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New book encourages adults to nurture the little philosophers in their lives

Writing with a good dose of humor about his own two sons, University of Michigan professor Scott Hershowitz explains why we should always take kids’ questions about life seriously

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Scott Hershovitz with his sons Rex and Hank (Courtesy of Scott Hershovitz)
Scott Hershovitz with his sons Rex and Hank (Courtesy of Scott Hershovitz)

Kids say the darndest things, and they’re often philosophical. According to philosopher of law Scott Hershovitz, just about every young child could be a budding Aristotle, René Descartes, or Hannah Arendt.

Hershovitz makes his case in his recently published book, “Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids.” It’s an enjoyable and enlightening read that’s an introduction to philosophy for adults and a guide for adults on how to engage in philosophy with the children in their lives.

“The book is structured as an introduction to philosophy with the help of children and the fun questions they ask and the arguments they make,” Hershovitz said.

“I am trying to draw parents, teachers, and grandparents to kids’ philosophical nature and encourage them to nurture and support it. I also want to help adults recapture the sense of wonder they had as kids, and that willingness to ask hard questions and think deeply about them,” he said.

In speaking with The Times of Israel from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Hershovitz, 46, said he has long used stories about his sons Rex and Hank (now 12 and nine) in his classes at the University of Michigan Law School. They’ve helped illustrate points or get discussions going. For example, an account about the unintended results of giving toddler-age Rex a time-out as punishment for screaming in his high chair has segued into a serious conversation with students about what society is trying to accomplish by punishing adults.

Hershovitz relies heavily in the book on amusing yet profound questions raised by his boys and ensuing conversations at home. He weaves them deftly with philosophical concepts and arguments related to such subjects as revenge, responsibility, rights, truth, and even women and sports.

Scott Hershovitz (Rex Hershovitz)

Perhaps most importantly, Hershovitz refers not only to philosophers of bygone eras but also to contemporary ones dealing with a variety of urgent 21st-century topics.

“I wanted to convey that philosophy is not this thing that is over with, that was in the past and done by famous people who were mainly old white guys. I wanted to convey that philosophy is this living activity and that there are maybe more philosophers in the world now than there ever were. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and they are working on issues that are relevant to people’s lives, and they have cool and helpful things to say about them,” he said.

In the following edited interview, The Times of Israel asked Hershovitz to provide some key advice to adults on why and how to do philosophy with children.

Why is it important to engage children in philosophical thought, especially in today’s world?

I think for two reasons. The first is I think we need more people in the world who think deeply and carefully about the problems that we face, especially as we live in a world dominated by soundbites and social media. Many of the problems that we face are hard, and I think it is worth encouraging kids who are already inclined to want to think deeply to hold onto that as an activity that they engage in and show them that it is valued. I also think it is just fun to engage children and they’ll surprise and delight you and reveal how clever they are.

Are all kids philosophers?

I think philosophy is for every kid. I don’t think every kid is headed toward being a professional philosopher or that this will be every kid’s favorite activity. But I do think that every kid has philosophical questions, even if they and the adults in their lives don’t recognize them that way. Every kid who says, “You’re not the boss of me,” or wonders why their parents get to make decisions and they don’t, is a kid with a philosophical question. Every kid who wonders whether they have been dreaming their entire life, or if they see colors the way others do, is a kid with a philosophical question.

My kids will come home with philosophical questions they have been discussing with their friends, but they won’t see them that way. For instance, there is a popular question among kids about whether a hot dog is a sandwich. This is a philosophical question that requires you to ask what a hotdog is, what a sandwich is, and to do some conceptual analysis and decide if these things overlap. Another example is kids asking whether cereal is a soup.

Scott Hershovitz teaching at the University of Michigan Law School in Fall 2021 (Dustin Johnston)

At what age do kids start asking philosophical questions?

There was a philosopher named Gareth Matthews who I think of as the first philosopher who was attentive to kids’ abilities… He went into schools and spoke to lots of kids and gathered stories from parents. He came to think that kids were spontaneously interested in philosophy between ages three and seven… But by the time they entered adolescence, it was slowing down publicly if not privately. They weren’t asking as many philosophical questions or willing to put their arguments out there as often. That fits my experience too.

Does it diminish in the pre-teen and teen years for developmental and social reasons?

I think that by the time they hit 10, 11, or 12 they have absorbed a lot of what people take to be the standard explanations of things. They are not as confused about the world as little kids are, and I think a lot of the philosophical questions come from this confusion. They have become more acculturated to which questions the adults in their lives take seriously and which they don’t. Older kids also worry that people will think they are silly, so they may be more reluctant to share their questions.

All that said, it is still easy to prompt these conversations with older kids. It just may take more of an effort to draw it out. We were recently driving to [summer] camp, and I asked my sons how many holes a straw has. Rex thought one and Hank thought two, and they started to go at each other in the back seat for half an hour with really smart arguments about this.

Scott Hershovitz’s sons Rex and Hank watch as he signs copies of his book, ‘Nasty, Brutish, and Short.’ (Courtesy of Scott Hershovitz)

What are your best tips for engaging in philosophy with kids?

You should engage in a philosophical conversation with a child for as long as you are enjoying the conversation, and the kid is enjoying it.

I found that in our family, the circumstances would work best at bedtime, which is sometimes when our sons’ questions come out. But if there has been a question from earlier in the day, I might bring it up again. A lot of these conversations at bedtime or over dinner are quick, but they add up over time.

Something I did a lot during the pandemic was taking long walks with the kids and just throwing out a question — that’s another good strategy.

‘Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids’ by Scott Hershovitz (Penguin Press)

So it’s okay for adults to start these conversations and not wait for kids to ask questions?

I think it can be parent-instigated. Sometimes your child will have questions and you’ll follow their interests. But sometimes I might ask my kids at dinner, “When is it okay to tell a lie?” and a lot of follow-up questions like, “Can you think of a time you told a lie and thought it was okay?” and “Can you think of a time you told a lie and you think it wasn’t okay?” You can and should sometimes supply the topics of conversation. I want this activity to be fun for my kids. But if my kid is just not into that question at that moment I’m not going to frogmarch them through a conversation about it.

What do kids want to know most about?

Kids want to make sense of morality and have a lot of questions about who gets to make decisions. I think those questions are pretty universal, but some of this is culturally dependent. I think that questions about God are pretty universal among kids. I do think there is a pretty common set of questions about making sense of one’s place in the world.

Kids want to make sense of morality and have a lot of questions about who gets to make decisions

I suspect that kids everywhere are trying to make sense of gender — of why people dress differently and have different roles in the world. And maybe there is something like a set of questions about race that are of issue everywhere, although it will have a different structure depending on what community kids are a part of it.

There is a lot of research about how parents want to ignore questions about race, but kids have questions and are thinking about this. You’d rather not have them draw their conclusions from what they hear in the playground or pick up on their own, so that’s a place where I have raised conversations rather than wait for them to raise questions.

Scott Hershovitz, his wife Julie and sons Rex and Hank (Courtesy of Scott Hershovitz)

Do you think that there is anything unique that Jewish families can bring to the table in raising philosophers?

A lot of philosophers and lawyers are Jews, at least in the US. Maybe there is something about our culture of education and reading disputation-based texts like the Talmud that encourages this kind of thinking and exploration.

The last chapter in my book is about God. It’s okay to not be sure if God exists and discuss that. I think that Judaism is more flexible about people’s beliefs and puts more emphasis on action in the world.

For real God is pretend, and for pretend God is real

When my son Rex was four he asked whether God was real and I asked what he thought. He said he thought that for real God is pretend, and for pretend God is real. I found that profound in the moment, but I kept thinking about it because it helps me make sense of myself. That’s to say that I participate in all these Jewish rituals, celebrate Jewish holidays, go to synagogue, mark lifecycle events… But I don’t think of myself as believing in the conventional sense…

Rex got me to see that though I think that for real God is pretend, there is some value in pretending that God is real in that it enriches my life in a variety of ways. It makes me part of a community and gives structure to my life. I appreciate that Judaism provides a wider canvas on which to entertain these possibilities.

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