Scott Hershovitz, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, reckons that children are pretty good philosophers. This conclusion is based on the experience he's had with his own two children, Hank and Rex. The starting point for Hershovitz’s book, Nasty, Brutish and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids, was various conversations with Hank and Rex which led him to the realisation that, yes, children are really good at philosophy:
"I think kids are really terrific philosophers – and the adults in their lives tend to miss it – they're puzzled by the world and they’re trying to puzzle it out. They’re not afraid of seeming silly, so they ask great questions and they give really terrific answers to them."
When Scott’s son Rex was just 7, he gave his dad a birthday card. Scott describes it as the best birthday card he ever got. Why? Well, dad and son had been talking about the philosopher René Descartes – because of course they had – and his idea that he could be dreaming his entire life, something that gave rise to his most famous philosophical aphorism:
"And Descartes arrives at the view that, even if he’s dreaming or even if he’s being tricked by an evil demon about most of the things he believes, there’s one thing he can be sure of, he says, 'It’s that I exist.’ And his reasoning was well, ‘I’m thinking: I think, therefore I am.’ I’d been talking about that with my 7-tear-old, Rex and he gave me a birthday card which said at the bottom, ‘I love you, therefore I am.’"
At which point Brendan had to wonder if it was less of a case of kids in general being good at philosophy and more a case of Scott’s kids being good at philosophy because their dad’s a philosopher. Scott does acknowledge that he encourages an interest in philosophy in a way that other parents don’t – and that’s one of the reasons he wrote the book: he wants other parents to recognise when their children are thinking philosophically. But his claim about children being good philosophers has studies to back it up, he told Brendan. And, the reason he was talking to his son about Descartes, it turns out, is that young Rex wondered out loud one day at dinner if he was dreaming his entire life.
"I think it’s a question a lot of little kids have and most parents think, ‘Oh, that was something cute,’ but they don’t latch onto it for conversation."
Brendan is reassured, amidst all the parent-and-child Socratic reasoning, by Scott’s insistence that there is still room in the child-rearing space for the time-honoured parental fall back that is "Because I said so". Indeed, Scott’s academic work has been about authority, so he’s abundantly qualified to deliver the line and expect little comeback from small ones:
"Does it really make sense? Does the fact that you said something – can that really be a reason for somebody to do what you told them? And I think the answer is yes. I think sometimes when you know better than the other person does and you’ve got responsibility for them in the way that parents have responsibility for kids, then I think the judgement I make really can obligate my kids, at least until the point they become competent to make decisions for themselves."
Which must surely come as a relief to the majority of parents who thought they were making stuff up as they went along – turns out there’s a sound philosophical basis behind you telling little Elliot that he can’t, in fact, consume his body weight in jellies, no matter how "naturally flavoured" they are. Because you said so, that's why.
You can hear all of Brendan’s wide-ranging and thoroughly engrossing conversation with Scott Hershovitz by going here.
Nasty, Brutish and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids by Dr Scott Hershovitz is published by Penguin.