Want to Understand Socrates and Sartre? Talk With Your Kid.

A new book asks us to consider that children might have a natural aptitude for grappling with our deepest philosophical questions.

A kid pondering on a pile of ABC blocks.
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

During most of my early adulthood, philosophy had little appeal to me. I lasted no more than three weeks in a Philosophy 101 class in college, perplexed and bored by the way that far-fetched hypotheticals and abstract thinking flattened big moral questions and all their attendant emotions.

I struggled to see the connection between determining how to best intervene in an utterly unrealistic trolley calamity and how to value human life as I knew it and experienced it day-to-day. I dropped out of the class and returned to novels and conversations with friends as my preferred methods of philosophical provocation. Formal philosophy, with its meticulous tools and categories and language, held little appeal. As long as I treated people mostly kindly, what did it matter what I thought about right and wrong, or the nature of knowledge or the universe? No one demanded clarity of thought on any of these subjects from me, and I had no instinct to provide it.

Until, of course, I had my first child. My son Augie is a calm and careful observer of the world, an economist in Velcro shoes. As soon as he could express himself, he wanted to know things, lots of things, including things about the nature of things, and it was up to me to tell him. I was the primary architect of his Island of Sodor, the Ryder of his Paw Patrol, the one in charge of defining the world and our place in it. And yet, as his questions and questions and questions and questions revealed, I knew so little. Or at least far less than I thought I knew. And not just about natural-world things like why leaves change color or why it’s already dark at Grandma’s house on the East Coast when it’s still sunny here, but really hard questions like why evil exists and whether and when we should be kind to mean people.

Four years later, along came my second son, Levi, with his mess of blond curls, loudest of cries, and instrument always in hand. Here was a whole other singular consciousness, very different from that other singular consciousness I had birthed, and as such had a whole other set of questions. Just like his brother, he needed me (me!) to help make sense of the world. Two kids in, that amorphous, instinct-driven grasp on the world and morality that once felt satisfactory now felt deeply inadequate. I wanted to know more, know better, to have not just answers but better questions to their questions, to open the world up to them in a way that not only expanded upon my assumptions but also challenged them. I began reading philosophy.

For a long time, I thought this drift toward philosophy was exclusively the result of my growing pains as a new mother. But after reading the law professor, philosopher, and father of two Scott Hershovitz’s new book, Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, I realized that my own kids played a larger role than I’ve given them credit for. It wasn’t only the act of being with them that changed me, but also the fact that kids themselves are instinctive philosophers who, if listened to closely enough, can bring out the latent, or lazy, philosopher in all of us.

Let us not ignore the radical nature of this. A philosopher, a man, has written a whole book arguing that the setting of the home and the daily act of parenting can lead to profound philosophical insight and debate. As Alison Gopnik points out in her 2009 book, The Philosophical Baby, children and parenting haven’t exactly been on the forefront of most philosophers’ minds throughout history. Gopnik herself was panned for drawing a connection between little humans and big ideas. “Either way, the notion that children’s minds have much to tell us about the meaning of life seems rather a fond exaggeration,” concluded an assessment in The New York Times.

Hershovitz disagrees. “Every kid—every single one—is a philosopher,” he writes. “They stop when they grow up.” Humans are strange. Life is stranger. Kids, new as they are to the whole being alive thing, are sensitive to this strangeness in a way that makes them particularly attuned to the loose threads of logic and morality that most grown-ups ignore. We can’t tug, because doing so might unravel everything. They must tug because it is through this tugging that they understand the world and find their place in it. Hershovitz’s book helps place this normal part of the developmental process in a philosophical context, highlighting the ways your kids’ sometimes awesome and sometimes annoying questions make them tiny versions of Socrates and Sartre.

In chapters such as “Punishment,” “Language,” “Truth,” “Infinity,” and “God,” Hershovitz walks us through conversations and interactions with his children and places them within the context of philosophical thought. What’s the point of giving his son Rex a time out for yelling? Is it an act of deterrence? An attempt to train him? Wait a minute, should one human really take it upon themselves to train another? Doing so can push us to see this person as an object to be molded, rather than one half of a relationship. And wait, was little Rex, only 2, really responsible for his inability to stop yelling at dinner? Small humans have famously little control over themselves. So how to respond in a way that lets him understand that yelling is not cool, but not make him feel too bad about it? (This isn’t a parenting-advice book, but Hershovitz does offer his two cents on this matter. “When a kid does something bad, you should criticize their action as inconsistent with their character … You want them to see good behavior as built into who they are—and bad behavior as an aberration they can correct.”)

Kids lie. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes maliciously, sometimes as an act of generosity and care. What’s the difference? And which lies are okay? Hershovitz presents his children with a hypothetical about lying to protect someone’s life. A friend is hiding in their attic. A bad guy who wants to kill this guy comes to their house and asks where the good guy is. His kids think of workarounds, in an attempt to neither lie nor reveal the truth. One says they would tell the bad guy he isn’t here, “here” meaning the room they are standing in, and not the attic. The other says he would tell the bad guy that he saw the good guy on the street earlier—a truth that omits another far more relevant truth. Hershovitz approves of his sons’ suggestions, and overall that lying is sometimes morally permissible, even if Immanuel Kant once argued the opposite.

The point of this book, though, is not to provide a code for living morally. Instead, it’s about the process of thinking philosophically—doing philosophy, as he puts it—which, one could argue, is its own kind of moral code in which careful contemplation is central. Hershovitz doesn’t want his kids to agree with him. But he does want them to become better listeners, question their priors, and understand that to challenge is to love, philosophically speaking. An agile mind is far more admirable than a steadfast one; the only wrong answer is to stubbornly cling to an idea and resent having it subject to scrutiny. In this moral universe, self-doubt is a virtue.

Throughout the book, Hershovitz uses the thinking of esteemed philosophers to explain both his moments of doubt and his moments of epiphany. But we don’t hear much about how his philosophical conversations with his kids substantially provoked or challenged him, or whether they ever profoundly changed his mind. This is where I break with Hershovitz. Parenting is more than an occasion to dig into big ideas with the help of my children; it also pushes me to dig into myself and realize my many delusions and moral failings. Through caring for my kids, attempting to connect with them and understand the world through their eyes, I’ve become a far less certain person. And better for it. In making room for their ideas, insecurities, and version of the world, I have become more receptive, more willing to question my preconceived notions and consider others’ point of view.

Perhaps Hershovitz would have gotten there if he’d had a chapter called “Attention” and referred to the work of some of my favorite thinkers: Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Nel Noddings. All of them considered attention—“a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality,” as Murdoch put it—a moral act. Attention, I’ve come to see through their work, can be a way to move beyond oneself and attempt to truly see other realities, or other people, and make room for them in our accounting of the world. “Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness,” Murdoch writes in The Sovereignty of Good. The concept of ”unselfing” here means paying deep attention to something else in order to escape the scrim of our egos and inch a bit closer to seeing things as they really are. In this equation, the act of caring for another person, which requires deep, sustained attention, can become its own philosophical experience, one that can reorient us and enlighten us.

Hershovitz’s book has already enhanced my philosophical conversations with my children. I now have a better response to a favorite question of newly 5-year-old Levi: “Am I dreaming right now?” Or “What if the only thing we know is that we don’t really know anything?,” 9-year-old Augie’s latest preoccupation. I learn so much from these conversations, intellectually and—a territory philosophy tends to avoid—emotionally. I think maybe, sometimes, just a little, I unself. None of this leads to the kinds of insights that get me any closer to coming up with a clever or original solution to the trolley problem. But I have come to take questions about being and knowledge more seriously, both in their broadest, most abstract application and the ways in which they color my very real relationships with the very real people, sitting right next to me, asking me questions and questioning my answers over and over and over again.