‘Classical’ science, ‘foreign problematics’ and ‘methodological precautions’

The methodological discussions in the Lectures reveal Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with a range of theoretical and empirical work that both supported and challenged his understanding of childhood. As explained in Chapter 6, phenomenology challenges the Cartesian ontology of separation

and its dualisms of subject/object and mind/world by revealing our embeddedness in the world. For Merleau-Ponty, the ‘reawakening’ of the world of perception marked a transition from the ‘classical’ to ‘modern’ science premised on ‘once more learning to see the world around us’ (2004: 69). The developments in the phenomenology of perception were paralleled by the birth of complexity thinking, marked by advances in quantum physics, thermodynamics, evolutionary biology, ecology and complex adaptive systems theory (Alhadeff-Jones 2017; Bates 2016; Biesta and Osberg 2010). One of the key features of twentieth-century science and philosophy was a move away from the dualistic distinctions between: mind/body; virtue/vice; masculine/feminine, reason/emotions, normal/pathological (Barad 2007). In light of these developments, it was clear that scientific approaches to the study of children would need to be evaluated by the extent to which they embraced the new thinking and began to transcend the ‘atomistic’ ontology of separation (see also Chapter 10). This led Merleau-Ponty to a highly critical evaluation of the prevailing cognitivist and behaviorist views of child development represented at the time mainly by Jean Piaget and John Watson respectively. Three further approaches were also critiqued in the Lectures', neuroscience, methods that ‘only employ statistics’ (CPP: 386) and approaches that utilize ‘Aristotelian-type’ classifications (CPP: 387). This section will briefly discuss each of them in turn and consider how they can be brought to bear on a deeper critique of emotions work.

According to Merleau-Ponty, the error of foreign problematics pertained to Piagetian studies of children’s perception based on asking children questions that children would not pose themselves, thus ‘importing a foreign problematic’ into children’s behavior (CPP: 383). For example, in his studies of the development of the concept of ‘thought’ in children, Piaget recommended the following questioning technique:

The child is asked: ‘Do you know what it means to think of something? When you are here and you think of your house, or when you think of the holidays or your mother, you are thinking of something.’ And then when the child has understood: ‘Well then, what is it you think with?’ (Piaget 1929: 37)

Depending on how children answered the question: ‘what is it you think with?’, Piaget distinguished three developmental stages in the child’s concept of ‘thought’. According to Piaget, during the first stage (up to 6—7 years of age) children are convinced that they think with the mouth and ‘confuse’ thinking with using the mouth or the voice (1929: 38—39). The second stage (at about 8 years), is marked by the emergence of adult concepts, though ‘confusion’ around these concepts remains, as exemplified by the belief that people think with the head or the brain but thought is a voice inside the head or in the neck. During the third stage (around the ages of 11-12), thought ceases to be

‘materialized’ — for example as air that comes out of the head — and the child acquires the adult, abstract concept of ‘thought’. However, as Merleau-Ponty pointed out, when the child’s response to the question ‘what is it you think with?’ is ‘with the voice’, then this does not indicate the child’s ‘confusion’ or ignorance. The upshot is that Piaget ‘failed’ to ask the child what she means when she says that ‘thought comes from the mouth or the voice’ (CPP: 143). Because the child is yet to develop abstract understandings of concepts such ‘thought’ or ‘body’, she:

uses the body as a system of means in order to enter into contact with the external world. The same goes for the voice ... Piaget does not depend at all upon real experience, but solely on his rationalization by way of adult concepts.

(CPP: 143)

Piaget’s understanding of children was clouded by his attempts to make sense of children’s thinking through the analytical categories of adults. His preoccupation with the extent to which children have achieved the capacities of adults made him arrive at a negative view of children’s capabilities. This can be seen in Piaget’s explanations of developmental stages which are framed in negative terms such as ‘failure’ to understand problems and inability to solve problems ‘systematically’:

In the first stage ... the children made no distinctions between the word and the thing [the object], and failed to understand the problem. In the second stage ... the children understood the problem, but were unable to solve it systematically. During the third stage ... the correct solution is given.

(1929: 56)

By concentrating on what a child gained in the process of development, Piaget also missed what was lost in the process. For example, his famous thesis of egocentrism posits that young children are incapable of taking on a critical perspective, due to being unaware of their own ‘subjectivity’ and the ‘confusion between the data of the external world and those of the internal’ (Piaget 1929: 167). As a result, Piaget claimed, children are egocentric: they see themselves as the center of the world and believe that everything revolves around them. By contrast, Merleau-Ponty7 argued that studies of children’s perception should be more about their lived experience rather than the ‘ideas’ which children use to make sense of their experience (CPP: 141). Merleau-Ponty’s ‘methodological precautions’ (p. 377) stem from the limitations of the ‘interrogative method’ (p. 141) which Piaget deployed to studying children and the adult categories, concepts and ideas which he used to interpret children’s experience.

Merleau-Ponty’s words of caution also call into question the Piagetian method later deployed by Kohlberg (1981) to identify stages in the development of children’s moral reasoning, as well as its more recent application by neo-Aris-totelian scholars (Arthur et al. 2017). As we have seen in Chapter 4, Arthur et al.’s (2017) ‘Character Development Ladder for assessing the development of virtue in children is underpinned by a preoccupation with measuring virtue in ‘young moral learners’ (p. 109). To develop moral stages consistent with virtue ethics, Arthur et al. (2017: 62) utilize Aristotelian categories such as: akrates (the weak-willed), enkrates (the self-controlled) and phronimos (the practically wise). Although the specific questions to ask children in order to ‘measure’ their developmental stage (and identify the corresponding ‘step’ on the ladder) are not elucidated, the ‘Character Development Ladder’ reflects the Piagetian-Kohlber-gian negative view of young children as egocentric and ‘morally indifferent’, as well as ‘potentially human’ and ‘in progress toward full humanity’ (p. 62). However, as explained below, the phenomenon of children’s syncretic sociability and Kurt Lewin’s (1931) critique of Aristotelian categories reveal the limitations of such methodological approaches.

Merleau-Ponty was also highly critical of behaviorist psychology and stimulus—response as the basis for reductive causal explanations of behavior. John Watson’s influence on behaviorism was particularly problematic when compared with the phenomenological and Gestalt analyses of behavior and intentionality. Watson dismissed ‘consciousness’ as a collection of terms related to: ‘sensation, perception, affection, emotion, volition’ that represent ‘those time-honored relics of philosophical speculation [that] need trouble the student of behavior as little as they trouble the student of physics’ (1914: 8—9). He sought to ‘throw off the yoke of consciousness’ (1914: 4) and advance instead an approach based on simple causality. He argued that it is possible to develop psychology:

and never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, will, imagery, and the like. It can be done naturally and conveniently ... in terms of stimulus and response ... habit formation, habit integration, and the like ... A psychology of interest to all scientific men would take as its starting point ... the observable fact that organisms, man and animal alike, do adjust themselves to their environment.

(Watson 1914: 9-10)

Behaviorist psychology opposed the contemporaneous developments within Freudian psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology and the burgeoning interdisciplinary study of human behavior within anthropology and sociology. The reductive causality whereby ‘given the responses the stimuli can be predicted’ and ‘given the stimuli the responses can be predicted’ (Watson 1914: 10) ignored the totality of behavior emerging at the intersection of a series of conditions that need to be apprehended as a ‘Gestalt’.

Merleau-Ponty’s critique pointed to a number of problems with Watson’s behaviorism and its elimination of intentionality, perception and consciousness. First, Watson’s reductive causality, established by ‘the third person’ and concerned with external relations, was problematic because the individual is motivated rather than caused to act and the meaning of ‘motivation’ is indeterminate (CPP: 351). Second, since the intentions motivating actions are of no interest to a behaviorist, he is unable to differentiate between the internal meanings of certain forms of behavior. For example, in the case of an experiment involving three rats in a maze that subsequently exit the maze, the rats’ responses are identical (they all exit the maze), but these responses could be predicated on a range of motivations, such as a state of being excited, search for nourishment or exploration. According to Merleau-Ponty, behaviorism cannot generate this kind of differentiation due to placing animals in experimental situations where such differences are not visible. Even more problematically, experimenters placed animals in highly-controlled situations where:

there was no true solution. Moreover, the animal’s simple success or failure is not a fundamental issue: ‘There are good failures and bad successes.’

(CPP: 345)

This point sheds light on problems arising from the methodology deployed by Martin Seligman (1972) in experiments that provided a foundation for his theory of learned helplessness and subsequently led to techniques for developing learned optimism (see Chapter 2). The dogs used as his subjects were placed in a highly-controlled experimental situation where there was ‘no true solution’ but rather a stark binary ‘choice’ between: (a) trying to escape painful electric shocks, with escape prevented by a harness or (b) not trying to escape because of the harness. According to Seligman (1995: 6), his techniques for developing learned optimism, such as ‘happiness exercises’, provide an antidote to the ‘epidemic of pessimism’. For example, the regular exercise of writing down three good things that happened each day and reflecting on: ‘Why did this good thing happen?’, ‘What does this mean to you?’ and ‘How can you increase the likelihood of having more of this good thing in the future?’ (Seligman et al. 2009: 301) is recommended for adults and children as a recipe for learning optimism. This approach to optimism can be traced back to Watson’s claim that given the stimulus (‘happiness exercises’), the response {learned optimism) can be predicted. However, this approach reduces the phenomenon of optimism to the figure (the individual learning to envisage the future in some positive way) and ignores the ground (the wider social context that may or may not support a positive outlook on the future). Importantly, as explained in Chapter 6, optimism stems from the rational activity of positing the future in a positive way (Steinbock 2014). It is, therefore, different from the moral emotion of hope, which cannot be reduced to the repetition of ‘happiness exercises’. The experience of hope opens me to others and to the reality of our interdependent existence and thus offers a different approach to overcoming pessimism, by connecting me to others.

The third element of Merleau-Ponty’s critique of behaviorism pertains to Watson’s ‘false conception’ of scientific objectivity which obscures the inescapable fact that the world is always apprehended from within a human situation (CPP: 345). Overall, therefore, a methodological precaution arising from Watsonian reduction is that behaviorist accounts should not be confused with subjective lived experience, as portrayed for example in the first-person accounts of moral emotions discussed in Chapter 6. Emotions are not ‘provoked by stimuli but by situations’ in all their complexity and ‘totality’ (CPP: 446). The ‘totality’ of emotions is as much to do with external conditions as with consciousness, mediated by culture and language. The complexity of lived emotions means that, contrary to behaviorist techniques and interventions, the self does not develop solely in response to external stimuli but emerges from a dynamic interplay of ‘inner experiences’ and ‘external givens’ (CPP: 391).

Gestalt theory also made Merleau-Ponty question contemporaneous developments within neuroscience and their reductionist view of behavior in terms of physiological processes:

it is the body’s functional totality which is capable of smiling, and not the facial nerve. Full expression only appears with the total behavior of an organism.

(CPP: 446)

Merleau-Ponty saw in neuroscience elements of ‘classical’ science due to its reductive, mechanistic approach to the body and focus on the individual as figure studied in isolation from the ground of culture. Explaining behavior in terms of neurochemical processes in the brain means that neuroscience is unable to account for the ground, the socio-cultural processes and particular situations in which behavioral patterns arise.

Merleau-Ponty also urged caution against methods that ‘only apply statistics’ and accord representative value to statistical results (CPP: 386). These representative values are then deployed to test and compare children in order to make future predictions, even though the factors measured through these tests are often peripheral to the child’s overall personality. Statistical methods offer ‘abstract’ generalizations and, therefore, fail to account for lived experience that is always concrete and particular. In order to capture the uniqueness and the totality of the child’s becoming, it is necessary to understand the ‘dynamic environment’ rather than capture the child’s performance in particular tasks through numerical analyses (CPP: 388). As detailed in the following section, to understand this totality, Merleau-Ponty worked with psychoanalytic thought and arrived at a complex account of character formation that does not rely on statistical averages but rather displays complex conflicts and contradictions.

In his critique of methods that only employ statistics, Merleau-Ponty drew on Kurt Lewin’s (1931) analysis of ‘classical’ psychology as a science of the ‘Aristotelian type’. Lewin, a Gestalt and social psychologist, sought to develop a dynamic approach to psychology that transcended what he referred to as the ‘quasi-statistical character’ of ‘classical’ psychology. He also set out to deconstruct the dichotomies and abstractly defined classes pertaining to some ‘essential nature’ of objects and people underpinning Aristotelian thinking. Lewin argued that the Aristotelian concept of lawfulness was predicated on eliminating chance and establishing the regularity of events which occurred ‘very often’ and ‘in the same way’ (1931: 146). Aristotle’s concept of lawfulness thus had a quasi-statistical character and was a ‘perfect antithesis of the infrequent or of the particular event’ (p. 146). Because of its focus on events that possessed persistence and stability, Aristotelian-type science lost contact with particularity and paradox. The loss of contact with particularity in psychology as a science of the ‘Aristotelian type’ was, according to Lewin, exacerbated by Aristotelian classifications. For Aristotle, membership in a class was of vital importance because the class defined the ‘essential nature’ of the object, and therefore determined its properties and behavior in ‘both positive and negative respects’ (Lewin 1931: 144). Aristotelian classification often took the form of paired opposites, such as cold and warm, and had a rigid ‘absolute’ character (p. 144). Neo-Aristotelian virtues and vices discussed in Chapter 4 illustrate this rigid classification. As Lewin pointed out, the separation of memory, intelligence and impulse in ‘classical’ psychology retains the ‘characteristic stamp’ of Aristotelian classifications (1931: 144). Similarly, the analysis of feelings in ‘classical’ psychology has retained Aristotelian dichotomies such as ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’ feelings.

However, the Aristotelian ‘habit’ of considering such abstractly defined classes as the essential nature of a particular person and then using the class as an ‘explanation’ of the person’s behavior is problematic. It introduces a circular logic which amounts to explanations that in effect fail to explain behavior. As Lewin argued, typical characteristics shared by children of a particular age come to be regarded as ‘essential’ for that age, for example:

The fact that three-year-old children are quite often negative is considered evidence that negativism is inherent in the nature of three-year-olds, and the concept of a negativist age or state is then regarded as an explanation (though perhaps not a complete one) for the appearance of negativism in a given particular case!

(Lewin 1931: 153)

The particularities of the situation, the diverse motivations and complex dynamics of interactions which provide the backdrop to ‘toddler tantrums’ have been erased from the above explanation. Examples of such circular explanations abound, including the Piagetian view of young children as egocentric and therefore reluctant to share their toys, and Arthur et al.’s (2017: 62) view of children as ‘potentially human’ and therefore progressing ‘toward full humanity’. Lewin compared Aristotelian thinking with Galilean thinking, which replaced dichotomous classifications with continuous gradations and, instead of rejecting paradox and irregularity, set out to understand the complex, unpredictable and seemingly chaotic world. Lewin’s work partly informed Merleau-Ponty’s account of the dynamics of childhood discussed below.

The recent revival of Aristotelian modes of thought in character education discussed in Chapter 4 may be contributing to the persistence of dichotomies such as: mind/body; virtue/vice; masculine/feminine, reason/emotions, normal/pathological, even though Lewin’s arguments have since been rehearsed both within science and philosophy (Barad 2007). We will revisit some of these dichotomies in Chapter 10. The methodological discussions developed in Merleau-Ponty’s Lectures provide the basis for a deeper critique of emotions work and its reliance on predominantly behaviorist techniques for habit formation. His analysis points to the superficial nature of behaviorist knowledge and its reduction of the complexities of our living with others to the simple total of stimulus—response-based, mechanistic interactions among atomized individuals. The methodological precautions discussed above also highlight the problematic nature of lists of ‘desirable’ character ‘skills’, sets of ‘essential virtues’ and psychometric tests which are central to many contemporary programs for character education discussed in Part I. This chapter now moves on to the core characteristics of childhood presented in the Lectures and their implications for pedagogy as a moral practice.

 
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