LEGO® and the Social Blocks of Autonomy

Eric Chelstrom

Think back to your earliest days playing with LEGO® bricks. Building LEGO sets was difficult at first. You had to learn to read the pictorial instructions provided, and most likely you had someone else’s guidance through this initial phase of your building. Soon, you no longer needed the additional guidance, however—the instructions provided were sufficient. Later on, you were able to build more and more advanced sets. Eventually, you might have surpassed even the instructions themselves, not just learning to anticipate steps in a build, but perhaps even learning to design and build freely on your own.

Builders who rely on instructions are less autonomous, less able to self-direct their actions and choices—they are still dependent on others in a potentially problematic way. Of course, it was only through the guidance of others that you were even able to begin to act autonomously in the first place—other people helped provide building blocks for your development. But you can also imagine that some nefarious person—Lord Business perhaps—might prefer to block your development, and keep you dependent on their guidance. If the aim is to develop your capacity to choose and act on your own, then how are others involved in your coming to be an independent person?

What Is Autonomy?

Contemporary philosopher Christine Korsgaard provides a helpful basic account of autonomy, “An agent is autonomous when her

LEGO® and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick, First Edition. Edited by Roy T. Cook and Sondra Bacharach.

© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

movements are in some clear sense self-determined or her own.”1 If your actions are not determined by yourself, then you’re not acting autonomously. If there’s some form of external constraint or inner compulsion, then your actions may not be self-determined. In order to be autonomous you also have to be competent and be choosing for yourself; this can mean that you are able to reflect upon and exercise choices based on what you value.2 If you’re being told what to like, value, or do, and that’s the only reason you do it, it’s not obvious that your actions are really up to you, or that you’ve decided to do things yourself. To act autonomously is to act in such a way that your choices are free from compulsion or coercion from others.

Thinking about how we come to get better at building with LEGO bricks, it’s reasonable to believe that autonomy develops in degrees. As an AFOL who has a son who is a KFOL, this is something I know all too well. The first sets that my son got were basically an excuse for me to end my Dark Age and to share something I love with him. But as he began to build sets without my help, I was left watching. As a parent, seeing my son’s newly developed skill and ability to build on his own was great. As an AFOL, I lost an easy LEGO fix. Thankfully, some of the more difficult building techniques still require my assistance. I also have a younger daughter who’s very happy to build with DUPLO® bricks—a gateway drug if anything is. Of course my son’s developing LEGO autonomy doesn’t mean that he’s autonomous in all other respects.

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