In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy and Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Western Philosophies of Childhood throughout History
  • Contemporary Philosophies of Childhood in an Anglo-Saxon Tradition
  • Contemporary Philosophies of Childhood in a European Tradition
  • Contemporary Philosophies of Childhood in Latin American and African Traditions
  • Contemporary Philosophies of Childhood in a Post-humanist Framework
  • Philosophy for/with Children
  • Journals

Childhood Studies Philosophy and Childhood
Walter Kohan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0224


Philosophy of childhood is an academic field born at least with Heraclitus and his connection between aion (time), pais (child), and basileie (kingdom). There are many ways of understanding the nature, scope, and interlocutors of a philosophy of childhood, depending basically on the way two questions are answered, explicitly or implicitly: “what is philosophy?” and “what is childhood?” Even more, a philosophy of childhood can begin by a consideration of the word “childhood.” In the ancient Greek language there were many words for “child” but no word for an abstract substantive (childhood). In Latin, infantia is a rather late word, meaning literally “lack of voice” but used in fact in court to refer to those who were not allowed to give testimony in their benefit. So, the lack designated by in-fantia is legal, political, and not linguistic. In romance languages all words designating childhood come from that one: enfance (French); infancia (Spanish); infanzia (Italian); infância (Português), etc. So that in English, infancy would be more literal but because of the common use, in this entry we’ll use childhood. Is childhood a stage of human life? Does childhood need to be associated with (aged) children? An affirmative answer to these questions is the “obvious” and normal response, but not the only one. When childhood is understood as a stage of life, the concept of childhood is intimately related to the concept of adulthood and child-adult is an intrinsic, contrastive pair, so that every conceptualization of childhood implies a conceptualization of adulthood as well. A concept of childhood, then, is closely associated to a concept of time. While the concept of childhood as a stage of life presupposes a chronological concept of time (numbered movements composed by the past and the future, being the present a limit between both), with alternative concepts of time, other concepts of childhood emerge. Examples of these hetero-chronological concepts of childhood in the so called Western tradition are: Nietzsche (In “The Three Metamorphoses,” the child is the last non-lineal but circular transformation of the Spirit; it is not at the beginning but at the end of life); G. Deleuze, who invented the concept of “becoming-child” which does not refer to any personal child but to an impersonal force, a space for the transformation of subjectivity; J.-F. Lyotard, according to whom childhood is a state that is present the whole life as a testimony of a debt taken by the being with the non-being before each human being is being born; G. Agamben, who proposed childhood as a condition for language, history, and experience; and Paulo Freire, who understood childhood as curiosity and as a possibility though the whole life of any human being regardless of her age. At the same time, philosophy of childhood in contemporary philosophy is closely connected to philosophical inquiry and practice with children, a field that received great support in the contemporary period from figures like Matthew Lipman, Ann Margaret Sharp, and Gareth Matthews.

Western Philosophies of Childhood throughout History

Philosophers have engaged both in reflections about childhood and in philosophical conversations with children in different times and traditions (Lipman 1993; Turner and Matthews 1998). The so-called Western philosophical tradition has been offering, since the ancient Greeks, two main symbolizations of childhood—as original unity of being and time; and as lack and danger, incompleteness, and imperfection. In that tradition, if Heraclitus symbolizes the aionic affirmation of childhood (Marcovich 2001), Plato and Aristotle configured childhood in the realms of incompleteness and imperfection (Golden 2015). At that time, Socrates was probably the first one engaging in philosophical dialogue with children. European colonialism associated children with women, the savage and uncivilized with other figures of the savage and uncivilized like black and indigenous peoples (Kennedy 2006). Modern European philosophers associated childhood, as minority, to the lack of reason and something that needs to be overcome to arrive at majority and autonomy. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Romantic thinkers reacted to these underestimating visions of childhood identifying the child with “genius,” “artist,” someone lost to rationalism and the political conformity demanded by the modern state. With Freud and Nietzsche the child enters the field of desire and potentiality of transformation. In the contemporary period, the deconstruction of subjectivity gives space to non-personal notions of childhood where some philosophers locate forms of resistance to capitalism and its always-increasing forms of exploitation, class tyranny, and destruction of the planet. Parallel, the movement of philosophical practices with children expands and results in more affirmative concepts of the child and childhood and new forms of relationship between children and adults in educational settings (Lipman 1993).

  • Golden, Mark. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. 2d ed. Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

    This book offers a historical, philological, and archaeological approach to children and childhood in ancient Athens. It focuses on literary sources to study the relationship between adults and children and, more precisely, the place of children and childhood in Athenian private and public life from 500 to 300 BCE. First published 1990.

  • Marcovich, Miroslav. Heraclitus: Greek Text with a Short Commentary. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Academia Verlag, 2001.

    This is a thorough, scholarly, and annotated edition of the fragments of Heraclitus containing his well-known fragments on children and, particularly, the iconic fragment 52 where aion (time) is affirmed as a child childing, the kingdom of a child. From that, childhood can be understood not as age but as a form of aionic experience of time.

  • Kennedy, David. Changing Conceptions of the Child from the Renaissance to Post-Modernity: A Philosophy of Childhood. Lewiston, NY: The Mellen Press, 2006.

    This book offers a multidisciplinary, profound, and scholarly philosophy of childhood throughout Western history and traditions of thought. It includes six chapters studying different paradigmatic images of childhood and two other chapters on philosophical conversations the author had with two groups of children.

  • Lipman, Matthew. Thinking Children and Education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1993.

    Anthology of classical texts on the relationship between childhood, education, and philosophy. Chapters: “Children’s Educational Rights and Responsibilities,” “Childhood Experiences and Philosophical Wonderment,” “The Philosophy of Childhood,” “Cultivating Cognitive Proficiency,” “Children and Stories,” Building Communities in the Schools,” “Philosophy as an Elementary School Subject,” “Encouraging Thinking for Oneself through Socratic Teaching,” “The Classroom Practice of the Philosophy Teacher,” “Dialogical Inquiry,” “Fostering Reasoning and Critical Thinking,” and “The Cultivation of Judgment.”

  • Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Canada: Penguin Classics, 1993.

    First published in 1572. Montaigne writes a letter to Madame Diane de Foix responding to her question concerning the best way to educate a child. He starts saying he doesn’t know that best way and then writes a number of pages in which he advocates for a prominent role of philosophy in the education of a child.

  • Turner, Susan M., and Gareth B. Matthews, eds. The Philosopher’s Child: Critical Perspectives in the Western Tradition. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1998.

    This is a collection of contemporary essays critically examining the views of eleven different philosophers on children and childhood under three headings: (a) what children are; (b) what they know; and (c) what they deserve. The studies are divided in three historical periods: Ancient (Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics); Modern (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill), and Twentieth Century (Wittgenstein, Firestone, Rawls).

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