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Horton Hears a Who

By Dr. Seuss, Random House


Splashing in the water in the Jungle of Nool, Horton the elephant hears a faint noise on a passing clover. He realizes that there are very small persons that need help and he tries to place the clover in a safe spot. The jungle animals do not believe him, how could there be tiny persons on the clover? Thinking Horton is a fool; they steal the clover and hide it far away. No one believes Horton but he persists. There is an entire universe on that clover and they need to be saved! Will Horton be able to help the people in Whoville; will their voice be heard? Can the animals be convinced? After all ,“a persons a person no matter how small!”

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Marisa Cooke

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. No matter, Horton knows the truth and pleads with the Who’s 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 one justifies their 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 persons 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 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 persons on his clover, they may take the opinion of the jungle animals, how could there be a person on a tiny speak 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 speak-a person on that? How could it be? 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 it’s 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 persons 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

By Marisa Cooke

When Horton hears the voice on the dust speak, he reasons that there must exist a person, too small to be seen, but who is definitely there. 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 Who’s 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 persons on the speck?
  3. When you know something, how do you prove it to someone else? Do you have to prove to know it’s true?
  4. How can the Whos prove their existence?

The Who’s try to make themselves heard but the kangaroo denies hearing anything. Finally, the Who’s 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. Just because you think you know something, does that mean everyone else has to know the agree? How do you know if somebody knows what you know?
  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?

This book module deals with metaphysics, specifically truth, and epistemology, specifically belief justification?. It is well suited to intermediate philosophers. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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