Transcending the Ivory Tower: Philosophy as a Social Discipline


The Child and the Book conference at the University of Cambridge (Day 1)

A resplendent Friday morning, in the midst of vibrant yellow daffodils and amaranth pink cherry blossom saw the inauguration of the eighth annual Child and the Book conference in Philosophical Approaches to Children’s Literature. A host of international delegates working within a broad spectrum of disciplines flocked (pun intended!) to the Cambridge/Homerton Research and Teaching Centre for Children’s Literature to participate in a stimulating and fruitful exchange of ideas.

Philosophy is often erroneously perceived as an esoteric academic discipline rather than the systematic pursuit of questions that arise throughout the course of our lives. This first interdisciplinary venture into the thicket of ethical and epistemological inquiries served to illuminate the multiple possibilities through which philosophy and children’s literature can mutually inform one another. Following a welcome speech from two of the Child and the Book steering committee members Debbie and Clémentine, the principal of Homerton, Dr. Kate Pretty highlighted the significance of launching a graduate-led conference and spoke of the journey that led to the establishment of a joint enterprise between the Faculty of Education and Homerton college. 

This very warm welcome was followed by the Nigel Warburton’s highly anticipated keynote lecture on empathy and the transformative power of emotional engagement in a literary work. In a fascinating and thought-provoking opening, Nigel Warburton introduced the concept of empathy, highlighting four problematic areas in the Aristotelian model of empathy in moral education. Departing from Baron-Cohen’s notion of double-mindedness and his definition of empathy as the ability to identify and respond appropriately to another person’s emotional and mental state, Nigel Warburton analysed the detrimental consequences of ‘switching off’ one’s empathy circuits. If literary texts serve as a training ground through which readers expand their experience of the world, establishing a ‘felt interaction’, how might children’s literature cultivate eliciting conditions for an empathetic response? How does the young reader’s engagement with fiction though feeling effectuate an “education of the emotions”? And finally, how might children’s literature illuminate our understanding of Aristotelian catharsis, this “purging” or “recalibration” of the emotions? This intriguing line of inquiry was accompanied with references to the works of critically acclaimed children’s author, Michael Morphugo and was succeeded with an outline of the four arguments against the Aristotelian model of empathetic interaction. 

Nigel Warburton discussed the first objection (the lack of empirical evidence in empathy studies) through recent research by Mar et al (2005) on the correlation of lifetime exposure to narrative fiction with the readers’ performance on empathy/social-acumen tests. The epistemological issue of whether it is possible to identify a successful empathetic response was also debated, in relation to the reader’s understanding of voice and perspective. A particularly intriguing in-depth analysis of Primo Levi’s introduction to the autobiography of Rudolf Höß followed, culminating in Warburton’s final argument on the dangers of overlooking the power of criticism and reason whist overemphasizing (we can expect too much from) an emotional education. 

As I joined my fellow ‘support-owls’ who were equally entranced by the lecture, I found myself wandering towards Marilyn’s magical bookshop where I treated myself to a copy of Almond’s My Name is Mina, before preparing for a stimulating discussion on the ethical dimensions of depicting terror and trauma in historical children’s literature. This parallel session highlighted the central areas for inquiry in the ethics of representing traumatic historical events, with a particular emphasis on genocide and terrorism. Åse Marie Ommundsen employed the notion of “valid absence” and Paul Ricœur’s Hermeneutics of Symbols to discuss the representation of the 22/7 Oslo and Utøya attacks in children’s literature and other media. Kjersti Lersbryggen Mørk also introduced some of the biographical texts written by young survivors of the attacks (Lever [Alive] and Jeg lever, pappa [I am alive, father]) in her employment of central concepts of witness literature, to elucidate John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. This fascinating session culminated with B.J. Epstein’s presentation on the conflicting and intertwined ethical considerations that arise when writing about, translating, and teaching the Holocaust through children’s literature.

Following the afternoon sessions, delegates were invited to join Nigel Warburton’s 50th birthday celebration in the Homerton combination room amidst animated discussion of the impressive array of research projects presented, while Debbie’s and Zoe’s latest confectionery masterpiece caused quite a stir and was devoured within minutes!  

The first day of the Child and the Book conference has left a lasting impression, as new inroads are made into the study of children’s literature and childhood through a philosophical lens. As I call to mind the inspired presentations, fruitful discussions, the pleasure and honour of meeting and speaking with scholars from a vibrant international community I am filled with gratitude for the hard work and dedication of the conference steering committee members and support team. Departing from the conference site and having witnessed this unique cross-disciplinary coalescence has evoked a recent quote by Maria Nikolajeva on the qualities of a children’s literature scholar, that ring true for researchers in both the sciences and humanities: “dedication to the field, profound knowledge, hard work, failures and disappointments, and new efforts” (from Seven Things that do not Qualify You as a Children’s Literature Scholar).

Works cited:
  • Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. London: Penguin.
  • Mar, R. A.; Oatley, K.; Hirsh, J.; dela Paz, J.; Peterson, J. B. (2005). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality. 40(2006). 694-712.







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