Thursday, June 12, 2008

Origins of Questioning

I've been reading Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices, a book about Sign and the psychic world of the deaf. Sacks mulls the importance of questioning to the intellectual development of the child. He says:

The orgin of questioning, of an active and questing disposition in the mind, is not something that arises spontaneously, de novo, or directly from the impact of experience; it is stimulated, by communicative exchange–it requires dialogue, in particular the complex dialogue of mother and child.

(pp. 64-65, Sacks' emphases)

Questioning therefore arises from ethical relations and is an ethics before it is an ontology or a question of being. Before I wade into what might be a minefield I want to step back and ask a few questions.

I'm inclined to think that Sacks is correct about the origins of questioning. What does that inclination say about my worldview? What beliefs or ideas would be implied in an acceptance of this proposition? Should I have some sort of commitment to these ideas? I'm more interested in commitments to ideas than in beliefs, but it will be no simple matter to wrest the two apart.

Though I resist committing to either materialism or idealism, an inclination to believe what Sacks is saying may imply a materialism, or at the very least beliefs that are anthropological or perhaps humanist in a special sense that would entail a belief in something like a material existence of the human. Let me elaborate.

Maybe we ought to tear apart Sacks' formulation bit by bit. He emphasizes dialogue. We may well be concerned here with a commitment to a dialogism. Dialogism implies that there exists something like language or logos. Maybe language can be conveniently separated from logos–after all one can talk about language in a language that bears no traces of ever having been influenced by ancient Greek, much less ancient Greek philosophy, and in Europhone universities one can study language scientifically in near total ignorance of ancient Greek philosophy. Perhaps, however, dialogism sneaks the logos into the study of language–if it weren't already there as a cryptid of university study, visible through a hypothetic egalitariscopy that puts the studied in dialogue (oops, circularity) with the student. Should you decide between saying "language" and "logos" without being able to describe what–if what is the right pronoun–you mean? I say "logos" to essay a meaning and suggest a vista. Perhaps the gesture continues a project of hypothetic egalitaroscopy which can be interrogated further at a later time. Let's keep our doubts about the logos committed to by dialogism and move forward.

Who speaks through the logos? Should we commit ourselves to throughness? Is this an instrumental or pragmatic worldview, or is there a specific mode of thinking the passage that we should want to explore?

Is there a question of people, or singular persons, communicating through the logos? On the surface we can't escape the conclusion that persons speak to each other in the complex dialogue Sacks is talking about. (Do they speak to each other before the logos is formed, while it is still in its infancy?) There is the mother, and there is the child, both of whom appear to represent persons. However, if we think in terms of a primary care giver, care givers or a relation of care–perhaps to speak of a mothering relation would fall within a recognizable comfort zone, though we should really want to expand our horizons here on the matter of kinship relations and child rearing–then Sacks' "complex dialogue" could be thought of as not requiring persons. On the other side of the equation we would then have an infancy relation, or dialogic relations from a position of infancy, and we absolutely should question how an entity dialoguing from a position of infancy would be a person, and what it might mean to be a person in infancy. (We won't forget Daniel Stern's admonition that the fact that the infant has no speech does not free us to assume that the infant is not a person who inhabits an interpersonal world.)

In thinking about infancy and dialogue, we should also be thinking about a theme Sacks discusses at modest length: the intergenerational aspect of language, which is namely the fact (see what we're doing here) that language wouldn't be what we know it to be in the absence of relations across generations. The generation is a sociological concept that implies the existence of people. Whether people imply the existence of persons is a question we will put on hold; at this second it is enough to examine the claim that people exist.

Well, it's not so easy to disentangle the person from the intergenerational aspect of language because what we are talking about is language learning, and, from Sacks' point of view, the psychological, which is to say intellectual, development of the human being. So a belief in psyches and intellects is very much a part of Sacks' worldview, and their existence may be implied by our inclination to think he's correct about the origins of the question. Can we imagine learning or something as technically defined as scaffolding (étayage perhaps) or even infancy as the position of the learner without believing in something like psychological development? How much learning is not intergenerational? How much learning flows from younger generations to older generations? These are empirical questions, I reckon, and to seriously ask them means committing to the idea that entities like people exist, however dynamically we might wish to conceive of them. (You may have already jumped to the point where I question whether ethics implies a belief in the existence of people; I guess I'll come to that in some fashion.) Philosophically, we should want to know whether learning can take place in the absence of people, persons, or psyches. I've underscored an idea of ability, which is I think critical to Sacks' worldview, and perhaps ours. Since we are talking about psyches and intellects we may want to keep in mind the question, empirical or philosophical, of whether abilities can exist in disembodied forms. Does the idea of a questing dis-position imply a reality that may or may not be be disembodied?

Let's briefly conceive of people dynamically. They exist relationally, which allows us to sensibly speak of society, social groups, or kinship. Their potential (we assume they are dynamic) is not realized in instants, but over time, and it itself develops over time. They also have a capacity to shape relations, and perhaps their own relationalities. They can narrowly attune their relations. They can intensify them, increasing their frequency, passion and kinetic energy. They can make selected relations more complex, and so Sacks speaks meaningfully of a complex relation between mother and child. People change; in concert with others they exercise some influence over the changes they undergo. What kind of change is the logos? Whence its dynamism?

Logos, throughness, care, infancy, learning, people, psyches, dynamism, dispositions: I commit to exploring these realities, though uncertainties abound.

I thought questioning is an ethics because of its origin; however, what if questioning has more than one origin? Should we speak of its origination, or must there only be one origin, one orient, one East, one Sun, one rising (ὄρνυσθαι)? The possibility that questioning is not like the sunrise, that it emerges from more than one source, more Jamestown than Plymouth and more both than either, should perplex us. In one sense questioning emerges from a perplication of care, and if we abandon our perplexity in response to questioning, or view the abandonment of perplexity as a specific aim of questioning, we risk instrumentalizing not only our own abilities, but a relation that doesn't completely belong to us, or that to the extent that it is in fact within our power, was given to us in a spirit that would be violated were we to abandon perplexity, much less take on a disposition against perplexity. At this point it is really throughness that we should want to understand. How should we live throughness?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:47 AM.


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