Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Against ‘Reason’

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Some weeks ago, a couple of my readers asked me to explain what I meant by this Facebook status update:Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 7.31.38 PM

So here goes.

What is wrong with philosophy?

First, my story: My background is film, theatre, and storytelling – these were my adolescent passions. These led me to mythology, which I explored to discover how the world’s myths could help improve my writing. In the process, I discovered essentially how the world’s myths could enrich my life – that is, in exploring the fundamental concerns of fulfillment, mortality, passion, love and life-meaning.

Now, you might notice an apparent overlap here with a popular understanding of philosophy’s aims (as expressed on Wikipedia):

“Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.”

My gripe with philosophy is really about the extremely important fundamentals this definition seems to have left out. Consider again: “reality, existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language” – where on Earth has emotion, culture, art, and, well, fun got to? Might these be just as if not more important for exploring the fundamentals of human existence?

I chose to pursue philosophy in my Bachelor of Arts because I had not noticed this oversight. The philosophers I had encountered in my studies of myth seemed wise and meaningful. I soon discovered that these philosophers were either sidelined or misconstrued by the university philosophy department. My problem with philosophy is that it is unclear about what it means by ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, and when it is clear, it is next to useless.

The Consolations of PhilosophyTo illustrate I thought about dredging up some dense incomprehensible philosophical texts like anything by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl; just about any philosopher studied at university, but I thought this would be a little too hard to elucidate, and a little too easy to criticize. I have turned instead to a popular, easy to understand work – The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. It’s available in the Popular Penguins series – those cheap books with the blank orange cover – so it is easy to obtain. In it, Alain De Botton briefly explores the ideas of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in easy prose (with pictures!).

I do not dispute the interesting, sometimes insightful findings of these philosophers nor the manner in which De Botton illuminates them – with one exception. I disagree with De Botton whenever he says something like this:

“The validity of an argument or action is determined … by whether it obeys the rules of logic.” (42)

“Anger results … from a basic … error of reasoning” (82)

“It is for reason to make the distinction.” (109)

What is reason? Most philosophers bandy the word around but do not go into detail as to what exactly they mean by it. De Botton outlines the Socratic method (24-25): one must take a statement purporting to be true, search for situations in which the statement would not be true, and use this to either modify the statement or declare it false. This sounds to most of us like good common sense. “Rationality … refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.” Basically, to be rational and reasonable, we must have reasons for doing or believing things. By implication, we must have reasons which have been examined under some more vigorous standard, which, in the case of philosophy, is, again, never specifically elucidated. Why is “because I want to” not a viable reason? This is never explained. The reason why philosophers are so vague in this area, I argue, is because there is no ‘rational’ or ‘reasoned’ standard for assessing philosophical veracity.

What about the principles of empiricism and logic? Might these form a foundation, a measure against which our rational reasoning can be measured? Unfortunately, both of these ideas are inappropriate for philosophical purposes. “Empiricism … states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.” When we say something is empirically true, we mean it has been tested in the external physical world. Human knowledge, values, and mind let alone subjective feelings and life-meaning cannot be empirically examined in the external world – they are mostly internal to us and their external manifestations are open to multifarious interpretation. Hence philosophy cannot be employing empirical reasoning.[1] Logic is a rigorous system whereby lucid, consistent, precisely delineated statements are juxtaposed to determine and corroborate a conclusion. Once again, human knowledge, values, and mind cannot be delineated using lucid, consistent, precise statements – we are examining the idiosyncratic human mind not building a bridge. The words you use to express qualities of mind are all imprecise, they are metaphors for our internal experience of consciousness: words like ‘truth’, ‘right’, ‘just’, ‘anger’, ‘trust’, ‘joy’. Logic treats these concepts as if they were physical things or forces. Just try to find a precise definition for ‘happiness’ among any group of individuals and you will see what I mean.[2]

So ‘rational reasoning’ cannot, for the purposes of philosophy, be founded in empiricism or logic. By ‘rational reasoning’, I suggest that the philosophers mean at a basic level, ‘examined thought’ or ‘careful reflection’, at a more profound level they actually mean ‘creative thought,’ that is, thought that considers the broad and multifarious areas of human experience and understanding, and attempts to make startling connections to reveal insights into the human condition. The distressing thing is that the philosophers, and particularly university philosophy lecturers, do not appear to know this. That their philosophical conclusions are ‘more rational’ is simply an opinion or prejudice. It just means, ‘I find them more sensible’ or ‘I’ve thought about them lots.’ Their ideas may be more appealing than many popular or religious ideas, but they are more practical, meaningful, compassionate, idealistic, ‘realistic’, straightforward or exciting than these ideas, not more ‘rational’.

As an example of how pointless and inappropriate reasoning based on logic is for philosophical purposes, we only need examine the thinking of Socrates. Socrates questions everything – the nature of courage, the purpose of work, the reasons for marriage – but he entirely fails to come up with any answers. (He is, in this respect, as useless and ‘amoral’ as the post-modern deconstructionists discussed here.) Now, I agree that ‘questioning everything’ frees up the mind, enlivens our thinking, staves off blind obedience to conventional views, and has led to the development of empirical science, but Socrates insists he is doing none of these things – he is (most ambiguously) ‘seeking truth’. He seeks to do this by following the dictum: “A statement is true if it cannot be disproved” (24), that is, if all reasons provided for it cannot be contradicted. Socrates seems to have forgotten to question his own method here. It is true that a lack of satisfactory reasons behind a statement may indicate that it is not true, but has he not conceived of truths that may be extremely difficult or impossible to explain in words? We cannot completely explain in terse consistent ‘logical’ statements why we feel emotionally moved by a poem, or why we love our spouse, or why a sunset is beautiful. Does this mean such ideas are false or just inexplicable? Socrates seems to have overlooked the non-rational, emotional basis of the human mind which is a very great pity considering the human mind is what philosophy is supposed to be about!

Fortunately, many of the philosophers that followed Socrates took up his ‘rational’ ‘reasoned’ ‘logical’ terminology, but nicely failed to apply his methods. Epicurus expresses his reasons for valuing friendship – solidarity, intimacy, compassion, happiness – in purely emotional terms which he can call ‘rational’ only nominally. Seneca wisely suggests our frustrations are tempered by what we can ‘rationally’ understand, even though what he really means is what we have emotionally experienced. Montaigne says we should accept and celebrate our ‘irrational’ bodily functions – when he means ‘involuntary’. Fortunately, all the rubbish about ‘rationality’ here does not get in the way of these philosophers speaking their impassioned, meaningful, creative, intuitive ideas, which are either not rational or ‘rational’ in an unconventional rather meaningless sense of the word (roughly approximating ‘well thought about’). They do not limit their thinking to mere contradiction and ‘deconstruction’, as Socrates appears to do.

However, there are a number of highly unfortunate consequences of speaking about intuitive, emotionally-satisfying ideas as based on ‘reason’. To begin with, the ideas appear to be somehow literally factually true – like the conclusions of empirical science. The philosopher does not proffer his idea as a more fulfilling way of seeing the world but as somehow the ‘right’ or ‘more accurate’ way in which the world actually is. Notice how this ironically sounds just a little bit like the absolute certainty of some extremist religious positions? ‘Reason’ in this area has become an Enlightenment superstition. Compare: when a new idea or insight emerged, the ancient thinker was more than likely to attribute such a breakthrough to ‘the grace of God’. For the philosopher, ancient or modern, he is likely to attribute it to his ‘reason’ – it is a more ‘rational’ solution to an existential question. ‘Reason’ in the second example had as much to do with it as ‘God’ in the first.

The second problem is that of expression. Most philosophers, labouring under the mis-impression that they are being ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ and ‘factually accurate’, write their intuitive, emotional-meaningful, interesting, inspiring ideas in a formal, stiff, pompous, academic writing style, which is wholly inappropriate to the subject matter. The result is that their ideas are often incomprehensible. I like sometimes to compare this to its opposite, as if, say, someone wrote out their tax return in lines of abstract Romantic poetry. Doing this would not only be strange, but would not serve the purpose of writing. Describing one’s earnings this quarter as “vindictively corpulent” makes as much sense as describing human value as a “categorical imperative”.[3] Montaigne is on my side here: “An incomprehensible prose-style is likely to have resulted more from laziness than cleverness.” Not to mention the pretentious self-importance involved in writing in such a way.

The issue of expression is not a slight inconvenience in terms of effective philosophy. Socrates is particular about setting philosophy apart from rhetoric, which is the art of persuasive speaking. Put this way, it seems that Socrates’ goal was to be right rather than convincing. Socrates seems to be trying to emulate the physical sciences where, for example, if I have done the appropriate calculations, it does not matter how I express them, they will still be correct. However, there is a major problem with this when applied to philosophy’s concerns. The way you describe elements of the mind is intimately connected to what you are describing. Consider for example the equivalence of the following terms: “glass” = “tumbler”; “rain” = “shower”; “wind” = “breeze”. Since these refer to external things or properties, we can always refer outwardly to clarify a difference in terminology or a bad description of something. Since elements of mind are abstract ideas, if you describe them inaccurately, the reader is likely to grab hold of a completely different idea, mistaking, for example, ‘freedom’ for ‘licentiousness’, ‘love’ for ‘lust’, ‘beauty’ for ‘prettiness’ etc. There is no external reality to grab hold of to clarify. The ‘rational’ philosopher either ends up describing something other than what he intends to, or nothing at all comprehensible.

A much better more appropriate way of approaching matters of mind would be poetry, art or metaphor. These methods seek not only to describe but to express the sense, the feeling, of that which they indicate. Metaphor is, I argue, the clearest and most powerful method of expressing philosophy. One does not try to inappropriately describe values, feelings, and mind using ‘logical’ or ‘empirical’ language, one gives an example, an ‘as if’, suggesting situations in which the feeling arose or that the values imply, using ordinary everyday language to conjure up a clear impression of what one is talking about. Seneca understood this, which is one of the reasons why his philosophy is unusually clear. He suggests the metaphor of the goddess of Fortune; she represents our exposure to accident. The goddess of Fortune inflicts harm with the moral blindness of a hurricane (another metaphor). Frustratingly, when De Botton discusses this, he notes that the image of the goddess here is distinctly “unphilosophical” (92) and that Seneca introduces her only to aid the memory.

The views expressed in poetry, literature, art, and particularly myth (or, more precisely, philosophical exegeses of myth) are far clearer, more meaningful and insightful than most of those expressed by the philosophers, mostly because the philosophers are incomprehensible to most readers. Actually, the difference between philosophy and literature frequently appears extremely arbitrary, influenced by whether the author in question is using the inappropriate language of ‘rationality’ or not. I am not sure exactly how a T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Walt Whitman or Thoreau is not in their own way a philosopher, at least, in comparison to the less ‘rationally’ obsessed ‘official’ philosophers such as Montaigne (who seems to be writing pure sociology) or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty (who were also littérateurs).

The third and most troubling problem with the use of ‘reason’ in philosophy is that it makes all philosophies, properly considered, wrong or deeply wanting. It does not take much to apply real logical and empirical reasoning to their arguments and find them wanting in the pointless, deconstructive manner of Socrates. This is what university philosophy lecturers do. So not only is most philosophy expressed in an incomprehensible manner, but the intuitive, meaningful ideas hidden beneath the surface are generally extracted by philosophy lecturers in order to be demolished as not ‘rational’ enough. These philosophies are hopelessly tainted by the opinions of the author – and this a bad thing, a weakness. Yet these same philosophy lecturers can only contradict. They proffer no solutions. Why is this? Because empirical/logical reasoning will not yield any answers to the nature of mind because these are the wrong tools for the job. Instead, all such criticism produces is deconstruction, meaninglessness, and nihilism.

To conclude, I want to make it clear that I am not denying that the discoveries of reason have advanced the empirical sciences particularly affecting the areas of technology and health. My argument is that the great philosophers do not employ reason at all, but say they do. The universities, taking things very literally of course, predicate their entire philosophy program around the use of reason, and in the process:

  • misinterpret and ridicule the arguments of philosophers who have something meaningful to tell us about our lives and
  • endorse the useless arguments of philosophers who have next to nothing meaningful to say, but are actually rational.

Recent discoveries in neurology have emphasized the importance of emotion in ‘reasoning’. In particular, people who have brain damage affecting a particular type of emotional processing can still reason hypothetically, but not in a useful, practical manner. Thus we learn that feeling and reason are not opposites. The distinction that is made between what the philosophers call ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ is the distinction made, in their day, between emotionally meaningful ideas and those which are not. The idea of a reasonable ethics founded on maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number is similarly based upon an emotionally satisfying idea – all the more so for being more practically realizable for the first time in history – but it is not based upon a greater ‘reason’. To claim such is to state an untruth, to cloud the issue with an incomprehensible writing style, and, most destructively, to open your idea to logical contradiction. So enough of these ‘rationalisations’! Tell it like it is! Such an idea is more inspiring, humane, compassionate, dynamic, etc. not more ‘rational’.


[1] I leave out of this discussion the empirical observation of brain science (neurology) and the statistical basis of modern psychology as philosophy clearly attempts to separate itself from these methods.

[2] I have had people counter this argument of mine by, essentially, choosing one of these definitions and insisting on it, but this is never arrived at through any explicitly logical process.

[3] For those well-versed in Kantian terminology, I suggest that you understand this term because you have found a way of connecting this sterile language to an intuitive emotional sense of meaning within yourself. It is definitely is not the ‘mathematical principle’ that Kant’s inappropriate and obscure language makes it resemble.

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Written by tomtomrant

16 November 2013 at 7:47 pm

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