She looked up at me with dark watery eyes that often lost focus and wandered. It was the first time I met Gracie and from that moment I have been wondering who she is. I have also been wondering who I am. What is it like to be a father? I keep forgetting that there are no ready-made scripts for the new roles that life hands us. I just assumed that my dad already knew how to be a dad from the beginning. But that’s not the way it works. Life is a confused, complex tapestry. The task isn’t just to carry out an assignment but to figure out what the assignment is, what it means—in short, to figure out who you are and what you must do. Life is a Bildungsroman. And now part of my task was to help this little squirming shivering girl find her way. For thirty-one years I had been like her eyes – occasionally focused but mostly drifting. And now I had to play the part of a shepherd, a leader who knows how to navigate through selfishness, confusion, temptation, and self-doubt and emerge as a mature, virtuous person. What had I gotten myself into?
If I was to be up to the task, I needed to know who she is. But in so many ways she is not-yet. When asking who she is, I am asking what it is like to be her. What are her likes and dislikes, her ambitions, her fears. But so much of that was yet to be decided. It would depend on her experiences. And I am responsible in many ways for the kinds of experiences she is going to have. I am in the business of shaping another human soul even though my own soul is in need of its own discipline. Yet in making her, I find that I am also molding myself – forming myself into someone with a wider arc of sentiments and a more resolute sense of purpose.
But as I was holding Gracie, I knew that she was not a blank slate. She had in place the structures, the powers, and the capacities that form the mystery of human nature – the collective story that makes us all equal and places us in the order of being somewhere between beast and angel. From that first exhausted and exhilarated embrace there was a human being there. But not just a generic human being (whatever that might be). She was a unique, individual person making movements of her own doing, squiggling her arms around in an off-beat jive and scrunching her face into strange contortions.
But what was she thinking? Was she thinking anything? I wanted to know what she was like. Well, that meant: what was it like to be her? What was that interiority like, that first-person experiential standpoint that we call thought or consciousness? I experience only my own consciousness, so that’s all I had to work with in terms of material for trying to piece together what she was like. The problem was that when I think about my own thinking, it is so thoroughly mediated by language. Gracie had a mind built for language. She was primed to go through processes in which she would pick out the phonemes specific to the language spoken by her mom and dad, identify individual words, speak those words, and then string them together in new and creative ways. But she could not yet do this. If my thoughts occur in language and Gracie does not yet have language, then does she have thoughts? Does language express thoughts that were already there, or does it give us thoughts…does it make us into thinking beings?
It is a philosophical question, but it is also an empirical one. According to an excellent book by Charles Fernyhough (The Baby in the Mirror), development psychologists are making some headway on this question. Recent studies are suggesting that infants have several basic building blocks of thought in place. Infants can reason about objects, actions, and spatial relations. Complex cognition involves combining these basic “core knowledge systems” together. It is not totally hard-wired, though, as experience plays a major role in how these systems will interact and develop. According to these studies, language is the highway that connects these basic blocks together. So, there is pre-linguistic thought, but it if we could experience it, it would be something more compartmentalized, choppy, and rudimentary. There was something it was like to be that little newborn in my arms. But I am not sure I could quite fathom it.
Innate “core knowledge systems” sounds a lot like “nature” takes precedence over “nurture.” But another insight from developmental psychology is that human thought develops to a large degree out of social processes. We learn to think by first doing it together. This happens when infants and toddlers struggle together with their parents to solve a puzzle. Then we see them talking out loud to themselves as this social thought makes a transitional move toward interiority until finally we do all of our thinking quietly in our heads. Or, not all of our thinking exactly…adults still talk to themselves out loud when facing a particularly tough challenge. So, Gracie has the structures in place, but she will need my help to get them warmed up and to figure out how they work. I just hope that this basic process of enculturation comes naturally!
Gracie is now nearly eleven months old and just recently we have seen something new bubbling up to the surface. She is constantly pointing to the things around her (especially the glowing Christmas tree) and proclaiming “Bah!” If we ask her where the Christmas tree is, she will turn and point to it and say “Bah!” It seems she has become infected with that human urge to name things – to cut nature at its joints and give each part an ephemeral token of sound that can stand in for the thing itself. The word will help the thing live in memory. It will transform and improve on the thing in imagination. This must be revolutionizing her consciousness, even though she remains that same girl riddled with joy, dispensing spontaneous laughter and eager smiles. Could there be a core personality that will ride out this typhoon of language that is just now beginning to swell on the horizon? I find myself hoping so. She has such a melodious soul, a sing-songy existence that is rooted in a basic enjoyment, a deep satisfaction with the rush of sensations that constitutes life.