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Horton Hears a Who

by Dr. Seuss

Summary

Horton Hears a Who raises questions about knowledge, responsibility, and respecting people, “no matter how small.”

Horton hears a faint noise on a clover plant. He realizes that there are very small people living on the clover that need help, and he tries to place the clover in a safe spot. The jungle animals do not believe his story about the tiny people. Thinking Horton is a fool, they steal the clover and hide it far away. Will Horton be able to help the people in Whoville? Can the animals be convinced?

Read aloud video by Storytime Classics

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book Horton Hears A Who raises questions about the theory and nature of knowledge. Horton the Elephant hears a faint noise coming from a small speck of dust; it seems to him like a tiny person is calling out for help. Horton finds it peculiar that a dust speck could speak, so he reasons that there must be a very small creature on it. Without being able to see the creature, he seems to know it is there and that it is his duty to save it from harm. The other animals in the jungle see him speak to the dust speck and find it impossible that there could be a creature living on it. No one believes poor Horton, but he holds tight to what he knows is true and learns from the voice that there exists an entire universe. The jungle animals persist that Horton is being absurd and take measures to eliminate the speck of dust. But Horton knows the truth and pleads with the Whos to make themselves heard to the jungle animals. Finally, all the townspeople come together and make enough noise for the animals to hear; they have proven their existence and the jungle animals are able to know what Horton has known all along.

The story raises questions about the nature of human knowledge and what is necessary to justify a claim to have knowledge of something. These issues are discussed in the philosophical field of epistemology. Epistemology investigates the theory of knowledge, specifically its origin and nature. We may know something but sometimes find it difficult to explain why; we may know something to be true when others know it to be false. Epistemology engages in trying to help us explain why and how we identify our knowledge.

Philosophers have pondered upon how we justifies our knowledge. What kind of knowledge did Horton have? What can we say about intuitions? Philosophers lay out the ideas of truth and belief. Is knowledge a combination of both? What about skepticism? Why are the animals so skeptical of Horton’s knowledge? Is it innate truth that small people do not live on tiny dust speaks? What about knowledge that is gained through the senses? This is the key issue in the story. Horton cannot see that there is a creature on the speck of dust, but reasons through his intuition that the tiny voice he heard must mean there is a being present. Philosophers could classify this knowledge as empiricism. The other jungle animals do not share Horton’s intuition, and it is only through trial and tribulation that the Whos are finally able to make enough noise to be heard by the animals. It is through the senses that the jungle animals acquire knowledge of the Whos’ existence.

It is important to note that differences in opinions are natural. The children may disagree about how Horton knows there are people on his clover. They may take the opinion of the jungle animals: how could there be a person on a tiny speck of dust? In teaching epistemology and philosophy in general, questions are discussed, but final conclusions may not be made. The jungle animals do not hear a voice on the dust speck. How could something live there? That idea goes against all of their previous beliefs, all their previous knowledge. It may be helpful to relate this story to the children’s own ideas about truth, beliefs, and knowledge. What do they know for sure is true? How did they know this truth? Did they have to use their senses to believe it? It is not until the jungle animals heard the small voice that they believed? Why did they have to hear to believe?

This story is wonderful in its ability to raise questions about knowledge. Just as the animals disagree about what is real, so should the children as well. Through reading and discussing this story, young listeners may root for Horton. Of course, there are people on that dust speck. How can the animals not believe him? This brings about the opportunity for the students to think critically. Why are the jungle animals steadfast in their beliefs? Is knowledge completely certain, or can the truth change?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

When Horton hears the voice on the dust speck, he reasons that there must exist a person, too small to be seen, but definitely there on the speck. But the other animals don’t believe him.

  1. How does Horton know that this voice means there is a person on the speck?
  2. Why doesn’t the kangaroo believe Horton? What justifies her belief that a person could not be on the dust speck?
  3. How does Horton try to convince the kangaroo of the existence of a person on the dust speck? If you were Horton, what would you say to convince the kangaroo?
  4. If they didn’t believe you, what would you do?

The Wickersham brothers show up and take action to stop Horton’s nonsense.

  1. Why do they consider Horton to be foolish? Is what Horton knows really nonsense?
  2. What reasons do the animals have for thinking that Horton is just speaking nonsense?
  3. Horton knows the truth, but how come the monkeys can’t know?
  4. What do the animals think will happen if they hid the dust speck so Horton can’t find it?
  5. Will that prove that to Horton that his belief is not true?

The animals have had quite enough and decide they are going to boil the speck and tie Horton up. Horton says that the Whos can prove they are there.

  1. What do the animals think they will accomplish by roping and caging Horton?
  2. Why does Horton say he can do to get them to believe him that there are people on the speck?
  3. When you know something, how do you prove it to someone else? Do you have to have proof to know something is true?
  4. How can the Whos prove their existence?

The Whos try to make themselves heard but the kangaroo denies hearing anything. Finally, the Whos try again, and they are heard!

  1. Why does the kangaroo tell Horton that she didn’t hear any voices and he didn’t either? Why does she think he didn’t hear any voices?
  2. How do you know if somebody knows what you know? Just because you think you know something, does that mean others know it too and agree with you?
  3. The Whos are finally heard. Is hearing believing? Do you have to hear, or see, or feel something to believe it or know it’s true?
  4. Give an example of something you know but that you can’t justify with your senses. How did you come to know that thing?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Marisa Cooke. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

Download & Print Email Book Module Back to All Books
Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who featuring an elephant, and a tiny creature atop a flower. The creature is yelling urgently through a megaphone. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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