by Daniel A. Kaufman
The mainline, analytic philosophical tradition is characterized by a programmatic rationalism that stands upon surprisingly flimsy grounds and is ultimately motivated by an obsession with autonomy and control. (1) My aim, here, is to make the case for this, as carefully – and as accessibly – as I can. I have written elsewhere on alternatives, describing several “philosophical countercultural” movements that have stood in opposition to the mainline tradition, as well as advocating for what I have called “Common Sense Naturalism.” (2)
Of course, ‘rationalism’ can mean many different things in philosophy, but for the sake of our discussion, what I mean to suggest is that analytic philosophers and their mainline Enlightenment predecessors have embraced the following ideas or close variations thereupon:
- The acceptability of a belief, activity, practice, institution, etc., rests entirely on whether or not it can be rationally justified.
- The rational justification of beliefs consists either of empirical evidence or of inductive or deductive proof. The rational justification of activities, practices, and institutions may include appeals to utility – where this notion is grounded in a scientific conception of human nature, like Bentham’s – or to duty, so long as it is grounded in some clearly definable, logically rigorous conception of reason or right inclination, such as Kant’s.
- To be rejected categorically are those beliefs, activities, practices, and institutions grounded in the authority of individuals, classes, customs, or traditions – the collective sources of what Edmund Burke called “prejudice” – adherence to which mainline philosophy identifies with pre-modern civilization and considers intellectually and behaviorally atavistic.
- Also to be rejected are those beliefs, activities, etc. that are grounded in common sense, intuition, or sensibility, obedience to which, inasmuch as they do not constitute rational grounds for obtaining knowledge or motivating action, is also treated as regressive; the province of children or of incurious or otherwise unreflective adults.
- Truth is the ultimate end of all inquiry and belief and trumps all other intellectual ends. The fulfillment of one’s duty (service to the Good, the Right, and/or the Just) is the ultimate end of all activity and consequently, supersedes all other practical ends.
The occasions on which these ideas and their correlates are expressed in the mainline philosophical tradition are legion, so I will only give a few representative examples here.
Francis Bacon, whose New Organon was devoted in good measure to fighting “received doctrines,” described common language and speech and established belief systems as “idols.” (3) René Descartes, after describing the deductive relations that connect the propositions of geometry to their axioms, wrote that “all the things which can fall under human knowledge are connected in the same way” and predicted that eventually we would know everything, enthusing that “there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach, or so hidden that we cannot discover it.” (4) Immanuel Kant defined ‘enlightenment’ as the autonomy that follows once one has broken free from the influence of the ideas and values of others and characterized goodness as the state one is in, when one resists one’s inclinations and desires and acts solely from duty, saying of intuition and common sense that “to appeal to ordinary common sense when insight and science run short…is one of the subtle discoveries of recent times, whereby the dullest windbag can confidently take on the most profound thinker and hold his own with him.” (5) Jeremy Bentham maintained that nature has established pain and pleasure as the “sovereign masters” of our behavior, and credited Utilitarianism with basing our values and morality on this “scientific foundation,” and thereby, with “rear[ing] the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law,” while ethical systems not based in this modern version of the hedonist doctrine “deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.” (6) John Stuart Mill wrote darkly of the person who, in considering “the moral nature and social condition of man,” takes a “plain, matter-of-fact view,” in contrast with the theorist, whom he describes as fulfilling the “highest and noblest effort of human intelligence,” the latter being a “[man] of the present,” who “bid[s] each man look about for himself,” and the former little better than a yahoo, a “[man] of the past,” who “insist[s] upon our…adhering to the blind guide.” (7) A.J. Ayer argued that a proposition – any proposition – is only meaningful if verifiable and verifiable only if “its truth could be conclusively established by experience.” (8) John Rawls maintained that the acceptability of any political theory depends entirely upon whether it is one that “rational persons in the initial situation would choose,” a rational choice being one that is commensurate with “the interests of the parties” and the “initial situation” being one in which the particularities of one’s real circumstances and history are scrupulously ignored. (9) And Peters Singer and Unger, in making the case that we all have a moral obligation to live at near-subsistence levels, so that we might give the bulk of our property and wealth to the world’s needy, have explained that “we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering” and that “on pain of living a life that’s seriously immoral, a typical person…must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income… to lessen … the serious suffering of others.” (10)
These ideas provide the ground from which springs the distinctive rationalist human ideal, which we also find articulated across the mainline philosophical landscape, the most prominent virtues of which include:
- Disinterestedness (impartiality) in belief and conduct: one eschews bias, prejudice, or any other form of pre-judgment, in everything that one believes and does, and goes wherever the evidence, logic, or other rational analysis leads.
- Dispassionateness in belief and conduct: one believes and acts solely on the rational merits of the case at hand. One neither believes because of appealing rhetoric or wish-fulfillment, nor acts on the basis of un-regulated sentiment.
- Autonomy: The ideal person is a free agent, both in belief and in action, but this autonomy, which is the birthright of every human being, must be constantly defended: from the forces of nature – by having one’s reason sit in constant judgment over one’s inclinations and sensibility – and from the forces of social conformity, by maintaining one’s independence from the influences of others and especially from the often unconscious influence of habit, custom, and tradition.
- Consistency and Fairness: As inconsistency is the most obvious manifestation of irrationality, consistency is a bedrock rationalist virtue. Fairness is a manifestation of both consistency and dispassion, in those cases of action deemed morally significant, and thus, is also a rationalist virtue.
- Purity of Purpose and Perfectionism: Absolute fidelity to the supremacy of truth, goodness, rightness, and justice in everything that one believes and does, over the entire course of one’s life. One prominent manifestation of this idea is the notion that the truth/falsity of a belief always overrides its other benefits/deficits. Another is that moral considerations are always overriding of all others, when considering how one should act, on any given occasion.
The rationalist’s view is that reason and reasoning must precede and serve as the logical grounds for and causes of our beliefs and actions, if the latter are to be deemed acceptable, but in fact, it is belief and action that must come first; that is, we must already believe and act, if we are to reason about believing and acting. Certain things must “stand fast” or function as “scaffolding,” to use Wittgenstein’s terminology, if any endeavor, intellectual or practical, is ever to get underway. “If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put,” Wittgenstein wrote, in On Certainty, and Gilbert Ryle observed, in “Knowing How and Knowing That,” that insofar as intellection is itself a kind of performance, every performance cannot be preceded by intellection and thus, intellection is not itself an inherently rational activity. (11)
Taken together, these ideas represent an essentially anti-rationalist, by-your-bootstraps view of inquiry and activity that stands squarely against the mainline tradition, whose conception of the rational point of view has consistently been that it is an uncompromised, neutral vantage-point, from which every potential intellectual and practical activity should be assessed and certified, before being willed into being.
Thomas Reid observed in the Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man that “an artist…cannot work in his art without tools, and these tools must be made by art. The exercise of the art therefore is necessary to make the tools, and the tools are necessary to the exercise of the art,” a straightforward rejection of the rationalist view and a recapitulation of Hume’s demonstration, in the Treatise, of the folly of attempting to certify the use of an instrument – say, deductive or inductive reasoning – by employing that very instrument. After all, to justify the belief that P, by way of deductive or inductive reasoning requires that one believe that the principles of deduction and induction are true and that one is deducing or inducing correctly, beliefs which cannot themselves be justified by deduction or induction. Correspondingly, to justify P by appealing to the fact that I have seen, heard, felt, or otherwise perceived that P, implies that we believe that our senses are not deceiving us and that we are not dreaming – that our experience derives from an external world and is for the most part true to it – beliefs which cannot themselves be justified by any further appeal to sense experience. (12) As Wittgenstein observed, along these lines: “If the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, nor yet false.”
A similar kind of limitation applies to our capacity to justify our behavior. H.A. Prichard maintained that any effort to prove that one ought to do something, by appeal to its inherent goodness or to the goodness of its outcomes, only begs the question as to why what is good ought to be the case; i.e. it invokes a further obligation that cannot be justified by more appeals to goodness. (13) More generally, as Ryle demonstrated, any attempt to secure rational accreditation for some performance or other, by reference to a prior act of intellection – to “thinking operations,” as Ryle calls them – simply begs the question as to the soundness of our implementation of these thinking operations; i.e. it does nothing more than appeal to a further performance that cannot itself be justified by more performances.
What is so important about this last point is that it makes it quite clear that the limitation on our capacity to justify our beliefs and actions is not due to any peculiarities of inductive or deductive reasoning, sensation, or appeals to goodness, but rather, is endemic to the very process of reasoning and more generally, of following rules and procedures, which the mainline philosophical tradition has consistently and crudely misconstrued as a kind of instruction-following: one “grasps” a set of imperatives with one’s mind, the competent following of which then insures that the thinking or other forms of activity that follow will be successful. The clearest examples of this naïve conception of rules and procedures are found in Descartes’ and Bacon’s works on method, which purport to provide step-by-step instructions, the proper following of which is supposed to ensure that one’s inquiries will bear fruit. “[A]s the instruments of the hand either give motion or guide it,” Bacon wrote, “so the instruments of the mind supply either suggestions for the understanding or cautions.” More explicitly, Descartes explained that “[b]y a method, I mean reliable rules which are easy to apply, and such that if one follows them exactly, one will never take what is false to be true…, but will gradually and constantly increase one’s knowledge till one arrives at a true understanding of everything within one’s capacity.” (14) This naïve conception of rules and procedures also pervades mainline moral philosophy, where a good part of the interest in moral theories is in the moral principles that one derives from them which, if exclusively and overridingly followed, are supposed to ensure that one will do right rather than wrong.
The problem with the rationalist, then, is not simply that he cannot justify his beliefs and actions without circularity, but that he fundamentally misunderstands what justification consists of – what it is to reason and more generally, to follow rules and procedures – a failure that Wittgenstein exposed to devastating effect in the Investigations. To follow a rule or any other procedure is not to perform an introspectively verifiable mental act, which instructs and thereby certifies a subsequent performance, but rather to have engaged in a performance, which subsequently was so certified. After all, any given performance is consistent with one’s having followed an indefinite number of possible rules or procedures. If one is counting “2, 4, 6, 8, 10,” is one following the rule “add two,” in which case, “performing correctly” means counting “12” next, or is one following the rule “add two until you reach ten, after which add 1,” in which case one should count “11” next? Viewed strictly from a mental perspective, the answer is indeterminate, so the fact that no one would accept “11” as an answer in this case would seem to suggest that whatever rule-following consist of, it cannot be a purely mental affair. (15) Wittgenstein’s great insight was in seeing that rules and procedures are essentially public and post hoc; that only once one’s performance has already passed muster with others does one count as having followed one rule rather than another, which is why he wrote that “…‘obeying a rule’ is a practice… Hence it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’; otherwise, thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same as obeying it.” (16)
The most basic mental and practical activities and performances, then, are done blindly and non-rationally, in the sense that they are un-instructed, but it does not follow from this that they are done wrongly: if they – and the thoughts and activities that follow from them – harmonize with the other thinking and activity going on in the same framework, or practice, they will “pass muster,” be deemed “justified,” and the actor will be judged “rational” and “competent” in his thoughts and actions. (17) Of course, with the exception of natural belief and inclination, which presumably remain constant across human beings, what counts as basic will vary from framework to framework and from practice to practice, and unlike the basic beliefs imagined by the foundationalist, will be comprised of a broad swathe of, as Robert Fogelin described them, “commonplaces.” “The bedrock of our thought,” he wrote, “is the thick sedimentary layer of the obvious.” (18)
That our capacity to give reasons for what we think and do is limited, not only in terms of how far back in the chain of reasons we can go, before we reach thoughts and actions that cannot be rationally justified, but by the inherently descriptive, post-hoc character of reasoning itself and more generally, of following procedures, reveals the extent to which human thought and activity are grounded in attitudes and inclinations that are given to us and not, as the rationalist would like to think, self-originating. Nature, society, and culture all contribute to the basic elements of human thought and behavior, and because they are given, rather than self-originating, they effectively function as constraints on what it is possible for us to think and do: “Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determin’d us to judge as well as to breathe and feel,” Hume wrote, and Wittgenstein, in addressing the kinds of doubts that can and cannot arise in one language game or another, observed that “it’s not as if we choose the game.” (19)
Modern mainline philosophy has consistently rejected this idea of boundedness, insisting, instead, that the human capacity to know and to do right is, in principle, unlimited. This is true even of Kant’s critical philosophy, which has always been advertised as having reined in the rationalistic excesses of the Enlightenment, by imposing limits on what it is possible to know, but whose conception of those limits extends only to the farthest reaches of abstruse metaphysics (which effectively is no limit at all) and whose conception of moral agency is of a completely unbridled capacity, whose roots in the noumenal-self guarantee its exemption from the principle of causality. Indeed, it is this belief in human boundlessness that explains mainline philosophy’s perfectionism. What it can’t explain, however, is why mainline philosophy has conceived of intellectual and moral perfection in the ways that it has (in terms of disinterestedness, dispassion, consistency, fairness, etc). To understand that, we must consider its tacit dualism.
If Aristotle’s philosophy is the ancient precursor of some of common sense naturalism’s core ideas, then Platonism plays an identical role with respect to the mainline philosophical tradition, whose dualism combines a quasi-Cartesian estrangement of mental from bodily and social life – in which consciousness and reasoning comprise the mind’s lone necessary, “indigenous” activities, while perception, sensibility, and the full range of conative states are relegated to the entirely contingent, bodily and social dimensions of life – with a Platonic devaluation of bodily and socially-influenced belief and activity and corresponding inflation of the value of consciousness and ratiocination.
The mainline tradition is rife with this sort of value-dualism, not simply in epistemology, where the obsession with justification — beyond the ordinary senses of the word that are involved in the common practice of giving reasons — is a testament to how deeply mainline philosophy’s mistrust of human sensibility, instinct, habit, and custom runs, but across the discipline’s sub-areas, inasmuch as epistemological concerns are at the heart of virtually every major area of inquiry in modern mainline philosophy. This is something that Prichard recognized, when he described the essential folly of moral philosophy as akin to epistemology’s Quixotic attempts at “look[ing] for some general procedure by which we can ascertain that a given condition of mind is really one of knowledge,” moral philosophy’s job being to provide a means of proving that the feelings of obligation that we have prior to reflection, really are obligations, after all. (20)
This elevation of contemplative and ratiocinative activity and demotion of bodily and social life are consequences of Plato’s “normative metaphysics,” whose hierarchy of being –arranged on a scale of relative universality and particularity, permanence and impermanence, purity and impurity, necessity and contingency – is also a hierarchy of value, the universal being better than the particular, the permanent better than the impermanent, the pure better than the impure, and the necessary better than the contingent. The Platonist values contemplation and ratiocination above all other human activities, because their objects – numbers, geometrical forms, mathematical relations and truths, logical relations and truths, and the “essences” of material things and their properties – are universal, pure, imperishable, and necessary, and thus, represent the highest orders of being. Sensation and conation, conversely, are the least valued forms of human activity, because their respective objects – material objects, processes, and activities – are particular, adulterated, ephemeral, and contingent and consequently, belong to the lowest orders of being.
It is its Platonic heritage, then, that is responsible for the human qualities that the mainline tradition holds most dear, something that remains true, despite the fact that mainline philosophers have long since abandoned the overtly metaphysical aspects of Platonism, just as they have abandoned the overtly metaphysical elements of Cartesianism. In truth, mainline philosophers have mostly forgotten their Platonic and Cartesian roots altogether, and act as if it is just obvious that the human characteristics and principles of belief and action that they prefer are the right ones. Thus, mainline philosophers routinely say that it is better to act on impersonal, dispassionate reason than on the basis of love, hatred, sorrow, or pity, because the former apply universally and insure consistency while the latter may only apply in particular cases and thereby invite inconsistency, and whether one is consistent or inconsistent determines whether one has been fair or unfair, but if one inquires why it is better to better to be fair than unfair, consistent, rather than inconsistent, they are at a loss to answer. This blindness to their own assumptions occurs largely because Platonic and Cartesian ways of thinking have become so entrenched that mainline philosophers largely operate in an echo chamber and are rarely asked these sorts of questions.
But are the Platonic assumptions any good? I mean, why should anyone believe that universality is better than particularity? Purity better than impurity? Permanence better than impermanence? Consistency better than inconsistency? There is nothing especially intuitive or commonsensical about these attitudes, especially given that our common tastes and ways of thinking and speaking reveal that we are as likely to value that which is fleeting over that which is permanent and to appreciate the flawed over the flawless. (Is first love not cherished, precisely because of its awkward, ephemeral quality and because it is never repeated?) And it is here that we stumble upon one of the great ironies of the rationalist and ultimately the entire mainline philosophical worldview: if we press the question of what justifies the dualistic value system, on which the mainline tradition’s rationalism is based, we will discover that no real argument has ever been provided for it; that in fact, it is not a reasoned position at all, but rather, a religious and cultural inheritance, from Pythagorean mysticism and from the Orphic cults, the latter of whose creation myth describes humanity as being born from the ashes of the Titans, earthly gods, who are destroyed by Zeus for killing and devouring his son, Dionysus. Man, consequently, has a dual nature, earthly and heavenly, the earthly being inherently tainted, as a result of his earthly ancestors’ crimes against heaven. (21)
Considering the strength of the Humean and Wittgensteinian critiques and in light of rationalism’s intellectually undistinguished pedigree, the question of the motivations for and the mentality behind mainline philosophy’s rationalism become pressing. The answer I would like to suggest is that modern rationalism is driven by an intense desire for autonomy and control; one born of an eminently reasonable resentment of the authoritarian religion, science, and politics of the Middle Ages, but turned, in the hands of philosophers, into a wholly unreasonable opposition to the very idea that there could be authorities over human thought and behavior other than reason and a correspondingly unreasonable devotion to the idea of pure, “counter-causal” freedom.
We have already seen that rationality and autonomy are intimately connected in the rationalist worldview, through the nexus of a distilled Cartesianism; that inasmuch as one’s bodily and social forms of life are thought to represent alienated, subversive influences and consciousness and reason alone are genuinely “of the self,” one only believes and acts “under one’s own light” – that is, one is only autonomous, in the rationalist’s sense of the word – when one believes and acts on the latter and never on the former grounds. No mainline philosopher has held to this standard more rigorously than Kant, whose idea that pure, counter-causal freedom is the product of absolute obedience to the moral law would be incomprehensible, were it not for a tacit Cartesianism. Far from being limited to Kant’s philosophy, however, this concept of autonomy pervades modern liberal thought more generally. More than any other construct, Kant’s “Kingdom of Ends” accounts for the conceptual foundations of political liberalism, by explaining the intrinsic value of the individual, without appeal to the Divine, in terms of each person’s creation and therefore, his ownership of value, by way of the exercise of his free, rational will. (22) Indeed, so overriding has been modern mainline philosophy’s commitment to this idea of radical autonomy that J.B. Schneewind’s great survey of the history of modern moral philosophy – The Invention of Autonomy – describes the entire arc of modern moral thought as a massive intergenerational and transnational effort to recreate natural and social man in the image of a radically autonomous being.
(1) A word of clarification. By the mainline, analytic tradition in philosophy, I mean the analytic philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the prior history of philosophy as understood by the analytic tradition.
(2) Daniel A. Kaufman, “Knowledge, Wisdom, and the Philosopher,” Philosophy, Vol. 81, No. 315 (2006); Daniel A. Kaufman, “Between Reason and Common Sense,” Philosophical Investigations, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2005).
(3) Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620).
(4) René Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637).
(5) Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” (1784); Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785); Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783).
(6) Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789).
(7) John Stuart Mill, “The Spirit of the Age,” published in The Examiner in seven parts, January – May, 1831.
(8) Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936).
(9) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass, Belknap: 1971).
(10) Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring 1972); Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
(11) Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (1949-1951), tr. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Harper & Row, 1972); Gilbert Ryle, “Knowing How and Knowing That,” in The Concept of Mind (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1949).
(12) Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785); David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-1740).
(13) H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (1912) reprinted in H.A. Prichard, Moral Writings, ed., Jim MacAdam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
(14) Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1629).
(15) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958), (§185).
(16) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (§202).
(17) Saul Kripke’s discussion of this element of Wittgenstein’s private language argument is particularly clear and thus, invaluable. See his Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 86-92.
(18) Robert Fogelin, Wittgenstein, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 1987), p. 232.
(19) Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (184.108.40.206); Wittgenstein, On Certainty (§317).
(20) Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” p. 18.
(21) Gregory Vlastos, in describing Empedocles as “a devotee of Orphean purity,” points out that much like Plato (and later, Descartes), he understood the flesh as being “an alien garment.” Gregory Vlastos, “Theology and Philosophy in Early Greek Thought,” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 7 (April 1952), pp. 119 & 121. Walter Burkert also describes the Platonic and Cartesian brands of dualism as ultimately deriving from Orphic sources, in his Greek Religion, tr. John Raffan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), especially pp. 199-203; 296-304.
(22) Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (§433-436).
(23) J.B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).