Emanuela Yeung / The development of reflection

My doctoral research examines the process by which a reflexive neonate develops into a reflective child. However, what does it really mean to “reflect” or to be “reflective”? Is reflection a kind of personality trait or disposition that can be trained? Is it an epistemic perspective that one brings to bear in certain contexts or situations? Or is it a cognitive process or mechanism that can drive other developmental changes such as symbolic competence?

In the first part of my dissertation I begin with a philosophical exploration of the notion of “reflection” largely based on the discussions found within the phenomenological tradition (e.g., Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962; Sartre, 1943/1956; Zahavi, 2005). In particular, I focus on the distinction between pre-reflective and reflective self-consciousness to understand what the process of reflection entails. Sartre, for example, speaks of the reflective processes as adopting a distancing, objectifying attitude to experience, which as a consequence transforms experience. Reflection is also described by Husserl as a new act of consciousness that involves as relation between two different experiences; this necessarily involves “the coexistence of a doubled subject” (a reflected and reflecting) or a “self-fission” (Zahavi, 2005). I argue that understanding reflection as a process of distancing, objectifying, and self-fractioning provides some specificity to what it might mean to “reflect” and provides fertile ground for psychological theories of reflection.

However, one open question that remains when considering the processes of distancing, objectification, and self-fractioning is how this mediation comes about or how we come to ‘grasp’ or objectify our pre-reflectively lived experiences. I approach this as an ontogenetic or developmental question. Although in Sartre (1948) we find the concern for how a “fractured” reflective self-consciousness can emerge from a “unified” pre-reflective experience (see Zahavi, 2005 pp. 91-92), there is no clear mention of how this might occur. In Merleau-Ponty we see the suggestion that speech or language may permit our detachment from the immediate. Grene (1974), citing Merleau-Ponty, writes, “we have, through language, detached reasoning from its natural environment and given it the power of turning back on itself, of reflection. Speech, as Merleau-Ponty says, is the surplus of our existence over natural being” (p. 83).

Similar to Merleau-Ponty, Taylor (1985) has suggested that “language is the major vehicle of this capacity to grasp things in a disengaged way” (p. 151). It is through our use of symbol systems, and language in particular, that allows us to distance ourselves from the immediate, endowing us with a representational capacity. Similar to a reflective mode of functioning, Taylor also speaks of a general “disengagement”, or “disengaged awareness” that is made possible by our use of language. Language or speech gives us the means to “re-present” experiences ‘as-if’ they are in the present (i.e., objectification), while also permitting us to transcend the immediate (i.e., provides distance). However, from a developmental perspective, the emergence of language or speech must also be dependent on some kind of detachment. As such, when we consider the emergence of a reflective mode of functioning or the development of reflection as an intentional act, it may be important to consider the role that general pre-linguistic symbolic competences may play.

This leads into the second part of my dissertation, which considers how reflection may emerge within an intersubjective or social-relational developmental context (see Carpendale & Lewis, 2015). In particular, I focus on the relation between perspective taking and reflection, drawing on George Herbert Mead’s (1934) account of perspective taking and coordination, and phenomenological descriptions of perspectivity (e.g., Fuchs, 2013). Some questions that I am currently working on include understanding how children’s explicit grasp of subjectivity may be related to an understanding of vantage points, as well as empirical methods to assess reflective self-awareness in young children.

I am about halfway through my research visit here at the CFS, and as other visitors have written in their posts, it is a very intellectually inspiring environment to work in. As a developmental psychologist by training, I have benefited immensely from the formal and informal philosophical discussions and am grateful to have a few more weeks to soak it all in. Many thanks to Dan, Merete, and all the staff for being incredible hosts, and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding my visit.

Emanuela Yeung
PhD Candidate
Department of Psychology
University of Victoria


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