In 'Nasty, Brutish, and Short', kids say the most epistemological things

His book is named after the resounding phrase used by 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan” (it referred to lif...


His book is named after the resounding phrase used by 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan” (it referred to life without government; Hershovitz alludes to the most basic characteristics of children). But it also made me look back at the 20th century comedian and playwright John Kerr, who regularly cited her husband, drama critic Walter Kerr, and their offspring of six for books that included the once massively, now almost completely forgotten bestseller “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1957). Smoking wryly, she noted that children “having linear minds and no understanding of the great intangibles, spend most of their energy yelping over trifles” – only to show that adults are the same.

Credit…Rex and Hank Hershovitz

Although Hershovitz’s book is structured as a popular lecture, rather than essays scribbled in the family car, there’s a similar domestic peep from him: he suspends disbelief for the tooth fairy; has a golden mini doodle named Bailey (“how does it feel to be Bailey?” he wonders, riffing on Thomas Nagel’s influential 1974 article “What is it to be a bat?); and is married to his high school sweetheart, Julie, a social worker. “I don’t have an ex – anywhere in the universe,” he boasts in an infinity footnote, “although Julie likes to point out that I could quickly have one. ” He repeatedly jokes that Rex and Hank prefer their mother to him. Hershovitz, a Rhodes Scholar, presumably read Freud on the stages of psychosexual development?

But while psychology informs a lot of parenting advice, Hershovitz argues that philosophy can be just as helpful, maybe more so. It invokes thinkers from Aristotle to Zeno – but oddly not Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of “Émile”, a famous treatise on education. There is, by way of compensation, a whole bunch of Locke (John), and lest you find this reversal of phrasing, know that Hershovitz advises you to read Locke’s treatises “aloud with an English accent” , and pokes fun at the 17th-century style of emphasis in which a writer “would capitalize letters like a madman”. If your freshman ethical reasoning class was oatmeal, it’s a bowl of Quisp.

Hershovitz seems to be a big fan of the Socratic method, although he only mentions Socrates a few times. Simply ask “Why?” is “one of my favorite parenting tricks”, he writes: it’s a word that children wield “like a weapon” and can be used against them to encourage discussion. Indeed, “why” rings like a bell throughout “Nasty, Brutish, and Short.” (As the great philosopher Kerr said, “If the maturing conversation of children and adults differs in volume and speed, it also differs in essence”; older children, like philosophers, speak in questions. ) “Why do the days keep coming?” a little girl asks a mother friend of Hershovitz. “Why do the laundry when the world may not be what it seems? Hershovitz postulates. (Maybe so Julie can take a break?) Why are we seeking revenge, like Hank did, for being called a “floofer doofer” by a classmate? Why are some words considered “bad”, a level of evil much worse than “floofer doofer”? (Hershovitz is a big fan of profanity and devotes an entire chapter to defense and its rather gleeful use.)

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