Excessive Reason

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:

  1. The acceptability of a belief, activity, practice, institution, etc., rests entirely on whether or not it can be rationally justified.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 (; 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).






46 responses to “Excessive Reason”

  1. mpboyle56

    A very thought-provoking piece, particularly the religious roots of mainline philosophy’s dualism. I’ve always found it interesting that Socrates’ own religiosity is hardly ever discussed at length and he is usually presented as simply a model (and martyr) of reason. As for Plato, he even describes man and his fallen “Titanic nature” in the Laws (a point no doubt mentioned by the two excellent scholars you cited, Vlastos and Burkert). Interestingly, in the old Mesopotamian myths of Marduk, humans are made of clay mixed with the blood of a rebel God Kingu, somewhat parallel to the Orphic myth of Dionysus.

  2. Good article, but I will have to mull over it a while. If I am to accept a common sense position I am not convinced it should be Naturalism.

  3. It is not the naturalism you are thinking of. Rather, it is the Scottish Naturalism / Philosophy of Common Sense that one finds in Hume and Thomas Reid.

    There is a very good account of this framework and its connection to the later Wittgenstein, in P.F. Strawson’s “Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties,” which I highly recommend.


  4. Dan,

    Meaty article here; requires a second reading.

    “(B)ut 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.”

    I suspect one reason for this may be that inquiry into motivation of our actions always leads back to desire. This might be desire for certain consequences, or for attainment of one’s ideals, or for social acceptance and the presumed rewards this might bring, or for an enhanced sense of power or self-worth – etc. And of course desire has no rational ground; we can understand it, explain its origins to some extent, but we cannot justify it, for the simple reason that capacity for desire is ‘hard-wired’ into our bodily existence.

    (I suppose one reason for the increased interest in neuro-science and evolutionary explanations of the origins of desire on the part of main-stream philosophers in recent decades, is that they hope to find justification for ‘proper’ or ‘appropriate’ desires in our neuro-physiological inheritance. Unfortunately, of course, this begs the question of how ‘proper’ or ‘appropriate’ desires are determined to be so, except as motivated by other desires, themselves of questionable justification.)

  5. Thanks Dan!

    This is topic is an issue for me whenever I try to understand various strains of analytical philosophy or even when following Massimo’s stoic blog. I agree with much of what you write here regarding the primarily post-hoc nature of rationality. I also appreciated all the references. It is interesting that Wittgenstein uses the hinge metaphor. Zhuangzi also uses that metaphor (hinge or pivot of the tao) as the place where equanimity can be achieved. I don’t interpret this as a place of unfeeling, neutral, detachment, but instead as a place where actions, feelings, thoughts, reasons etc… can turn back & forth informing each other.

    I think how we conceive of agency becomes important here. I am always raising the caveat that my philosophical background is far from comprehensive, but I do agree with Schopenhauer that we don’t direrectly will what we will. In terms of how we actually might employ our rationality in a non post-hoc fashion I am somewhat intrigued by Mark Johnson’s take on how we can simulate our deliberations. I see this as a mindful process of allowing alternate reasons and their accompanying feelings to be receptively processed. Allowing both alternatives to proceed is another Zhaungzi concept. I think it is possible.

  6. ! ! ! So clear and stimulating to an amateur like myself. I wish I were one of your seminarians and could dialogue. I suppose you can spend the rest of your career drilling holes in the analytic ship’s hull, but which school in the measureless continental sea would you swim with? Or are you open to out-and-out mysticism?
    I like that the telos of your paper is the historic primordial. There (in the mists) we might join.

  7. Dan

    I certainly agree with the general thrust of what you are saying, but I find the historical claims maybe a bit too sweeping. You cover many centuries here and you pick out sample thinkers. But those thinkers are multifaceted, and there were countless others. I just have the feeling that many different stories – equally plausible – could be told about Western philosophy/science/mathematics. [Your first footnote addresses this problem and provides some clarification, however.]

    “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.”

    Is this really one idea with many manifestations or many ideas? (I for one am happy about ‘truth-seeking’ in science but don’t think this model fits ethics, say, or aesthetics or ordinary behaviour. I think I would want to distinguish more clearly between various human goals and activities.

    On ideology, I agree that there is a tendency to impose simplistic, rationalistic ideas on to a social reality which is far too complex and dynamic to be so characterized or constrained. Even many conservatives and classical liberals talk about freedom or liberty in a way that makes it clear that their commitment is ultimately metaphysical (and sometimes explicitly religious).

    I personally would focus on more pragmatic justifications in social and political matters.

  8. Mark English wrote:

    You cover many centuries here and you pick out sample thinkers. But those thinkers are multifaceted, and there were countless others. I just have the feeling that many different stories – equally plausible – could be told about Western philosophy/science/mathematics.


    I explicitly said that I was talking about the mainline tradition. I indicated that I have written elsewhere about the alternative “countercultural” traditions. Not sure what more I could do about it.

    What I’ve described is absolutely true of the mainline tradition. Descartes is not “multifaceted” in this regard. Neither is Kant. Neither is Bacon. And the figures I described are the main figures in the mainline tradition. Indeed, I gave far more substantial, concrete examples than most would give in an essay like this.


    “Is this really one idea with many manifestations or many ideas?”


    One idea with many manifestations. Just as truth is taken to be overriding of all other reasons for belief, duty is taken to be overriding of all other reasons for acting. They are perfectly symmetrical and equally fallacious. Indeed, the first is the mistake that so many New Atheists make when they attack religion. They stamp their feet and cry “If you believe without rational warrant you are irrrrrrrationnnnnal!!!” failing to see that they have entirely misunderstood the nature and manner of religious conviction and affiliation. (Which is why they come of sounding so shrill and looking so silly.)


  9. Jake Z.

    All of modern philosophy would be revealed to be a house of cards if philosophers accepted this criticism. They would be admitting that they are the sophists they so despise.

  10. davidlduffy

    Lovely to see philosophical reasoning at work. However, there is no mention here of practical reason. Just as the indispensability argument works for mathematics, the everyday effectiveness of practical reason makes us think (rightly or wrongly) that the same methods can be applied to everything we do. Specifically, we see societies that work well or less well, and try and draw out mathematics like general principles, resulting in legal and moral philosophy, then political science and later neuroethics.

    Peter Danielson Rationality and Evolution in Mele and Rawling The Oxford Handbook of Rationality specifically discusses the “isomorphism” between practical reason and evolution as simple function maximizers (value and fitness respectively). Internal consistency is not an arbitrary constraint, it is what is needed to successfully pass on genes.

  11. davidlduffy: I’m not sure if you’re remarks about practical reason are intended as a criticism of my claims about mainline philosophy. If so, could you please explain further?

  12. If Kaufman wants to criticize the aspiration of disinterested objectivity, then the burden is on him to explain how his approach is /better/ at ameliorating self-deception, since he evidently things that self-deception is the problem that rationalists are falling for. Unfortunately, Kaufman creates a hole in his epistemology large enough to support any motivated reasoning that he wants. Under what principle does Kaufman question his own beliefs? How does he discover his own blind spots? How does he dismantle the motivational issues that bind him to ignorance? Every serious intellectual must ask these questions. Take this essay as seriously as the proverbial Monday morning quarterback.

  13. Aaron: Given that my essay is entirely negative and I have not offered an “epistemology,” it can’t have any holes in it. I might be incorrect in my critique, but that’s all I’ve provided: a critique.

    Sorry you didn’t like the essay. Apparently, others did. Of course, it is never possible to please everyone.

  14. Dan

    I get your point and basically agree with it. But your main interest here seems to be centred around ethics, autonomy, etc., not scientific inquiry. I just want to make the point that many in the rationalistic tradition did not have this focus. Rather, their focus was explicitly on scientific knowledge and mathematics, and they did not apply their rationalistic methods to ethical questions, etc..

    Frege, for example, whose main interest was mathematics and who saw himself as a man of science.

    Descartes, of course, was operating in a very different world, one in which religious and theological questions loomed large. Even so, the focus of most of his writings was scientific enquiry. And, in practice, he did not seek to apply his method of radical doubt and mathematical thinking to everyday social matters. He accepted the provisional and pragmatic nature of ordinary human behaviour, practical morality and religious practice. He accepted uncertainty in these areas. It’s significant also, I think, that he was politically conservative. (He was no Peter Singer, that’s for sure!)

  15. Your second sentence is incorrect. I am as interested in the mainline tradition’s epistemic purity as I am in its moral perfectionism. Hence all the stuff about Descartes.

  16. Dan

    Within the context of science, I think that something like what you are calling “epistemic purity” may be appropriate, no? Or are you questioning Western science as well as (a particular tradition of) Western philosophy?

  17. Mark: No, I agree with you that in science truth is overriding. It’s the nature of the thing. I was talking about epistemic purity more broadly applied; across the full range of our beliefs.

  18. Mark: That said, I think that a full-blown epistemic purity is problematic in science too. The Cartesian sort of epistemic perfectionism, articulated in the Discourse on Method strikes me as not just fantastical, but based in a misunderstanding about epistemic limits.

  19. davidlduffy

    Hi Dan.

    “intellection is not itself an inherently rational activity”, so we will have to rely on empirical evidence, basing this on the efficacy of rational action in the world. Do we have to be rational to recognize that rationality gives us practical advantages over less sapient animals? I am thinking vaguely of a reverse evolutionary debunking argument, along the lines of “I would not be writing this post if the rationality of my predecessors was not as effective as I maintain mine to be”. The fact that many of more impressive of my predecessors subscribed to some form of these idealized principles of rationality might be shoehorned in there (scientific revolution in Europe rather than China etc).

    Mark’s remarks about the ethos of scientific inquiry parallel my further thoughts – autonomy and “scientific skepticism” run hand in hand with dispassion and distancing in obtaining reliably true knowledge about the world; similarly the ideal of fairness and consistency in dealings with others taking part in the scientific enterprise is defended just as the most practical way to organize accumulation of knowledge – patents (v. trade secrets) and an open literature are just two example of practical approaches to maximizing knowledge sharing.

    Re Platonic ideals, the attraction of mathematics is that ideals are greatly simplifying, your description of the world is more compact. So evolutionary game theory modelling humans as bounded Bayesian reasoners is seductive because it might be true, and it is accessible to being tested. It’s not that the details of such a view could ever be less complex than the world itself, but the principles might be more accessible.

    As to unbounded intellect, at the very least I can imagine an intellect of about my ability that does everything in less time than I do.

  20. Hi Dan,

    A remarkably clear and interesting perspective – reason and logic being used to critique reason and logic. Hopefully there will be more coming to flesh out the theme more fully.

    The first question that comes to mind is if it is not reason and logic that should be relied upon, then what what should guide us? Many do use emotion, intuition, power, deception, etc in their daily lives but these modalities have much greater flaws. The power of reason and logic has been amply demonstrated in math and science, it just becomes exponentially more difficult in more complex areas. When it comes to ‘ultimate questions’, reason and logic have fallen far short for this very reason.

    I agree fully that rationalism can be completely misapplied to non-rational functions: the reasons of why we like or dislike a thing or a situation are probably not very good reasons at all. We like something because we like it. It seems quite clear that human behavior much of the time is guided by non-rational causes, sometimes even without our being aware of the ‘automatic’ nature of the information processing and action. Commonly we try to rationalize our behavior after the fact while being completely unaware of the ‘irrational’ nature of such a pursuit. I suspect, however, that most philosophers are cognizant of these issues and so the harm that can come from ‘excessive’ or inappropriate rationalism should be limited. Other than confusion, harms in the past had been more of a limited personal kind anyway.

    The harms that have come from the avoidance of personal responsibility or the reliance on excessive power and authority have been far greater. The stoical ideas of autonomy and control may be extremely valuable in the background of our lethal history. Obsession with autonomy and control could thus be seen as some form of insurance against the disasters that society has shown itself capable of.

  21. Hi Dan, this was an excellent, well-written analysis, that really took some time and energy to consider (and I think I will continue to mull over some of its implications).

    I was with Mark in thinking that it hits (or is more relevant to) some aspects of belief or inquiry than others. Of course, I think it retains all of its bite for those scientists who have no understanding that their enterprise is based on largely unstated and wholly “unjustified” foundations. As you argue that does make it wrong or errant, but the foundations are in fact assumptions which when taken for granted allow further rules to be followed/make sense. The “truth” of anything found under that scheme is therefore contingent (not absolute), and not contingent on anything discoverable/verifiable by us (scientists).

    The essay speaks to me personally as I have been wrestling with “the enlightenment” (which I consider myself a proud product of), liberalism, and especially autonomy (as being able to set aside biological/social “influences”) from my days as a student in philosophy back in the 1980s.

    I disagree with the exclusion of private rule-following by Wittgenstein, while agreeing with much of the point that rules are generally public. This is something I hope to probe later.

    More importantly, I believe there is something different/more to consistency than what you give here. This is something I have been dwelling on for 30 years now (because I can’t make it go away). Over time I came to much the same conclusions you have regarding the other points, but this one is problematic for me. Inconsistency is not simply “bad” because it is a “manifestation of irrationality”. Isn’t consistency an a priori requirement (even if assumed) for reaching any potential assessment/evaluations? It would seem some level of consistency or order has to exist (at least to an extent in can be referred to with confidence), or rules themselves could not exist.

    Also, you discuss “…devotion to the idea of pure, “counter-causal” freedom”. I’m wondering how you square this argument with the recent rise in free-will skepticism/hard determinism which for some reason seems tangled up with hardline (whether deontological or teleological) moral conclusions/theories? That is we don’t have any freedom “so…”, or we don’t have freedom “still…”.

  22. To dbholmes, Liam, and others. A few things in reply.

    1. The essay is entirely negative. I am not proposing anything and certainly not some sort of counter-rationalism. As indicated, I’ve done that sort of positive work elsewhere, but it still doesn’t comprise a theory or system. (In part because I don’t think such theories and systems are viable.)

    2. The reasons for belief and action are many, varied, and suitable/unsuitable in differing circumstances. The rationalist does not accept this, something that is manifested across a broad number of philosophical areas, whether ethics, political philosophy, or epistemology itself.

    3. Thus, there is no general answer to the question “what should guide us?” other than, “it depends.”

    4. I think the goodness of our “fairness” obsession — which is an extension of the consistency requirement to ethics — is highly questionable. I certainly have never found appeals to fairness particular convincing, other than in highly specific contexts, like courts.

    5. Jake Z: I think much of mainline philosophy *is* a house of cards, perpetuated by an in-clique of philosophers at the top of the profession, who control all the major publishing outlets (i.e. the top professional philosophy journals).

  23. davidlduffy

    “fairness” obsession – fairness seems to me an axiom or a heuristic that it is easy to get most people to agree on. I look both to comparative moral psychology, where other social primates are just as hung up on it as we are as children, and as a basic mathematical nonverbal intuition: symmetry, eg

  24. davidlduffy: well, given that I think it currently constitutes an obsession, obviously I disagree that it is an “axiom.”

  25. davidlduffy,

    “I look both to comparative moral psychology, where other social primates are just as hung up on it as we are as children,”

    That’s precisely the kind of misunderstanding I worried about in my first comment. Humans have a magnitude larger amount of desires than other primates; who is to say which are the ‘proper’ ones that evolution has selected for? (Since they are all in play among the billions of humans now inhabiting the planet, apparently evolution likes them all.)

    I’m something of a pacifist and anti-militarist; but to play devil’s advocate here, I must say that if I were the general of an army, I would not want my soldiers to concern themselves with nurturing, or empathy, or fairness. I would recognize that “dying for one’s country” is a piece of rhetorical blather; I would want them to hate the enemy, and to channel that hatred into shooting, bombing, maiming, stabbing and crushing the enemy at every turn; to unleash their natural-born desire to destroy life as quickly and completely as possible. (Children pulling wings off flies or burning salamanders at summer camps tells us that the this desire is as much a part of our being human as nursing at a mother’s teat – if we are fortunate enough not to be born female in a culture that practices infanticide to assure resources for male off-spring.)

    I’d have to dig around for a reference, but I well remember reading of a species of fox, that suffered from a lack of heat in the female during the mating season; the mating process is only achieved through violent assault by the males. Well, at least the females don’t eat their mates, like certain spiders; nor do the males eat the young to keep the female in heat, as certain cats will do.

    Yes, always look to nature to be your guide – red in tooth and claw. Learn to kill; we’re born to it.

    “War is a bloody business, a killing business. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them, spill their blood or they will spill yours. Shoot them in the guts. Rip open their belly. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt from your face and you realize that it’s not dirt, it’s the blood and gut of what was once your best friend, you’ll know what to do.” – General George S. Patton ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_S._Patton%27s_speech_to_the_Third_Army )

    Can we reason our way out of this “slaughterhouse of history” as Hegel called it? Yes, but only through insight born of intuition, conditioned through experience. The tradition of philosophy in Buddhism is some 2000 years old; it is replete with logical analysis and argumentation and calls to “right reason” (a step on the Eightfold Path). But it rests upon the First Noble Truth – that life is suffering – and this realization was not arrived at deductively or inductively. It was the result of a man’s suffering, of a man’s learning to yield to his bodily existence, of a man’s intuiting that he was no different than any other man.

    I’m sorry, davidl, but ethology and evolution and behavioral psychology will never get you that.

    But here’s the big question: *Why would you want them to?* What are the desires you feel scientism will satisfy for you? What are your motivations – your feelings, not your thoughts – leading you to assert the primacy of your arguments?

    I know why I write what I do, believe what I do, and practice as I do – the feelings, not just the thoughts – and why I remain committed to reasoning and rationality, although I agree with Dan that this is post-hoc to the motivations. I think it’s a question we should all examine for ourselves.

    (And I hope Aaron Michaux, who’s blog indicates he’s sympathetic to Buddhism, is still reading here.)

  26. I noticed some time ago that when scientists want to know about the behaviour of chimpanzees they study chimpanzees, if they want to know about the behaviour of gorillas, they study gorillas, if they want to know about the behaviour of rhesus monkeys they study rhesus monkeys.

    But if they want to know about the behaviour of humans they study chimpanzees, gorillas and rhesus monkeys.

  27. Hi Dan, I understood points 1 and 3 to be the case. On point 2… point taken.

    On point 4… I would agree with you about an obsession regarding fairness. While you connected consistency with fairness, I thought you were also criticizing consistency outside of/separate from its connection with fairness.

    If it is limited to fairness, that is fine.

    Outside of that small connection, I think expectations of consistency (including as part of general moral concerns) are not simply about judging another person irrational who is not consistent, but about a person’s need for consistency to make sense of the world or other people. Indeed it is arguable that without some regularity in nature and social interactions (even at the individual level) comprehension, sentience, and perhaps even life would not be possible.

    So seeking consistencies, and valuing them, are like trying to find (and valuing) lifelines in a storm… sort of a necessity for understanding and interacting intelligibly with the world and others.

    I hope that makes sense.

    To Davidlduffy, even if one accepts your point that it is easy to get people to agree to fairness as an axiom, your second sentence largely supports Dan’s thesis that its value was not established, or supported by reason/rationality. If primates and kids are prone to it, it is something emerging from internal impulses, or impulses contacting common experiences. There is no “must be this way”, or “it is best this way”, much less that anyone discovered its (true) importance from pure contemplation. The statement in your second reply underscores this point: “Can we reason our way out of this “slaughterhouse of history”… Yes, but only through insight born of intuition, conditioned through experience.”

    To Robin Herbert, indeed I always wondered why evo-psych people feel they reached some answer when they discover some similarities between humans and other primates. Well where did the behaviors of those primates come from?

  28. Dear mr. Kaufman,

    Very interesting piece.
    You write about a desire for control and autonomy, but perhaps there’s a third one, a desire for what in German would be called Entzauberung. I get the impression that Entzaubering can be very addictive.

  29. I really need an edit function … it’s Entzauberung and not Entzaubering.

  30. couvent: I agree with this. Indeed, I think it is a very deep point — and a deep reason for rationalism.

    If I didn’t operate in such analytically exclusive circles, I would certainly invoke Chesterton and his magnificent “The Ethics of Elfland” as part of a case against excessive demystification and for a certain degree of mystification.

  31. Dan: 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.”

    How thoroughly have you read Bacon? I ask because I got quite a different impression, and he doesn’t seem to be a prestige source for philosophers or anyone else; in fact he seems largely forgotten except for the caricatures of the “Scientific Method” with which he is “credited” esp in high school science textbooks.

    Bacon warned against habits of thought that he called “idols”, a very pointed characterization, but in the details, he is making a rather gentle portrait of humans and how they get mislead. IMO, he wrote in a very common sense way, and was very undogmatic about epistemology. Rather than a dogma, he furnished a remarkably exhaustive set of very grounded examples, first of what he considered flawed thinking, and then what he considered a promising method of thinking for understanding nature.

    He took the idea of heat or warmth, and looked at it from 20-odd different angles: the heat of animal bodies, the heat of the sun; the heat of the sun concentrated through a glass; the warmth of rotting matter, and focused minutely on all these different aspects or manifestations of heat while purposely withholding confidence in any general characterization. Only after this did he speculate on the essence of heat, and came remarkably near the truth that it is a kind of vibration in the microscopic parts of matter. He also ridiculed the idea of atoms, but mostly he tried to provide an example of looking at things long and hard without jumping to conclusions, and expecting to discover humble and very grounded things (almost an opposite of Platonism) and gradually working up to big principles.

    In one sequence, he is considering manifestations of whiteness, only eventually hinting at a characterization of its essence, but he was ruminating on how glass is clear until you ground it up; then it is white. Snow is white, and is an alternate form of (clear) water and implying the question of how is snow like ground glass and what might that say about whiteness?

  32. I mostly share your concerns but think of Bacon as possibly a profound ally, a critic of the hubris of reason.

  33. Daniel,

    I’ve had plenty of glimpses of you as a rebel against standard philosophy in the past, but only now do I think that I’m starting to truly grasp the nature of these objections. For what it’s worth I certainly agree, but have my own “fish to fry” so to speak. I believe that our mental and behavioral sciences remain quite primitive today, and furthermore that philosophy’s (presumed) poor state contributes quite heavily to the problems of these fields. I’ll discuss this if anyone would like to inquire.

    For now however I’d like to go beyond the apparent epistemic failure of modern analytic philosophy, as observed by Wittgenstein, Ryle, yourself, and so on. You’ve mentioned that your assessment here is purely “negative,” or concerns criticism rather than a potential solution. Certainly. But I wonder if you have any optimism for the subject of epistemology in the long run?

    It is my hope that you do (and hopefully many of your readers as well), given that I believe that my own associated theory avoids the pitfalls that you’ve mentioned above. The theory is that there’s only one process by which a conscious subject goes about figuring things out — it checks to see if what it thinks it knows (evidence), remains consistent with what it’s not so sure about (theory). As evidence continues to remain consistent with a given theory, it tends to become trusted — nothing more. Otherwise the theory tends to become abandoned or altered to better conform. It may be noted from this theory, that no aspect of reality has ever been “proven” to be real, and I believe never will be *.

    *Except for the famous observation of René Descartes, or “I think…”

  34. Eric,

    The theory you offer in your last paragraph is fairly consistent with certain strands of Pragmatism, and I suggest reading in that tradition before assuming you have a ‘revolutionary’ theory here. Pragmatism is the tradition that got squeezed out by the Positivists in the ’40s and ’50s, as it was not entirely focused on science and logic (and indeed tended to leave scientists to work out their own specialized languages). It has made something of a comeback in recent decades, as the Positivist tradition began exhausting itself fn the narrowness of its topics of inquiry

    I also note that you may be mistaking Dan’s critique of strident rationalism as a license for skepticism; nothing could be farther from the truth. On the contrary, If I understand him correctly, Dan is suggesting that we have reliable sources of knowledge, judgment, and behavior that are not reducible to rationalist binary codifications. With which I agree.

    One result of such a position: as something of a Pragmatist myself, I suggest that there is not “only one process” by which we learn the world, but a set of processes that often integrate but sometimes conflict. Isolating them for philosophic or scientific consideration is useful for greater understanding, but may lead us to favor some over others (even to their exclusion), which has proven time and again a gross mistake.

  35. It could just as easily be argued that we have a misapplied rationalism, not an excessive one. Most likely, our real challenge is a deficiency of properly applied reason.

    Our fundamental challenge as human beings is that we do not understand the world into which we are born, neither are we sure what we are here for. What happens at the end scares the bejesus out of most people. As a youth I was repeatedly reminded “You were conceived in sin, born ignorant, and must live a life of struggle, only to die, unless…” We should therefore not be surprised at all by the ease with which we fall for any good story.

    Now we have a choice thanks to the efforts of rationalists and empiricists. We can continue to wallow in enchanting myths authored by perfect messengers and all knowing wizards, or we can create our own personal stories, even mythical ones, based on facts. The beauty of a fact is that most of the time it can easily be checked if one is skeptical. Enchanted myths, however, cannot be fact-checked. Over time inspired myths sprout numerous new and often conflicting narratives with no facts by which to adjudicate the stories. Bad results are almost inevitable.

    Pushback against the destructive, disenchanting desacralization wrought by science and reason is to be expected. We have eaten of the forbidden fruit of knowledge and must leave paradise. We have brought the plague upon ourselves. This is the kind of nonsense that rains down from sacred places all over the world all the time.

    My personal view is that science has taught me as much or more than any other source of information about the miracle of life. The more we learn about reality, including ourselves, the more astonished we are. In addition, there are many other sources of inspiration, beauty and satisfaction that are not derived from science. As the idealists will point out, correctly, most of the subjective experience of life “comes from us”.

    Autonomy and control are good. Disenchantment is a little uncomfortable, but the alternatives are worse.

  36. Robin Herbert,

    The amount of time and money spent on studying chimps, gorillas and monkeys is infinitesimal compared to humans: sociology, psychology, economics, neuroscience, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, genetics, etc, etc.

    Much has been learned from animals that is applicable to humans, much that is not.

  37. Robin, I agree with Liam Uber, not to mention that when scientists study Macaque monkeys, they proceed as if the monkeys were truly what they want to understand, and the study should work as information about Macaque monkeys, which is IMO the lesson of Francis Bacon and the Royal Society — that it is indeed the proper study of science to understand the most minute and seemingly insignificant things — like the microscopic “beasties” that an eyeglass maker named Leeuwenhoek found the means to see in stagnant water. Such policy lead Jonathan Swift to parody the society as trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, etc., but it was this deferral of the urge to focus on “what really matters” if we seem to be going nowhere in our understanding of those matters, and look for things, however small, that we can understand in the meantime.

    But are they really only studying monkeys to learn about monkeys? When science was less hopeful of understanding the human brain, monkeys were indeed studied by zoologists, as they might study any other animal, to see what could be understood about them. Today they are studied far more intensely because they are sufficiently like us in the brain department — just as rats might be sufficiently like us in the liver department, say — and there are things which scientists “can” do to them that they cannot do to humans (whether we should do such things as implanting electrodes into monkey brains is a subject for debate, but so far society has allowed it).

    Chimpanzees and Bonobos are studied especially closely in their social settings because we know how closely related we are to them, and any differences between them and humans are likely to represent final steps of evolution that led to humans being what we are. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2015/full is the best short summary of such work and what it has taught us that I know of.

  38. Hal, you may be right about Bacon, though my inclusion of him was precisely because of his similarities with Descartes on the subject of inherited wisdom, tradition, and the like, as well as his scientific utopianism in the New Atlantis, which inspired people like Skinner in their more unhinged scientism.

  39. Dan, thanks for considering that. I just in the past half year got very marinaded in Bacon starting with this book The Royal Society: Concept and Creation by Margery Purver. According to her, Bacon has been misunderstood by some pretty astute people. Years ago, I was struck by Daniel Boorstin’s treatment of the Royal Society in The Discoverers. It challenged the individual heroic narrative of science, starring Galileo, which is often taken as fodder for Climate Change Doubters

    ((I’ll try that moniker on — though I consider the outrage over “deniers” to be cleverly ginned up by the right wing fog machine, by now, it only plays into their hands. My problem has always been that they provide a very bad alternative with “skeptics” which is (calculatedly?) insulting to scientists))

    when they rail about consensus being anti-scientific. Anyway, I’ve alluded to the gist of what I took from Boorstin (and expanded on with Purver and Bacon) in prev couple of comments.

    There’s a fine translation/interpretation/modernization of Novum Organum at http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/bacon1620.pdf by Jonathan Bennett (like JGA Pocock, a New Zealander who does great service in interpreting the Early Modern mentality (maybe it’s the water, ah yes, flowing down from glaciers — that would make sense, wouldn’t it?).

  40. Cora Diamond (1988) wrote that ““one must be struck by (Wittgenstein’s) insistence that he is not putting forward philosophical doctrines or theses; or by his suggestion that it cannot be done, that it is only through some confusion one is in about what one is doing that one could take oneself to be putting forward philosophical doctrines or theses at all.” … And this “is inseparable from what is central (in the Tractatus), the distinction between what can be said and what can only be shown.”

    This summarizes the problem for me. The structure of language is exquisitely logical. The content, however, of a sentence may be rational, non-rational or irrational, with different perspectives by speakers and listeners. In contrast, direct experience is not a logical process.

    The highway to knowledge and understanding is built on logic. The more refined the logic and reason, the better. There are other roads. An inventory (ontology) of what dots the landscape is immense, yet can only be communicated through sentences, one at a time. Quite a challenge, but doable. Most people opt for shortcuts, which is very risky since a reliable roadmap of everything is not yet available. We have done some preliminary work on such a roadmap to everything.

    Some people suggest that developing logical algorithms is the way to go.

  41. Thanks for the reply EJ, and this one was particularly instructive. I’ve taken a bit of a look at Pragmatism, and yes it does sound promising. For the moment however I’d like to see if I can adjust your perception of me somewhat.

    Given my presumption of relative human stupidity, I do not “assume” much of anything, and certainly not that my own theories happen to be revolutionary. What I’ve done is take an outside approach to academics, in order to perhaps develop some ways of looking at things which are naturally hidden from the larger system. The thought is that given the countless who make “proper explorations,” perhaps it would be valuable to have people working from the outside as well? I’d expect you to sympathize given your observations regarding “publish or perish” mandates and so on. Once satisfied with my own ideas, I did always figured that qualified people would inform me who else has thought whatever my findings amounted to. Furthermore I’ve always hoped that other such theorists would exist, since plausible ideas naturally should have been thought before, and also because this would provide my own quest with various natural allies. Apparently I am a “pragmatic utilitarian” of various flavors, and would appreciate more such associations. My quest is to help the fields which interest me gain various accepted practical understandings, and so help them lose their impractical “fine art” distinctions.

    Secondly there is this issue of the pragmatic epistemology that I’ve presented above. You’re welcome to attack the notion that it’s the single means by which conscious subjects figure things out, in which case (definition permitting) I’d hope for you to give the notion some earnest exploration. I personally have been unable to come up with any alternatives over many years of thought — that is except for its opposite, or “faith.” Here we don’t measure theory against evidence, but instead, evidence to the contrary is what defines what we faithfully accept. Thus if you continue to believe that your son will come home from war as the evidence continues to amount that he won’t, this will be “faith,” or the opposite to the epistemological answer that I’ve provided above.

  42. Hi Dan, I had not heard of Entzauberung nor Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland”.

    I agree that some people (especially within the New Atheists) seem motivated by a desire to purge anything smacking of the mystical or fantastical. Sort of a high-horse hum-buggery. Here they not only claim purely clinical/analytical description is the most one can/should be interested in, but argue maintaining anything else poses some sort of intrinsic danger. Here I am somewhat reminded of the anti-Santa screed we had at Agora.

    I guess there is no problem with a person having such tastes (excluding the fantastic). The problem is that this sort of idea presupposes that fantasy is not useful for anything and that full analytical/clinical description is possible for everything. But it’s not, and where it’s not there is no reason to exclude the fantastic, and even where there are good clinical/analytical explanations there is no reason to exclude entertaining the fantastic.

    Yeah, ok not in the lab, but for fun or for a shorthand explanation where the detailed one provides no added use to the lay person, why not? I mean we still speak of planets attracting each other through gravitational force (that is objects act on each other) and that is not the best analytic/description.

    That said…

    Based on the title of Chesterton’s piece I went in with quite the positive attitude. While well written (rhetorically charged), I was put off by its self-serving nature. I didn’t see a man arguing for the acceptance of the mystical at all, but for a crystallization around his preferred biases. A defense of tradition, the mystical, or the sacred is fine. But in advancing his own mystical beliefs and traditions, he seemed to be forgetting that at another time they had risen against a still earlier tradition, that they had squashed prior mysticisms (and were continuing to argue against other mysticisms) as “false” mysticism.

    That is not to mention the logic-fails.

    But here I am admittedly imposing the importance of consistency.

  43. dbholmes:

    Sorry you feel that way. I think TEE — in fact the entirety of his book, Orthodoxy, in which it appears — is one of the greatest exercises in modern apologetics in the English language. Most important, in TEE, is the comparison of children’s attitudes with those of adults and a genuine realization of what is lost, namely the capacity to be enchanted by the ordinary. This deadening of the soul is the scourge of adult life, something that is widely understood, even in our much more recent populat culture — in The Breakfast Club, the Ally Sheedy character says, “When you grow up, your soul dies.”

    As for logic fails, I highly doubt that there is *anything* along those lines that you and I understand, which Chesterton did not. He was exceedingly brilliant and acknowledged as such by all of his greatest contemporaries, from H.G. Wells to George Bernard Shaw. He was a master stylist and rhetorician. His paradoxes and contradictions are deliberate and are inspired by the fact that people themselves are contradictory. He appreciated the non-rational side of human nature and understood that it also must be appealed to, not simply the rational.

    With regard to tradition and orthodoxy, I understand that you come from a very different — and strongly opposed — sensibility, but I have never allowed ideological or doctrinal differences to undermine my appreciation for a writer’s work. No one could be farther from Chesterton, in some ways, than a modern, liberal, Reform Jew, and yet, I love him nonetheless, as I do C.S. Lewis, who is the other greatest modern English apologists.

  44. Hi Dan, just to be clear I did say it was well written and rhetorically charged. So I am not doubting his skill as a writer, or saying that it was not a strong piece.

    And I did appreciate the portions about being enchanted by the ordinary. I am still fighting (and perhaps winning in some sense) to retain my youthful attitude about the world. I don’t think it’s necessary that your soul has to die. To that extent (or toward that goal) I would champion an increase in mysticism, or less constant, demanding reason (as you said: excessive reason).

    It was just that I felt a bit betrayed when the box of allowed fantasy began closing. That he was so clearly opposed to my nature and giving up his prior arguments to shut my nature out, well that made the inconsistency stand out.

    If the inconsistencies or failures of logic were part of the plan… that is part of is his style… then I guess I have to accept it. But I had not read him before and did not expect it.

    I should also say that just because it didn’t end up being my cup of tea overall doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the suggestion to read it. It was still of value, particularly as it is well written. As I mentioned in another thread I am not so much into CS Lewis either but he is a good writer and it was worthwhile reading him. Same here. If anything, it puts my mind to work trying to answer the issues raised. How to put it my way.

    So as a heads up, if I ever say I didn’t like something, don’t take it too hard like I am insulting your interests or belittling your suggestion.

  45. dbholmes: I took it in no such way.

    If you like GK as a writer, but not so much as an essayist, he was also a great novelist. In particular, I would recommend “The Man Who Was Thursday,” as well as his “Father Brown” detective stories.

  46. Hi Dan, whew!

    As it happens, after reading the essay I decided to look up what else he wrote. When I saw he wrote the Father Brown stories I put them at the top of my list for when I get back around to mystery/detective fiction. 🙂