Posts Tagged ‘Alison Gopnik’

evolution of childhood

May 11, 2010

So… what book shall I write?

I’ve been threatening forever to write something about childhood. Melvin Konner has finally come out with his Evolution of Childhood. Maybe “play” needs more attention.

Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

How does play give way, in our development, to critical acuity and rational maturity? How do Red & Rover rise from their crate-box spaceship to face real questions about the cosmos? How do any of us learn to distinguish fantasy from reality, and replace the will to believe with the will to find out? What are parents’ and teachers’ obligations in this regard? And what about the moral lives of babies? Or philosophical babies?

There’s at least another book or two in those questions.

Critchley, R.I.P.

April 14, 2010

That’s Critchley’s book we’re putting to rest for the semester today in Intro, not Simon himself. He’s a step ahead of us on that anyway, in his Book of Dead Philosophers. The last entry is

Simon Critchley


Exit, pursued by a bear.

His pre-posthumous “last words” make it clear that the point of examining philosophers’ exits was not merely to indulge  a morbid curiosity, but to help us stand more fully in the light that casts the shadow of mortality, to confront the terror of annihilation that enslaves us and free ourselves from it. No easy task, but well worth tackling. (And as we were saying in A&S yesterday, it is the project of a non-theistic spirituality.) To philosophize is to learn to love that difficulty. Or, to learn to die. Or live. Same coin.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Hans-Georg Gadamer. Asked to comment on 9/11, at age 102, he said: “people cannot live without hope; that is the only thesis I would defend without any restriction.” About his limited mobility he said: “Thank God, one does not have to think with one’s legs.” Well, maybe he didn’t.

Jacques Lacan. Last words:  “I’m obstinate. I’m dying.”

Theodor Adorno. Another mountain-climbing philosopher with a weak heart. Supposedly no prude, he was unable to enjoy being covered in flower petals (and etc.) by three uninhibited women students in the unbuttoned ’60s. Sad.

Emmanuel Levinas. A French P.O.W. held by the Germans, he was originally drawn to Heidegger but recoiled from the discovery of the latter’s Nazi affiliation and tried to invert his philosophy of authenticity. Death is not that by virtue of which the self becomes authentic, but is rather [an] ever-unknowable event… death is not mine.

Jean-Paul Sartre. What a strange thing for an atheist existentialist to say:

I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here.

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion ought to have asked him about that.

Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre’s “Beaver,” groundbreaking feminist, close observer of aging as a widening of the gap between subjective and objective self-knowledge. Lying about one’s age is in extremely bad faith.

Hannah Arendt. Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but still regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Does Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby count?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A very sensible phenomenologist. The remedy for death is not to turn away in fright, but to move through it and back to our elemental vitality. Back to the middle of the bright field, away from the abyss. Just remember it’s there, and waiting patiently for you.

W.V.O. Quine. I met him in a kitchen once, as an undergrad. He was talking with Wilfrid Sellars, trying to remember what state he was in (Missouri, semi-inebriation), and discoursing on the futility of metaphysics. He was a fascinating and talented guy, but a philosopher without a question mark on his keyboard is as close to an oxymoron– or just moron– as I can imagine.

Simone Weil. I don’t think she meant to renounce her will a la Schopenhauer, but not eating will achieve the same result. Sad to think of her last hungry words celebrating “the joy and spiritual signification of the feast.”

A.J. Ayer. His near-death experience led this confirmed atheist to speculate on the persistence of consciousness after death, but he said it didn’t incline him to re-consider the god-hypothesis. Oxygen deprivation will lead people to say interesting things. I love his wife’s comment: “Freddie has got so much nicer since he died.”

Albert Camus. “The point is to live.” His life ended in a pointless car crash in the year of Simon Critchley’s birth. He was 44. We must imagine him no longer happy. But I’ll bet he’d get a laugh out of the recent controversy over his mortal remains.

Roland Barthes. The “Death of the Author” author said aging was “slow suicide,” and then he demonstrated his meaning. A teacher to the end.

Donald Davidson. Not the Fugitive Poet, but the author of the influential “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”  Intriguing perspective: freedom  and determinism are not pulling in opposite directions… the meaning of death depends upon our freely chosen attitude towards it.

John Rawls. Justice is fairness, and fairness requires the  disregard of our particular identities. Sounds incontestable, until you  really think about it. But nobody’s come up with a better theory so far.

Michel Foucault. Michael Pollan’s twin, separated at birth? Life can be a work of  art… for better or worse.

Jean Baudrillard. “The very fact of your absence makes the world distinctly less worthy of being lived in.” Nice line.

Jacques Derrida. If Critchley’s right, I’ve been picking on him– as Post-modern Deconstruction‘s most visible target– too much all these years. “The dead live on, they live on within us… wherever a philosopher is read, he or she is not dead.” Another nice line.

Bye, Simon.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Some of you have been on unofficial Spring sabbatical. See you in class.