Big Babies

Michael Metzger

Adults are big babies.

So says Mark Johnson in his fabulous book, The Meaning of the Body. Johnson says babies are born into the world as squirming creatures. This is how they learn. So do adults – which seems to explain why so many get so little out of their education.

Mark Johnson is the author of many books discussing the mind, metaphors, and meaning. A professor at the University of Oregon, his first was The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (1999), co-authored with George Lakoff, a professor in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Johnson and Lakoff also co-wrote Metaphors We Live By, a 2003 book that examines how metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of the mind that makes sense of our experiences.

Johnson’s 2007 book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, considers how we make sense of the world through bodily movement. In one particularly insightful chapter, he writes, “We are born into the world as screaming, squirming creatures, and through our movements we get ‘in touch’ with our world, taking its human measure.”1 My wife Kathy and I raised three children and are now grandparents. We’re reliving what we experienced as parents – babies are writhing, reaching, noisy, bouncing, fidgety bundles of human energy. They learn by the things they see, hear, smell, and touch. “They’re not proposition-crunchers,” writes Johnson.

They do not lie in their cribs combining subjects and predicates into propositions by which they understand the world. They do not look around thinking “Mom’s lips are really red today,” “My bottle weights twelve ounces,” or “Oh my! I’ve misplaced my pacifier.” And yet, babies are learning how to grasp the meaning of things, people, and events. The world is becoming meaningful to them, even though they lack language and are not engaged in full-blown conceptual, not to mention propositional, thinking.2

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, a colleague of Johnson at the University of Oregon, makes the same point in her book, The Primacy of Movement. She writes how humans, from the very beginning, “are simply infused with movement – not merely with a propensity to move, but [for] making sense of it… We literally discover ourselves in movement.3 Sheets-Johnstone also notes that “we do so without words.”4 Babies’ experiences generate images, or metaphors. They rely on these images to make sense of the world. The little tykes do this long before they can form words. Metaphor precedes language.

This seems to explain why so many adults get so little out of their education. At the core of the words scholar, school, and scholastic is the Greek root word schola, which means “leisure” or “rest.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with leisure. It’s simply insufficient if the leisurely life is not connected to the active, hands-on experience. These two aspects of learning began to come apart long ago when Augustine and Eusibius made a distinction between the “active life” and the “contemplative life.” While both were important (Augustine had praise for the work of farmers and craftspeople and merchants), they felt the leisurely life was clearly of a higher order.

The leisurely life went even higher in the late 1800s. Progressives decided that academicians, those called to the leisurely life, were the new “experts” in how things work. Scholars required students to sit still and dutifully take notes. But only a tiny percent of students (mostly the academic type) enjoy this style of learning. As Sir Ken Robinson likes to say, the aim of a college education today is to create college professors.5 The rest of the students sit, take notes on stuff – maps, math, and memes – but never learn how to make sense of it. Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, found the 36 percent of college students made no discernible progress in the ability to think and analyze critically after four years in school. That’s because we think with our bodies, not just our brains.

The evidence for bodily learning is pretty impressive. For instance, according to physiological and behavioral evidence, the left pars opercularis, the area of the frontal lobe critical for speech production, is most closely linked to nerves located in the stretch of skin between your thumb and forefinger. Language is most naturally formed by touching – especially with your fingers. Squirming babies are getting “in touch” with our world by touching it. Squirming, squeezing, touching, and tasting are integral to how humans form language that has a meaningful connection with reality.

There’s no doubt squirming can be distracting. But it might be the best way to make sense of stuff. Jesus’ disciples tried to shoo away little babies on several occasions. These writhing, noisy, fidgety bundles of human energy were probably a distraction to other adults. Jesus simply chided his disciples, telling them to bring the little tykes to him.

In her last public address, Flannery O’Connor made this statement. “The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.” She didn’t know the science behind her statement, but O’Connor knew scripture. God designed us to learn primarily by touching. Babies get it right. Adults are simply big babies. It’d be great if modern scholars came to recognize this as well.

1 Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 19.
2 Johnson, Meaning of the Body, p. 33.
3 Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement (Advances in Consciousness Research), 2nd Expanded Edition (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011), p. 117.
4 Sheets-Johnstone, Primacy of Movement, p. 128.
5 In this RSA Animate, Robinson pins the problems of modern education on the Enlightenment and industrialization.


Morning Mike Check


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. So many good ideas embedded in this post, it’s hard to know where to start!
    1) Most learning is truly hands-on. You can teach golf in a classroom all day, but the only way you’ll get any better at it is with a golf club in your hands and a bucket of balls. This is true of many more disciplines than golf.
    2) Schools exist to produce scholars. Although we give lip service to other vocations, the vast educational establishment in this country is set up to prepare students for the next level, which means the ultimate achievement is not a working life but graduate school. It’s an understandable bias, but misdirects the efforts of 80% of students who aren’t scholars by nature.
    3) The model for schools is broken. Students sitting at desks having their heads filled with concepts is possibly the worst form of education ever conceived. We stick with it because it’s cheaper than bringing diesel engines into the classroom to take apart and put back together.
    Good job, Mike!

  2. Do the implications of this go beyond the classroom?

    Does this have similar consequences of how we relate to each other in an increasingly virtual world?

    A younger relative of mine determined her best friend as someone who randomly sends her song lyrics in a text message.

  3. Hey Mike,

    Well, we’ve disagreed about this before, but honest and empathetic conversation allows differences to be stated and resolved. To combat some of this “negativity” I’m about to embark on, let me preface this by saying there are things here that even me, more of a rationalist, do agree with.

    2nd Paragraph – last sentence, “…a 2003 book that examines how metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of the mind that makes sense of our experiences…”

    This is an example of a materialist worldview; metaphors determine what makes sense, and cognitive process (mechanisms) determines what our experiences ought to be. Truth doesn’t necessarily play a part in this metaphoric process but rather survival. Neither Johnson nor Lakoff believe that the mind is disembodied, a substance of its own therefore all mechanisms of the mind are an evolving process dependant on survival not truth. What then of such things as libertarian free will, beliefs, hopes or desires?

    Last Paragraph – …O’Conner made this statement, “the things we see, hear, smell, and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.”

    The Christian arguments refuting this form of evidentialist epistemology (best form of knowing something is through your five senses) are far more advanced than these materialist views you have referred to. Evidentialism is a self –refuting proposition of determining what is real or true, as you cannot through your five senses determine that very proposition is real or true. (Alvin Plantinga, JP Moreland, William Lane Craig, Michael J. Murray, Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, to name just a few)

    I wish I had more time but I simply don’t right now. I would love to take on Johnson’s “babies are not proposition-crunchers… lying in their cribs combining subjects and predicates into propositions by which they understand the world.”

    Thank you for your time and thoughts Mike!

  4. A few thoughts for Mark Elson if I may?

    What then of such things as libertarian free will, beliefs, hopes or desires? As I read and personally understand what Mike wrote, I’m not saying Mike is thinking what I’m thinking, but I think we should all realize that no one knows what babies are thinking – and whatever “thinking” really means at that stage is so mysterious it’s part of what makes a column on this topic so interesting – but even if babies can have beliefs, hopes or desires apart from their empirical experiences, they can still have them in conjunction with their experiences, and once that happens, just once, they’re forever entwined, wouldn’t you say?

    And for what it’s worth, those “things” as you called them are going to be forever refined or corrupted thanks to experience. If you think those things can remain untainted, or are downloaded into our minds untainted, or never downloaded and are just there forever untainted, well, then it’s a shame that you’d seem to think they can’t be refined. I’m okay with your suggestion that they could be from something other than pure experience and cognition, but I can’t see how they can ever be separate from them.

  5. Dave;

    I agree, we don’t know what babies are thoroughly thinking but we don’t need to too understand they are thinking. The examples that Johnson gives in his book that Mike included in his argument is a straw-man argument because even the most conservative rationalist would agree that babies are not thinking to that maturity level yet. This does not however mean they are not thinking – “crunching-propositions”.

    What does one gain by arguing that movement is how we learn best? That one would have to conclude that evidentialism is a justified theory of knowledge, defining what reality is. However, evidentialism is self-refuting, it cannot prove itself to be valid because you cannot validate evidentialism with your five senses. If the theory of knowledge that supports your argument is faulty then naturally there is no argument.

    Dave you said “but even if babies can have beliefs, hopes or desires apart from their empirical experiences, they can still have them in conjunction with their experiences, and once that happens, just once, they’re forever entwined, wouldn’t you say?“

    The line between your thought life and your experience of those thought can sometimes be very thin, proving that they hold a very strong relationship/correlation to one another. However reasonable thoughts can give you the moral and most common sense direction to experiences and combats such things as relativism.

    Empirical knowledge can be ‘sufficient’ in some regards but it’s like what philosophers say, it is not a ‘necessarily sufficient’ epistemology.

    Your second paragraph I would agree that however these “things” come to us they can be refined. But I’m not so sure that the experience itself taints or refines these beliefs, rather the received knowledge perceived inside the experience. Scripture might say that we are a wave tossed to and fro, if we ebb and flow through such existential values.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  6. Interesting read – on two levels. First, of course, the idea that the formation of “mind” requires abundant, indeed guided, sensorial experience, beginning with early childhood.
    Second: Who has actually incorporated this elemental truth in proven formal educational system? The answer of course is very few. One brilliant, and very successful example, is the Montessori system of sensorial education. And, although it is not the only sensorial system of its kind, it is perhaps the best known. The amazing thing is Maria Montessori was developing this form of early education almost one hundred years ago – without the benefit of the volume of academic research we now possess. And today there are literally thousands of such schools around the world.
    It would behoove us to not only ponder the emerging learning theories, but,as many educational “prophets” are now proclaiming (e.g. Richardson), to learn from other’s success and implement those practices in new forms of education, from early childhood up to and through secondary education. The Montessori system (and others like it) would be a good place to start.

  7. Fraser:

    While I appreciate everyone’s contribution to this important discussion, you make make a very good suggestion. The Montessori system does indeed incorporate much of this hand-on learning approach. I would also agree that prophets often lead the way, feeling their way along toward a better understanding of how reality works. Put another way, rational analysis doesn’t offer much help if the frame we’re working in is incorrect or irrational. Prophets have a history of reframing misguided takes on reality.

    Thank you.

  8. Can’t resist: not only Montessori, but any parent like me who has raised a child with an IEP and witnessed how very young children can actually develop “better” thanks to handling things a certain way in the learning process will become a believer in the very real world of the empirical being something people and I would dare say God uses to shape us and form us, inwardly and outwardly.

    Doesn’t it stand to reason (funny, I used a physical metaphor for a non-physical act, like Mike’s prophets who feel their way forward) that when we find ourselves in a physical world, we both bless and curse it, rather than not even notice it or remain indifferent to it? Trap a human in a box and watch his mind waste away. There’s a reason for that.

    No matter where we come out on this thing, if as Mark says that there is a “received knowledge perceived inside the experience” then okay, but I think that’s making things more complicated than is necessary. CS Lewis’ essay that suggests that Adam actually regulated his body by knowing that he was doing so, and that we’ve since lost this ability, suggests that Adam was fully developed and that we’re mere shadows of his original greatness. I prefer that essay rather than to thinking that he had no interest in the connection between his body and his mind and his soul.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *