Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Imagining Itself (part XVII: A False Dichotomy)

“'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'”
So begin the opening lines of “Hard Times”, voiced by Thomas Gradgrind - one of Charles Dickens’ most opinionated and repugnant pedants. The history of people’s love affair with fact, objectivity and reality is a long one and abounds with countless rejections of the assumed trivialities and useless indulgences of fictions, imagination and fantasy in particular. It is as if these things are the very antitheses of all that is worthwhile and meaningful in the world. My intention here is not to take sides in this longstanding and often tedious debate over the relative merits of objectivity on the one hand and subjectivity on the other. Instead my aim is to show that the opposition is largely misconceived and is the product of a inadequate understanding of the nature of subjectivity in particular. In order to address this issue it might be useful first to give an overview of some of the more prominent attitudes that have emerged out of this misunderstanding, especially as it pertains to child development, during the last century (and no doubt much longer). 

A significantly influential figure in 20th Century conceptions of childhood development was Sigmund Freud who was of the opinion that children’s fascination with fantasy was simply a “wish fulfilment”: a means of securing in the mind what in reality is denied them. According to Freud, such thinking is gradually replaced by a secondary more realistic or objective thinking process as the child matures toward an adult rational understanding of the world. However, as is often the case with Freud, his actual scientific observations were surprisingly scant considering the complexity of the theories developed and this frequently led to assertions of fact where there was little more than his own home-grown version of imaginative wish fulfilment.

It should be quite obvious to anyone carefully observing the development of a child that the imaginative phase is in fact secondary to an initial phase of exploration and testing during infancy. Indeed Josef Perner (1991) identifies 3 stages of child cognitive development that concur with this observation precisely. How otherwise could children play at make believe if they have no understanding the basic principles that govern what they seek to manipulate? You cannot pretend to feed a toy panda unless you already have a basic grasp of the nature of food, the representation of animals and the purpose of mouths. Paul L. Harris makes a similar point at the beginning of his book (“The Work of the Imagination (Understanding Children's Worlds)” 2000) on the development of childhood imagination. He describes how both Freud and later the influential developmental psychologist Jean Piaget mistook childhood fantasy as a maladaptive process that is gradually suppressed as the child approaches adulthood. Harris continues by pointing out how even in the most seemingly implausible games of make believe, children nonetheless apply rational understandings of cause and effect and when these are questioned or violated they can become surprisingly doctrinaire in pointing out how spilled pretend tea makes a teddy bear wet.
“Children draw to a remarkable extent on the causal understanding of the physical and mental world that they have already built up during infancy. Thus, in pretence, young children may step back from current reality, or go beyond it, but that does not necessarily entail any cognitive distortion of the general principles by which reality operates.”- Paul L. Harris
Like Freud and Piaget, Maria Montessori, who’s teachings continue to be practiced in schools around the world carrying her name, also believed that too great an emphasis on fantasy play was detrimental to the development of children. Montessori advocated an education that emphasized “reality” and replaced make-believe activities like pretending to be a farmer with real-world equivalents like gardening. Many of Montessori’s ideas about education were close in kind to those of Friedrich Froebel, the German founder of kindergarten education, but unlike Froebel, Montessori was unconvinced that imaginary play and fantasy had any real value or purpose for the developing child:
“Just as adults find pleasure in tragic drama and literature, these tales of goblins and monsters give pleasure and stir the child’s imagination, but they have no connection with reality.” -Montessori
Interestingly in an interview, Montessori’s own grandson, Mario, mentions that his grandmother read him fantasy stories when he was younger than the age at which she insisted that they should be read to other children. (J. Kirkpatrick, “Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism”).

What becomes apparent in these attitudes towards subjectivity – and many like them - is the repeated assumption that fantasy-play and subjectivity in general are superficial, unreliable and potentially corrupting influences upon the young, the impressionable and the mentally infirm. For many people there is something deeply wrong with this attitude but it can be very difficult to counteract it without reinforcing the very terms that we are seeking to call into question. The key to resolving this issue, as we will find out in the next post, is to consider both subjectivity and objectivity in representational terms: as ways of understanding the world and most especially of describing it to others.


Brian said...

You may be a little harsh with Montessori. It seems that she saw imagination as something essential but integrated into activity. This is not too hard to understand when you remember that the ‘fantasy’ resources available for children, both then and now, can be suspect and perhaps even harmful - given that the fantasy is invariably produced by adults. Perhaps better to allow their imagination free play by providing possible stimuli: I don’t think she would have advocated the stifling of imagination - but we have had a discussion before about the possible difference between imagination and fantasy. It’s not an easy distinction to make. We might see more imagination in the notion that “spilled pretend tea can make a teddy bear wet” than in a 3D version of Harry Potter’s latest ‘fantasy’ exploit: I think that is the track you are on?

Jim Hamlyn said...

I think the Montessorian scripture must have changed quite a bit since its patron saint went to meet the great educationalist in the sky, but perhaps you’re right and I’m being a little unfair. I have no doubt at all that there is much of great value in many of the methods that Montessori promoted. You know me – I just like to be a bit irreverent sometimes. Blame it on my schooling.

You make a good point though about the "fantasy resources" made available to kids. Rather than aiming at those kinds of insidious representations, I was thinking more in terms of the kinds of fantasies that children develop of their own accord. You're absolutely right though that these are to a significant degree influenced by ideologies that not even the most diligent parent could entirely protect their child from.

What I'm trying to avoid though is confusing fantasy culture with the subjective capacity for fantasy. Perhaps this is where we ran into difficulty previously. What I think happens all too frequently is that fantasy gets dismissed as a pernicious distortion of the facts when all that is happening is that facts are being combined in novel and for-all-that-we-know (but not necessarily entirely) impossible ways. Nonetheless, as impossible as these imaginings might be it is arguable that such forms of recombinant mind-play are an essential part of intellectual enquiry – of sensitisation to the evolutionary value and potential of cultural variation. It’s not the daydreamers and kids with imaginary friends that we need to worry about – they often grow up to be very well adjusted inquisitive individuals. It’s the kids whose imaginations are stultified by an overzealous adult insistence on facts, objectivity and reality that we need to be concerned for.

As I’m going to try to argue in the next instalment on this blog, I think subjectivity is too often regarded as the very antithesis of objectivity, when in fact subjectivity has recourse to a range of representational strategies – some of which are as objective as we beings are capable of getting. Objectivity makes no real sense outwith an understanding of representation: an objective account is an attempt to come as close to a Matching representation as is possible.

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