Home > Marxism > Does reason, does Philosophy matter?

Does reason, does Philosophy matter?

This was the question which Matthew Paris submitted to John Rentoul and Oliver Kamm’s series “Questions to which the answer is no”. Chris Dillow briefly wrote the whole thing up and seems to firmly agree that neither reason nor philosophy matter, because through elections etc, ‘unreason’ has a much greater effect than reason is likely to – especially because the fanatical in politics are a rather self-selecting group.

On the contrary, I think that both reason and philosophy do matter. But a few premisses need outlining. First, the opposite of ‘reason’ is not stupidity. It is ‘unreason’, which is not the same. Second, ‘reasonable’ is not a derivative of reason in this context – reasonable means moderate, the opposite of extremist or fanatic. Third, reason is synonymous with rationality or logic, since Paris cites its philosophical context.

Several things flow from this; first, we can’t dismiss reason on the basis of how many ‘stupid’ people there are in the world, nor how many fanatics or extremists, nor on the basis of what effect such people have when compared to the intelligent, the reasonable and so on. I suppose we could compare all those who make decisions on the basis of the laws of logic with those who don’t and see who wins – but I don’t think that works either.

Why not? It is my view that there is an empirical basis to logic, to reason, that these are based in observable reality. It is my view that the human species has an intrinsic capacity to experience, and to convert that experience into general laws liable to guide future behaviour. Essentially this is the starting point of reason; reason flows from reality and the validity of the general laws of reason depend on their ability to explain reality.

My reading on the subject is very basic, as yet, but this is how I believe Marxist epistemology understands logic, much as it understands the dialectic – as something which flows naturally from reality, according to material laws that exist whether we are there to observe them or not. This being the case, everyone has a basic sense of reason. More or less systematized, more or less internally consistent, it doesn’t matter. Any use of experience and general knowledge to explain and predict events implies the use of reason.

This doesn’t mean that people can’t still be wrong. Yet in no-one, especially not in the people cited by Chris as ‘stupid’ – e.g. BNP supporters – is reason absent. Superstition is a form of reason, using incomplete ‘experience’. Assuming that the experience of the human race, our powers of observation etc, are limited, thus reason too is limited for everyone, for some more than others. But it’s still used, is still important.

Chris is correct that there are powerful forces which seem to select less reasonable arguments – e.g. the airtime the opponents of immigration get, compared to the supporters of free immigration. Yet I don’t think that the ‘extremists’ pushing their argument  hard matters quite so much as Chris seems to think, thus allowing less reason to triumph against more reason. There are other factors at play.

I would contend that arguments are selected for on the basis of power-relations, and the purpose such arguments can serve. This is not to talk of a conspiracy for fascism or anti-immigration, so much as the changing circumstances dictated by the processes of capitalism and class struggle simply change the experience of individuals and, by a process of reason, push them towards a particular ideology – of which most have pre-existing standard bearers.

This is, I would suggest, what happened in Weimar Germany. It is what happened in Czarist Russia. It is how Protestantism took off leaps and bounds in Reformation Europe and became the ideological mainspring of a vibrant, dynamic capitalism. And so on. I do not mean, by this, to dismiss the capacity for contingency in history, nor human agency, but every side has fanatic supporters. This fact, nor their number, does not determine which side wins. Nor does the victory of any side with fanatics suggest that ‘reason’ is less important than fanaticism, or unreason.

A last note. Readers of this piece will pick up tail-ends that I haven’t nailed down. I could, for example, have attempted to deny that fanatics or extremists are the most important element to powerful historic movements, thus by other means invalidating the idea that ‘unreason’ is more important than reason (even if we except that ‘fanatic’ = ‘unreason’). Or I could have explained fanaticism and more media attention each as effects of another cause, rather than one being cause and effect of the other.

There’s also an element to Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianism trilogy that would have fitted here, as she discusses the irrationality of Nazism and its triumph. But I think that would cheapen such important work.

I leave it to the reader to think of more elements to link in – this was just a basic foray, as I have been trying to nail down some of my own epistemological views on logic and Marxian dialectics.

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  1. October 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    “Questions to which the answer is no” is an interesting question which would not apply to philosophy. It matters. Mathematics was considered a philosophy centuries ago, it is now a branch of science, philosophy took it there. Freud, considered a fool by many, even today, had philosophical theories about behavior, but now the Psychoanalytic School of Psychology is an important part of medical science. There are many examples of philosophical theories that have entered the realms of science.

    The political right has its philosophical thinkers, so does the left. Who is correct? Probably neither of them just yet, a philosophy enters a higher place, when no holes, or very few legitimate flaws, can found in the language used.

    Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language – So said Ludwig Wittgenstein

  2. JonnyRed
    October 29, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I would wholeheartedly agree that philosophy and reason matter, and am a firm believer in the importance of grounding one’s beliefs in abstract principles wherever possible. Such grounding should allow one to defend a position when it is attacked from most angles.

    However, a pragmatic approach involving compromise obviously has merit, and is the basis of democratic principles (or at least those that favour majority rule or a consociational system).

    I would say that there is a strong case for defining unreason, at least in one aspect, as an unwillingness to compromise (as you allude to in the article by equating fanaticism with unreason). You also mention incomplete experience as a cause for prejudice and while Chris Dillow is perhaps out on a limb to call such people stupid, they are certainly closed-minded and unwilling to alter their views no matter what facts they are presented with. This is more a symptom of stubbornness than stupidity.

    As evidence, I feel it’s appropriate to mention the number of highly intelligent there are in the world – they hake similarly unshakeable beliefs and refuse to acknowledge facts that could, or should, show their position to be false.

    I have the displeasure to be friends with someone who is this stubborn – he is by no means stupid but whenever we are engaged in debate he chooses not to believe any facts or figures I quote, or indeed any first- or second-hand examples, and staunchly defends his views without feeling the need to find any evidence for why he is right. It is this rejection of reasonable debate that marks out such individuals, rather than a necessarily fanatical belief in the cause. I know of another individual who 12 months ago was an active member of the Conservative Party, but today would count himself a socialist with equal, if not greater, fervour for the political cause he espouses. This is due to a great many evenings (and an even greater number of drinks) spent debating various aspects of social and political theory.

    I fear that all I’ve managed to do in the course of this comment is generally agree with the article in a much more rambling and less eloquent fashion. If this is so, I apologise, and feel free to utterly ignore this load of waffle that I’ve spouted while wrestling with the arguments in my own mind.

  3. JonnyRed
    October 29, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    I must correct a sentence in that comment – the line should read:

    “As evidence, I feel it’s appropriate to mention the number of highly intelligent conspiracy theorists there are in the world…”

  4. October 29, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I think that we disagree majorly only on one thing. I don’t view closed-mindedness as something to be judged quite so negatively.

    This is a relatively recent turn in my thinking so hear me out.

    As you point out, everyone can be closed minded – whether intelligent or ‘stupid’. It’s a fact and will not be overcome by attacking it head-on, in argument.

    Much in the same way as, for example, religion will not be overcome no matter how many times we dismantle the proofs of god, hammer home the sense that evolution makes and eliminate the blank spots in physics.

    No idea that attempts to relate onesself to the world is entirely abstract, existing only in the head, thought up out of nowhere. We all use methods of thinking, and evidence and experience, from our surroundings. Thus the answer to ideas which we consider to be harmful must be two-fold.

    Yes, argumentation – but more radically, altering the material conditions which sustain certain ideas. E.g. a reorganised, resurgent labour movement, prepared to assert its weight and independence, to defeat the emergence of a working class element to the anti-working class BNP.

    Closed-mindedness to argumentation only is to be expected and accepted for what it is: the contradictory elements of the world, e.g. capitalist hegemonic ideology vs one’s real standing within the sphere of production, playing themselves out.

    By both good argument AND good tactical orientation, we can flank it.

    • JonnyRed
      October 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm

      Mass working-class support for any right-wing populist party can only be a result of poor organisation and communication from the left of the political spectrum.

      The Labour Party used to represent the same kind of “mainstream left” element that can still be seen in the behaviour of the Nordic left, but has abandoned that ground for what is an undeniably centrist position. The space on the left could have, but has not been, taken up by either a loose left-wing coalition or by a number of groups, but instead the left in the UK has largely been more committed to petty rivalry and internal party politics than with getting the generalised socialist message out on the streets.

      The result of this is that the working class has gravitated towards parties such as the BNP, who offer a convenient scapegoat for the problems that are symptoms not of immigration or of EU interference, but of the capitalist system as a whole.

      Engagement with the electorate by activists is absolutely essential to garner the kind of mass support which earned the BNP an appearance on Question Time. If No2EU (for example) had 2 duly elected MEPs, they would have had a brilliant platform for explanation of socialist ideology and at least something like the kind of exposure Griffin’s lot have had.

      Talking in terms of mass consciousness, rather than individual terms, I have to agree that it is possible to ‘flank’ the kind of ignorance and closed-mindedness that is so rooted now in certain parts of society, otherwise my political outlook would remain very bleak indeed, but it will not take place without changes in the way the left organises itself and interacts with other sympathetic elements, even if there are disagreements over means or even ends themselves.

      You mention above the Reformation as an example of an ideology that took off – could this not in some ways (and I must admit my reading on the subject is not extensive) be attributed to the fact that it was a very loose set of principles, and support for the reformation from individuals was almost always directly proportional to how much they reviled the traditional church?

      Your recent “navel-gazing” post is a good example of the kind of debate which is necessary, indeed vital, to move important challenges to capitalistic hegemony into the public consciousness.

      On a personal level, I feel especially that there should be more co-operation between ‘green’ groups, which seek to fetter capitalism and prevent its worst excesses, and between socialist groups which seek to overthrow it entirely. While their objectives are different, our paths converge for at least some of the way, and the interests of both would be served by greater support, interaction and debate amongst communities in the short-term.

  5. October 29, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I don’t think a right-wing working class is as simple as you make out. Yes, it must necessarily result from a Left that is poorly organised and bad at communication – but that is not the only cause. And indeed the twin faults of bad organisation and bad communication cover a myriad of sins, few of which are simple.

    On the Reformation, ‘Protestantism’ wasn’t just a loose set of principles – it consisted of mutually contradictory ideas, which themselves played out irrespective of how much they opposed the Catholic Church. Arminianism and Calvinism took on body and power in the run up to the English Revolution, for example, because they allowed for the expression of mutually opposed class interests. Yet both were Protestant.

    The doctrine that won out, in the end, reflected ruling class opinion and the victory of the ruling class – the Anglican High Church and the reformed Arminianism of John Wesley. Ideas are tied to material circumstances – and even opposition to the Catholic Church itself is tied to material circumstances. If the levels of opposition / syncretism different, so did the material circumstances of the differently composed sides in the doctrinal dispute.

    To link this back to your earlier point, however, the correspondance between ideology and material circumstances does not directly predetermine who is going to win the ultimate battle. History has an element of contingency, of randomness, as well as human agency playing a part, and the correspondance of ideology to reality in order to forge correct tactics. Thus, as you say, we need better organisation – just as the English Left-Republicans did.

    Responding to your personal note, ‘Green’ ideologies do not necessitate an opposition to nor even a restriction of capitalism – certainly not to the extent even of run of the mill social democracy. Whilst I’m all in favour of working with Green Left groups, I think the class composition of Green Parties is petit-bourgeois. There is not the working class connection which organised labour movements and their political wings formed.

    Thus I’m not sure if Green Parties – especially considering the utter bankruptcy of those which have entered into Conservative administrations – can even be considered for membership in a united front, much less any degree of ally.

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