IMAGINING CHILDHOOD

water

An example of a theoretical error that commonly misrepresents the nature of reality can be found in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and, as we’re about to see, his theoretical way of understanding the world sometimes negatively affects his analysis. The words in italics are part of the passage he’s analyzing.

a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth…The unusual description of the familiar act of eating in terms of geometry—a piece of fruit intersecting with an o—forces the reader to pause and conjure a mental image of the act rather than skating over a verbal summary…The geometric language also prepares us for the prelinguistic thinking that Goldstein introduces in the next paragraph: we regress to an age at which ‘to eat’ and even ‘to put in your mouth’ are abstractions, several levels removed from the physical challenge of making an object intersect with a body part” (16-17).

The foregoing interpretation betrays a common prejudice of theoretical thinking, a presupposition deeply entrenched in the Galilean way of looking at things. In Pinker’s case, the presupposition is found in the belief that geometrical language is less abstract—and, therefore, closer to the child’s prelinguistic reality—than “eating” and “putting in your mouth.” But the truth is quite the contrary. Far from being more faithful to prelinguistic experience, the notions “object,” “intersect” and “body part” express meanings that presuppose a sophisticated—indeed, precisely a theoretical—way of interpreting the world, one that is on an even higher level of abstraction than ordinary language.

To the child, the prelinguistic experience of eating is by no means a mechanical process of “making an object intersect with a body part.” Whatever the slice of watermelon is to the child, it is not an emotionally and epistemologically neutral object but a presence animated by her subjectivity. The food corresponds to her hunger. There is no “object” here at all, no abstraction so general and featureless as that. An object can be the moon as well as a shoe. On the contrary, the slice of watermelon is thoroughly saturated not only by the child’s desire for it but, since she’s struggling with too large a slice, by her frustration at finding it so difficult to eat. The vibrant red and green engage not merely her eyes but her attention. As for her mouth, it is even less an object (a “body part”) than the food is.

We see from the above that the tendency of objectivity to scrub reality free of all traces of subjectivity is so strong that Pinker ends up misrepresenting childhood because of it. We have to guard against this.

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