Sometimes a little item in the news will set a person to thinking. That’s what happened to me when I came across the following:

MOSCOW (AP) — An argument in southern Russia over philosopher Immanuel Kant, the author of “Critique of Pure Reason,” devolved into pure mayhem when one debater shot the other.

A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight and one participant pulled out a small nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.

The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Neither person was identified.

It was not clear which of Kant’s ideas may have triggered the violence.

There are many striking things about this story, which appears above in its entirety. One is that Russia seems to have a superior class of beer drinkers.

As one who has drunk a few beers with other fellows, this is not the type I am used to. Rarely does mayhem of any sort come up when the subject is philosophers. In fact, I can’t think of an occasion when the subject of philosophers has come up at all. Sports and politics, yes. They are to arguments what pretzels are to beer.

But supposing a philosophical brawl did break out, I doubt that a nonlethal pistol would be used to settle the argument after fisticuffs had been tried. (By the way, what is a non-lethal pistol? An old-fashioned pop gun that shoots a cork on a string? Or just a pistol owned by a bad shot?)

Frankly, I am surprised that Kant might set off a donnybrook. By the time a beer drinker thinks about the epistemology of transcendental idealism and the moral philosophy of the autonomy of practical reason, he has usually forgotten what offense the other fellow has given. And the story fails to offer any clue of what idea set the stage for pure mayhem. It had to be something really big to make the mayhem so pure.

Now, Friedrich Nietzsche is another matter entirely. It’s easy to imagine a scene down at the beer distributor when one guy says to the other, “Hey, how about that Nietzsche, eh? If he’d come here to see all the foreign brews and domestic craft beers available, he wouldn’t have gone around saying that God is dead.”

“How dare you suggest that God is dead, buddy!”

“I didn’t say that. Nietzsche said it. Don’t blame the messenger.”

“Hey, you gave the idea legitimacy by repeating it. I’ll settle with Nietzsche later.” And then the two would punch each other and then shoot each other with highly lethal pistols, because, after all, this is America.

Of course, Jean-Paul Sartre is always a threat for a punch-up and a bit of gunplay. There’s something about existentialism that’s hard to put one’s finger on and that drives certain people nuts. That and the fact that Sartre was French.

Why, just a few chance references to dialectical reason when two guys were hovering over the cases of Miller Lite (“Great Philosophy ... Less Filling”) could set them to blows.

“I’ll give you an existential knuckle sandwich, buster, if you persist in claiming that to believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe,” a guy might say, adding, “Cut out that surrender monkey talk or I’ll hit you right in your highbrow.”

However, there have been no reports of such violence breaking out in America. Here in Pittsburgh, at least, it is possible that beer drinkers are confusing the philosopher with one of the n ew Penguins players.

But the same goes for Kierkegaard, Everard of Ypres, Confucius, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Joe the Plumber, Hildegard of Bingen and the golden oldies Plato and Aristotle. They hardly rattle the bottles in pubs or beer distributorships. A mention of their names leaves fists uncuffed and pistols holstered.

Our national conversation is pretty mean and low at the moment and our mayhem is anything but pure. What good is American exceptionalism if people in southern Russia seem more intelligent?

I, for one, intend to drink more beer in the hope that a better class of argument will break out.


Reach Reg Henry at Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,