Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


Article excerpt

We speak of "inspiration," and the word should be taken literally. There really is inspiration and expiration of Being, action and passion so slightly discernible that it becomes impossible to distinguish between what sees and what is seen, what paints and what is painted. (Merleau-Ponty, 1974: 288)

Artistic activity makes the artist aware that he is not the author of his works. The efficient causality which, in day-to-day activity, binds the worker quite unambiguously to what he produces . . . turns out, in the artist . . . to be under the influence of voices that are mysterious insofar as they cannot be compared to those resorted to in usual forms of collaboration; to be consumed by summonses which even deflect its propulsion from true.

This . . . age-old experience of inspiration . . . takes on exceptional weight when one asks oneself whether enthusiasm or possession are not concealed at the heart of all activity, even beneath the primordial activity of consciousness and language; whether a delirium more profound than thought does not support thought; whether language which claims to be act and origin . . . is not an inveterate passivity, the endless reiteration of an old old story. (Levinas, 1989: 151)

Let me juxtapose my epigraphs with a quotation of different tenor. Where Levinas and Merleau-Ponty unsettle distinctions between mind and body, inside and outside, subjective and objective, and self and other, Piaget calls on all these distinctions, as well as on an opposition between a readership of "us" who know these distinctions, and a category of "them" who lack this knowledge and are our object of analysis. Piaget opens The Child's Conception of the World by stating that "the first question, obviously, is to decide whether external reality is as external and objective for the child as it is for us" (1973: 45). His answer is that the child

is a being knowing nothing of the distinction between mind and body. Such a being would be aware of his desires and feelings, but his notions of self would undoubtedly be much less clear than ours. Compared with us, he would experience much less the sensation of the thinking self within him, the feeling of a being independent of the external world. The knowledge that we are thinking of things severs us in fact from the actual things. But, above all, the psychological perceptions of such a being would be entirely different from our own. Dreams, for example, would appear to him as a disturbance breaking in from without. Words would be bound up with things and to speak would mean to act directly on these things. Inversely, external things would be less material and would be endowed with intentions and will. (1973: 49)

The child's thought, according to Piaget, is animist and magical, like the thought of "primitive cultures" (1973: 193).

The breathing boundaries of the child's self are wonderfully evoked by the children quoted in The Child's Conception of the World.

Barb (5 1/2 years) What do you think with? The ears. If you were to stop them up, could you think? Yes. . . no. . . (52)

Pig (9 1/2 years) What do you think with? The mouth and ears. (51)

Peret (11 years, 7 months) [We think] with the forehead. What is inside it? Our mind. Can one touch the mind? No. Why not? You can't touch it. You can't because you can't see it. Why not? It's air. (69)

Piaget claims that "social and biological factors combine at the beginning of mental life to ensure an absence of differentiation between the world and the self, whence arise the feelings of participation and the magical mentality which results" (266-67). Having thus characterized participation as lack, of differentiation, he describes child development as a staged withdrawal from open immersion in a live world: the child who first assumes that everything active is alive and conscious finally restricts these qualities to animals and perhaps plants (220-21). …

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