Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Emile, or On Education by Jean Jacques Rousseau

God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.
Emile, or On Education by Jean Jacques Rousseau is a classic from the 18th century, contemporary with the American and France revolutions.While the style is verbose and tedious to read, the content is both dated and surprisingly current.

On diet, he espouses the benefits of vegetable fare, with quaint references to acid, alkali, and worms, adding
use neither butter nor oil for frying.
On the subject of doctors, he agrees with my mother:
I will go farther, and will declare that, as I never call in a doctor for myself, I will never send for one for Emile, unless his life is clearly in danger, when the doctor can but kill him.

I know the doctor will make capital out of my delay. If the child dies, he was called too late; if he recovers, it is his doing. So be it; let the doctor boast, but do not call him in except in extremity.
Rousseau seems torn on the topic of tabula rasa. In one side, he believes infant are born with a natural language.
It has long been a subject of inquiry whether there ever was a natural language common to all; no doubt there is, and it is the language of children before they begin to speak.
He even supports his argument with the observation of grammatical mistakes made when children use their internal grammar instead of observing the exceptions in the spoken language. Such observations are discussed extensively by Steven Pinker, a wonderfully readable cognitive psychologist who writes extensively on this subject.

On the other hand:
We are born capable of learning, but knowing nothing, perceiving nothing. The mind, bound up within imperfect and half-grown organs, is not even aware of its own existence.
I was surprised how new age Rousseau seemed with his support for breast feeding, fresh air, vegetarian diets, and natural medicine.

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