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  • Then I Imagine a Child: The Idea of Childhood and the Philosophy of Memory in the Enlightenment
  • Larry Wolff* (bio)

I. Rousseau and Hume: The Significance of Memory for the Child and for the Self

Children, according to Rousseau in Emile, have no “true memory” (véritable mémoire). This lack, he explained, follows from the supposition that “they retain sounds, figures, sensations, rarely ideas, and more rarely their relations.” Rousseau therefore rejected any pedagogy that depended upon memory or memorization, as in the teaching of foreign languages and world geography to children. “By a still more ridiculous error one makes them study history,” he observed, building toward an exclamatory outburst: “No, if nature gives the brain of a child this suppleness that renders him suited for receiving all sorts of impressions, it is not so that one may engrave upon it some names of kings.” Rousseau’s concerns about pedagogically appropriate subjects were framed in the language of the Enlightenment’s empirical psychology, with reference to sensations and relations, engravings and impressions. In the same language Rousseau proposed to offer the child only useful knowledge, to be imprinted upon him “in ineffaceable characters,” and thus the treatise returned to the subject of children’s memories, or rather, “the kind of memory a child can have” [End Page 377] (“l’espèce de mémoire que peut avoir un enfant”). Rousseau urged the reader to select with care the objects surrounding a child, since “everything that surrounds him is the book in which, unconsciously (“sans y songer”), he continually enriches his memory while waiting for his judgment to be able to profit from it.” 1 Rousseau thus outlined a complex relation between memory and childhood, in which children lack “true memory,” but nevertheless possess the psychological apparatus for receiving empirical impressions, creating a special “kind of memory” which awaits an eventual entry into more mature consciousness. Such observations offer not only insight into the Enlightenment’s complex characterization of human memory, but also a significant approach to the eighteenth-century idea of childhood in the context of the evolving modern sense of self.

“Lots of games at night,” Rousseau exclaimed, as he prescribed the regimen that would accustom Emile to the darkness and inoculate him against foolish fears. Then, suddenly, Rousseau introduced himself into the narrative in an unusual aspect, as an adult remembering his own childhood, writing from his own experience as a child:

There is a term of life beyond which one retrogresses in advancing (“on rétrograde en avançant”). I feel that I have passed that term. I recommence, so to speak, another career. The emptiness of mature age that I feel recalls to me the sweet time of the first age (“du premier âge”). In aging I become a child again (“en vieillissant, je redeviens enfant”), and I recall more gladly what I did at ten years than at thirty. Readers, pardon me therefore for sometimes taking my examples from myself; for to do this book well, I must do it with pleasure. 2

What followed was a reminiscence from Rousseau’s childhood, of being sent into a dark church at night to test his courage, an episode that might have later gone into the Confessions had it not been already inserted into Emile. Rousseau was fifty when the book was published in 1762, and the impulse toward self-gratification through literary confession, which would set him to his memoirs later in the decade, was already at work in his writing about childhood and education. He formulated here a rule of human recall, by which memory is irresistibly drawn to the matter of childhood, with such vividness that chronology is overturned and the adult becomes a child.

The child, Rousseau insisted, has no true memory, and yet childhood compellingly exercises the memory of adults. These complementary formulations suggest the fundamental relation between memory and childhood for Rousseau, within the context of the philosophical and sentimental values of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, the empirical psychology pioneered by John Locke, and developed by David Hume and the abbé de Condillac in the eighteenth century, produced a radical reevaluation of memory, in its relation to perception...

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pp. 377-401
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