Rationalism in Mainline Philosophy: A Discussion

by Daniel A. Kaufman

My discussion with Dan Tippens on rationalism in mainline philosophy. Originally aired on MeaningofLife.TV, part of the BlogggingHeads.TV network, 3/25/2016.

Categories: Video, Videos

28 Comments »

  1. Am I missing something? I don’t see a link to the Wolf essay. I suspect my understanding of ‘saint’ is not the same as yours.

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  2. I need to do some homework before I can comment intelligibly but my intuitive response is that the first and greatest command is love. All else must be interpreted through the prism of love. Love requires us to be forgiving, tolerant and understanding of other’s behaviour and viewpoints. It means finding a balance that reconciles the interests and needs of others since, after all, love is about other people.

    To me, at least, the true saint is exemplified by love. But it goes deeper, the true saint rejoices in laughter, music and beauty when they are animated by love.

    OK, enough, I must do my homework.

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  3. I am going to listen to it next weekend.
    What do you mean by “main line philosophy?”
    (… and this being the electric agora, should it not be “mains line philosophy” 😉 )

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  4. Hi labnut,

    I can see from the link that the concept of ‘saint’ being used here is very different from the Christian idea of sainthood. As St Paul says “the good I wish to do, I do not do and the evil I do not wish to do, i do”

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  5. There seems to be two issues that slide off into each other: The insistence on rationalism as a mode of thought per se, and the way rationalism can be deployed as rigid demand on our decisions and behavior.

    Over the past couple of months, I’ve developed a growing suspicion that one of the things that irks me about the Analytic tradition – certainly in its positivist stage – is that, although it presents its treatment of language as descriptive and explanatory, there’s seems to be a normative, prescriptive bent to much of it, as if somehow once we get the logic right the language will follow. But, as Davidson quotes Tarski in the link on the previous posting: “Whoever wishes, in spite of all difficulties, to pursue the semantics of colloquial language with the help of exact methods will be driven first to undertake the thankless task of a reform of this language.” In other words, the effort to ‘purify’ common speech might require a totalistic revamping of our entire language – which of course is not possible. So what we get left with are certain attitudes of suspicion toward common speech, insistence on ‘proper’ speech, and hope that such a reform may yet come about in the future, possibly through achievements in various sciences. Such attitudes do bleed into demands for moral rectitude – after all, what good is having a purified language unless one has a purified soul that can speak it properly? For some reason, what resonates here is the puritanical rationalism of the French Revolutionaries.

    Very disquieting.

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  6. Two points occur.

    Firstly, the desire to introduce rigor into our arguments come precisely from the recognition that we don’t have that purified soul. We are irrational, therefore we must be very careful about statements we regard as important truths.

    Secondly the Davidson piece strikes me as an exercise in going about something the hard way and then complaining how hard it is.

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  7. Very interesting discussion,

    I have listened to the first Hr & 40 minutes. I agree with DanK that human nature or human practices are such that a philosophical emphasis on pure reason or even a goal of over-riding rationalism may be impractical.

    The concept of habit kept popping up for me as I listened to the discussion. When facing conditions of uncertainty that allow for a period of deliberation I think it is useful to develop some skill in rational deliberation. I’m thinking of the kind of rational deliberation Dewey recommends which I think he himself would acknowledge as being limited in it’s capacity to address the ambiguity of any given situation . I think of this deliberation itself as a type of practice, and I don’t think it is ever purely rational, nor do I think we can ever fully access all the prejudice or bias that underlies the process. I do also feel however that it can be very useful to practice a degree of detachment in order to better access what I see as the continuity of the feeling/intuition/belief/reasoning process. Certainly some situation call much more for direct action or engagement based on cultivated habits that apply, while others present opportunities for deliberation and hopefully conceptual progress.

    On the issue of moral values over-riding other concerns I’m a bit torn. I do try to continually make progress with regard to the virtue I extend into the world, although I don’t have a set ideal I’m trying to obtain, and I hope not to come across as attempting to be a moral saint. I often try to do this not by seeing ethical, pragmatic, hedonic & aesthetic concerns necessarily as being in conflict, but by trying to develop a lifestyle and habits whereby the conflicts in my values are minimized. I think a pretty good range of mutual support among the concerns can be found although I don’t deny that conflicts will always be present. I conceive of the ideal of virtue as the place where the various values are mutually supportive in interaction with a given situation. I think it has to be abstract and vague as every situation is multi-layered and unique. So I suppose I agree with Ross that we have to ‘muddle’ but I think with cultivation we can become more skilled in our muddling.

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  8. Robin Herbert,

    Let me respond indirectly.

    Buddhism over the centuries attracted some of the best minds in the East. The demands of the Eight Fold Path, for right thinking and right speech, especially in their historical context – the development of what amounted to a university system in India, and then in Tibet and China – led to engagement in various debates with Hindus and other sectarian scholars. The study of logic flourished, precise and rigorous arguments were constructed, systematic studies of psychology, epistemology, ontology, and ethics followed. Then after centuries of such scholarly work, those more concerned with the practice and its consequence (an end of suffering) than with theory, began to push back. In the West (of Asia) this meant a resurgence of the ‘fundamentalist’ Theravadan tradition; in the East it led to Zen. Zen is more notable here, because it generated a healthy anti-rationalist literature. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The syntax of the question indicates (within a historic-social context that makes mysticism seem possible) a semantics that makes an answer possible. but it’s not possible; and that’s not the purpose of the question – which is to empty the rational categories of their conceptual content. In meditation there is no hand, no clapping, no sound – and no “I” that can answer such questions.

    I bring that up because no one is denying the usefulness of reasoning, the necessity, in certain contexts, of rigorous argument; the demand for clarity, reason and truthfulness in certain discussions. (However, I suggest that such a demand is rhetorical in nature; ultimately we want others to behave in a certain way in response to what we say.) However, there are other contexts in which such demands are impositions that do not account for the way in which people successfully interact and communicate.

    In common communications, people engage a number of what might be called ‘truth protocols’ or verification procedures. They have to in order to trust one another. But very few of these are reducible to the kind of formal processes that can run through a truth-table. Argument from authority is a fallacy? Shall we tell our children not to trust their parents, then? When two lovers look into each other’s eyes, they seem to know how much they can trust each other. Some times they are wrong, often with disastrous consequence; but most frequently they are right, at least for the time being. When my friend says he’ll call sometime this week, I can reasonably expect that call, because he has made similar promises before, and kept them. We could do a Bayesian analysis here – but what would be the point? Engaging in such would mean I did not trust my friend, and this is disrespectful, and would be grounds for him to reduce that level of trust on his end.

    We learn to trust our communications from the cradle on. We can’t live otherwise. When rigor becomes rigidity, this threatens those communications, damaging our relations with others.

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  9. Hi ej,

    But it seems a pretty straightforward inference to ne “if my friend has been reliable on the past he will probably be reliable now; my friend has been been reliable in the past; therefore he will probably be reliable now”

    Format that properly and you could prove it by truth tables (although hardly necessary ).

    You may say that it depends uoon the premise “if my friend has been reliable on the past he will probably be reliable now”.

    Certainly, but that makes it no different from every single logical inference – they only tell you what is true when certain other things are true. We’ve known this about logic for thousands of years.

    But I have heard, many times informal arguments in the form “if he is reliable then he will call; he called; therefore he is reliable”.

    So it does not seem that it wouldn’t hurt if more people studied just enough logic to know why that is wrong.

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  10. “Everyone, everyday, allows scores of prudential values to override moral values”

    While I, in general, agree with you, it is worth noting that this can become a convenient escape clause that allows us to give greater weight to desire than to ought.

    An important strand of Catholic moral teaching is known as Prudential Personalism, see below for an explanation(http://bit.ly/1RMEXIG):

    “Ethics is a kind of knowledge, but it differs from scientific or technical knowledge because it has to do with “oughtness.” Ethics, whether based in religious faith or not, always tries to answer two questions: “What ought I to do?” and “What kind of person ought I to be?” These “doing” and “being” questions are at the heart of nearly every ethical system.

    There are two basic ways of answering these questions, each of which has a variety of subsets or subcategories. The first basic system is called deontological or “duty-based,” because the answer to the “ought” question always refers to one’s duty, and, by extension, to the laws and the lawmakers that impose the duty upon us. These systems are called “voluntarist” because they are rooted in the will (voluntas) of the lawmaker. They typically focus on obedience at the expense of understanding.

    The second general category is teleological. This approach answers the “ought” question by asking, “What is the goal or purpose?” and “How do I achieve it?” This approach is rooted more in intelligence (thoughtful deliberation) than will. It presupposes belief in goal or purpose and the ability to see this goal and take intelligent steps to achieve it.

    The Ashley-O’Rourke theory† (and Catholic ethics in general) are firmly rooted in teleology.

    The theory is called “personalism” because the goal or purpose is the flourishing of the human person; since the human person is clearly one thing or set of things and one set of needs rather than another, it provides an objective norm that rescues it from total subjectivism.

    The theory is “prudential” because, unlike a deontological system, it maximizes human freedom and creativity, allowing diverse paths to the same goal or purpose, depending on circumstances. Because they focus on obedience and conformity of the will, deontological ethics often results in an impoverished view of the human person, one in which the person lacks autonomy and self-determination and has but a limited ability to integrate grace in the form of perduring moral qualities, or virtues.”

    “A full and adequate understanding of human nature is not only rational, deductive, and logically sound; it also takes account of emotion, intuition, and even imagination (HCE, p. 181).

    Social and Political Post-Enlightenment views of the person tend to stress individuality and autonomy. AOR’s understanding of the person, however, is essentially social. Human persons do not exist except in society, they say; “the human person can be healthy and whole only in a human community, because to be a person is to be capable of interpersonal relations”

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  11. Hi Dan(s), as usual an excellent discussion, and I continue to find the difference between written Tippens and the real time, uncensored Tippens intriguing 🙂

    It was interesting to hear about your (Kaufman) transition from rational to anti-rational philosopher. I had a different history. Before I entered College I was a major rationalist (in the sense discussed here). The thing is I aspired to be like Spock from when I was very very young. This conflicted with my passionate nature, but even according to ST canon Spock was deeply passionate, it’s just that REASON could channel and dampen (exert control over) that side of oneself… and that was a GOOD THING!

    So throughout childhood I packed on the sciences and math which is TRUE KNOWLEDGE. I loved art and wanted to do that as well, but regarding knowing about anything of REAL importance REASON was key.

    I entered college in the physical and social sciences, but at some point took a philosophy course to broaden my understanding particularly regarding the underpinning of science, and moral judgments. Right off the bat I was exposed to Descartes and Hume and I was like… what the hell was I thinking???? Hume in particular pulled the rug right out from under Spock.

    There was no going back, I was pulling threads for the rest of my time and watching the REASONABLE world I imagined come apart. I mean regarding ethics I always had problems with deontological moral theories, but now I saw the flaws in all normative systems. Virtue Ethics (which I found at college) was the closest thing that looked like it could work, but even that had holes (which I am hoping Massimo will find to move from and build upon).

    So basically by my Junior/Senior year I had the position you are discussing now (albeit with absolutely no reference to Wittgenstein). Which is why it is such a pleasure to hear someone arguing it within academia.

    I will likely write two more responses, one addressing rationalism in political theory because that is where I am likely to have the most difference (as small as it will be).

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  12. Interesting anecdote, while I liked my Philosophy profs there was only one who was really pushing borders.

    I’m not sure he would be considered continental, but he was very much into putting questions to analytical, rationalist assumptions. He was novel enough to have students sit down with him like you guys do here to simply discuss the ideas. Heck he put together a course on the Philosophy of Pornography, which at the height of the porn wars (and at a small religious affiliated college in a small evangelical midwest town to boot) was extremely daring. And he encouraged my pursuit of a radical subjectivist (the best I could call it at the time) critique of moral theory.

    So what happened to him? The faculty decided to let him go at the end of his contract and hire someone else full-time.

    The reason? He taught at “too high a level” for undergraduate students.

    That was my first taste of Academia.

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  13. Hi Dan(s), on ethics it seems to me that after people lost (or were seeking to lose) divine authority as justification for right/wrong statements, they believed it could be replaced by reason. This is similar to the metaphysical/epistemological issue where there was some assumption that the universe (even sans god) must operate in some singular way, which can be codified in singular (and rational) laws.

    But there was no guarantee of either, and as many have slowly realized there is some level of inherent uncertainty and complexity which defies a one off approach to… anything.

    Ironically, it is our demand for consistency with respect to reason that (to my mind) revealed these problems. If we decided not to be consistent, we could easily ignore “foundational” problems in order to save whatever theory it is we want to advance. This is one of the reasons I said in an earlier thread that consistency is one principle I can’t seem to shake. It seems necessary for the kinds of criticisms I make (and you made here).

    In any case, I think political theory is a bit different than the others discussed. It has been a while since I read Locke and Rawls, but I remember their work as being applied to a specific question. Isn’t it about creating the best (or most just) society with respect to the individuals living in it? The whole social contract theory itself takes as its working assumption the importance of the individuals making up the group, rather than assuming the group is the major important unit (with individuals being like cells in a body). I think when you start with that focus (rather than some generalized “what is the best gov’t?”) the problems you discussed are not as problematic.

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  14. Interesting discussion. There is so much invested today, by some groups, in the need to be rationall and I have been wondering for some time whether it means anything to be rational and if so what.

    Is Daniel Dennett more rational than, say, El Baghdadi? There does not seem to be much in it, they both appear to have achieved that which they desired.

    Someone will say that El.Baghdadi’s actions are based on the assumption about the existence of a non existent being. But if that assumption gets you the things you want then how is it irrational? Is it not rational to get the things you want?

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  15. Hi dbholmes.

    I find it interesting that you use the metaphor from biology (cells in a body) to find some resolution to the political theory. Couldn’t you use the same metaphor to resolve the consistency/variability issue. I’m thinking of homeostasis/allostasis as the model whereby an organism maintains core stability through the capacity of other more variable response systems to respond and adapt to environmental change. Another example would be the models of Jeremy England which holds that physical systems that tend to endure are the ones that are best at both receiving and and dissipating energy. So they endure by being in constant flux. That one goes back to Heraclitus as I expect you are familiar.

    So I don’t think we need to give up on the idea of consistency entirely. As is often the case I think the problem only appears when one idea is elevated and then fixed as an ideal outside of situational context.

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  16. Hi Dan and Dan

    Thanks for that. I now have a better insight into your personal positions (and their history), and I don’t know that they are all that far from my own.

    I am a bit surprised, however, that neither of you seems to fully acknowledge the possibility that the problems you sketch out could be seen as rather damning of the discipline as a whole (at least as it is currently conceived and set up). I’m not saying let’s chuck it all out, but I am saying that a very radical critique could be seen (by an outsider, say) to be implicit in much of what you say. But I won’t labour this point.

    I think my differences from Dan Kaufman’s position relate not to ethics, etc. so much as to (the relationship of philosophy with) religion and science. But these issues were not really the focus of the video.

    One small issue which struck me was the material about who we might like to hang out with. I know this was really about the serious question of what a balanced person might look like but it could be misunderstood.

    My point is that the sort of person we might like to spend time with is just that and only that. I don’t think we should seek to generalize the claim or base too much on it.

    It also occurs to me that in different circumstances (say a war or crisis situation) our ideal companions might suddenly need to have very different qualities. (Echoing Seth Leon here.)

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  17. Hi Seth, I didn’t mean to suggest we give up on consistency. It was just that Dan K had been critical of it as part of an over-rational approach (in an earlier thread and briefly here), particularly with regard to an idealized fairness. I had argued then that consistency is one value I can’t seem to shake, here extending it to the point that without it some criticisms (I’d like to make and likely Dan too) can’t hold. Though I do agree with his criticism of fairness.

    Your point about using an analogy to biological or others systems (with references back to Heraclitus– in that case hydrological systems 🙂 ) to address the consistency/variability issue might work.

    But I realize I should have said in one of my replies that Dan K’s argument consistency has compartmentalized relevance (for example its necessity in science and so perhaps philosophical critiques?) was a good way out of the problem I am discussing.

    By the way, I really liked your initial comment in the thread, particularly the last paragraph.

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  18. Thanks dbholmes 🙂

    I should mention that I login here with facebook account, and that doesn’t seem to allow me to ‘like’ comments. My lack of participating in ‘liking’ isn’t some narcissistic tendency on my part, just a combination of low internet skill and insufficient motivation to improve it. I’m am always forgetting my other password.

    I would probably end up liking about 75 percent of the posts if I did figure it out so that wouldn’t be much contribution anyway. My ‘likes’ would be devalued due their frequency 🙂

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  19. Hi Seth, I never liked this whole “like” business, for the very reasons you give (not to mention I don’t like making people feel bad for not getting likes). So I used to have a policy of not liking anything.

    It’s just I heard that it helps drive traffic toward the site, and so I decided I will “like” under certain conditions:

    1) It is something I majorly agree with and/or is so well written that I think it would be useful to highlight (for people new to the site/thread).

    2) I want to acknowledge a point made (usually directly to me) that I don’t have time to respond to or don’t want to artificially lengthen the thread just to say “Yes, that was right.”

    I used to worry that people might feel I was being snobby never liking them when they liked my stuff… especially when I really did like what they wrote!

    So no hard feelings if you don’t like my comments. I get where you’re coming from.

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  20. Dan K: I think you mentioned Marcuse’s concept of repressive tolerance, which got me thinking and I now have several questions: 1) how much explanatory weight do you think “repressive tolerance” has? 2) how large a factor is repressive tolerance on college campuses with regards to protests, no platforming, etc? 3) what do you think the effect of the surveillance state might have on the social development/expression of morality? 4) could what happens on (e.g.) campus be (more) related to the detrimental effects of the surveillance state (than repressive tolerance)? (Not to imply that detrimental effects from the surveillance state are incompatible with repressive tolerance as social forces.)

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