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Thomas International Center
February 2007


Ralph McInerny


Fatherhood And Philosophy



There are some per accidens truths which seem to have implications which, if not strictly necessary, are so frequent as to call attention to themselves. That a philosopher be a father is per accidens; one can be a father without committing philosophy and one can be a philosopher without having a wife and family. True enough. But what is the significance, if any, of the fact that such a large number of the most influential modern philosophers had neither wife nor children?

Draw up the list. Descartes, Leibniz, Malebranche, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Camus.... One could go on and on, but these suffice to make a point. Or to ask a question.

Anyone struck by the abstract and fantastic character of much modern thought, its divorce from reality, its tendency to regard the world and ourselves as constructs, products of our unguided freedom, will ask himself how so many men of such obvious talent got so out of touch with things. Not all wonder is assuaged by an answer, of course, but consider this.

One whose mental activity goes on without any reference to the ordinary lived tasks of a human person, having a wife, having children, with all the joys and sorrows, slings and arrows, they entail, is unlikely to have his feet on the ground that sustains and defines the vast majority of human beings. The lived experience that is the only sure source of human thought. Chesterton said of the legendary absent-minded professor that his real problem is that everything is absent from his life but mind. He lives in a world of abstraction. Thought too easily becomes a game, the rules for which each thinker is busily constructing. Not many husbands and fathers who are also philosophers could regard this sort of thing as anything other than a frivolous temptation. One with babies of his own is less likely to forget that he himself began life as a baby, an obvious truth with enormous implications.

To be bound by lifelong promises to another human being, for better or worse, in good times and in bad; to know not only the joys but the anxieties of parenthood; to nurse a sick child, to feel the vast responsibility of nurturing and educating one's children, feeding, burping, changing diapers - all these protect one from that great fantasy, Pure Reason.

The philosophers of antiquity are another story; as are those of the Middle Ages, who by and large were celibates. Kierkegaard too is another story. A life in which the ordinary tasks of human life are sublimated to a higher, religious telos is very different from one in which those tasks seem simply absent, forgotten, so that one imagines oneself a Mind looking for its object. It is true that Descartes had an illegitimate child, as did Hegel, but they did not play any role in their lives, except perhaps as cocaine did in the life of that monster of rationality, Sherlock Holmes.

"I thee wed," marries one to the world as well as to a wife, involves one in a whole concatenation of relations out of which such thinking as one does arises.

Surely this is one of the primary meanings of the maxim, nihil in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu.


Ralph McInerny