Philosophy against Misosophy



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From The Philosophical Review, Vol. LV, No. 6 (Nov., 1944), 670-673.  A rejoinder to Professor Groth's criticism, aimed at an earlier essay of Blanshard's.



Current Strictures on Reason: A Rejoinder

Brand Blanshard


Dr. Groth’s criticism I take to be this: that some of the historical figures whom I count as allies as respects the belief in reason are really opponents, and that some of the figures I named as enemies are really friends who deserve something better than the cold stare I gave them.  I hailed unbelievers, and snubbed those of the true faith.  Plato, Aquinas, and Hegel did not believe in the sort of reason I was trying to espouse, though it is often supposed they did; the Sophists did believe in it, though it is commonly supposed they did not.

It is plain that all depends here on what one means by “reason.”  As to its meaning in the address in question I took some pains to be clear.  I explained that by reason I meant an activity of mind that followed the path of an objective necessity.  This necessity is sometimes that which links the terms of a proposition, as in “whatever is red is extended”; sometimes it is that which links propositions themselves, as it is when I follow a train of deductive reasoning.  In both cases, however, this necessity was conceived as belonging to the nature of things; it is no figment of our own contriving.  And I contended that in reason at its best our thought moves as it does because the pattern of this objective necessity guides and controls it.  To hold otherwise, to say that thought is completely controlled by pushes and pulls from within our own bodies or minds, would be to deny that there was any such thing as the reason I was defending.

Now Dr. Groth thinks it is unhistorical to attribute the belief in reason, so conceived, to Plato.  I am almost speechless.  I had thought that the belief in reason in just this sense was written all over the Platonic philosophy.  Take one corner of it only, Plato’s view of mathematics.  Mathematical thinking provided a model for the philosopher and played an essential part in the dialectic.  In the Meno it is used as the prime example of demonstrative thinking; in the Republic, Book VI, it illustrates διάνοια, one of the two stages of γνορισ or ‘επιστήμη, both of which give genuine knowledge or understanding as opposed to mere δόξα.  There can be no doubt that Plato believed all of the following things about mathematical thinking: (1) that by means of it we apprehend concepts or “ideas” which are part of the framework of the real world; (2) that the relations which link these concepts are necessary relations; and (3) that when in thought we follow the path of such a relation, our thought is moving under the influence of its object.  If Plato did believe these things, he believed in reason in the sense in which I defended it.

Why does Dr. Groth doubt this conclusion?  So far as I can see, for two reasons.  He thinks (1) that when Plato used the terms which are traditionally translated as “reason,” he had in mind a kind of knowledge that was much more mystical and more dubious, and (2) that he admitted an appeal to intuition, which is inconsistent with the appeal to reason in my sense.

As for (1) there is no doubt much truth in it.  When Plato referred to the work of reason he did often include in his meaning properties and processes (for example, ανάμνησισ) that no modern rationalist would accept.  But what then?  The fact that he believed in reason in other and more complicated senses is no evidence against the view that he accepted it also in my sense, which I hold that he clearly did.  Nor is this sense a secondary one in his system; it is, as already argued, central and essential.

As for (2), namely that Plato admitted the appeal to intuition, I must reply once more that this seems to me both true and irrelevant.  By intuition I mean the apprehension of truth which is certain independently of argument or of any evidence outside itself.  Many rationalists have accepted intuition as so defined.  Why shouldn’t they?  Why cannot necessity reveal itself between the terms of a single proposition?  Even if one is the kind of rationalist who holds that necessity reveals itself only within a system, still the insight that the system does cohere is itself an intuition.  It is hard to see how rationalism of any kind can escape the appeal to intuition, nor why it should try to escape it.

Dr. Groth thinks that he sees why.  He finds something dangerous in the appeal to intuition.  “I know of no tyranny,” he writes, “that was not frankly ‘intuitional’ at base . . . the Nazi notions of ‘race’ or ‘blood’ are akin to the Platonic νους.”  Dr. Groth is not alone in this feeling; certain instrumentalists have lately made similar statements.  They would rule out “self-evident truth” as not only logically illegitimate but as fat with the seeds of irresponsible egoism and authoritarianism.  The consequences of this view are interesting.  Thomas Jefferson, who, in the first charter of our democracy, expressed a cordial belief in such truths, was a potential Nazi; men like Bishop Butler and Henry Sidgwick stood for irresponsible self-assertion, for the very odd reason that they claimed to have intuitions that such self-assertion was wrong; the Christian who claims to see immediately that love is better than cruelty has, so far, a case no better than that of the Nietzschean who claims to see the opposite; Descartes, who believed that isolated propositions could be seen to be absolutely true, was more of an authoritarian than Hegel, who did not.  The fact is surely that there is no opposition at all between the appeal to reason and the appeal to intuition; intuition, in the cases just cited, is merely one embodiment of reason.  Of course there are bastard forms of intuition just as there are fraudulent forms of reason, but it is no argument against a valid way of thinking that it is likely to be abused.  Intuition and discursive reason are both sound modes of thought, and when valid they are mutually supporting.

The mention of Hegel reminds me that he also, together with Aquinas, is a philosopher whom I regarded, mistakenly in Dr. Groth’s opinion, as an ally.  Again I admit that both these philosophers held theories about the nature of reason that would go beyond my own slight characterization of it.  But that they would accept the leading features of that characterization seems to me beyond question.  I should defend myself here again very much as I did about Plato.

Dr. Groth thinks that though these philosophers did not accept reason in my sense, the sophists did, and that I should have welcomed them as allies rather than condemned them as enemies; Protagoras in particular is said to belong on my side.  The famous άνθροπος μετρον πάντον is more innocent than it sounds.  “The phrase ‘man is the measure of all things,’” writes Dr. Groth, “implies man as using the materials and instruments he has to work with to improve his lot on earth . . . .”  I do not think this will do.  The context of Protagoras’ thought indicates that it meant far more than this, and something far more skeptical.  For Protagoras the sole source of knowledge was sense perception, and what we got from sense perception depended on our organism.  Indeed it depended on the particular state of our organism here and now; the relativism was thoroughgoing, as the Theaetetus (152a) makes clear.  The grasp of an objective necessity, common to all men, is decisively ruled out by this theory of knowledge; a passage in Aristotle (Met. 998a), referring to Protagoras’ “refutation of the geometers” suggests that he explicitly argued against the possibility of mathematical knowledge.  There has, of course, been much dispute over whether the sophists deserved the rough handling they received from Plato and Aristotle, but is there any serious question as to the skepticism implied in their teachings regarding a universal, objective, and necessary reason?  I can hardly suppose so.  And that is the sort of reason I defend.

I should like to thank Dr. Groth for giving me the opportunity of adding a postscript to my address.


Posted April 10, 2007

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