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Talking Philosophy with a 10-Year Old

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Why not talk about something more interesting like dragons or flying?

tumblr_meg9maNCwJ1qilfuzo1_500-12062012I like reading Emmanuel Levinas. He’s mostly opaque, but every once in a while his writing opens on a breathtaking view and is just what I needed. If I had the opportunity to explain why Levinas matters to an interested ten-year old, I would say that we have a problem with other people. And the problem is that we mostly don’t want to hear from them. I could use an example from their life: you don’t want your mom to interrupt your fun: when she calls you in for dinner, you go in only reluctantly. One problem with the will of the other is that we don’t welcome distraction from our preoccupations. But it is not just that, it is that we really don’t want to even interact with some other who might have authority over us.

10-Year-Old:   “Oh. You just don’t want to do what other people say. Does Levinas tell you how to avoid doing what others tell you to do?”

Kirkistan:        “Not exactly.”

10-Year-Old:    “Does he tell you don’t have to do what they say?”

Kirkistan:        “No. It’s more like you suddenly want to do what the other person wanted because you really, really loved them.”

10-Year-Old:    “Like maybe if my grandparents were in town and asked me for something and I wanted to do it for them because they are so nice?”

Kirkistan:        “Yeah. Maybe like that. And maybe you found yourself really interested in the experiences they had, partly because they are such good storytellers and they make everything sound so exciting. You like their stories and can almost imagine being there.”

10-Year-Old:    “So my grandparents are cool and I want to get to know them because they are nice and tell interesting stories. So what you are really talking about is why it is important to hear from other people and why we should care.”

Kirkistan:        “That’s right.”

10-Year-Old:    “So why did you start be talking about stopping what I thought was fun to do something I had to do?”

Kirkistan:        “Well, I might have been a bit confused. But also because sometimes I close my ears to people who are trying to give me a gift. Something I really need. Say you are at the grocery store with your parents. It’s Saturday. And there are sample ladies on every aisle. There is lady offering free ice cream in the frozen aisle. And another man making pizzas in that aisle. And another with little chicken nuggets and another handing out crackers and cheese.

Kirkistan:        “But say you really didn’t want to go to the grocer. You really wanted to watch cartoons. So you went to the grocer reluctantly, but you took your iPod and listened to music the whole time. You walked behind you parents, music turned up. So you didn’t hear the sample ladies calling out to you. You kept your eyes on the floor so you didn’t see them either.”

10-Year-Old:    “That would be bad. I like ice cream and chicken nuggets and pizza. It’s like I had missed all the really good stuff while everybody else got something. I’d have gotten my way but I’d have missed out on the very best stuff.”

Kirkistan:        “That’s why Levinas is important. He helps us start to see and understand why it is we should care about the people around us: what they know. What they bring to our conversations. What they have to say about this and that. Even people who don’t seem to have anything to say—even those people can surprise us with lots of interesting things.”

10-Year-Old:    “OK. Well, why don’t you just listen to people? I listen to people and learn things all the time. That isn’t hard to do. It is super easy to listen to people. It’s not like you have to do anything. You just listen.”

Kirkistan:        “Well, that is great advice and I want to follow it. My answer to you would be that as you get older, you start to think you know a few things. We get to thinking we know the patterns of how things work and we figure we know pretty much how anyone will respond in any given situation. Anyway, all I’m saying is that it gets pretty easy to think you know what most people will do or say in any given situation. The surprise—if you can call it that—is that quite often people live up to our expectations. They do what we think they’ll do. Not always. But often. Then the question becomes, “Did that guy say that because I expected him to say it?” “Did I have a hand in turning this conversation this way?”

10-Year-Old:    “You’re pretty boring aren’t you?”

Kirkistan:        “You might be right.”

10-Year-Old:    “Why don’t you write about something interesting like dragons or warships? Why don’t you write a book about how to fly?”

Kirkistan:        “Great suggestions. I really want to write a book about how to fly. I think that this is the book I am writing.”


Image Credit: Mid-Century via thisisnthappiness

Written by kirkistan

December 6, 2012 at 9:01 am

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  1. […] Blogging and tweeting (and etc.) are simply tools of remarking. My working definition of “remarkable” is that a thing is remarkable when I choose to tell someone about it. Bear with me: there’s more to this. If I remark on something to someone, I think they’ll care. And I think they will find it interesting. I won’t remark on something to a friend if I think they’ll not care or if I think they will find it boring (like my 10-year-old friend thought me yesterday). […]

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