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.