This interview was edited for length and clarity.
In his new book “Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids,” Scott Hershovitz, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan, shatters the notion that philosophy should be reserved for the ivory tower. Some of the best philosophers, he explains, are children. Naive and unabashed, children are unafraid to question things we as adults take for granted. Hershovitz’s own precocious sons, Rex and Hank, are certainly unafraid to question things — especially their father’s authority.
As Rex and Hank pose philosophical questions (Does the number six exist? Do I have rights? etc.), Hershovitz uses these funny anecdotes as means to explore weighty matters ranging from racial and gender equality to the nature of truth. Often lighthearted (and frequently hilarious), “Nasty, Brutish and Short” pairs the boys’ observations with compelling arguments from contemporary philosophers to provide an accessible intellectual survey of many of philosophy’s greatest questions.
On a dreary Thursday morning, I interviewed Professor Hershovitz. Our conversation ranged from Taylor Swift’s beef with Kanye to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment, from recapturing the wonder of childhood to the goals of studying philosophy. Here’s what Hershovitz had to share:
The Michigan Daily: The central premise of this book is that kids are great philosophers. What makes kids such great philosophers? How can adults be more like kids in this regard?
Scott Hershovitz: I think kids are really good philosophers for two reasons. First, I think they just find the world a really puzzling place. They’re dropped in, and they don’t understand a lot of what’s going on, and they have questions about it. Often the things they’re questioning are things that grown-ups take for granted. There’s this line from a philosopher who spent a lot of time studying kids, Gareth Matthews, who said, “The adult must cultivate the naïveté required for doing philosophy, but to a child, such naïveté is entirely natural.” So I think that’s the first reason kids make really good philosophers.
The second reason is they’re not worried about seeming silly. They’re willing to ask questions that a lot of adults wouldn’t ask out loud, or signal to other people that they were thinking about, or maybe even think that they should think about themselves. So they’re willing to ask questions like, “Am I just dreaming my entire life?” or “What is time?” I think we actually get socialized out of that pretty fast, somewhere around age eight or nine years old.
As to the second question: How can adults be more like kids in this regard? Well, part of what I’m hoping to do through this book is encourage adults to talk to kids. Conversations about philosophy with kids can be really cool because they can be collaborative. There are not a lot of conversations you can have with kids where each person is bringing something to the table. Usually you’re teaching a kid something, telling them something that they don’t know, but if you talk to kids about philosophy, they’ve got questions that are going to push you past your understanding. And I think just taking up the conversation with them and seeing where things go is a way of recapturing some of the wonder they have about the world.
TMD: I have another serious question queued up, but maybe we’ll come back to that and mix it up a little. So the next question is: Was there a single moment that inspired you to write this book? It seems like you have so many hilarious and moving anecdotes stored up from over a decade worth of parenting. Why wait until now?
SH: Around when my oldest, Rex, was about a year old, I started to talk about him when I was teaching. He would say or do something at home that would raise a philosophy issue that we were talking about in class. And I just discovered that if we start talking about the reading I assign, sometimes it’s difficult to get a conversation going. But if I come into class and I say, “Hey, let me tell you about this thing my kid did,” everyone finds it relatable and fun to talk about. And we can talk about Rex for a few minutes, and then I can say, “Ah, now how does this relate to the reading that was assigned for today?”
One evening I was at another university presenting a paper, and I was having trouble getting people there to see what the problem was. And I did it with them. I said, “Hey, let me tell you a story about my little guy, Hank. And here’s something he said, which kind of illustrates this issue.”
Almost immediately, people understood the formerly confusing issue. And then a friend of mine, who published a popular book in philosophy, Aaron James, leaned across the table, and he said, “That’s your book right there.” That was what really got me thinking that, “Oh, this thing I do with my students, and now sometimes with my colleagues, I could just do with a broader audience.” I really love philosophy, and I want more people to get engaged with it. I realized these stories are a way of helping bring people in.
TMD: Your book addresses serious ethical questions around transgender rights and racism, authority and revenge. Each of these discussions begins with a conversation you had with one of your kids. How young is too young to learn about evil in the world? How can you balance preserving their innocence with producing moral, compassionate children?
SH: That’s a really terrific set of questions and a very hard set of questions to answer. I don’t know that I have all the answers to them, but I think that I’d say a few things. One is I think that you could help kids start to understand these moral concepts organically because they’ll crop up in their own lives. For example, the chapter on revenge starts with Hank reporting that he’d gotten in trouble at school when he had done something mean back to a kid who (had) done something mean to him. This was at age three, right? So that’s already an invitation to start to have a conversation about how we should respond to people who do bad things in the world.
I think you can introduce kids to a lot of the kinds of questions that grownups grapple with just through things that are happening in their everyday lives. But I also think that you shouldn’t shield your kids from what’s happening in the world. We’ve been having conversations at our house lately about the war in Ukraine, and I don’t really want my kids to see images of the conflict or for them to dwell on the scale of the suffering. But I do want them to know that it’s happening and to think about why it’s happening and what could be done to prevent things like this in the future. And I think people often underestimate their kids’ capacity to engage in those conversations.
TMD: Was there ever a time you regretted exposing your kids to a philosophical concept? For example, children learning they have certain rights seems like a dangerous concept for authoritative parents (Hank and his “right” to drink soda at dinner comes to mind).
SH: So I don’t know that I regret any of the ideas that I’ve introduced to them. Because we frequently have these philosophical conversations, I think they’ve sharpened their argumentative skills in ways that maybe not all kids do, and that certainly leads to some challenges in our house.
You’ve picked up on the major one, which is that kids like to question their parents’ authority. Hank doesn’t just assert that he has rights. He asserts that we don’t have the power to make rules for him. And he wants to put us to the test frequently. So it’s not really an occasion for regret. I still find it amusing, and I still find it fun.
TMD: After law school, you clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court. Yesterday, the nation’s attention was focused on the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. In your chapter, “Race and Responsibility,” you talk about the case for reparations, but not in their traditional form. How does the upcoming appointment of Jackson fit the idea presented in “Nasty, Brutish and Short” that reparations should aim to repair our relationships, rather than provide compensation for past wrongs?
SH: I think a lot of people have the idea that reparations is compensation, particularly monetary compensation. I think about the project of reparations really differently. In fact, I say in the book that I think about it as a project, not a payment. And I think that what’s being repaired is not really monetary losses, but rather the relationships that we have as citizens in this country. We’ve got to figure out how to build the kind of community that our founding documents envision, one where we relate to each other as equals. I haven’t thought about how the historic nomination of Judge Brown Jackson fits into that. But her appointment certainly would not be reparations in the traditional compensatory sense.
I sometimes think that the project of reparations would be complete when it would be difficult for somebody with no knowledge of history to tell which group was the oppressed one after visiting this country. We’re nowhere close to that. But part of moving towards that goal is absolutely including people like Judge Brown Jackson in our most important institutions.
SH: Let’s just think about forgiveness for a moment, and why I wrote that article. Taylor Swift was making a point in the interview that she gave, which I think was with “60 Minutes.” She said, “A lot of people say that you have to forgive to move on. And I don’t think that’s true.” She said, “If somebody has just been bad to you and that’s all the relationship has ever been, you shouldn’t forgive them, you should just move on.”
I think that’s super insightful, actually. I think it’s not true that in order to move on with your own life, you’ve got to forgive people that wrong you. I think at some point you can decide just not to be bothered by that, which is different than repairing your relationship with them and reincorporating them into your life.
Your question is, should she ever forgive him? And my first answer to that is if he earns it. Which is to say, we should forgive people when they recognize that they treated us badly, take responsibility for it and commit not to treating us in a similar way in the future. And I think Kanye hasn’t reached that point in relation to Taylor. So I think for now, I’m a no.
TMD: One thing I’m wondering: Did you ever provoke a philosophical conversation with Rex or Hank to gather content for the book? Or is this all anecdotal, from conversations over time?
SH: I did sometimes, though all main topics in the chapters arose organically. You know, I sat down when I first thought about writing this book and made a list of questions they’d asked or things they’d done and matched them up to topics in philosophy. But then as I was writing during the pandemic, having my kids at home turned out to be an unexpected resource for writing the book because sometimes I’d feel a little stuck.
So then I would say to one of them, “Hey, you wanna take a walk?” And then I would just ask them a question. I didn’t try to structure their answers, but I would just say to Rex, “Hey, is it bad to swear? If so, why do you think so?” and see what he said. I told my editors when I started this project that I was absolutely committed to honesty and that I wasn’t going to make up any conversations that we hadn’t actually had. But I also told them if it would be helpful, I would be willing to raise these topics of conversation at dinner or on a walk and see what the kids had to say.
TMD: Have your kids read “Nasty, Brutish and Short”? What do you anticipate their future reaction to it will be?
SH: Rex has read it on his own, and I’ve read it to Hank. I think their reactions are probably going to evolve over time. Right now, they think it’s super cool, and they love hearing these stories about themselves and talking more about the issues that are in the book. I think that one of the fraught issues with writing the book is that I’m sharing a lot about my kids’ lives and a lot about their views. We collectively feel comfortable with the stories I’ve shared and the way the kids are presented, but their views may change about that as they get older. I hope that they’ll eventually come to see the book the way I see it, which is really as a kind of love letter to them. It’s about philosophy, to be sure, but it’s also about the joy that they bring me and how much I love talking to them and how much I learn from them.
TMD: You frequently mention the contributions of your colleagues here at the University. What type of philosophy should be studied by the student hoping to make a difference in the world – ethics or political philosophy?
SH: That’s a really great question. Partly because I don’t know that I think about philosophy as a thing that one studies for that kind of instrumental reason, although I think philosophy can make a difference in the world. I think ideas really matter and shape the way the world goes. And many of the ideas that have mattered historically are ideas and arguments that philosophers have had and debated.
I don’t know that I have a syllabus of “I wanna make the world (a) better place so these are the philosophy classes I would take.” I would tell people to approach philosophy a little differently, to look over the roster of classes here and find something that sounds fun and engaging. I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but the University of Michigan is blessed with one of the world’s greatest philosophy departments, with (a) set of scholars and thinkers who are also phenomenal teachers.
Whatever topic in philosophy you pick up, whether it’s ethics or political philosophy, or even something like philosophy of language or epistemology, when you start thinking really deeply about philosophical puzzles, it will often change your orientation towards the world. It could even lead to discovering ways in which you can make the world better. But ultimately, I always want people to do philosophy because it’s rewarding in itself.
Daily Arts Writer Sam Mathisson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.