Philosophy made simple

Today’s blog is from Peter Clapp, who interned for us a few weeks ago. Peter studied Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University and then spent a few years acting, mainly in the back rooms of pubs but occasionally in exciting places like New York. Having realised the life of an actor probably wasn’t quite for him, he’s now hoping to pursue a career in another of his passions, children’s publishing. A career move his one year old brother is particularly excited about.

When people think of philosophy, they tend to think of dry, dense tomes that are full of more semicolons than sense. The sorts of books that are no doubt very important, that influenced society in some indefinably crucial way, but, y’know, you wouldn’t actually want to read them. And in many ways those people are right.

Philosophy can be dense. It can be pretentious, and reading it can often feel like unpicking a knot with the lights turned off. But at its heart philosophy is none of those things. It’s not about overly complex language; it’s about incredibly powerful ideas that make you see the world in a completely different way. The trouble is, though the ideas may actually be quite simple, they’re really very hard to express.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m waffling on about philosophy on Hot Key’s blog. Well it’s because I think YA and children’s fiction can be a brilliant way of exploring these big, philosophical ideas.

Take Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – an obvious example I know, but also a good one – over the course of the trilogy Pullman precisely questions the role and influence of religion. Now, a lot of people might say that’s all well and good, but you could explore those ideas much better by reading Paradise Lost and Richard Dawkins. But I’d argue they don’t offer an inherently better way, just a different one. All too often I think we’re guilty of thinking that ideas can only be weighty if they’re also heavy. Whereas in reality a fast-paced, gripping narrative can be just as good at exploring big ideas as something that’s considered more high brow.

Anyone who isn’t convinced should read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s a brilliant dystopian thriller set in a society where everyone has chosen to repress their memories and limit their experiences in order to live a life free from pain. Unfortunately, it also means they’re pretty incapable of dealing with threats so they elect one person to receive the memories and experiences they lack and act as a leader.

The novel follows 12 year old Jonas as takes on this role and in the process finds his coddled life blown apart. But what’s really fascinating is that Jonas doesn’t just get more knowledgeable, rather his fundamental experience of life begins to change. In one particularly powerful section he starts to see colours he’s never experienced before. Lowry seems to be suggesting that our minds aren’t just blank slates that the world imprints on; instead they’re more like filters that influence our experiences. More than this, if you change that filter in some way – by providing new fundamental knowledge – then your basic experience of the world can change too. And, as Kant will happily tell you, that’s a deeply philosophical idea.

Now, if that last paragraph has left you scratching your head, then in a funny kind of way I think I’ve sort of proven my point. Expressing these ideas in an article or blog is hard and sometimes it’s far more effective to express them in a story. In my opinion YA and children’s literature does that brilliantly. It can take these big, bold ideas and create a story that is illuminating, unpretentious, gripping and fun. It proves the point that big ideas aren’t just for dusty old men in ivory towers – they’re for everyone.

Can you think of other examples of this in YA books published today? Or do you remember having any philosophical epiphanies after reading a particular title when you were growing up?

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