Meeting the Great Philosophers: Adventures in Time

Posted on: 08/10/2017 Back to all blog posts

10 August: It was on this date in 1846 that the United States Congress passed legislation creating the Smithsonian Institution, now a massive complex of museums.

Dr. Sharon Kaye has taken advantage of the Smithsonian Institution Castle to create a trilogy for middle school-age children for our philosophy curriculum. In the novels, the fictional New Smithsonian Foundation—based in the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C.—sends middle school students on a series of virtual reality adventures in which they meet and learn about the work and thinking of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant. It is exciting and engaging philosophy absorbed through a story in which characters encounter the problems and arguments rather than by reading dry exposition.

The Divided Line, the first book in the Noumenal Realm trilogy, opens with Roslyn, a middle school student, finding a disconcerting letter indicating that she has volunteered for a mission, that her memory might have been altered, and that even her reality is suspect. She is one of five students chosen to take part in a virtual reality simulation. In the simulation, they hear Socrates expounding about the Divided Line and Aristotle’s objections to it. In a second simulation, the students are sent to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden with the task of discovering who killed Descartes. This cannot be accomplished without an understanding of Descartes’s ideas and who might have been opposed to them.

In The Inverted Spectrum, the second book, the students are sent via virtual reality into the seventeenth century to find out why John Locke disappeared. In this simulation, the students meet some of the most important empiricists, including Newton and Boyle, as well as critics like Leibnitz and the Cambridge neo-Platonists. They explore Locke’s thought experiment of the inverted spectrum and consider its relevance to the other senses and to moral judgment. They also learn about Locke’s concept of consciousness and its importance to the concept of democracy.

In The Categorical Imperative, the final novel in this trilogy, the students find themselves in the eighteenth-century world of French salons and the intellectual excitement of the Enlightenment. They meet Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant, and they work through the philosophical ideas of each—and of Bishop Berkeley—until they reach Kant’s categorical imperative.

The brilliance of the trilogy is that it clarifies the progressive relationship of the ideas of the philosophers to one another through time and makes comprehensible the complexity of their positions. Readers will finish the trilogy with a sharpened understanding of the intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as a new appreciation of how the great experiment in democracy of the United States stands as a culmination of the thinking of the best minds of the period that preceded the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

The three novels in the Noumenal Realm trilogy, with the guidebooks to each, are available separately or as a package.

The Smithsonian Castle, Washington, D.C.

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