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The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life Paperback – July 6, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Psychologist Gopnik (The Scientist in the Crib) 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. While adults often function on autopilot, getting through their busy days as functional zombies, babies, with their malleable, complex minds and penchant for discovery, approach life like little travelers, enthralled by every nuance of their exciting and novel environment. Gopnik compares babies to the research and development department of the human species, while adults take care of production and marketing. Like little scientists, babies draw accurate conclusions from data and statistical analysis, conduct clever experiments and figure out everything from how to get mom to smile at them to how to make a hanging mobile spin. Like adults, the author claims, babies are even capable of counterfactual thinking (the ability to imagine different outcomes that might happen in the future or might have happened in the past). 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. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
“Gopnik makes a good, and sometimes impassioned, case . . . [She] offers the captivating idea that children are more conscious than adults but also less unconscious, because they have fewer automatic behaviors . . . The Philosophical Baby is both a scientific and romantic book, a result of Gopnik's charming willingness to imagine herself inside the consciousness of young children.” ―Michael Greenberg, The New York Review of Books
“Gopnik's description of what psychological research reveals about babies' surprisingly sophisticated thinking is fascinating.” ―Drew DeSilver, The Seattle Times
“Gopnik is a fine writer, and her wit enlivens a subject that could easily veer into the overly abstract . . . 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.” ―Mark Sloan, San Francisco Chronicle
“[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
“Gopnik incisively and compassionately highlights the extraordinary range of mental capabilities of even the youngest child. What makes Gopnik's book stand out from the myriad recent books on consciousness is her overarching insight into the sophisticated ways that even infants think and scheme.” ―Robert Burton, Salon
“Gopnik is at her most persuasive when she turns her attention to the nature of infant consciousness . . . 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
“[A] fascinating and thought-provoking new book . . . For all the heavy subject matter, The Philosophical Baby is never ponderous. In fact, Gopnik explores the subject of how children think with a fresh, enthusiastic and wry voice . . . 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
“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
“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.” ―Ethan Remmel, American Scientist
“Inspiring . . . Gopnik writes with a nicely personal touch . . . 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
“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
“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
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Top customer reviews
I wish more of the book were about the experiments. There is too great a ratio of speculation to actual results, and a lot of the speculation is based on the author's experience as a mother, but without the intimacy of a memoir.
Nevertheless, the book is worth skimming for the experiments alone. These are fascinating in themselves, and you can feel free to form your own conjectures from them.
Dr. Gopnik comes from a large family and has several children herself. Unstated but highly significant is that it is a highly accomplished Jewish family. My three adult children didn't behave much like hers, but on the other hand, they are gentiles and they have not accomplished as much since reaching adulthood. While anecdotal accounts add human interest to a book such as this, a researcher has to be careful to recognize the limited extent to which they can be generalized.
Her chapter on the Romanian orphans and the one entitled "Learning to Love" are both valuable and touching. The Romanian story indicates how malleable children are; the extent to which they can overcome extremely deprived childhoods. I have to admit to reserving a bit of skepticism about the reported rates of success - I am sure these children will be followed all of their lives. I also observed that adoptive Romanian babies I have met appear by temperament and physiogamy to be disproportionately Roma, whose genetic endowment would make them somewhat unrepresentative.
Learning to Love discusses how perceptive infants and young children are of the ways in which their caregivers are likely to react to them. She categorizes children as "secure," "avoidant," and "anxious," in reaction to whether their caregivers are quick and generous in giving them attention or whether they are likely to expect the kids to develop a "stiff upper lip." She attributes some of these characteristics to national childrearing practices in countries such as Germany and Japan. She talks about the ways in which these childrearing practices cascade down from generation to generation, one generation of anxious babyies leading to another. Turning things around, she talks about how children who themselves have had unhappy childhoods have been successful in analyzing what went wrong, resolved to make things better for their own children, and succeeded. These are interesting and useful observations.
Gopnik is fairly gentle with the Freudians, though she is quite clear that their time has passed. Specifically, she enjoins adults not to look for specific things which their parents did in order to fix blame for their own shortcomings. She says that while there are certainly statistical correlations between happiness as adults and certain childrearing practices, it would be impossible to make the correlation person by person, and especially impossible to do it event by event within the lives of parent and child. She notes, accurately and dryly, that very few screwed up and unhappy adults are ever willing to attribute their problems to their own behavior.
Gopnik's biography is written in her intense, bespectacled portrait in the frontispiece of the book. However, for confirmation one can research the word "gopnik" in Russian and find that it is "(1) a slang word of Russian, pejorative designation of representatives of the city, or (2) Youth layer close to the criminal world, or with criminal behaviors, often undereducated, and originating from dysfunctional families. In this sense, the term is widely used in Russia and the former USSR." Dollars to doughnuts in the family is descended from those intensely intelligent, but equally intensely liberal refugees from the pogroms of a century ago.
She definitely writes within the context of a utopian worldview, one which would tap the public purse to support her convictions. A couple of her convictions are that Head Start is a resounding success and that intelligence has risen significantly among all children over the last century due to universal education. The latter is known as the Flynn effect. What she does not say is that Flynn himself discounts the practical impact of the Flynn effect, and that standardized test scores in America - the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the National Assessment of Academic Progress - have declined for five decades. With regard to preschool interventions, she talks more to the success of the Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti Michigan than to the Head Start program, though the latter to date has had 22 million enrollees. The Perry project statistics are much more compelling than those of Head Start, which would lead one to ask how reproducible the results are. To what extent were the children who enrolled and stayed with the program representative of the controls who did not, and to what extent is the involvement of extremely intelligent and motivated people responsible for the Perry program success? Interestingly, the only naysayers that Gopnik chooses to cite are Murray and Herrnstein, writing now almost 20 years ago in "The Bell Curve." Today's Wikipedia pretty much echoes what they said then... the effects do not seem to be very long-lasting.
Every author has their own biases, as I would quickly concede does every reviewer. I rate this book highly because of the originality of the thought and because of my conviction that Gopnik's work puts a scientific foundation in place for this essential line of research. If she is a little bit more optimistic than I, all for the good - I am sure it inspires her research.