In ‘Nasty, Brutish, and Short,’ kids say the most epistemological things
By Alexandra Jacobs
Is it moral to write publicly about your children? In this queasy-making age of “sharenting”, some social media users seem too hell-bent on posting first-day-of-school pictures, raking in the digital hearts like dry leaves, to even consider the question.
Particularly irksome are those who refer to offspring, with a shrug, as “the kid”, as if some random urchin had just wandered off the street to provide bon mots for their Twitter feeds: “The kid wants to watch Kurosawa movies tonight. My work as a father is done!”
Scott Hershovitz goes beyond casual posting, though he does some of that, too. A professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan, he has organized an entire book around conversations with his two young sons, Rex and Hank. “Every kid wants a democracy,” Rex, the older cherub, is fond of saying, “but every grown-up wants a dictatorship.” When Hank’s bored, he doesn’t grab an iPhone to play Temple Run but rather begs: “Tell me another case, my daddy.”
The basic premise — not too far removed from the television show ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things’ or the saying ‘out of the mouths of babes’ — is that children are natural and underrated philosophers. Unfettered by worldly cares and obligations, they are free to contemplate the nature of reality and the meaning of existence. Small fry, big thoughts. As a bonus, Hershovitz writes, they’re “funny as hell”.
His book is named for the resonant phrase used by 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in ‘Leviathan’ (he was referring to life without government; Hershovitz is alluding to children’s baser characteristics). But it also made me flash back to 20th-century humourist and playwright Jean Kerr, who would regularly quote her husband, drama critic Walter Kerr, and their brood of six for books that included the once bestselling, now almost completely forgotten ‘Please Don’t Eat the Daisies’ (1957). Steaming with irony, she noted that children “having linear minds and no grasp of the great intangibles, spend most of their energy yapping about trifles” — only to show that adults are just the same.
Though Hershovitz’s book is structured like a popular lecture, rather than essays scribbled in the family car, there is a similar domestic cheeping from him: He suspends disbelief for the tooth fairy; owns a mini goldendoodle named Bailey (“What is it like to be Bailey?” he wonders, riffing on Thomas Nagel’s influential 1974 paper ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’); and is married to his high-school sweetheart, Julie, a social worker. “I don’t have an ex — anywhere in the universe,” he brags in a footnote about infinity, “though Julie likes to point out that I could quickly have one.” He jokes repeatedly about how much Rex and Hank prefer their mom to him. Hershovitz, a Rhodes scholar, has presumably read Sigmund Freud on the stages of psychosexual development?
But while psychology informs much child-rearing advice, Hershovitz argues that philosophy can be just as useful, maybe more. He invokes thinkers from Aristotle to Zeno — though interestingly not Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of ‘Émile’, a famous treatise on education. There is, as compensation, a whole lotta Locke (John), and lest you find that phrasing flip, know that Hershovitz advises you to read Locke’s treatises “out loud in an English accent” and mocks the 17th-century style of emphasis in which a writer would “capitalize letters like a crazy person”. If your freshman Ethical Reasoning class was oatmeal, this is a bowl of Quisp.
Hershovitz seems to be a big fan of the Socratic method, though he only mentions Socrates a couple of times. Simply asking “Why?” is “one of my favourite parenting tricks,” he writes: It is a word that kids wield “like a weapon” and can be turned around on them to encourage argument. Indeed, “why” tolls like a bell throughout ‘Nasty, Brutish, and Short’. (As the great philosopher Kerr put it: “If the maturational conversation of children and grown-ups differs in volume and velocity, it also differs in essence”; children of a certain age, like philosophers, speak in questions.) “Why do the days keep coming?” one little girl asks a mother friend of Hershovitz’s. “Why do the laundry when the world may not be what it seems?” Hershovitz postulates. (Maybe so Julie can get a break?) Why do we seek revenge, as Hank did for being called a “floofer doofer” by a classmate? Why are some words thought of as “bad”, a level of bad far worse than “floofer doofer”? (Hershovitz is a great fan of profanity, and devotes an entire chapter to defending and rather gleefully using it.)
You will certainly learn much, or be reminded of much, reading ‘Nasty, Brutish, and Short’: the famous ‘Trolley Problem’ introduced by Philippa Foot, the “hard problem of consciousness” outlined by David Chalmers.
Yet one frets for Hershovitz, having not yet encountered in his parenting journey (yes, he calls this book a “journey”) the hardest problem of all: adolescence, when the family’s “epistemic bubble” is rudely burst and communication is sometimes reduced to grunts.
How will Hank feel in a few years to have a published account of his ultrasound result, in a chapter on sex and gender: “legs splayed, as if to say, ‘Have you seen my penis?’” Or of his cute blurt: “Rights are not burpable!” Currently, Rex “wanders the internet on his own,” and his brother is “soon to follow,” which feels like putting them on an eight-lane highway with kick scooters.
“If you haven’t written something worth criticizing, you haven’t written something worthwhile,” Hershovitz writes, so he surely won’t mind being asked: What will your sequel be, when the kids are nasty, brutish, taller than you and pinging around on Discord? Tell me another case, my daddy.
-New York Times