The Phenomenology of Teaghan

by John Ellis

Nearing three months of age, our new daughter is entering a fun stage of development. All stages of a child’s growth are fun, to be sure, but there are certain stages that are extra interesting because those changes are not just physical but also existential and phenomenological.

During her first few weeks of life, Teaghan’s changes were mostly internal. While we knew growth was happening, the development of the neurons in her brain were largely hidden from us. Of course, external changes happened that gave us some insight into her growth and provided evidence of what the science of human development tells us happens. However, those changes were small and mostly the deepening of responses that were already present. Now, though, Teaghan’s development includes the discovery of her SELF.

“Who are we?” and its twin “what makes us who we are?” are two questions that philosophers have puzzled over for thousands of years. The rise of modern psychology starting with Wilhelm Wundt in the late 19th century combined with the fascinating evolution of the various neurosciences has upended many of the questions and previous answers of ontology. That being said, while providing helpful guardrails and illuminating insights, science has failed to create a distinctly materialist program of ontology and anthropology that succeeds in unseating philosophy (and theology) from its throne. Science struggles to answer questions of who and why we are. Teaghan gives me a living demonstration of this every day.

She has yet to discover that she has hands. She’s getting close, though, and I’m able to observe in real time this growing understanding in her. For sure, her developing neural connections play a role; we are psychosomatic wholes after all. While mental states aren’t reducible to brain activity and vice versa, neither are the two unrelated. Philosopher John Searle reminds us, “In general, mental states have an irreducibly subjective ontology.”[1] So, more importantly for the discovery of her SELF is how her growing awareness of hands is dependent on relatedness; there is a subjective aspect coursing through her development.

Part of that subjective aspect has been defined as intentionality. As a general rule, our mental states are directed at something or someone. The field of philosophy of mind explains, “Noticing the perspectival character of conscious experience is a good way to remind ourselves that all intentionality is aspectual. Seeing an object from a point of view, for example, is seeing it under certain aspects and not others. In this sense, all seeing is ‘seeing as.’”[2] Heidegger’s phenomenology provides a helpful explanation.

The German phenomenologist liked to use the example of a dining room table. We believe that we share the same knowledge of what a dining room table is. To be sure, we generally share a meaning (the sign culture assigns the signified). If I asked ten people to draw a dining room table, all ten pictures would be similar and recognizable as, well, a dining room table. Value, though, is a different story. Value is what we colloquially tend to mean when we say meaning. Value is what kitchen table means to me; it’s relational. Make sense? Heidegger pointed out that our relation to kitchen table is inseparable from our experiences around it.

So, back to Teaghan. Watching her discover her SELF is an exercise in watching this relational intentionality play out. Who she is – who she’s becoming – is inseparable from her experiences. She’s discovering her hands in large part because her hands are building a relationship with things and people outside of her SELF. It’s through these relationships that her SELF is revealed and, importantly, developed, which, in turn, deepens intentionality. As a very important sidenote: This is why creating shalom in a baby and child’s world as best we can is vital.

Watching Teaghan play in her chair early this morning reminded me of a quote from Herman Bavinck. It’s also the genesis for this short article. Writing in Philosophy of Revelation, the famed theologian contends, “The core of our self-consciousness is, as Schleiermacher perceived much more clearly than Kant, not autonomy but a feeling of dependence. In the act of becoming conscious of ourselves we become conscious of ourselves as creatures. … We feel ourselves dependent on everything around us; we are not alone.”[3]

Our SELF is one of dependence. We are not autonomous individuals flirting with solipsism. We are creaturely creatures who are defined by relationships. Our SELF doesn’t exist apart from relationships. The question is, in our own development, how are we relating to the world, other SELFs, and God? We can’t discover the answer to the question “who are we?” until we understand the importance of the question “how do I relate?” and are willing to interact with it honestly. Who we are is inseparable from relationships.

[1] John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), 19.

[2] Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, 131.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation: A New Annotated Edition ed. Cory Brock and Nathaniel Sutanto (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 57.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s