University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children
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Title and Author: Albert’s Toothache by Barbara Williams

Field of Philosophy: Metaphysics; Ethics; Philosophy of Childhood

Plot Summary: Albert, a turtle, complains that he has a toothache. His family points out that he has no teeth, and so he cannot have a toothache. "You never believe me," Albert protests, and he takes to his bed. His parents and siblings lament that Albert is not telling the truth. Finally, his grandmother arrives, and asks Albert, "Where is your toothache?" Albert tells her that it is in his toe, where a gopher bit him.

Some Discussion Questions:

Turtles don't have teeth, but Albert says he has a toothache. Is Albert just imagining that he has a toothache? Is it possible for imaginary aches to hurt as much as real ones?
Is it possible that Albert is pointing at a real ache, but not a toothache?
Can we point to things and talk about them, even if we don't know what to call them?
How do we know we are talking about the same thing?
How do we know we understand each other?
Do we mean the same things when we say the following words:
Happiness. Dog.
Friend. Tree.
Lake. Green.
Sweet. Scary.
Beautiful. Book.
Baby. Earth.
Toy. Love.

The relationship between possibility and reality:
If something has never happened before, does that mean it’s impossible that it will ever happen? How do you know that something has never happened before?
Can you imagine something that is "impossible?” What? How do you know it’s impossible?

Truth and lying

What is the difference between telling the truth and lying?

Was Albert telling the truth?
Could Albert have forgotten that he was a turtle?
Could Albert have forgotten that he didn’t have teeth?
Could you forget who you are?

Why do we believe someone is telling the truth or not?

Can you be saying something that is not true and not be lying?
Do you have to know something is not true for it to be a lie? Can you tell a lie if you don’t know it’s a lie?
Would it be true if I said the following things?
That I believed I was a cat, if I did believe it?
That I was a cat, if I believed it?
That it was raining out, if it was?
That it was raining out, if I thought it was but it wasn’t?
That it would be sunny tomorrow?
That I was a daddy?
That my hair was purple?
That I was angry?
Can you think of something you’ve said that wasn’t true but wasn’t a lie either?

Why do we tell the truth?
To make friends?
To be fair to others?
To have fun?
To stay out of trouble?
To make adults happy?
Because we don’t like lies?
To be happy with ourselves?

The nature of childhood
Why didn’t Albert’s family believe him? Would the story have been the same if Albert’s mother had been the one complaining of a toothache instead of Albert?
Do people believe adults more easily than children?
Are adults more trustworthy than children?
Are children “adults in the making” or is there more to childhood than that?