Nasty, brutish, and short

If you don’t recognize the title of this post, it probably means that you didn’t pay attention in your college philosophy class! Or perhaps your professor just didn’t teach you about Hobbes (that’s Thomas Hobbes, not Calvin and).

That’s right, this title is the final four words of a sentence from the 17th-Century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. The full context appears in his famous book, Leviathan, in which he explains that life without government would be

solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But this post isn’t really about Hobbes (or Calvin, for that matter). It’s about an eminently readable book by philosopher and law professor Scott Hershovitz, titled Nasty, Brutish, and Short—and subtitled Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids. Yes, kids. This is actually three books in one, all intertwingled:

  • A book about philosophy, including morality/ethics, epistemology, ontology, philosophy of math (much too brief!), philosophy of mind, philosophy of law, and religion.
  • A book about child-raising, emphasizing asking questions and getting children to do likewise.
  • A book about Hershovitz’s own kids, arguing that all children are natural philosophers, using anecdotes like this one:

“But Daddy,” Sarah insisted, “it can’t go on and on like that forever; the only thing that goes on and on like that forever is numbers!”

Okay, it will take a certain suspension of disbelief to buy his argument that there’s nothing special about his own kids (whose parents just happen to be a philosopher and a social worker). If you are a willing reader, you will probably accept his advice such as this suggestion:

When a kid asks a Big Question, I think it important to start a conversation, not cut one off.

That suggestion immediately reminds me of two personal anecdotes:

  • The student who asked me, “Why is it that whenever I ask you a question, you reply with another question?” I was sorely tempted to reply by saying “Why do you think I do that?”, but unfortunately I resisted.
  • The colleague who claimed that “The most important thing for a teacher to do is answer all his students’ questions.” I vehemently disagreed and said that the most important thing is to ask more questions and thereby lead the students to find their own answers.

Hershovitz, as I noted above, is a professor of the philosophy of law. In other words, he is both a lawyer and a philosopher—an intriguing combination that should appeal to those of us who watch Law and Order and enjoy certain parts of mysteries. Actually, I had never thought before that there even is such a sub-discipline as philosophy of law, since my own orientation tends to think that the main sub-disciplines are logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of math, epistemology, and ethics. Shows how little I know!

By the way, this is the sixth book to make my list of The Five Best Books I’ve read in 2022. And we still have four months to go! So either I have to thin the herd or else change the title of the list to, say, The Ten Best Books I’ve read in 2022. That would give me some flexibility. Here are the other five so far, along with links to my reviews:

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning