The Impotence of Pure Reason

The common notion that intellectual progress is to be had by thrusting off the chains of prejudice and seeing the world through the naked eyes of pure and unadulterated reason—this notion, I submit, is among the most silly and preposterous to ever enter the human mind. Reason can do nothing until it has premises from which to draw conclusions; and save for our immediate thoughts and sensations, all of our premises are drawn from, or dependent on, intuition. Try constructing a world view—try constructing the view that there is a world at all—without taking for granted a certain interpretation of your thoughts and sensations (in which I include memories).

Notwithstanding this rather basic truth, a certain sect of starry-eyed dreamers have a habit of dividing the world into two classes of people—the thoroughly scientific, who proceed purely on the basis of evidence, and the unwashed masses, who are (alas, alas) quite oblivious to the former group’s superiority. This world view, of course, has an obvious charm for shallow and vain people, of which I am fortunate enough to be one. Embrace a rule of epistemology, and you are admitted—in a single step—into an aristocracy of right-thinkers. It is a false aristocracy, nonetheless.

4 comments on “The Impotence of Pure Reason

  1. tl;dr version:

    “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason” – Chesterton

  2. But do we trust what is written on our slate? Then we have abandoned pure reason. Do we not trust what is written on our slate? Then we have abandoned sanity.

    I am not trying to critique rationalism, but the pure-reason mantra. A rationalist philosophy that acknowledges the legitimacy of a priori beliefs is obviously immune to my critique; but it has also surrendered any plausible claim to the intellectual high ground. The only way to make “pure reason” fit into this paradigm is to define reason in such a way that it includes intuitive knowledge. The rationalist can then denounce the basic beliefs of others as “irrational” (for being out of sync with what “reason” has supposedly revealed to him)—but by definition, he cannot give any logical demonstration that his basic beliefs are the appropriate ones. Thus the polemic against prejudice collapses into a somewhat charming, but also rather ridiculous, game of rhetoric.

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *