Friday, May 21, 2010

Children, Language, and Dinosaurs - An Augustinian-Wittgensteinian-Sit-Commian Excursus

Everything you need to know about theology, you can learn from little kids. Jesus seemed to think so, anyway, and William Blake, C.S.Lewis, Ludwig Wittgenstein all seem to agree, to varying degrees. If you scoff at such a claim, wait until your first offspring approaches the golden age of one. Its the new two, trust me. One is a wonderful time full of first steps, first adventures, and first words - and also a heartbreaking time of first good-byes, first tantrums, and first rebellions. All of it is worth it a thousand times over, of course. Its just that not every "new-ness" is as terribly fun as the next.

In such strenuous times, it is tempting to find myself in agreement with St. Augustine's infamous exegesis of his own infancy. In opening book of his Confessions the bishop of Hippo infamously recalls how he would manipulate his mother into breastfeeding him, concluding:

"We root out these faults and discard them as we grow up, and this is proof enough that they are faults, because I have never seen a man purposefully throw out the good when he clears away the bad. It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things that would harm him..." - AMEN - "to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him;" - PREACH IT - "and to try to strike others who know better than he does, including his own parents, when they do not give in to him and refuse to pander to his whims which would only do him harm." -COME ON NOW!- "This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength." (Conf. I.7, trans. Pine-Coffin, talk back mine)

To all those who are horrified by these remarks, you either do not have children, or persist in the mistaken belief that your child is somehow the center of the universe (which is impossible - MINE is). But I suspect those who have spent time in the trenches of high chair warfare, guerilla diaper attacks, and kitchen cabinet sabotage are at least willing to give the great pessimistic saint a further hearing.

While Augustine certainly accuses Original Sin as the party responsible for his concupiscent ways, he also fingers his frustrations with language as a party to the crime. Prior to this passage, he notes that

"Little by little I began to realize where I was and to want to make my wishes known to others, who might satisfy them. But this I could not do, because my wishes were inside me, while other people were outside, and they had no faculty which could penetrate my mind. So I would toss my arms and legs about and make noises hoping that such few signs as I could make would show my meaning...and if my wishes were not carried out, either because they had not been understood, or because what I wanted would have harmed me, I would get cross with my elders...and I would take revenge by bursting into tears..." (I.6)

While I agree with Wittgenstein that language acquisition is about more than simply learning the corresponding signs, here Augustine's theory is empirically correct, as he himself asserts. Frustrated at their inability to communicate and so fulfill their needs and desires, babies strike back with ruthless vengeance. Granted, its not always as dire as he describes. Just last night, during Abigail's bath, I was using a rubber fish-toy that squirts water out if its mouth to try and teach her the word "fish." Brilliant, center-of-the-universe that she is, she began to pick up on it, and began trying to form the syllables with her tiny lips. However, given that her repertoire lacks the "fff" sound, she gleefully pointed and said, "shhhhhiiiii-t." I could not resist asking her several hundred more times to say fish, until Abigail was an expert at her new word, and until Leah heard it from the hallway and wondered how many times Daddy had used the word for fish when he slammed his finger in the door. To which Abigail smiled and said, "shhhhhit." My baby girl!

Of course, more diabolical situations arise. Babies are always watching, and as Leah often reminds me, are picking up far more than we realize. Take this little clip right here, which shows the chaos that follows once Baby begins to master the sign-usage paradigm (skip about a minute in past the intro if desired):

Sigh. Makes me hope all my friends who believe that God just put the fossils there to give us the gift of wonder are wrong on this exegetical point. As you've guessed, this is NOT my baby...yet. But notice the ways the little guy carefully observes his mommy giving the command for food to the fridge mammals, and later makes use of the same command in order to indulge in the sin of gluttony. They grow up so fast. Augustine, how did you know so much about dinosaurs? Dinosaurs, how, after 65 million years and a decade of not being on TV, do you still manage to know so much about us?

Incidentally, for those of you keeping philosophical score at home, both Abigail's and Sinclair's use of language could just as easily support the Wittgensteinian criqiue of Augustine. In the former case, while Abby clearly saw me using a certain word to refer to the fish-toy, she might very well believe that "shhh-it" is used to make the fish squirt as it is to name or describe the fish - just as she may think it refers to cooking, as when she heard me exclaim it while burning my finger on the frying pan. For an excellent treatment of this, see Chapter VII of Cavell's The Claim of Reason. There, observing his own daughter's association of the word "kitty" with the softness of a fur coat, Cavell reaches the beautiful conclusion that

"Neither Wittgenstein nor I said it was WRONG to say that the child was 'learning the names of things..." we begin more clearly to see the 'sense' in which they are meant. You AND the child know that you are really playing - which does not mean that what you are doing isn't serious...what is wrong is to say what a child is doing as though the child were an adult, and not recognize that she is still a child playing, above all growing..." (p176)

I by no means wish to deny the doctrine of Original Sin (sorry to disappoint). However, I think Cavell via Wittgenstein offers a remedy to those of us who, in our lesser parenting moments, are tempted to write the little devil off as damned before she begins. Perhaps this is because, as Cavell asserts, we wish to avoid the fact that "children learn language FROM US." (p177) Whether it is the word for fishhhhhit, or how to scream at one another, or how to touch one's face so tenderly that the you feel the whole world turning a tad bit more slowly. As Cavell continues,

"In learning language you learn not merely what names of things are, but what a name is; not merely the forms of expressing a wish, but what expressing a wish is; not merely what the word for "father" is, but what a father is; not merely what the word for "love" is, but what love is. In learning language, you do not merely learn the pronunciation of sounds, and their grammatical orders, but the "forms of life" which make those sounds the words they are...Instead of saying either that we TELL beginners what words mean or that we TEACH them what objects are, I will say: we initiate them, into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world. For that to be possible, we must make ourselves exemplary and take responsibility for that assumption of requires a new look at oneself..." (p177-9)

She will know not just the word "father" or "love," but what father and love are by the ways my life, our family life, are in the world. Her words and her world will grow as she grows into that world. This is a terrible responsibility to become aware of as a parent - as a pastor as well, incidentally - but I do no good to avoid the truthfulness of its implications. Abby learned to say and giggle at fishhhhhit because she has, I hope, learned to giggle and play from watching her parents do the same. She has learned to be angry because she has seen us in our lesser moments. I suspect part of our inclination to agree with Augustine comes from our projection of our own struggles onto our children - which ultimately shapes them into the molds we have cast by our refusal to acknowledge our own shortcomings. Treating her not like a playful child but as an adult as deranged as the self we seek to avoid can only end as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing along side her, discovering through her, growing with her will on the other hand enable us to see the mystery of new creation springing to life in a world suddenly larger than our sin - and greater than ourselves.

I pray Abigail will learn to be family, be parent, be human, be disciple, be loved and to love, because she has been treated as greater than the sum of her sin, and has seen these identities both modeled and applied to her. And this requires, as Cavell rightly says, a new look at ourselves, our commitments, and our love. She may see what Sin looks like through us - but she will also, by grace, witness what sanctification, sainthood, community, grace and new creation look like. And in the end, there is a force greater than Sin, and greater than us, shaping her destiny. So when real Sin does rear its awful head, I pray that she will also know that grace has empowered her in spite of herself to be the same playful, innocent, loving child she was in the beginning, is now, and will always be, in the Holy Spirit. Or, at the very least, she'll remember her word for fish.

Here would be a great place for an excursus on Baptismal vows and community-formation and all that wonderful theological stuff, but I've been making it a horrible habit of writing long blog posts. I shall strive to still the seas of language in the future; in the meantime, in honor of playing games, father-child love, and remaining children ourselves, I leave you with this - undoubtedly indicative of what awaits me on Abby's first birthday, which is only a few weeks away! The hazards and hilarity of learning to play...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for your new blog! I have missed your ruminations. Also, thanks for digging up (no pun intended) the vintage T.V. That stuff is brilliant.