in nasty brutish and short kids say the most epistemological things

In ‘Nasty, Brutish, and Short,’ Kids Say the Most Epistemological Things

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His book is named for the resonant phrase used by the 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan” (he was referring to life without government; Hershovitz is alluding to children’s baser characteristics). But it also made me flash back to the 20th-century humorist and playwright Jean Kerr, who would regularly quote her husband, the drama critic Walter Kerr, and their brood of six for books that included the once massively best-selling, now almost completely forgotten “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1957). Steaming with irony, she noted that children “having linear minds and no grasp of the great intangibles, spend most of their energy yapping about trifles” — only to show that adults are just the same.

Credit…Rex and Hank Hershovitz

Though Hershovitz’s book is structured like a popular lecture, rather than essays scribbled in the family car, there’s a similar domestic cheeping from him: He suspends disbelief for the tooth fairy; owns a mini golden doodle named Bailey (“what is it like to be Bailey?” he wonders, riffing on Thomas Nagel’s influential 1974 paper “What Is It Like 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 brags in a footnote about infinity, “though Julie likes to point out that I could quickly have one.” He jokes repeatedly about how much Rex and Hank prefer their mom to him. Hershovitz, a Rhodes scholar, has presumably read Freud on the stages of psychosexual development?

But while psychology informs much child-rearing advice, Hershovitz argues that philosophy can be just as useful, maybe more. He invokes thinkers from Aristotle to Zeno — though interestingly not Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of “Émile,” a famous treatise on education. There is, as compensation, a whole lotta Locke (John), and lest you find that phrasing flip, know that Hershovitz advises you to read Locke’s treatises “out loud in an English accent,” and mocks the 17th-century style of emphasis in which a writer would “capitalize letters like a crazy person.” If your freshman Ethical Reasoning class was oatmeal, this is a bowl of Quisp.

Hershovitz seems to be a big fan of the Socratic method, though he only mentions Socrates a couple of times. Simply asking “Why?” is “one of my favorite parenting tricks,” he writes: it’s a word that kids wield “like a weapon,” and can be turned around on them to encourage argument. Indeed, “why” tolls like a bell throughout “Nasty, Brutish, and Short.” (As the great philosopher Kerr put it: “If the maturational conversation of children and grown-ups differs in volume and velocity, it also differs in essence”; children of a certain age, like philosophers, speak in questions.) “Why do the days keep coming?” one little girl asks a mother friend of Hershovitz’s. “Why do the laundry when the world may not be what it seems?” Hershovitz postulates. (Maybe so Julie can get a break?) Why do we seek revenge, as Hank did for being called a “floofer doofer” by a classmate? Why are some words thought of as “bad,” a level of bad far worse than “floofer doofer”? (Hershovitz is a great fan of profanity, and devotes an entire chapter to defending and rather gleefully using it.)