Thursday, 31 May 2012

On Reason I: Reason in History


I've been silent for a while on the blog as I've been deep in the bunker finishing off my final year as an undergraduate philosopher. One of the major headaches/joys of the last few months has been completing my dissertation, which is the development of an idea I posted to this very blog some time ago. I've decided to present my dissertation on the blog in two or three parts (as a 6400 word slog isn't exactly casual reading for anyone). The first part will deal with the understanding of reason in the history of Western philosophy from Plato up to what I consider to be a radical breaking point during the renaissance period, culminating with Hume.


This paper aims to explore the basis of normative reasons for action, focusing on the structure and operation of the passions[1] and their relation to practical reason in everyday life. In this I intend to go some way towards a solution to the problem of the source of those reasons by demonstrating how reason itself operates on the basis of an affectively articulated evaluative scheme. I ultimately hope to defend two claims about reason:
  1. Reason is inseperably tied to the passions.
  2. The passions can nevertheless lead us to do things which are not in our best interests.

With this in mind I suggest that the primary driving phenomenon in activity/deliberation is the evaluative scheme itself. But in order to first find our way in this enquiry we’ll give a brief overview of the historic antecedents of the view we’re proposing, situating our investigation in its appropriate context and establishing what is at issue.

Historical Antecedents

In the ancient tradition, explanation of human action initially took it that all actions aimed at the good. With this view the possibility remained open that we could be mistaken about what we aim for, and so might unwillingly try to accomplish something which would be bad. The consequence is that we can’t knowingly aim at accomplishing a bad thing.[2] However, cases involving the weakness of will challenge this ‘holistic’ view. Intuitively, we can all think of times where our feelings got the best of us and we found ourselves acting in ways we later came to regret. Perhaps we had yielded to a growing frustration and lashed out at somebody who was disturbing us, or perhaps we gave in to an urge to spend money on something we could not really afford. In any case, we’re in no short supply of examples of our emotions clouding our judgement and causing us to act foolishly.

Plato’s understanding of reason, as outlined in The Republic, is developed along these sorts of lines. In his discussion Plato declares that the soul must have three parts: reason, appetite, and spirit. The appetite, he has it, is equivalent to the desires[3]; hunger, lust, thirst, etc. The spirit, however, is more akin to our moral sense, manifest in the feeling of guilt when we have done wrong or in indignation when we have been accused of a wrongdoing for which we are not responsible.[4] Both of these faculties are roughly equivalent to what we might call the passions, though both of them deal with different aspects of affective phenomena. What is important is that Plato sees reason as the master of these two faculties.

Most importantly, however, he argues for this separation of the soul under the principle that one cannot incline in two opposing ways with the same part of themselves towards the same object at the same time.[5] To illustrate this we are invited to think of a man who is standing still but waving his arms and head around. We do not imagine that this man defies the rule by being stationary and in motion all at once, for it is his torso and legs which are stationary and his arms which are moving.[6] The intended consequence of Plato’s short discussion is to establish that opposing inclinations must arise from separate parts of the soul e.g. one cannot both want to eat and not want to eat with the same part of themselves. Accordingly, if we witness just such a conflict in ourselves or in others then, for Plato, we must infer that it is not the same part of the soul acting in two opposing manners but rather two parts of the soul acting contrarily to one another.

Following these preliminary discussions Plato goes on to formally distinguish the three parts of the soul, beginning with desire. He puts forward the example of one who wants to drink but who suppresses the urge, insisting that it is reason which has called the desire to heel.[7] To illustrate Plato’s point, imagine one has become lost at sea and feels overwhelmed by the desire to drink. Our craving appetite directs us to the endless panorama of water which surrounds us, beckoning us to fill our canteens and drink. However, reason reminds us that the salt content of this water would dehydrate us far quicker than not drinking at all, and so with some effort we overcome the urge.

More moderately, in Use of the Passions Senault proposes that “there is no passion which is not serviceable to virtue, when they are governed by reason.” The scholastic view of reason begins to fall out of favour around the 17th century as writers like Senault, Descartes, and Spinoza questioned the separation of the soul which had metaphysically supported the view that reason guided the passions.[8] Though the works of these philosophers differ in significant ways with regards to their understanding of reason and its relation to the passions, they are nevertheless united by at least two pertinent themes: (1) the passions are useful when governed by reason[9] (2) reason cannot govern the passions alone.[10]

Under the scholastic conception, weakness of will is understood as the spirit or appetite overcoming the dictates of reason - a feat they can accomplish by virtue of their being separate parts of the soul. For the 17th Century rationalists named above, however, it is the simple weakness of reason which accounts for the possibility of its being overcome by the passions – particularly its inability to motivate our actions.[11] This abandonment of the metaphysical structure of the soul signals an historic point where philosophers begin to challenge reason’s place as a guide to action. If reason cannot motivate one to act in accordance with the choices it prescribes then it is incapable of guiding our actions by itself.[12]

Certainly in times of emotional upheaval one may say or do things they would never say or do if they had thought about it calmly. But by what power, if any, can reason call our desires to heel or the heart to order? David Hume answered precisely this question by grounding our reasons in those very passions. In the Treatise (2.3.3) Hume explicitly states that he’s going to show us how (1) reason can never generate motives for the will, and (2) reason can never oppose the passions with respect to the will. However, as I will argue, a further consequence of Hume’s view is that reason cannot generate normative reasons for the will either, and that these too are sourced in the passions.

Hume’s Account

Now, it is one thing to judge that something is the reasonable thing to do but quite another to suppose that this thing is worth doing. To prove this Hume first separates demonstrative reasoning (that pertaining to relations of ideas, logical/mathematical, a priori truths) from probabilistic reasoning (that pertaining to matters of fact, empirical, a posteriori truths) in order to show why neither form of reasoning owns the possibility of generating motivation. Beginning his argument with demonstrative reasoning, Hume notes how it always relies on there being some previously established purpose or end to which it can be applied:

“Mathematics, indeed, are useful in all mechanical operations, and arithmetic in almost every art and profession: But ‘tis not of themselves that they have any influence. Mechanics are the art of regulating the motion of bodies to some design’d end or purpose[13]

So, for Hume, demonstrative reasoning cannot itself provide any motivation to action. The results of such demonstrations, as with logical or mathematical proofs, are in themselves inert. To make this clear, imagine we are architects calculating the arrangement of load-bearing struts whilst designing a skyscraper. Now, it might be tempting to think that the results of the calculations themselves motivate the manner of construction - the results, after all, prescribe how the struts must be organised in order to properly bear the weight of the rest of the building. However, what this overlooks is that the very purpose of calculating these values refers back to the original motivating principle behind the construction of the building itself. In other words, the calculations let us know how we must organise the struts in our building if we want it to stand securely. Motivation is therefore already presupposed before we come to calculate anything.

Of probabilistic reasoning, then, Hume has it that our expectation or experience of pleasure/pain from which we “feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity” leads us to respond to a particular thing in a particular way, through some mode of either approach or rejection. A happy dog who comes bounding over to you with his or her tail wagging, for example, tends to make manifest a pleasant feeling, motivating you want to pet or play with the dog. As we accrue more and more experiences of friendly pups wagging their tails we come, by habit, to anticipate friendliness when we see a dog wagging its tail. Hume points out that our feeling is concerned not with the wagging tail itself but with the expected effect. Our reasoning discovers this pre-existent causal relation and our actions are affected in terms of how we decide to deal with it.[14] But it is not reason itself which produces the feeling (even if reason chooses how to act upon it). In each case it is the emotional import of the expectation or experience of pleasure/pain which permits the discovery of such causal relations:

“But ‘tis evident in this case, that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. ‘Tis from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion of propensity arises towards any object […] Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and ‘tis plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.”[15]

Hume concludes that as reason cannot in itself produce any action, either by demonstrative or probabilistic means, that it therefore cannot oppose a desire. In both cases feelings are presupposed as the basis upon which reason proceeds but it’s as yet unclear how exactly reason factors in. Later on Hume states that:

“…A man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers […] Hence arise our common measures of duty…”[16]

It is the passions and not reason itself which is supposed here as the basis of our measures of duty. In reading this short passage we are led to imagine reason choosing between options which are pre-valued in terms of customary emotional responses, though the formulation in terms of custom is itself a little inaccurate. If one does love their children better than their nephews then they have a reason to, let’s say, take their children on holiday instead of them. But if one loves their nephews more than their own children (we’ll imagine these children are morally blameworthy in some way) then the opposite is the case, and this is true despite what is customary for others. As everybody’s situation is different, customary affective responses are no safe guide to what the best thing to do is.

With this said, it’s important to recognise that not only motivational reasons are tied to the affects but normative reasons are too. If reason cannot itself produce or oppose the passions, and if the passions are the basis upon which we make our decisions (as with the example above) then both motivational and normative reasons are pre-disclosed by the affects. It follows from Hume’s discussion of probabilistic reasoning, that reason discovers emotional associations and comes to choose on that basis. If reason cannot produce the associations itself but only discover them then the basis on which reason chooses is not produced by reason – it is the passions, rather, in which its reasons to approach or avoid something are sourced. Any process of reasoning about what we should do must be founded in the feelings we have towards what it is we’re choosing between. On this interpretation, then, both motivational and normative reasons for action are the same thing.

Consequently I suggest that practical reason, for Hume, consists in making decisions based on a kind of pre-evaluation tied explicitly to the passions. The Humean Theory of Reasons (henceforth ‘HTR’), on this interpretation at least,[17] declares that “if there is a reason for someone to do something, then they must actually have some desire that would be served by their doing it, which is the source of their reason.”[18]  It will be helpful to formalise the argument leading to this conclusion:

  1.  An agent has no reason to do some action A if there is no possibility of their being motivated to do so.
  2. There is no possibility of an agent's being motivated to do A if they have no desire which could motivate them.
  3. Therefore, an agent has no reason to do A if they have no desire which could motivate them to do A.[19]

The HTR raises pertinent questions about the role of emotions in practical deliberation. In the next part we are going to take a good look at some difficulties which Hume's position faces, moving towards a closer approximation of the evaluative scheme alluded to in the introduction.

[1] I will be using the terms “passions”, “emotions”, “feelings”, and “affects” interchangeably throughout.

[2] Setiya, K. ‘Reasons without Rationalism’, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 21 (cited henceforth as ‘RWR’)

[3] Plato. “The Republic”,  Penguin Books, 1987, p. 214 

[4] Ibid. pp. 215-217

[5] Ibid. p. 210

[6] Ibid. p. 211

[7] Ibid. p. 217

[8] McIntyre, Jane L. ‘Hume’s ‘New and Extraordinary’ Account of the Passions’ in Traiger, S (ed.), “The Blackwell Guide to Hume’s Treatise”, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, p. 207 (cited henceforth as ‘HA’)

[9] Ibid. p. 203

[10] Ibid. p. 204

[11] Ibid. pp. 204-205

[12] Ibid. p. 208

[13] Hume, D. ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, Norton, D (ed.) & Norton, M (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1739, p. 265 (2.3.3) (2009 edition, cited henceforth as ‘Treatise’)

[14] Ibid. p. 266 (2.3.3)

[15] Ibid. p. 266 (2.3.3)

[16] Ibid. p. 311 (3.2.2)

[17] I should mention that I am fully aware of controversy surrounding the interpretation of Hume on this point. However for the purposes of the present paper this matter is irrelevant.

[18] Finlay, S. & Schroeder, M., ‘Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External’ in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, (1.3), (cited henceforth as ‘RFA’)

[19] Ibid.