Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Beyond Reason in Philosophy

Originally posted on October 14, 2012

Most of true philosophy involves reason, but not all. I like this following quote from one of my favorite philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead (1869-1947), who wrote near the end of his book, Modes of Thought:

“The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism; not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated.
    Philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of them seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization. In each case there is reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words. Poetry allies itself to metre, philosophy to mathematic pattern.  (pp.237-238.)

Now let’s take this apart. First, I value reason, logic, but then perhaps not too much. Many people hardly reason, and of those who consciously try to coordinate their reasons, as Whitehead suggested, there is a spectrum from those who just begin to do it—-undergraduates taking a philosophy class—to those who do it professionally, and even then there’s a gradient from fair to good to excellent. I value this because in politics and other spheres, just valuing some reason generates better results for all of us than just playing fast and loose with illusion—what is popularly known as propaganda or rhetoric.

But beyond a moderate degree of reasoning, it’s time to shift gears towards novel verbal characterizations, which I interpret to mean a bit of mythic or poetic description. How do we keep the juice in the game, the deep spirit of aspiration and inspiration? How do we prevent philosophy from drifting into dryness and irrelevance as professionals try too hard to cover every imagined potential criticism?

I think that, just to give a general estimate, we do well to raise the quality of rational coordination from the popular low level to a moderately higher level. This is also a way of saying I advocate more critical thinking, recognition of logical fallacies, sensitivity to language games (e.g., semantics) and other pitfalls and follies.

But over-intellectualization can be a pitfall too: Under the disguise of being reasonable, heart and beauty can be squeezed out because they cannot be adequately explained—or not in terms of strict “left-brain” logic.

I guess I’m saying as a philosophical point that sticking to traditional modes of philosophy can be foolish: We need novel responses, as ANW suggested.

The Limits of Philosophy

“What works for you?” I find that people, when taken seriously, respected, and allowed to find their own words for what they think and feel, come up with responses that cannot be effectively fully justified or communicated. This is fine! There are several reasons for this. First is the uniqueness of each individual’s inner semantic map. At a certain point, words become indefinable in the strictest sense—especially words like “God,” which evoke at least subtle differences among people. In tracing certain propositions, the idea that they can be “argued” for seems ridiculous. It depends on what you mean by God or truth or reality or myth or love and so forth.

My point is that there’s a certain point at which playing this game becomes painfully dry. The variations seem irrelevant to most observers. Even if a cogent point is made, there’s a limiting of the authors to recognizing the wider implications of the point, the inability of an argument to compel a different point in even open-minded others, and the game begins to crumble.

Really, who persuades another? That is not the same as influencing—people already somewhat inclined will take new arguments and incorporate them into their philosophies. My point is that the intellectually rationally coordinated philosophy really serves the non-rational underpinnings, the faith or prejudices that many think they can overcome. They can’t. The mind is extraordinarily powerful in supporting what it is inclined to believe. (Sometimes this includes drawing into an evolving worldview the ideas that further support the directions it is inclined to pursue. The it is what I call the “amplifying unconscious.”)

I’m daring to both love philosophy to a point—I think rationality is wonderful and I would like to see much more of it exercised in the world; but beyond that point, the goal of full rationality should be questioned. It’s an asymptotic limit. The closer you get to full coordination, the more fun and juice, emotion and imagery, myth and romance, poetry and other non-rational creativity gets squeezed out.

Only those who have been hypnotized into valuing the game as THE game (if any really exist), will be deeply impressed by what seems like an air-tight, knock-down, drag-out, air-tight argument. The rest have wandered off to enjoy the butterflies or the pretty floating clouds. Being “really right” is puny, pitiful, or largely irrelevant.

What I’m arguing for is the recognition of a limit of rational coordination, beyond which it’s time to kick in poetry and myth, humor and drama. Indeed, we do need more vigorous systems of meaning, but that refers mainly to the triumph of a modicum of reason over a mountain of unreason. Beyond that, you then find blind men arguing for what the elephant really is like.

So, philosophy has as an underlying assumption that we can “know,” and knowledge can be acquired through reasoning. I buy this, to a point. Compared to un-reason, reason is on the whole more likely to advance the cause of humanity. However, there’s a common illusion that begins in early childhood: If some is good, more is better. Epicurus challenged this regarding sensual enjoyment, advocating moderation—including moderation in the pursuit of moderation. I’m extending this idea towards knowledge: I’m suggesting that ultimately, humans can never know. Efforts, furthermore, beyond the development of reason to a moderate degree, turn counter-productive. They become unappealing to the aesthetic sense. (I’m alluding at this point to Hartshorne’s theory of aesthetics.)

People are complex, multi-leveled, and I think it quite impossible to attain truth. What is possible is to decrease the influence of gross ignorance, superstition, bias, and really sloppy non-reason. But again, beyond living with a fair amount of reason, we must turn again to themes that transcend mere reason and draw on myth and intuition, imagery and poetry. When it comes to those rare points where people’s interests collide, another process, a mixture of justice, the theory of law, and principles of mediation or peacemaking are called for. The idea that philosophy can hope to solve the main political problems of the day partakes of the hubris of science and modernistic rationality in the 18th – early 21st century.   Comments, please.

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