- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (April 27 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465007864
- ISBN-13: 978-0465007868
- Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 381 g
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #587,449 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human Paperback – Apr 27 2005
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"[A] fascinating read, penetrating but not off-puttingly so, and of far more intellectual weight than the average pop-psychology offering."
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When reading I could not stop recollecting myself as a child and juxtaposing the facts from the book with episodes from my childhood. For example, Mr. Bloom describes kids' imagining of God. As per one of the studies, they think that God is a human like creature with a voice and a face. Many kids in my kindergarten shared their vision of God in similar terms, but I remember a debate (if you can call it that) between other kids and me when we were arguing if God was a man or a woman. For some reason, the majority of kids were absolutely convinced that God was a man even though they could not explain why. The vision of God was changing with age - when I was a student, my professor of a set theory told me that God was infinity in its most abstract version. He was absolutely serious about that.
The book is practically infested with a great deal of facts and citations, which eloquently illustrate author's points. I have to admit that the author reminds me of Borges in this regard, whom he also mentions when describing some aspects of how human memory functions. Some of such illustrations are quite unusual. For example, when discussing the art and its role in human life, Mr. Bloom mentions a weird habit of Aristotle Onassis to have his barstools upholstered with the scrota of killer whales. Many might find it unusual at least and disgusting at most but it does perfectly illustrate how different human beings are in demonstration of status and power. The same is applicable to the description of Goya's painting SATURN DEVOURING HIS SON. After I read about Mr. Bloom's experience when he was admiring this painting in Madrid, I found reproduction of this artwork in the Internet and become very puzzled of how can it be anyhow enjoyable.
The last chapter of the book left me disappointed. Not because of the text itself, which was a very good reading throughout the whole book, but because of Mr. Bloom's verdict regarding factual non-existence of the soul. It is really hard to deal with such an approach, especially when formulated by a competent scientist like Mr. Bloom. I wonder how Mr. Bloom himself is dealing with this shocking discrepancy. He might be explaining it in his following book. Hopefully.
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There is, however, at least one point where Bloom goes sadly astray. It is in the very last section of the last chapter ("The Body and Soul Emotion") of the third section ("Part III - The Social Realm") and it is titled "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (pp. 182-186 in the paperback edition). It is his discussion of humor. It makes it abundantly clear that Bloom is rather dreary fellow with no real experience of the reality of children and laughter.
Bloom engages the notion that humor lies in any sort of "shift of perspective" or "incongruity between what we expect and what actually happens." As Bloom sees it, this just won't do. The problem with this, as he explains it, is:
"The missing ingredient is a certain type of wickedness. No serious student of laughter could miss its cruel nature. The psychologist Robert Provine notes that despite laughter's sometimes gentle reputation, it can be an outrageously vicious sound. Not so long ago, the elite would find it endlessly amusing to visit insane asylums and laugh at the inmates; physical and mental deformity has always been a source of amusement. There was no shortage of laughter at public executions and floggings, and the sound is often an accompaniment to raping, looting, and killing in time of war. . .
"We're getting there, but it is too simple to see humor as a shifting frame of reference with an added dash of cruelty. It needs to be the right type of cruelty . . .
"The important ingredient here is a loss of dignity; someone is knocked off his pedestal, brought down a peg. Laughter can serve as a weapon, one that can be used by a mob. It is contagious and involuntary; it has great subversive power, so much so that Plato thought it should be banned from the state. . .
"Humor can also have a particularly direct relationship to the interplay between bodies and souls. Humor involves a shift in perspective, and one of the most striking shifts is when we move from seeing someone as a sentient being, a soul, to seeing the person merely as a body. . .
"In his study of American slapstick, Alan Dale notes that every funny act falls into one of two categories - the blow and the fall . . .
"Disgust, religion, and slapstick all traffic in what Dale calls `the debasing effect of the body on the soul.' But they do so indifferent ways. Disgust focuses on the body, dismissing the soul; religion, at least some part of the time, focuses on the soul and rejects the body. And slapstick is the richest of all, as it deals with both at the same time, showing a person with feeling and goals trapped in a treacherous physical shell . . .
"If you are in a bind and need to make a two-year-old laugh, the best way to do so is to adopt a surprised expression and fall on your ass."
So, in summary, according to Bloom, no laughter originates in joy, only in cruelty, however cleverly disguised. Humor always involves the denigration of others.
Bloom is dead wrong, as anyone with real experience of a happy child, laughing at the waves of the sea, at the joy of moving, at the sun and the wind can see directly. And those who, like Bloom, object to humor and who see it as only grounded in cruelty or disrespect, say, provide prima facia evidence that they take themselves far too seriously; that they are, in fact, whatever their capacities and attainments, still under the spell of what some like to call `the commanding self'. In this respect, they are companions of the hide-bound religious literalists, not of the Deity they `piously' invoke.
Bloom thinks those experiments prove babies are Cartesian dualists because they distinguish objects from belief-holding humans. But dualism isn't simply the belief that there's a difference between people and objects. We were making that distinction before Descartes. Cartesian dualism conceives of the mental and the physical as so distinct and different that it doesn't seem the two could ever even interact. And that's not a distinction babies make. If "dualism" means that we distinguish conscious critters from inanimate things, then, yes, we're all dualists. But what have we learned except a new definition of "dualist"?
Baby dualism isn't even necessary dual. I can believe that you are different from a log because you are aware of and care about your world without thinking that you are made of two types of substance. I don't think Bloom has shown much more than that babies are aware that logs don't think and feel but people do.
This "insight" doesn't give Bloom much of a lever for understanding the Big Issues he deals with: Art, philosophy, religion, ethics... For example, he wonders how we can be moved by "anxious objects," i.e., art such as Warhol's Brillo boxes or conceptual art such as a dead horse hung from the ceiling. Most of the chapter goes through the predictable explanations of why we respond to art. At the end he acknowledges that he hasn't yet explained the appeal of "anxious" art. The big explanation: "...We enjoy displays of skill, of virtuosity, both physical and intellectual." But that's true of non-anxious art, and not true of all anxious art. Without acknowledging this, he moves on to say that we enjoy anxious art because we can see the human intention in it. But, again, that's true of all art, not just anxious art. His investigation does not come close to answering the question he raises. (Artworks are a good example of the impossibility of separating the physical and the intentional...evidence against dualism.)
Likewise, his explanation of why children tend to believe in Creationism (AKA Intelligent Design) - it is "a natural by-product of a mind evolved to think in terms of goals and intentions" - doesn't help. Animism also seems to be a "natural by-product." So what? How does this socio-biological explanation help? Likewise for his explanation of altruism, his discussion of essentialism - which waters the concept down the way the book waters down "dualism" - his consideration of the origin of religious beliefs, etc.
The book is exceptionally well written and engaging. The baby research is fascinating. But I think it fails as an attempt to make something big out of that research.