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The Philosopher-Mom

Kalynne Hackney Pudner applies logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and the history of philosophy to family life at large.

Plato insisted that philosophy and parenthood did not mix, and for his purposes he was undoubtedly right. The addition of children to philosophical contemplation (much less sustained philosophical dialogue) is generally toxic. But applying the methods, principles and concepts of philosophy to childrearing can be tonic – or even, it might appear, intoxicating.

I should know: with 130 students and nine children (or is it 130 children?) I’ve been dubbed the ‘Philosopher-Mom’. This nomenclature is a perversion of Plato’s own, found in the Republic, not far from his dictum about philosophy and parenthood. He argued that political authority is rightly placed with ‘Philosopher-Kings’. But however tricky Plato thought it was to justly administer a Greek city-state, it is a pale reflection of what goes on in a family of eleven. Mere contemplation is not sufficient: all four branches of philosophy – logic, metaphysics/epistemology, ethics and the history of philosophy – are necessary to the task.


The primary role of logic is to specify the rules of the philosophical game, which is argument. And if there’s one thing the Philosopher-Mom has in abundance, it’s argument.

KID #1: “That’s my shirt!”

KID #2: “No, it isn’t. Grandma gave it to me.”

KID #1: “You’re lying. I bought it with my birthday money. I remember!”

KID #2: “What birthday money? Your birthday was in June, and this shirt wasn’t even in your closet until September.”

KID #1: “I know. I saved my birthday money until September.”

KID #3: “Who had money in September? Someone stole a twenty from me in September! It was you, wasn’t it?”

KID #1: “Was not!”

KID #3: “Was too!”

Enter the Philosopher-Mom, quick to point out that epithet-slinging and plate-launching are abominations to the definition of argument, namely, ‘a set of linked propositions leading to a conclusion’. As the Philosopher-Mom patiently explicates, to lead to a valid conclusion, the propositions must follow certain rules – logical rules. The fundamental logical rule is called the ‘Law of Non-Contradiction’, which specifies that it is not the case that one can have a given proposition (call it ‘P’) and also, at the same time in the same way, its negation, not P (‘~P’). The Law of Non-Contradiction has a corollary, called the ‘Law of the Excluded Middle’. This states that for any given proposition P, it must be either the case that P or not P. No other option.

By bedtime, the Law of Non-Contradiction is under attack.

MOM: “It’s time for bed.”

KID: “Noooooo! It is not time for bed.”

MOM: “Yes, it’s time for bed.”

KID: “Pleeeeeease, can I stay up five more minutes?”

MOM: “Okay, but it is time for bed.”

If ‘P’ signifies ‘It is time for bed’, then ‘~P’ means ‘It is not time for bed’, and the Philosopher-Mom has just betrayed this most fundamental of logical laws. So she avails herself of a little modality. In an ideal world, P. But in the actual world (in which nine bodies are ricocheting off walls searching for clean pajamas, unoccupied showers, and toothbrushes that haven’t been used to style Barbie hair), ~P.

The Law of the Excluded Middle is likewise vulnerable, though not so much at bedtime as in the kitchen.

MOM: “Who took the last pudding pop?”

KID #1: “Not me.”

KID #2: “Not me.”

MOM: “You two were the only ones we let stay home while the rest of us went to your sister’s soccer game in a neighboring state. The pudding pop was here when we left, now it’s gone. The wrapper is right there, on the floor under the table, where wrappers are usually found after one of you eats something. Tell the truth: who did it?”

KID #1: “Not me.”

KID #2: “Not me.”

MOM: “Look, guys. I know logic. The pudding pop was undeniably eaten. It can only have been eaten by a person who was both (1) here, and (2) able to open the wrapper and leave it on the floor. Your siblings and the cats are thus excluded from the set of possible suspects. Therefore, either YOU ate the pudding pop (pointing at Kid #1), or YOU did (the index finger targets Kid #2). There is no other option. So who was it?”

KID #1: “Not me.”

KID #2: “Not me.”

And so despite the Philosopher-Mom’s heroic efforts, the Law of the Excluded Middle is vanquished – not by a competing logical principle, but by a metaphysical one: the Law of Limited Time.


Immanuel Kant is said to have resolved the major metaphysical problem of modern philosophy ( ‘How can immaterial substances like souls and minds interact with material substances like bodies?’) by arguing that the human mind is pre-programmed with certain concepts which order sense experience so we can interpret it. Foremost among these concepts is the spatio-temporal manifold, which guarantees that all our experience is presented in terms of space and time. Both of these are exceedingly precious commodities to the Philosopher-Mom.

When confronted with the denial of the Law of the Excluded Middle as above, the Philosopher-Mom must decide whether her time is best spent getting to the bottom of the pudding pop case, or doing something else, like making dinner, washing underwear, or preventing the toddler from wading into a lake inhabited by alligators and water moccasins [a venomous snake rather than an innovative shoe – Ed]. Much the same skill is employed in distinguishing among various tones, inflections, and volume levels of the obsequious speech act “Mom!”, to order the half-dozen simultaneously-issued cries according to the principles of justice.

As for space, it was the illustrious philosopher Murphy who formulated the definitive thesis that whatever of it is available will soon be filled to capacity with bodies, clutter, orphaned socks and the wrappers of pirated pudding pops.


As hundreds of students and the nine children of this Philosopher-Mom have been programmed to recite, ethics is the philosophical discipline that approaches the question ‘What ought I to do?’ The word ‘ought’ indicates that the proffered answer is normative as opposed to descriptive (the latter saying how things ‘really roll around here’). The Philosopher-Mom constantly reiterates this distinction in the context of the Naturalistic Fallacy, which illicitly derives a normative statement from the descriptive form of the same statement. Committing a fallacy is contrary to one’s rationality, and should be cause for profound embarrassment. Given their ridiculously low threshold for embarrassment, teenagers are ironically impervious to the shame of fallacious argument.

MOM: “You were supposed to be home by midnight.”

KID: “All my friends stay out after midnight.”

MOM: “I see. And if all your friends descriptively jumped off a cliff, would you normatively jump, too?”

Ethicists fixate on the gap between the normative and the descriptive, attempting to nudge the latter toward the former. Kant did so by promulgating his Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law.” The Philosopher-Mom’s version of the Categorical Imperative is much simpler: “Obey your mother.” This terse directive entails in the first place, following the house rules, which are rephrased periodically and re-posted on the kitchen wall in their multi-colored Sharpie splendor: they are constant and immutable, but the fresh presentation helps to keep them from fading into visual white noise.

RULE #1: Treat each other with respect. “Please” and “Thank you” are respectful. “Shut up Pigface!” is not.

RULE #2: If it’s not yours, leave it alone. This includes clothing, toothbrushes and pudding pops. It also includes bedroom access. Air, however, is communitarian, no matter what your brother says.

RULE #3: Put your belongings away when not in use. The operative principle is Nozick’s: the one who has earned the property is entitled to that property. If Mom picks it up, it’s Mom’s. A fortiori for cash left in pockets of dirty laundry.

RULE #4: Do not take the car without permission. The police consider a theft claim, like a pain claim, to be incorrigible.

RULE #5: Only call 911 if it is a bona fide emergency. Paradigms include: flames reaching more than 12 inches in height, visits from strangers toting firearms, or injury involving protruding bones or more than 2 oz. of blood issuing from the head. Your sister hitting you with a rubber spatula does not qualify as a bona fide emergency. Neither does Mom forgetting to put out the after-school snack.

The official designation of a moral system based on rules is ‘deontological’. Its primary alternative, which proposes we ought always to seek the greatest good for the greatest number, is ‘utilitarianism’. A major criticism of utilitarian moral theories is the difficulty of calculating the greatest good for the greatest number, since everyone has his own idea of how great is the good he will personally experience as the consequence of a given action, and how insignificant is the countervailing evil experienced by a family member.

KID #1 (banging violently on the front door that only opens from the inside): “Hey!! Somebody! Come here and open the door!”

KID #2: “Mom! Can I call 911? A burglar is trying to break into the house.”

KID #1: “I know you’re in there. Open up!”

KID #3 (watching TV in the next room): “Go away!”

KID #1 (still banging): “Yo, Pigface! The door!”

KID #3: “Shut up! We’re watching High School Musical!”

KID #4: “Use the side door!”

KID #1: “No! I’m already here! Get up off the couch, come into the foyer and let me in! Or I’ll kill you!”

KID #2: “Mom!! The burglar’s going to kill us!”

MOM (removing hands from partially-formed meatloaf, thoroughly washing them, rummaging for clean towel on which to dry them, heaving against pocket door that’s come off its tracks, tripping on backpacks, binders and sports equipment strewn across dining room floor, groping for foyer light, jiggling door latch until it opens): “Why didn’t you use the side door, honey? It’s only eight feet away and opens easily.”

KID #1: “I don’t like walking on grass.”

The Philosopher-Mom, whose viewpoint is more objective, is in a better position to run the utilitarian calculus. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the time. So deontology wins the day.

RULE #6: When entering the house from the driveway, use the side door.

History of Philosophy

This fourth and final branch of philosophy considers what philosophers of the past have had to say about logic, metaphysics and epistemology, ethics and (in what flirts with infinite regress) the history of philosophy. We have already introduced Plato in the context of his recommendation that the children of the philosophically talented be gathered up at birth and raised by members of the community specially chosen for their child-rearing aptitude, freeing their parents to contemplate the eternal Forms and run the government. This thesis is of limited usefulness in administering a family of eleven, as its consequence is most likely to be a bad case of wishful thinking.

It is also Plato we credit for preserving the Socratic method. Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and he spent his philosophical career asking questions specifically designed to make people who thought they were smart look like the idiots they really were. Philosopher-Moms have perfected this art with their teenage children, especially knowing that their children don’t have the authority to serve them a hemlock cocktail, as was the unfortunate case with Socrates. Socrates’ interrogative style of philosophical investigation lives on not only in the Platonic corpus and maternal inquisition, but in law school classrooms everywhere. Its evolution throughout the history of philosophy can also be traced through the Disputed Question format of the medieval scholastics.

QUESTION: Should children who fail to dispatch their household chores be given allowance?

IT SEEMS THAT children who fail to dispatch their household chores should be given allowance. FOR THE HOLY WRIT SAYS, “Who among you will give your child a snake if he asks for a fish?” MOREOVER, children have no other viable means of income, yet their need for Coke and king-sized Snickers bars remains unabated. AND AGAIN, it is not the children’s fault that they exist and are afflicted by such need, but rather the parents’ fault; therefore the parents are obliged to alleviate the need they created. AND YET AGAIN, the purveyors of childrearing wisdom assert that children should not equate household chores with work-for-pay.

ON THE CONTRARY, I say children who fail to dispatch their household chores should not be given allowance. FOR THE HOLY WRIT ALSO SAYS, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” – thus the parents are authorized to withhold at least the Coke and Snickers bars; children who fail to dispatch their household chores should be grateful they are not left out on the street to starve. MOREOVER, children do have means of alleviating their so-called ‘need’ for Coke and chocolate, to wit, by dispatching their household chores. AND AGAIN, according to the purveyors of dietary wisdom, any ‘need’ for Coke and chocolate is self-created by drops in glycogen levels precipitated by ingestion of the very same Coke and chocolate, so it is indeed the children’s fault. AND YET AGAIN, the chore-allowance relationship is not one of work-for-pay, but rather of contribution to and distribution from the common good. Q.E.D. (This standard medieval conclusion is an acronym for ‘ quod erat demonstrandum’ – translating from Latin roughly as “So there!”)

Socrates’ legacy persists also in the ‘Frequently Asked Question’, or FAQ. Granted, Socrates’ own FAQs had to do with the definition of beauty, or the proper ordering of parts of the soul, or whether an uneducated slave boy could solve a geometry problem. Ours tend to focus on malfunctioning electronic gadgets. But there are also FAQs regularly fielded by the Philosopher-Mom.

FAQ #1: “Are they all yours?”

ANSWER: “All of them are mine, though they are not all (that is, exclusively) mine, because they do have a father; neither are they all of mine, because the oldest is away at college, studying engineering and not philosophy.”

FAQ #2: “Have you always wanted a large family?”

ANSWER: “Not according to Lawrence Kohlberg: I first wanted the satisfaction of my biological urges, then the approval o f my proximate authority figures… (continue to expound all stages of moral development)… And it would be odd to say I want one now, since I have one, and desire implies lack.”

FAQ #3: “What’s Christmas like at your house?”

ANSWER: “Postmodernist deconstruction.”

FAQ #4: “Can I be a fly on your wall?”

ANSWER: (Silence while deliberating between an answer about the metaphysical persistence of the self and one about what it’s like to be a bat.)

FAQ #5: “How do you manage so many students with so many children at home?”

ANSWER: “Children? I thought they were my TAs.”

FAQ #6: “How long did it take you to finish your dissertation?”

ANSWER: “Two boys and three girls.”

FAQ #7: “Would you do it all again?”

ANSWER: “Without thinking twice. And for a Philosopher-Mom, that’s saying quite a lot.”

© Dr Kalynne Hackney Pudner 2008

Kalynne Pudner received her PhD from the University of Virginia, concurrent with birthing, raising and homeschooling eight of her nine children. She now teaches ethics and philosophy of law at Auburn University in Alabama, where she lives with her husband and (since depositing the eldest at a faraway college to study engineering and not philosophy) eight of her nine children. phdwithninekids.blogspot.com

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