Reason and the Post-Human

by Daniel A. Kaufman

In “Excessive Reason,” an essay I published in these pages last year, I argued that mainline philosophy is characterized by a pervasive and systematic rationalism, the main characteristics of which I summarized as follows:

  1. The acceptability of a belief, activity, practice, institution, etc., rests entirely on whether or not it can be rationally justified.
  1. The rational justification of beliefs is comprised 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, as long as it is grounded in some clearly definable, logical conception of reason (such as Kant’s).
  1. Rational beliefs and actions are the logical and causal products of rational intellection.
  1. Rejected categorically are those beliefs, activities, practices, and institutions grounded in the authority of individuals, classes, customs, or traditions—the collective sources of what Burke called “prejudice”—adherence to which is broadly identified with pre-modern civilization and is considered intellectually and behaviorally atavistic.
  1. Also rejected are those beliefs, activities, etc., which 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.
  1. Truth is the end of all inquiry and belief and trumps all other intellectual ends. The fulfilment of one’s duty (service to the Good, the Right, and the Just) is the end of all activity and consequently, supersedes all other practical ends.

I also suggested that these ideas support an ethos or conception of the Ideal that is also characteristic of mainline philosophy and which is defined as a conjunction of the following

A.  Disinterestedness (impartiality) in belief and conduct: one must eschew bias, prejudice, and any other form of pre-judgment, in everything that one believes and does, and go wherever the evidence, logic, cost-benefit analysis, or other rational calculus leads.

B.  Dispassion in belief and conduct: one must believe and act solely on the rational merits of the case at hand. One should never believe because of appealing rhetoric or wish-fulfilment or act on the basis of critically unexamined sentiment.

C.  Autonomy: The ideal person is a free agent, both in belief and in action, but this freedom must be rigorously 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.

D.  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, so it too is a rationalist virtue.

E.  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 course of one’s life. (1)

In that essay, I attributed both this rationalism and the ethos that follows from it to what I called a “tacit dualism” that pervades mainline philosophy and for which the chief intellectual engineers were Plato and Descartes.  Of this dualism, I said that it,

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 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.

It is no secret that I strongly disagree with mainline philosophy’s rationalism.  Indeed, much of the professional work that I’ve done, especially in epistemology and metaphysics, has been devoted to dismantling it.  (2)  In “Excessive Reason,” I outlined just what a comprehensive critique of rationalist philosophy might look like, from the perspective of a philosophy that accepts the idea of intellectual and existential givens and boundedness, in the manner described by Hume, Reid, Wittgenstein, and others.  But what I have not said much about is how harmful rationalism is – although I did point out some of the ways in which it can have perverse results, in my recent essay, “Self-Made” (3) – and this is what I want to address here; the moral, social, political, and ultimately the civilizational effects of embracing rationalism.

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If there is a general characterization of what is wrong with rationalistic philosophy it is that it represents a rebellion against our humanity; one that has played and in my view will continue to play a negative role in the lives of individuals and in the civilization of the modern West.  This rebellion ranges from rationalism’s hostility to our natural and customary beliefs, sensibilities, and inclinations, to its outright rejection of our humanity, if conceived of as an integrated, organic unity of mental and bodily capacities that is only fully realized in a social and cultural context and which possesses a complex and heterogeneous good.  Rationalist philosophy rejects this on behalf of a wholly abstract personhood which, in “Excessive Reason,” I identified most strongly with Descartes, Locke, and Kant, but which I traced back to Plato and even earlier, to the Pythagoreans and the Orphic mystery cults.  Two significant areas in which modern mainline philosophy has persistently urged resistance to our natural and customary beliefs and inclinations, in the service of rationalist perfectionism, are ethics and epistemology.

With respect to ethics, modern mainline moral philosophy’s perfectionism — particularly, its requirement that one adopt a disinterested, dispassionate, and impartial stance, in identifying and carrying out one’s moral duty, and its rejection of sentiments such as love, hatred, sympathy, attraction and aversion as morally legitimate motives — far from advancing the cause of goodness and justice, in fact constitutes an obstacle to it.  On the epistemological front, the rationalist’s rejection of nature and custom as legitimate sources of belief and insistence that every belief be rationally justified do not serve the cause of liberal, democratic politics, as mainline political philosophers have liked to claim, but instead create intellectual conditions conducive to totalitarianism, by leaving a vacuum at the foundations of social, civic, and political belief and thereby exposing the public to the manipulations of propagandists and demagogues.

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I trust that it is uncontroversial to observe that our natural inclination is to be interested rather than disinterested, partial rather than impartial, sympathetic and unsympathetic rather than detached and that we needn’t go as far as invoking animal behavior or the genetic imperatives that operate across species to make the point; that we need only consider that disinterestedness, dispassion, and detachment are not manifest in childhood, but must be cultivated over the course of one’s youth, or reflect on the fact that even once acquired, the exercise of disinterest, dispassion, and detachment requires effort and is never entirely successful, in order to see that these traits are the products of acculturation.  (4)  Our natural inclination is to be partial to our own good and to the goods of those close to us in affection, who are those with whom we typically also enjoy physical, social, and other forms of proximity.  This point was made most strongly by Hume, whose observation that “a man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers, where everything else is equal” was intended to show that justice and other disinterested virtues are the products of artifice, rather than nature; that we are primarily affective and only secondarily reflective beings; that we are defined by sensibility more than by ratiocination; and that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (5)

Doubtless, there are contexts where the artifice of impartiality is not only beneficial but required, a prime example of which is the law, but modern mainline moral philosophers like Kant and Mill, as well as contemporary rationalistic moralists like Peters Singer and Unger, have deemed impartiality an inherent feature of morality and consequently, have construed the moral stance as essentially indistinguishable from that of the jurist.  The problem with this, aside from its dubious validity — one wouldn’t have thought that a stance appropriate to an institution, whose scope is the entire population of a city, state, or nation, would be appropriate to one’s personal conduct and family life — is that it represents an unattainable ideal.  It’s just not reasonable to expect a person not to privilege himself or those whom he cares about or loves over those whom he doesn’t know, to whom he feels indifferent, or whom he loathes.  Singer and Unger may want to claim that the fact that a person is a close relative as opposed to a total stranger or that a suffering person is right in front of you, as opposed to being a statistic, in a newspaper story, has no relevance to your moral obligations towards one person or the other, but this will never change the fact that people overwhelmingly will privilege their intimates over strangers and will be more moved to help those people whose need is imminent and manifest than those whose suffering is distant and unperceived. (6)

Many will want to point out that being moral can be difficult and may require a person to turn against his natural inclinations, which, depending on the circumstances, may be true (though it is worth noting that Aristotle described the morally virtuous person as one who is inclined to do the right thing and feels pleasure in doing so), but I would like to suggest that maintaining an entire system of unattainable moral ideals is dangerous; that despairing of one’s ability to live up to the moral ideal, a person may give up on morality altogether and become amoral, adopting a “plague on both your houses” attitude towards the moral and the immoral alike or even embrace immorality, out of the resentment that commonly follows from unremitting failure, possibilities that Singer simply dismisses as “remote” and which Unger acknowledges, but treats as minor difficulties to be surmounted with a bit of clever rhetoric.  (7) In contrast, Bernard Williams believed these to be real and serious consequences of the kind of perfectionist moralizing upon which Singer and Unger have built their careers.  As Williams put it:

Some writers aim to increase a sense of guilt in their readers.  Peter Singer is an example, and in his book Practical Ethics he is evidently more interested in producing that effect than he is in the theoretical basis for it, which gets very cursory treatment.  As moral persuasion, this kind of tactic is likely to be counterproductive and to lead to a defensive and resentful contraction of concern.  This can be seen in research and, at the present time, all around us. (8)

What rationalist moral philosophers have failed to understand is that our capacity to care about and feel obligated towards strangers is derivative of the natural affection that we feel for those who are close to us.  “We pity even strangers,” Hume explains, “but if we examine these affections of pity, we shall find them to be secondary ones, arising from original affections, which are varied by some particular turn of thought and imagination.” (9)  So, when Unger urges us to neglect the interests of our children and elderly parents, in order to send as much money as possible to poor strangers living in the far corners of the earth (in one particularly surreal passage, he tells us that global poverty obligates us to send our children exclusively to public primary and secondary schools, “even if it means …moving to a different neighborhood,” and to spend as little as possible on our elderly parents, even if they are infirm), he is demanding a state of affairs in which no one would be inclined to be charitable at all. (10)

As Hume explained, the natural affection that we feel for others is proportionate to their proximity to us and the extent to which they “resemble” us, the latter of which includes a sense of social, economic, religious, and other non-physical varieties of closeness.  Hence the fan-like structure of Hume’s account — in which our affection and care are initially directed towards ourselves, after which they reach out to others — that we’ve already encountered in his remark concerning a person’s relative affections for his children, nephews, cousins, etc., and which is simply a specific instance of his more general idea that the “force and vivacity” of our ideas is proportionate to the immediateness of their objects. (11)  One consequence of this is that our sense of concern and obligation decreases as the potential objects of our good will are perceived as being at a greater distance from us, whether physically or in the ways that they resemble us, to the point at which the only source of charitable feeling is the sense in which every human being resembles every other, which Hume says is not sufficient to constitute any sort of “love for mankind” and which, given competing demands for care from family and friends, amounts, effectively, to none.  (12)  Nonetheless, we are capable of caring about and feeling obligated to others, because we are able to imagine that they might have been close to us, whether physically, socially, economically, etc.  “I [cannot] feel the same lively pleasure from the virtues of a person who liv’d in Greece two thousand years ago, that I feel from the virtues of a familiar friend,” Hume explains, “yet I do not say that I esteem the one more than the other.  Our situation, with regard both to persons and things, is in continual fluctuation; and a man that lies at a distance from us, may become a familiar acquaintance.” “We blame equally a bad action, which we read of in history, with one perform’d in our neighbourhood,” Hume continues, “the meaning of which is that we know from reflexion, that the former action wou’d excite as strong sentiments of disapprobation as the latter, were it plac’d in the same position.” (13)

The disinterested ideal that pervades mainline moral philosophy and requires that we disregard the natural asymmetry of our affections and care and deny our intimates pride of place in our generosity thus constitutes an assault on the very ground from which the charitable instinct springs and is a force for its diminishment, a fact that can only be exacerbated by the scolding, hectoring approach to the subject favored by the Singers and Ungers of the world.  None of this should surprise us, for it was long understood by Western thinkers of antiquity and the Middle Ages that the civic and political orders are derivative of the smaller-scale forms of social life and ultimately, of the family, and that the very concepts and habits that make good civil and political society possible — obligation, prerogative, fealty, obedience, authority, and the like — have their origins and are first acquired and exercised in the context of one’s relationships with family and friends. (14)  Indeed, it is precisely because they play this foundational role in civil and political society that the institutions of the family and of friendship are among the first targets of any aspiring totalitarian regime, whose aim is not merely to achieve effective absolute rule, but to reconfigure the moral template of the citizen; something that can only be accomplished, when the emotional connections between parents and children and between friends and neighbors have been severed and the grounds of natural affection thereby destroyed. (The people living in the totalitarian society described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are raised from infancy in state-run institutions and are conditioned to conceive of the very words associated with family life — ‘family’, ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘sister’, etc. — as obscenities. (15))

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If a collapse in moral sympathy and concern is one of the hazards posed by the mainline tradition’s moral perfectionism, what of its epistemological ideals, which are equally extreme?  Skepticism, when understood as a position rather than as a method, is the product of a frustrated rationalism — the result of the rationalist being convinced that the high epistemological standards to which he adheres cannot be met — and would seem, therefore, to entail that we should suspend all of our beliefs and activities and adopt the posture of the Pyrrhonist or at least, the Pyrrhonist of popular legend.  Now, on first glance, the risk here, would appear to be purely theoretical: even though Hume warned that such a person would suffer “pensive melancholy” and would receive a “cold reception” from others and Reid thought that “a man who did not believe his senses, could not keep out of harm’s way an hour of his life” (16), both were convinced that the rationalist-skeptical stance was unsustainable; that the force of natural belief and inclination and inherited habits and customs would always overcome even the most hardnosed rationalist philosophy and that consequently, neither rationalism nor skepticism posed any real danger to individuals or to mankind as a whole.  “The great subverter of the excessive principles of skepticism is action and the occupations of common life,” Hume wrote.  “These principles may flourish and triumph in the schools; where it is difficult, if not impossible to refute them.  But as soon as they leave the shade and are put in opposition to the more powerful principles of our nature, they vanish like smoke.” (17)  Reid agreed, observing that “in all the history of philosophy, we never read of any sceptic that stepped into fire or water because he did not believe his senses, or that showed, in the conduct of life, less trust in his senses than other men have.” (18)

But if we skip forward several centuries and consider G.K. Chesterton, whose Orthodoxy is partly devoted to the same question — in two chapters entitled “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought” — we find that he is profoundly worried that widespread skepticism, sustained by the belief that human thought and activity can never live up to rational standards, would engender an equally wide-ranging irrationalism.  “Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea,” he wrote, “so one set of thinkers can prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.” (19)  Indeed, Chesterton believed that this process of collective mental derangement had already begun, writing that “The whole modern world is at war with reason, and the tower already reels.” (20)  In 1908 (the year of Orthodoxy’s publication), he was in a position to see the effects of earlier such losses of faith, whether the irrationalist moral and political philosophies that followed the French Revolution, Terror, and Napoleonic Wars, which were widely interpreted as representing the failure of rationalist thought, or the sublime madness of Romantic literature, painting, and music, much of which was directed against industrialization and urbanization, children of the Scientific revolution and of the rationalist outlook both.  But Chesterton also despaired of developments in his own day and expressed alarm at hearing the kinds of skeptical arguments, which previously had been the unique province of philosophers, increasingly coming out of the mouths of prominent figures in the popular culture, most notably H.G. Wells, whose Oxford Philosophical Society presentation, “Skepticism of the Instrument,” suggested to Chesterton that what had once been a purely academic idea had now penetrated the public square (21), and which, given the literary and rhetorical gifts of Wells and others like him, would quickly make its way into the popular consciousness.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, with Europe’s experience of the French Revolution and its aftermath and of Romanticism behind him, Chesterton could understand both that the kind of credulity that makes it possible for a person to trust his senses, his reason, his instincts, and his acquired customs and habits is crucial, if any intellectual or practical regime grounded in rational procedures is to be sustained and that the kind of systemic incredulity that accompanies a perennially frustrated rationalism represents not just the end of any such regime, but an invitation to intellectual and social anarchy.  But, with the mechanized mass murder of the first and second World Wars and the sweep of totalitarian ideologies and governments across Europe and Asia still ahead of him, the Chesterton of Orthodoxy could not see beyond the prevailing incredulity of his day to the point at which it would become credulity once again, but a credulity of a most terrible kind; one that would clear the way for human monstrousness on a scale and of a scope hitherto unknown.  For beyond that self-absorbed mental condition, in which a person refuses to believe or act, there comes an even more wretched point at which he will believe and do anything.

Hannah Arendt has argued that as much as the catastrophic economic depression or the collective humiliation experienced at Versailles, this degenerate, post-skeptical credulity is crucial to understanding the rise of Nazism; specifically, it explains how the people of advanced societies like Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire could place themselves, their legacies, and their futures in the hands of a ranting lunatic like Hitler and his rabble of costumed perverts, petty criminals, and thugs.  “The problem of Hitler’s charisma is relatively easy to solve,” Arendt wrote.  “It rested on the well-known experiential fact that Hitler must have realized early in his life, namely, that modern society in its desperate inability to form judgments will take every individual for what he considers himself and professes himself to be and will judge him on that basis.  Extraordinary self-confidence and displays of self-confidence therefore inspire confidence in others.” (22)

The Nazi problem, of course, is only an instance of a more general problem that we continue to live with today.  If Hume and Reid are correct that it is in a human being’s nature to believe and to act and if belief and action require an initial credulity in order to get off the ground and to be sustained thereafter, then the sole question that remains is what that credulity will consist of.  In a human being’s natural condition, it is a credulity born of the world and of human nature, experience, and history, but in the post-skeptical condition that comprises rationalism’s legacy, this reality-based credulity is lost, to be replaced by one that derives from whatever ersatz-reality can be designed and promoted with the greatest combination of cleverness and assertiveness.  “In such an atmosphere any kind of fraud becomes possible,” Arendt explained, “because there appears to be no one left for whom the difference between fraud and authenticity matters.  People therefore fall prey to judgments apodictically expressed because the apodictic tone frees them from the chaos of an infinite number of arbitrary judgments.” (23)

This remains true, whether the counterfeit reality is of the brutal, Orwellian kind effected by the Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos of history or the softer, Huxleyan variety that we see every day in the efforts exerted by corporations in the selling of their respective products, the chief force for which is the implantation of fabricated desires into the minds of the public, a job that falls to their hired-guns from the social sciences.  Like the totalitarian dictator, the contemporary marketer does not seek to persuade his target audience by appeal to reasons that ultimately are accepted or rejected according to a person’s natural and customary instincts and beliefs , which belong, as we’ve just said, to the world and to human nature and history and are not easily controlled, but relies instead on our trust in these natural and inherited instincts and beliefs having been so thoroughly undermined by skepticism and its innumerable popular articulations that he can replace them with artificially created instincts and beliefs that can be counted on to produce favorable reactions to the reasons that he offers on behalf of whatever it is he is selling.

Intellectuals have a distinctive susceptibility to this sort of deceit, because they are the people most likely to buy into the rationalist conceit, and once they have abandoned that backbone of given basic beliefs, inclinations, and habits that connects everything else that they believe and do to the realities of the world, their own nature and history, they are left exposed and vulnerable to the manipulator’s fictions, especially when those fictions are placed within the reassuring settings of science, philosophy, and other respected institutions and frameworks.  As Stanley Rosen warned:

If philosophy is understood as a thoroughly extraordinary event or activity having nothing to do with ordinary experience or sound judgment, then there is no basis on which to distinguish between genuine and specious philosophical speeches.  If philosophy claims that ordinary life is irrelevant to philosophy, then philosophy is indistinguishable from arbitrary rhetorical assertions. (24)

This may help explain why so many of the last century’s most distinguished thinkers sympathized with and to some extent were complicit in its worst totalitarian causes, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre being the most famous examples.  In her review of Max Weinreich’s 1946 book, Hitler’s Professors, Arendt describes the Nazis as having exploited precisely this sort of gullibility in the way that they used Heidegger to gain respect in Germany’s elite universities, after which he was replaced with Alfred Bäumler, a known charlatan. (25)  And it is why C.S. Lewis, in That Hideous Strength, his fictional tale of an aspiring totalitarian movement’s efforts to take over Britain, described the coup as beginning in a college and explained, through the mouth of the character one of the movement’s leaders that,

It’s the educated who can be gulled.  All our difficulty comes with the others.  When did you meet a workman who believes the papers?  He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and buys it for the football results.  We have to recondition him.  But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning.  They’ll believe anything.” (26)

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If some of rationalistic philosophy’s rebellions against human nature arise from the conviction that our intellectual and practical instincts and habits are atavistic and ought to be entirely disregarded in favor of pure, rational reflection, another derives from its obsession with radical autonomy; with the idea that not only should our beliefs and actions be self-originating, in the sense of deriving exclusively from our own contemplative and ratiocinative activity, but that our very being should be self-made; that nothing about who or what we are should prevail independently of our own rational will; that nothing should be given and by implication, nothing should bind or otherwise constrain us.  This, of course, was the primary subject of “Self Made,” but I would like to examine it in greater detail here.

If rationalistic philosophy’s dualistic heritage created a pecking order, in which our conscious lives are given pride of place over our embodied and social existence, and contemplation and ratiocination are privileged over sensation, conation, and habituation, then one result of its contemporary misapplication of modern science and scientific method to the understanding of human nature has been to harden that dualism to the point where one’s entire self-identification is with one’s rational consciousness and all the things that are connected with one’s embodiment are treated as mere tools.  (There also has been another, even more extreme result, namely the complete abandonment of the conscious, rational dimension altogether, in favor of an entirely scientistic, thoroughly evolutionary and mechanistic picture of the human being and human life, more about which I’ll say a bit at the end of these remarks.)  Lewis described this situation as on in which we have “abolished” man and replaced him with an “artefact” (27), an idea that has been the subject of some of the most powerful humanist and dystopian literature of the last century. (28)

The modern scientific stance is essentially analytical, quantitative, reductive, and impersonal, by which I mean that understanding is accomplished by: (i) breaking objects and processes down to their most basic parts; (ii) defining objects and processes in terms of entirely quantifiable characteristics; (iii) explaining objects and processes in ways commensurate with the explanations provided by the most fundamental physical sciences; (iv) engaging objects and processes from an objective, depersonalized point of view (rather than as they are experienced by people).  This stance, it should be emphasized, is perfectly suited to the ends that modern science serves.  Since the industrial revolution, scientific understanding has been pursued almost exclusively for its engineering potential — it enables us to make and use things — and in this regard, the type of understanding that it provides is the right kind, not only because it provides the sort of information that one needs, if one is to manipulate matter and energy, but because it enables us to justify treating the natural world as something to be used; as something with no ends of its own that consequently may be employed entirely in the service of our own ends.  The modern scientific vision is a devaluated one, and devaluation is the crucial first step to revaluation, which is required if one is to justify the subordination of any thing or process to one’s own ends.  “We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them,” Lewis wrote, and so “the price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature.” (29)

When this perspective is turned from the world to us, what was a largely eschatological dualism in antiquity is brought down to earth and rendered in high relief.  The conscious, rational mind, in the position of the user, analyses, reduces, neutralizes, devalues, and finally instrumentalizes its own embodiment, something that is manifested not only in many of our theories of human nature, morality, and politics, but in practice as well.  As we’ve already seen, it is pervasive in the philosophy of the mainline tradition, whether in its disregard for human emotional imperatives or in the assignment of moral, legal, and political rights and duties exclusively on the basis of a rationalistically conceived personhood, one result of which has been the weird treatment of the human body as private property (30), to do with as one sees fit and whose distinct imperatives and constraints must never be permitted to interfere with the ends of conscious selves.  The observation that such attitudes are hubristic seems quaint today, but it is worth noting that Chesterton, Lewis, and Iris Murdoch all described them as essentially Luciferean, in the (metaphorical) sense that they represent a combination of resentment at having been made by forces other than one’s own will and a hunger for absolute – in the sense of counter-causal – freedom. (31)

More serious still is the alienation effected by the withdrawal of the conscious self from its body, its world, and its history, on which Carl Jung hung the ongoing and currently metastasizing pandemic of neuroses, afflictions that arise not simply from a sense of distance from the world, from others, and from one’s past, but from the horrible over-awareness of self that results.  “Whenever there is established an external form, be it ritual or spiritual, by which all the yearnings and hopes of the soul are adequately expressed, then no spiritual problem, strictly speaking, exists,” Jung wrote. (32)  The modern man, however, “has become ‘unhistorical’ and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live within the bounds of tradition,” the consequence of which, he explained, is that we have “suffered an almost fatal shock and fallen into profound uncertainty.”  Indeed, the very need for clinical psychology, Jung believed, “is symptomatic of a profound convulsion of spiritual life.” (33)

The most potent criticism of the rationalistic dream of being entirely self-made and radically free, however, is also an ironic one, for the arc that begins with the rationalist’s core premises and ends with our “self-made” people, far from describing the rise of freedom is rather a tale of its erosion and ultimately, its loss.  For, the very rationalistic framework that renders an individual’s body a tool to his conscious mind also justifies a political picture, in which the individual is conceived of as an object to be managed by the state.  With human nature reduced to a mechanical, value-neutral point, politics, which in antiquity was conceived of as the arena in which richly, “thickly” rendered human beings realized their full potential, becomes indistinguishable from social engineering and maintenance.  The result, today, is a still somewhat light, but undeniable technocracy, in which public policy and governance are the province of experts — natural and social scientists, engineers, mental and other healthcare professionals, economists, and a professional class of bureaucrats — whose transformation of civic life and government into a form of “human resource management” is familiar enough to the average person, but whose methods have become ever more inscrutable, as the scientific basis for policy has become more and more advanced and the logic of politics and administration has become increasingly complex.

The result, for those who have come to view themselves and their lives through the reductive lens of resources-to-be-maintained and problems-to-be-solved, is an ever-increasing dependency on the experts, which is hardly the radical autonomy dreamt of by the architects of modernity.  Indeed, precisely this complexity has been used by some to argue for the subversion and manipulation of the public, as in the case of Walter Lipmann’s notorious arguments for the “manufacturing of consent” in modern democracies. (34)  As Lewis described this paradoxical outcome of our attempts to attain individuality, strength, and freedom by using the theoretical and practical instruments of modern science to conquer nature: “If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man,” to which I would add, “or a free one.” (35)

A few pages back I spoke of the other effect of our misapplication of the modern natural sciences to the study of human nature and human affair, and that is the collapse of what is a clearly untenable, unstable dualism in favor of a thoroughly physicalistic monism; one in which the Scientific Image, as described by Wilfrid Sellars, has entirely supplanted the Manifest one, and in which our account of ourselves and our activity no longer has any room for selves or persons or reason or autonomy, even of the humble, non-rationalistic variety.  Once such a view has fully taken hold and pervades not only our civic and political institutions, but our common understanding and practices, we will essentially be living in the world described and hoped for by B.F. Skinner, in his technocratic manifesto Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and therein will lie not only the greatest tyranny, but the greatest irony of all.

If the rationalistically-inspired scientific takeover of our conception of human nature points towards technocracy — if as Lewis wrote, “Man’s conquest of nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men” (36) — then the question of the principles on which those few hundreds of men rule becomes essential.  The promise, of course, is that they will be rational principles; that rule by experts will mean rule by reason, by way of rationalistic philosophy and science, as opposed to rule by unreason, by way of prejudice, superstition, or archaic myths about man.  “We have made immense strides in controlling the physical and biological worlds, but our practices in government, education, and economics have not greatly improved,” Skinner lamented, after which he went on to say:

We need to make vast changes in human behavior, and we cannot make them with nothing more than physics or biology. What we need is a technology of behavior [that will allow us to] adjust the growth of the world’s population as precisely as we adjust the course of a spaceship or move toward a peaceful world with something like the steady progress with which physics has approached absolute zero. (37)

Unfortunately, Skinner seemed to have missed the wild inconsistency involved in making the case for a plan on the grounds of its being more rational than the rest, while simultaneously claiming that the people who design and implement the plan are not rational agents, but act solely on the basis of their physical nature and conditioning. (38)

There is no one more enslaved to his nature then one who is unaware of it or who was once aware of it, but has denied it to the point where he believes his own lies and has forgotten it.  For the person who accepts the fact that his every act of reasoning is ultimately grounded in the uncritical acceptance of his world, his faculties, and his inclinations and habits, reason remains a real, active force for sound behavior and thought.  But for the person who insists on the rationalist’s rarefied conception of reasoning, reason is no longer a real, active force for soundness in his life, but at best an empty proceduralism, taking place in a vacuum; a void that will be filled either by his own unreasoned, unrecognized nature or that of others.  In either event, he is controlled.  The greatest irony of all, then, is that a philosophical movement that for two and a half thousand years preached the rational ascendance of man over nature and the wills of others may very well be responsible for effecting his utter subordination to both.

Notes

  1. Daniel A. Kaufman, “Excessive Reason,” The Electric Agora, February 28, 2016.

https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/28/excessive-reason/

  1. For example my “Between Reason and Common Sense,” Philosophical Investigations, Vol. 28, No. 2 (April 2005) and “Reality in Common Sense: Realism and Anti-Realism from a ‘Common Sense Naturalist’ Perspective,” Philosophical Investigations, Vol. 25, No. 4 (October 2002).
  1. https://theelectricagora.com/2017/05/25/self-made/
  1. “Reason requires such an impartial conduct, but ’tis seldom we can bring ourselves to it, and our passions do not readily follow the determination of our judgment.” David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), 2nd Edition, eds. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 583.
  1. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 415.
  1. Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die Our Illusion of Innocence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 33-36; 149-150; Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring 1972) p. 232.
  1. Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” pp. 237-238; Unger, Living High and Letting Die, pp. 156-157.
  1. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 212, fn. 7.
  1. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 369.
  1. Unger, Living High and Letting Die, p. 150.
  1. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 427 & 581.
  1. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 481.
  1. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 581 & 584.
  1. See, especially, Aristotle, Politics, 1252a25-1252b30; 1276b20-1277b30.
  1. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932) (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 37-41.
  1. David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777), 3rd Edition, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 9; Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), ed. Baruch Brody (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1969), p. 115.
  1. Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, pp. 158-159.
  1. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, pp. 115-116.
  1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 38.
  1. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 37.
  1. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 38. Tellingly, Wells’ paper was subsequently reprinted, with some revisions, in Mind.  H.G. Wells, ‘Skepticism of the Instrument’, Mind, Vol. 13, No. 51 (July 1904), pp. 379-393.
  1. Hannah Arendt, “At Table with Hitler” (1951), tr. Robert and Rita Kimber, reprinted in Essays in Understanding: 1930-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1994), p. 291.
  1. Arendt, “At Table with Hitler,” p. 292.
  1. Stanley Rosen, ‘Philosophy and Ordinary Experience’, the 1996 Bradley Lecture, Boston College, reprinted in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 228.
  1. Hannah Arendt, ‘The Image of Hell’ (1946), in Essays in Understanding: 1930-1945, p. 202.
  1. C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 99-100.
  1. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944) (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 64.
  1. The aforementioned That Hideous Strength was intended by Lewis to be a novelization of the central ideas of The Abolition of Man. See Lewis, That Hideous Strength, p. 7.
  1. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 71.
  1. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, C.B. Macpherson, ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980), p. 19.
  1. G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (1909) (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995), p. 1; C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, esp. pp. 177-179; Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (New York: Routledge, 1971), pp. 77-78.
  1. Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, tr. W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1933), p. 201.
  1. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, pp. 197; 200; & 202.
  1. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1921), esp. Ch. XV.

http://wps.pearsoncustom.com/wps/media/objects/2429/2487430/pdfs/lippmann.pdf

  1. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 54.
  1. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 58.
  1. B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2002), pp. 6 & 4-5.
  1. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, pp. 182-3; 215.

88 comments

  1. This essay might be one of your best yet. It is most comprehensive – in but a few paragraphs – and, curiously given the stance of the piece, very well argued which, I suspect you would agree, is not the same as rationalistic. I think what you talk about reminds me of many current trends in popular philosophy, as Singer is a most popular philosopher who has cut across to a non academic audience, and books with a hyper utilitarian bent, like those by Paul Bloom, urge us to disavow or drop feeling or doing ‘what comes naturally” in the interest of a utopian plan for the future. I wonder if you also have in mind Orwell’s famous critique of Gandhi which seems quite similar to your argument here though in a very different context. You final paragraph is devastating and damning to say the least. And I wonder too if your argument has connections to Isaiah Berlin’s anxiety about administrative regulation and the need for people to exercise some kind of independence from that kind of “paternalism”. Does the relation between reason and rationalism parallel the relation between morality and moralism? Is it that “ism” part of it where the trouble starts I wonder.

  2. Dan,
    excellent essay. Not much here for me to disagree with.

    “Unfortunately, Skinner seemed to have missed the wild inconsistency involved in making the case for a plan on the grounds of its being more rational than the rest, while simultaneously claiming that the people who design and implement the plan are not rational agents, but act solely on the basis of their physical nature and conditioning.”

    Yes, that’s the problem with much overly rationalized ethics, and by extension politics, and by further extension utopian world changing projects as a whole.

    This notices an interesting problem your essay surfaces. A rigidly rationalistic philosophy has only two relationships it can affect toward the world around it – either complete disinterest, as some logical positivists advocated; or attempted re-wiring of society as a whole, as scientistism advocates still argue for. But the former position effectively isolates philosophy and makes it of little use for non-professionals; the latter is unrealizable (and more than a little arrogant).

  3. Dan, the overall impression I get from this piece is that it is very ambitious in its scope. Though I am entirely in agreement with many of your claims – especially about ethical and political attitudes – I have some reservations about your approach in other areas. Part of the problem is that I may not conceptualize philosophy (or its relationship to science?) quite as you do, and to talk about this might be to change the subject. It’s partly a framework thing.

    But, as I say, I agree with much of what you are saying and I congratulate you on a strong and wide-ranging critique.

    1. Could you be more specific about what you disagree with? Does it have to do with reductive and elminativist treatments of human nature and activity?

  4. Take your (and C.S. Lewis’s) characterization of science merely as a quantitative, engineering-orientated thing. I agree that the direct application of this sort of science to politics – social engineering, etc. – is misconceived and very dangerous. But I see science in a broader (and more positive?) way than you seem to do. I see it as a natural development of our intellectual curiosity, and as a way of understanding the world of which we are a part.

  5. A thought-provoking read as always. My few thoughts were:

    “acceptability of a belief, activity, practice, institution” can be reversed: what is it about a cultural practice or an institution that leads us to support and respect it? In our era, the secular institutions of law have to some extent supplanted religion-based thinking. The legal philosophers give us a variety of bases for upholding a system:
    Internalism: Reasons are indispensable to an account of the nature of law
    Externalism: Reasons are otiose – the equivalent of Divine Command Theory, crude power relations
    Nelson [2016] adds in
    Optimism: laws actually have good reasons
    Pessimism: good reasons are misleading eg benefits are all to the powerful

    I guess Hobbes argued that it is rational for a person to support an externalist-based system as better than the available alternatives. Most of us these more peaceful days respect those laws that seem rationally framed to be just and fair, and disrespect those that seem irrational, as well as those that are unjust and unfair. They are ethics at work in our modern world.

    Turning briefly to Singer: his recommendations for individual acts are not that different from what we are happy for our nations to do (well perhaps out by an order of magnitude :)). So the US gave $32B in overseas aid in 2014 (0.2%GDP) and those annoying moral saints in Sweden gave $6B (1.1%). I am presuming here that the behaviour of a nation-state somehow reflect the moral beliefs of its citizens.

    Finally, although I love reading Chesterton and Lewis, I do not respect their political and philosophical stances particularly highly. As an aside, if you haven’t read Gene Wolfe, a great fan of Chesterton, then I recommend him highly. One of his most quoted passages ends, “…The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.”

  6. davidduffy wrote:

    Turning briefly to Singer: his recommendations for individual acts are not that different from what we are happy for our nations to do (well perhaps out by an order of magnitude :)). So the US gave $32B in overseas aid in 2014 (0.2%GDP) and those annoying moral saints in Sweden gave $6B (1.1%). I am presuming here that the behaviour of a nation-state somehow reflect the moral beliefs of its citizens.

    = = =

    Beyond its snarky tone, this particular comment also has nothing to do with what I wrote, as I nowhere suggested that we should not give aid to the poor.

  7. My point was that the motivating forces underlying governmental international aid are closer to abstract rational benevolence (disinterested is not quite right) in so much as they reflect an averaging of the motivations of the individual citizens. (This is aside from realpolitik considerations). There are some people who claim to feel every tax dollar spent as money they have foregone, but for most I reckon it is a more utilitarian calculus. In more communitarian countries like the Scandinavian states, it is considered just to pay more tax in order to support those around you, close and distant.

    1. I still don’t see the point. Such considerations, even if they are disinterested, are highly limited and constrained and do not even come close to what Singer and Unger claim true moral disinterest requires.

  8. As always is the case Dan, your essays provide much to chew on. Not sure my chompers are yet up to the task but I think I digested a good portion of the argument. I have read it slowly once, and quicker a second time. I think I need another slow pass.

    I find the primary arguments regarding the dangers of systemic rationalism, the unrealistic ideal of dispassionate detachment, and the need for acceptance for some degree of unreasoned credulity pretty persuasive.

    These two sentences in the final paragraph really struck me as it hints at a positive way forward:

    “There is no one more enslaved to his nature then one who is unaware of it or who was once aware of it, but has denied it to the point where he believes his own lies and has forgotten it. For the person who accepts the fact that his every act of reasoning is ultimately grounded in the uncritical acceptance of his world, his faculties, and his inclinations and habits, reason remains a real, active force for sound behavior and thought.”

    As long as we don’t overdo the uncritical acceptance which can have it’s own downsides I think this reminder leaves room for valuing reason and skepticism in a way they can be practically applied by human beings.

    EJ

    Since you had little to oppose in the essay I am wondering how you view an ideal ‘detachment’ giving your Buddhist leanings? Just curious.

    1. seth: the uncritical acceptance is only of the sort that gets you out of the skeptical trap. that and the sort that Wittgenstein speaks of in On Certainty, where one accepts a frame of reference in order to pursue some specific inquiry.

  9. Dan-K,
    this is a major essay of great importance, written with your trademark lucidity. I sense this essay is the destination of years of development in your thought.

    Two general remarks first.
    1) Given your friendship with Massimo it is interesting to note that the two of you hold very different positions. For example, he is a well known advocate of skeptical, critical thinking whereas you regard it as a stance that is harmful. He also holds that moral thought and behaviour is the product of purely rational thought(Stoicism), a position you have quite thoroughly debunked.

    2) You did not directly address the current fad for critical thinking. This is one of those things that seems self-evidently beneficial but I maintain that it is instead the major malaise of today’s intellectual world. I will expand on this tomorrow(I have come very late to your essay).

    In my book, quoting GK Chesterton and CS Lewis is a sign of a refined mind. I hope you have read Chesterton’s thoroughly entertaining Father Brown novels!

    In my company we sometimes derisively referred to our planners and analysts as suffering from paralysis by analysis, with their endless, closely argued position papers. In desperation I would exclaim ‘Ready, Fire, Aim‘, in parody of the military phrase. It seems to me that endless, cold, calculating cognition is draining away our vitality and force of feeling. As you said, it is enabling amoral behaviour.

    Thank you for articulating all the major issues so clearly. I have learnt a great deal from it.

    1. I appreciate your kind remarks very much. Yes, I think skepticism’s only legitimate use is as a tool, and it is one that has to be used very carefully. In college and graduate school, I was very influenced by the Norman Kemp-Smith reading of Hume as primarily a naturalist, in the vein of Thomas Reid, rather than a skeptic, and I’ve always employed him that way in my work.

  10. Dan-K,
    …intended to show that justice and other disinterested virtues are the products of artifice, rather than nature; that we are primarily affective and only secondarily reflective beings; that we are defined by sensibility more than by ratiocination; and that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

    Here I want to gently disagree with you and claim that justice is not impartial at all. If anything, our justice system illustrates the truth of Hume’s claim that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    First, the justice system does not try to establish the absolute truth. It contents itself with a judgement of the merits of the case on a balance of probabilities. All that varies is the strength of probability that we demand. In this the justice system reflects how we all go about our lives. None of us demands or even can find absolute truth. We are content with an intuitive assessment of the balance of probabilities.

    Second, the way the justice system arrives at an assessment of the balance of probabilities does not depend on ‘experts’ or purely rational thinking. Instead it pits two parties in earnest combat against each other. It is often a furious, emotionally laden conflict where each side will use every trick in the book to gain advantage against the other side. It has been shown in two thousand years of jurisprudence that it is the conflict, and not rationality, that exposes the truth of disagreements in human affairs. It has long been known that panels of experts are the very worst way of administering justice but we seem to be forgetting that lesson as we turn increasingly to panels of experts to administer human affairs.

    That is because the skeptical, critical thinker’s belief in the power of his rationality is so great a conceit that it blinds him to the possibility of other points of view having merit.

  11. Mark,
    But I see science in a broader (and more positive?) way than you seem to do. I see it as a natural development of our intellectual curiosity, and as a way of understanding the world of which we are a part.

    If science stuck to science and was more modest in its ambition, I would agree with you. Unfortunately the success of science has infected it with hubris, leading it
    1) to make ambitious claims that are not merited by the findings
    2) to take ideological stances
    3) to develop political ambitions for which they are unfit.

    The hubris of science is leading to serious overreach. A perfect example of this are the arguments against religion raised by prominent scientists such as Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Steven Hawking. For all their scientific eminence their arguments against religion are quite risible and have been dismantled many times over.

    The real problem is that they are using their eminence in their fields of expertise to give them a platform for bias in a field they have no expertise. When they speak outside their fields of expertise they are merely expressing an opinion but they are clothing that opinion with the appearance of respectability borrowed from their standing in the world of science. That is hypocrisy.

  12. sethleon2015,
    “I am wondering how you view an ideal ‘detachment’ giving your Buddhist leanings?” – detachment without compassion is not the Buddha’s way; reason without compassion is not right thought.

  13. sethleon2015,
    It should be noted that the philosophy that arose among Buddhist thinkers is actually very pragmatic. It’s invested in aiding a certain practice, after all. Consequently, although philosophers committed to Buddhism developed a syllogistic analogous to that in the West, they never developed a formal logic like we have in the West, which must develop by treating symbols without content in algorithmic permutations. Interestingly, the philosophers committed to Hinduism actually went much farther in this regard. My suspicion is that this has to do with how these differing philosophers view the possibility that human experience is somehow ‘illusory.’ When Buddhist thinkers write in this way, they are really writing as what we in the West know as Nominalists – what we know of the world is our concepts of it, and concepts are not the world. This has caused all sorts of confusions in the West. For instance, it is true that philosophers with Buddhist commitments write a great deal about ‘nothingness,’ but this really address the emptiness of foundational concepts, there is nothing (pun inevitable) mystical about it.

    But Hindus tend to believe that the world somehow really is an illusion, a dream state of the ultimate divinity. Consequently, every sign has its own content, but this content is merely sign of the divine, and thus really an illusion. Not surprisingly, although these philosophers had little to say about ‘nothingness,’ they came up with a symbol for it – among the first peoples to use the zero in a meaningful way.

    Well, you asked; but I suggest not pursuing the issue to any extent that would detract from Dan’s really well written essay.

    However, we can note this: The problem Dan addresses is particularly virulent in the Modern West; but it notices global phenomena dating back centuries. For those who wish to contribute something of value, understood as good, to the world and to the people around us, we can choose to make the world a little better than we found it; or we can try to achieve perfection. The problem with the latter choice is that it requires perfected wisdom – and humans are not capable of that, because we are human: we are situated, we are contextualized, we are social, we are historical; we have no view from nowhere, and our lives are pretty short in the general schedule of existence.

    So what the striving for perfected wisdom ends up with is either a theistic perfectionism; or a utopian systematization of human behavior; or, conversely, a jaded cynicism, sometimes expressed as such in literature or commentary – but sometimes expressed as professional detachment from the human experience. What look likes hope is veiled hopelessness. Eventually the divinity awakens and we all disappear; and in the last moment realize that it was all for nought.

    But even allowing it may be all for nought right – why not make the world just a little better than it was when we found it? That won’t hurt; and perhaps it can relieve some suffering.

    Reason has it’s place in this; but reason unleashed without consideration for real human experience can only produce monsters, not gods.

  14. Responding to labnut:

    The hubris of science is leading to serious overreach.

    I’ll disagree with that. You claim to give examples. But you don’t. Instead, you examples of the overreach of a handful of scientists. Please don’t assume that the actions of a few scientists can speak for science as a whole.

    For myself, I’m inclined to mostly agree with Mark about science. I think Dan’s comments on science are largely correct about “that which is described by philosophy of science”, while Mark’s comments are closer about “that which is practiced by scientists when they are doing science.”

    1. Neil, are you suggesting that scientists have not been among the strongest advocates for technocracy? Because I would argue that clearly they are. Skinner was only one of the more extreme examples.

  15. Neil, are you suggesting that scientists have not been among the strongest advocates for technocracy?

    I see a sharp distinction between technology and science.

    In my experience, most scientists want to leave the public policy decisions to the politicians. Of course, a few are outspoken. I suppose they have as much freedom of speech as anyone else.

    Technologists, on the other hand, do often want to push their technologies.

    To illustrate, consider the laser. They were studied by scientists as a curiosity in the 1950s or there abouts. I was in high school at the time. But today, lasers are technology, and that is what is making its way into our infrastructure.

    1. The point really isn’t to villainize scientists but rather to express caution with respect to the extent to which science and scientific rationalism are allowed to govern policy making and our conception of human nature and life more generally.

  16. Daniel Kaufmann:
    That was a great essay. It is paradoxical the way that thinkers who purport to work through rational means to find the truth end up conforming to the orthodoxy of the day. It’s all Idealism or Logical Positivism or Ordinary Language or Analysis when those are dominant. You have gone against that and not for the sake of being contrary, well not wholly so. As long as you don’t take pleasure in it.

    It read a little also like an introductory chapter in a book, pushing through to plant a flag and then coming back in subsequent chapters to focus on individual rationalistic positions. I found it as it stands, that rare thing in philosophical writing, readable and stimulating.

  17. Neil,
    You claim to give examples. But you don’t. Instead, you examples of the overreach of a handful of scientists. Please don’t assume that the actions of a few scientists can speak for science as a whole.

    This is always the problem of assigning attitudes to a group. It can be challenged, saying where’s the proof? Or, it can be claimed those voices are not representative. And yet groups do develop a certain ethos, a prevailing attitude that is readily sensed, even if difficult to prove, despite a great deal of heterogeneity.

    Do other scientists think in a like minded way? We would only really know if someone conducted a study like that done by David Chalmers among philosophers. One way we can develop an informed feeling for this is to look at the reaction to the works of celebrity scientists. If it is generally laudatory, with few critical voices, it is fair to assume that they reflect a prevailing attitude among scientists. And this is the case.

    When celebrity scientists pick up the megaphone to speak on social issues, they wield considerable, and potentially harmful influence. In their science they conduct themselves in a careful, nuanced way, never going beyond the evidence and always using careful, exact arguments that can be justified by the evidence. This is what we expect from them in their work and likewise this is what we should expect from them when they speak as scientists to the public. And yet people like Dawkins, Krauss and Hawking abandon that approach willy-nilly in their popular books. Does science condemn them for this?

    Mostly I detect a note of envy. I remember Sean Carroll remarking about Dawkins book, not long after it was published. His comments were most admiring and he said that he wished he had written the book first.

  18. Neil,
    This is just to correct an impression of being anti-science, that might have resulted from the tenor of my remarks. As a Catholic I believe that the laws of nature are the properties of God(you will disagree, which is OK as long, as you understand my position). Therefore the study of the ways the laws of nature are manifested(science) is a study of the way that God manifests in the Universe. Which means, quite ‘naturally‘, that I think the study of science is a very good thing, as does the Church(which is why they operate the Pontifical Academy of Sciences). In the beauty of science we see the beauty of God. I once pointed this out to Coel and teased him by saying that this made science a branch of theology. He was not amused! This has two interesting corollaries. One, it dissolves the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and two, religion is not inherently in opposition to science!(but I digress)

    The three great transcendentals, the True, the Good and the Beautiful underpin our experience of life. If we neglect one of the three we undermine the entire structure of our being. In the same way, if we give undue emphasis to one of the three at the expense of the other two, we harm the entire structure. This is where we are today with science. It is good, right and proper, and indeed in our nature, that we should pursue the truth. This is the point that Mark was making. But the Truth does not determine the Good and the Beautiful. These are independent and must be arrived at independently.

    Today the obsessive concern with the truth has compromised our perceptions of the good and the beautiful. Both are being seen in starkly utilitarian terms, coloured by the influence of undue concern about the truth. The good and the beautiful are not the functions of the truth. They are instead two independent things, deeply embedded in our nature, and should be pursued on their own terms.

    Critical thinking and skepticism are examples of obsessive concern with the truth. I will motivate this claim in a later comment.

    Postscript. I chose the pseudonym “labnut” as a result of my early experiences of working in a laboratory during my training as a metallurgist. This so strongly influenced me that I still see myself as a ‘lab nut’. My informal motto has always been ‘make measurements, not assumptions‘. Thus it took me a very long time to discover a vital world outside the laboratory 🙂

  19. … but rather to express caution with respect to the extent to which science and scientific rationalism are allowed to govern policy making and our conception of human nature and life more generally.

    I agree with that, though I think we should have a similar caution about the influence of business/economics.

    I should add that I agree with much that’s in your essay. I’m not much into moral philosophy, so I will neither agree nor disagree with that aspect.

    I particularly liked your comment about a tacit dualism that is pervasive. I’ve been seeing that, and have occasionally commented (in other venues). But most philosophers just don’t see it.

    1. Peter Hacker has been saying for decades now that we’ve never broken free of Cartesianism, and that contemporary cognitive science is among the worst culprits.

  20. Just why is ‘tacit dualism‘ wrong and why is “cognitive science is among the worst culprits” ? Do I sense an air of disapproval?

  21. Descartes would approve of my computer. It is a living demonstration of dualism.

  22. Responding to labnut:

    This is just to correct an impression of being anti-science, that might have resulted from the tenor of my remarks. As a Catholic I believe that the laws of nature are the properties of God(you will disagree, which is OK as long, as you understand my position).

    I never took you to be anti-science. At one time, I held similar views. That was before I dropped out of religion. I no longer hold those view, but I don’t criticize people for having them.

  23. I’ve explained this and posted links so many times, I’m not inclined to do it again, I’m afraid.

    I sympathise but I still vigorously disagree 🙂 What interests me is the smell of disapproval in the air as if it were somehow disreputable.

    Computers neither think nor do they have intentionality.

    But they demonstrate that information can drive the machine. That is dualism of a kind and is good enough to demonstrate its possibility, even without intentionality. The presence of intentionality makes it even harder to deny dualism. If the strong AI proponents ever make their point the case will be closed, done and dusted.

    1. Intentionality implies nothing whatsoever about dualism. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s private language argument put that one in the ground decades ago.

    2. And if what you’re concerned about is the sort of dualism involved in the religious conception of a soul, nothing I’ve said has anything to do with that. I don’t take those sorts of commitments to be philosophically or scientifically grounded, and so philosophical/scientific arguments do little more than trade in category errors with regard to them.

  24. Intentionality implies nothing whatsoever about dualism.

    The alternative is that the machine drives the mind, something which has never been demonstrated or explained. The possibility of such an explanation even seems to be receding into the distance.

    Wittgenstein’s private language argument put that one in the ground decades ago.

    Happily I don’t consult his gravestone for wisdom.

  25. And if what you’re concerned about is the sort of dualism involved in the religious conception of a soul

    The religious conception of the soul is exceedingly vague and ill-defined, as it should be. I have a much more concrete conception of the soul as being the information state of the mind preserved in God’s memory. This is a thoroughly modern conception.

  26. Hi Dan:

    This is a very stimulating and heartfelt essay. I agree with a great deal of it. The point at which I feel most at odds with you concerns Hume (but not Reid). Hume is your hero. For me he is part of the problem.

    Hume’s program was to eliminate causal necessity from the natural realm and moral necessity from the moral realm. He then denied that he was a sceptic by asserting that natural beliefs and affections will give us all that would want and all we can have to rebut the sceptic. (Reid thought this was merely capitulation to scepticism and he constructed his account of common sense to rebut the Humean program.)

    Given his program, Hume’s ethics has to be an ethics with no basic rights and duties. At the basic level there are only non-rational affections and sympathies. On his account justice has a secondary role as merely an expression of enlightened self-interest. But ethics since classical times was based on justice, and justice was not simply an expression of enlightened self-interest. (That’s the gist of Plato’s “Republic”.)

    Hence, as I see it, Hume opened the door to the sort of artificial ethical rationalism (utilitarian and Kantian) that you rightly deplore. What is so striking about that rationalism is the absence of any account of what in normal social life (as I see it, and you too, I think) is taken to be wrong, unfair and unjust. Going back to Hume won’t alleviate that problem, in my view.

    Your view of Hume is (I suppose) similar to Annette Baier’s; mine is similar to, but not the same as, MacIntyre’s.

    Alan

  27. Hi Dan, obviously this is a very ambitious, well written, forceful piece. It is certainly worth reading and keeping in mind, with some nice quotable moments to boot.

    That said, there were aspects I disagreed with (some carry overs from earlier areas of disagreement) and I had a hard time taking it as a whole, solid critique. A lot of territory was covered, but it felt like there were some discontinuities in the structure if it is meant to be a warning about the effects of “embracing rationality”… that is to say that certain end points emerge from pursuing rationality itself.

    I don’t want to pose arguments, but raise areas where I did not see the connections and would want you to elaborate.

    1) Aren’t some of these issues less about rationality, or an excess of, as compared to purposes to which reason has been employed? Things like autonomy and fairness may emerge from rationality, but only with some prior assumptions or interests that are not inherent to rationality. Much of the philosophy (and the kinds of scientists) you critique seem clearly influenced/driven by the religious/cultural assumptions of their time. In specific, monism (one truth), dualism (material v immaterial, the former being lesser), purity, fairness, and salvation (if single truth obtained). This would not have been (as much) the case with the ancient Greeks who were more accustomed to polytheism and contests between opposing forces (natural and personal) that one has to navigate through, rather than one essential truth to be found (outside nature) and a right and a wrong bound by that singularity.

    2) I also could not tell how one distinguishes between base irrationality, from absurdities caused by extreme rationality. Along these lines I found it odd to see you bringing up Chesterton as a positive, and yet maintain the criticism you made of certain people in the Self-Made essay. For example, the question of people advocating many genders. It is very hard to me (particularly having known some) to see them as engaging in the same project as say scientists. That they are approaching it from an entirely non-emotional space of pure reason (or skepticism based on same). If anything, their project seems entirely in line with the call you mentioned as coming from Chesterton in an earlier piece. It is unclear why it is harmless to see faeries, to promote such thought, but harmful to see different genders (and that the latter comes from excessive reason)? If it is about the enforcement of such beliefs on others, I would agree that is problematic, but then that does not seem to come from rationality either.

    3) Perhaps tying the two together, it seemed that criticism of religion or religious influences in relation to rationality was largely absent (as compared to scientific and analytic philosophy). Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems excessive reason was employed by religion in society long before some of the people you mention. Certainly Descartes employed it along those lines, and points to a problem I had (that it is the purpose, with underlying assumptions, rather than overuse of a tool). Yet the weight of criticism seemed to fall on those who have attempted to use it to move beyond religious or traditional cultural beliefs… though I would argue much of their effort (and the stuff you were criticizing) has been simply to reinvent it (ala Nietszche’s warning).

    So nice work, but I would like to see some of these points addressed before I could agree with the thesis.

    1. Just a few things in response, none of which are intended to start any kind of an argument, which I really don’t want to do. Just take them for what they are.

      1. “I would like to see some of these points addressed before I could agree with the thesis.” My aim is not to sell you something. The essay is simply my own view on the subject.

      2. “It is unclear why it is harmless to see faeries, to promote such thought, but harmful to see different genders (and that the latter comes from excessive reason)?”

      For one thing, I doubt Chesterton really thought there were faeries in some literal sense. I think that misunderstands his point. With respect to the latter, perhaps it’s just because I find the idea of dozens and dozens of genders both stupid and irritating, and I find the trans-trender types pushing them to be exceedingly unsympathetic. YMMV.

      3. ” it seemed that criticism of religion or religious influences in relation to rationality was largely absent “. That’s because I find the objectionable forms of religion all to be on the fundamentalist, irrationalist side. The balanced Fides et Ratio outlook of the orthodox religions don’t strike me as problematic, with respect to the concept of excessive reason.

  28. Hi Alan, that was a pretty good catch.

    I also view Hume’s attempt at explaining moral feelings as opening the door for later (supposedly) reason based ethical theories, particularly utilitarianism.

    But I’m not sure if I would say his project was to eliminate causation (which would be metaphysical), rather than our ability to access/know causation (which is epistemic)?

  29. dbholmes, I’ve been stumbling around for an entry point to this conversation but something you said perhaps points to what I take Dan’s point to be. Two comments above you said, “that it is the purpose, with underlying assumptions, rather than overuse of a tool” that is problematic for excessive reason. I agree that purpose gets us both into trouble and out of trouble, but I might also suggest that there is no such thing as a tool for which their is *no* purpose. In other words, it only acts *as*a*tool* for such and such purposes.

    So a tool can be misapplied, but I think not simply to the wrong purposes. There can be a grand purpose, but the tool can be used well or poorly for that purpose. The trick is knowing if we have the right version of the tool and are using it to its best effect.

    You can see why we put so much interest in using reason to step outside ourselves. For specific purposes that is a magnificent use of reason. You can also see why being dispassionate is so captivating: Dispassion solves certain problems that passion only confounds. And the further and further we distance reason from their natural home in messy ordinary human life, the more it seems like a tool that is *independent* of purposes, more universally applicable, somehow ‘better’. We imagine the tool’s proper ‘purpose’ is to have *no* special purpose. The ultimate multi-tool.

    The excessive rationality Dan so laments is this idealized multi-‘tool’ meant by those who seemingly insist on it to solve any and every possible problem. Our ‘best’ tool. A sort of universal key. It has been abstracted from its natural home in daily life, and in its abstraction it is taken as the universally correct tool to use when we are operating both in the aether and when we descend back down to the grounds of daily life.

    In other words, we have made of our capacity for reason an idealized tool for an idealized purpose. We have stripped reason to its bare essence and cast off the murky inessential specifics of why it originally mattered within much of the operation of daily life. I take that to be an overuse, to say the least! It is putting reason on steroids to solve sometimes delicate problems…..

    The comparison I might make is taking an ideal version of language as the best way to talk about our world. This is a pretty similar project, I think, in some respects, and it is why I am so grateful to Wittgenstein’s later writings for helping show us how things like language and reason *actually* operate. Reason is not simply one tool, but many. A family resemblance of things. There are many things we do with reason, many purposes that drive our use of reason, just as there are many ways we use language. The ‘best’ version is not necessarily the one that does the ‘most’. We can’t always decide ‘best’ from the outside. We have different tools for different projects. Assuming that this one version of the tool is our only resort is kind of crazy 🙂 Its like we had just a hammer, and since all we could do with it was pound things, the world starts to look more and more like a collection of nails……

    Did any of that make any sense?

    1. Thank you for this. I couldn’t have said it better.

      I would add just one more thing with regard to this:

      “It has been abstracted from its natural home in daily life, and in its abstraction it is taken as the universally correct tool to use when we are operating both in the aether and when we descend back down to the grounds of daily life.”

      This is why Chesterton is so important, because he understood — and I agree with him wholeheartedly — that when one does this, reason ceases even to be able to do what it is supposed to do. Wittgenstein says something similar in On Certainty, but Chesterton puts it much more clearly and pithily, as he was wont to do. A seriously underrated thinker outside of apologetics and an amazing stylist.

  30. Dan-K,
    A seriously underrated thinker outside of apologetics.

    I chuckled when I read your qualification. 🙂

    He is also a seriously good novelist.

  31. The epitome of modern rationality is so called critical thinking. Philosophers and scientists advocate critical thinking. We see more and more calls for critical thinking to be taught in schools and at university. Certain well known philosophers pride themselves on being critical thinkers. They have even built a career on this and on taking down pseudo-science.

    But is it really the epitome of modern rationality, or its downfall?

    The problems are
    1) there is an implicit assumption in the thinker’s mind that he is the best judge, with sufficient knowledge and insight to form a proper judgement. But how often is this assumption justified? Where is the humility?

    2) the starting point is being critical. There is a predisposition to look for faults and therefore to find them. This kind of person finds pleasure in schadenfreude.

    3) The act of looking for faults in arguments is a highly selective approach that is likely to blind one to the broader perspective or to other insights.

    4) It is an implied arrogance and an attitude of superiority. This is where the problem starts because the arrogance shows to other people. It is not enough to be right. One’s right thinking must be credible and be capable of being embraced by others. The arrogance of critical thinking makes this less likely.

    5) critical thinking is the antithesis of curiosity. Curiosity is our most valuable single cognitive asset. Curiosity suspends judgement while it explores. It is open to new ideas and approaches. It is tentative and exploratory. It finds delight in this exploration of new ideas while critical thinking enjoys the schadenfreude of finding fault. It looks for insight while critical thinking looks for condemnation. Curiosity explores while critical thinking destroys.

    6) critical thinking becomes a narrow mindedness dedicated to destroying non-approved ideas, causing curiosity to wither and die.

    Critical thinking has its rightful place when employed as one of the tools in a holistic thinking process. The problem is that today it is the dominant, or indeed the only tool in many people’s cognitive toolset, wielded with great pride.

    What should a holistic thinking process look like? My next comment expands on this. My argument is that critical thinking is useful and has a place, but that it is the last tool one should use, after all the other tools have been deployed.

    1. I agree with a lot of this. That’s why I find myself really disliking many if not most of the conversations I have with philosophers outside of philosophy. They almost come across as idiot savants.

    2. I should add that this is also why I dislike talking to so many scientists about anything outside of science, with our friend Coel from Massimo’s backyard being exhibit A.

  32. A more holistic thinking process – De Bono’s six thinking hats.

    De Bono outlined this process using the concept of six thinking hats. He argued that there are six distinct kinds of thinking and that a given issue should be explored by employing each of the six kinds of thinking in turn.

    In my company we would, following De Bono’s advice, put a coloured hat on the table to signify that for the moment only that kind of thinking was to be employed. When done, we would put the next hat on the table, and so on until we had employed all six kinds of thinking. Only once that was done were we ready to form conclusions and make decisions.

    White Hat:
    Get the data, the history and the context. Are we well enough informed? Have we properly consulted the domain experts?

    Red Hat:
    Use intuition, gut reaction, and emotion. Also, think how others could react emotionally. Try to understand the responses of people who do not fully know our reasoning. Look at other people’s point of view and try to feel as they do.

    Black Hat:
    This is classical critical thinking. Look for problems, errors, mistakes, shortcomings and fallacies. Look at it cautiously and defensively. Try to see why it might not work.

    Yellow Hat:
    Think positively. Ask what if? Look for reasons to believe. Could this be true? How would I know? What can we learn from this? What good ideas can we appropriate?

    Green Hat:
    This is curiosity. Explore more deeply. Search for new ways of seeing the issue. Generate new ideas. This is where we develop creative solutions to a problem. It is a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is little criticism of ideas. Keep that for the black hat.

    Blue Hat:
    Review what we have learnt when we put on each of the other hats. It is an all things considered approach that is integrative. Have all the stakeholders been consulted or considered? Have we really properly informed ourselves? Have we taken shortcuts? Where have our biases and predispositions shaped the result? Do we need more time or more research? Should we consult other people? If necessary we would revisit one of the other hats.

    In my experience this process expands the mind, letting curiosity blossom and the garden of the mind bloom, while critical thinking, employed on its own, is like an overdose of weedkiller, withering everything it touches.

  33. Hi Carter, yes that made sense and was a very nice reply. It gets to much of where I agree with Dan’s essay (and what he’d written in the past).

    I was trying to suggest that some of the examples he mentioned (certainly not all) were not clearcut as belonging to what you laid out, and perhaps involved or required additional elements.

  34. Hi Dan, for clarification…

    2) Regardless what Chesterton meant regarding fairies in specific, the nature of the projects do appear to remain the same. I understand you don’t like the other project, and maybe it is harmful (we can set that aside), but that does not get to whether it is based on excessive reasoning any more than Chesterton’s. My only interest was on whether it involved excessive reasoning.

    1. Self-madeness is more an effect of an overloaded notion of autonomy, which is itself only indirectly related to excessive reason, as I explained in this and the previous essay. Faeries have nothing to do with either.

  35. DB,
    Reacting to your concern about faeries, here is a thought for you, straight from the mouth of Chesterton. He pointed out that free thinkers were not free because so many forms of thought were forbidden to them!

    Or, according to labnut, once we become concerned about forbidden thought, the act of thinking becomes the act of forbidding thought.

  36. I am puzzled to see that the discussion of Dan’s essay has turned into an attack on critical thinking! The essay ends with a contrast between what I will call “good reason” versus “bad reason”:

    “For the person who accepts the fact that his every act of reasoning is ultimately grounded in the uncritical acceptance of his world, his faculties, and his inclinations and habits, reason remains a real, active force for sound behavior and thought. But for the person who insists on the rationalist’s rarefied conception of reasoning, reason is no longer a real, active force for soundness in his life, but at best an empty proceduralism, taking place in a vacuum; a void that will be filled either by his own unreasoned, unrecognized nature or that of others.”

    Labnut seems to have read the essay as an attack on “so called critical thinking”. “So called critical thinking” is a bad thing, he thinks, because it is arrogant, it is faultfinding and it kills curiosity. It is “like an overdose of weedkiller”. As a teacher of critical thinking, I see it very differently — I see it as teaching the skills of good argument.

    Labnut’s comments are a nice example of the fallacy of defining something pejoratively in order to attack it. He doesn’t discuss what critical thinking really is before he sets about telling us what is wrong with it. There are a hundred textbooks on the topic from which he could get a definition and see how it is done in practice. Or there’s Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_thinking.

    Here’s one definition: CT is “the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion”. This sounds pretty much like de Bono’s Blue Hat.

    CT is also a subject taught in schools and universities, in which students study and practice arguments in everyday language.

    Is CT arrogant? No. It can be used arrogantly or it can be used with humility. Generally, I think, one learns humility from it, since we see how easy it is to be wrong or biased.

    Is CT faultfinding? Yes, of course it is. Faults are faults. Faultfinding is part of getting better at what we do.

    Does CT kill curiosity? Why should it? Studying good and bad arguments is an exploratory and mind-opening exercise.

    The bigger issue is whether CT (as properly understood) is a kind of “excessive reason”, the “modern scientific stance [which] is essentially analytical, quantitative, reductive, and impersonal”, and “the rationalistically-inspired scientific takeover of our conception of human nature”. Myself, I don’t think it is any of these things. It is a kind of good reason, “a real, active force for sound behavior and thought”.

    Here’s a well-known and useful piece on what CT is:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20070210101711/http://www.insightassessment.com:80/pdf_files/what&why2007.pdf

  37. Alan,
    Labnut seems to have read the essay as an attack on “so called critical thinking”

    No, I did not. I correctly read Dan-K’s essay. This is what I said earlier of Dan-K’s essay:

    You did not directly address the current fad for critical thinking.

    You carry on:
    Labnut’s comments are a nice example of the fallacy of defining something pejoratively in order to attack it

    Well spoken as a true critical thinker(let’s see: you accuse me of improper reading of the essay, using pejorative tactics, failing to define my terms and using fallacies). You seem determined to prove my words correct. Might I return the compliment and note that your comment is a nice example of misrepresenting something in order to attack it. See my comment above and the remainder of my comment below.

    He doesn’t discuss what critical thinking really is

    This is a comment and not an essay! It is quite reasonable to assume a certain commonality of knowledge. But a critical thinker should never let an opportunity like that go unused.

    the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion

    That sounds rather like good, proper, right, reasonable and rational thinking. With that definition you don’t need the word “critical“, now do you? Remove that one pesky little adjective and you defang it entirely. It loses its force, doesn’t it? But where’s the fun in that.

    You see, that one, tiny little adjective, “critical“, transforms the whole meaning. If it didn’t, why bother to use it? Why not just call it good thinking? And this is where the whole problem lies. That one little adjective, despite your defanged, sanitised version above, transforms the practice of thinking. It shapes the conduct of the thinkers who profess “critical thinking“. That adjective qualifies the word so that it becomes a certain kind of thinking and it is this kind of thinking which is evidenced in real world conduct, despite your claimed sanitised, defanged version of it.

    Terminology matters because it shapes the conduct of the people who use the terminology. And if you don’t mean ‘critical’, then why say it? And if you do mean ‘critical’ then don’t be surprised when people act accordingly.

    A more careful reading of my comment might have revealed to you that I said that ‘critical thinking’ has its rightful place in the armoury of thought. Quite clearly then I am not opposed to critical thinking as such. With that in mind it should be clear that I believe critical thinking, while a useful tool, with its rightful place in our armoury of thought, is a tool that is prone to misuse. I am attacking its misuse, as well I should.

    But I went further. I proposed a model for thinking where critical thinking had its natural place as part of the whole process, but being part of a larger process produced a more balanced outcome. You fail to credit any of this, or even to consider the nature of the model I proposed.

    But a critical thinker is less liable to read another’s comments generously, because, well because that would not be critical.

    As a teacher of critical thinking

    I noticed.

  38. Alan,
    Does CT kill curiosity? Why should it? Studying good and bad arguments is an exploratory and mind-opening exercise.

    You are failing to consider the holistic process outlined by De Bono.

    Critical thinking is a tool that should be brought to bear only after the earlier processes, that I described, are completed. Bring it to bear too early and you stifle useful thought.

    The exploration and idea generation that is typical of curiosity must be given the freedom to roam widely and consider openly. Once done, you can subject its result to the careful, clinical examination of critical thinking.

    It has been shown again and again that bringing critical thinking to bear too early in the process harms the process.

  39. Hi labnut:

    OK, you accuse me of doing what I accuse you of doing! It looks like this hinges on the different ways you and I understand the word “critical”. You use the term — that “pesky little adjective” — as a pejorative: “Expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements” (Oxford). It denotes a Black Hat process. I use it as a term of praise: “Involving the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement” (Oxford). It denotes a Blue Hat process.

    As far as the dictionary definition goes, then, we are both right.

    The background for your take on the matter is (I think) business decision-making, about which I know nothing. You may well be right that de Bono is the way to go in that context.

    My background is pedagogical (you noticed). I’ve read thousands of student essays where the student exhibits almost no capacity to construct and evaluate arguments. This is no great surprise, since they have never been taught anything about argumentation skills (or “critical thinking”, as I would call it). The only academic discipline that directly addresses this deficiency has been called “critical thinking” since about 1970. Today only a very small fraction of students (school, college or university) make its acquaintance. I see the teaching of this subject as one of the useful contributions that philosophy has to offer the wider world.

    I get a bit irate — for which I apologise — when people seem to be attacking the subject in ignorance of what it is or does.

  40. The only thing I know of de Bono is that in an essay he attacks Aristotle based on a complete misrepresentation of what Aristotle said. That doesn’t recommend him much to me as a critical thinker.

    1. de Bono seems like a very interesting figure with quite a number of impressive accomplishments across disciplines. Reminds me a lot of Raymond Tallis of whom I am an admirer.

      Maybe you should know more than just one thing about him before deciding whether or not he is “recommended.” Certainly, critical thinking would suggest as much.

  41. There are many sources of information about critical thinking and we can’t follow them all up. Perhaps this was the only stupid thing he said, I don’t know – but I don’t really have time to follow that up, or the motivation given the extravagant stupidity of what he said.

    If I want to learn about building and they tell me of someone who can teach me about it and I come across him tightening up a screw with a chisel then I am going to have to come to certain conclusions. If there are no shortage of people from whom to learn then I might pass on.

    He may have quite a number of impressive accomplishments across disciplines, but if I am looking for advice on critical thinking then he does not seem to practice the kind I am interested in.

  42. Robin,
    The only thing I know of de Bono is that in an essay he attacks Aristotle based on a complete misrepresentation of what Aristotle said.

    I’ve said many foolish things. I hope I will be judged on the totality of who I am and what I have done, not by the foolish things I have said. If the Twitterverse is anything to go by, it is a vain hope.

    but if I am looking for advice on critical thinking then he does not seem to practice the kind I am interested in.

    That depends on what you are interested in. His interests were in encouraging the development of creative problem solving, something that mattered a great deal to me during my corporate incarnation, because that lay at the heart of my work. The starting point for me was always an unbridled curiosity where I explored the entire landscape of the problem domain, and usually beyond.

    This seeded my thinking process and created the space for new ideas to take hold. Critical, or Black Hat thinking, could not be applied at this stage because the new ideas would die stillborn. They needed to be tended, developed and multiplied without negative or critical thoughts. Finally there would come a culling process where the most viable idea was selected. This was Black Hat thinking. Then would come the dreaded adverse consequences analysis(what could go wrong, wrong, wrong…), which was really the end stage of Black Hat thinking. I call it the dreaded adverse consequences analysis because by that stage one has become so emotionally wedded to one’s chosen concept that one could not admit the possibility of failure. But it had to be faced.

    Then came the realisation process. I had a simple rule of thumb – the more people that opposed it the better the concept must be. That was because a good idea always radically disturbed the network of alliances and power balances. My rule of thumb never failed me 🙂

  43. Hi Alan,
    thanks, that was a good analysis.

    I’ve read thousands of student essays where the student exhibits almost no capacity to construct and evaluate arguments.

    I feel for you. Those same students enter the corporate world and write equally dreadful memos, reports, analyses and proposals. In desperation I would require them to never give me anything longer than one page. This requirement forced them to think very carefully about what it was they were really trying to say and then to say it clearly and simply. But it was an uphill struggle. What has happened to the student world? Why are they so bad? When reading these documents I was forced to wear my Black Hat, just as you are.

    The important thing to remember is that you and I were then dealing with the end product, where the Black Hat was appropriate. The other Hats apply to the earlier stages where the document is conceived, developed and prepared.

    After reading your comment I had a wry moment of self-realisation. I had failed my own process! I had failed to use the other Hats while considering your comment. If I had I would have realised that your approach was entirely reasonable when seen from the perspective of pedagogy.

    I see the teaching of this subject as one of the useful contributions that philosophy has to offer the wider world.

    It is certainly a valuable contribution, if tempered with the broader perspective of the six Thinking Hats.

    I think that philosophy can learn a great deal from jurisprudence. The finest practical arguments today are found in court judgements. I can do no better than recommending making a habit of reading court judgements. Moreover they are fascinating because in them you see the human drama writ large. The legal process represent the best means we have today of arriving at the truth in human affairs and their judgements the finest form of argumentation.

    My favourite author in this regard is Douglas Walton and a book I can recommend(among others) is Legal Argumentation and Evidence. You should teach a course in this. I suspect it would be an eye opener for your students.

  44. Alan,
    Here is a delightful example of Six Hat Thinking, reported in the South China Morning Post
    http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1065279/first-national-education-classes-taught-tai-kok-tsui-primary-school

    The problem.
    How to teach attitudes to the flag to children, a hugely contentious subject in Hongkong.

    Sze, who usually teaches Chinese and is co-ordinating the programme, used four hats to symbolise objective, critical, emotional and optimistic ways of thinking about any given topic – a technique derived from Edward de Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats.

    He first played a video of activists waving the national flag on one of the Diaoyu islands and another of a man burning the flag.
    This was followed by video of a flag-raising ceremony in Golden Bauhinia Square and the same ceremony after the National Day ferry disaster in which the flag flew at half mast.

    He then asked the pupils to put on one of the coloured hats and try to use the mode of thinking it represented to compare the different contexts in which the flag appeared.

    “I wanted to show the pupils that the flag itself is neutral, but it is the context that it is in that gives it meaning,” he said.
    “Everything has hard facts, but why do we add meanings to it? I want them to have more than one way of looking at an issue, which includes being critical and emotional.”

  45. Let me flog the dead horse one more time 🙂

    A perennial subject, which philosophers debate, is the choice of a valid ethical framework. Thus we have deontologists, virtue ethicists, consequentialists and relativists. Each system has its advocates, but need they be exclusive?

    We can apply Six Hat thinking to this problem and call it the Six Moral Hats. This gives us the following framework:

    1. white hat – moral rules and duties, deontological thinking;
    2. red hat – virtues, agent based thinking, attitudes, dispositions;
    3. black hat – outcomes, examining the consequences;
    4. green hat – principles, focussing on the context, autonomy, justice, beneficence, non-maleficence;
    5. yellow hat – care, focus on relationships and power structures;
    6. blue hat – evaluative, assessing, all things considered point of view.

    When considering a complex moral issue we should don each of the six moral hats in turn.

    In this way we examine the full moral problem domain allowing us to arrive at a considered decision that properly balances the tensions between:
    – desire and virtue,
    – feeling and thinking,
    – self and other;

    Surprisingly, it was a Jesuit philosopher who first prompted this approach during a series of lectures he gave to our parish congregation.

  46. At the risk of sounding like the Mad Hatter, let me add one more observation.

    It is has been argued that the Six Thinking Hats are incomplete. There should be a seventh hat, a Purple Hat, which stands for the valuing or ethical perspective, since almost all issues have an ethical dimension. When considering the Purple Hat one could then expand on this, if necessary, by using the Six Moral Hats.

    I will let the Mad Hatter have the last word

    If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?

    He was a philosopher.

    said Alice, very much confused, `I don’t think–‘
    `Then you shouldn’t talk,’ said the Hatter.

    Taking that advice, I retire.

  47. Refreshing to read.

    And I agree in all major parts with your analysis.

    = =

    I also agree it’s inaccurate to frame reason or cognition as arising from the brain and conation or affection from the body; and I have the same kind of trouble with body-soul dualism.

  48. Hi labnut:

    We agree on so much! Including, obviously, a love of “Alice”.

    Doug Walton is the leading guru in the critical thinking world. I once invited him to my university to give a lunchtime talk on CT and its values. Derridean postmodernism was then still in fashion, and its main advocate came along. Afterwards he said: “But that’s exactly what we are against!”

    I’m sure you are right about legal judgements being a great model of good argument. I don’t know Walton’s legal reasoning book. Thanks for mentioning it. Incredibly (to me), not even law students get taught good argument skills. Philosophy could contribute to law courses (as it once did) but in my country jurisprudence and legal reasoning have been squeezed out of the law programs. I used to teach critical thinking to nursing students but that got cut out of the program.

    (I no longer work in philosophy. I work in a university that has no philosophy.)

    Your advice on one-page summaries is spot on too. Learning to condense ideas down to their minimum is such a key skill.

    Seeing things not in black and white but in various colours also defuses conflict and tensions, as in your Chinese flag story.

    This is turning into a love-fest. My Black Hat is not working. Let me say something negative about de Bono. He’s a hopeless historian. Robin is right about that. He created a cardboard caricature he called the Gang of Three (Socrates-Plato-Aristotle). Quote:

    “What happened was, 2,400 years ago, the Greek Gang of Three, by whom I mean Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, started to think based on analysis, judgment and knowledge. At the same time, church people, who ran the schools and universities, wanted logic to prove the heretics wrong. As a result, design and perceptual thinking was never developed. People assumed philosophers were doing it and so they blocked anyone else from doing it. But philosophers were not. Philosophers may look out at the world from a stained-glass window, but after a while they stop looking at the world and start looking at the stained glass.”

    The mind boggles.

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