Saturday, November 21, 2015

If Only Raskolnikov had Stayed in School (or not Majored in Engineering)

Back at the time of the Columbine shootings, I wondered if one root cause of the crime might have been the inadequate philosophical education of the perpetrators. Adolescents, but not just adolescents, can become intoxicated with the discovery of their own freedom and draw some erroneous conclusions before they work through its implications. If there is no God, but equally if God is the Cthulhu of the Calvinists and radical Muslims, everything is permitted. OK, but what then? Even the early Sartre, who can sound down right Kantian at times, knew that human existence had an irreducibly universal dimension because we are creatures of language—recall that Sartre’s memoir was called Les Mots.* When I act, I implicitly define what humanity should be. After all, an action that was truly irrational, incommensurate with all meaning, wouldn’t even be mine. It would be as anonymous and random as the decay of a radioactive atom. My acts are inevitably moral or immoral, which is why the recognition of freedom is also the recognition of responsibility. It’s actually a terrible burden.

Kant wrote "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” Before you’re an adult, however, you’re an adolescent for whom the great thing about freedom is staying out late, patronizing your parents, and sometimes acting out, very occasionally in a fatal way. Of course whether people hurt each other or not has more to do with their temperaments than their philosophies, but the mentality of the Isis terrorists, the Western guys who shoot up theaters, and other Loeb and Leopold wannabes does seem to owe something to a dimly understood idea. The callow young men dream of going beyond good and evil, but never get beyond evil.

*It isn’t often noticed, but Kant himself made the connection between language and morality long before the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy. The first version of the Categorical Imperative reads “Acts so that you can at the same time will the maxim of act as a universal law of nature.” The unremarked upon assumption is that acts have a maxim, a notion that only makes sense if for you as for the Greeks being a rational animal means being an animal that has the logos. After the Gospel of St. John, logos got to be something supernatural and spooky but it just meant language to Aristotle.

No comments: