On reason:

Limits of reason

Well, as we were saying in our earlier conversation about rationalism, reason as a way of knowing has always been at the heart of philosophical discussion. The current and recent centuries are no different. You asked for some general comments. I’ll try.

  • It is difficult if not impossible to separate “reason” from the history of philosophy for an analysis, per simpliciter, for every philosopher has some take on reason since it is the heart of the philosophical enterprise.
  • Historically the conversation has been one of the pre-eminence of reason as a faculty for knowing. In that respect the initial conflict in modern philosophy was between revelation and reason. Descartes tried to bridge that gap by arguing that one could reason one’s way one’s own existence and then to the necessary existence of God. He then attempted to build an epistemology on that foundation.
  • For Descartes it is the will that causes us to make errors and not a faulty faculty of reason.
  • The empiricists found flaws in Cartesian epistemology arguing that there were no innate ideas at all and that we humans are blank slates written upon by experience.
  • Kant tried valiantly to put the humpty dumpty together again by bringing empiricism and rationalism together in his synthetic-aprioris.
  • Psychology, as it broke away from philosophy, proposed behaviourism as the theory, a variation on some stimulus, response, reward (SRR) description.
  • Linguistics, in the person of Noam Chomsky, argued (see his Cartesian Grammar) that we know more than we should if behaviourism is true. The famous debates between Chomsky and Skinner are central to understanding these ideas.
  •  Russell’s work in logic and mathematics shows us that knowing how is more important than knowing that, since all logical systems including complex mathematical systems are based upon tautologies.
  • Cognitive Science departments are established with faculty from psychology, philosophy, and computer science to investigate the exciting idea of artificial intelligence. Most of the AI work is heavily Cartesian, with transcendental “minds” housed in machines as well as in bodies.
  • Biology takes the forefront with fascinating science showing that brains are minds and that reason is a “faculty” to be found not only in male philosophers, but also in females and in other “lower” species.
  • Reason, it seems, has a benefit for survival of our species. It is far superior to magic, religious mumbo-jumbo, pot smoking, channeling, ESP, crystal gazing, Freudian repressed urges, authority of church or state, and the like at presenting us with testable information about the world and ourselves. It allows us to search for causal relations even though we cannot prove that the proposition “Every event has a cause” is true.

What is Philosophy good for?

Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one’s ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one’s sense of the meaning and varieties of human experience.


Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human existence raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Indeed, philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is often guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in clarifying and developing one’s philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical questions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits.

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