Limits of Reason

Reason has several sides.  It is theoretical and speculative. It has aesthetic side that assists us to determine and feel that which is sensed as beautiful and felt as good.  It also has practical sides like the practical wisdom (phronesis) and   instrumental reason.  It has emancipative and therapeutic sides too. We have to employ all shades of reason to bring emancipation to humanity. Emancipative reason does not only concern with humanity but also assists us to discern the wellbeing of all life forms and the good common home the earth.  Stanford encyclopaedia of Philosophy   says that someone displays instrumental reason when he/she adopts suitable means to his/her ends. Instrumental reason is said to be influencing our desire and intention and therefore has been critically examined to observe its emancipative or oppressive potentials. This analysis is needed to act morally in our days that somehow fails to examine the nobility of ends and employs instrumental reason to achieve them. The end is often construed on the basis of aesthetic reason (through it something is felt as good and worthy) that satisfies our senses and therefore we end up using right means to wrong ends. Also we fail to examine how bad means are employed to achieve good ends. Unfortunately, we are trapped by aesthetic reason and fail to responsive to the demands of ethics today.

We are rational beings and therefore cannot do way with reason. But we need to understand the several sides of reason and lead reason to emancipative goals otherwise it may become an instrument to our pursuits of mere egoistic self preservation or legitimate vested interest.  This is why it is important to scrutinize the ends of reason.  It will enable us to determine the shades of reason that are having their sway over us.  Communitarian philosophers think that we are being ruled by what they describe as emotivism while critical theorists think that we are under the control of instrumental reason that does not question the ends but uses reason to seek most effective means to achieve them.  It appears that we are determining the ends or our goals moved or attracted by aesthetic reason and fail to examine their virtuous character.  It is this form of instrumental reason that has given us fascisms and market fundamentalisms. We seem to be living a fantasy and remain in a blissful ignorance about our plight.  Max Horkheimer, a critical theorist opines like other postmodern thinkers that Reason is dead and is surviving only in its instrumental form.    As a result, we can see the triumph of formalism that concerns only the most efficient ways or forms of doing something.  This itself led to  the growth of functionalism that determines the role of individual in a given society caging or assigning him/ her place in its state of affairs.

The growing fascist tendencies around us are rooted in aesthetic reason and instrumental reason.  It satisfies our tastes and we feel it is the most efficient form to build our nations. We are enslaved by this monarchical form (formalism) that has eliminated other ways of organizing our political life.  The same is true of our consumerist society that paradoxically limits our choices in the name of freedom. Thus, we are limited to only few forms of cokes or coffees and other choices of satisfying our thirst are missing.  This means by bending to efficient forms (formalisms) instrumental reason has narrowed down our human experience.  The progress of this narrow form of reason is leading to our self destruction.  This is why we have to employ reason emancipatively and interrogate the instrumental reason that is controlling our thought and life today.  We have the imperative to fight this eclipse of reason. All is not lost we can still recover the emancipative potentials of human reason.  But we cannot also return to Hegelian totalization of reason. Humans do transcend reason and hence we need to consider the other of reason. The other of reason is the operation of desire. This is studied by psychoanalysis and has been scrutinized by the  Buddha.  What boils down today is that we are moved into action by desire/ aesthetic reason that instrumentalizes  reason to achieve its goals.

Today our  ends/ goals  are arbitrary. They are constructed based on aesthetic reason that satisfies our tastes and hence we do not question them. We only rationally ponder on the means to be employed to actualize the ends that are deemed as worthy and good by desire/ aesthetic reason.  This forgotting to securitize our goals and adoption of formalistic means by reductive measure of efficiency alone has to be overcome.  Will dialectical (debating) power reason help us in this direction? Great Socrates believed in it and used it to let his interlocutors think and speak in straight line while  he went on interrogating their position taking the role of a student. The dialectical power of reason has been celebrated by Hegel and the critical school. But there are thinkers like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche who suspect reason and think that reason could be bent to serve power, the will or the egoism of the subject/ self.  We need to redeem reason. The communicative action of Habermas is a good step in this direction because it is letting us to deliberate both ends and means and use dialectical reason to build consensus. One of its great strengths is that it is inductive. It remains open to scrutinize rationally what we deem as good end as well as that we consider as efficient means to achieve the same. This means our ends and means are always in the mode of arrival. But its primary telos  being consensus still leaves it open to be hijacked by instrumental reason.  Perhaps, virtue ethics might assist us to overcome its limitations. Aristotelian virtue ethics is still subjectivist and limited to individuals. We need to expand it to embrace our communitarian/ societal dimension. This will enable us to redeem reason that is simply concerned with means and not ends.  The fallen reason that rules us today has to be redeemed by practices of virtue.  This is why Habermasian communicative action has to be blended with virtues practices whereby both consensus and disensus (disagreement) allow us to discern the good and worthy goals as well as means toward them.

 Limits of Aesthetic Reason

There is beauty and elegance in our world.  It gives us an experience of pleasure.  This pleasure is called aesthetic experience. Aesthetic domain is generally thought to be within the scope of rationality.  There is a sensory-affective disclosure of reality and our responsiveness to it. We respond and appreciate beauty not just moved by senses but also by reason.  We always like a part of the aesthetic object although we think that we like the whole object. Aesthetic inclinations are one of likings or tastes. They are cognitive experiences which produces ameliorative feelings in which the world reveals to us.  It is subjective experience of pleasure but is not a self delusion. There is an objective aspect to the aesthetic object that constitutes our aesthetic experience.  This is why sentimentalism cannot be regarded as a authentic aesthetic experience. It is close to sensuous decadence.   Although Emanuel Kant thinks that aesthetic taste is non-cognitive in character, aesthetic reason that is pointing to cognitive dimension of aesthetic experience is gaining currency. It manifests aesthetic reason as well as aesthetic value that inhere not so much in the ends but in the means of self reflection and ethical action.  This condition has certainly weakened our ethical action.

Works of art opens a deliberative space based on their aesthetic character as well as aesthetic value.  This means an aesthetic experience transcends its sensuous domain of the presentation powers of aesthetic objects and appeals to the cognitive abilities of humans.  Aesthetic forms produce an active proliferation of sensuous differences where we could see that it possess cognitive efficacy that warrants us to make choices among difference.  These choices among differences presuppose a discipline of inter-subjective recognition and is a kind of rational choice making.  It is precisely because  of it being  grounded in human reason art can become emancipative as well as a hiding place for hegemonic vested interest.  This means aesthetic reason is political. But it appears that aesthetic reason limits itself to a strategic action which becomes a means towards a goal without necessarily interrogating the nobility or virtues character of the goal.  Both production as well as reception of aesthetic objects is grounded in the domains of the sensuous and the rational. We can see a hermeneutical circle between production and recognition of aesthetic objects.  This also means that there is always a gap between production-recognition of the aesthetic objects. It is this gap that produces divergent aesthetic appreciations that may range from repugnance to resonance.  In other words, it is this gap that produces an inter-subjective aesthesis with regard to the objects of aesthetic appreciation.

The gap between the production and recognition that produces the dynamism of aesthesis of the objects of aesthetics has to  be view by transcending Platonic aesthetics that unfortunately does not allow the beauty to reside in both  the object and the subject of aesthesis as it places it in the world of ideas.  This means there is a pre-framed idea that we regard as universal beauty which  is mimicked by the producing agent and recognised by the appreciating audience. This view of aesthetics already draws the lines and boundaries for art production as well as its appreciation. The producers and the recognizers are deemed to have an inner sense of beauty and it is being expressed within the fixated frame of universality.  This is why aesthetic reason that is grounded in Plato does have its goals set. It will only rationally appreciate whether what is produced conforms to the ideals of beauty that are regarded as universal. But what is thought to be universal is not in the real world. It is in the world of ideas or fantasy. This is why aesthetic reason cannot problematize goals. It can only recognize means which stands for the production as well as recognition of objects of aesthetics.  Therefore, both production as well as recognition is a reaction to what is deemed as beauty. We are caged into an idea of beauty and try to reproduce it by copying it. Thus, art becomes proliferation of our effort to actualize the idea of beauty which fails to reside within the work of art as well as appreciating audience. Therefore, the Platonic aesthetics that strangulates aesthetic reason has to be abandoned to free both production as well as recognition of objects of aesthetics

The Platonic aesthetics that has taken hold of our aesthetic reason is affecting our ethical choices. Ethical choice has become one of taste.  As we have already seen that aesthetic reason forecloses any cognitive reflection on the nobility of the goals, we only think about the means reach these goals. This means, we instrumenalize reason to generate the most efficient means to actualize the goals that appeal our tastes.  This is why we are living at the level of aesthetics rather than the level of ethics.  Again the Platonic view does not allow us to embody the ethical ideal and we are left to copy or mimic and are condemned to be ethically counterfeit  as long as we fail to perfectly mimic the ethical ideal.  We always fall short of this ideal and therefore, aesthetic reason continuously open us to cognitive means to live those ideals without using reason to  check the virtuous nature of these ideals. It may be because of this communitarian thinkers think that we are locked with emotivism and have to emancipate our reason that is instumentalized to only discuss means and open critical scrutiny on the virtuous character of the goals. To arrive at this point, I think Habermas can help as he believe in the dialectical power of inter-subjective reason that can discern the good that is on the arrival.  This means we need inductive approach that remains attentive to the novelty and not deductively cage our self in the deliberative application of predetermined good that is existing in the Platonic world of ideas.  This does not mean we abandon deductive ethics from pre-given principles. We open these principles and goals (in a word teleological thinking) to the critical scrutiny of reason. But reason alone approach is not fully satisfactory. We have to transcend reason and consider the dynamism of desire as well as embrace the power of dissensus.

Limits of Emotivism

The study of the limits of aesthetic reason has taken us  at the doors of meta-ethics.  Here let us enter one of its doors by striving to understand what Alasdair MacIntyre calls emotivism in his celebrated work, After Virtue.  MacIntyre in his magnum opus suggests that tenor of modern ethical debate is a result of catastrophe in the past.  He says what we possess now are only fragments of the past.  He names what we have today as emotivism.  He uses the term emotivism to point out that all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference, or  expression of attitude or feelings.  Thus, when we say kindness is good we are not making a truth claim but simply expressing a positive feeling . When someone exclaims ‘murder is wrong’  we may understand  him as saying ‘I do not approve murder’.  Emotivists think that all moral judgements are non-rational and moral discussions are at best rhetorical persuasions.  This means emotivism reduces all truth claims in the sphere of ethics to expressions of preference.  The sense of ‘I prefer’ is vastly different from the sense of ‘you ought’.  This means MacIntyre claims that  all our ethical language is only speaking the tone of ‘I prefer’.  ‘You ought’ seem to have become ‘I prefer’.

Emotivism as a moral theory appeared to explain why moral debates could not be resolved.  But we still have to ask: if all moral values are expressive, how did the belief in the ultimate principle arise? This is why MacIntyre tries to look for the source of ultimate values in a tradition that predates emotivsm.  He teaches that modern moral self appears dislocated, as if it is missing something.  The emotivists think of the moral self as entirely detached from social particularity and is set over and against the social world. This autonomous self in their perspective posses no ultimate governing principles and is guided by no telos.  This means it is fundamentally aimless and has a ghostly character locked in the routine of everyday life.  Where  did  the self lost its social rootedness? MacIntyre puts the blame at door step of the enlightenment project.

Enlightenment thinkers like Dennis Diderot tried to make human desire the criterion of rightness and wrongness but failed to show how conflicts of desires will decide the right and the wrong.  David Hume also thought of human passion as the foundation of morality and taught that it is passion that moves humans to moral action. He presented sympathy as the ruling passion of moral life.  Reacting to them Immanuel Kant tried to ground morality in reason alone.  He taught that moral life is what one wishes everyone to live (golden rule). In other words the universalizability of the moral action is the basis of its ethical character.  Soren Kierkeggard  tried to find the middle and taught that all humans have the freedom to chose the plane of life. One may choose to inhabit pleasure-seeking aesthete or become an ethical-rule follower. His middle path avoids both passion as well as reason to follow the ethical path. In his case it is simply a  criterionless leap  that enables us to make this choice.

MacIntyre opines that the enlightenment project was doomed to failure because of its loss of the notion of telos/ the end/ the purpose.  This loss of purposive action is accentuated by the industrial revolution that locked humanity into mechanistic life of monotonous daily routine.  Thus, enlightenment kept out  the question that asked , ‘ what is human life for?’  and invented the idea of autonomous individual who then will have to find his moral path without the ruder or guidance of telos.  This resulted in inductive ethical quests like greatest good of the greatest number ( utilitarian) partly inspired by the scientific revolution.  But good  that was construed on the consequence it makes to a number of people renders the notion of good vacuous and  opens it to the preferences of  those persons.  Nietzsche saw this clearly and called our truth as well as ethical claims as a will to power. Thus enlightenment project created a moral vacuum to be filled by the preferences of the autonomous self.

MacIntryre turns to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas to restore the lost telos of moral life.  He points out that story telling was primary way of transmitting moral education in ancient Greece.  We can trace moral structure of the time in Homer’s  epic poems.  He teaches human life has the same shape as that of a story. The story gives one his or her  role and telos to live for.  Within this social narrative framework the word arête or virtue describes any quality required to discharge one’s role. But there is no way for the person to step outside his societal narrative framework and evaluate it ethicality. Growth comes through crisis when individuals challenge the narrative framework and step outside and change the story.  Thus, virtue becomes excellence in performance of one’s assigned social duty emploted in the story. This is why we may have to think of virtue as that which promotes the flourishing of  human, other  life forms and the planet earth.   This is close to what Aristotle called eudaimania.  Eudamania thus, becomes the telos and virtue becomes the way to it.  Aristotle teaches that to live a virtuous life one has to grow in practical wisdom or phronesis.  It is in the light of phronesis that we are enabled to practice virtue. Practice of virtue is marked by  internal goods and not by external rewards or punishments. It is  like  the way we enjoy playing a musical instrument or singing. It just flows because it has become a practice that is moved by internal goods.  This is how we can practice virtuous life in the power of phronesis or practical wisdom.

Limits of Communicative Action

Jurgen Habermas was no ivory tower theorist but was visible public intellectual who participated in public discussions across the world, particularly in Germany. Habermas  is well known for his theory of communicative action. He distinguishes four kinds of actions of rational actors: teleological actions, normatively regulated actions, dramaturgical actions, and communicative action. Teleological action is where an actor makes decision among alternative course of action with a view of realization of an end, guided by maxim, and based on interpretation of a situation. Strategic action is a subset of teleological action whereby an actor would anticipate what other actors directed by goals will do.  Normatively regulated actions consist of actors in a social group pursuing common values or norms of the group fulfilling a generalized expectation of behaviour.  This kind of action reminds us of role theory in sociology. This action often arises out of  shared habits and is mostly spontaneous.  Habermas teaches that dramaturgical action occurs when the actor is acting in front of people who form a public for one another and before whom they present themselves.  In this context, the actor invokes in the public a certain image of oneself. Here, there is a presentation of the self which is not spontaneous but stylized or cultivated. Communicative action occurs when two or more actors establish a relationship to seek understanding about their action situation and plan of action and coordinate their action by way of agreement.

Habermas  later presents two simple models of social action:  Instrumental action ( strategic action) and communicative action. Instrumental action is oriented to success and communicative action is oriented towards understanding. Strategic action is a special type of action wherein actors tries to influence the action of rational opponents while communicative action reaches understanding by building consensus. Communicative action does use language but is not reducible to speech. Habermas gives great importance to language and thinks that society could be understood through structures of language.   Linguistic community has great impact on the individual and Habermas thinks that communicative reason can become emancipative through the right use of language.  This privileging of language has been criticized by  several philosophers.  This is because language can be used to manipulate others for strategic purpose and thus intrumentalize the listeners or the participants for one’s own advantage.  This is why I think Habermas’s theory of communicative action is workable only in ideal situation where all participants seek to reach understanding and have linguistic competence and commitment to truth.

Participants involved in a communicative action come to an understanding in the horizon of a life world. Life world is composed of unquestioned assumptions and certainties.  Habermas thinks that rationalization of the life world is a condition of our emancipation. By rationalization of the life world he means that claims of validity are increasingly exposed to critical scrutiny rather than accepted merely on faith.  Habermas gives a crucial role to communicative action in the rationalization process to fight its colonization by systems like monetization of transactions, markets,  law and bureaucracy. It is life world that is producing what Habermas call’s normatively regulated action.  This means a life world when rationalized by communicative action supports normative action which becomes almost second nature of the actors and rise out of shared values and mutual trust. Therefore, life world can be thought as the social capital of a society that maintains its stability and balance. Life world is constituted by network  of communicative actions that branch out through social space and historical time.  When the life world itself is colonized by systems of money and power, Habermas thinks that it is communicative rationality that can emancipate it by rerationalizing it.

Interpreting Habermasian theory of communicative action, we may say that Habermas is moving away from success principle and solidarity principle to the argumentative power of communicative action.  He thinks that our social conflicts and problems can be solved by communicative action.  But it requires preconditions like communication ethics, linguistic competence and openness to democratic participation. Often we see that in the name of democratic participation a consensus is manufactured and hence, the failure of communication ethics makes Habermasian theory of communicative action suitable  only in an ideal situation.  It is not easy to get out of this trap.  The fact that it is inter-subjective and believes in the power dialectical reason, it has power to reach a high level of consensus. But dialectical reason defeats  its opponent and hence dialecticism may not be suitable to build consensus where societies are broken by trauma and pain of the past. We need to move to dialogical dialogue. In this context, diatopical hermeneutics of Raimundo Panikkar or pluritopical hermeneutics of Walter Mignolo might become more useful.  Dialectical reason can break hearts while dialogical reason may mend the broken hearts. This is why we may hold that  it is the belief in the dialectical power of reason to serve emancipation is that which is limiting Habermasian theory of communicative action. If the communicative action is transformed into dialogical dialogue some of it limitations might be overcome.  We may have to expand the dialogical dialogue  into a polylogue  so that multiple voices gets a validation of being heard and  offered space to collectively seek resolution of  their problems. Habermas stresses on the ethics of communication, we may have to move to transform our communicative action into a virtuous action under the guidance of phronesis or practical wisdom.

Towards Emancipative Communicative Action

Communicative action is inductive and waits for the arrival of good or the truth by the sheer force of  reason. Reason can be instrumenalitsed and the good or truth that masks as  effect of consensus is vulnerable of being manufactured by vested interest.  This is why we have to bring arête or virtue and phronesis or practical wisdom into communicative action.  Communicative action can transform arête and phronesis that is subjective (in Aristotle) into an inter-subjective pursuit. But there is still an issue. Communicative action being largely inductive renders the good vacuous as it is deemed to arrive as consensus of the rational actors involved in a communicative action.  This empties goodness from everything and keeps into in mode of arrival on the back of consensus of rational actors.  The basic goodness in everything that is affirmed, deduced, and induced by communicative action. Besides, the rational actors are not merely autonomous individual selves. They are already embedded into various ethnic, religious, community, and professional identities that replete with special obligations and values.   Therefore,  communicative action has the potentials to resolve or ignite identity problems.  We need to critically scrutinize how identities may enter for good or for ill into communicative action. This introduction of arête and phronesis in the communicative action has to lead us towards cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanisms can be arrived as a fruit of dialogical reason and not  as a fruit of dialectical reason. Dialectical reason resolves two poles by opposing them while dialogical reason opens the wider world between the poles for a dialogical dialogue. We need the dialogic power rather than dialectical power of reason. Dialogic reason stirs reciprocity and cooperation.  Life is dialogic in character.   We create our selves dialogically. We dialogue with the world, other humans and God.  This is why some thinkers think that humans are hermeneutical beings.  Humans being dialogical in character, we have the obligation to transform dialectical communicative action into dialogical communicative action.  Daitopical hermeneutics of Raimundo Panikkar  can open communicative action to dialogical dialogue . It does enable us to understand the other  by standing into his/her mythos. Mythos is like light through which we reach understanding.  But paradoxically, we cannot see the light itself.  But without healing of  our pathos/ trauma or pain, all dialogue is condemned to be dialectical and not dialogical. This is why we need to deal with the trauma of the past that may often afflict the present.  We may have to come to ethically choose what to remember and what to forget and forgive as a society through a communicative action.  This Recoeurian ethics of memory, forgetting and forgiveness is indeed therapeutic and can render our communicative action a mean of healing.  Otherwise we will use dialectical reason to police memories and spin miss understanding, discord and violence.

When one opens the trauma and pain of the past one enters into a complex pluritopic hermeneutics which itself is a polylogue that becomes democratic as it makes time and space for everyone to enter into the conversation.  Here, we need Recouer’s ethics of memory that makes a discerned choice for peace of what to remember and what to forget and forgive in society haunted by pain and trauma. Otherwise, trauma repeats seeking healing using dialectical reason that inflicts pain and violence on innocent victims.  We have to discern an ethics of dialogue that respects everyone involved in the dialogue as well as ethically deal with hurting and painful memories of the past. Only when we find therapy to these hurting memories that we can enter into dialogue that would become communicative action that is a pursuit of arête and phronesis. This then will unleash the power of reason to discern the good or the truth.  This means we then can discern the goodness of everyone and everything as well as be enabled to discern the goodness that its yet to arrive through communicative action that is animated by arête and phronesis.  We need to critically wait for the deeper and profound understanding of good in complex issues that involve dynamic conditions like ethics of genetic engineering or ethics of modern communicative technology. Thus, we do not dump the communicative action of Habermas but strive  to enhance it by rooting it into hermeneutics and opening it to ethics of memory  that has therapeutic potentials  and can indeed prepare an environment for dialogical dialogue that would build individuals as well as communities.

The transformed communicative action that we have tried to open to us promises peace and growth of the individual as well as community. This means communicative action has to put together the common good of both individuals as well as communities.  This means we try to find the middle between liberalism as well as communitarianism.  Radical liberalism  emphasises individualism, autonomy and dignity of a individual person while communitarianisms stresses the community and crushes the space of the individual.  The communicative action that we propose here is one that is not opposing the individual to the community or tradition but one that puts both the community and the individual together. It is through the dialogical dialogue that the individual would be enabled to grow or self create himself or herself. At the same time, dialogical dialogue will also enable communities to grow and flourish.  To bring this to fruition, we will have to pursue common good of both the individual as well as the community. Besides, this we have to let the principle of  subsidiarity to let our communicative action be more democratic.  It is only through this ethically enabled communicative action that we will be enabled to bring lasting and emancipative changes in our society. Such a communicative action will respond to the volatile conditions of our contemporary society that is riding on the wings of fast growing technology and science. Indeed, communicative action will transform our life world and will emancipate both individual as well as our communities.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao