3. “Nursery Lies About Childbirth”

One of my earliest memories is from an episode of Sesame Street. Based on when the episode originally aired, it has to have been a re-run the time that I saw it. It’s the episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper died. The thing that strikes me about that episode, and strikes me again whenever I watch it, is that they don’t lie to Big Bird. The model they present is one where they take his fears and sadness seriously, but they are honest and genuine with Big Bird about this tragic event.

Big Bird’s Drawing of Mr. Hooper

This stands out to me, I think because adults lying to children about things is not really all that uncommon. We do it when situations are much less important, and the stakes are much lower. Sometimes the boundaries around whether it is a lie are a bit fuzzy (it can sometimes be unclear whether something is a game of mutual pretend, or whether the kids are at-least-sort-of-believing it). In my house growing up, we had the tooth fairy, but (being Jewish) not Santa, and, at least in pop culture, there are a lot of stork-based theories relayed to children about where babies come from (I don’t think I know of a single person who themselves heard a stork based theory, though).

Believe it or not, this picture is directly relevant to this very serious essay about early modern philosophy!

So, it also jumped out at me, when I was reading Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning Human Understanding and he referenced a popular German lie told to children about where babies come from (the title of this post comes from the post-index “List of Examples, Illustrations and Anecdotes”, which alternates between fairly boring and highly intriguing/evocative in its brief descriptions of the various examples, illustrations and anecdotes):

noise of waves” vs. “the infallibility of marble and wood”

THEO: Yet one time when a child was told that his new-born brother had been drawn from a well (which is how the Germans satisfy children who are curious about this matter), the child replied that he was surprised they did not throw the baby back into the same well when it troubled the mother by crying so much. The point is that the account gave him no explanation for the love the mother showed towards the baby. It can be said, then, that if someone does not know the foundation of a relation, their thoughts about it are partly of the kind I call muffled, and are also insufficient, even though they may suffice in some respects, and in some situations.

New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (254) — G.W. Leibniz

Okay, so, let’s back up to some context: Who is Leibniz, who is Theo? And why did Leibniz write a dialogue in which Theo is talking the downfall of this German method for avoiding difficult conversations with children? Also, why is the dialogue called “New Essays”? (I don’t actually have a great answer to that last question).

Lightning round answers to these questions: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, was a German philosopher (who is sometimes better known as a mathematician). He wanted to correspond with everybody, but because he and Isaac Newton had some bad blood over the question of who invented calculus (answer: both of them), and because Newton was a pretty influential person in England, the story is that Newton more or less blacklisted Leibniz. One of the people that Leibniz wanted to talk to was John Locke. Locke, being best buddies with Newton, did not correspond with Leibniz (he may have had other reasons for not corresponding, but at any rate). But, Leibniz still wrote a book length running commentary on Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he then converted into—very bad as dialogue, but good as philosophy—dialogue by having one character, Philalathes, just quote from Locke’s Essay a bunch, in order, and then have the other character, Theophilus just give Leibniz’s response to Locke’s Essay, more or less paragraph by paragraph. It wasn’t published during Leibniz’s life, because Locke died and Leibniz didn’t want to publish a book length criticism of the recently deceased. This doesn’t yet explain whey it is called “New Essays” but it does explain the “Human Understanding” part of the title. And, Philalethes (i.e. Locke) had just mentioned, in the preceding line of the dialogue, that if someone believes that kids are plucked out of a cabbage patch because they are growing under the cabbage, that isn’t any barrier to their understanding what it is for two people to be siblings.

PHIL: If I believed Sempronia took Titus from under a cabbage, (as they used to tell children,) and thereby became his mother; and that afterwards she had Caius in the same manner,…I had as clear a notion of the relation of brothers between them, as if I had all the skill of a midwife.

New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (254) — G.W. Leibniz (quoting from the Coste translation of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Locke’s point, in the Essay, is to distinguish between the relation itself, and the foundation of that relation. For instance, it seems, with this example, that he takes the relation of being brothers to just be sharing the same mother (this isn’t Locke taking a strong stand on which parent is more integral to siblinghood, by the way, he is a conventionalist about relations themselves, and the meanings of terms, generally). His point here is that knowing what it takes for two people to get into the situation of sharing the same mother isn’t required for being able to think thoughts like “Caius and Titus are brothers”. The midwife has a much better understanding than the cabbage patch theorist about what actually happens with childbirth, but Locke thinks, the cabbage patcher can still understand which people are siblings (I almost used the word “know” but we have to be cautious with using the word “know” around any of the early moderns, especially the empiricists).

Okay, so what’s Leibniz’s complaint?

Well, if you tell a kid that their sibling was plucked out of a well, and the sibling is getting on their nerves, they might suggest throwing the sibling back in the well. Leibniz’s diagnosis is that the kid doesn’t really understand their relationship (or their parents’) to the sibling, and that’s why they think “throw the kid away” is a live option.

It is super important to note that Leibniz, in classic Leibniz fashion, would be quick to point out that he isn’t actually full-on disagreeing with Locke. He’s not saying that the cabbage-patcher or drawn-from-a-well-theorist can’t form a thought like “those two are brothers”. Leibniz just wants to say there is something extremely limited or defective in the way they think about being siblings, and it is illustrated by the readiness with which the child will suggest getting rid of their annoying crying baby brother or sister.

Leibniz calls thoughts with these partially understood notions “blind” or “deaf/muffled” thoughts (he uses different terms depending on whether he makes the reference in Latin or French). Unlike Locke who has simply divided the issue into two questions:

(q1): What is it to be siblings? (a1): to share parents.

(q2): How does one become a parent? (a2): [the story of where babies come from]

Locke thinks competence with “sibling” just requires knowing the answer to Q1. Q2 isn’t really relevant. Leibniz thinks q1 and q2 are pretty obviously interrelated since the answer to Q1 mentions parents. But he doesn’t think you can’t have thoughts about siblings if you’re in the dark about Q2, he just thinks you’re having limited, inadequate thoughts. So if we had a dimmer switch to reflect how well you understand things, it wouldn’t be turned all the way up. Importantly, for Leibniz, there can be/are more than just two questions, and it all comes in degrees! It’s a much richer picture, but he still gets to say the minimal thing Locke gets (that the really confused person is thinking (in some way, at some times)) about siblings.

Note, by the way, that this is compatible with thinking that even people who haven’t been lied to are also having confused/limited thoughts about siblings. Their dimmer switches are turned up higher, just, you know, not all the way up. Maybe that explains things like Shel Silverstein’s “Sister For Sale” poem:

In this poem, a child wants to sell his sister, but we have no indication that he believes the sister was drawn from a well, or pulled out of a cabbage patch.

So when I go back and watch that very memorable Sesame Street clip, where Big Bird comes out and says “I’ll give it to him when he comes back” after having been told that Mr. Hooper died I think to myself, there is something to be said for Leibniz’s way of capturing this. Both Locke and Leibniz can say that Big Bird believes that Mr. Hooper died, because the adults told him this, but when we ask why he isn’t sad yet, Locke seems to only have mushed the bump on the carpet over a bit, and hasn’t really dealt with that (this is not fully fair to Locke, but I’m not trying to be fully fair to Locke, at the moment). Leibniz, on the other hand, seems to really capture the sense in which Big Bird is having a thought that is simultaneously about Mr. Hooper being dead, while also explaining why he isn’t yet sad, only confused. And as the adults explain to him more of what that means, he experiences sadness and fear, and is better able to understand their reactions as well as what has happened in the world.

This one turned out to be more of an Essay Concerning Understanding Big Birds, but if you’ve ever read The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch) ° Lessons from a Life in Feathers °, I think you’d agree that Big Bird is human enough to be a worthy subject of our attention. And if you haven’t, I recommend you read it!

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