CHILD'S PLAY? No, There's More to a Baby's Mind Than You Think ... BOOK OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Byline: Sam Leith

THE PHILOSOPHICAL BABY: WHAT CHILDREN'S MINDS TELL US ABOUT TRUTH, LOVE AND THE MEANING OF LIFE BY ALISON GOPNIK (Bodley Head [pounds sterling]14.99)

FIND a child under the age of one. See if you can persuade it to stop crying or being sick long enough to open its eyes.

Look hard and sympathetically into those cute, anxiously searching li'l peepers and ask it -- out loud, if you like; it won't understand you, still less be offended -- 'What in the name of God is going on in there?' Feel, as you ask the question, a proper thrill of awe and wonderment.

I do this pretty much constantly with my month-old daughter, just as I used to do it -- perhaps a bit more eccentrically, I admit -- with my cat.

And why not? The minds of other beings -- be they cats, babies or the people with whom we share our beds and our lives -- are a mystery. And the minds of pre-lingual infants are the king of all mysteries: because they are, among other things, our own minds.

Until quite recently, we knew more about the surface of the moon, or the floor of the San Marianas Trench, than we did about what goes on in a baby's head.

Freud made some guesses, Melanie Klein followed them up, and the impenetrable French theorist Jacques Lacan speculated about mirrors and omelettes.

But scientists hadn't the wherewithal to generate experimental data or, again until recently, much of an inclination.

Philosophers, meanwhile, took one look at the subject and decided that the question of whether existence precedes essence, or the nature of the transcendental unity of apperception, looked altogether less tricky to get the mental teeth into.

Children -- below the age at which they could expect to be corrupted by Socrates, at least -- barely appear in the history of western philosophy.

As Alison Gopnik reports, the index to the thousands of pages of a 1967 Encyclopedia Of Philosophy contained 'no references to babies, infants, families, parents, mothers, or fathers, and only four to children at all'.

Gopnik, a developmental psychologist with a professional sideline in philosophy, aims to supply that lack. The scientists have made some progress, and she's here to tell you about it.

HER BOOK is at its best and most interesting when talking about hard science (well, soft science, arguably) but modulates surefootedly enough into the philosophical implications when the occasion demands it.

For a good while, probably the most popular account of infant psychology was what Gopnik caricatures as the 'crying carrot' hypothesis: that children are essentially a bundle of automatic reflexes firing off in a continuous vegetative present-tense.

Yet she describes some ingeniously constructed research (none more ingenious, mind, than the scientist who decided to find out what went on in toddlers' heads by asking them; something nobody had thought of before) suggesting that in all sorts of cognitive departments children are incredibly sophisticated, incredibly young.

Between the ages of three and five, children are able to discern distinctions between law and morality; to have a more or less sophisticated theory of mind; to be able to make complicated inferences about the behaviour of the physical world; and to construct and test theories about the universe.

Also, less upliftingly, they are thoroughgoing little racists in the making.

Why do human beings, among all the animals, begin our lives with a year-long period of infancy during which we are more or less useless? We're cute, yes. Adorable, even. But by golly we need to be.

We can't keep ourselves warm, hunt food, reproduce, run away from predators, or do any of the things that so-called 'lesser' animals tend to make a priority from the get-go.

Instead, we mess around for years watching CBeebies, making potato prints and refusing to eat broccoli. …