Reason's Children; Childhood in Early Modern Philosophy

By Schindler, Stephan K. | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Reason's Children; Childhood in Early Modern Philosophy


Schindler, Stephan K., Goethe Yearbook


Anthony Krupp, Reason's Children: Childhood in Early Modern Philosophy. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2009- 261 pp.

Ever since Philippe Aries's seminal study of I960 shed light on the historicity of childhood, significant further research has been conducted on the discursive construction of this stage of life. Focusing on the contributions early modern philosophers have made to the "intellectual history of childhood" (13), Anthony Krupp's monograph successfully reconstructs the role rationalist philosophy played in the discourses on childhood prior to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile. Countering the commonly-held belief that between 1630 and 1750 the child was merely seen as an irrational and certainly not as an important subject for philosophical consideration, Krupp's careful reading of René Descartes, John Locke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten uncovers new ground that will not only enrich the history of childhood but that of philosophy as well.

The book begins by reconstructing Descartes's struggle between body and mind, the adult's quest to overcome childhood's cognitive deficiencies, and its dependency on premature sensationalism. Childhood is here considered a stage of uncertainty, instilling prejudices and false opinions in the mind because the premature being lacks reflection and reason, whose proper use is reserved for the adult mind, which detaches itself from the reign of the body. While the child is able to think, the adult is unable to remember these thoughts because there is no self-awareness of rationality in childhood. Traces of such activity that are remembered are clouded with premature judgments, for the child is too situated in the corporeal world. For Descartes, one becomes an adult by more or less shedding one's childhood. Only under the scrutiny of the Cartesian method can a few beliefs acquired in childhood be rendered acceptable to the mature mind.

Compared with Descartes's radical opposition of childhood and adulthood, John Locke is considered the first philosopher who anticipated the idea of psychological development in children. His philosophy of the mind traces children's cognitive abilities, their deficient but not defective knowledge acquired through experiencing their immediate environment. Abstracting from these early sensuous experiences, the child gains access to the first ideas, which are not innate but learned. As Krupp points out, however, Locke had much more ambivalent ideas about children than commonly assumed. Krupp recalls Leibniz's critique of Locke's concept of self and how it is related to childhood, demonstrating the clash between empiricist (Locke) and rationalist (Leibniz). In the next two chapters Krupp spends considerable time reconstructing Locke's discussion of changelings and Leibniz's crusade against infant damnation. The latter 's idea of pre-established harmony between body and soul lends itself to structuring the relation between faith and reason, culminating in his claim that the souls of unbaptized infants rest in heaven. …

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