The Philosophy Embedded in Children's Stories

Or, Overthinking the Toy Story franchise

Toy Story logo.

I like overthinking children’s stories, particularly the philosophical ideas that they might contain. One children’s book we own ends with animals exiting a bus and entering a zoo. What exactly is going on here? Are there humans in this zoo, instead of animals, Planet of the Apes-style? Are there two classes of animal in this world, some of which are kept in zoos and others which visit them? Or are these animals simply going to their job, which is to be creatures captive in a zoo? Whichever choice it is, there are some troubling things going on in this society.

Or, several years ago, I wrote an article about the nature of technological innovation as espoused by the books of Virginia Lee Burton (author of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, among others). This was mainly done so I would stop pestering my wife about these issues while I read these books to my daughter. And I loved Ian Bogost’s take on the board books of Sandra Boynton.

So, when I watched the Toy Story movies with my children recently, I was naturally drawn to various philosophical implications. Specifically, their nature of teleology. Teleology is, roughly, the purpose or end goal of something, whether object, creature, or even human. From Wikipedia:

Teleology or finality is a reason or explanation for something as a function of its end, purpose, or goal. A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that of a fork, is called extrinsic.

Natural teleology, common in classical philosophy, though controversial today, contends that natural entities also have intrinsic purposes, irrespective of human use or opinion. For instance, Aristotle claimed that an acorn's intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree. Though ancient atomists rejected the notion of natural teleology, teleological accounts of non-personal or non-human nature were explored and often endorsed in ancient and medieval philosophies, but fell into disfavor during the modern era (1600–1900).

I feel on pretty solid ground stating that, nowadays, for most of us, teleology is something we must find for ourselves, rather than it being intrinsic to humanity: Why are we here? What is our purpose? We have to search for these.

But for toys in Toy Story, there is no such struggle. They are toys: their telos is to be played with by children, and to give them joy. That is clearly an extrinsic purpose, but since they are also sentient, it creates a strange tension. They are self-aware and feel that their purpose is a clear one, an end goal for which they have an internal—dare I say ‘intrinsic’—drive. They could work to figure out what they truly desire, rather than simply work towards their goal of being a good toy, but those that do this are very much the exception in the franchise (see Toy Story 4). Rather than viewing life as striving towards finding a purpose and meaning, the toys of Toy Story have their purpose prescribed as a given. They just need to figure out how to best do this.

After thinking about this, I did some searching online, and was happy to see that the Internet, naturally, provides a community of others who also think overly deeply about these matters. Specifically, a number of Catholic publications have explored this topic: here and here.

Would it be easier to have a purpose, like a toy, as opposed to finding a purpose? Maybe. But would it be as fulfilling? I don’t think so.

Anyway, congratulations. You have now participated in “Overthinking Children’s Stories with Sam Arbesman.” Now go check out The Pixar Theory and enjoy a very deep plunge down another rabbit hole.

I was recently perusing an old issue of Wired magazine from April 2000 that I had kept (it’s the one where Bill Joy writes about why the future doesn’t need us) and came across this in the letters to the editor:

Wish granted, Letter Writer, wish granted.

After I sent out last month’s issue which included a discussion of simulation, a number of readers wrote and highlighted some simulation tools (Thanks so much! I love corresponding with readers). Here are a few that were mentioned to me or that I’ve seen recently:

I would also like to highlight an incredibly prescient piece on simulation from 1996 entitled “Why computer modeling should become a popular hobby.” There is so much in this that is delightful:

If one doesn't find race cars exciting, maybe one will find creating animals that can thrive in a desert environment, policies that prevent the extinction of tigers, or agents that can hold their own in an on-line discussion of presidential politics, more to taste.

It even includes prescriptions for how to making simulations more powerful and accessible, from visualization tools to “simulation construction kits.” Well worth a read.

Lastly, I recently published an essay, along with two of my partners at Lux (Bilal and Zavain), about how to use complex systems thinking—all-too-relevant in a pandemic—to reimagine a more robust society: A Complex World Worth Creating.

Until next time.