Self-understanding: It’s a messy business

Early in his The Last Days of the Renaissance & The March to Modernity, Theodore K. Rabb discusses the dramatic impact of the decimation caused by the plague on social and economic structures in the centuries following. Further he suggests that the rise of the use of gunpowder caused significant shifts as well by eroding the socio-cultural codes of knightly valor while concentrating military power with those with sufficient financial means to make and maintain the artillery associated with gunpowder. It goes without saying that these changes impacted not only social structures but also the contexts in which people conceived of themselves as persons. That is to say, that these social and cultural events forced changes in self-perception, changes that unfolded over the ensuing centuries.

But Rabb’s indication of the devastation of the plague and the technology of war prompted thinking about how often our sense of ourselves and the world is changed by dramatic events rather that pure philosophical abstraction. Much is made of the anthropological impact of Rene Descartes’ reasoning to the foundation of the thinking self–“I think, therefore I am.” But many philosophical shifts have been born out of more traumatic events. A few examples came to mind:

  • In Evil and Modern Thought, Susan Nieman re-reads the history of philosophy as a coming to grips with the problem of evil out of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club addresses the impact of the American Civil war on the deeply influential philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce.
  • Many have observed the impact of The Great War and to a lesser extent WWII on subsequent human thought and self-understanding.
  • Nieman and others have discussed the impact of the Holocaust on all philosophical thinking thereafter.
  • And we are understandably still exploring the impact on our self-understanding of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Other examples could likely be adduced. But these suffice to warn us against attempting to write the history of philosophy and especially the narrative of shifting notions of the human person as merely a progression of philosophical developments from Descartes to Locke to Rousseau or whatever. Rather than a peaceful, logical narrative, our shifting collective self-understanding is often moved forward by paroxysms of terror or violence.