Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!
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Oh the Thinks you Can Think introduces various questions about the nature of thought, imagination, reality, art, and representation.
Full of puns and silly rhymes, this classic Dr. Seuss book will challenge young readers to puzzle through philosophical questions of imagination, reality and art.
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Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Reading Oh the Thinks you can Think by Dr. Seuss with elementary school children would be a lively way to inspire a conversation among the students about puzzling philosophical matters such as the nature of thought, imagination, reality, art, and representation, as well as issues of possibility and conceivability.
Children ought to be charmed by Dr. Seuss’ play throughout the book of the word “thinks” for the “things” in the pictures, especially because they might respond intuitively to the profundity of such punning. The pun is a trick on our inclination to consider pictures to be the things they portray–a trick that reminds us that pictures are imaginings, creations of a mind … thinks. Yet pictures are real in a real way. Because Dr. Seuss drew these crazy things he thought up, the readers/lookers are able to think them too. In other words, something about pictures allows Dr. Seuss to create what is “in his head” such that we can have those thoughts, too. Wow! People have long been puzzled about how to understand the reality and unreality of art and representation and their relationship with thoughts and things.
A more specific, but related, set of questions can arise if you consider what the book would be like if there were no pictures and what it would be like if there were only pictures. How is language like pictures and how is it different? What does language add to the picture? What is it able to point out in the picture that we may not have noticed before? We cannot point out abstract things like “left” without language … when we “see” left, must we be using our language faculty too? These issues about the relationship between language and reality lead one into thinks thinkers through history have been thinking. This string of questions also leads to other issues such as how thinking is like language, if it is language, how it is like pictures, and if it is pictures. Then, if we consider what it would be like if we had neither the book’s words nor its pictures, we can consider whether Dr. Seuss’ imaginings existed if he did not share them and whether they exist now. If you think of a race on a horse on a ball on a fish, are you thinking the same think as Dr. Seuss even if he never had drawn his thought in a book? And with the book, are you thinking the same think as he is?
(Wittgenstein spent many years of his life struggling with the idea that our sentences tell us something about the world, that our sentences represent something… did they do it by picturing, he thought, but picturing via “facts in logical space.” He later disagreed with himself.)
This book also could cause us to wonder about all the wild things we can think up. Are there things we can imagine that cannot happen in the real world? Why? This may lead into considerations about what the laws of nature are, why they are laws, and why we are able to imagine things that violate them. Then we might wonder if there are some things we cannot even imagine. Why are these things unimaginable? What is it about trying to imagine a square circle or that 1 + 1 = 3 that is different from trying to imagine a baby lifting up an elephant?
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Before reading the book, ask the children to draw a picture with black water, a white sky, a boat, and bloogs blowing by. After you have finished reading the book, you can return to the page, “Think of black water,/ Think up a black sky …” You may ask:
- How is your picture different from Dr. Seuss’?
- Are you right about what bloogs are? Is Dr. Seuss? Why? What do you have to know to know what “bloog” means?
- If Dr. Seuss had said there were leaves blowing by instead of bloogs, would the pictures we all drew be the same? Why are we more likely to agree about what “leaves” means?
- How did you learn what the word “leaf” means? Is this how we learned what “bloog” means? Does the word “bloog” have a meaning now?
Dr. Seuss describes his pictures and calls the things in his pictures “thinks.”
- Are his pictures of things or thinks? Why does Dr. Seuss call them “thinks”?
- Are the thinks you think when reading this book exactly the same thinks Dr. Seuss was thinking? How do you know?
- How does this book get you to think these thinks?
Turn to the “Think left!/ Think right!/ … ” page and cover the words.
- What are the thinks\things you think\see in this picture?
- When I read the words, how does this change?
- What are the words able to add to what you think about when looking at the picture?
- Are the thinks you can think with words different than the thinks you can think with pictures? How? Why?
- When you think, do you think in words, or in pictures, or both, or in something else, or in nothing?
Turn to the page, “You can think about Night,/ a night in Na-Nupp…”
- Three moons!? How can there be three moons?
- Why can we think of things that don’t actually exist? Why can Dr. Seuss draw them?
- Can we think of things that can’t possibly exist? Can Dr. Seuss draw them? Why?
- Are there some things it is impossible for us to think about? What are they? Why can’t we think about them?
- Can Dr. Seuss draw them or write them? [Different things you can suggest to puzzle about here that may draw different answers: infinity, what it would be like to be someone else (or to have been born someone else), a square circle, 2+2=5…]
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Nathaniel Mahlberg. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.
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