages of later psychological development; and, finally, she explores the affective significance of mothering, both as it is broadly viewed and studied, and as she has personally ecperienced it." - Herbert Zimiles, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Philosophical Baby Alison Gopnik looks at the workings of the young (pre-school, basically) child's mind and what its development can tell us -- both about children and adults.
       As she notes:

In the last thirty years, there's been a revolution in our scientific understanding of babies and young children.
       In The Philosophical Baby Gopnik covers and explains many of the recent experiments and studies that have been conducted, and the implications of their conclusions. She is particularly interested in the philosophical aspects -- noting that already from Plato on, for some 2500 years, children are notably absent from philosophical discussion, despite the fact (as is now clear) that many of the major issues, such as morality and love, are already ones that even infants' minds are -- in their own way -- grappling with.
       In chapters addressing major issues -- from the nature of children's imaginations, to the recognition and understanding of self, to morality -- Gopnik makes her arguments using a variety of experiments and observations. She summarizes well, and, for the most part, presents the material in an entertaining fashion (though occasionally she gets too breezy ...).
       The material is often fascinating, as in the examination of babies' awareness of the imaginary and real, as even very young children appear to clearly understand the difference between what is pretend and what is not. As she notes, indulging in pretend allows them to create counterfactuals -- to test out other worlds, as it were. And she argues:
     The evolutionary imperative for babies is to learn as much as they can as quickly as possible. Their job is just to make accurate maps of the world around them. They learn and infer, make causal maps and draw counterfactual conclusions, and they don't need to worry if what they learn is relevant to some particular plan or goal. Parents do that sort of worrying for them. They're better off paying attention to everything, particularly new, fascinating, information-rich events, rather than just paying attention to events that are immediately useful or relevant.
       (Whether they're actually better off would seem to remain a somewhat open question; all that Gopnik shows is that infants' minds are wired to pay attention to everything, and more likely to be drawn to the new than the familiar.)
       Interesting observations include the fact that: "Very young children also have special difficulty remembering where their beliefs came from", even in simple cases that are self-evident to older children and adults. Similarly, many young children also have difficulty remembering how they felt in the past -- even the near past.
       From babies' empathy to their senses of right and wrong, it is, however, remarkable how much is developed -- or quickly develops -- in these young minds. (Gopnik does, however, seem to put a bit much faith in what amounts to an enormous trial-and-error method of learning (the trials being both real and those of the imagination) and especially the statistical approach of Bayesianism.)
       While offering mild reassurances -- your kid's obsession with her imaginary pal is pretty much perfectly normal, for example --, The Philosophical Baby offers limited practical information; it's far from a parenting guide (not that it's meant to be). It gives some insight into many aspects of child (mind) development, but is more a summary-survey work than an in-depth analysis; even in its efforts at synthesis it sticks pretty close to the surface. Nevertheless, it touches on a great deal of fascinating material, and is an entertaining enough read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 January 2010

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The Philosophical Baby: Reviews: Alison Gopnik: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Alison Gopnik teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

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