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The Philosophical Baby What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

Alison Gopnik




Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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For most of us, having a baby is the most profound, intense, and fascinating experience of our lives. Now scientists and philosophers are starting to appreciate babies, too. The last decade has witnessed a revolution in our understanding of infants and young children. Scientists used to believe that babies were irrational, and that their thinking and experience were limited. Recently, they have discovered that babies learn more, create more, care more, and experience more than we could ever have imagined. And there is good reason to believe that babies are actually smarter, more thoughtful, and even more conscious than adults.

This new science holds answers to some of the deepest and oldest questions about what it means to be human. A new baby’s captivated gaze at her mother’s face lays the foundations for love and morality. A toddler’s unstoppable explorations of his playpen hold the key to scientific discovery. A three-year-old’s wild make-believe explains how we can imagine the future, write novels, and invent new technologies. Alison Gopnik—a leading psychologist and philosopher, as well as a mother—explains the groundbreaking new psychological, neuroscientific, and philosophical developments in our understanding of very young children, transforming our understanding of how babies see the world, and in turn promoting a deeper appreciation for the role of parents.


Praise for The Philosophical Baby

“[Gopnik’s] 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.”—The New York Times

"In The Philosophical Baby, cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik asks what the study of developing minds can tell us about philosophical mysteries. The human capacity for wild imagination, for example, presents a puzzle for a species whose survival depends on representing reality as accurately as possible . . . As a guide to the field of cognitive development, there can be few people better qualified than Gopnik. This eminent developmental scientist writes with wit, erudition and an admirable aversion to jargon, and her book provides an intriguing perspective on some philosophical questions."—Charles Fernyhough, Financial Times

"I've often wondered, peering into those wide, unblinking eyes, just what it's like to be a baby. Now, thanks to Alison Gopnik's fascinating new book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, I have a pretty good idea . . . [Gopnik] likens a baby's attention to a lantern, casting its light in all directions, illuminating the nooks and crannies of a strange, new world—perfect for learning a great deal in a short time . . . It's that lantern-like consciousness that allows a baby to construct a mental map of her world and how it works. Contrary to Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, who believed young children were limited to a 'here and now' existence, Gopnik's research proves that even 1-year-olds are capable of counterfactual thought—that 'coulda-woulda-shoulda' thinking that allows us to learn from experience, consider possibilities and change our future behavior accordingly. Humans have by far the longest childhood of any primate species. Gopnik presents compelling evidence that this period of extended helplessness is actually a key to our evolutionary success. Lantern consciousness, counterfactual thinking and imaginative play allow children to explore alternative worlds and scenarios. During this period of 'paradoxically useful uselessness,' children learn to see the world as it could be, and to make plans to create that world—skills that will be crucial in an ever-changing adult society. Play is indeed the work of childhood, and it has been since the dawn of Homo sapiens. 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. She is also passionate about her subject. The Philosophical Baby isn't simply a summary of recent research on young minds. Rather, Gopnik seeks to place early childhood in the context of 2,500 years of Western philosophy. Children, she writes, help provide answers to deep, meaning-of-life questions. They 'put us in touch with important, real and universal aspects of the human condition,' such as awe, magic, beauty and truth. Babies and children are our future, in more than the simple genetic sense. They will one day dramatically reshape our world, as every generation before them has done. We would be wise in this era of diminishing resources and test-obsessed education to provide them with the love, security and unstructured time they need to play, imagine and explore the vast range of human possibilities. Because the very people who will ultimately create the world of the future, 'the explorers we set out there at the farthest edge,' as Gopnik concludes in her moving final chapter, 'look very much like our children.'"—Mark Sloan, author of Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth, San Francisco Chronicle

"Scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby's mind. By using new research techniques and tools, they've revealed that the baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation—they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are . . . 'We've had this very misleading view of babies,' says Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley . . . 'The baby brain is perfectly designed for what it needs to do, which is learn about the world. There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment.'  One of the most surprising implications of this new research concerns baby consciousness, or what babies actually experience as they interact with the outside world. While scientists and doctors have traditionally assumed that babies are much less conscious than adults . . . that view is being overturned. Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting . . . Gopnik has discovered for herself the advantages of being able to shift between a babyesque form of cognition and a more adult frame of mind. 'As a scientist, you really need to use both kinds of thinking,' she says. 'Sometimes you need to focus and analyze your data. But you also need the ability to be open and creative, to think in a new way if the old way isn't working.' At such moments, she suggests, we need to think with the innocence of an infant—to release the reins of attention and look anew at a world we're still trying to understand."—Jonah Lehrer, The Boston Globe

"Inspiring. . . 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 (UK)

The Philosophical Baby offers a refreshing alternative to the current dominance of an evolutionary perspective in popular books on cognitive science, such as those of Steven Pinker. Not that Gopnik doubts that evolution has shaped our brains, but she places less emphasis on hardwired cognitive modules that evolved for a Stone Age environment and more on the cognitive capacities that allow us to transcend our biological predispositions and create completely new environments.”—American Scientist

“One of the most prominent researchers in the field, Gopnik is also one of the finest writers, with a special gift for relating scientific research to the questions that parents and others most want answered. This is where to go if you want to get into the head of a baby.”—Paul Bloom, Slate

"In her fascinating and thought-provoking new book, The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik argues that instead of relying on the same old how-to-get-your-child-to-sleep parenting books and gimmicky get-smart-quick products, parents should simply embrace their children’s youngest years as a necessary time for exploration and imagination . . . Gopnik explores the subject of how children think with a fresh, enthusiastic and wry voice. She draws on memories from her own childhood, weaving in lively and even poignant details from research sessions she’s conducted over her years in the field and other anecdotes . . . Fun and fascinating, The Philosophical Baby is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand child development and what it means to be human."—Amy Scribner, Bookpage

“The great American psychologist William James described the infant’s worldview as a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion.’ Gopnik’s book is a challenge to this notion. Based partly on her own pioneering studies, she brings to life the sophisticated mental capacities of infants. A great read.”—V. S. Ramachandran, author of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

“One of our best writers, Alison Gopnik reveals the inner workings of those minds that have been wrapped in mystery for all of human time: our children’s.”—Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music

“In The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik reveals the latest scientific discoveries—many of them quite surprising—about the developing minds of young children. She also presents a richly provocative and endlessly insightful story that unites the endearing other-worldliness of children’s imaginations with some of the oldest and most profound questions in philosophy. This book is at once touching, eloquent, and masterful in its fascinating revelations about what makes us human.”—Frank J. Suloway, author of Born to Rebel

“Alison Gopnik’s absorbing, smart, and enjoyable book might be better titled The Philosophical Developmental Psychologist. Her remarkably thoughtful and carefully reasoned studies into how babies learn and think give intriguing insights and invite new ways of reflecting on consciousness and creativity in adults as well. In a refreshing counterpoint to speculations in evolutionary psychology, her lucid and engaging descriptions of experiments with babies demonstrate how much can be understood simply by asking the right questions with an open and critical mind. Parents and scientists will enjoy the insights, but so will anyone who has thought about the question of what it means to be human.”—Lisa Randall, Professor of Physics, Harvard University, and author of Warped Passages

“What is it like to be a baby? In this astonishingly interesting book, Alison Gopnik reminds us about what we can’t remember. In the process, she teaches us a tremendous amount about the human condition and how the mind is made.”—Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide

“This book really makes you think about consciousness. The mind of a child is a strange and wonderful world.”—Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures

“After convincing us that the seemingly familiar human child is actually wrapped in mystery, Alison Gopnik offers a compelling and convincing portrait of the opening years of life. This is scientific writing of the highest order.”—Howard Gardner, author of Five Minds for the Future

“The writing is engaging and accessible . . . a good choice for anyone interested in the workings of the human mind and may appeal to those who like Stephen Pinker’s books.”—Mary Ann Hughes, Library Journal

“Psychologist Gopnik points out that babies have long been excluded from the philosophical literature, and in this absorbing text, she argues that if anything, babies are more conscious than grownups . . . As she tackles philosophical questions regarding love, truth and the meaning of life, Gopnik reveals that babies and children are keys not only to how the mind works but also to our understanding of the human condition and the nature of love.”—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


Possible Worlds



Human beings don’t live in the real world. The real world is what actually happened in the past, is happening now, and will happen in the future. But we don’t just live in this single world. Instead, we live in a universe of many possible worlds, all the ways the world could be in the future and also all the ways the world could have been in the past, or might be in the present. These possible worlds are what we call dreams and plans, fictions and hypotheses. They are the products of hope and imagination. Philosophers,

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  • Alison Gopnik - The Philosophical Baby

    Gopnik discusses the importance of children’s early imagination, children’s consciousness, and children’s ideas about love and morality. The way they play, pretend and explore are actually part of the most profound and fundamental aspects of human nature.

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