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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Mixed-up Chameleon: Happiness, Change and Personal Identity

The Mixed-up Chameleon, by Eric Carle.
Harper Collins, 1988
The Story
The Mixed-Up Chameleon is the story of a chameleon who is pretty much like any other chameleon you might come across. It changes colour every now and then, from green to brown, to red to yellow. It's bright and green when it's warm and its belly is full, and grey and dull when it's cold and hungry. It sits around eating flies, like all other chameleons, and leads a generally unexciting life.

But one day it goes to the zoo and is amazed by all those different animals it sees. It looks around and the action starts. It sees a polar bear and wishes it was as big and white as that. Bang! Its wish comes true. 

It sees a flamingo and wishes it was as beautiful as that. Bang! Its wish comes true and it grows wings and flamingo legs. It sees a fox and wishes it had a tail like that. Its wish comes true. And it continues wishing until it ends up with fish fins, deer antlers, a giraffe's neck, a tortoise's shell, an elephant's face and trunk and a pair of seal flippers (see picture below).

Suddenly it sees a fly. Our chameleon friend is hungry but how can it possibly get at the fly in its current state? It wishes it was itself again. And bang! Its wish comes true. And it uses its super sticky tongue to eat the fly!

The philosophy in the story
The Mixed-up Chameleon touches on at least three different philosophical topics, namely, happiness, change and personal identity, raising fascinating and delightfully puzzling problems. Three thematic blocks of questions to prompt debate among children follow, with a very brief and general, non-specialised and name-free background introduction to each of them for teachers / parents / grandparents / anyone out there interested.

The story suggests that getting everything one asks for may not pave the way to happiness. In other words, what we think will make us happy might not do so after all. The Mixed-up Chameleon provides a great opportunity to discuss what happiness is, what makes us happy, and whether it is possible that fulfilment of one's desires might not always lead to satisfaction. 

The first set of questions aims to bring out an interesting debate on the nature and pursuit of happiness which goes back at least all the way to the Ancient Greece of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and is still very much part of philosophical debate today.

Prompts for philosophical discussion about happiness 
  • The chameleon looks at what other animals have and wishes it was like them. Do you sometimes wish you had something other people have? Like what? Do you think it would make you happier to have those things? Why?
  • The chameleon gets everything it wants. Does it bring it happiness? Why?
  • Is it possible to get given everything you want and not be happy? Is it possible that what makes us happy at a given time may actually make us more miserable in the long term?
  • Say three things that make you very happy. What is it to be happy? And what is it to live a happy life? Could a happy life contain moments of unhappiness?
  • At the end, the chameleon wishes it was itself again. What do you like about being yourself? Is there anything you don't like about being yourself? Do you think liking things about being yourself gives you happiness?
  • Have you ever positively not wanted something and, when given it, found out that it made you very happy?
  • Do you think happiness is something we can set out to achieve or is it something that falls our way?

All chameleons change, and do so all the time. They change colour mostly as a sort of language code, also for camouflage purposes and  in some cases as a means of regulating body temperature. When they change colour, we may find it amazing to watch, but not particularly puzzling to think of.

But the chameleon in the story changes differently. Bit by bit, page after page, it changes until there is no part of its original body left, and yet we still consider it to be the same individual throughout the transformation process. This poses some fascinating philosophical questions regarding change and identity over time.

Does it indeed remain the chameleon we meet on the first page throughout or is there a point when one might say it is no longer the same chameleon or being? What is that "point" and how do we determine it? Is it still our friend from the first page when it grows bigger and becomes white like the polar bear? When it grows a fox's tail? When it sees the fly, here?

This is in fact a formulation of a classical philosophical puzzle known as the Ship of Theseus which asks when and whether a ship whose parts are replaced one by one would cease to be the same ship it was originally and become a different one. Another formulation of the same problem that might serve to illustrate this in a rather amusing way for children involves a favourite sock with a hole in it which is darned repeatedly over time until none of the original threads are left: is it still our favourite sock or is it a different one and if different, when might it have become a different one?

The puzzle is made all the more boggling if we compare our intuitions about a step-by-step replacement over time with a sudden one-time replacement of parts. In a scenario where the planks of a ship are replaced over time with new planks, most of us would intuitively feel it is still the same ship. However, if we take all those planks and make a ship with them right now, we wouldn't think it was the same ship. Why is that? What is different between the two situations?    

And if we are really in the mood, a further fun complication can be added to the problem. What if we had kept all the old planks of the ship and then decide to build a ship with them? Which would be the original ship, the one with the new planks or the one with the old planks?

Prompts for philosophical discussion about change
  • The chameleon changes a lot throughout the story. Would you say the chameleon is still a chameleon, and still the same chameleon, after becoming big and white like a polar bear? What about after growing flamingo wings and legs? After getting a fox tail?
  • By the time it sees the fly, there is not one bit of the original chameleon's body left. Is it still a chameleon? Is it still our friend from the first page? Why? Why not?
  • If you gradually change all of something's parts, can it still be the same thing? If we have a sock with a hole in it and darn it and then darn it again when it grows another hole, and again and again, until none of the original threads are left, but only the threads used for darning, is this the same sock we started off with? Why? Why not?
  • If we change a ship's planks over the years, until we end up with all new planks, is it still the same ship? Why? If we change all the planks of a ship at once, is it still the same ship? Why? What's the difference between changing them gradually over time and suddenly, now?
  • What if someone has kept all the old planks of the ship and decides to build a second ship with them? Which is the original ship?  

Personal identity
Applied to human beings, the problem of change above is related to problems of personal identity, which are the subject of the last block of questions. 

The same question of identity over time can be applied to a person, adding further complexity to the matter. Are we the same person as we were when we were a baby? We look nothing like when we were babies, we have grown a lot, we have many new cells which have replaced many of our original cells. And yet we all say we are the same person as the chubby little baby in that photo. What does it actually mean to say we are the same person? How can we be so absolutely different and yet one and the same? What makes us that particular baby and not another baby in a different photo?

Another question about personal identity raised by the book can be put like this: What makes you you? What do you need to keep to continue being you? Or, as philosophers also put it, what is your essence? 

Prompts for philosophical discussion about personal identity
  • What makes a chameleon a chameleon? What makes a person a person?
  • If we took away your arm, would you still be yourself? How about both arms? Your body? Part of your brain?
  • What makes you yourself? What would have to be taken away from you for you to no longer be yourself? 
  • What makes you the same person you were when you were a baby? How can we be so different (much, much bigger, with much more control over our bodies and much more complex thoughts) and yet the same?  
General Comments
The Mixed-up Chameleon poses philosophical issues of some depth and degree of abstraction. Younger children may find it easier to engage in a debate on happiness than on personal identity. But not necessarily! It's always a good idea to ask the child/ren first if they think there is anything particularly interesting about the story. It's surprising how often children go directly to philosophically meaty issues if left to think about things freely. 

Obviously to tackle all the topics above at once, in one sitting or session, may be excessive (and long!). Probably the best thing is to focus on one of the sections and only move on to the following one if there is enough time or if the children bring up related issues themselves. It's always difficult to know how interested a particular group of children is going to be in a particular aspect of a story. Some will want to spend an hour speaking about happiness. Some may have little to say on happiness but lots to say on the sock puzzle. The trick is to go with the flow and not intervene too much, other than to make sure they don't go off on tangents too removed from the topic and to suggest a further question when everyone seems to have said what they want with regard to the previous one. Let them take the lead! 

Parents or carers can just keep these questions in mind and talk about different ones at different times.

Enjoy! And leave a comment telling me how it went if you used any of the above material!

Read more about the idea behind these picture book reviews for philosophical discussion among children here and about some proposed general "discussion rules" for facilitators and participants, here (coming soon).  

I'd like to thank Prof. Thomas Wartenberg from Mount Holyoke College for his helpful suggestion about including reference to the difference between sudden change and gradual change in the Ship of Theseus section.

(c) of all images in this post, Eric Carle, 1988. 

(c) of text, Ellen Duthie. You may copy this or reproduce it, but please be nice and credit the author and the site. 

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