Must Philosophers Be Parents?

Philosopher Justin E. H. Smith rebels against pressure to be a parent here. He resents the fact that philosophers are always telling him there are things he just can't know, because he's childless.

All the hyperventilation about parenthood can be excessive, but how can it not be the case that parenthood gives people special experiences and insights?   For example, parenthood makes you think about values and priorities. That's because your own agenda may be altered to accommodate children and because, in raising children, you're constantly forced to make up your mind about what will make a child's life go better (or worse). Should you focus on happiness? Achievement? Autonomy? Whatever the child happens to want? Also, parenthood gives you first-hand experience with a certain type of love. Without first hand experience of parenthood, I don't think Harry Frankfurt could have written the book The Reasons of Love (to give just one example).

Now, non-parents have more time for other things.  So they may also be able to claim special opportunities for insight and reflection too. Surely being an adventurous traveler gives people unique experiences and insights, as does being a musician, or flying airplanes, or whatever.  And non-parents have more time for such things, as well as for ... philosophy! So there are plenty of advantages to having no children.  But Smith isn't content to defend non-parenthood in that manner. Not only is parenthood not needed for philosophical insight, on his view; it's actually harmful to the philosophical way of life!  Maybe he's only semi-serious, but he does expound on this idea.  Nietzsche, he says, found pictures of domesticity comical--
Thus he tells us what he things 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.
Married philosophers are funny, married with children--HILARIOUS!  Granted, Nietzsche wasn't quite the best role model, Smith admits, but he's still got a point--

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 PataƱjali’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.
"Serious deformation."  I'd like to know what the "serious deformation" consists in, apart from the fact that philosopher-parents don't fit the stereotype of the guru or yogi or monk. I have no idea, because after making the deformation point, Smith goes on to make a different point.  He says philosophers have written perceptively about childhood by just recalling their own childhoods. Since we all used to be children, everyone's on an equal footing--parents and the childless.

Ahhhh, but that doesn't work. The insight we get by having children isn't necessarily about what it is to be a child. As I said above, it's (partly) about values, and about love, and this crucially involves bring up a child, not just recollecting being a child.  In any event, it does jog the memory about childhood to watch a child grow up.  I remember being a teenager much more vividly now than I did 10 years ago.  That's because I have two teenagers, and I'm continually being brought back to that time of my own life by watching them grow up.

I'm against a certain sort of over-zealous egalitarianism about value, where you can't recognize the unique value of doing X if it's inevitably the case that some people don't do X.  I think that's politically correct but not truthful.  Parenthood is one of those things with special value, but which (for a whole host of reasons), not everyone will experience or even want to experience.


Torquil Macneil said...

Typical that Nietzsche designates parenthood to the realm of comedy and simply assumes that that is derogatory because, after all, truth belongs to the tragic. Odd that a modern (and non-German) philosopher should have the same bias, mind you.

I don't think there is much to be said about parenthood, it is hard, frightening, impoverishing, usually banal etc. But it definitely changes fundamentally what you know about the world. That is why nobody quite prepares for it, and no amount of second hand knowledge can substitute for the experience. As an analogy, I would say becoming a parent is often as significant a change as passing through puberty, you simply cannot ever again see anything in the same way. And mostly it is a loss (just like puberty - how much happier we would be without the complications of sexual relation and desire) but what price do we put on knowledge?

Jean Kazez said...

"Mostly it is a loss" ... Explain!

Torquil Macneil said...

I think that when you have children you lose a lot of things and gain some, but it is mostly loss. You become poorer, more anxious, tireder, work suffers, marital relations often suffer, free time disappears, minding children is generally boring and repetitive, children are destructive and emotionally demanding etc. Basically, the pre-child life with its adult pleasures more or less vanishes unless you are quite wealthy. But there is this other thing that you gain.