On “What Is Man” (1905) by Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan and Seth. This rare bit of philosophy wasn’t published until after Twain’s death (maybe because it was too bleak?), but apparently reflects the mechanistic, cynical take on humanity that informed his literary works.
Twain was a tech guy; he was interested in the machines of his age, and he describes a person as a machine: a cog in the overall system of causes, producing nothing by himself despite appearances. You may think you’ve chosen some action or some up with some idea, but you’re just delivering the output of the social inputs you’ve received in accordance with your make-up. So some people have more sophisticated machinery than others, and this can be improved with education, but no one deserves praise for their make-up or environment.
Twain also describes the master impulse that everyone has: to content our own spirit, i.e. win our own self-approval. This is a variation on the “everyone is selfish in everything they do” theory, except “selfish” implies “self-interested,” which sounds like it involves some objective notion of what is in our interest (good for us) and posits that we always pursue that. Twain’s theory explicitly makes this “interest” a subjective matter, open to change by education and varying by personal temperament. If someone seems to be doing something selfless, like sacrificing some comfort so that a poor person won’t go hungry, that’s just because the person has a refined, well-trained conscience that will cause personal suffering for its owner if some more obviously selfish action is taken.
Read about Laplace’s demon, a thought experiment about determinism that Twain was certainly aware of. We also connect the reading to Peirce on the fixation of belief and our many episodes touching on moral psychology.
Image by Genevieve Arnold. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop of Pixelbox Media.