This book is a wonderful resource for someone interested in philosophical discourse about the good life, and more specifically about how the tension between reason and passion enters into that discourse. Cottingham also sets out a way to integrate psychoanalytic thought into the philosophical discourse about the good life. But I wish Cottingham had provided more insight into what the good life is once one accepts the psychoanalytic "working through" he prescribes.
In "Philosophy and The Good Life" John Cottingham starts with the question: "can philosophy enable us to lead better lives?" In the first section of the book, he chronicles why this challenge to "provide an authentic blueprint for human flourishing", seemingly the most basic of philosophical endeavors, had mostly been ignored in recent philosophical discourse. What an encouraging way for a senior professor of philosophy to start.
In the second section of the book, Cottingham details how classical philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans defined the good life as "inextricably intertwined" with rationality. But, Cottingham argues, these thinkers did not adequately address the fact that emotions could obscure the tools of reason or acknowledge the essential role that emotions play in "making us human."
In the third section, Cottingham examines the moral psychology of Descartes, on whom Cottingham has written extensively. First, he notes that Descartes rejected the dominant Aristotelian notion of an ends or teleological based morality, and that instead Descartes argues "we are in the important respects on our own." Next, Cottingham details how Descartes, along with Hume and Kant, became increasingly focused on the anthropology of morality. From this study Descartes came to view the passions as an integral part of the human experience. "Life's greatest pleasures are reserved for "those whom the passions can move most deeply"." To Aristotle's concept of habituation Descartes thus adds the eerily modern notion of a "therapy" for the passions.
The last section of the book brings us fully to modern times. Cottingham addresses modern concerns about the superiority of rationality in ethical discourse, highlighted for example by existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger. To address these concerns Cottingham takes psychoanalysis as a starting point. With psychoanalysis Cottingham wants to find a way to incorporate the tools of reason even if the human psyche does not follow the rules of deliberative rationality assumed by Aristotle, Kant and Bentham in their ethical analysis. He looks to the psychoanalytic process of "recovery and rehabilitation" to better "know thyself." These tools, Cottingham argues, provide a superior way to understand the relationship between reason and passion, and so are necessary elements in following the path to the good life. But, as I said above, this feels to me as if we are left by Cottingham at just the start of the process of discovering the good life.