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Reason’s Children: Childhood in Early Modern Philosophy (review)

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 19, 2012
pp. 292-293 | 10.1353/gyr.2012.0017

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Ever since Philippe Ariès’s seminal study of 1960 shed light on the historicity of childhood, significant further research has been conducted on the discursive construction of this stage of life. Focusing on the contributions early modern philosophers have made to the “intellectual history of childhood” (13), Anthony Krupp’s monograph successfully reconstructs the role rationalist philosophy played in the discourses on childhood prior to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile. Countering the commonly-held belief that between 1630 and 1750 the child was merely seen as an irrational and certainly not as an important subject for philosophical consideration, Krupp’s careful reading of René Descartes, John Locke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten uncovers new ground that will not only enrich the history of childhood but that of philosophy as well.

The book begins by reconstructing Descartes’s struggle between body and mind, the adult’s quest to overcome childhood’s cognitive deficiencies, and its dependency on premature sensationalism. Childhood is here considered a stage of uncertainty, instilling prejudices and false opinions in the mind because the premature being lacks reflection and reason, whose proper use is reserved for the adult mind, which detaches itself from the reign of the body. While the child is able to think, the adult is unable to remember these thoughts because there is no self-awareness of rationality in childhood. Traces of such activity that are remembered are clouded with premature judgments, for the child is too situated in the corporeal world. For Descartes, one becomes an adult by more or less shedding one’s childhood. Only under the scrutiny of the Cartesian method can a few beliefs acquired in childhood be rendered acceptable to the mature mind.

Compared with Descartes’s radical opposition of childhood and adulthood, John Locke is considered the first philosopher who anticipated the idea of psychological development in children. His philosophy of the mind traces children’s cognitive abilities, their deficient but not defective knowledge acquired through experiencing their immediate environment. Abstracting from these early sensuous experiences, the child gains access to the first ideas, which are not innate but learned. As Krupp points out, however, Locke had much more ambivalent ideas about children than commonly assumed. Krupp recalls Leibniz’s critique of Locke’s concept of self and how it is related to childhood, demonstrating the clash between empiricist (Locke) and rationalist (Leibniz). In the next two chapters Krupp spends considerable time reconstructing Locke’s discussion of changelings and Leibniz’s crusade against infant damnation. The latter’s idea of pre-established harmony between body and soul lends itself to structuring the relation between faith and reason, culminating in his claim that the souls of unbaptized infants rest in heaven. While these theological discussions reflect the intellectual spirit of their time, they do not necessarily advance the general gist of the monograph and could, perhaps, have been presented in a more abbreviated form.

In chapter 5, Krupp turns to the father of German philosophical terminology, Christian Wolff. In his Politics Wolff organized the modern patriarchal household around the upbringing of children. He sees childhood as an insufficient phase that lacks rationality and thus should be overcome on the way to reasonable maturity. Children’s weak and small bodies limit the development of the understanding soul, the site of cognition, which grows in accordance with physical development. Children, according to Wolff, are lost in the sensational world and are always in a state of lack which links them to slavery, because the absence of reason does not allow for the possibility of freedom and morality. Wolff’s student, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, is one of the first rationalists who attempts to bestow greater value on the lower faculties that are dominant in children’s recognition. For Baumgarten, sensation and reason are distinctive faculties of knowledge which mirror how child and adult perceive the world. He values childhood as a developmental life stage in which play, improvisation, and spontaneous imitation lay the groundwork for an educational transformation of nature into culture under the guidance of logic. With a Cartesian gesture Baumgarten elevated poetics into the realm of rationalist thought and thus supplemented Wolffian psychology with modern aesthetics...



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