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What is reason?

We live in a time in which an abstract and basic question like that is relevant to practical political life. Judges today, for example, feel free to overthrow the established definition of marriage on the grounds that the universal understanding of a fundamental social institution is simply irrational. What is accepted as “reasonable” has evidently changed. Such developments, along with others such as the radicalization of equality, the rise of political correctness, and the proliferation of ever-more universal and comprehensive human rights standards, suggest that a determining feature of modern politics is the attempt to enforce an abstract philosophical perspective.

That perspective is that of modernity. Modernity has involved, among other things, an attempt to make reason more rigorous and reliable by excluding things from it that can’t be demonstrated by formal logic or repeatable measurable observation. Such things, including all substantive goods, become a matter of taste, with one taste rationally as valid as another. Hence modern isms like egalitarianism and liberationism.

To carry on the struggle against liberal modernism trads must therefore present their own conception of reason. The following is a sketch of a post-pomo Romish trad conception of reason. (Sorry it’s so abstract, but if anti-human abstractions seize control and take us by the throat we have to propose other abstractions in self-defense.)

  • Reason is the ability to put our thoughts and actions in order by reference to principles of general application that we have the right to expect others to accept as well.
  • As such, reason includes formal logic, scientific procedure, common sense, and ethics. We need those things to put our thoughts and lives in order, both individually and socially, so they’re all part of reason.
  • If reason is so defined, it’s mostly not demonstrable. We acquire it through experience, good sense, inarticulable insight, human connections, and tradition. Those things therefore help constitute reason. Also, if conflicts can be expected that don’t come to an end there must be some practical way to bring them to an end. It follows, at least in a cosmopolitan and contentious setting, that a principle of authority is also part of reason. Without such a principle, reason—our ability to make sense of things in accordance with general and shared principles—can’t function.
  • The order established by reason is the order of our understanding of the world, and therefore, so far as we are concerned, the order of the world itself. It follows that we must understand the things that participate in the construction of reason—human connections, tradition, authority—as essentially connected to ultimate reality. In other words, we must accept that our community of thought, belief and conduct, including its authorities, has a religious justification.
  • Since reason puts particulars in order by relating them to more general principles, and those principles can themselves be viewed as particulars to be put in order, reason involves a series of ever-more-general principles. That series either goes up forever, in which case reason can’t explain itself to us and from our standpoint is arbitrary, or it ends in some absolutely supreme principle. If the latter, the supreme principle must have very special qualities—like God, for example.


Very interesting, and thanks for the opportunity. “If reason is so defined, it’s mostly not demonstrable.” I don’t understand. “Principles of general application” are generalisms: “Auto collisions usually result in the deformation of steel.” How is this “mostly not demonstrable”? P. Murgos.

The nature of axioms is that they are self-evident truths that must be accepted before a logically developed argument can be constructed.

In mathematics the prime example is Euclid’s great work, the Elements. Euclid built his whole treatise on a few simple definitions: a point, a line, a plane, a circle, parallel lines, and so on. Changing one axiom fundamentally alters the nature of every subsequent argument, leading to non-Euclidean geometry.

In classical physics we have the ‘fundamental indefinables’: mass, distance, time. These can only be understood in terms of what they are NOT. Classical physics could be restated as “speed, momentum, force”; but mass, distance, and time are always implicit in any formulation.

In philosophy/sociology (the main content of this site, right JK?), axioms may be harder to grasp. One that springs to mind is Descartes’ famous statement:
“Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am).

This seems to me like an eminently sensible axiom from which to begin a rational discussion. It would be terribly difficult to argue sanely with someone who denies their own existence!

Basically, I’m using “reason” to include everything needed to be reasonable. So as I’m using the word it includes things like “I exist” and various basic principles of logic, mathematics and the sciences, all of which are unprovable but are needed to make reliable sense of things in a systematic way. A disposition to trust observation and experience would be an example. It would also include basic principles for making sense of human life like “human weakness and sinfulness is real and must be taken seriously.” It includes things that can’t be completely described or articulated, like common sense and the ability to think steadily and consecutively. Things that can’t be described completely of course can’t be proven.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Eventually I hope to better understand the concept of reason because the understanding seems very important to clear thinking and to argument. I will take a shot at it. The love between a parent and a child cannot be derived, produced from a series of logical premises. Otherwise, we could all be one another’s parents and children. Yet the love exists, and we must therefore accept it as a truth and therefore a reason for things such as living together and getting together for Christmas.

By rejecting similar truths such as affection for one’s race, language, and culture, liberalism therefore rejects a part of reason (if I understand one of Mr. Kalb’s other points). The liberal would use adoption as an example that race, language, and culture are rejectable. What they seem to miss is that the choice of a particular child is a rejection of all other children, an arbitrary choice in their view. The commune I suppose is one of the logical consequences of liberalism. Yet the deduction that a commune is the only moral family is based on a series of premises that cannot be proven. P. Murgos.

A traditional Western principle, was:
Man has a sinful nature.

This principle was intimately related to the culture’s normative understanding of reality, and thus not usually stated outside the church, because everybody just ‘knew’ it was true. Hence, virtue was a goal worth striving for, and children required discipline and a civilising influence.

The currently accepted principle is the exact opposite:
Man is basically good.

This is a false and childish assertion. Anybody who reads current events can see that vast tracts of humanity are in the grip of selfish and destructive pursuits that will only be resolved through force. If humanity were intrinsically good, then perhaps the 20th century was a bloodstained, tragic delusion, and the Soviet and Nazi empires were just misunderstood efforts at self-improvement. History reveals that these evil regimes were founded upon the tantalising lie that “Man is basically good”. They started off as idealistic dreams, and turned out to be ideological autocracies subverted by Man’s lust for power.

So we come to the dilemma of the post-modern ‘liberal’ mind: it cannot comprehend naked evil, such as 9/11 or the barbarous beheading of various innocent civilians. So these heinous acts must have a ‘root cause’ external to the perpetrators. It is simply incomprehensible that an ‘intrinsically good’ human being, could have a motivation of simple evil. Therefore the blame must lie with the Oil industry, the Republican Party, those intolerant Christian moralists, anywhere other than the heart of an intrinsically SINFUL person.

To extend some of the above observations: TCS: Mass Men?
The linked article explores the question “Does education, in the modern sense, make a man more or less susceptible to propaganda?”

These kinds of basic issues should be regularly revisited, at least in the form of explicit issues or explanations or both. Many don’t have the training or ability demonstrated here. P. Murgos.

If Reason is an ability to put our thoughts and actions in order by reference to generally accepted principles, have a think about if that ability will ever develop in people who have no disposition to cultivate it in the first place. And even among those who are keen to have this ability to reason, think about if they will reason well if they persist with habits of narrow, fixed, fuzzy, sprawling or hasty thinking.

There’s a fair amount of groundwork required before people become reasonable human beings.

The principles don’t have to be grasped and applied explicitly and they usually aren’t. Language, meanings and implications of words, and accepted schemes of evaluation run on implicit reason. If something seems “right” to a group of people it’s because it complies with some abstract logic of rightness they all adhere to. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to come up with consistent answers in constantly varying situations. And if you think their logic of rightness is wrong one thing you can do is point out what it is and say what’s wrong with it. Most likely they’re not aware of their own logic. That’s not going to convert anyone immediately but putting things in question has a cumulative effect.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.