An Eight Year Old’s Philosophical Problem

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We assume that other’s experience is the same as ours — but what if it isn’t?

At the moment I am staying with my sister-in-law and my niece (8 years old) and nephew (5 years old). Most mornings we wake up and say, “Good morning” and have breakfast and that’s it. A few mornings ago something quite different happened.

The Problem Stated

My niece sat down and announced that sometimes she thought that only she was real. She said she didn’t know what other people thought and felt. This is a remarkable question, one that has puzzled philosophers for quite awhile.

Probably the most famous formulation of this problem — because it is put in such an attention capturing analogy — is ‘Wittgenstein’s beetle box‘.

Wittgenstein posed the following problem. Suppose someone had a closed box that couldn’t be opened, and they assured you that there was a beetle inside. All we would have would be their testimony. We would have no way of knowing what they were referring to and no way of experiencing this for ourselves.

My Initial Response

My response to my niece was that you don’t like being hit, and neither do other people (a good deal of hitting between her and her brother has been going on lately). I also replied that we talk to others about their thoughts and feelings.

In some ways, this was Wittgenstein’s answer too. He believed that language was public. An entirely private language — one that only I knew and understood — wouldn’t really be a language because it wouldn’t communicate to anyone else. We have learnt about beetles, boxes and other concepts from others.

Additional Considerations

Having reflected a bit on this, I think there are other considerations.

  • The responses we experience spontaneously, before consideration has occurred, can be compassionate — e.g., wincing when someone else falls over; or those times when we say, “Ouch, that must hurt”.
  • There are also times when we feel a special bond — when we know, sometimes just through eye contact, that we are thinking the same thing as someone else. This is confirmed when we talk about it later.

A problem I have with Wittgenstein’s formulation is that language isn’t entirely given to us — we also create with it. Our pet names for family and friends provide an everyday example. Poetry that gives us a new way of seeing is a more sophisticated example.

So What?

I think this little excursion into philosophy by an eight year old can lead to some helpful insights.

We assume that other’s experience is the same as ours — and it may not be. The best example of this I have recently experienced was a conversation between two musicians about sight reading (that is, being able to look at a score and start singing or playing it). These two musicians are of the same generation, like the same music (Baroque and early music), play the same instruments (piano and recorder) and had their early training with the same teacher (Judy Clingan — an Australian quite famous in some parts of Australia). They are also both quite good at sight reading. During a conversation (well beyond my knowledge of music) it turned out that how they did sight singing was actually completely different. The public language was accurate in a way — they both sang what was in the score — but the private experience of how they did this was quite different.

It was curious that their communication improved after they realised they were different. They became closer through understanding the difference rather than one person trying to become like the other (or if they had both tried to copy a third person I suspect).

Closer Through Difference

This experience of getting closer when we discover our differences is probably not that uncommon. We probably don’t pay attention to it because it doesn’t fit our usual experience and ideas — that we find it easiest to get on with those who are like us, those who ‘speak our language’. This is of course true, it’s just not the whole story. We can appreciate differences: we love the things our beloved does that are different to everybody else (including ourselves). These things may draw us closer, rather than driving us apart.

Different Differences

There are some differences in others that draw us closer, and there are differences in others that we can’t live with. It seems that there are different differences — some differences draw us together, others drive us apart.

What makes our differences different? Perhaps it is how close the difference is to the core of who we are. If someone is a hunter who believes that it is mankind’s destiny to rule over nature and that the highest manifestation of this rule is to kill other animals, it is unlikely that they will get together with a committed vegetarian. The differences we find endearing in our beloved don’t usually threaten our relationship or our deepest values.

It seems to me that we don’t need to avoid (all) differences; that our relationships can benefit from some kinds of differences. Vive la diffĂ©rence!

By knowing that we don’t know others’ experience (which my eight year old niece pointed out), we may be able to enrich our experience and our relationships.

I’m interested in hearing in the comments if you have been surprised by some of the philosophical questions that children you know have come up with, as well as how you handle differences in your relationships. I look forward to hearing from you.

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