The Child in the World: Embodiment, Time, and Language in Early Childhood.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Escobar, Fabio
Pub Date: 01/01/2010
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2010 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: The Child in the World: Embodiment, Time, and Language in Early Childhood (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Simms, Eva M.
Accession Number: 288874138
Full Text: The Child in the World: Embodiment, Time, and Language in Early Childhood Eva M. Simms. (2008). Detroit: Wayne State University Press

This book is at once an explanation of children's development of spatiality and embodiment, and an attempt to develop a genetic phenomenology of lived time. The approach is what the author calls a 'nondualistic existential perspective'. It is therefore a contribution to phenomenology and to existential psychology.

Eva Simms begins by developing the nondualistic methodology via an examination of the child's relationship to breastfeeding. The phenomenon is described as one of coexistentiality, and the theme will recur several times throughout the text. Simms argues that the coexistential, nondualistic perspective is pervasive in children's lives, a finding that is explained through Simms' own experiences in breastfeeding her daughter, Lea. The role of provider showed the mother-daughter relationship to be more than a relationship of two separate wholes. Instead, 'she and my body were one' , and in fact it was her daughter, rather than Simms herself, that controlled the rhythm of milk production and consumption. This coexistential way of being exposes the illusion of separateness that so easily takes hold after parturition, argues Simms. To this extent, coexistentiality is evident in a wide variety of behaviors and relationships: the rooting reflex, the way mother and child touch, even the distance that newborns can see (12 inches) as a reflection of the distance required to see the mother's face.

It is misleading, nonetheless, to state that Simms argues for these points. Her method is intensely metaphorical and does not lend itself to a simple analysis and critique of the argument's premises and conclusions, or its validity or soundness. Instead, the book must be approached from a mindset already open to such a methodology, lest the reader be put off by the entire affair. As Simms writes: 'We cannot grasp the importance of milk, peekaboo, or the first pointing finger until we push our language into poetry--and from there language drops our thinking into the yet-uncharted dimensions of our children's everyday lives' (p.5). Given such methodology, it would be in bad taste to evaluate the project from the standpoints of argumentative validity and soundness. It is more subtle than that, and it suffers and benefits as a result.

The metaphorical structure of the book notwithstanding, this is not a book that is lacking in scholarly rigor. Simms relies on an established and august literature in phenomenology and existential psychology. References to the giants in the field abound: Merleau-Ponty is particularly important to the text, Ricoeur is prevalent, and Piaget provides much of the classical psychological foundation (though at times in a reworked fashion, as seen from 'the inside' through, for example, the 'case of the vanishing [celluloid] stork' (Ch. 4). Heidegger and Boss are present as conceptual contributors, supplying the text with many of its central notions ('... embodiment, coexistence, spatiality, and temporality as a heuristic framework', as Simms writes at p.73). Finally, Langeveld supplies a more contemporary background.

In spite of this venerable panorama of existentialists, phenomenologists, and child psychologists, however, there is always a lack of satisfaction for the reader that is open to the text's central notions, but is yet to be convinced. This is a book for those that agree with the book. This is a shame, for the central thesis is a controversial and by no means settled one: that in child development we see a nondualistic lived structure that thereby shows metaphysicians and phenomenologists that it is possible to use empirical findings to establish a claim in fundamental ontology. This was, after all, the Heideggerian task, and to that extent, at least, Simms' metaphorical/poetic approach does not help the theoretical thinker who comes to this text hoping for an extension of Being and Time. It does, however, help the reader who is in tune with the Heidegger of The Thing, one of his last works.

But then, what does the text accomplish?

There is much to be said here. In the second chapter, for example, cleverly named 'The World's Skin Ever Expanding', we see a clear elaboration of Merleau-Pontian spatiality, in which experience itself creates space by virtue of the particular modalities of the human senses. Touch, for example, as the first sense and the one that gives meaning to the others, develops the child's spatiality by first experiencing the boundary-less depth of the womb. Rather than seeing depth as a third dimension in logical space, Simms describes the experience of the child as a pre-logical and pre-theoretical oceanic experience of the liquid environment which first defines spatiality. This description is imaginative, but it is also nonetheless a helpful attempt to understand experience qua experience (i.e., Erfahrung).

The third chapter marks the author's step towards coexistentiality, herein understood through the lens of participatory consciousness. The role of the gesture in structuring our sense of embodiment and spatiality is important here, and Simms does a good job of knocking down the notion that geometrical space-- '... as objective, measurable, and conceptual ...' (p. 60)--has the principal claim to being "real" space, or space as "it really is." As a foil against which to view the lived dimensions of children's space, objective geometrical space is a helpful bogeyman. Even if its presence in the text serves as a kind of straw man to flail against, the principal task is to describe lived experience as such, and this task is sometimes best served by using a straw man. What's unfair as an attack might nonetheless be fair and necessary to the constructive side of the project, after all.

In the fourth and sixth chapters the reader is treated to a variety of insights into the world of thingliness and temporality. The broader project begins to come into view: to develop a genetic phenomenology of lived time via Simms' conception of a 'livedgrammar' that is not formal as in linguistics, but embodied and intersubjective. This phenomenological construction is itself a propaedeutic to the development of a new conception of childhood as historically situated.

The phenomenological perspective on temporality that is developed throughout the sixth chapter is an interesting one to the child psychologist, for it directly challenges Piaget's analysis of children's conception of time as beginning with the confusion of time with space (and vice versa) and eventually culminating in operational time, which is appropriately continuous and understood abstractly. As Simms puts it, Piaget sees this as a process of coming to abstract 'time from its qualitative context' (p.128). No longer will the child understand time as intractably rooted in the events, needs, and feelings of the moment, but he will be able to understand it as separate from these other happenings and personal phenomena. Simms, arguing that lived time comes prior to this form of operationalization, charges the Piagetian outlook with having an occidental bias. It is time 'as it is lived and conceptualized in Western culture' (p.131). To borrow a term that Simms does not use but which is instructive in this context, the phenomenon could be called the instrumentalization of time: time as a tool for doing, for controlling, for managing.

Lived time, however, 'does not follow the rules of physics' (p.133). Instead, it is not 'afternoon because afternoon is always after naptime', to cite Piaget's example of his sleepless daughter. Lived time follows the rules of the current moment as the dominant structuring element. In a way similar to the way that things are always in the act of worlding and thus structuring space, the emotional and meaning-laden structure of events temporalizes the world for us. This temporalization happens, for the child, in a coexistential environment rather than through simple subjectivity. Even the seemingly uncontroversial notion of my ownership of past events--'This is my memory, my past event'--gives way to the coexistentiality inherent in the thingliness of memory: that without the things in those memories of what we have experienced, there are no memories. There is therefore no escaping coexistentiality and the nondualistic perspective. Ultimately, we even see how babble can serve as a response to Ricoeur's challenge to phenomenology in light of the post-structuralist challenge. In that context Simms develops the outline of a phenomenology that answers the linguistic challenge by reconceiving language through the unique semiology of the infant.

Granting these various steps in the book's development leads to a fairly obvious conclusion: that childhood is always a construction of the historical epoch. It is a shame, however, that Simms chose this conclusion as the endpoint of the text, for it is such an obvious derivation that it hardly seems worth mentioning. Once again we see a relative disinterest in argumentation, in convincing.

The theme that recurs repeatedly throughout the book is nondualistic coexistentiality. This idea is intriguing and at times quite original. While an attack on dualism is obviously nothing new, and the notion of coexistentiality is at the very least present in Husserl, if not already fully developed in his later work, there is one misgiving that never seems to be addressed. The point is perhaps too obvious to mention, but here it is: can't it simply be the case that all of these facticities of childhood--coexistentiality, nondualism, embodiment, and meaningfulness--are simply part and parcel of the child's inexperience with the world and thus representative of his mistaken interpretation of that world? It may well be true that Simms has achieved an accurate description of lived experience (Erfahrung, that is, and not 'mere' Erlebnis), and if so she is to be praised for a keen contribution to phenomenology. But is it possible that she has instead attempted to import nondualistic coexistentiality into a structure that is indeed dualistic and subjective? Yes, the child is in some sense 'at one' with the breast and mother's milk. But the very thirst felt by the child, and the very satiation of that thirst, speaks as much to the connectedness of two entities (and thus a dualistic subjectivity) as it does to the idea that the child is experiencing the world as boundary-less. It seems at least plausible that this is what the child is experiencing--not nondualistic coexistentiality, but a separate existence with thirsts and hungers that are sometimes fulfilled, sometimes denied by those things that the child herself is not. Unfortunately, we have here a text that does not give us a methodology by which we could adjudicate between the two positions. Which is the true description? Alas, Simms' poetry is unwilling to mount an argument.


Heidegger, M. (1971). The Thing, Poetry, Language, Thought, (A. Hofstadter Trans.). New York: Harper.

Langeveld, M. (1983a). The secret place in the life of the child. Phenomenology and Pedagogy. 1:2, 181-191.

Langeveld, M., (1983b). The stillness of the secret place. Phenomenology and Pedagogy. 1:2, 11-17.

Langeveld, M. (1984). How does the child experience the world of things? Phenomenology and Pedagogy. 2:3, 215-223.
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