Elias presents ... a worm!    Thoughts on family, philosophy,
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Friday, October 08, 2004

Led Zeppelin and embryology

I've been reading three books lately, and interestingly they are saying some similar things. I had this experience in college often, when there would seem to be an amazing coincidence between, for example, what I just learned in Calculus and what we were doing in Physics. The books I'm reading now are: Aristotle's De Anima, Montessori's The Absorbent Mind, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Aristotle is talking about the capacities of living beings and of their organs. Montessori is too. She's drawing a parallel between the stages of embryonic development in all animals to the stages of cognitive development in children. One very Aristotelian thing she says: the newborn's mind starts out empty, though it has certain capacities. (Ayn Rand agrees, of course.) The whole approach of treating the mind as a capacity analagous with and dependent upon the bodily capacities (nutrition, growth, etc.) is very Aristotelian, too.

However, Montessori is saying some things I disagree with. She would have us believe that all of nature is working as one system with its own perfection as a goal. She's taking a perspective (at least for a page or two) which denigrates the primacy of individual organisms and their goals and actions.

If she had merely said that nature is a system, discounting the private lives of individual organisms, this would have been just a false dichotomy. Because there is nothing about the individual's goal-directedness which contradicts the fact that nature can be viewed as a system. (Dare I say that the pattern of nature's evolution is an "emergent property"? ... No, I'm not ready to submit that that is a valid concept.)

But what she says is that nature has goals qua system. This is concept-stealing: only living entities, individual organisms, have goals.

She also states that a human baby is "nothing" at birth except certain capacities (fine), and as it matures into an adult it realizes the next stage of a society's evolution, because one's capacities are guided by one's environment. Again, this is off the rails -- this time she has dropped the context of human volition.

Now there is a very general sense in which one's social and cultural environment factors into one's realization of self. For example, I've been immersed in Led Zeppelin lately, which I've never really listened to before. And I'm finding that it resonates with me, it has great moments and sounds I can appreciate, as can many Americans of this era (whereas if Jimmy Page had been able to plug in 100 years ago, his sound really would have gone over like a lead zeppelin).

But one can accept or reject elements of one's culture. To be sure, I've chosen to listen to Led Zeppelin, whose sounds appeal to me largely because I've been choosing to listen to guitar bands for two decades. Man is a being of self-made soul, as Aristotle said. The most profound example of this (and counter-example to what Montessori is saying) is an intellectual and cultural pioneer like Ayn Rand, who creates and discovers fundamental new ideas and values -- in a sense, a new form of life.

Montessori is falling into the old trap of evolutionary-style determinism, a mistake with a long and deeply-rutted history. See Hegel.


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