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"Against Adulthood (and on Behalf of Children)," an Asian Studies

Faculty Research Seminar by Phil Shields

Date: Friday, September 20th, 2013

Time: 4:00 pm

Location: Room 150, Center for the Sciences

Contact:, Daniel Youd: 363-2081


What does it mean to “mature” as a human being?  Is it to grow out of a temporary condition of childhood, where we are dependent on others, not only for sustenance and protection, but for linguistic, moral, and rational guidance, and to grow into the state of adulthood, where we are morally and rationally independent and autonomous? This dichotomy between childhood and adulthood makes the temporal transition from one to the other incomprehensible since it seems to entail a miraculous act of transcending our embodied abilities and the empirical processes on which they are based.  Furthermore, it identifies our humanity with a god-like sense of agency. In contrast to this, a striking feature of traditional Confucian ethics is that children are not supposed to grow into independent adults who transcend their family relationships.  Interdependence is embraced, so filial relationships and obligations never end, in important ways even after the parent dies. This has many interesting implications, most significantly, that the path of human maturation is not a linear process of moving from dependence to independence and autonomy, but a matter of moving from dependence to interdependence.  It also means that there is no real way to constitute relationships between autonomous equals.  All relationships are asymmetrical, whether in ability, knowledge or authority. While this disturbs our egalitarian ideals, there may be good reasons to take such asymmetrical relations as paradigmatic of the human condition, and not simply because they are more empirically realistic, but because they are an integral part of sustaining human flourishing over time. Given that we are profoundly social and historical beings, I argue that our child-like dependence on others and the authority of pre-existing practices should be recognized and embraced as a positive and permanent feature of being human.  So instead of thinking of childhood as a transitory stage of dependence that needs to be transcended in order to achieve the independence and autonomy of adulthood, we should think of childhood as a never-ending process that characterizes the human condition as such.  All of us are children, though some of us are parents as well. In sum, our egalitarian obsession with autonomy, symmetry and equality neglects the temporality of the human condition because it undermines the necessary dependency and asymmetry of intergenerational processes of constituting, perpetuating and transforming normative practices.  

Beloit College has a remarkable range of knowledge in Asian Studies, and the Asian Studies Faculty Research Seminars are designed to showcase faculty work.

The seminars are meant to connect faculty research with a wider audience and wider world of ideas, and serve to showcase the breadth and depth of the Beloit College Asian Studies faculty.  Seminars are held in September, November, February, and April.