Fathers and Formation

Patrick Deneen has written a characteristically brilliant essay on fatherhood. Particularly when compared with the natural and corporeal intimacy of the mother-child bond, fathers are more distant and so the connection between father and child is necessarily a chosen connection. It is the first relationship that fundamentally models reflection and choice, reason and faith, and so it provides the first means by which we come to understand human flourishing in its intentional capacities. Certainly mothers exercise choice and reason also, but the choice is much more stark for the father. There is no question, after all, that the child who emerges from her mother’s body belongs to the mother.

Deneen writes:

Human life is supported, sustained, and ultimately achieves flourishing through our capacity as self-conscious creatures who base our actions not upon instinct and immediacy, but through conscious reflexivity and artifice.  Our very humanness rests upon the cultivation of reason and faith as the most necessary, and the most distinctly human, of our many attainments.  The fact of our humanness is a direct result of our capacity to be – for want of a better word – “theoretical.”  And, the first and most powerful experience of this “theoretical” bond is through fatherhood, through the central role played by the father in the lives of children who experience the distinctive love of one who – in spite of the fact of greater distance and anxiety – nevertheless, embraces the fact of his fatherhood.

He goes on to note how this initial relationship sets the stage for four other crucial relationships that must rely on intention and reason: friendship, marriage, citizenship, and religion. All of these relationships are crucial for human flourishing.

Deneen’s entire essay is worth reading, particularly as he relates this specific dynamic of fatherhood to the crisis of fatherlessness that afflicts American society (and the even deeper crisis of not realizing this is a crisis). His linking the crisis to the thought of John Locke is a red herring perhaps for another time, but I couldn’t help but relate his essay to Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, which I’ve been working through recently.

For if Deneen is correct about fatherhood, and our human nature, then he is crossing swords with Smith’s contention that  we are not fundamentally thinking creatures but affective, or feeling and desiring, creatures.

Smith takes aim at a cognitive conception of human nature in his first chapter, “Homo Liturgicus: The Human Being as Lover.” To the extent that Smith offers a corrective to a Cartesian view of human beings as disembodied rationalists, Smith’s insistence that human beings become who they are first through practices and liturgies that are not chosen, but lived, is invaluable.

I bring Deneen’s piece into conversation with Smith here to address one aspect of Smith’s work that I have found puzzling. (Let me offer a caveat here that I have not read Smith’s further work, which may address this, nor do I think a quick blog post can comprehensively address such a rich and rewarding work as Smith’s book).

Here is how Smith sums up his privileging of human formation as precognitive as opposed to reasoned, or to use Deneen’s term, theoretical:

So when we say that to be human is to love, to desire the kingdom, we’re suggesting that this vision of the kingdom’s good life becomes inscribed and infused in our habits and dispositions and thus woven into our precognitive (second) nature.

And in a footnote on the same page, acknowledging thinking does have a place:

It will be important to step back and critically reflect on our dispositions and habits . . However, I think it is necessary to recognize two things: (1) Such reflection does not come first; in fact, such reflection presupposes prerefletive (“animal”) dispositions as the object of reflection; (2) Such reflection is not sustainable; at best, it is sporadic. Even the philosopher only inhabits a small part of any particular day engaged in conscious reflection. (Smith, 56-57)

Smith goes on to persuasively describe an Aristotelian understanding of how we come to know things through doing them even before we can rationally make sense of what we’re learning (something I took a stab at here).

There are two things to note here. The first is that Smith relies on Aristotle’s pedagogical psychology but does not mention that Aristotle’s conception of the fully flourishing human being is a contemplative creature, not an affective one (there’s a way to handle this, it seems to me, as Smith later rightly emphasizes our human vocation as worship,  but it is an odd omission).

The second and more important observation is what Deneen’s piece brought to mind. For surely Smith, and Aristotle, is correct as to how we learn things through practices and formation before we can comprehend them rationally. But what Smith leaves out, and Deneen emphasizes, is that that those practices are imposed on us by fathers and mothers, who think quite consciously, and attempt to think reasonably, about how best to raise their children. Indeed, the seminal thrust of Deneen’s piece is that the role of the father in choosing to identify himself with the child and the child’s mother compliments the more naturally connected love of the mother and sets in motion the foundation for that child’s flourishing.

Such flourishing will most certainly involve our desires and our loves, which are related but not identical (unless we agree with Hobbes that appetites=desires=loves.) We come to be the affective and reasoning creatures we are because of precognitive practices and formations, but these practices and formations are themselves chosen by those who not only come before us but more often than not bring us into being. Thus we see one potential problem with concluding that we are primarily affective creatures and only secondarily reasoning and theoretical beings. Such a conclusion, as articulated by Smith, seems to rely on viewing human beings one generational slice at a time, thus risking obscuring the intentional role of fathers and mothers in comprising the family as the most foundational locus of practices, loves, reasons, and formation.



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3 responses to “Fathers and Formation

  1. scott huelin

    Great post, Micah. I’m left wondering, though, whether you and Smith actually disagree. He seems to use “primarily” in a temporal sense, while you seem to use it ontologically. Affections could be prior in both sense, could they not?

  2. Thanks Scott. I agree that we can understand how we are affective creatures both temporally (chronologically?) and ontologically. I have no problem affirming, with Aristotle and Smith, that we learn as children through the affections first. And I’m happy to agree that even as adults the affectations are deeply, well, affective.

    My read of Smith’s book, though, is that he is saying more than this. Granted, sometimes in countering what we take to be an overemphasis, we can present our own position too far on the other side. Perhaps Smith, in countering what he takes to be an overly rationalistic emphasis on worldview and doctrine, is being more provocative than he means to be. But I’m not sure. His examples of developmentally disable persons and children as being fully human, and affective, but not fully rational, pertains more to the ontological than the pedagogical.

    He is careful not to rule out the rational, as he acknowledges later in the book that writing the book itself is an appeal to our reason. But I do think his burden is to rescue the feelings/desires/loves from the short end of stick and I’d have liked to see more of a both/and than an either/or when it comes to his conception of human nature. So we may be differing on the balance. And I’m probably extrapolating some from his treatment of the family, which may warrant another post entirely.

  3. scott huelin

    I think you’ll find that volume II comes closer to striking that balance than did volume 1. Hope to discuss sometime.

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