Philosophy and Ethics in Germany

Can a Floor Dream? Questions for a Children’s Philosopher

Copyright: ColourboxCover `Können Steine glücklich sein?´ von Kristina Calvert; Copyright: Rowohlt Verlag"How does a frog know it’s a frog? What does it really mean when I say, ‘I am’? Do time machines exist?" Questions about children’s questions, all of them presented and answered in Kristina Calvert’s book, Können Steine glücklich sein? (i.e. can stones be happy?)" She has been philosophizing with children thjroughout Germany for many years.

In the book by the children’s philosopher Kristina Calvert, children can find many interesting questions and relevant stories. Such as the one about the young girl who was given many birthday presents. So many, that her father gave away half of them. A few days later, when he tried to look something up in his multi-volume lexicon, he found that six of the twelve volumes were missing. His daughter had given them to a homeless person as a donation. Was she within her rights to do so? Did her father have the right to give away her things? The little philosophers discuss as long as they need to find answers to questions of principle such as: Why do two people not have the same rights? The answers can be very different, and that is a good thing, in this philosopher’s view, since she seeks with her book to animate children to reflect and to provide them with the necessary tools to do so, to present claims, arguments and rules in debate and philosophy to them, and above all to encourage them to experiment with thinking themselves. Kristina Calvert’s book is a wonderfully exciting read for school-age children, and also for their parents. Even better: for both together, because in this way they learn to understand each other’s horizon of thought and therefore each other - and maybe even the world. And that is what philosophy is about, after all.

Questions for Kristina Calvert:

How long have you practiced philosophy with children, and what led to it?

Kristina Calvert; Copyright: Kristina CalvertI have been doing philosophy with children for about 16 years now. I have been describing myself in this way only since getting my doctorate, but I have been philosophizing with children since that time. I had attended a seminar at the university and at that time, philosophy for children was associated with ballet, or violin lessons. One might do a bit of philosophy here, too, so to speak. My feelings said: No, that’s not right! And so I sought out a school in Hamburg near the Reeperbahn (Hamburg’s red-light district, translator’s note), as I thought that there could be nothing superfluous there, no luxury. And so, just as Aristotle says, that one can only begin to philosophize when one has had enough to eat and has done enough of everything else as well, I thought: The situation in this neighborhood must be such that I will find children who have perfectly normal children’s questions: What lies behind the universe? Or: What comes after death? That is how I began. I was fascinated at how free and enthusiastic the children were at philosophizing, so I simply kept at it.

"Philosophieren mit Kindern" (i.e philosophizing with children) is the name of the association you have founded in Hamburg, to provide workshops for children throughout Germany. Would you please describe these workshops and tell us what the children learn in them.

The association cooperates with institutions such as the Museum für Kommunikation (i.e. museum of communication), the Kinderbuchhaus (i.e. children’s house of books) or the Literaturhaus (i.e. literature house), where we offer courses in which children learn to take charge of themselves. They don’t learn about Kant, Descartes or other great philosophers, but to take their own questions seriously, to understand that other children have such questions, too, and how to deal with these questions logically and creatively. For example: In the Hamburg Literaturhaus we have recently been thinking about the topic, "what did the monkeys gossip about on Noah’s Ark?" and derived the questions, "What is the Ark? And who is in possession of language? What are words? What do they stand for?” In this way, children learn to experiment with thinking in order to gain more clarity about the world.

What was the most unusual question that you have philosophized about with children?And what conclusions did you come to with the young philosophers?

Copyright: Colourbox Once we had the question,: can a floor dream? That is a wonderful question, because it seems so preposterous, but it puts things in a nutshell. I have to consider what qualities does a floor have? What qualities does it not have – compared with a human being, about whom I assume that he can dream. My asking myself this question in turn leads to my acquiring more knowledge about myself as well. What distinguishes me from a floor? It turned out that about half of the children said: "No, that’s totally absurd! A floor can’t dream because it isn’t alive. And one precondition for dreaming is being alive.” Then the others said: "Hmm, the floor is made of rubber, which is a natural material, and everything that comes from nature was alive once. And maybe there is something like traces of dreams in the floor." Both formulations are equally valid! And the children learn this, also: there can be differing, but nonetheless well-founded views on each and every philosophical question.

Do you have children from diverse cultural backgrounds in your workshops? If so: are philosophical questions culturally specific, or trans-cultural?

We have many different cultures here in Hamburg, and that is immensely enriching. My pilot school for philosophizing with children is located in a neighborhood where many cultures are present and new ones are arriving all the time. The waves of immigration have changed in the last few years. 15 years ago, it was mostly Sinti and Roma who lived near the Reeperbahn area, today we have many more children from African countries. But whether a child comes from Ghana or the Ivory Coast – all children think about what makes their "I” an "I.” Therefore: philosophical themes are trans-cultural.

You said once in an interview that "respect for children’s thinking is my central focus." How is children’s thinking different from that of adults?

First of all, what they have in common: Children think about the same questions. It’s just that we adults have often forgotten that we also once asked such questions about the meaning of life. We put them to ourselves every now and again, but seldom take the time to reflect about them. If one does this with children, they may more likely have the option to put these questions to themselves over and over again, with courage and full awareness, during the course of their lives.

And what is different: Surely the manner of expression that children have at their disposal. What words do they choose, what concepts do they have, to delineate their thoughts? This is where the difference lies, not in the depth of the thoughts themselves.

Is it difficult for adults to understand children because they have to adjust to another mental level?

Copyright: Colourbox Yes, one has to practice humility. In Hamburg, I train teachers to philosophize with children, and they are required to really work on and accept the attitude of not being the "one who knows more,” that no one possesses more knowledge than anyone else as to whether flowers can be happy.

What philosophy do you feel closest to?

Ernst Cassirer’s and Susanne Langer’s, my intellectual parents, so to speak. Here is Cassir3r’s philosophy of culture in a nutshell: our world is not available to us directly, instead we appropriate it by means of the systems of symbols of art, myth, science and philosophy. Envisioned together, these equally valid symbolic systems yield something like an understanding of the world.


Kristina Calvert: Können Steine glücklich sein? Philosophieren mit Kindern (i.e can stones be happy. Philosophizing with children), Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek 2004, ISBN 3-499212668

Christine Sommer-Guist
is a journalist and author whose main focus is on the environment and social issues.

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

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June 2008

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