Monday, October 25, 2010

Concerning philosophy and one year olds

rationalism -noun
1. the principle or habit of accepting reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct.

The life of a graduate student, in my experience, is typically spent around peers, around professors, or in solitude. Marriage is common enough in graduate school, but I would venture to guess that the majority of us aren't married. Parents make up a much smaller percentage of graduate students. In this environment it is taken as a truism that having children hinders progress in our studies. (I have heard stunning exceptions to this. One student in religious studies once told me that his advisor recommends having children as a graduate student--then suddenly you will be unable to waste time.)

Well, you'll get no argument from me on the practical implications of having children--they take a lot of work. What I'm interested in is the effect of simply not being around children, of being immersed in a world of professionals. Of course we could go on all day about how this affects our priorities, what it does to our personal development, and so on. But I'm really interested in the intellectual side of it. How does being absent from children all the time affect the way we think, about ourselves and about our beliefs?

I bring this up as someone who has a foot in both worlds. While most of my time is spent as a bachelor, I also happen to be good friends with a cousin of mine and his wife, who live here in Charlottesville with their one year old daughter. The relationship I have with this tiny little person has been extremely influential on my personal and intellectual development in graduate school. Oh really? you say. Intellectual development? Yes, I'm quite serious, and I'll explain in just a moment. But it's important at the outset for me to admit that if I actually had to raise this child, I probably wouldn't have a tenth as much time to sit and reflect on these things. The perspective I bring is, I think, an odd mixture of two very different worlds.

The Cartesian method of doing philosophy--sitting alone in an armchair thinking--seems the most natural to me. It seems a good way to remove distractions, allowing concepts to becoming clearer and logical relationships more apparent. Regardless of whether you think in isolation or among others, one common trait is shared in common by most academics: skepticism is fundamental to our thinking. The goal is evidently the same as that of Descartes, to rid our minds of everything except that which follows from "self-evident truths."

How deeply this is challenged by my one year old cousin! This is not to say that skepticism has no place in her learning process (just try to introduce her to a new kind of food). But it is not the fundamental thing. What seems far more fundamental to her is imitation. Not random imitation; there is a rhythm to what she learns. If she can sing it, she can remember it. She has learned how to speak sentences already, only without the words. What she knows is how to imitate the flow of a person talking. The words will come; she already understands most words that her parents speak to her, she just can't repeat them back.

Child psychologists and neuroscientists, I am sure, are quite interested in how children learn, but I am not sure it is for my purpose. What I am interested in is epistemology from a philosophical perspective: how do we know what we know? We often tacitly assume that a young child is simply on a path of physiological development that will eventually lead her to the ability to start gaining real knowledge. But is that reasonable? Is real knowledge only to be associated with the physical practice of sitting in an armchair? Or reading a book, or sitting at a desk? I am not somehow suggesting that children are smarter than we think they are--I am not trying to espouse silly fantasies. But I am suggesting that our philosophy of knowledge ought to begin with the kind of knowledge children begin acquiring even before birth.

As I was teaching my students today how to prove that a function has a certain limit, I realized that the best students still rely on the same fundamentals that a one year old does: capturing the rhythm of knowledge, and learning to repeat back what is heard. This does not mean mechanically repeating something back, but rather attempting to sing along with the music we find beautiful. That is how we are all childlike: we need knowledge to come in the form of a song that we love to hear. For small children, this is literal; but for all of us, it is in some sense true.

I have been telling my students that they need to be more skeptical, hoping that in doing so they will realize the necessity of explaining the details of truly solving a problem. But skepticism can only get them to listen harder to the right melody; if they have no melody to begin with, they can get nowhere. They have to see a proof if they're going to prove things themselves. After they get the right flow of a proof, then they'll be able to fill in the details, like my dear cousin with her sentences.

What this has brought me to is the end of rationalism. Reason is not the ultimate authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct. Reason cannot point the way to "self-evident truths," but it can only help us to hear with greater clarity, so that we might join in the music which is already playing. I think I agree with what Scott Caldecott was saying--that we can't pursue knowledge without prayer. We need to imitate the rhythm of the words of our Father. There is no other way to truly learn how to speak.

What if there is simply no music? What if the world really is just a muddled bunch of noise with no rhythm and no harmony? Then there is no knowledge to be found. But a child does not even consider such things; she happily imitates whatever it is she finds beautiful. And maybe it's important to remember that this is where all knowledge begins.


  1. Very informative and helpful. I was searching for this information but there are very limited resources. Thank you for providing this information

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  2. You're welcome, although I'm not sure I'd call it "information," since it really is my own opinion.


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