Professor Wartenberg and his students at Mount Holyoke College use picture books – such as a Frog and Toad story that is referenced in The Examined Life, Age 8 – to raise philosophical questions with children. Frog and Toad have always struck me as a philosophical duo, so with the help of my dad, who knows and writes about philosophy, I attempted to connect a few other Frog and Toad stories to philosophical ideas and then experimented with my four year-old daughter:
Published by Harper & Row, 1970
In the first story of this compilation, ‘Spring’, Frog tries to rouse his friend, Toad, out of hibernation, telling him that spring has arrived, but Toad has no interest in getting up. Frog then pushes Toad out of his dark home and into the bright sun. “Help!” says Toad. “I cannot see anything.” Despite Frog’s enumeration of the many fun things they will do together, Toad gets back into bed and asks to be woken up at half past May. When Toad falls asleep again, Frog tears the November through April pages off the calendar and then he wakes Toad up, announcing that it’s now May. At first, Toad is skeptical, but when he sees the calendar, he’s convinced. Frog and Toad run outside “to see how the world was looking in spring.”
The trick Frog plays on Toad calls into question the constructs of time. According to the 20th century phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, there is “clock time” (half past May) and “lived time,” i.e. the way we experience time, which can vary according to many different factors. When clock time and lived time converge and conflict for Toad, he is skeptical, but, no matter, he runs outside with his friend to be in spring.
After reading this story, I tried asking my daughter a few questions. I asked her why Toad got out of bed, and she said because he thought it was May. I then asked her if it really was May and why Toad didn’t think so at first. She concluded that it was May because Toad thought it was, but that it also wasn’t really May – true & true!
Published by Harper & Row, 1979
In the story, ‘Alone’, Toad finds a note on Frog’s door that says he went out because he wants to be alone. When Toad spots Frog on an island, he assumes Frog is sad, so he makes them a picnic, and then gets on a turtle’s back to ride to the island. But on the way there, he begins to fear that Frog does not want to see him or even be his friend anymore, and upon approaching the island, he immediately apologizes to Frog for all his faults; Toad then promptly falls into the river.
Frog explains to Toad that he’s actually quite happy today – because the sun is shining, because he’s a frog, and because Toad is his friend. And it’s precisely because of all these great things, Frog says, that he wanted to be alone — to contemplate them.
Frog and Toad then eat wet sandwiches and spend the afternoon on the island – “…two close friends sitting alone together.”
The late nineteenth century philosopher and psychologist, William James, might have said Frog was having a Mystical Experience, i.e. one that is:
- Transient (temporary) – and, indeed, Frog’s experience ends within the story
- Passive (happens largely without conscious control) – While Frog does nurture his experience by spending the day alone on an island, its initial onset appears involuntary.
- Noetic (gives knowledge normally hidden from understanding) – That the sun is shining, that Frog is a frog, and that Toad is his friend are not new pieces of information normally hidden from Frog, but one can imagine that really feeling them and the joy they bring is not ever-present.
- Ineffable (not adequately put into words) – Frog does manage to explain to Toad why he wanted to be alone, but, again, his words don’t really convey why the sun, his frog-ness, and his friendship with Toad were so particularly special this day.
After reading this story, I tried asking my daughter a few questions. I asked her why Frog wanted to be alone, and she said: “Because he wanted to see how everything was feeling.” I then asked her if she ever wanted to be alone and see how everything was feeling herself. “No,” she said, “I just want to play.”