Why philosophers are not good romantic couples

It is said that on a trip to the USA in the 1920s, a German sociologist was surprised by the domestic arrangements of his American colleagues. How can you do any serious work, he asked, without employees? The duties of a spouse and parents do not seem to fit deep thought and research unless they are facilitated by paid help.


It makes me wonder if “parenting” can be a problem to be considered alongside sexism, at least in certain branches of the academy. The two usually go together, but they don’t have to. Consider the puzzling student game about who among the leading philosophical thinkers had a conventional home life.


In the ancient Greek world, Socrates was married and had children, but he never wrote anything. Plato, as far as we know, never married. Aristotle got married and one of his main works, Nicomachean Ethics, takes his son’s name. But in later centuries the record is surprising.

Saint Augustine (“grant me chastity, but not yet”) was the father of an illegitimate son, but later became a celibate priest. Aquinas and the philosophers of the Middle Ages were all ecclesiastical. In the 17th and 18th centuries, virtually all canonical figures were unconventional domestics. Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Descartes, Espinosa, Leibniz, Kant and Bentham were all single. Bishop Berkeley married late but had no children. Jean-Jacques Rousseau ended up marrying his lover Thérèse Levasseur, but abandoned all five of his children to found houses. This did not prevent him from writing a treaty, Emile, on the proper education of children.


Closer to our time, John Stuart Mill was married late and had no children. Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Wittgenstein were all single and childless. Marx abandoned philosophy, turning to economics and politics, when his children were still young.


There are exceptions. Hegel married and had children. And in the 20th century, AJ Ayer and Betrand Russell created the media by getting married generously, although reproducing modestly. But it is a remarkable tradition.


And the main female philosophers? Of those who are widely known, Mary Wollstonecraft produced her main works before producing her children and died tragically from complications after the birth of her second child, who would become Mary Shelley. Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch had no children.


What explains this extraordinary correlation? It could be pure coincidence, but other hypotheses are pressing for consideration. One is that the strangeness of philosophers makes them inadequate life partners. Another is that domestic happiness dulls the philosophical edge. A third is that the problem lies in the nature of the most profound and fundamental philosophical work. If genius is “the infinite capacity to take pain”, it would not seem to leave much time for anything else.


However, few are at the level of Spinoza or Kierkegaard. For ordinary mortals, our research requires only a finite capacity for pain, which should be compatible with normal home life. In fact, in a recent survey of my faculty, although many people report struggling to achieve an acceptable work-life balance, those who care for children seem to do better than those who are not. And that makes sense. If you are taking care of your children, put your academic work in perspective. Perhaps it is not the most important thing in the world after all.


The problem is, if you don’t think your research and writing are the most important thing, at least in your own world, you probably won’t do as much as you can. And this is how the academic careers of parents, especially mothers, can stop. Once upon a time, we would have said, “That is the choice you make”. Now we know that there is such a thing as “indirect discrimination”. We need to define a new model of academic progression that is fair for everyone. And a start would be to make advancement dependent on what academics do during normal working hours, not on their evenings and weekends.


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