University of Michigan law and philosophy professor Scott Hershovitz titled his forthcoming book Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Penguin Press, May) after Thomas Hobbes’s speculation on what life without government would be like. The same words can apply to children and how they approach “rights, revenge, punishment, and authority,” Hershowitz says. “In these situations, it’s an apt description.” The author, whose book pairs the observations and arguments of his young sons, Rex and Hank, with those of classic and contemporary philosophers, spoke with PW about the rewards of raising curious children.
What’s your book’s central thesis?
Every kid is a philosopher. A kid saying “you’re not the boss of me” is expressing the thought that anarchist philosophers are having. Gareth Matthews wrote, “The adult must cultivate the naivete that is required for doing philosophy,” but “to the child such naivete is entirely natural.” The adult takes a lot of things for granted and doesn’t think about them, but the kid is just puzzled everywhere and asking questions about it. My hope is to capture the imagination of a parent to think, “When my kid says something that’s profound and interesting, that’s worth taking seriously and having a conversation about.”
How has fatherhood informed your academic work?
My thinking around tort law is seeing it as an adult-world substitute for the revenge people might take if there weren’t the civil remedies available. The book’s second chapter is about revenge: my younger son, Hank, took revenge at preschool. I asked, “Did you do something mean to this other boy because he said something mean to you?” And he looked at me and said, as if I’m the stupidest person in the world, “Yes. He called me a ‘floofer doofer.’ ” My academic work is about how we should respond to wrongdoing, so I spent time thinking about that exchange. It’s natural to him that if somebody does something mean to him he should do something mean back. That’s not how I want him to think about the world, but it’s another step toward understanding why people have these thoughts.
What have your sons taught you?
Rex asked whether God exists. I reflected the question back to him. “I think that for real, God is pretend,” he said. “And for pretend, God is real.” It’s a staggeringly profound thought for a then four-year-old; philosophers call this fictionalism—the thought that something could be real in a fiction, even if it’s not real in our actual world. I’d never thought about God in this way, and our conversation helped me deepen my own relationship to religion.
Why raise children who ask questions?
There’s a story in the book called “How to Raise a Philosopher,” which starts with Rex posing the question of Theseus’s ship to a friend. Theseus’s ship is in the harbor in Athens and it’s been dilapidated over time. People keep replacing planks and eventually all the planks are replaced. The question is: Is that thing in the harbor Theseus’s ship? And if it’s not Theseus’s ship, when does it stop being Theseus’s ship? My son asked these questions of his friend, and the two of them had a conversation. That was a triumph. I’ve gotten my kids not just interested enough in a question to think about it themselves, but also engaged enough to start doing the work of asking questions of others.