Must Philosophers Be Parents?


Anguskirk: Three of David Cerny’s Crawling Babies in the Kampka Park, Prague, 2014 (CC)

by Justin E. H. Smith

Before I proceed to estrange my reproductively proficient allies, let me begin by saying that I love kids; those who know me know that when I am around them, they delight in my comical ways, and after I’m gone they beg their parents to invite me over again. I have godfatherly and quasi-avuncular relations with numerous little ones, and real avuncular relations with one who is no longer so little. I think they’re all great. In fact, I’m on record as saying that childhood is, so to speak, where it’s at, and that adults are but the phantoms of former children. I love kids, and I love childhood. This is not an anti-kid screed.

It is, however, anti-natalist, and therefore goes against a prevailing conviction among my peers that the life that fails to cycle back upon itself in kind if not in number, as Aristotle put it, is the life not worth living.

I hope no one will take this the wrong way, but I am concerned about the way in which the public display of one’s parenthood is increasingly a part of the expected career path of the professional philosopher. I often hear of all the great new insights colleagues have had since becoming parents, how this has advanced their thinking about language acquisition and a priori knowledge, about the ethics of care, or the metaphysics of personhood. Sometimes the insights are theoretical in nature, while sometimes the importance of parenthood is celebrated on the grounds that it advances a philosopher in his or her practical project of philosophy as a way of life.

Marc Lambrechts: Baby’s by David Cerny – Casino Middelkerke, 2006 (CC)

I have been explicitly told three times over the past year, by young philosopher parents, that there are philosophical insights that one simply cannot have without living through the fundamental experience of parenthood. That such an expression of pronatalist normativity exactly mirrors the sort of bias philosophers are by now so well trained not to express, about other quodlibetal forms the intimate life can take, is something that is surely in need of explanation. I suspect it has something to do with the recent, massive success of the campaign, which I support, to deheterosexualize the idea of parenthood. Once this goal was largely reached, at least within pockets of our society, the academics who found it desirable felt comfortable reverting to an evidently innate sort of conservatism. The family unit has been shaken up a bit, and the role of fathers reconceived, but in the end the nearly compulsory philosopher-dad-with-kid pictures that now clutter the faculty profile pages of departmental websites are every bit as conventionally pro-family as the ‘at home’ pictures on the now-defunct Romney-for-President website. They send the message that to be a philosopher is largely, even principally, to be invested in the bringing up of the next generation, to be doing it all ‘for the children’.

Every one of these pictures shows a figure that Nietzsche, for one, would have described as ‘comic’. Thus he tells us what he thinks about the domestic life in The Genealogy of Morality:

Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer — they were not married, and, further, one cannot imagine them as married. A married philosopher belongs to comedy, that is my rule.

Now Nietzsche was of course a raving and sorry case, who precisely failed to implement philosophy as a practice of the good life. But his historical point is unassailable, and the truth of it helps us to bring into relief the exceptional situation of current academic philosophy. The life of the philosopher was traditionally something akin to life in a monastic order; it placed an extremely high demand on its initiates, and forced them to choose between different and competing fundamental goods.

This is particularly clear in the Indian tradition, where the choice was explicit between being a ‘householder’ and being a ‘world-renouncer’, as the two ways of expressing Hindu devotion. It was also explicit that the former figure would necessarily be prevented from advancing as far as the latter in matters of illumination. Philosophy was an askesis, and as such was incompatible with the domestic life. Of course these days the fashion is to reconceptualize domesticity so as to fit whatever image we prefer to maintain of ourselves, so that, for example, when a new mother has to cut back on her yoga sessions, she can announce that she is now engaged in ‘the yoga of being a mom’. I have read Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, and I have not found anything about that.

Nor have I found any convincing evidence that the figure of the philosopher can be transplanted from the cloister to the household without serious deformation, let alone any evidence that — again, as I’ve been told three times over the past year — one cannot fully realize one’s potential as a philosopher unless one is a parent.

Marc Lambrechts: Baby by David Cerny – Casino Middelkerke, 2006 (CC)

Implicit in this presumption is the idea that adults learn things from the children in their lives, that the children give the adults a way of imagining themselves into forms of perception and awareness that are largely off limits to us tired old phantoms. Yet remarkably some of the best writing on childhood by philosophers comes from before the era in which parenthood was part of a philosopher’s public identity, and was written by philosophers reflecting on their own childhoods. In many cases, these writers were themselves childless, but nonetheless were able to find within themselves resources of imagination and Einfühlung that completely belie the conceit that there are states of awareness that the childless cannot know. I am thinking for example of Richard Wollheim, who had children, but who never would have thought to write about them in his memoir, instead preferring to focus on his own first years. In his memoir, Germs, he describes his own monumental achievement in learning to use toilet paper, and confesses: “It is what I think of when I hear moral philosophers discuss responsibility.”

I think of E. M. Cioran, and Andrea Dworkin. I even think of Derrida, whom I ordinarily can’t stand, but who captured the experience of childhood eloquently and touchingly in his 1991 essay, ‘Circumfession’. These philosophers wrote profoundly on childhood, without having to trumpet their own parenthood. Childhood, they understood, is a source of answers to fundamental questions about what it is to be human, but one can ask these questions perfectly well without having to lapse into a conventional pronatalism that, notwithstanding the efforts to ornament it with the seriousness of a philosophical project, is in the end only an afterecho of the very most conventional values that we, as critics of our society and our age, spend most of the rest of our time kicking against.

About the Author

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris. His books include The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning; Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason; The Philosopher: A History in Six Types; and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (all Princeton). He lives in Paris.

Publication Rights

First published on Justin Erik Halldór Smith’s website. Republished here with permission. Page updated in 2022.