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

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  1,049 ratings  ·  128 reviews

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

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published August 4th 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2003)
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Jeff Williams
Jul 15, 2013 rated it it was ok
I gave this two stars, though three might have been ok. Gopnik's book is a collection of some of the latest science on cognition; some involving children, some adults, some non-human primates, and some other animals. What the book fails to do is deliver on the title; the book should be titled, "Summary of current cognition studies" and include the following warning: "Note that chapters are padded and 75% of the writing is superfluous." This could have been edited down into something much more ...more
Kirsti S.
Oct 09, 2009 rated it liked it
MCL. I enjoyed reading about how studies on babies are done. Having read statements like "babies prefer red" I always wanted to know how they came to that conclusion. In this case, babies look for a longer length of time at things that are unfamiliar or novel.
Good reminder that baby brains are different from those of adults. Little ones have what Gopnik calls "lantern consciousness" rather than the spotlight attention adults have. Everything is new and interesting and worth paying attention to,
Dec 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
The title makes this sound a lot squishier than what it is, which is a actually a behavioral and psychological look at early child-hood development and thinking. The last chapter, about ethics, is a bit less interesting, as Gopnik drifts into her own personal musings, but when she sticks to the science and studies, its fascinating.
Aug 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: blue
Subtitle: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Believe it or not, despite that somewhat saccharine subtitle, this is a book filled with a lot of hard science.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, and she has done her share of non-saccharine work. For example, she has published results on Bayesian networks. So, while she clearly finds babies interesting for all the normal adult-woman-and-mother kinds of reasons (and is not above using
Aug 18, 2009 rated it liked it
I was excited to read this - but found it not as engaging as I hoped. Besides the obvious interest I have because of my 5.5 month old - there were only a few chapters that really felt alive. Made me think of Malcolm Gladwell and how his writing is so inviting and stimulating. Gopnik has a very interesting topic - but doesn't bring it home the way she could have. Of course some good info though on young children and consciousness - lantern vs. flashlight and how they learn.
Darren Haarsma
Jan 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Good insights that are based on academic findings. Gopnik's work helped me consider the unique stages of consciousness that children pass through. Interactions with children will not be the same for me.
I was intrigued -- and skeptical -- of Gopnik's book when I read the reviews. Babies are "more conscious" than adults?! Gopnik's actual treaties is more nuanced and valid than the reviews led me to believe: rather than equate "consciousness" with whatever appears in the spotlight of attention, as many people implicitly theorize, Gopnik outlines how consciousness itself is a variegated, nuanced phenomenon that evolves, perhaps (but not necessarily) inversely, with the tandem development of ...more
May 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Delightful. I read it because I heard Gopnik on the radio and she said that her research leads her to think that "Raising children isn't jus something women do in their spare time. It's what makes us human." I couldn't agree more.
Nov 04, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy, memory
The book fails to answer its title.
Gabriel Eggers
Jul 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
A wonderful book that shows how understanding of babies and philosophy are intimately connected. Studies on infants help us to learn a lot about the nature of human thought and experience. About how learning and development occur, and about different types of consciousness and the implications of those different consciousness. It even helps us get closer to answering the question of: what is consciousness.
Oct 18, 2018 rated it liked it
An interesting review of psychological research examining babies consciousness, learning, and understanding. I preferred the second half of the book that talked more about the applications/relevance of the research studies.
Oct 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Wow, what a powerhouse of psychological, philosophical, and scientific analysis! Intellectual discourse on the highest level, yet so very readable! This gem is a very compelling account of who we are and what we learn, know and understand by studying children under the age of five. Primarily, all manner of profound topics (from love to morality and everything in between) are discussed relative to that which comes innately (heritability), from imitation, or learning from life experience, and how ...more
Mark Pennington
Dec 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pop-sci
This book isn't a self-help parenting book. Rather it's a digest of research on the cognitive development of children. A good deal of effort is spent refuting early-held ideas about the cognitive ability of children (they had little or none) based on the writings primarily of Jean Piaget. Gopnik covers the past 20 years or so of research which has demonstrated that children have an innate sense of morality -- at least about some things: hitting is unequivocally bad, while being naughty is up for ...more
May 31, 2018 rated it it was ok
As a book that proclaims to offer a new view of philosophical ideas about consciousness, identity, morality, and meaning using new baby research, Alison Gopnick’s The Philosophical Baby fails to deliver on its promise. Disappointingly, this book offers only a cursory treatment of these philosophical ideas. What Gopnick does offer, however, is a window into exciting new research on baby cognition, learning, and socialization. The best parts are those that use research findings to paint a detailed ...more
Sarah Wojcik
Jul 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-non-fiction
A delightful philosophy book that is all the more compelling if you're a parent or have a special tiny person in your life. I'm amazed by just how much my little guy can understand and how quickly he'll learn new things about this world that he's entered only six months ago. Discovering that deep in his bones are beautiful moral imperatives has been more moving than I ever anticipated. Reading this book now -- as the love for my son is just growing every day -- was an incredible reminder of how ...more
Heather Pagano
Apr 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
The book included many great cognitive science studies. At first I thought it was going to be a science read, not a philosophy read, but by the end Gopnik delivered with exploring meaning, not just facts. There were some great points about the role of play and imagination for creative adults, as well.
Jun 24, 2017 rated it liked it
A bit dense, repetitive. But, I love her work/research.
Aug 27, 2009 marked it as to-read
Enjoyed reading an interview with the author. Not sure if I'll actually read the book as it seems I already share her philosophy, but want to keep track of her name...
Nick Hudson
May 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I got onto this title after listening to an episode of the Making Sense podcast that featured John Brockman's "Possible Minds" collection. Sam Harris interviewed George Dyson, Alison Gopnik and Stuart Russell, three of the contributors. Gopnik brought arresting depth, breadth and balance of perspective relative to the flanking interviews, which I found a bit shallow and breathless.

It took a while for me to get into the book. The title byline, "What children's minds tell us about truth, love and
Apr 26, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science, non-fiction
A common angle for scientific books about human nature is to show how we have been shaped by the world over evolutionary time periods. For example, it is thought that the development of uniquely human nature was heavily influenced by the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle we maintained throughout the Pleistocene. Humans living several tens of thousands of years in the past were thus likely very similar to modern humans in all the fundamentals (such as in their capacities to feel and learn in ...more
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In the Middle Ages, humans thought of children as imperfect adults. Once the half-grown-ups reached age seven, that was the age of reason and they could be judged as adults, at least by God, and found wanting. Then, roughly in the Victorian period, we developed a sense of childhood as a time apart. Children were different from us world-weary grownups -- they were innocent and pure. Both good and bad consequences flowed from this shift in perspective.

Once the psychological-industrial complex
Roza Riaikkenen
Aug 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A really good and thoroughly researched book. The author discusses various aspects of babies' and young children's mind expressions, their capacity of learning and change, their emotions and responses in communications. The author explains the most important difference between a grown adult and a baby which allows the baby to learn and change so quickly. It appears that babies don't narrow their focus of attention to a particular aspect of their world, but scatter it simultaneously noticing many ...more
Aug 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"Children are not just our future because they carry our genes. For human beings, in particular, our sense of who we are, both as individuals and as a group, is intimately tied to where we come from and where we're going, to our past and our future. The human capacity for change means that we can't figure out what it is to be human just by looking at the way we are now. We need instead to peer forward into the vast ramifying space of human possibilities. The explorers we see out there at the ...more
Sep 25, 2017 rated it it was ok
I found this book really frustrating. For every new-to-me facet of childhood development, there were five facts that I'd heard many times. I don't expect an author to perfectly calibrate a book to my background, but somehow this feeling was more prevalent than in any other piece of non-fiction I can remember. Additionally, having a two-year-old around makes one question the conclusions of some of the studies, the same way studies of any humans make generalized conclusions about populations ...more
Feb 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love the way Gopnik's mind works. She asks wonderful questions and then responds in thoughtful, rational answers. I also adore the way she summarizes each section--so helpful!

The Philosophical Baby explores the mind of children, newborn and up, by collecting, examining, and refuting previous theories and then offering new ones.
Jan 14, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, baby
Interesting reading but very academicy. I was hoping it would be more practical. For my daughter, I'll take away the importance of counter-factuals. It is important for her to understand that she affects the world around her, and she has the ability to alter it. Also had some interesting points about how our memory works as we become adults
Wendy Capron
Oct 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
I didn't care for the writing style, especially in the first few chapters. Couldn't Adam have given her some tips? But it was worth sticking with it because she provided a lot of interesting information, especially the chapter - What is it like to be a baby?
Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: parenting
While the author's tone and references didn't always hit home with me, I appreciated a philosopher's view on development, love and parenting.
Jan 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Will recommend Chapter 1-5. Lots of valuable insights on how babies and young children perceive the world.
Nimitha T.R.
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
An interesting read. I find it heartwarming that so many scientists focus their abilities on understanding children's mind, conducting experiments and forming theories.
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Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. Her honors include a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada University Research Fellowship, an Osher Visiting Scientist Fellowship at the Exploratorium, a Center for the ...more
“Our brains are designed to arrive at an accurate picture of the world, and to use that accurate picture to act on the world effectively, at least overall and in the long run. The same computational and neurological capacities that let us make discoveries about physics or biology also let us make discoveries about love.” 1 likes
“even toddlers know that rules should be followed but that they can be changed. These two capacities, capacities for love and law, for caring about others and following the rules, allow our characteristically human combination of moral depth and flexibility.” 1 likes
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