Toward a Midwifery of Thought

A series of interactions with the folks behind over the last few days has had at least one unanticipated consequence:  As I was musing about the potential impacts – in particular political – of a site that is staging a broad range of questions and answers for a growing community of users, I remembered out of the blue an essay of my own, written long ago and published for the first time in 1986 by the Modern Language Association (MLA), in the volume Textual Analysis:  Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws. It is funny, and a bit shocking, that I could have almost entirely forgotten what was my first publishing ‘coup,’ as a young upstart appearing in a volume that included essays by a range of critical luminaries.  It was based on the first lecture I delivered as a TA  in ‘Lit 130,’ an undergraduate course in Comparative Literature at Yale taught, at that time, by Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, who were also my teachers during my sojourn as a grad student there.

What sparked my recollection was a half-thought about the ‘Socratic method’ and whether the founders of had that model of question and answer at all in mind when they conceived the site (I could, and might, ask them this).  Then it came to me:  I had it in mind when I began my essay ‘Toward a Midwifery of Thought,’ a reading of Heinrich von Kleist’s story ‘Die Marquise von O…’   Miraculously (given the sorry state of my library after multiple moves and untold tumult), I was able to locate the book, and the essay, which begins with a pair of epigraphs.

From Eric Rohmer's 'Marquise von O'

I suspect that, as you yourself believe, your mind is in labor with some thought it has conceived.  Accept, then, the ministration of a midwife’s son, who himself practices his mother’s art, and do the best you can to answer the questions I ask. [Plato, Theateatus 856]

Publishing is to thinking as confinement is to the first kiss. [Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeums-Fragmente 32]

What follows is my own text’s opening gambit, minus most of the German and the reading of Kleist’s story.

In an essay first published in 1878 under the title ‘Ueber die allmaehliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden’ [‘On the Gradual Fabrication of Thought While Speaking’], Kleist concludes a celebration of the virtues of thinking aloud by ironizing the institution of oral examinations in the university, arguing that

so difficult is it to play upon a human mind, to coax from it its proper tone, so easily does it sound out of tune under misguided hands, that here even the most practiced expert, masterfully skilled in what Kant calls the art of the midwifery of thoughts, might nevertheless, out of ignorance of his pupil, miscarry.

The allusion is to the exposition of the systematic methodology of ethical instruction in the second part of Die Metaphysik der Sitten [The Metaphysics of Morals] in which Kant, following Socrates in the Theateatus, maintains that the function of the teacher is to guide the student’s train of thought [Gedankengang] by means of adroit questioning (what Kleist terms ‘geschickte Fragen’).  Serving as interlocutor in a dialogical exchange, the teacher plays on the pupil’s faculty of reason, arousing him to consciousness of his own ability to think, and thereby serves as the midwife of his thoughts .  Given the consequences for Kleist’s own thought of his notorious ‘Kant crisis,’ the episode of debilitating doubt precipitated by his reading of ‘the so-called Kantian philosophy,’ which seemed to him to subvert any possibility of epistemological or ethical certainty, his reader might assume that there is something critical, for Kleist, about this borrowed Denkfigur – a figure that yokes the activity of critical questioning, in which the teacher and the reader engage, with a certain (or uncertain) maieutic practice….

My experience with confirms the uncertainty of the maieutic practice, however well-intended. (The intransigent addressee of two of my futile queries is unlikely ever to read this post.)  But I am undeterred.  Unanswered questions, too, will be archived.

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