Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Tragedy of Reason (Bk. Rev.)

In the last fifty years, who have been the leading advocates for each main type of mysticism in our culture? What ideas have they advocated? What actions have the advocates taken to spread their ideas? David Roochnik's The Tragedy of Reason: Toward a Platonic Conception of Logos helps take the first steps in answering these questions for one stream of contemporary mysticism, the "post-modernists."[1]

AUTHOR. When he published The Tragedy of Reason in 1990, Dr. Roochnik was an associate professor of philosophy and classical studies. He is now a professor of philosophy at Boston University. If his classroom manner is like his writing style, he is a clear, lively, and exacting teacher.

SCOPE. As a demonstration of the breadth of the book, and for quick reference in this review, here is a chronology of the main characters in this history:
- Homer (c. 750 BCE), poet.
- Hesiod (c. 700 BCE), poet.
- Thales (c. 585 BCE), the first philosopher.
- Heraclitus (c. 500 BCE).
- Socrates (469-399 BCE).
- Protagoras (c. 490-420 BCE), sophist and relativist.
- Plato (429-347 BCE).
- Aristotle (384-322 BCE).
- Descartes (1596-1650).
- Kant (1724-1804).
- Nietzsche (1844-1900).
- Paul Feyerband (1924-1994), post-modernist philosopher of science.
- Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), post-modernist philosopher.
- Richard Rorty (1931-2007), post-modernist philosopher.

SUBJECT. The title accurately reflects the book's subject. Dr. Roochnik says Plato advocates reason (logos, in Greek) as beneficent but tragically limited in its abilities. Why does Dr. Roochnik choose to present that view as his purpose? He is "convinced that the Platonic conception of logos can be of real value, and not just academic interest, for the contemporary debate about the fate of reason." (p. xii) Dr. Roochnik hopes his interpretation of Plato's dialogues "can help us, even today, participate in the battles currently being waged over the future of reason." (p. xiii)

Dr. Roochnik presents his narrow subject, Plato's conception of reason, in the context of one vein of the 2700-year history of the conflict between those who love reason, here called "philologists," and those who hate reason, the misologists. The book thus broadly examines "the oldest of disputes: that between logos and its accusers," Dr. Roochnik says. (pp. 68-69 and 164)

AUDIENCE. Dr. Roochnik assumes his readers love philosophy but have not studied Greek, Greek philosophy, or Greek literature (the poets and the dramatists). To simplify the text, Dr. Roochnik places scholarly references in the endnotes. "My hope," he says "is that anyone willing to think seriously about the issues under discussion can benefit from this work." (pp. xiii-xiv) However, readers should expect to read slowly, take notes, and frequently access a philosophical dictionary.[2]

"More particularly," Dr. Roochnik says, "I would like to address those readers . . . troubled by the omnipresence of the technical version of rationality [reason is math or science, dealing with facts] and are tempted to join a noted philosopher of science [Paul Feyerband] in saying 'farewell to reason'." (p. xiv)

THEME. The main point of the book is to correct the post-modernists' misrepresentation of Plato as an advocate of Aristotelian reason, which assumes that when we think about the world, our thoughts represent definite entities, each with an identity, out there in reality. Dr. Roochnik says that, in contrast to Aristotle's, Plato's conception of reason--which is limited to dialectical reasoning--is tragically aware of its limitations while also offering "a life-affirming understanding of its goodness." (p. xiv)

The two italicized terms need defining. Dialectics is the art of examining a philosophical statement which someone makes, especially about values, for the purpose of expanding, correcting, or rejecting that statement. An example, from Plato's dialogues, is Socrates questioning what other individuals mean by "justice." In literature, a tragedy is a story in which the hero's virtues, mistakenly applied in a world beyond his control, lead him to destruction. The tragic hero's mistake consists of stepping beyond his natural limits, for example, beyond what his reason can achieve. Suffering is the result. (pp. 3-5) Dr. Roochnik notes that "Kant . . . devoted much of his career to articulating 'the limits of reason'." (p. 13) This side note is an example of the author's clear statements connecting philosophers across the millennia. This is history of philosophy seen from a mountaintop, but with a telescope at hand.

A subtheme--one which is most important to The Main Event--is Dr. Roochnik's observation that some "post-modernist" ideas mirror ancient ones. For example, some of the views of Nietzsche, Derrida, and Rorty mirror elements of ancient Greek sophistry and, even earlier, the hatred of reason displayed by the poet Hesiod and the philosopher Heraclitus. (pp. 44, 45, 64, 126-132, 155-163)

Dr. Roochnik calls the post-modernist followers of Nietzsche (Derrida and others) subversives because they attempt to (1) undermine philosophy, which is a worldview developed by reason; and (2) replace it with rhetoric in some form. (pp. xi and 47) The subversives are misologists. A common denominator for the misologists' views through the ages is their belief that values are subjective. (p. 122) In regard to facts, misologists hold that there is no knowledge, there is only interpretation. (p. 134) The modern subversives are also poeticists, individuals who think man does (and should) make up the world around him, especially in "playful" writing. The "play" here is supposed to be akin to the play of a child making up identities, as when a block of wood becomes a train and then, a moment later, a spaceship. Derrida is such a "playful" writer that he is largely unintelligible.[3] The central conflict, Dr. Roochnik says, is between logos and poeticism--that is, between advocates of reason and advocates of making things up, which means mystics. (p. 94)

STRUCTURE. Dr. Roochnik wrote his book as a Greek tragic drama akin to Oedipus the King, by Sophocles (c. 496-406 BCE). The book's three chapters correspond to three acts of a play. (p. 14) In Chapter 1, Logos (Reason) holds himself to be unconditionally good. Dr. Roochnik appropriately begins by describing Aristotle's conception of reason (which is full reason) and later shows that Plato's version is a truncated, rationalistic form of it. (Rationalism is full reason reduced to a narrow frozen abstraction, basically the ability to deduce conclusions from arbitrary premises.)

In Aristotle's conception of reason, our language reflects facts of reality. (p. 26) Misologists--ranging from the ancient Greek sophist Protagoras to the post-modernist Derrida--attack and reject this view. (pp. 28-30) Aristotle's reason, Dr. Roochnik says (p. 30), "is the distinctly human ability to see and say the world as it is." It can discover facts and at least clarify values. (p. 32) Aristotle's post-modernist critics attacked him for what they call the "naturalist fallacy," which they say is the mistaken idea that one can logically infer values from facts. (p. 35)

By contrast, Plato's conception of reason, besides being mere rationalism, incorporates poeticism, thus creating a synthesis of positions that Plato's modern critics have not acknowledged. (pp. 97-98) Aristotle's reason seeks the truth and sometimes finds it. Plato's reason, forever engaged in dialectic, "seeks the Truth, but does not claim to know it." (p. 98) Plato's representative of reason, Socrates, is forever seeking and questioning, without offering definite results. (pp. 102-104)

Dialogue is an integrating thread in this tragic drama. First the reader hears from Reason, personified; then the reader hears from one or more of the misologists; and back and forth. The plot is complex. For example, Descartes attacked Plato's conception of reason, as Descartes understood it, for suppressing scientific and mathematical advances; but then post-modernists (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida) attacked Descartes as being an advocate of Plato's conception of reason and thereby a father of modern "soul-less" technology, a development that the poeticists (subjectivists) despised. Dr. Roochnik unravels the tangle of charges and counter-charges.

In Chapter 2, Logos (Reason) reconsiders his position in the light of criticisms by poeticists ranging from Hesiod and Heraclitus to Nietzsche and Derrida. Poeticists hold that one can best describe ultimate reality, which is undifferentiated chaos, through "playful" writing. "Play" here is another word for subjectivism, that is, wishful thinking. When children play, they (innocently) make up a story as they proceed, changing the rules and creating "reality" through make-believe. In philosophically "playful" writing, such as Derrida's On Grammatology, a writer may contradict himself, thereby, misologists say, reflecting a reality which is chaos, that is, a disorderly existence consisting of things that have no fixed identity.

In Chapter 3, Plato's Logos reaches the tragic conclusion that it (Reason) has some utility (in asking questions about what we already claim to know and in exploring the relationships among ideas), but that ultimately it is unable to justify its own position (without begging the question, he thinks). Plato's Logos is therefore unable to debate with and gain the support of those who reject reason, that is, the "poeticists" and other misologists. These inabilities are Reason's "limits," having which is a precondition for its tragic fate. Dr. Roochnik does propose, however, that philosophical reason can continue to serve a role by questioning and challenging, even though it will never contribute fully by offering definitive answers to questions of value.

VIRTUES AND PITFALLS. Dr. Roochnik's ambitious work has special virtues to offer to advocates of full reason. First, he clearly recognizes (p. 32) that Aristotle's concept of reason includes its ability to discover facts and clarify values. Second, Dr. Roochnik defines his terms, if not always formally then at least descriptively. Third, Dr. Roochnik identifies the problem of multiple definitions (and, more broadly, multiple worldviews): Debate becomes meaningless, though perhaps discussion is still possible, if the debaters do not share fundamental principles or even definitions of key concepts such as reason. (p. 15) Of course, that applies to today's "debate" over reason and mysticism.

Readers need to be alert to philosophical errors in this book. One is acceptance of the "naturalist(ic) fallacy," which is the supposed error of attempting to infer an "ought," a value, from an "is," a fact.[4] (p. 35) A second example problem is possible confusion about the meaning of philosophical axioms. Reason is not axiomatic as a concept, but it must be used in order to have a debate (a concept which presupposes reason). (p. 106, but also 149, which is more accurate) A third pitfall is the idea of reason being a truncated form of full reason. Dr. Rootchnik holds reason to be mostly "explaining why one opinion is superior to another." (p. 17) This action, constructing arguments, is only one of the functions of full reason.

CONCLUSION. Dr. Roochnik is apparently not an ally of reason in its full form as advocated by reason's most radical supporters today, the Objectivists, but his work here is valuable to students of the history of the conflict of reason and mysticism because he is able to observe, unravel, and articulate the often confusing and partly hidden doctrines of the many characters of this long drama. Dr. Roochnik provides the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. The reader must still decide which pieces are valid and how they fit together.

In his own conclusion, the author of The Tragedy of Reason says:

"From a variety of perspectives [presented in this book], logos has been damned as the culprit and made accountable for the barrenness that plagues the twentieth century. The subversives counsel us to say 'farewell to Reason' and to welcome an age that comes 'after Philosophy'. Not surprisingly, I shall end this book by reiterating . . . To relinquish the desire for Truth, for answers, for a rational understanding of our experience and a certification of our values would be a disaster. . . . A life without such logos does not seem worth living for a human being. I hope that you agree; if you do not, I ask only that you try to explain why." (pp. 205-206)

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] David Roochnik, The Tragedy of Reason: Toward a Platonic Conception of Logos, New York, Routledge, 1990, 223 pages. [2] I use W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought. [3] That is my conclusion from "reading" Derrida's On Grammatology. By comparison, reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was a pleasure. [4] For rebuttal of the is/ought (false) dichotomy: (1) The example of Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of Selfishness, wherein she infers an ethics of rational egoism from the facts of man's nature; (2) Craig Biddle, "The Is/Ought Gap: Subjectivism's Technical Retreat," The Objective Standard, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer, 2009); and, a technical discussion of a bouquet of false dichotomies, (3) Leonard Peikoff, "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy," in Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed. (available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore).

Monday, August 31, 2009

Long-term problem: identifying the advocates

Two of my theme questions are:

4. Who are the main advocates of reason in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?

5. Who are the main advocates of mysticism in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?

What the two questions have in common is the problem of identifying contemporary advocates -- both those individuals who originate new ideas (or new arguments for old ideas) and those individuals who disseminate those ideas. By "contemporary" I mean advocates who have lived within the last philosophical generation (fifty years). By "advocates" I mean those few individuals to whom most other intellectuals on their side of the reason/mysticism debate have turned for guidance. These contemporary advocates are the designers, manufacturers, and distributors of the "intellectual ammunition" that lesser intellectuals use in the reason/mysticism war.

Following are very short lists of individuals who are or might be qualified as originators or disseminators. Additional suggestions are welcome. I will update the list as I encounter new possibilities for investigation.

Candidates and nominees for main advocates of reason
- Rand, Ayn (1905-1982)
- Peikoff, Leonard (b. 1933)
- Is there a contemporary advocate of Aristotle's epistemology?
- Are there other advocates of reason (as the sole faculty for acquiring facts and values)?

Candidates and nominees for main advocates of at least one form of mysticism

- Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892-1971) for mysticism in Christianity.
- Lewis, C. S. (1898-1963) for mysticism in Christianity.
- Prager, Dennis (b. 1948) for mysticism in Judaism.[1]
- Who is a main advocate of faith or other form of mysticism in Islam?
- Who is a main advocate of modern pagan mysticism in some form?

- Feyerabend, Paul (1924-1974), for a form of mysticism in "science."
- Derrida, Jacques (1930-2004) for a post-modernist form of mysticism.
- Rorty, Richard (1931-2007) for a post-modernist form of mysticism.
- Who is a main advocate of oracular "common sense"?
- Who is a main advocate of intuition?
- Who is a main advocate of instinct?

If you can suggest candidates for the main advocates -- either originators or disseminators -- of either mysticism or reason in our time, please use the comment form.

Burgess Laughlin

[1] An example of a mystic who was more of a cultural effect than a cause in the mystical movement is Hyman Bloom (1913-2009), a painter. His style reflected his immersion in many forms of mysticism articulated by others. See "Hyman Bloom, a Painter of the Mystical, is Dead at 96," Holland Cotter, The New York Times, August 31, 2009, online (may expire).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What is mysticism?

(Last updated, January 29, 2014)

Mysticism is the belief (-ism) that an individual can acquire "knowledge" through some means other than reason (the logical formation of abstractions from sense-perception). Mystic knowledge passes from some mystical source through a mystical way (pathway, channel, route) to the mind of the mystic.  The mystic then, on faith, accepts knowledge passing to him.

SOURCES. Example sources of mystical knowledge are: God, Holy Scripture, the heart, the gut, an inner voice, authority, and the "spirit" of a place (such as a burial ground or ancient forest). "Authority" is ambiguous. It names either (a) the mystical idea of an automatically and unquestionably qualified source, or (b) the objective idea of someone who has demonstrated his ability to speak knowledgeably on a particular subject.

WAYS. Example ways of acquiring mystical knowledge are: revelation, tradition, instinct, intuition, "just knowing," "listening to the heart" (or gut), hearing an "inner voice," feeling, dogma, and "common sense" (in one of its meanings).[1] Some of these terms are ambiguous. For various meanings of "common sense," both mystical and objective, see the April 23, 2012 post here.

NATURE OF FAITH. The term "faith" can be ambiguous. Sometimes "faith" is a broad synonym for mysticism. At other times, the term "faith" names an idea of a process -- acceptance without objective evidence -- that in fact characterizes every type of mysticism. At still other times, "faith" names a set of ideas acquired mystically ("the Christian faith"). Generally, I will be using the term faith to mean the process of acceptance of any idea—regardless of the source or the way of acquiring it—without objective proof or even in contradiction to objective proof.

When a religious mystic speaks of his faith, the mystic usually identifies the source, as with "faith in God." Some mystics dispense with the term "faith" and ignore the step of acceptance. Nevertheless they are acting on faith. In summary, then, faith is the assent to "knowledge" gained through some mystical way.

COMMON CHARACTERISTICS. What characteristics do the various sorts of mysticism share? In most cases, there are two: an initial experience and a subsequent transformation into words.

According to reports from mystics with whom I have talked, mystics experience something in a non-sense-perceptible form. Some mystics use sensory words -- such as "hear" and "see" -- to describe their non-sensory experiences, but those terms are usually metaphors.

Example conversation: Mr. A: "How did you know whether to marry Jane or not?" Mr. B: " I knew I should marry her. I felt it in my gut, and I knew that what my gut was telling me was right."

That "experience" in the mystic's mind somehow changes -- usually in some unspecified manner -- to conceptual (verbal) "knowledge". With their "knowledge" now specified in words, mystics can write and speak to others about the mystical experiences. A mystical experience untranslated into words is incommunicable.

Revelations, inner voices, and possibly tradition are apparent exceptions: The initial experience is the words. An example is a god speaking commandments directly to someone as a revelation.

DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS. What characteristics distinguish one sort of mysticism from another? I have already identified two distinguishing characteristics: (1) the sources of that knowledge; and (2) the ways (channels, paths, routes) of acquiring the "special" knowledge. Based on general reading and general experience in talking with some mystics, I suggest a third characteristic that distinguishes one sort of mysticism from another: (3) the form of the message which a particular version of mysticism delivers: Is it verbal (as in the voice of a god), visual (as in an apparition), or felt (as in feeling the presence of Satan).

SUMMARY. Mysticism is the belief (-ism) that one can acquire knowledge through some means other than reason, that is, some means other than logical abstraction from sense-perception or introspection. One sort of mysticism is distinguished from another by its alleged source (God, the Dictator, my gut, etc.), by the way in which the message is received (a revelation from heaven, an inner voice, etc.), and by the form of the message.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Most of these types of mysticism come from Ayn Rand's list: Ayn Rand, "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World," Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 75-76 (hb). She delivered this lecture at Yale University, Columbia University, and Brooklyn College in 1960.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What is reason?

NATURE. Reason is the ability of the mind to (1) integrate ideas--concepts, principles, and theories--from a multitude of discrete sense-perceptions of reality; (2) use various techniques for double-checking those ideas to make sure the mind has formed them logically; and (3) then apply those ideas to understanding and solving problems in life, whether they are narrow technical problems or universal ethical issues. Reason involves induction, deduction, integration, differentiation, questioning, analyzing, and other methods. This ability is reason in full.

Reason is, in summary, an ability (faculty) to engage in a process potentially involving many diverse steps, a process of integrating sense-perceptions and arriving at knowledge of the world and our proper role in it--that is, knowledge of facts and values.

EXAMPLE. A man was plagued by an escalating, thirty-year series of medical problems with his skin, eyes, joints, tendons, muscles, and intestine. His medical condition became worse. He became so crippled he could barely walk.

He stopped relying on the mostly ineffective advice of local physicians. As a layman, he began working on the problems himself. He thought about his symptoms and kept records of their ups and downs. He read books on each problem. He compared the symptoms he read about to what he could see in his own body. He asked himself questions about the possible cause of each problem. One day he discovered--that is, he integrated one piece of information with another--that the technical name of each problem had the same ending: dermatitis, iritis, tendonitis, and so forth. The "-itis" ending means inflammation. He wondered what might cause it.

One physician suggested that he eliminate a certain suspect category of foods. He did so, and he saw his problems diminish. He experimented with other foods. Within two years he was confident that proteins--in some form or level--triggered the problems. He cut back on proteins, and the problems greatly diminished. Then he made another connection: proteins are a kind of acid (amino acids). He wondered: Could acidity be a problem? He finally found a list showing the effect of certain foods on acidity in the body. He experimented again and found that the list worked as a predictor (though not an explainer) of inflammatory reactions. Accordingly, he eliminated all acid-producing foods by eating only fruit, vegetables, and potatoes. His medical problems gradually disappeared.

This layman used observing, integrating, differentiating, thinking, and questioning to solve his problems. He used reason. As a layman, and one with limited time to spare from his other interests in life, he did not reach expertise on his narrow subject, but he did make progress -- which is what reason provides. Reason is our tool for living on earth, which is the natural world, a world of things that each have identity.

FURTHER DISCUSSION. Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, is a philosophy of reason. All knowledge comes from reason and reason alone. The "Reason" entry in The Ayn Rand Lexicon neatly collects relevant excerpts of her writings about reason, beginning (as is usual with the Lexicon) with a definition and proceeding to elaborations, special problems, and applications. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon and all of Ayn Rand's writings are available through The Ayn Rand Bookstore.)

"For a definition of reason," Ayn Rand says, "see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology." That work describes her solution to the central problem of epistemology, the origin of concepts (the "problem of universals"). Essentially reason is a conceptual faculty: forming concepts from percepts, and then building principles and theories, using logic as a guide. In the course of demonstrating her solution, she shows reason in action in its many forms -- induction, deduction, integration, differentiation, and so forth.

By contrast, any claims to knowledge coming from any source other than reason are instances of mysticism -- the subject of the next post.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Monday, August 24, 2009

Theme Questions

Perhaps with the aid of guest posts and comments, I hope to answer these questions:


1. What is reason -- in my definition and in the definitions of other advocates of reason?

2. What is mysticism -- in my definition and in the definitions of advocates of mysticism?

3. What is the social and intellectual "problem of multiple definitions"? Can discussers and debaters overcome the problem?


4. Who are the main advocates of reason in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?

5. Who are the main advocates of mysticism in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?


6. Is a "debate" about reason versus mysticism even possible?

7. Considering the world in general and in the countries of Western Civilization in particular, who is winning the war between reason and mysticism?


What is the state of the reason/mysticism debate today?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Etiquette for Comments

I welcome comments that add to, question, or refute anything I write here about the leading advocates in the reason/mysticism debate of our time. Without explanation, I will reject anonymous and rude comments. Always copy your comment before you publish it.

1. Identify yourself. No masked men speak in this forum. If your screen name is not your real name, then use your real name as a signature at the end of your comment. Use a "first" and a last name. Acceptable examples: Alice Smith (for the full name, B. Alicia Smith); and Bill Jones (for William A. Jones, III).

2. Address ideas not other commenters. Do not name or quote other TME commenters, including the TME host (me). Summarize your ideational target in your own words and state your view about it.

Negative example: "Burgess, you blundered when you said, 'Mysticism subsumes all claims to knowledge other than by reason'."

Positive example: "I disagree with the idea that mysticism includes all claims to knowledge other than reason. That definition is too broad."

3. Do not debate reason vs. mysticism. The purpose of this weblog is to identify the key advocates -- both their ideas and their actions -- in the reason/mysticism debate of our time. Take the war itself elsewhere.

4. Communicate objectively. Write accurately, clearly, concisely, and logically. Follow conventional rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Avoid profanity, street talk, and other symptoms of our democratized culture.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith