Being a mom who teaches philosophy makes me somewhat of an oddity. I spent years, first trying to get a degree done while caring for babies, then teaching the alphabet rather than teaching Plato, then dragging older children along into conversations and lectures way too heady for them, and dragging students home to play with my children, leaving one world to race to the other, and all this while slowly growing older myself. For a long time now my students have seemed to welcome my undeniable middle-age, and they have indicated that something motherly pervades my teaching and philosophy. They have laughed sometimes uncomfortably at the fact that, as one student put it, “You’re not safe!” Apparently you can be talking to me about “mundane” stuff of life, and all of a sudden you find yourself doing philosophy. Or vice versa. And so my designation, philosopher mom.
As my own ideas about how we know what we know—epistemology—have developed, I have come to realize that perhaps the most philosophical thing anybody can do is raise a baby. All those days I was not doing philosophy to raise my children, I was in fact doing heady philosophy, and I have reaped profound philosophical rewards in retrospect. Mom says, “Eye…” and points to it. Then Baby points to her eye and says, “Dah?” and she says, once again, “eye…” And so it goes. In this lowly game she words his world. Putting words on the world is the stuff of knowing and the heart of what God made us to do.
Walker Percy said that in this event of naming, things come to be, and we, I who names and you to whom I name, are “cocelebrants of what is.” He noted especially its celebrative aspect. Baby announces, “Ball!” not simply to induce you to locate his, but for the sheer fun of saying and savoring the word. But Percy’s main point was this: we always say what we say for another.
My own epistemology (Longing to Know, 2003) has been slowly growing in the direction of claiming that we should take as our paradigm of all acts of knowing the interpersonal, covenantal relationship. I have been calling this covenant epistemology, and I am just now beginning to write this book.
In 2002 octogenarian scholar James Houston shocked me into seeing that being human might not be best construed substantivally (as a substance with essential attributes, as in “Man is a rational animal”), but should be construed interpersonally: to be human is to be a person-in-relation. He pointed me to the work of John MacMurray, whose mid-twentieth-century Gifford Lectures were published in the books, Self as Agent, and Persons in Relation.
Forget this rational animal stuff, says MacMurray. It’s led us to think that a baby is an animal that is then taught to be rational. An infant is definitely not an animal; it has no instincts. What it is is a person. It is made to be cared for, to reach out to the Other in personal relationship. The infant’s very life depends on it. But it is a love relationship of mutuality. It is exchanged through physical touch; a baby, quite literally, is born into someone’s arms.
To be a person, MacMurray argues, is to be in relationship with another person. The unit of the personal is not the ‘I’, but the ‘You and I’. Interpersonal communion does not wait for language to develop. Rather, language develops in the context of interpersonal relationship. And knowledge, from the first, is “knowledge of the personal Other,” says MacMurray. All this in a chapter titled, “Mother and Child”—!
MacMurray notes that “mother” can’t be a mere biological category. A mother is the baby’s caregiver, female or male (seems to me that was a dog in Peter Pan…) Are you, or have you been, in your caregiving, the personal Other to some wee one’s I? Welcome to the brother/sisterhood of philosopher moms. Our lot is rich indeed.
© 2005, Esther L. Meek.