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).