Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy

I’ve just finished reading Bertrand Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy”. I loved the book even though I disagree with almost everything he has to say.

Here are some modest reflections about it:

  1. This book is a perfect hinge between modernity and the twentieth century. On the one hand, Russell sums up the contributions of modern philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume and Kant to the theory of knowledge; on the other, he sets out the foundations of the new epistemology that developed in the first half of the Twentieth Century and gave birth to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and Popperian falsificationism.
  2. I was surprised to learn that Russell, for all his empiricism and positivism, was also a Platonist. That is, he thought that universals such as the principle of induction, mathematical entities (numbers, geometrical figures), the law of causality, etc. are all real. Moreover, Russell claims that they don’t exist as material entities but as perfect, immutable, immaterial forms. Russell is not willing to follow Plato in his mystic moments, and he’s not willing to embrace mystic readings of Plato’s dialogs. In addition, he doesn’t want to trace a very sharp division between doxa and episteme; as a good British empiricist, Russell sees a continuity between common sense and philosophical-scientific knowledge. He trusts our human instincts and claims that sense-data (the “sensible world”) play a very important role in providing raw material to our knowledge. But, other than that, he’s a full fledged Platonist.
  3. Concerning the last point: this is perhaps where we feel more alien to Russell now. After Sellars’ denunciation of the “myth of the given” and Quine’s holistic understanding of knowledge processes as always based on ontological commitments, we are reluctant to accept Russell’s lineal view of knowledge acquisition, which starts from value-neutral atomic data and uses it to build more complex and theoretical knowledge forms, such as knowledge by description (or inference). We now believe that sense-data are already penetrated by theory, and that our knowledge processes are circular (but not necessarily visciously circular).

 

Bertrand Russell on the analogy between truth and justice

The following quote belongs to the penultimate paragraph of Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy”:

The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

This is one more beautiful example of the point I’ve made over and over again, and that you can find, expressed in different ways, in such varied authors such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Jean Piaget, Charles Peirce, Jean-Pierre Vernant and many others: that there is a fundamental analogy between truth and justice; and that this analogy does not merely consist in a formal similarity between both concepts, but stems from a common, deeper source: the struggle for justice in the realm of the practical affairs of mankind has evolved into the search for truth in the theoretical realm.

I’m sorry

My son is an adorable and smart kid. I have talked about him in this blog, especially to provide illustrations of developmental milestones. But, in order to put his achievements in context, it’s necessary to mention that he’s developmentally delayed. That is, he’s 4 years 1 month old now, and he’s mastering certain behaviors that are typical of 2- and 3-year-olds.

For example, he has recently learned how to say “I’m sorry.” There are several ways to perform this speech act (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) in Spanish; he uses “lo siento” instead of “perdón”, the latter being more common here in Argentina. I guess he picked up “lo siento” from TV shows such as Caillou or Go Diego Go, that are dubbed in Mexico or Spain.

The speech act of apologizing is a very peculiar and interesting one. It involves a) the recognition that one has done something wrong (something morally bad, or perhaps neglectful or careless), as well as b) the request that the person one is interacting with forgives (gives up feelings of anger and decides not to punish) this behavior. It also implies that the person apologizing is committed to avoid such wrongdoing in the future. There’s a whole conception of responsibility implicit in this apparently simple speech act.

As I have argued elsewhere, I support the Piagetian idea that action precedes thought (Piaget, 1976), which on the level of speech acts translates as: rhetorical moves precede explicit concepts. In other words, my son apologizes because he senses he can get certain pragmatic results by using this speech act. He performs the speech act pretty well, with the right tone in his voice and a cute expression on his face. So he convinces me and I capitulate: “ok, ok, but don’t do that again”.

Yet it’s easy to see he’s not mastered the rules of apology. For example, he tells me “I’m going to wash my hands”, and so I reply, “ok, but please be careful not to make a mess with the water,” and then he says “I am sorry”. Or, when he’s intentionally kicking a chair, I tell him “don’t do that again” and he says “I’m sorry” but continues kicking the chair just as before. So he’s contradicting two felicity conditions of the speech act of apologizing: in the former example he’s not committed the wrongdoing yet; in the latter, he’s not committed to avoid doing it again in the future.

To sum up: my son is pragmatically effective but he’s still not conceptually clear about what “I’m sorry” means. He doesn’t get responsibility, pardon, commitment, etc. Conceptual clarity about the meaning of apologies will arrive later, as a result of reflection on this interaction with the world, favored by social instruction, social representations and symbolic interaction in general.

 

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.2307/3326622

Piaget, J. (1976). The grasp of consciousness (S. Wedgwood, Trans.). Cambridge Massachusettes Harvard University PressOriginal Work Published 1974.

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (p. 203). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Speech-Acts-Essay-Philosophy-Language/dp/052109626X

 

 

Dialogue of the deaf

Dialogue of the deaf

I had a stimulating discussion with a neuroscientist the other day. I tried to explain to her that my interest in children’s cognitive development is linked to my interest in epistemology, that is, to what I refer to in this blog as the normativity of thought.

For example, I argue that researchers who try to explain children’s knowledge of math from a nativist point of view, can only explain the starting point of cognitive development. The starting point is innate mathematical knowledge, which is mostly implicit, and basically consists in an ability to identify the numerosity of collections of objects found in the outside world. In other words: researchers have shown that animals (humans included) have the innate ability to assess the size of a collection of perceived objects (for example, they can notice that a collection of 15 pebbles is greater than a collection of 10 pebbles). They can also discriminate among exact quantities, but only when dealing with small sets (two, three, and perhaps four objects). Also, some animals and human babies can perform elementary arithmetic operations on small sets (adding two plus one, subtracting one from two, etc.) I am referring here to studies by Dehaene (2011), Izard, Sann, Spelke, & Streri (2009), Spelke (2011), and many others.

This basic capacity is certainly different from fully-fledged “human math.” The latter involves, at the very least, the symbolic representation of exact numbers larger than three. We (humans) can represent an exact number by saying its name (“nine”), or by using a gesture that stands for the number in question (depending on the culture, this might be done by touching a part of one’s body, showing a number of fingers, etc. – see Saxe ( 1991) and also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_number_gestures). And, of course, we can write down a sign that represents the number (for example, with using the Arabic numeral “9”).

Scholars agree on the fact that advanced math is explicit and symbolic, and that it builds on (and uses similar brain areas to) its precursor, innate math. Once they operate on the symbolic level, humans can do things like: performing operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and others), demonstrating mathematical propositions, proving that one particular solution to a mathematical problem is the correct one, etc. To sum up: our symbolic capacities allow us to re-describe our intuitive approach to math on a precise, normative, epistemic level.

Now, here’s when it gets tricky. I argue that the application of algorithms on the symbolic level is not merely mechanical. Humans are not computers applying rules from a rule book, one after the other (like Searle in his Chinese room). Rather, as Dehaene (2011) argues, numbers mean something for us. “Nine” means nine of something (anything). “Nine plus one” means performing the action of adding one more unit to the set of nine units. There is a core of meaning in innate math; and this core is expanded and refined in our more advanced, symbolic math.

When executing mathematical operations (either in a purely mental fashion, or supported by objects) one gets a feeling of satisfaction when one arrives to a right (fair, correct, just) result. Notice the normative language we apply here (fair, correct, right, true, just). We actually experience something similar to a sense of justice when both sides of an equation are equal, or when we arrive to a result that is necessarily correct. (Note to myself: talk to Mariano S. We might perhaps do brain fMRIs and study if the areas of the brain that get activated by the “sense of justice” in legal situations, also light up when the “sense of justice” is reached by finding the right responses in math. If a similar region gets activated, that might suggest that there is a normative aspect to math that corresponds to the normative aspect of morality).

For me, then, the million dollar question is: how do humans go from the implicit, non-symbolic, automatic level to the explicit, symbolic, intentional and normative level? What is involved in this transition? What kind of biological processes, social experiences and individual constructions are necessary to achieve the “higher,” explicit level? (These are interesting questions both for the field of math and for the field of morality). And my hypothesis is that this transition necessarily demands the intervention of a particular type of social experience, namely, the experience of the normative world of social exchanges and rules of ownership (I’ve talked a little about such reckless hypotheses in other posts of this blog).

Now, when I try to explain all this to the neuroscientist, I lose her. She doesn’t follow me. For her, human knowledge is the sum of a) innate knowledge and b) learning from the environment. Learning is the process by which our brain acquires new information from the world, information that was not pre-wired, that didn’t came ready to use “out of the box.” Whether such learning involves a direct exposure to certain stimuli that represent contents (a school teacher teaching math to his or her students) or a more indirect process of exposure to social interactions is not an interesting question for her. It doesn’t change her basic view according to which there are two things, and two things only: innate knowledge and acquired knowledge. What we know is the result of combining the two. And this is the case both for humans and for other animals. Period.

Something similar happens when I talk to her about the difference between “cold processing” and “hot processing.” We were discussing the research I am conducting right now. I interview children about ownership and stealing. In my interview design, children watch a movie where one character steals a bar of chocolate from another, and eats it. The interviewer then asks the child a series of questions aimed at understanding her reasoning about ownership and theft. Now, the movie presents a third person situation. This means that the child might be interested in the movie, but he or she is not really affected by it. Children reason about what they see in the movie, and sometimes they seem to say what they think it’s the appropriate thing to say, echoing adults’ discourse. Because, after all, the movie is fiction, not the real world.

I believe that normativity emerges not from absorbing social information that comes from external events (watching movies, attending to teachers’ explanations) but from children’s real immersion in first person, real world, conflictive situations. When a child is fighting against another for the possession of a toy, there are cries and sometimes there even is physical violence. These encounters end up in different ways; sometimes children work out a rule for sharing the scarce resource, sometimes they just fight, and sometimes an adult intervenes and adjudicates in the conflict. The child’s reactions during these events is not dictated by cold reasoning but by deeper impulses. It is in these situations where we should look for the emergence of our basic normative categories, such as reciprocity (both social and logical, or “reversibility”), ownership (or the relationship between substance and its “properties”), quantity (used to implement equity and equality), etc.

But, again, my biologist friend does not feel that the distinction between the impulsive, intense, hot reactions we experience when involved in real conflicts and the kind of third person reasoning that is triggered by movies and artificial stimuli is an important one. In both cases, she argues, it’s the same cognitive system that is at work. What we think about third person characters is probably similar to how we reason about ourselves (thanks to our capacity for empathy, our mirror-neurons, etc.)

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong here.

 

Dehaene, S. (2011). The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition. The number sense How the mind creates mathematics rev and updated ed (p. 352). Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/dp/0199753873

Izard, V., Sann, C., Spelke, E. S., & Streri, A. (2009). Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106(25), 10382–10385.

Saxe, G. B. (1991). Culture and Cognitive Development: Studies in Mathematical Understanding. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spelke, E. S. (2011). Quinian bootstrapping or Fodorian combination? Core and constructed knowledge of number. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(3), 149–150.

 

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Just read Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning. A beautiful and moving book, although not because of literary or theoretical merits. It’s the (real) story that this little book tells that touches us.

At the end of the book (after the concentration camp narrative) the author presents a brief introduction to logotherapy. I’m not very impressed about it. One thing that I find interesting, though, is that there are strong parallels between Logotherapy and contemporary Positive Psychology. For example: Frankl argues that happiness does not depend on the objective qualities of one’s situation in life (such as how much money one makes, how much recognition one gets in one’s profession, how smart and beautiful one’s companion is, etc.)  Rather, happiness is always relative to how one evaluates each event, as being a blessing or a disgrace. Frankl’s examples: moments of extraordinary joy in the concentration camp when one gets a spoon of soup from the bottom of the pot (thus: with beans!) or when one realizes that one is being transferred to a concentration camp that doesn’t have gas chambers. Yes, one can be genuinely happy while being sent to a concentration camp, if one feels very fortunate for evading the possibility of gas chambers. It’s a relative improvement on the previous situation.

Another parallel concerns the fact that happiness is not conceived as the total sum of pleasures, not even of positive emotions. Both Frankl and Martin Seligman (in his book “Authentic happiness”) argue that happiness ultimately depends on the possibility of attributing meaning to one’s life. Having an encompassing sense of one’s mission in life (“trascendence”), whether based on religious views or not, always helps us to make sense of one’s everyday experience and to give coherence to the story of one’s life.

PS: After writing these notes  I just happened to listen to a Shrink Rap Radio episode that deals with the same issue: http://shrinkrapradio.com/291-comparing-logotherapy-and-positive-psychology-with-marshall-h-lewis-ma/

 

Metaphors in the clinical situation

Sometimes it’s very hard to convey my feelings and thoughts about a specific situation to my clients. In order to clarify my point of view, a metaphor sometimes comes handy, and it’s usually more effective than a technical explanation.

I am currently seeing a 11 year old client brought to therapy by his parents. The parents bring the child to therapy because of certain problematic behaviors they don’t know how to handle (mainly, the child is stealing money from family members). I am convinced that the client’s mother is emotionally unstable, and that my client’s inappropriate behavior is in part a way of coping with his mother’s emotional difficulties. So, during the family interview, I recommended the client’s mother to start individual psychotherapy for herself.

The father is a I.T. guy, a system analist specialized in computer security. He asks me why, if the child is the one who is behaving inappropriately, I am telling the mother to seek help. And I reply:

“A family is a system. The more robust a system is, the better the programs run. But if the system is low in resources, or freezes repeatedly, you can’t expect the programs to run well. Now let’s pretend that your son is Word, and your family is Windows. We need Windows to run smoothly in order to help Word do its job. We can still debug and improve Word and any other programs, and we will do that, but everything will be better if we solve the problems in the OS at the same time.”

I think he understood.

 

 

Interviewing children without inducing the answers

When we interview children for research purposes we usually face two typical dangers:

–          Suggestibility: sometimes researchers use biased questions that contaminate children’s beliefs or memories. Sometimes children just want to give interviewers the reply they feel is expected or “socially desirable”. It’s easy to induce a given response in a 4- or 5-year-old, and if this happens… then research results are worthless.

–          Unreliable memories: Not only are young children very suggestible, they are also not reliable when recalling events that just took place. Thus, if we show them a video clip and then ask them some questions about it, it’s important that we make sure that children understood what they saw and can retain the events in their memory.

 

To sum up: it is essential, when we are designing our research interviews, to avoid any tricky questions or stimuli that might interfere with children’s spontaneous thinking (the latter being what we are interested in). I’ve just read three papers that supply interesting and relevant findings we should keep in mind when designing appropriate research interviews with young children.

1) Roebers & Schneider (2005) found that the better the child’s language abilities the less suggestible the child is. Language development seems to be key (especially language fluency and comprehension) rather than other general domain variables such as executive function or working memory. Investigative interviews are language dependent; language abilities play a major role for explaining differences in suggestibility. This finding, however, comes with an interesting caveat: it is also easier to purposely disrupt children’s memories when they have good language skills. The reason for this is that children with better language skills process (false) verbal information provided by the researchers more efficiently, and later they have trouble distinguishing between original and suggested information. Individuals with better language skills encode, store, and thus remember the contents of the misleading questions better than do individuals with poorer language skills. Language can work either way.

2) Peterson, Dowden, & Tobin (1999) investigated the influence of question format on 3 to 5 year old children. They found that when researchers frame their questions with a yes/no format (e.g., “did the woman take the man’s hat?”) many preschoolers tend to reply “yes”. This is so even in cases when they don’t know the answer or when they have been presented information that requires a “no” answer. By way of contrast, when children are asked the equivalent wh- question (e.g., “what did the woman take?”) children give more accurate answers and the percentage of children who answer “I don’t know” increases. The authors conclude that there are dangers inherent in yes-no questions: answers may be influenced by response biases or other factors besides how veridical the underlying proposition is. Children seldom say “I don’t know” when they are uncertain or do not know the correct answer. Specific wh- questions seem to be less problematic.

3) Mellor & Moore (2014) investigated elementary school children’s ability to use Likert scales during research interviews. In my opinion, their work has several important methodological flaws. Mainly, the questions are too complicated and children’s failures to use the scales adequately reflects, in my opinion, more the inherent difficulty of the problems posed to children rather than the (un-)reliability of Likert scales. There are a few interesting comments in the paper, anyhow: a) children tend to respond to Likert scales with a left-bias (that is, they seem to pick the first item in the scale more often than the rest); b)  5-point scales yield similar results to 3-point scales (they don’t seem more difficult to understand for elementary school children); c) word-scales (eg: very good-kind of good-more or less-kind of bad-very bad) produce more reliable results than number scales (5-4-3-2-1).

Altogether, three interesting and relevant papers. I’ll keep these findings in mind when designing my own research interview.

Mellor, D., & Moore, K. A. (2014). The use of likert scales with children. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 39(3), 369–379.

Peterson, C., Dowden, C., & Tobin, J. (1999). Interviewing preschoolers: Comparisons of yes/no and wh- questions. Law and Human Behavior, 23(5), 539–555.

Roebers, C. M., & Schneider, W. (2005). Individual differences in young children’s suggestibility: Relations to event memory, language abilities, working memory, and executive functioning. Cognitive Development, 20(3), 427–447.

 

On Bloom’s “The Moral Life of Babies”

Very nice piece by Harold Bloom in the popular press (NYTimes), where he summarizes recent cognitivist-nativist research on morality. He claims, for instance that:

“A growing body of evidence (…) suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.”

Throughout the article he tries to present a moderate position that recognizes cultural variation in moral codes and the necessity of social experience for moral development, but claims that there is an innate core of morality, a cognitive starting point shared by all humanity. This innate aspect constitutes a basic moral sense (in a sense similar to which Stan Dehaene talks about the number sense). So, for instance, he acknowledges the relevance of the convincing studies by Joseph Henrich (this one, among others) yet asserts that those cultural codes are built upon the firm base of our innate capacity for feeling empathy, compassion, and for distinguishing aggressive (“evil”) agents from cooperative ones.

Thus, when commenting on Tomasello’s research that seems to imply an innate capacity for cooperation, he argues:

“Is any of the above behavior recognizable as moral conduct? Not obviously so. Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. (Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.) And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise.”

To present morality as a list of features, however, does not help us understand what is distinctive about morality in opposition to innate cognitions: its normative nature. So, when Bloom asserts that “the morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with” I couldn’t agree more (and I am happy to notice that a nativist like Bloom has the intellectual courage to make this point); but his very theoretical framework doesn’t help him to clarify in exactly what way cultural morality is different from a biological tendency to process information in a certain way.

“The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology (…) A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development.” Yes, I agree. But: what is culture? How does exactly culture build the normative, universal, deontic discourse that we call morality on top of our innate capacities? That is the question.

Wellman & Liu’s Theory-of-Mind scale

I’ve just finished reading Wellman & Liu (2004). The scale they developed for measuring children’s progress in their development theory of mind is a great tool with lots of potential. They claim their scale can be used in “research examining the interplay between theory-of-mind understanding and other factors.” (Exactly what I want to do). Thinking of other interactions, I wonder if there’s something like that for measuring number or mathematical knowledge.

I also like Calero, Salles, Semelman, & Sigman (2013) paper on a modified version of Wellman and Liu’s experiment. They developed a computer-based version of the test and validated it with a 6-to8 year old Argentine children. That’s something I could use for my research too.

Calero, C. I., Salles, A., Semelman, M., & Sigman, M. (2013). Age and gender dependent development of Theory of Mind in 6- to 8-years old children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(June), 281. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00281

Wellman, H. M., & Liu, D. (2004). Scaling of theory-of-mind tasks. Child Development, 75(2), 523–41. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00691.x

Spinoza on Commercial Television

“We can, for example, decide not to watch commercial television, and advocate its eternal banishment from the households of intelligent citizens. By controlling our interaction with objects that cause emotions we are in effect exerting some control over the life process and leading the organism into greater or lesser harmony, as Spinoza would wish. We are in effect overriding the tyrannical automaticity and mindlessness of the emotional machinery.” (Says Damasio in “Looking for Spinoza”, http://www.amazon.com/Looking-Spinoza-Sorrow-Feeling-Brain/dp/0156028719).

He doesn’t say anything about Facebook, though.

Sandplay

I’ve just read about 140 pages of “Sandplay Therapy” by Barbara Labovitz Boik and Anna Goodwin. It’s a down-to-earth manual with step by step instructions about how to use this technique in clinical contexts. It’s not a theoretically ambitious book. Yet the technique does impress me as very interesting and powerful; the book offers very clear guidelines and I’m sure I will start using it in my private practice.

I am surprised by how Jungian the authors are. They are focused on producing meanings, actually in making each patient saturate her or his sand tray with images loaded with meanings. In theory this is the opposite to what Lacanian analysts do; the latter are supposed to concentrate on the signifier, the symbolic relations, and to patiently wait for meanings to erupt at certain specific points  when discourse breaks up-for instance in Freudian slips, memory lapses, etc. Also, this strain of Jungians seems not to interpret what patients say, because they believe that the unconscious does all the healing by itself. The psychologist is just a witness that “holds” the patient’s work.

Of course, in spite of how analysts describe their practice, they end up doing more or less the same, no matter which theory they adhere to.

Middle Ages

I’ve been reading “Sophia’s World” with my daughter, who is 10 now. We’ve already read about Antiquity (Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) and we’re now starting with the Middle Ages. But she interrupts me: “Stop! Stop! Are you saying that the Middle Ages come after all this? How is that possible?”

Change is death

Today I was reading about Plato’s theory of ideas and the allegory of the cave.

All of the sudden, one of Plato’s counter-intuitive points made sense to me. I am referring to Plato’s claim that the material world known to us through sensation does not really exist or, more precisely, that it has a derivative type of existence. In other words, for Plato, it is only the world of ideas that is really real. The material world, the world that we see, hear and touch, has a lower ontological status.

Plato’s theory is built upon a mathematical-geometrical version of truth. From within this paradigm, truths are eternal. Thus, the concept of a circle never changes, it is the material embodiment of circles, such as cart-wheels, that change.

Plato’s stance is, in part, a reaction to previous, pre-Socratic philosophies, above all to the opposition between the doctrines of Parmenides and Heraclitus. For them, change consists in something turning into something else. Change is ubiquitous, according to one point of view; change is impossible, according to the other. They both agree, perhaps, in the following: when A turns into B, B being something radically different from A, A needs to die for B to be born. A has to be negated for B to be asserted.

And if change means death, then things that change-as Plato claimed-don’t really exist. Or they exist ephemerally, they enjoy only a transient, fragile existence that depends on more fundamental, invariable concepts and structures.

If this is the case, then we, humans, don’t exist. Because our life consists in becoming something else, something different, all the time. And therefore, we stay alive by dying, we survive by killing ourselves.

Intangible territoriality

L. (3 years and a half) has become very defensive of his territory, especially in his dealings with his older sister. He started by demanding her not to touch him or the toys he was using. Later he began to enforce a kind of “exclusion zone”: he doesn’t want his sister to get too close to him, especially when he’s playing by himself (with his toy cars, etc.). Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time; they often play together and get along well. But sometimes he does get very territorial and shouts or cries asking her to leave (in his jargon: “¡ite!”), and if she doesn’t obey he tries to recruit parental help.

Lately, in what I see as an increase in this kind of territoriality, he seems to be concerned about “intellectual property”: whenever he says something and is echoed by his older sister (or other people) saying something identical or very similar to what he just said, he tells her not to copy him (“¡No me copies!”). He’s enforcing intangible boundaries that protect his identity; he’s drawing an assertive circle around him and he’s self-confident enough to try to deter his older sister from crossing this limit.

 

The doctor will tell you to behave

At about 3 years of age, I tell L. that he will be having a haircut later. I ask him, “Do you know where we’ll take you for the haircut?”. And he replies: “Yes, to the doctor”. This makes sense, I think: both the doctor and the barber do something intrusive with your body.

A month later he is scratching persistently a mosquito bite and I tell him to stop so that he doesn’t hurt himself. He says: “Take me to the doctor”. “Why?”, I ask. His response is: “He’ll ask me to behave” (“me va a decir portate bien“).

A couple of weeks after that he sees me trying to repair my car. He tells me: “call the doctor”. I ask him: “What for?” And his response is: “He’ll ask the car to behave” (Para que le diga portate bien).

So not only behavior problems (or disobedience) are assimilated to physical body problems. In a twist to child animism, the car body is like a human body, and a car can be taken to the doctor to get disciplined, or at least to be scolded and instructed on how to behave.

Foucault lives.