The Porcupine’s Dilemma: Schopenhauer’s Wistful Parable on Human Connection

The Porcupine’s Dilemma: Schopenhauer’s Wistful Parable On Human Connection

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s dilemma of the prickly porcupine is his wistful parable on the fraughtness of human connection: in seeking intimacy, we inevitably push each other away.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  November 2023

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In his 1851 collection of short philosophical essays, Parerga and Paralipomena, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer reflects on a whole range of subjects, one of which is the oft-fraught nature of human connection.

To illuminate his thoughts, Schopenhauer offers a parable involving a group of prickly porcupines. He writes:

One cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart.

The porcupines seek each other out for warmth, Schopenhauer tells us; but in becoming close, they scratch and prickle one another with their sharp spines, and draw apart in annoyance and pain.

What, then, can the porcupines do?

Schopenhauer continues:

Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another.

The porcupines settle on a compromise: close enough for warmth, with enough distance for minimal scratching.

Schopenhauer then rather unceremoniously applies this parable to human society:

Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of people’s lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart.

Just quickly, can we appreciate Schopenhauer’s use of “many unpleasant and repulsive qualities” and “insufferable drawbacks(!)” here… one gets the sense that he was a very prickly porcupine indeed.

But back to the point he is making: while we might seek human connection, trying to be intimate or vulnerable with others often leads to frustration and disappointment.

We scratch and annoy each other with our varying needs and opinions, before — like the porcupines — settling on a compromise, Schopenhauer writes:

The mean distance which [people] finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners. Whoever does not keep to this, is told in England to ‘keep his distance.’ By virtue thereof, it is true that the need for mutual warmth will be only imperfectly satisfied, but on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt.

Manners and etiquette emerge to smooth the roughness of our individual wants and demands; such polite society, however, simultaneously blocks any true intimacy or connection from occurring.

Thus the dilemma: we seek out genuine connection, but can often only tolerate a sort of mitigated closeness. We both need and put up with one another.

What, then, can we do? How can we overcome the porcupine’s dilemma?

If here we think Schopenhauer will provide us with some interesting strategies for how we might overcome the needles of closeness and go on to forge true intimacy, then unfortunately we will be left bitterly disappointed.

For instead, Schopenhauer — great pessimist that he is — actually goes in the other direction. Rather than put up with people’s infuriating ways, he thinks we should cut our losses and withdraw altogether into solitude, and focus on generating some warmth for ourselves. He writes:

Yet whoever has a great deal of internal warmth of his own will prefer to keep away from society in order to avoid giving or receiving trouble or annoyance.

Indeed, who needs the company of others when one can enjoy one’s own company? Everything we are seeking connection-wise can be provided by a kind of refined solitude, Schopenhauer thinks.

For, he goes on to write, solitude can be made ever more blissful the more we develop our intellects and deepen our appreciation of art.

We can spend our time reading, listening to music — appreciating the best cultural achievements of humanity — without ever having to actually contend with or be annoyed by any other humans themselves.

In another essay on self-sufficiency, Schopenhauer doubles down on this position, writing:

As a general rule, it may be said that a man’s sociability stands very nearly in inverse ratio to his intellectual value: to say that ‘so and so’ is very unsociable, is almost tantamount to saying that he is a man of great capacity. Solitude is doubly advantageous to such a man. Firstly, it allows him to be with himself, and, secondly, it prevents him being with others — an advantage of great moment; for how much constraint, annoyance, and even danger there is in all intercourse with the world.

Of course, it is rather convenient that Schopenhauer attacks sociability and praises the intellect of those who embrace solitude — for he himself lived a life primarily of isolation (the philosopher never married, had a famously hostile relationship with his mother, and was notoriously bad tempered).

But however we may feel about Schopenhauer’s own prickliness, his parable lit the imagination of Sigmund Freud, who popularized it as the ‘porcupine dilemma’ (or ‘hedgehog dilemma’, as it’s now sometimes known).

Freud thought it encapsulated an important insight into human psychology: in seeking intimacy, we often push others away.

Remove the guardrails of etiquette and polite society, and we often just end up annoying each other.

What do you make of Schopenhauer’s parable?

  • Do you think the imagery of porcupines seeking to warm themselves aptly reflects the nature of human connection?
  • Do you agree with Schopenhauer’s recommendation — i.e. that to avoid being annoyed by others, we should renounce sociability and find ways to enjoy our own company?
  • Or do you think that occasional conflict is a necessary (perhaps indispensable) part of forming genuine connections, and that we can learn to live with (even love) each other’s prickliness?

Learn more about Schopenhauer’s philosophy

If you’re interested in learning more about Schopenhauer and his philosophy, Parerga and Paralipomena was his most widely-read work during his own lifetime, and is a nice accessible introduction to some of the key themes of his philosophy, with essays on many different topics.

You might also enjoy the following related reads:

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
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Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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