Skip to main content

Review - Nasty, Brutish and Short - Scott Hershovitz ****

Scott Hershovitz is a little harsh in applying Hobbes’ aphorism calling human life ‘nasty, brutish and short’  to children, but his idea of using children’s musings as a starting point for exploring some of the big philosophical ideas with an adult audience is little short of genius.

Hershovitz points out that until about the age of nine, children are naturally philosophically minded, as demonstrated by their perpetual asking of the question ‘Why?’ Science communicators find a similar effect with science - pretty well all children are fascinated by science until they are 11 or 12 (I’m sure there’s a research paper in there for why one interest dies before the other). Not only does Hershovitz encourage this exercise in thinking by turning the questions back on his children, but he also stimulates readers to think about these issues themselves. As he points out, you might not always agree with him (I certainly didn’t), but it’s a valuable exercise to think through these big ideas – and your personal prejudices – to discover more about reality and yourself.

Hershovitz’s speciality is philosophy of law (I didn’t even realise this was a thing, though when you think about the nature of law and justice, it’s an obvious topic), and law-like questions are well covered, from rights and revenge to punishment and authority. I was a bit disappointed when he talked about rights that, although he acknowledged that rights are twinned with responsibilities, he didn’t explore the idea that it’s better to think in terms of those responsibilities (which are outward looking) rather than rights, which are inward looking.

It’s almost inevitable that practically every reader will find some of Hershovitz’s views questionable. While I, for example, had little problem with his approach to swearing, others might be unhappy to find their children as foul-mouthed as Hershovitz’s are. Similarly, while Hershovitz’s ideas on God may be pretty much the norm in Europe, I would imagine a lot of Americans would struggle with them. (It may be to keep things simple, but I found his attitude to the Bible, say, was strangely flawed, in that he seemed to either assume the Bible had to be the truth in describing, say, the vengeful God of the Old Testament, or the whole thing was imaginary, rather than allowing for a circumstance where parts of this complex collection of ancient books could be folk tales while other parts could be more significant.)

I’ve leapt ahead a bit there in getting on to religion. Hershovitz gives us sections on ‘making sense of ourselves’, including gender and sports, race and responsibility , and on ‘making sense of the world’ which includes big topics such as knowledge, truth and the mind as well as the fun subject of infinity, which ties in well to both science (for example, the size of the universe) and maths. While I wouldn’t go as far as Hershovitz in suggesting science and maths are sub-disciplines of philosophy, I far prefer his approach to that of some well-known scientists who pompously and entirely inaccurately have declared that philosophy is no longer required as science has made it redundant. Inevitably, we also encounter the now very familiar trolley problem: though we get some of the less visited twists on the concept, I’ve seen this handled better. Hershovitz doesn’t really deal with the impossibility of being totally detached from real world concerns, such as the unlikeliness that pushing someone off a bridge could be guaranteed to stop a runaway tram.

Hershovitz is generally very good at pulling apart our assumptions, but his own US-centric cultural prejudices shine through particularly on gender and race, where he seems incapable of questioning the typical academic left wing liberal view. (This is particularly noticeable in his coverage of trans-athletes where the reality of sport has already changed significantly since the book was written). Interestingly, this is a point he makes himself later when talking about the echo chambers of both right and left wing figures, but seems to miss his own prejudices. For example,  most academics fail to recognise their hypocrisy in recognising the importance of reducing climate change but still fly all over the world to conferences. If we are going to be picky, it’s also amusing that he applies the ‘invisible Gardener’ logic to God, but not to the equally applicable topic of the simulation hypothesis.

Overall, this book employs a brilliant concept, though I wish he hadn’t used his own kids as the only examples of children and philosophy, as it can read like the boasting of one of those parents who bores you rigid by telling you all the clever things his precocious children have said. Even so, it's a great way to bring philosophy, a topic all of us should know more about, to a wider audience.

See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here

Nasty, Brutish and Short is available from and

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Mirror, mirror

A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the Royal Institution in London - arguably the greatest location for science communication in the UK. At one point in the talk, I put this photograph on the screen, which for some reason caused some amusement in the audience. But the photo was illustrating a serious point: the odd nature of mirror reflections. I remember back at school being puzzled by a challenge from one of our teachers - why does a mirror swap left and right, but not top and bottom? Clearly there's nothing special about the mirror itself in that direction - if there were, rotating the mirror would change the image. The most immediately obvious 'special' thing about the horizontal direction is that the observer has two eyes oriented in that direction - but it's not as if things change if you close one eye. In reality, the distinction is much more interesting - we fool ourselves into thinking that the image behind the mirror is what's on ou