The Porcupine’s Dilemma

By Anupum Pant

The porcupine’s dilemma is a metaphor about the challenges of intimacy among human beings. This explains perfectly the situation in which couple of porcupines need to feel watmer during a cold winter night, so they have to come closer to each other. And yet not so close that would hurt the other porcupines with the spikes they have on the back of their bodies.

This metaphor originated from a short explanation writte by a German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. The parable goes like this…

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

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