Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Pre-Conditions of Rationality


A Vision of the Future Sent from the Past

Plato and his mentor Socrates have greatly influenced the world as it stands now. The very concept of the psyche and of mental health in general derives from their ancient investigations into virtue, and human nature itself. The Republic is a more mature work than the earlier dialogues in terms of an answer as to what virtue and human nature are. We are, they believed, rational beings, and as rational beings we naturally pursue what is good (it’s rational to pursue what is beneficial after all, right?) It is the passions which lead us to ruin, for all their contradiction and blind groping, by their light we experience an inner discord, and are pulled left and right towards different objects of that desire – sometimes yearning in different ways towards the same thing.

The project was, at least in principle, simple. Through use of the elenchus, Socrates would identify inconsistencies in the beliefs of those with whom he held discussions. By discovering contradictions he would identify inconsistent sets of beliefs and thereby learn something: that the things in these sets could not be true simultaneously. By identifying inconsistent beliefs they would reify the status of rationality over the passions – they would find an anchor of truth in amidst the chaos of yearning. In knowing what was right you would never go wrong, as pursuit of the good means you always do what you think or know to be right. Eventually you would have a working conception of the good sufficient for living a virtuous life, free from contradiction.

Plato abhorred the material world, taking his leave from Cratylus who said that as all things are in flux, knowledge of the material world was impossible. From this Plato decided that the only knowledge of any worth was unchanging knowledge, matters of pure intellect. Things such as justice and beauty, perceived as exercises in pure intellect, were set forward as paradigmatic examples of the unchanging Forms as they were not tampered by material effects. In this way Plato set out a conception of mental health which would echo through the millennia. It was through contemplation of these unchanging Forms that one would achieve perfect inner harmony. As the material world was worthless, so too was that part of the psyche which was attached to it: the passions. Rationality was to reign supreme, but was Plato’s vision dangerously misguided?


Rationality: the Supreme Principle?

When something is put on such a pedestal it arouses intrigue, especially from enquiring minds who wish to know what it is they’re signing up for when they sit down to listen to a wise man set up his design for life. It would be wise for those of us of a lesser mind than Plato and Socrates to ask what rationality is in the first place – so that’s what I will do. When I investigate my own rational decisions, the first thing I notice is that rationality is not a thing like desire in that it has no content of its own.

Desires are desires for something, and that something is the content of a desire - but rationality is empty. What do I mean by this? When we make a decision, we weigh up alternatives – should I go to class tomorrow or should I stay up late with friends tonight? How do we come to make a decision without a value which is attached to these ends and which rationality weighs up? Rationality cannot itself grant these values, for what would it appeal to in order to decide what end has which value without appeal to other values? And these without appeal to further values? And so on ad infinitum.

So what is it which grants the two ends their values? It is your ultimate aims and how they square with the situation you find yourself in. If you really ought to be in class tomorrow because you have an essay to be in on that topic in a few weeks time, then the value of showing up to class is charged with the necessity to do that essay (which is charged with the overall aim of doing well, which is charged perhaps with some life plan, etc). However, if your friend from home is going away for 12 months and this is the last time you will be able to see them, you will perhaps be urged more to seeing your friend than to going into class.

What we’re dealing with here is nothing other than desire. The need to do an essay and the need to see a friend are both ultimately tied to desires, whether it’s the desire to achieve a good grade, or the desire to spend time with your friend. Rationality itself can only deal with values which are already there - it cannot create values itself, and can only weigh such values up in relation to one another. Is it right to insist, therefore, that rationality ought to be the master of desires, as Plato suggests in the Republic? Is it not a necessary fact that the passions be the master of rationality? Indeed, rationality seems on this understanding to be a derivative form of the passions – ensuring that the passions which square most with one’s aims overcome all other passions. And these aims are themselves derived of the passions. But in what do these aims consist?


The Perspectival Condition

As we have seen, rationality itself is empty without values with which to quantify over – values which are themselves grounded in the passions. But what is it which grants values their power in the first place? I suggested that it is the existence of a life aim which is the rule by which passions are valued, and are as such dismissed or granted their ascent. I hold that these aims are the very condition of any intelligibility, as action could not make sense without a something for which those actions aim. To borrow an example from Julie Annas, let’s say our friend Mary buys a tennis racket. By itself this act is meaningless, devoid of significance – it comes to be a significant act (indeed an act at all) by virtue of an overall scheme into which the purchase makes sense. Mary buys the racket to play tennis, she plays tennis to keep fit, she keeps fit because she wants a long healthy life, she wants a long and healthy life because...

These ends could potentially go on forever, and Aristotle realised they have to have an end point somewhere. Everything must be done for the sake of something which, he believed, must be pursued for the sake of nothing else but itself (and so to put a stop to this potentially infinite regress of aims and ends). This won’t be the place to think about responding to this problem, suffice it to say the Aristotelian solution is not the only or even necessarily the most satisfactory solution. What we will do well to take from this, however, is that values are conferred upon desires and actions on the basis of how well they square with some end.

Now we can shed some light on Plato’s yearning towards a non-contradictory understanding of so-called immaterial Forms. The hope of having a body of perfect knowledge which permits of no fluctuation is disturbed when we consider how it is that we come to know things, and how these things are valued. If all ends aim at the good, we must see ideologies like Liberalism and Socialism and in pursuit of the very same thing, yet how is it that they come to conceive of the road to salvation in such different ways?

The aims of one are unintelligible in the context of the other. One places great emphasis on the primacy of individuals, the other on the primacy of society as a whole. The things which they value differ, the rational decisions they work through are quantifying over different values. One asks “is this good for the individual?” while the other asks “is this good for society as a whole?” It is plain that they are like apples and oranges, and that any dialogue between the two positions will have to take place at the most basic level. We must ask why the individual, and why the society?

But when we ask this we find ourselves at a stump. In order to evaluate things one must already have a standard by which to evaluate them. Asking whether a thing is good for the individual, or good for society as a whole is well and good – but how can we evaluate these things from an so-called “objective” perspective? As both ideologies seek for the advancement of separate things the hope of finding any common ground between them is hopelessly misguided. One must already be within a perspective in order to evaluate things – otherwise, without a standard by which to perform an evaluation, rational choice is impossible.

If everything here is in order it would seem that rationality itself requires one to already be in a perspective. One cannot begin outside of a perspective and buy their way in with rationality. A precondition of rational evaluation is to have values to quantify over and these are, as we have seen, perspectival. The hopes of having an objective body of values and the resultant unchanging knowledge of how to live the good life are, perhaps unsurprisingly, fraught with difficulties and, I would suggest, hopelessly misguided.

But what is the nature of these perspectives? My initial thoughts on the matter are that any hopes of having a kind of propositional knowledge regarding the disclosure of perspectives are also misguided. As these perspectives are themselves the condition of such knowledge it may be the case that knowing about them is impossible. How can we have this type of knowledge about something which is the precondition of our having knowledge at all? Before we are thinking subjects we are beings which find ourselves in a world – the perspectives we have are difficult to truly conceptualise because they are themselves the conditions of concepts.

Think, for example, about the concepts of commodity fetishism or the free market. Can these concepts make sense without a perspective? Would an alien be privy to their significance if the alien had no understanding of commerce? Certainly not, but it’s nonetheless true that not only liberals can understand the free market, and not only socialists can understand commodity fetishism. So there is a deeper perspective which both ideologies share, and through which they can understand the world, while not completely understanding why the other one chooses to respond in the way they do to it. What is this perspective? I would suggest that it is our understanding of our own being – the very notion of trade and commerce is intimately linked with our mode of being in the world and makes sense to us on this basis.

Dogs, for example, have no need of trade and commerce and so their mode of being does not reveal household items to them in this manner. They rather evaluate things in terms of comfort and deliciousness (this is not supposed to be a decisive list!) as the world which their mode of being discloses permits the subsequent discovery of such qualities in things.