As a starry-eyed freshman philosophy major, I dived heart and soul into my first three-hundred-year old epistemological debate. Had I not spent the first seventeen years of my life as a weird unsocialized homeschooler, perhaps I would have been painting my face blue and jumping up and down in a crowded stadium, screaming for my team to grab the ball away from the red team. As it was, instead I was centuries away in the library, reliving the enlightenment by reading Locke and Descartes, and on pins and needles over what would turn out to be the true source of human knowledge.
Locke insisted that all real knowledge could be reduced to the information gathered by the senses. Descartes countered that the senses could not be trusted, and that the only true knowledge we have comes from the mind itself. Locke’s arguments were too dry and systematic to be truly persuasive to me. I was on the side of Descartes, perhaps because he completely swept me away by his fanciful examples and melodramatic despair. His was a work of passion and deeply felt personal experience, as well as philosophic brilliance. He began his attack on Locke’s empirical system by presenting the example of a simple ball of wax. When heated, it changed its shape and texture to such a degree that previously gathered knowledge about it was suddenly inadequate to describe it in its new state. If the senses could be deceived about as simple an object as a ball of wax, were they not in all probability also unreliable in more complex instances? Feeling disoriented by the complete collapse of his knowledge base (even though he had systematically dismantled it himself), Descartes feels suddenly vulnerable to sensory deceit on a massive scale. He imagines in despair that even his own existence might be only an illusion, perhaps perpetrated on him by some evil demon. In that moment of anguish, face to face with the fallibility of his own perceptions and the naked truth that in the end he is alone with his soul, Descartes finds that despite everything, he cannot disbelieve in himself and his own consciousness. “Cogito, ergo sum,” was his famous conclusion: “I think, therefore I am.” (I can still hear those magic Latin words, pronounced to me with a hint of an accent by my attractively enigmatic professor, who had given up mathematics for philosophy during a summer in which he traveled across Europe, sleeping under park benches so he could save money to go to museums and cultural monuments.) Having plumbed the depths of skepticism and survived with one powerful belief intact, Descartes asserted joyfully that even an evil demon could not convince him that he existed when in fact he did not. Reasoning onwards from this one firm belief, he was eventually able to painstakingly reconstruct what he felt was a more sure framework of knowledge. (Luckily, Descartes was not acquainted with the Hindu goddess Maya, who in imitation of his evil demon is supposedly perpetrating the illusion of individual existence on all of us until we return to the sea of nonexistence.)
I’m sure you are all as relieved as I was with Descartes’ daring escape from the ball of wax and the evil demon. And if you’ve read this far, you deserve to know what made me think of Descartes in the first place. While they never debate about it, my two children are miniature disciples of Locke and Descartes respectively. Like Locke, Axa believes in the evidence of her senses. She learns mostly empirically, by watching and listening. Last week she taught herself to ride a bike in a single afternoon, because she had observed a friend riding and reproduced what she had seen. When she first started talking, all I had to do when she made a grammatical error was to casually repeat back what she had said, with the mistake corrected, and she would never make it again. She readily uses complex vocabulary and phrasing out of the books we read. Dominique, on the other hand, is firmly on the side of Descartes. He prefers to reason things out in his mind and understand how they work before he does anything. When I try my repeating trick with him, it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe me and prefers to say it his own way. He repeats the phrase back to me, this time verbally emphasizing his own proprietary (although erroneous) grammatical point. He is always thinking about how language works, and intuiting perfectly logical but odd uses for words. He chipped a tooth a few months ago, and calls it his “trimmed” tooth. Yesterday he told Tony that he wanted to “re-put on” his mitten. While the false dilemma (e.g. “do you want to go now or in five minutes?”) still works with five-year-old Axa, Dominique at three sees through it easily. His response is “neither,” and he then repeats what he has already reasoned out as the best course of action.
Both epistemological preferences have their strengths. Axa’s memory and knack for imitation combine to make learning new things easy for her. Hers is a joyous brilliance that takes in the world around her and reflects it back, brightened by her own particular radiance. But she knows how capable she is, and sometimes gets frustrated when she fails to live up to her own exacting expectations. Dominique’s belief that understanding leads to mastery allows him to overlook small mistakes he makes and see them in the context of a continuous learning process. He often does things more slowly than Axa, but he only does them after thinking them through and deciding exactly how they should be done. The resulting confidence gives him a strength of character that imparts both success and contentment.
The differences in how my children acted were somewhat bewildering for me until I understood that those differences originated in the way they saw the world and their preferred methods for gaining knowledge about it. What can I say? I never imagined that the epistemological debate between Locke and Descartes that fascinated me as a teenager would be so illuminating to my parenting endeavors. And people used to tell me my philosophy minor would never be useful . . .