Big Questions and the Task of Doing Philosophy By Katrin Bosse

Monday 16 December 2019

One of my favourite children’s books is The Big Question (original title: La grande question, Paris, 2003; in English: Europa Editions, 2005) by the illustrator Wolf Erlbruch. For me, Erlbruch is simply a genius. The book presents a polyphony of answers to “the big question” – which itself is not raised in the book. “You are here to celebrate your birthday!”, says the brother blowing out the candles on his birthday cake,  – “You are here to purr – or to catch mice,” says the cat, half asleep, with only one eye open. “You are here to kiss the clouds!” says the pilot in his plane while approaching a cloud with pointed lips, ready to be kissed – “You are here, of course, so that I can coddle you,” says Grandma with a tempting sweet in her hand.

What’s the purpose of my life – why am I here? The book implicitly raises one of the most essential questions of philosophy and takes the most divergent answers seriously – be they sophisticated (“to love life”, says… death), or rather down to earth (“You are here to get up early”, says the baker.) Before you can even get to its last page (“You are here because I love you”, says Mom), you will find yourself in the most astonishing philosophical or theological conversation with the kids who are reading the book with you. Without hesitation they grasp that all the answers are bound to a particular perspective: “Ha, no wonder the birds say ‘you are here to sing your song’ – that’s what robins do all day long.” – “Yes, but I don’t. Singing my song is living my life. I am what I am. Simply be here.” (That, by the way, fits with the stone’s answer: “You are here to be here.”) Even the answers they don’t like very much (“you are here to obey!”, says the soldier), they often try to understand (“Of course, a soldier has to obey – he simply has no choice!”).

It is quite clear that in our particular society, shaped by its pluralistic approach to religious and ideological convictions and orientations, society is no longer informed by a single set of values and attitudes of only one (or two) religious traditions or ‘Weltanschauungen’ (world views). Christians live next door to Muslims, humanists, and atheists, and, of course, to people who wouldn’t declare a particular world view shared with a community of “believers” for themselves. Rather, they find their orientations in their own choice of values and convictions from different traditions – Buddhist meditation, engagement in the Church’s ECO group, or the wisdom of certain insights of Confucianism. Being a fan of Waldorf pedagogy and Rudolf Steiner’s ideas do not seem to contradict one another: they are combined to one’s individual, chosen set of orientations. In such a pluralistic society, answers to the question ‘what kind of society do we want to live in?’ cannot refer to common ground and to common values as a shared basis for action. Rather, being citizens in a religiously pluralistic situation means participating in negotiations about the ‘common good’ of our society, about the present ‘common aims’ of social action, and about ways to achieve these aims, all with consent from the different groups of society. Without such dialogues a religiously pluralistic society cannot survive, let alone thrive and flourish. Enabling people to participate in dialogue about their convictions, their vision of a society worth living in, their sense of community, and their perspectives on the bonum commune, or the “common good,” in order to find orientation with regard to acceptable ways to achieve the common good, seems to be an important educational task.

The UNESCO’s 2007 publication “Philosophy: A School of Freedom” underlines such observations. Philosophy, or better: philosophizing, doing philosophy, is seen in this study as a method for developing “each person’s skills to question, compare and conceptualize” (ibid., ix) and thus as an exercise of “freedom and critical reasoning” (ibid., ix). As an exercise that “calls for patience, time and self-criticism” (ibid., xvii), philosophy is not a subject that should be left for the last two or three years in secondary school. Rather, it seems sensible to create space for a long-drawn out process of philosophical education. This approach does justice to the fact that philosophizing as an activity, as a skill, is something different from knowledge of philosophical thought (i.e. being able to summarize the perspective of one representative of a philosophical school in history). “Being informed is not the same as being formed” (ibid., xvii) – and being formed definitely takes longer. It can only benefit from a certain unbiased familiarity with dealing with philosophical questions from early on.

Moreover, one could argue that doing philosophy in this way is natural to being human. Therefore, there is a children’s right to philosophize. Children have a natural curiosity about existential, ontological, theological, metaphysical and, of course, ethical questions. This fact becomes apparent within minutes of reading quality, i.e. philosophically interesting, children’s books to children (and grown-ups) of any age! Where do I come from? What is the meaning of my life? Why are we different and yet equal? Where do I ‘go’ when I ‘pass away’? All these – and many more – philosophical questions occupy a child’s mind in different individual variations – and it would be nonsensical and cruel not to encourage children to raise these questions. We should talk about possible answers and make sure that they are accompanied on their adventurous journey so that they may find their own answers.

Critical voices ask whether children should really be confronted with these questions of meaning, of this world’s and our life’s finitude and of the certainty of death. Should we increase our children’s worries and questions by philosophizing instead of simply encouraging purposeless play and carefree interaction? Spirited play and jaunty interaction are important ingredients of a happy childhood, of course. Children who are encouraged, however, to engage with the big questions and to communicate and share their own views with others seem to develop a stronger capacity for resilience in coping with life’s difficulties.

Children are naturally interested in philosophical questions. They therefore need the opportunity to take these questions seriously and to search for their own answers. The “right to philosophy for all” (ibid., xv) seems to be an implication of the right to self-expression (ibid., 13) and as such is a crucial aspect for the development of one’s personality. The right of “thinking for oneself” (ibid., 15) comes together with the “education of a thoughtful citizenship” (ibid.) and “confronting prejudices and overcoming domination” (ibid., xvii), all of which can be seen as foundational for sharing in the benefits of living in a democracy.

All of this clarifies why it is not sufficient to leave this important educational task entirely in the hands of parents who, depending on their own education and occupation, might feel more or less overwhelmed by the requirement to philosophize with their children. Growing up under the verdict of a certain type of secularization theory that recognizes religious beliefs, convictions, and world views as both deeply individualistic and essentially private—and therefore as not open to discussion and quite often as incommunicable—many parents today find themselves inexperienced and reluctant to engage these existential questions with their children. Lacking the language that philosophical education tries to develop and improve, they ask themselves: How do we put into words what seems to be beyond our everyday experiences? And furthermore: What use of philosophical concepts is appropriate in different stages of our youngsters’ development with regard to contemporary understandings of developmental psychology (rather than referring to Jean Piaget’s somewhat outdated categories of distinct developmental stages)? And thirdly: how do we guarantee our children’s freedom in “choosing” (discovering would be more precise!) their own convictions and beliefs, while we would love to see them sharing our own view – if only for the sake of our family’s philosophical peace and quiet? Are we really good advisers for an open, unrestrained time of question and discussion – while silently hoping that the child’s journey does not take it too far away from our own understanding of reality, its grounds, its origin, and its destiny?

Let me finally add another dimension to the discussion that can also be derived from engagement with Wolf Erlbruch’s “big question.” It seems to me that the appeal of this book lies neither simply in the importance of the question (why am I here?) for both children and grown-ups, nor in its pictures and its subtle humour, although all of these aspects contribute to my love for this book. On each of its pages, it reveals that every single attempt to answer one of the big questions, or even grasp the question, is bound to a certain perspective. These perspectives are not simply interchangeable with each other and they do not add up to one overarching perspective as the result of working through all the answers given to the big question. Putting it in a slightly more provocative form, one could say: There is no neutral perspective on philosophy’s big questions! While philosophizing, one cannot help but start from a particular perspective. As a result, what engages children in philosophizing about the big question in Wolf Erlbruch’s children’s book is precisely the invitation that is implicit in the many different perspectives presented in the book: Come on, imagine, find words and contribute your own view! Come on, notice differences, try and make sense of this huge variety – and discover where your basic orientations are to be found!

The distinctive, authentic view-point reflected in each answer plays a major role in the invitation it offers. By analogical understanding and an invitation to listen to all of the different perspectives, children are encouraged to start their own journey of orientation and find their own viewpoints. Where does this insight take us with regard to the necessity of philosophical education as a public task in the religiously and ideologically pluralistic society of the 21st century? Where do we find representatives in the public realm for particular perspectives on understanding the world, its grounds, its origin, and its destiny? For some time it seemed self-evident that philosophical education in a secularized or pluralistic society could not be religious education, but instead had to be a neutral and open forum for discussing values, norms, morals, and convictions. Such neutrality, however, is an illusion. One cannot orient oneself from nowhere. Therefore, it could well be that the flourishing of a pluralistic society depends on a lively dialogue with representatives of the various religious traditions that belong to the community. Each would represent a particular perspective without claiming neutrality, and would therefore aim to be transparent with regards to its own sources, contexts, and relation to other religious understandings. Knowledge of one’s own convictions and the convictions of others is fundamental to the collaboration and cooperation that our society desperately needs, especially when facing global challenges of social justice, the climate crisis, and questions of equality, diversity, and inclusion.

The public task of establishing philosophical education as “a school of freedom” implies the task of establishing religious education as a school of discovering one’s own orientation and finding one’s own language for dialogue with others. This, of course, would require establishing religious education as the concern of both major religious traditions and smaller religious communities. Both would provide religious education as part of the school curriculum and find an institutional framework for dialogue with all of these communities within the school community. Religious education would need to represent Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Humanist beliefs (and so forth) as presented by Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Humanists, etc. These conversations would not happen in separate classrooms behind closed doors, but in open conversation with one another (while recognizing that, from time to time, it might help to keep the doors just slightly ajar in order to concentrate on one’s own perspective). Initiation into such dialogues from early childhood could enable future generations to seek mutual understanding of ‘the other’. It would also encourage the ability to establish teamwork while pursuing the common good amongst all different groups of society.

With regard to this task, philosophy and theology in academia have to ask themselves self-critical questions. Do we provide the knowledge, skills, and tools for a basic philosophical and theological formation process? Are we capable of communicating the fundamentals of philosophical or theological thinking in an intelligible way – or are we trapped in our increasingly specialized language games bound by sophisticated techniques and methods shared only by advanced insiders? Our ability to translate our research into material for philosophical and theological education in primary schools could be a helpful litmus test for some of our research from time to time.

Meanwhile – why don’t you head to your favourite bookshop and look for “The Big Question” or another quality picture book? Buy it and simply share it – with your family, friends, or even colleagues (if you dare). Enjoy the philosophical and theological formation that might go along with this – even for us “oh so sophisticated” grown-ups. I would be glad to hear from your experiences and receive suggestions for other fantastic books.


Rev Katrin Bosse is Associate Lecturer (Education Focused) in Systematic Theology in the School of Divinity, St Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews. Her research focuses on theological anthropology and the theology of religions. She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church. She worked as Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, as teacher for Religious Education in vocational schools and as lecturer in the ministerial training college of the church of Wûrttemberg with a focus on Religious Education in inter-religious contexts.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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