Diana Būtienė (Lithuania). An Existential View of the Phenomenon of Childhood
Existential theory provides understanding of an adult’s life. What can it tell us about childhood? There is almost no literature on the theme. The only existential philosopher who considered the phenomenon of childhood is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He gave lectures, devoted to the dedicated criticism of Jean Piaget, at the University of Sorbonne.
Merleau-Ponty was convinced that Piaget‘s theory did a great harm to understanding children and the phenomenon of childhood in general (Merleau-Ponty, 2010). Piaget considered children’s thinking, the thinking of the primitive people and the thinking of a pathological consciousness as being very much alike, because they have one quality in common: the absence of objective logical thinking. Merleau-Ponty totally disagreed with this view, stating that children’s thinking and consciousness are of essentially different quality.
Merleau-Ponty argues that the child is, essentially, a natural phenomenologist. Children, as compared to adults, have very little knowledge and experience. Facing a new, unknown situation, an adult builds on his or her ‘databank’. Children, in turn, perceive the world and what happens in the world with a fresh eye, without any admixture of prior knowledge. This peculiarity, natural ignorance, inevitably makes children phenomenologists.
Two other distinct features of childhood – involuntary attention and inability to distinguish clearly between essential and superficial, extrinsic qualities of an object. The skill to concentrate and to distinguish between the primary and secondary features comes with age, and these are very useful skills, especially during the process of education. On the other hand, involuntary attention and ignorance guarantee creative thinking. While an adult has to make an effort to ‘place his/her knowledge in ‘brackets’, to look at something impartially, from a different perspective, a child does this effortlessly.
Another important peculiarity of childhood is connection to the present situation. The first manifestation of inclusion is the fact that children, when dealing with someone or something, participate in the situation bodily. An adult mostly watches, observes, makes conclusions, talks with himself inside his head. A child seeks physical contact – he/she wants to touch and to taste. Immediate physical confrontation provides much information on what the child is dealing with. Another ‘proof’ of inclusion is spontaneity. Adults often must learn to be spontaneous, while this quality is ‘given by nature’ to children. Spontaneity and ability to improvise are parts of one entity (Gladwell, 2007).
Adults live in reality and consider events and things objectively, which, certainly, is no problem, but which may hinder the process of thought. They need conscious efforts to allow their thought to fly. Children are much more flexible: using fantasy and imagination, they can adapt to different conditions, find creative solutions or quickly find the way out of ‘dead-end’ situations much easier.
Just as children are natural phenomenologists, they also have no choice but to make immediate contact with ontology. Children, because they do not have defined personal borders yet, are open to the world. This openness goes in hand with feeling and understanding. As a result, children cannot help understanding. However, a different view most often prevails in our society: it is supposed that children are too little to understand anything, that understanding facts (especially existential facts) of life comes with age, experience and development of logical thinking.
The reason seems to be the fact that the Western culture accepts cognitive thinking, based on data analysis and abstract conclusions, while ignoring the existence of understanding based on feeling. This pre-verbal sensual experience, which Heidegger calls knowledge, is ‘the way it is’. The problem is that it is hard, sometimes even impossible to describe this sensation in words – words are insufficient. For this purpose, adults ‘invented’ the language of art – poetry, music and visual arts. Children also possess the language of art (story-telling, play, drawing, etc.), but it is usual that only children’s psychologists are interested in these. Children are in a difficult situation: on the one hand, their speech is less developed than that of adults, while, on the other hand, children’s speech is not always accessible to adults or the children’s attempts at narrating are devalued and not taken seriously. As a result, children become, so to say, enclosed in their feelings, in their knowledge of this ‘as it is’.
It is hard to be understanding and to accept children’s feelings: horror, loneliness, fear of death, helplessness, frustration and hopelessness. Understanding requires being open, coming in touch with these feelings, which places an adult on par with the child, facing existence. Such equality is hard to withstande…
It should be noted that, according to Merleau-Ponty, despite otherness and independence of children’s consciousness distinguished by its peculiar logic, many adult features are also shared by children, which is why behaviour of adults reveals traces of children’s behaviour. It means that both, the child and the adult, can master both languages, the only difference being in the degree to which the languages are used. The difference between thinking of a child and an adult is not the same as between logical and prelogical thinking. The difference is that an adult uses one of the two languages less than a child.
Both Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger stress importance of pre-verbal experience in a person’s life. Pre-verbal experience is considered as a different mode of existence, distinct from conscious understanding, but it is not a rudimentary phenomenon of which a person should get rid as he/she matures. This peculiarity of existential worldview provides a possibility to give more respect to the phenomenon of childhood: on the one hand, we should not disregard otherness and independence of children’s consciousness, but, on the other hand, we should accept the fact that children are open to ontological experience.