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The Hermeneutics of Childhood

The Hermeneutics of Childhood

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Published by: David Kennedy on Nov 03, 2009
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01/02/2013

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I
}
THE
HERMENEUTICS
OF
CHILDHOOD
Thefirstprinciple
of
ahermeneuticalapproachtochildhoodisarecognition
of
themutualnecessity
of
the
tenos
"adult"and"child,"Logically,thechild
is
by
definitionanot-adult,andtheadult
a
not-child.
In
lineartime,thechild
is
anot-yetadult,andtheadult
a
once-waschild.Butthelaw
of
contradictiondoesnot
cover
theadult-childeconomy,forasNandyhassaid
of
whatFreudtaught
us:
"Childhoodandadulthood[are]nottwofixedphases
of
thehumanlife-cycle(where
the
latter[has]toinescapablysupplanttheformer),
but
a
continuumwhich,while
diachronicallylaidoutontheplane
of
lifehistory,[is]alwayssynchronicallypresentineachpersonality.,,1Self
is
aconununity
in
whichalltheepochs
of
thelifecycle,thefutureaswellasthe
past-birth,
childhood,youth,middleage,oldage,and
death-are
alwayspresent,butcontinuallybeingreinterpreted,fromwhateverpointatwhichselfstands.
We
are,asWalterMisgeldhaspointedout,alwayschildren
to
theextent
we
arestill
in
theprocess
of
becomingadults:
"beingan
adult,
if
treated
as
amattertobeachievedagainandagain,makesustakenotethatwe,asadults,must
think
of
ourselvesasbeing
like
children
in
orderforustobeabletosaythatweareadults.
,,2
Sotheadult-childeconomy
is
acentral,continuouslyshiftingbalance
in
theecology
of
theself,and
of
primaryimportance
to
anymodel
of
self-constructioninwhich
our
maturityisalwaysinquestion,andneverthere.asamatter
of
course,orfixedonceandforallasanend-point.
If
this
is
thecase,anyphilosophy
of
childhoodisalsoaphilosophy
of
adulthood.Therelationshipbetweenthetwoterms,
PHlLOSOPHYTODAY
44
David
Kennedy
childandadult,hascertainuniversal,and
certain
historicalandepochalconfigurations.
As
forthelatter,whathasrecently
come
tobeknown
in
theWestasthe"invention
of
childhood"isalso,
in
keepingwiththeprinciplestatedabove,theinvention
of
adulthood.
The
modernistprogressnarrative
of
acultural"growingup"
or
"coming
of
age,"isalsothestory
of
an
existentialandideologicalseparation
of
childandadult.Asthestorygoes,
modem
man,
armed
withscience,threw
off
superstition,andin
so
doing,healsothrew
off
childhood.But
if
childandadultareamutuallynecessary,contrastivepair,hecouldnotthrow
off
childhood,butonlyrepressitandprojectitontoanOther.
So
inattemptingtoeradicatethemythic
or"childish"
dimensions
of
consciousness,
childhoodwas"invented"duringthe
16th
and
17th
centuriesbybeingisolated
in
children,thenreifiedinage-gradedinstitutions,universalschooling,andnew,"adult"definitions
of
publicbehavior,
or
civilite.
3
As
fortheuniversalconfigurations
of
theadult-childpair,childhoodwasfraughtwithsymbolicsignificanceforthelife-cyclelongbeforeWestern
modernism-witness
Lao
Tzu's
'infant,thechildhero
of
mythandfolktale,
man'sentrmce
intoPlato'sage
of
Saturnasalittlechild,andthe
paidion
of
theJesussayings.
4
But
theuniversalthememaybesaidtohavefirstenteredhistory
in
the
modem
West,whereithasplayedakeyrole
in
thedevelopment
of
ideasaboutselthood,aboutthemeaning
of
thehumanlifecycle,andabouthumanforms
of
knowledge.Thisspecialconcernwithchildhoodwasonly
made
possiblebecause
of
anmitialrupture:itwastheverydistanciation
of
adultandchildinmodernismwhichfoundedaherme-
SPRING1992.
"
neuticsage,"
cI
comest
atedthr·
ofhenn
historic.the
"mc
of
self
to
reapproldialogue
For
tl
momenttateddirmomentstandingindividu:logical
IT
moment,myself
tl
knowled,refersto
in
hermelcan
say'
processmodes
of
thesubje
l
self.,,6
W(
relationslalwayse
somepeo
largemenoity/matewholeuntivityis
ft
ence
of
b
Neilher
ofk,no
child
..
child.
whowtof
the
this
"I
~
In
tra
since
tl
7
son.
 
~ O D
mnedy
al,andfiguraecently
"inven
iththe
fadult
ve
ofa
age,"
iseologi
~ e s t o r y
:cience,ing,heild
and
trastive
lod,
but
Other.
thic
orsness,
~ e
16th
in
chil
tutions,
defmi-
S
of
the
~ h t
with
lelong
~ s s
Lao
th
and
age
ofnofthe
e
may
in
the
.ey
role
~ U h o o d ,
e
cycle,
e.
This
as
only
upture:ultand
I
herme-
1992-
neutics
of
childhood.
For
those
"come
of
age,"childhood
isaonce-familiartextbe
come
strange,which
can
onlybereappropriatedthroughdialogue.
From
thestandpoint
of
hermeneutictheory,
the
separationisthehistorical
equivalent
of
what
Ricoeur
caBsthe
"moment
of
distanciationintherelation
of
self
toitself:>5which
makes
possiblethereappropriationwhichistheoutcome
of
thedialogue
between
readerandtext.
For
thehermeneutics
of
childhood,the
moment
of
separationoperatesintwo,relateddimensions.
It
isacultural-historical
moment
inthelife
of
Westernself-understanding,
and
a
moment
inthelife
of
eachindividual
person
intheprocess
of
psychologicalmaturation.Asforthepsychologicalmoment,
it
is
through
theprocess
of
exposing
myself
tothe
"text"
of
the
child's
form
of
knowledgethat
I
experiencewhatRicoeurreferstoas
an"enlarged
self."
For
theadultinhermeneuticalrelationwithchildhood,wecan
say
withRicoeur,"Appropriationislhe
processby
which
the
revelation
of
new
modes
of
being
...
new
forms
of
life
...
givethesubject
new
capacities
forknowing
himself.
,,6
We
can
assume
thatthishermeneuticalrelationship
between
adultsandchildrenhasalwaysexisted
in
some
form
andamongsome
people.
Mostparents
knowabout
"en
largement
of
self'
throughself-loss
in
paternity/maternity.
As
Levinaspointsout,
our
wholeunderstanding
of
thenature
of
subjectivity
is
fundamentallyalteredintheexperience
of
beingaparent:
Neitherthecategories
of
powernorthose
of
knowledgedescribe
my
relationwiththechild
....
Idonothavemychild;I
am
my
child.Paternity
is
a
relationwith
a
strangerwhowhilebeingOther
...
is
me,arelation
of
the
I
with
a
selfwhichyet
is
notme.
In
this"Iam"beingisnolongerEleaticunity.
In
transcendencetheIisnotsweptaway,sincetheson
is
notme;andyetI
am
my
7
son.
As
forthecultural-historical
moment
inWesternself-understanding,itfollowstherise
of
what
might
becalled
aduJtism-the
secularism,individualism,andpositivism
of
themodernistrevolution,
spearheadedby
thehegemony
of
theCartesian
subject
asa
way
of
understanding
self
and
world
8
-resulting
inthe"invention
of
childhood,"i.e.,thereification
of
thechildasaspeciallife-formseparatedfromadults.
The
dialoguewiththechildandchildhood
whichemerged
dialecticallyfromthisseparationleads,incultureand
in
thought,to
an
"enlargement"
inatleasttwoforms:amore
profound
and
empa
theticunderstanding
of
children
themselves;andamoreinclusiveunderstanding
of
therole
of
childhoodinadultself-understanding,which
is
above
alla
reclamation
of
whatMerleau-Ponty,called
"a
dimension
of
being
and
atype
of
knowledge
which
[adult]manforgetsinhisnaturalattitude.,,9
This,
in
tum,
isconnectedwithwhat,inthe
same
volume,hecalls
"the
task
of
our
century.
..theattempttoexploretheirrational
and
integrateitinto
an
expanded
reason."
I!)
HistoricalPerspectives:
The
Two
Teleologies
The
hermeneutics
of
childhood
is,ashasalreadybeenindicated,
anoriginary
theme
in
human
self-understanding,
found
in
someform
acrossculture
andthrough
history.ItsWesternnarrativeisinitiated
in
theWest'sfoundingtext,theBible.Both
meaning
poles
of
therelationadult-child
are
giveninthe
"greatcode"
fromthestart,
and
become,
in
time,
two
disparatedevelopmentalgoalsfortheWesternlifecycle,in
ambivalent
coexistence.Jesussays:
becomelikelittlechildren
and
youwill
knowwhat
I
know,whichis
differentand
moreimportant
than
what
adultsknow,andwhichwill
save
you.Paulsays:
be
nomorelikechildren,
who
areweak,ignorant,andeasily
tempted
bysin,butgrow
up
intothefullstature
of
mature,sober,
man-
hood,Wecanfindthese
two
contradictory
HERMENEUTICS
OF
CHILDHOOD
45
 
themesstatedanddevelopedconsistentlyintheWest.Jesus'theme
is
olderthanhe
is.
EventheGreeks,wholumpedchildrenwithslavesandwomen,associatedthemwithnatureandthegods.Likethefool,themadman,andthoseundertheinfluence
of
soma,
thechildissacred:
"Wine
andchildrentellthetruth."ChildrenservedasintermediariesbetweeninitiatesandthegodintheEleusianmysteries,sincetheirverymarginalitywasa"statustheysharewiththegods.""Thechildisacipherforthecontrastivepairsacred/pro-'
fane-a
meaningpolarityassociatedwiththemysterioussubversion
of
established
order
expressedinalltaboopeople.Jungcalledthisprojectiveimagethe"archetype
of
thedivinechild,"anddescribeditasrepresentinga"paradoxicalunionbetweenthelowestandthehighest,"andanoriginalandterminalunity
of
consciousandunconscious,l2As
in
Jung'sthought,so
in
theJesussayingsthe"littlechild"representsanexcluded
fonnof
knowledge.Notyettrapped
in
theseparativeindividualismandstereotypicsedimentations
of
adulthood,thechildrepresentstheunity
of
knowledgeandbeing,afundamentalparadigm
of
thestructure
of
presence,andtherebyisaninvoluntarywitness
to
thetruths
of
natureand
of
spirit.
But
thistooissimplythedefmitiveWesternstatement
of
anideaalreadypresentfromancient
times-for
example,"AbovetheheavensisYourmajestychantedbythemouths
of
children,"or
"He
who
is
inharrnony...withtheTao
is
likeanewbornchild."I)Whatthenearuniversalacceptance
of
theGospelsasthegroundingtextforearlyEuropeanself-understandingdidwastoplacethisthemeintheforefront."Unlessyou
tum
andbecomeasalittlechild,youwillneverenterthekingdom
of
heaven,"becametheguidingimageforadultdevelopment.
It
wascentral
to
thespirituality
of
BernardandhisCistercians,whichshapedthe"newpiety"
of
PHILOSOPHYTODAY
46
thelateeleventhandtwelfthcenturies.
14
St.
Francisabove
allinstantiatedtheChristian/platonicview
of
knowledgewhichunderstoodtheworldasbeingturnedupsidedown,andthewisdom
of
Godregardedasfoolishnessby"reasonable"men:
in
aworldwhere
doxa
andeven
ratio
rule,thehigherknowledge
(noesis
or
intellectus)
,
apprehendednon-discursively,becomessubversive.
Francis's
childlike"foolishnessforChrist'ssake"lookedlikeitwasturningtheworldupsidedown,butitwasactuallyturningtheworldrightsideupagain.SointheWesternChristianknowledgetraditionwehaveafirstepistemology
of
childhood,relatedtotheepistemologynotonly
of
thefoolandthemadman,but
of
thesaint.
IS
This
lradition,whichunderstoodwhatH6lderlincalledthe"Edenicself-unity
of
childhood"'6to
be
prophetic
of
ahigherknowledgewhichmustberegainedbytheadultinthecourse
of
development,foundnewexpressionintheiconography
of
Renaissanceart,wherethedivinechildbecameapowerfulsymbol
of
thereconciliation
of
opposites--Qfheavenandearth,ChristandDionysius,
eros
and
agape.
In
hisroleasspouse-child
of
thequeen
of
heaven,thenaked,playing,infantChrist/Amorpresentsuswilhanimage
of
edenic
sexuality-what
Freudcalled,inaperverselyadultomorphic
tum
of
phrase,the"polymorphousperverse."
II
wasthemystery
of
theincarnation,
of
the
flesh
of
GodwhichsofascinatedtheRenaissanceChristian,17andtheunion
of
immanence
a n d - t r a n s ~ e n d e n c e
of
theIncarnationwasbestrepresentedbyachild,who
wa'Snot
yetadividedbeing.Thusevenatthegates
of
modernismthearchetype
of
thedivinechildhasaniconicpower,asymbolicmeaningpenetrating
to
whatGombrichcalls"newandunexpectedcategories
of
experience."
The
Child
is
aprimeexample
of
theRenaissanceneo-Platonicunderstanding
of
thesymbol
in
artasakind
of
magicsignwhich"bothhidesandproc
P a u l ' ~
hand,th
modem
Old
Testderstandheart
of
childrenpresumpthedisjldeeply
c
chy
and,
haspoinl'girl,'
fOI
mean's
Arabic,guages.'non-citi.areimplory,whit
of
abartoradultltoryeith
golden"
p r o g r e s ~
childho(definitic
of
thiswhichfedge
as
"theolo!cit"
mocas
ano
essoftu
It
is
ex
psychol,becallewhichament
01
investigclasseschildho'peoples
ingto
N
calimm

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