Reason's Children: Childhood in Early Modern Philosophy

By Mieszkowski, Jan | German Quarterly, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Reason's Children: Childhood in Early Modern Philosophy


Mieszkowski, Jan, German Quarterly


Krupp, Anthony. Reason's Children: Childhood in Early Modern Philosophy. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2009. 261 pp. $56.50 hardcover.

Taking up the familiar 18th-century notion that the very young are not yet rational creatures, Reason's Children offers a far-reaching study of why the first phase of human life is a crucial topic for philosophers from Descartes to Baumgarten. Krupp considers childhood both as a phenomenon with which any theory of subjectivity must come to terms and as an argumentative catalyst that allows fundamental questions about the developmental logics of ideation to be posed. At moments, the thinkers under consideration are shown to take particular positions on infants and children because of their more fundamental rationalist or empiricist views. At other points, the problem of childhood is revealed to be one name for the complex dynamics of the preliminary, the premature, and the proto-rational that plague, and potentially confound, any model of reason.

Inviting us to look beyond Rousseau's famous passages on childhood, Reason's Children helps us begin to understand why Emile and The Confessions come to dominate Romantic reflections on youth and infancy while other works are downplayed or ignored. In the first chapter on Descartes, Krupp explains that what are often trivialized as the French philosopher's scattered remarks on children are in fact symptoms of a series of subtle revisions of the core positions that organize his oeuvre. The conclusion that the Cartesian method demands that we purge ourselves of our childish ways may seem somewhat predictable, but taking stock of Descartes's shifting ideas about childhood provides new insights into the ways in which his conceptualization of memory problematizes the very distinction between mind and body.

Krupp examines similar tensions in the second and third chapters on the "other" well-known philosopher of childhood, John Locke. Not only have scholars failed to recognize how many different kinds of children appear in Locke's texts, but "for someone who is famous for claiming that children may be regarded as rational creatures," Krupp argues, " Locke is quite expansive in cataloging ways in which children are intellectually lacking" (69). Somewhat unexpectedly, Locke turns out to be an ally of Descartes thanks to their mutual dismissal of the cognitive powers of children as "useless" (69) . Indeed, one of the main lessons oí Reason 's Children is that it may be hard to philosophize about children without at once championing and betraying the rationalist project, irrespective of one's explicit stance toward it. …

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