Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remembering and forgetting, Part I

A while ago Kascha and I had a conversation about children and culture. I was complaining about the tendency to treat children as cultural innocents, taking their behavior as evidence of innate or "natural" human characteristics. E.g. "My two-year-old son likes to play with trucks not dolls, therefore gender is natural." It seems to me, on the contrary, that children are avid students of culture, starting from the day they're born.

Each of us is born into a world we didn't make, a world that initially makes little sense to us. The first, most pressing project of our lives is to figure this world out, and to find out where we fit in it. This is a double imperative: to figure out how to get what we want and need from the world, how to mould the world to our desires; but also to mould ourselves, to understand who we need to be to fit into the world as it stands, and to become that person.

The rules and customs we encounter as children cannot but appear as arbitrary, unintelligible and empty rituals. (Why am I allowed to pee here and not there? Why did you laugh before, but get mad when I did the same thing just now?) The task of the child, which she applies herself to with great effort, is to figure out these rules so she can behave appropriately, earning her parents' approval and securing a place for herself as a valued member of the family.

However, the child's initiation into her community's way of doing things doesn't take the form of an explicit or critical understanding of these rules, an account of why they are rational and necessary. Rather, the child learns to fit into her community by internalizing its customs as habits. Thus, the product of the child's education in culture is not a scholar who could write a thesis on the world she grew up in, but rather a person to whom her own culture is quite invisible.

To be continued...


Neal said...


A good post, and I agree. Actually, I think it fits in quite nicely with Husserl's conception of passive synthesis (which ultimately leads to the life world and a social environment; Tony Steinbock's "Home and Beyond" does an excellent job of tracing this), and especially with the role of expectation. [note: this is where I use Noah's previous post as a thinly veiled excuse to talk about my own project. hope everyone is cool with that].

In Husserl, expectation plays a key role in the constitution of a world. When confronted with stimuli in the world, my consciousness finds itself affected. These affections passively recall other, similar affections (passively because this does not require the active involvement of the ego; I don't have to 'know' that I am doing this in order to do it), which are recalled from my horizon of past experiences. However, this is not enough to constitute a world. What remains necessary is the role of expectation: recalling previous similar affections enables me to expect certain things about the thing in front of me, stimulating me, now. This then helps me make sense of that thing which is in front of me, and ultimately give it sense.

So, how does this relate to Noah's post? Well, it seems to me that what kids are doing, even before trying to figure out how to get what they want from the world and how to fit into the world, is trying to make sense of the world at all, that is, see the world as a place or thing that makes sense (i.e., has objects that endure through time, etc.) To do this, they must acquire a horizon of past experiences, not for the sake of recollection or remembering, but to serves as the basis for expectations (in the passive sense, not in the sense of waiting for something to happen), which themselves serve as the basis for constituting (or Husserl would say 'apperceiving') our experience. As humans, we are naturally drawn to things that make sense (this is one of Husserl's fundamental assumptions, and it strikes me as true, though it is of course controversial. If you disagree, I'd love to hear why). Hence, even from the youngest of ages, we are more likely to do things or be drawn to things that we can make sense of, and therefore things with which we have experience. Young boys, it seems to me, get more experience from an earlier age with trucks and physical activity (i.e., being strong) than do young girls. Why? At least in part because these gender stereotypes are ingrained deeply in us as members of their environing community. And these ingrained stereotypes function at the level of expectations and horizons long before they work at the level of conscious thoughts and judgments. Hence, even though we know that such stereotypes are bad and ought to be struggled against, this doesn't necessarily entail that we don't still 'expect' the world-- that is, seek to make sense of the world, seek to make the world make sense-- in a way that is in line with those stereotypes, because they are ingrained in us and our horizon of experience (and our expectational horizons) from our youth, as they were in our parents', etc. This helps explain, I think, the different way most people (if not all people, no matter how aware they are of gender stereotypes) treat male and female children (and especially infants and babies). We 'expect' certain things of males and of females, in the same way that we 'expect' certain things of chairs (e.g., that they will hold weight, can be sat on, etc.), and these expectations automatically come into our interactions with other males and females, including children.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we can't use our conscious judgments to change and influence our passive constitution of the world. It just means that we must be careful--we aren't always aware of everything our consciousness is doing, and vast portions of our consciousness function on a level that is deeper or 'before' our conscious thoughts. Here, I think, Husserl's analyses of passive constitution help us give weight and depth to the 'nurture' argument (while also calling into question some assumptions of the nature-nurture distinction, but that's a topic for another day). People seem to think that saying something is the result of nurture or culture means that it can be easily changed by teaching people something new. But this doesn't accurately take into account that nurture 'goes all the way down', so to speak, because it doesn't take into account (at least so I am claiming here)the fact that our consciousness does things automatically, by reflex, instinctively Husserl will even say.

So how can we let our active judgments influence our passive constitution? It does so automatically, it turns out. Eventually. Each judgment is also an experience, that then becomes part of our horizons of past experiences and expectation. But it is one experience, up against a lifetime of experiences, some which agree with it, others that maybe don't. Hopefully and eventually, we can learn to move away from the traditional gender stereotypes as constitutive factors of our social world. But it won't be as easy as some people think it will be. I wonder if there are ways to speed up this process somehow, to let our conscious judgments, in this case, exercise a greater authority in expectation than some other experiences?

Noah said...

Thanks Neal. This issue of how the past shapes our experience of the present is exactly what I'll be writing about in this series of posts.

I haven't read Husserl's stuff on passive synthesis, but another text by Husserl will be lurking in the background of these posts: the Origin of Geometry.

Neal said...


That's exactly why I told you at the MPC that I'm starting to come around to your appreciate of the Crisis. I've only just now appreciated its importance and significance to the whole Husserlian (and phenomenological) project. I'm a bit slow.