On Reason

In my view, “reason” is a concept which has received rough treatment at the
hands of many philosophers and many others. To begin to get a handle on this,
I would first distinguish between a narrow and a wide sense of “reason.”

The narrow sense is what is usually included under the heading of “deductive
reasoning” or “logic”: it is the realm of analytic truths – statements whose
truth is a function of the meanings of the words which make them up and of
nothing else. These “truths of reason” are really nothing more than
reflections of the linguistic and paralinguistic structures we have for
describing and doing other things to the world. The famous example: “All
bachelors are unmarried men” tells us about the way these words are used; it
tells us nothing about bachelors. Logic studies the ways in which such
analytic statements can be decided as true or false, based upon the nature of
the notational system or language in which they are expressed, as well as the
ways in which truth and falsity are propagated from one statement to another.
This is the kind of “reason” which plays a rôle in the distinction between
rationalism and empiricism, for example.

“Reason” in the wide sense refers to the broader realm of justification: the
practice of offering a claim as a reason for believing a further claim, or for
acting in a certain way, or for feeling a certain way. It is an extremely
varied area, encompassing all critical thought, and involves relationships
between statements which include but also extend far beyond those which can be
encapsulated in deductive logic. These relationships include those concerned
with empirical evidence, considerations in favour of value-conclusions,
action-justifications and so on. Wittgenstein, with whom I agree about this,
argued that there is no ultimate a priori way of specifying for all possible
attempts at reasoning which reasons work and which don’t: instead we have to
rely on the best piecemeal pictures we can discern (from our experience of
life) of what humans count as reasons in various contexts.

The poor treatment which the concept of “reason” has received is this: that
philosophers have often pretended that the way to understand reason in the
wide sense has to be through reason in the narrow sense: thus deductive
reasoning is set up as the model of all reasoning, and even where different
types of reasoning are allowed, the attempt is made to explicate them in terms
of some version of deductive reasoning.

This distortion has been reversed to a great extent in the last half of the
last century, for example through the development of the area of informal
logic. But some of its effects, in terms of conceptual confusion, linger on:
for example, the commonplace notion that reason is inimical to emotion, that
feeling emotions is not being rational. Many people still believe that to be
rational is to avoid, or repress, emotion; part of the explanation of their
having this belief is, I suggest, the historical confusion of the wide and
narrow senses: since no emotion is the conclusion of a deductive argument,
emotions are irrational (narrow sense).

Aristotle, however, knew that some occurrences of emotion are rational (wide sense), some not: it depends on whether there is sufficient reason for feeling them as one does.

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