I’m reading American Philosophy: A Love Story, by John Kaag. It’s an example of those creative-nonfiction approaches that intertwine personal story with, well, whatever…in this case a brief overview of the history of philosophy, especially American philosophical thought.
Kaag likens his first marriage, departure from that marriage, and tentative approach to a new relationship to the idea shifts and insights of the American philosophers he studies. I’m not sure it’s entirely effective — (No, dude, I don’t think the fact that you couldn’t see fit to sit down with your wife and have a frank discussion about the problems of your marriage and so instead hocked your ring and caused a scene at a party so your wife would agree to a divorce is like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s courageous departure from the expectations of marriage into the world of ideas, and eventually to find love with another woman.) — but I enjoyed it overall.
The book provides this stark description of a very contemporary schism:
“Hobbes and Locke diverged in many ways, but they agreed that people were generally moved by sensations, fears, and desires rather than by profound moral principles. For them, human reason was predominantly instrumental, an extension of an animalistic drive for self-preservation, and the wisest thing to do was to set up political institutions that could keep base instincts in check…Kant argued that humans were not simply moved by the forces of their world but, at their best, were motivated by an internal, almost divine force he called rational will….By virtue of their active rational capacities, human were the only beasts that could set duties for themselves, and therefore the only ones that could be morally responsible.”
So that is the question, people: Are we assholes or are we assholes with a glimmer of sense that we don’t need to be assholes all the time? The jury is out.