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A few months ago, as I prepared to go on paternity leave, I decided to read up on the subject of fatherhood and turned, as I normally do, to philosophy. Female philosophers had written perceptively about motherhood over the years, but what had been said about fatherhood? Now, I thought I’d try to make something of my findings.

I began with Socrates, but was not sure what to make of his advice, as recorded in Plato’s Republic, that children ought to “be possessed in common, so that no parent will know his own offspring or any child his parents”. Or what about Aristotle’s claim that mothers love their children more than fathers do, and that fathers have the right to disown their sons? Or Confucius: That respecting one’s father will bring pleasure? Or the sexist remarks by Nietzsche: That women needed children and that men were merely a means to that end?

Montaigne, in his essay ‘Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children’, spoke about fatherhood in more compassionate terms. But why did he approach the subject in such a trembling and self-deprecating way, excusing himself, at the outset, for its “strangeness” and “foolishness”? I found nothing foolish in his assertion that fathers should try to be loved by their children rather than to instil fear and obedience in them, but I was taken aback by his apparent disgust for “dandling and caressing” them.

Why did the great philosophers, who could write about the most difficult subjects, from death to pleasure, suddenly become so inept and awkward when contemplating fatherhood?

One theory was that they simply lacked the experience. Plato, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were childless. And so were Kant, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kierkegaard and Spinoza. In fact, of the 20 most important philosophers of all time, as listed on the influential philosophy blog Leiter Reports, 13 never had children — or 15, if you wish to include Descartes (who, though not married, had a daughter whom he saw little during her five-year-long life) and Rousseau (who took Aristotle’s decree to the word and disowned all of his five children by sending them off, soon after their birth, to a foundling home).

In the 20th century, philosophers started to marry and procreate more liberally, although some of the greats, including Sartre, Foucault, Adorno, Popper and Wittgenstein, remained childless. And many of those who did have children appeared to be rather uncomfortable in their roles as fathers, or largely absent from their families.

Walter Benjamin had a keen interest in children’s literature and antique toys, but he failed to be an attentive father to his only son. The lasting image of her father, Bertrand Russell, Katherine Tait wrote in her memoir, was “his straight back and the invisible wall of concentration that cut him off from us”.

Nick Ayer, the son of the Oxford philosopher A.J. Ayer, and the secular godson of Russell, wrote to me in an email: “My father loved me very much, but I would still say to anyone who might be considering getting a philosopher as a father, don’t do it!”

When I asked why, in a subsequent phone conversation, he said: “Because he was never around. And when he was there, he was usually writing, deep in thought.”

His half-sister, Gully Wells, who is 12 years older and grew up in the same household, gave a more positive view. “He moved into our house when I was about five,” she told me. “And there he was, this gentle, sweet man, who was always interested in me, even when I was young.” Later on, she would share his interest in literature and history, and he’d sometimes help her with her schoolwork. “My mother would have said he was a rather emotionally remote man to be married to. He was probably an easier stepfather than he was a husband.” She referred to his multiple affairs, which, like Russell, he had throughout his life.

Russell’s daughter often felt like a disappointment to her father, who expected great things from his children; Ayer’s son, who did not share his father’s interest in philosophy, described to me how he was able to impress his father once, when asking him if a toy trumpet made a real sound.

Among the more encouraging examples of philosopher fathers was the Stoic Epictetus, who, at an old age, adopted a friend’s child and angrily defied Epicurus’ assertion that wise men should not bring up children. Then there was the American philosopher John Dewey, who adopted two children very late in life and was dedicated to his family, spending much of his money on travel with them, often to Europe, and on buying books for the children. “I can think of no major philosopher other than Dewey who had a life-long intimate relation with his children, and especially one that so clearly influenced his writings all his career,” his biographer, Jay Martin, wrote to me in an email. Dewey wrote extensively on the education of children, but, as with most other philosophers, he never addressed the question of fatherhood head-on.

Contemporary philosophers do not seem much more interested in the topic. With the exception of the 2010 collection Fatherhood: Philosophy for Everyone, very little has been said about fatherhood. Whatever the reason, it isn’t childlessness. I sent out a request to 12 leading philosophy institutions in the United States. Based on the responses from seven of them, encompassing a little more than 100 faculty members, I found that more than 75 per cent had children — the same for women as for men. All seven philosophy department heads said that the degree of childlessness was not greater in their departments than in others.

So why had philosophers been so reluctant to write about fatherhood, and so ineptly, if not sexist, in the few cases they had done so? I decided to ask a woman, Kelly Oliver, a Philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University: “The history of philosophy is the history of patriarchal power over both the mind and body,” she wrote to me in an email. “Fatherhood has been the unquestioned foundation of familial and civil law, and as such, has not been investigated until relatively recently, when patriarchy in philosophy and beyond has been challenged by philosophers influenced by feminism and psychoanalysis.”

In their work, Levinas, Ricoeur and Derrida challenged the patriarchal notion of the father, as a symbol for authority, but they all remained silent on their own experiences of fatherhood. But there are, of course, contemporary philosophers who have given the subject some thought.

One of them is Scott Samuelson, a professor at Kirkwood Community College and the father of two teenagers. “To me, parenting is not at all unlike philosophy,” he told me. “It takes you on this journey where you usually start off with some great abstract concept, like, I’m going to raise my kids the right way and not like all these other fools. Then reality comes crushing down and you begin to see all your shortcomings, which can be tough and debilitating, but it could also lead you back to the common life, and allow you to see things afresh again.”

Having children also raises the question of the good life, Samuelson continued. “We naturally want the good life for our children more even than for ourselves.”

More problematic, from an ethical point of view, is that we also want the good life for our own children more than for the children of others. “There is nothing wrong with parents who want the best for their children,” the Australian philosopher Peter Singer told me. “But we should recognise some limits. Our children don’t need every conceivable luxury when the money could be used to save the lives of children of others, who would otherwise die from malaria.”

Singer, himself the father of three children and four grandchildren, is also critical of the kind of tiger parenting that has been popularised in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

“It is too much focus on my child,” Singer said. “She says that participating in the school play is a waste of time. But she fails to recognise that a school play is a communal activity.”

The risk with this kind of hyperparenting, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in his book The Case Against Perfection, is that it leads us to think of children as products of our will, or instruments of our ambition, rather than gifts. Having children is a philosophical experience insofar as it teaches us to be open to the unbidden.

In an email, Philosophy professor Stephen Asma describes taking his son, then four, to his office. Within the course of 10 minutes, his son nearly had two fatal accidents, then, forgetting to say he needed the bathroom, filled his pants. “Having children gives you great access to significant aspects of the human condition — no one knows the depths of human vulnerability like a parent. Oh sure, Nietzsche can wring his hands about the eternal recurrence, but let him spend a day in the emergency room with his injured kid. That’s real vulnerability.”

Todd May, a Philosophy professor at Clemson University, wrote to me in an email: “There is a responsibility for another human being that cannot be replicated in any other form of life that I know of.” For May, as for most other philosophers I spoke to, philosophy has played a significant role in shaping his approach to fatherhood. “I try to teach my kids to take reflective distance on things, not to get caught up in the immediacy of what seems to be troubling them.”

Most of the male philosophers I spoke to in the course of researching this piece referred to parenting in gender-neutral terms, making no clear distinction between the role of the father and the role of the mother. But Lionel McPherson, a Philosophy professor at Tufts, told me that fathers typically have a distinct role to play. “If you want a shoulder to cry on, I’m not the first person to come to. Instead, I want to know what happened and what we can do to address the problem.”

The role of the father, in McPherson’s view, is to maintain clear boundaries and to follow up with consequence, a role he believes has gone missing in much of American life. As an African-American father to two teenage daughters, he sets his expectations high, but within the realm of their talents and abilities. “They have often made fun of me for trying to impart my life lessons, but when they leave home and go out in the world, I want them to hear my voice in their head, so they know what I would have thought,” he said, and laughed.

George Yancy, a professor of Philosophy at Emory University had a different take. “While always trying to remain aware of the problems associated with patriarchy,” he wrote in an email, “my love for my sons is partly an expression of my love of wisdom.” As a black father of four black sons, the issue of race is unavoidable. He attempts to make them think carefully about the decisions they make, appreciate their existential uniqueness and teach them not to be reduced to how white racism sees them. His work, he says, is inextricably linked to his love for them as a black father: “My fatherly love for them, my profound parental love for them, shapes the philosophical labour that I do.”

Scott Samuelson sometimes wishes he could give his children a clearer idea of how to live, based on religion or tradition or just a set of clear cut principle, but, like Yancy, he believes that the world, as well as fatherhood, is messy, and so, that is what he teaches them: “As a philosopher I will never give them anything that clear. I will give them a much messier, more mixed-up world. And I don’t think that’s altogether bad. I hope that they appreciate it, but I also worry that it’s been confusing to them at times.”

My paternity leave was coming to an end, and I could see now that Philosophy and fatherhood were not alien to each other but, rather, intimately intertwined. Both involve a commitment to others that require an openness to the unbidden, and both lead to states of joy and wonder as well as dread and vulnerability. And even if Philosophy offers little by way of practical parenting advice, it prompts me to reflect on what I mean by the good life and to consider its consequences, not just for my own children, but also for those of others.

— New York Times News Service

Carl Cederstrom is an associate professor of organisation studies at Stockholm University. His forthcoming book, The Happiness Fantasy, was developed from his 2015 essay, ‘The Dangers of Happiness’.