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From The Philosophical Review, Vol. LV, No. 6 (Nov., 1944), 668-670.  Professor Groth is criticizing Blanshard's “Current Strictures on Reason.”   Blanshard replies to Groth here.



Current Strictures on Reason: A Criticism

J. H. Groth

Eastern Washington College of Education


Professor Blanshard’s presidential address, “Current Strictures on Reason,” which appeared in the July, 1945, number of this Review, contains certain historical statements about the term “reason” which I believe involve misapprehensions of grave consequences not only for the understanding of philosophic history but which confuse the very issue for which Professor Blanshard is otherwise so nobly contending.  They appear in the paragraph beginning in the middle of page 356 and ending in the middle of page 357.

The “reason” “heralded” by Plato can scarcely be the “reason” Professor Blanshard is defending.  It is the νους, that hypothetical agency or supposed supersensual organ in man which by recollection intuitively grasps the truth.  In Plotinus it is, as Professor Blanshard states, “an emanation from the deity,” but it is on these very grounds something quite apart from that lowly, common, and mundane thing known as “brains” or intellect, or what commonly passes as “reason.”  That the organon lepticon of Thomas Aquinas is Platonic in character might easily escape the unwary—what with the Aristotelian stress in writings dealing with the Scholastics; one need go no further than consult such Catholic scholars as Beemelmans, Endres, or Schneider in vol. xvii of the Beitraege zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters to convince oneself of the primacy of Plato in Scholastic thought.  Nor do I quite see how Hegel with his Absolute Spirit and his talk of the “List der Idee”—certainly these are Platonic conceptions—can well be classed among the protagonists of what Professor Blanshard understands by “reason.”  This leaves only Spinoza, and the man who is spoken of as “building nationalism into the temper of France” as representatives or exponents of a doctrine of “reason” which conforms to what is generally thought of when we use the term.

By the same token Protagoras and perhaps even Callides would fit better on Professor Blanshard’s side of the fence. Surely the time has come for philosophers to realize that the traditional view of the Greek sophists, stemming as it does from Plato, stands greatly in need of recasting.  The phrase, “man is the measure of all things,” implies man as using the materials and instruments he has to work with to improve his lot on earth; “reason” in the ordinary sense of the term surely belongs among them.  The “reason” the Sophists employed was poles removed from mythical or hypothetical powers and qualities which confer on man the right and the duty to sanctify and justify by this very “divine,” mystical Something any selfish wish and prejudice he may have or any institution he may happen to like or profit by.  It is one of the major ironies of history that throughout our civilization the “reason” of the Sophists has been called unreason, while the unreason of Plato and the Platonists has passed as “reason”—usually spelled with a capital R.

Nicolai Hartmann once said to the writer that the disentanglement of the use of the terms νους and διάνοια, Vernunft and Verstand, “reason” and “understanding,” would require a lifetime of labor, and he added that it might be well to set some promising young man to the task.  There is some truth in what Hartmann said; and yet the problem really is not so difficult at all.  It does not require much insight to discern what Coleridge, Emerson and other Transcendentalists mean by “reason.”  Following F. H. Jacobi’s use of the word Vernunft for the Platonic νους, the English-speaking Romantics and Transcendentalists—but by no means all the German Romantics—accepted Coleridge’s translation of the word, as “reason.”  “Reason” accordingly became synonymous with “inner light,” “feeling,” “belief,” “faith,” “emotion,” “sentiment,” “the oversoul,” “intuition.”  All of these terms are mutatis mutandis synonymous with the νους of Plato and the Platonists, the “heart” of Pascal, the élan vital of Bergson, the “illative sense” of Cardinal Newman, etc., etc.

Here, too, a remark “of political relevance” may be in order (357).  I know of no tyranny which was not frankly “intuitional” at base, at least in so far as the tyrants have sought to justify their ideas and deeds before the bar of humanity.  In form, the Nazi notions of “race” or “blood” are akin to the Platonic νους.  It doesn’t make any real difference in principle whether a person “thinks with his blood” or with Newman’s “illative sense”; in either case the meaning is that what ordinary people call “reason” shall be silent and that investigation or discussion is an impertinence.  It goes without saying that the “intuitions” turn out to be absolutes which speciously aim to disguise their real nature, namely that they are the primary assumptions, the prejudices, or the wishes of the people who hold them.

The failure to recognize the presence of the Platonic base in a philosophical system frequently has its source in the elaborate logical superstructure reared upon it.  It is hard to believe that the Aristotelian argumentation is not essential to the “truth” Thomas Aquinas presents; yet that “truth” in its Platonic essentials can be found in any Roman Catholic catechism.  Aristotelianism “works” equally well for Mohammedanism, Judaism, Calvinism, or Lutheranism; in fact all four can point to imposing tomes which “prove” their wares by Aristotle, just as Catholics point to Thomas.  Similarly, Hegelianism has been a godsend to representatives of the most divergent kinds of views.

The quotation from Professor Holt (358) may be a bit overdrawn.  I should not say “the entire history of philosophy . . . .”  But I should say that the “classic” systems insofar as they are in the Platonic tradition come under his condemnation, I would agree also that this would be “levity,” if it were not tragic.  Professor Blanshard defends honest “reason”; but he has cited as his allies philosophers who are the traditional foes of the position he holds.  Is it possible that we have here one of the roots and sources of the misunderstandings between scientists and philosophers?  If so, then the matter may have a bearing on the question of curricula which is agitating teachers of philosophy today.


Posted April 10, 2007

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