Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!
By Dr. Seuss
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Nathaniel Mahlberg
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 should be charmed by Dr. Seuss’ play throughout the book of the word “thinks” for the “things” in the pictures, especially because, I believe, they will 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 we, 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 we 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? Is it able to make thinks things in the same way? 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 us into thinks thinkers through history have been thinking. And this string of questions 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 – I’m glad to hear it.)
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:
Dr. Seuss describes his pictures and calls the things in his pictures "thinks."
Turn to the "Think left!/ Think right!/ ... " page and cover the words.
Turn to the page, "You can think about Night,/ a night in Na-Nupp..."