The Important Book
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The Important Book introduces the difference between “essential” and “accidental” properties of things.
The important thing about everyday objects like apples and glasses of water is presented in this funny and eye-opening book.
Read aloud video by AHEV Library
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
The Important Book raises the question of whether everything that exists has an essential property. The distinction between essential and accidental properties dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle thought that there were certain features of a thing–its essential properties–that it could not lose to still be the thing it was. Other properties can be altered without changing the nature of the thing. Think about hair color. You can remain yourself even if you dye your hair. But what about more significant features of yourself, such as your personality or your central interest? Could you still be you even if you no longer enjoyed listening to opera or whatever is your passion?
In thinking about whether things have essential properties or not, it is important to distinguish different types of things. It’s pretty clear that implements or artifacts–things that we have created–have an essence. A knife can only be a knife so long as it can cut. But natural things are different. Can something be an apple if it’s not round? Sure. In fact, most apples are not really round, if that means spherical. And we can certainly imagine scientists creating an apple with a flat side so it will sit still on your kitchen table. So, is there any property that an apple has to have to be an apple? This is the sort of question that the children will have fun discussing even as they learn to think more deeply about the nature of things. (Since apples hold the tree’s seeds, might that be its most important property?)
People are, of course, the most complex. The Important Book says that the most important thing about you is that you are you. What exactly does this mean? It’s hard to say, but it is still a fun thing to discuss. Is there something that makes each of us the individuals we are? One important German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, thought that everything that is true of us is equally important to making us the individuals that we are. Most of us would disagree. But then what do you think the most important thing about you is–the thing that makes you you?
In discussing this book with children, it’s important to let them say that the book is wrong about what’s most important about some things. This gives them the opportunity to see that books are not always right, that they may have more insight into a question than the book (or even its author) does.
We’ve structured the discussion of this book differently than that of most of the other books on this website. Starting with the activity we describe will make it easier to raise the deep metaphysical issues discussed by this book.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
A good way to begin discussing this book is to ask the children to make a chart with you on large paper or a blackboard. There should be three columns: Object, Most Important Thing, Other Things. Then go through some (or all, depending on time) of the objects that the book discusses and fill out the chart, listing the object, what the book says are the most important things about the object, and what the book says are other things that are true of the object. Make sure to include one created thing like a spoon, one natural thing like an apple, and “you.” Once you’ve done this–or, perhaps, as you are filling out the chart–ask the children if they agree with what the book says. The idea is to get them to think about two things. First, is the book right in its classification of the most important thing about an object? Generally, they will see that they don’t agree with what the book said. Second, is there actually a “most important thing” about the object in question? Here, they probably will at least disagree about what is most important about the things we are discussing. You might ask them the following:
The book says that the most important thing about a spoon is that you eat with it.
- Have you ever seen a spoon that is not a spoon that you eat with?
- What are some other things about spoons that are important?
- Is there one “most important” thing about a spoon? If so, what is it and why? If not, why not?
The book says that the most important thing about an apple is that it is round.
- What are some other important things about apples?
- Is being round the most important thing about an apple?
- Could something be an apple and have some other shape?
- Is there one most important thing about being an apple?
The book says that the most important thing about you is that you are you.
- Tell us one very important thing about you.
- Could you still be you and not possess that very important thing?
- What makes you you?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Thomas Wartenberg. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.
Ask the students to choose any item in the classroom, list some of its properties, and say whether there is one “most important property.”
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