Childhood and the Philosophical Mind in Wordsworth and Austen.
“In what sense is a child of that age a philosopher?” – Coleridge
If philosophy is defined as ‘advanced knowledge or learning’, it can be argued that age is not central to this definition, but the idiosyncratic experiences that are felt by each individual. Throughout both Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and William Wordsworth’s Two Part Prelude, young protagonists encounter experiences that force maturity in mind, even if not in physical form. Therefore, for some, it may be possible to reach this level of philosophy that Coleridge seems to imply is only possible in adulthood. Arguably, as a child, you feel the simplest version of any emotion; this can be seen also as the rawest form of feeling, a truth associated with philosophy. In a society that advocates, in line with Coleridge, that authority stems only from the mature, this argument is interesting to consider. It explores both physical and mental experience through an adolescence perspective, alluding to the Romantic ideal of entering realms of human understanding that were originally not encountered: in other words, searching for a philosopher in a form where no-one would previously think to look.
In pursuit of this definition of ‘advanced knowledge’, this can extend to the knowledge that one obtains from feeling acute emotion. In both texts, the young protagonists experience a fear and pain that not only takes away the blithe attitude of an adolescent, but places the burden of adult responsibility and pain upon them. In Sense and Sensibility, Douglas Bush suggests that Austen focuses on a ‘misery for the innocent’. And this is certainly true; Elinor, despite her young age, can arguably be described as a philosopher in her understanding of her existence in relationship to pain:
Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love.
There is, undeniably, a sense of the dramatic to Elinor’s reaction. She uses language that is incredibly final –such as ‘mourning’ and ‘forever’ –that suggests more that Edward has passed, rather than chosen another. Thus, there is a tension between whether Elinor is a philosopher, considering her existence, or a melodramatic teen. Yet, in a society where identity is based upon marriage, whether for love or not, perhaps this loss does legitimately feel like the death of her chance to marry through choice. Furthermore, Elinor can be considered as a ‘philosopher’ through this painful experience; she learns the harsh truth of injustice, and becomes wiser through pain. Yet, if she is labelled as a philosopher, it is in private only. She must process this experience in ‘private’. Elinor thus struggles against the very conventions of the genre she is a part of. A convention of Romanticism is learning the truth of true, raw emotion, and whilst she feels this, she cannot verbally express it; this is yet another ‘obstacle’ she must overcome. Despite this argument, Marvin Mudrick states that ‘Austen’s tone is didactic and reproving’. This suggests the narrator as an almost parent perspective, that criticizes the over-dramatization of Elinor’s emotions, despite her given role as the more reasonable sister. This perhaps suggests that her lack of maturity simply presents an incapacity for Elinor to be a true philosopher; she has experienced the initial sting of love, but not yet the elongated agony of a life without love. Yet, neither argument is wholly wrong or right. Instead, it can be suggested that Elinor is experiencing a transition to this philosopher status. She has learned a higher truth about anguish, yet her age means she does not yet have the emotional capacity to fully register the experience. Therefore, Elinor’s personal experiences mean she possibly there is a prospect of philosophy, yet it is currently hindered by her immaturity.
In the opening statement, Coleridge questions as to whether, specifically, a child can exist as a philosopher. In Wordsworth’s Two-Part Prelude, the poet instead considers whether a childhood experience can inspire a philosophy in later life. As an adult, Wordsworth experiences:
[…] images, to which in following years,
Far other feelings were attached […]
And, like their archetypes, know no decay. (lines 285-287)
This particular quote examines how an experience can be felt by a child, and then become altered through the act of memory. For Wordsworth, the ‘archetypes’ of the memory remain wholly intact, the original emotions he would have felt as a child. Yet, upon the act of remembering this experience, ‘far other feelings were attached’, suggesting that the image becomes something else entirely. Therefore, we are left with an image and subsequently, some attached feelings, the ‘attached’ emotions indistinguishable from the ‘archetype’. It is thus interesting to consider the thought processes as both adult and child. A child is unrestrained by social expectations and uninfluenced by outside thought, suggesting this to be an optimum period to know the simple truth of a human’s existence. However, it is as an adult that Wordsworth realizes this awareness of thought process and how one exists; no memory can remain in its original state. As the adolescent transitions to the mature, the thought process will change, and invoking a memory will only encourage new thoughts and judgement to become ‘attached’ to it. But, this does not mean the original memory changes its shape. If these attached thoughts are indeed those that imply Wordsworth is a philosopher, it does not change the ‘archetypes’. The younger Wordsworth merely felt an ‘image’, an experience, that was meaningless at the time. It is only upon reflection that it becomes significant. Therefore, this argument can only agree with Coleridge. A child of only nine, the age of Wordsworth at the time of experience, cannot exist as a philosopher. The experiences he feels as an adolescent, however, can facilitate later possibility for philosophic thought.
Thus far, Coleridge’s statement has been considered as a sincere point of argument. Yet, it must also be read as satire. If, as he may suggest, a child can only feel modest emotion, it is perhaps the responsibility of others to act as philosophers. Thus, they can act as guidance to the young on the truth about reality and knowledge. In Sense and Sensibility, there is an innate focus on human relationships. As previously established, it is questionable as to whether Elinor had the capacity to act as a philosopher at such a young age. If so, Mrs Dashwood must maintain this position of responsibility in teaching her daughters the truth of their existence, this time in a social context. As girls becoming women in an extremely observant nineteenth century society, there is a certain expectation on Elinor, as the older sister, to act as the perfect wife. Towards the beginning of the novel, Mrs Dashwood considers this act of sacrifice in considering another’s happiness: “We shall miss her; but she will be happy.” (p.15) This emphasis on the ‘she’ suggests an authority in language, and her superior knowledge on social standing. It, despite the pronoun belonging to Elinor, also implies that Mrs Dashwood is more knowledgeable on how her daughter will feel than she is herself. This is once again emphasized in the slight yet noticeable shift in verbs. When addressing their own actions, Mrs Dashwood specifies ‘shall’, suggesting an intention, rather than a deliberate action. Yet, when she continues to address Elinor’s future, the language switches to the more deliberate ‘will’, implying a determination that cements her statement. This argument, undoubtedly, supports the possible intention of Coleridge’s statement as satire; Elinor’s Mother is still present to decide the happiness of her existence, refusing to allow any space for Elinor to take on this role herself. Yet, even this idea of Mrs Dashwood as, instead, the philosopher, seems ludicrous. Throughout the novel, she is constantly represented as encouraging the fanciful and romantic nature of her other daughter, Marianne. To suddenly assume this role of such thoughtful responsibility thus possibly seems a little unrealistic. Yet, it does suggest the idea that perhaps Elinor is not yet a philosopher at this age because she has not been allowed to do so. With more possible freedom, Elinor only grows in to deciding her own truth of the life she will live, and how it will make her feel.
A philosopher himself, Plato considered that the child was a human at its most advanced form. With this argument, it is perhaps interesting to consider if perhaps it is only children who are true philosophers. Untarnished by the outside world, only those in adolescence can achieve a pure experience of the world, and truly know the reason for existence. It is then with adulthood that comes also pain, of which can cloud a mind with hate and spite. It is then that a person cannot philosophize, cannot see the truth of individual existence. Contrary to Coleridge, it is not questionable as to whether one child can exist as a philosopher, but all of them.
Adams, A. Authors in Their Age Wordsworth (Glasgow & London: Blackie & Sons Ltd, 1981)
Austen, J. Sense and Sensibility (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992)
Bush, D. Jane Austen (London & Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1975)
Mudrick,M. ‘Irony and Convention versus feeling’ in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park A Casebook (London & Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1976)
Wordsworth, W. The Two-Part Prelude (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
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