Current Affairs

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Why Children Make Such Good Philosophers

Children often ask profound questions about justice, truth, fairness, and why the world is the way it is. Caregivers ought to engage with children in these conversations.

Scott Hershovitz is a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids, which chronicles (hilariously) his philosophical conversations with his sons Rex and Hank. The book is a great primer on some basic philosophical questions for adult readers and also shows how children are more profound philosophers than assumed. The child’s relentless query of “Why?” is a demand that knowledge be justified, and Hershovitz encourages us to take children’s questions seriously. Hershovitz came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk with editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson about his book. This interview has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

One thing I realized as I read your book is that I don’t have children or hang out with kids. I live in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which is a place mostly for adults. When was the last time I had a conversation with a child? I’m not sure. So, for people like me, uh, what are kids like?

Hershovitz

Dahlia Lithwick said years ago that everybody is either a chaos Muppet or an order Muppet. Kermit and Scooter are order Muppets. And Piggy and Animal are chaos Muppets.

Robinson

Statler and Waldorf, those are my Muppets.

Hershovitz

I think they’re order Muppets. But all kids are chaos Muppets. And that’s part of what I find so joyful about them. You never know what you’re going to get. They could be bizarre or funny or, as is the point of the book, really deep and really serious. Children are actually really sharp, creative, clever thinkers, much more so than we give them credit for.

Robinson

Do you remember the first time that one of your kids said something and you were like, “Oh, that is actually kind of profound,” or “that is very interesting”?

Hershovitz

There’s a chapter in the book about God. When our oldest son Rex was 4 years old, he asked one night whether God was real. And my habit with a lot of these conversations is just like, “Let me reflect this question back at you,” which is going to be more interesting than what I think anyway. And I said, “Well, what do you think?” And he said, “I think that for real God is pretend. And for pretend God is real.” I was just stunned by that. And I was like, “What do you mean?” And he said, “God isn’t real except when we pretend he is.” I’ve been thinking about that statement for the last several years. It’s profound. It actually helped me understand my relationship to religion.

I’m Jewish. I don’t go to synagogue all the time. I do sometimes and for the major holidays I keep such as Yom Kippur and Passover. And I’ve always wondered: If I don’t think of myself as a religious believer, why do I have this attachment to these rituals? And Rex helped me reframe it, to think of it as a kind of pretend play that enriches my life in just the same way that children’s pretend play enriches their lives. So that was one moment where I was like, It’s not just that these kids are interesting; it’s that they can help you see things in a totally new way.

I wrote about that conversation for the New York Times around the time the book came out. They actually gave it a great title. It was called “How to Pray to a God You Don’t Believe In,” and it got this huge response. Many rabbis wrote to me and confessed their own agnosticism, saying that Rex had managed to capture roughly their orientation toward their religion.

Robinson

It’s fascinating that that came out of the mouth of a 4-year-old. It’s not just that children are like surrealists and when you say enough nonsense, some of it is poetry. It’s that children are new to the world. Everything is fresh to them, and they have to work every single thing out. They have to try to understand what every single thing is, every concept, every object. They are really doing original thinking. They’re trying to piece the world together, which is what philosophers do.

Hershovitz

I think that’s exactly right. Sometimes the thinking that they’re doing is wholly original. I’d not heard Rex’s view articulated about God before. Kids think in really interesting ways and sometimes recapitulate the history of philosophy. So in another example about God, I tried this conversation with my younger son, Hank. I asked him if he thought God was real. And we talked about it for a minute. He said, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” And I said, “why not?” He said, “I don’t like to.” I said, “Yeah, but why?” And he said, “Because God would get upset if he’s real.” 

This captures the thought that Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, had. He said, It’s just rational to believe in God, because if God exists, and you don’t believe in him, that’s going to turn out very badly. If you do believe in God, and God exists, that’s going to turn out very well. And it’s really low stakes to believe if it turns out that God doesn’t actually exist. So just make the rational bet. That’s what Hank had hit on when he was 8. And there are lots of other examples in the book of my kids and other kids recreating arguments that go back to antiquity.

Robinson

You have another example from when you yourself were young. You ended up recreating Zeno’s Paradox. And the teacher was like, “Who taught you that?” That’s a famous example in philosophy.

Hershovitz

I had a few examples like this from my own childhood of recreating Zeno’s Paradox, which is a paradox about the possibility of motion, or recreating what philosophers called the inverted color spectrum, which raises the question of whether the way I see red is the same way that you see red, or if what red looks like to you might be what green looks like to me. And I thought for a while that maybe I was just naturally philosophical. And that’s how I ended up in this profession. But it turns out that all kids are like this. I hear from so many people that remember having a version of the inverted color spectrum thought when they were 4 or 5 years old, realizing that they couldn’t be sure about the way the world would seem to their parents or to their siblings. And that’s part of what I want to get across. Your child is doing this, and you may not be noticing it.

Robinson

My theory is that we think harder when the world is less familiar to us. Because the world is so familiar and we’ve gotten used to everything, we’ve just gotten so conventional and boring. Kids aren’t used to anything. So they have these very profound thoughts. It’s like they are little aliens dropped onto the planet. And so they ask questions that no one else has thought of for 30 years.

Hershovitz

I think that gives them an advantage as philosophers. The thesis is not that kids are better philosophers than adults. But I do think they’re better in some ways and worse in others. So they’re better in part because, as you say, everything is new to them. And they’re trying to make sense of it. They don’t know about the explanations that grown-ups take for granted. They don’t know what questions grown-ups have decided aren’t worth asking. They’re just really inquisitive and they notice things that don’t make sense.

Another way in which I think they have an advantage is they aren’t afraid of seeming silly. Silly is the business they’re in. They’re just going to try out their ideas. They’re wrong about things all the time. But it means that they’re really creative in trying to explain things. And I think that gives them an advantage over many adults who are more cautious and wouldn’t offer their own arguments without doing some research first to find out if anybody else has ever thought the same thing.

Robinson

It’s not that they could necessarily beat professional philosophers in an argument. You have that satisfying moment where your son decides to become a relativist. And you manage to annoy him by adopting the position of relativism yourself. Have there been any moments where they’ve called you out or said things where you weren’t sure how to respond?

Hershovitz

I do have an advantage in having these conversations with them because I know philosophy and I can situate a lot of the things they say in a context. Actually, teaching undergraduates has prepared me really well for engaging with my children.

I’ll give you an example. When I first started working on the book, the kids were super enthusiastic about being in it and having their lives shared with the world in this way. And as they’ve gotten older, they have a more complicated set of feelings. For the most part, it’s pretty positive. But we wrestled with the ethical issue of sharing the stories about our kids. I was careful about the way they were presented. I wanted it to be a portrait of them that they would feel like they could endorse throughout their lives. They definitely have posed some challenging questions about whether it was okay to put this stuff out into the world.

Robinson

So you pointed out that major philosophical questions come up in the course of a child’s life, especially questions about authority. Why, from the child’s perspective, does the parent get to tell me what to do? Why does my teacher get to tell me what to do? There are also questions about justice. How should I respond when another child does something mean to me? Children are forced by the conditions of their life to think these thoughts and ask these questions.

Hershovitz

Yes. The book is divided into thirds. And the opening part is called Making Sense of Morality. It includes chapters about rights, revenge, punishment, authority, and then there’s a fun chapter about bad language. As you mentioned, justice and authority are issues that kids face a lot. I joke that sometimes I feel like I’m running a little law school. Learning to keep our promises is like contracts class. Learning to repair damages is like torts class. And learning who can use what is our property class. A lot of the early years of parenting are about trying to get a kid integrated into a community to help them understand what their responsibilities are, what their rights are, and who gets to make which kind of decisions. But they don’t take any of that for granted in the way that grown-ups do. And so they challenge you in really interesting ways. From the time Rex was three he was saying, “You’re not the boss of me,” as a challenge to my authority. And there is an answer to the question of why I get to boss him around and why he doesn’t get to do the reverse. But I actually think it’s kind of hard to offer an explanation of that fact.

Robinson

You better construct a theory of justice real fast, because they’re going to ask you to produce it.

Hershovitz

Yes. There are two motivations for thinking through these challenges alongside them. One is, When is it okay to take revenge? It’s a question that arises with Hank in the book when another kid at school calls him a nasty name. A kid called him a floofer doofer. Now, it’s terrible to be called one even though we have no idea what a floofer doofer is. And he took revenge in some fashion which I never got him to fully explain. And it just struck him as obvious that he should take revenge. I said, Hank, did you think it was okay to do something mean to this kid because he said something mean to you? And he looked at me like I was the dumbest person in the world. And he said, Yes, he called me a floofer doofer.

I sometimes teach tort law and criminal law, so what I’m interested in is the way we respond to wrongdoing. Why does it seem so obvious that if somebody treats you badly, you should return that bad treatment in kind? What is it you would get out of it? It’s a hard question to ask. But if you can figure out what you get out of it, then you can also think about adequate substitutes. What would help, say, a victim feel vindicated and which doesn’t involve striking back violently at the person who injured them?

Robinson

One of the things that probably exasperates many parents is that every child is a little Socrates asking you to justify all of your beliefs. And as with the actual Socrates who was questioning the elites of Athens, you find that you can’t justify a lot of beliefs, and you get very annoyed. Children are experts at asking, Why? But you seem to have hit on a way of turning this around by going Socratic on them as well, and trying to ask them to justify their beliefs.

Hershovitz

There’s this study where a psychologist listened to thousands of hours of recordings of kids with their parents. It worked out to more than two questions per minute coming at the parents. And a quarter of those questions were seeking explanations. They were asking why. Whenever you spend time with kids, you can get stuck in this loop of why, why, why? They’re trying to see how far you’ll carry the game. It’s fun to start asking them why.

I tell a story in the book of Hank trying to get us to buy him a soda one night when we went out for tacos. And we said no. And he told us that he had a right to decide what to drink. And I said, why? And he said, I don’t know, I just do. And so that doesn’t work. If you’re gonna say you have a right, you have to have a reason. And sure enough, the kid gave me reasons. He made two arguments for his having a right to drink whatever he wanted to drink. He made an argument about equality. He said, Hey, you get to decide what to drink, so I should get to decide what I drink. And he made an argument that I call the argument from self-knowledge. He said, I know what I like better than you do, so I should get to pick what I drink. And I thought these were both bad arguments. But I thought that pushing him to make an argument was totally worthwhile.

Robinson

As a parent, you face a choice between getting exasperated and shutting down the child or taking it seriously. You probably agree that generally we shut this down far too early in life instead of encouraging it.

Hershovitz

I completely agree with that. But it doesn’t require consistency. You don’t have to engage with every question your kid asks. They’re smart, and they’ll exploit that. My kids learned to exploit that daddy likes to have a philosophical conversation. So they would use that to try to extend their bedtime. But I think it’s really important to do it some of the time. When the questions are really good, really profound, even if you can’t do it right in that moment, bring it back up later. When your kid asks a question and you don’t know the answer, really lean into it. Have the conversation anyway.

Robinson

In college, I took intro to political theory. And I remember having my mind blown. My professor had written a book on the role of juries in democracy, and I was fascinated by the question of juries. If a jury doesn’t decide according to the law, what are they deciding according to? I was really fascinated by this. And I majored in politics. I took a bunch of political philosophy classes, and it was all really, really exciting. But I was also angry because I was like, Why didn’t we start these discussions in elementary school? Why haven’t I been thinking about this all my life? Why is it that only once I’m in college does thinking deeply about right and wrong come up? Up to that point, I’d just been told what right and wrong were.

Hershovitz

I’m a little mystified by the lack of philosophy in our K-12 education. Why don’t we do it in high school? Having kids read essays and write essays about issues that they’re invested in strikes me as a really great way to cultivate good habits of mind, but also a really great way of teaching reading comprehension and writing. Even with really young kids, I think there’s a lot to be gained from engaging them in philosophical conversation. There’s this website called Teaching Children Philosophy that has modules for most of the picture books that families already own. And it’ll give philosophical questions that are raised by the story in this picture book along with discussion questions. I’ve gone into my kids’ schools with the questions. You can get good conversations going. If this was a regular part of education when people were younger, we might be able to have more productive conversations as grown-ups.

Robinson

Was it Rex who came up with the definition of philosophy as the art of thinking?

Hershovitz

Yes. He helped me solve a problem. Like you, I had a mind-opening experience when I first went to college. I ended up in a philosophy class by accident. From the very first day, I thought, This is what I want to do. And I went home and told my parents that I wanted to major in philosophy. And my father asked the sensible question: What’s philosophy? And I realized I had no idea how to answer. And ever since then, I’ve been searching for a better explanation of what philosophy is. And when Rex was in second grade, he told his teacher on the first day that he wanted to be a philosopher of math. And so when he got home, he said, philosophy is the art of thinking. And I think that’s great. And I’m going with that. And I do think there’s something deep about that.

In philosophy we grapple with problems by thinking hard about ourselves and about the world in an effort to understand both better. And if it turns out in the course of that thought that an experiment is needed to answer the question, you hand the question off to the scientists who run those experiments. We make progress in philosophy through thinking.

Robinson

Well, I do like that. Your book discusses so many subjects. You discuss racism, infinity, brains, the trolley problems, sex, gender, sports, authority, and revenge and all that. And what unites all of those things as philosophy? Well, thinking very, very deeply about them.

Hershovitz

People talk about rule 34 on the internet. The rule is: if it exists, there’s porn of it. I hope that’s not true. But I think there’s something analogous for philosophy. If it exists, there’s philosophy about it. And actually, even if it doesn’t exist, there’s philosophy about that, too. What unites the field is not a particular subject matter. Rather, it’s the demand for a certain kind of deep thinking.

Robinson

You have a chapter on race. Why do we conceive of race the way we do? What is racial justice? How do racial wrongs arise? What kinds of responsibilities do people have? If you are a member of a particular racial group, are you responsible for historical wrongs? All these are philosophical questions about race.

Hershovitz

That’s right. We have to keep in mind what history and science tell us. Our thinking should be informed by the people who are out empirically investigating the world. Now, on the question of race: a naive thought might be that it’s a biological categorization. But then when we turn to the scientists, they tell us that race is not based in biology. There’s nothing biologically useful about the categories of Black or white or Asian or what have you. And that leaves you to think, Well, okay, if it’s not marking anything significant in biology, what might it be marking? The answer is that it’s marking something that’s socially significant, which is bound up in our history. Race is a hierarchy. There’s that quote, To be Black is to have to ride Jim Crow in Georgia. This is much more useful than any biological interpretation of the category.

Robinson

You have a chapter on language, which focuses a lot on swearing. By the way, this book is about children, not for children. There’s a lot of swearing in this book. So unless you have a pretty tolerant approach to your children’s exposure to curse words, you should probably be careful with this book. But you ask the question, Well, okay, but what makes a swear word? That’s a question that can be answered by looking at the history of language. And then you cite empirical research showing that swearing is cathartic and can be helpful. So you ask conceptual questions informed by research.

Hershovitz

That’s right. I wrote the book for adults. And there’s a little footnote in the book that says, you know, don’t judge me too harshly. Research shows that kids start to pick up swear words around age 3. So I don’t think that should necessarily be a barrier. It can even spark a discussion about when it’s okay to swear, and when it’s not okay to swear.

Robinson

There’s another quote—I’m going to butcher it—that philosophy has to do with the methods of lawyers?

Hershovitz

There’s a line from a philosophy teacher at Stanford, and it goes like this: the philosopher tackles the questions that come naturally to kids with the methods that come naturally to lawyers, which I think is actually a really great description of what grown-up philosophy is like. As you were saying, questions in philosophy are questions that are immediately apparent in childhood. Professional philosophers are the people who think about those questions in really disciplined, rigorous ways. They make structured arguments the way that lawyers make structured arguments; they have extraordinary disputations about the tiniest details in those arguments. But I want to show through the book that philosophy can be fun. You can do philosophy with your kids or your friends.

Robinson

What are some of the questions that most interest your children?

Hershovitz

Rex was really puzzled for a long time about the possibility that his life was a dream. He raised the question at dinner one night when he was 4. He kept looking for a way to prove that he wasn’t dreaming. He was trying to find the thing that would establish that he wasn’t dreaming. Once, he asked me, What if you and I were having the same dream? And I said, Yeah, that would be weird. When we got home, and he saw his mother, he said, What about mommy? And I said, Mommy might just be a character in your dream, too. And he said, Then I don’t want to wake up. Which was a really sweet moment. But it was also a philosophical stance. It was like saying, Here’s this thing that I can’t prove, but I make peace with it.

Robinson

What about Hank? Does he get hung up on anything in particular?

Hershovitz

Hank is our contrarian. He likes to dispute everything. He has taken up relativism. Rex said one night at dinner that Donald Trump was a bad president. And Hank said, He’s a bad president to us, but he’s a good president to the people that like him. And I said, Hank, do you mean that he’s a bad president, but the people who like him think he’s a good one? And he said, No, he’s bad to us. And to them, he’s good. And there’s nothing in the middle that says who is right. And I just wanted to see how far I could push it. And I think a lot of people hold that kind of relativism about these kinds of evaluative judgments. He’s not completely consistent about his relativism. But I still think he continues to have some doubt at least in the evaluative domain about truth.

Robinson

Everyone is a relativist up until the point where there is something we feel the need to insist upon.

Hershovitz

There are many positions in philosophy that are much easier to hold in a seminar room than they are outside of it. Relativism is one of those positions. I’m working on a book about that, too. At one point, I say, I know people who deny that there’s any such thing as morality, but I don’t know anybody that lives like there’s no such thing. So there are people who act like they don’t owe anything to others, but I’ve never met anybody who acts like other people don’t owe them anything.

Robinson

Are there any practical parenting tips that come out of this book and out of your experience of raising two young philosophers?

Hershovitz

The conclusion is about how to raise a philosopher. The suggestion there is to ask your kids questions and question their answers. Really get them thinking about issues. Don’t be afraid of these conversations with your kids. You don’t know all the answers. But you don’t have to know the answers. One of the cool things about doing philosophy with kids is that you don’t have to be the teacher; you can be a collaborator trying to understand the world alongside them. You can say something to your kid, like, Hey, I’m not sure what’s fair in this situation, or I’m not sure what fairness is, generally, and you can ask for their help to figure it out.

Robinson

Your book is called Nasty, Brutish, and Short. Now, I assume your kids aren’t completely nasty, brutish, and short.

Hershovitz

This phrase comes from Thomas Hobbes, who was imagining what life would be like without any government at all. He said it would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. I repurposed nasty, brutish, and short because I think it’s an apt description of little kids. But as you say, not all the time. My kids are also cute and kind. So, I’ll leave you with one last funny story. I asked Hank, “Are you nasty and brutish?” And he said, “I can be nasty, but I’m not British.” So he endorsed part of the title.

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