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Why Reason Turned Into A Dead End For Enlightenment Philosophy


One of these days, Robert Tracinski and I ought to discuss our differences over a bottle of whiskey and a large stack of books.** In the meantime, I am pleased he is turning to history in the ongoing debate regarding America and the Enlightenment, even if he does try to make a mountain out of a (Jonathan) Mayhew.

That the Enlightenment had some influence on the British colonies that declared independence and established the United States is indisputable. However, I stand by my assertion that the Enlightenment thinkers who most influenced the American Revolution and Founding were more moderate than those Tracinski waves off as “a bunch of French philosophes “ who “got a little carried away two centuries ago.”

The moderate strain of Enlightenment thought was further tempered by other factors, including the common law tradition, Protestant theology, the study of ancient Greece and Rome, and the colonists’ experience of self-government. Tracinski makes much of Mayhew, but he was an important example of this colonial synthesis, not a refutation of it.

It is important to trace the intellectual origins of American politics and culture. However, establishing the genealogy of our politics and culture informs, but does not determine, whether we consider a factor beneficial or baleful. The heart of the debate is over the merits of Enlightenment rationality, not its influence.

Tracinski’s recent attack on the Catholic Church makes this clear. I leave to Catholics the defense of their church and creed, but Tracinski’s confidence in Enlightenment rationality also deserves scrutiny. Put simply, the Enlightenment’s claim to rational supremacy is unsupportable.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre summarized the Enlightenment’s rationalist ambitions in the opening of his classic work, “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” He explained:

It was a central aspiration of the Enlightenment … to provide for debate in the public realm standards and methods of rational justification by which alternative courses of action in every sphere of life could be adjudged just or unjust, rational or irrational, enlightened or unenlightened. So, it was hoped, reason would displace authority and tradition. Rational justification was to appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person and therefore independent of all those cultural and social particularities which the Enlightenment thinkers took to be the mere accidental clothing of reason in particular times and places.

Enlightenment thinkers hoped to use reason to resolve disagreements over politics and morals, rather than relying on the contingencies of tradition, or the disputed revelations of religion. Thus, Tracinski, as an enthusiast for the Enlightenment, touts private judgment and reason over tradition and religious authority.

But there is a problem. Appeals to private reason are premised on the existence of a demonstrable public reason available to be shared by all rational persons of goodwill. Private reason has more value in resolving disputes than private faith only if private reason can be publicly justified in a way that faith, private or public, cannot.

However, philosophers have been unable to establish a shared standard of public reason. As MacIntyre observes, “disputes about the nature of rationality in general and practical rationality in particular are apparently as manifold and as intractable as disputes about justice.” Although academic philosophy may offer “a more accurate and informed definition of disagreement,” it does not resolve it.

Simply put, Enlightenment thinkers attempted to articulate a public standard of rationality to adjudicate conflicts between private judgments over questions of truth and justice. None succeeded. The philosophical history of the Enlightenment consists of a series of attempts to establish a sure foundation for knowledge and reason, with each successive effort beginning by demonstrating the flaws of its predecessors. As MacIntyre noted, “both the thinkers of the Enlightenment and their successors proved unable to agree as to what precisely those principles were which would be found undeniable by all rational persons.”

Enlightenment rationality was an unattainable ideal sought by philosophers who had very different views of what constituted rationality and true knowledge. Consequently, MacIntyre argues that the “legacy of the Enlightenment has been the provision of an ideal of rational justification which it has proved impossible to attain.”

Despite this failure, the Enlightenment still has no shortage of acolytes, who gloss over their inability to provide a compelling account of knowledge and reason. Tracinski, for example, states the Enlightenment’s ambitions as if they suffice as proof of the validity of the Enlightenment project, even though that is precisely what is disputed.

It is pointless to proclaim the supremacy of Enlightenment reason, because there is no such thing. There is only a bevy of competing philosophical systems, each claiming to be the one true “Reason.” Without a universal standard of public rationality, every criticism that Tracinski directs at “faith” applies just as readily to “reason.” Which philosopher got it right? Plato? Aquinas? Spinoza? Kant? Hegel? As MacIntyre asks: Which rationality?

Enlightenment rationality was an ideal and ambition, not a coherent philosophical theory or methodology. The many philosophers who sought to establish and defend Enlightenment theories of rationality failed to convince each other, let alone persuade all rational persons of goodwill.

There are three alternatives in the wake of the Enlightenment’s failures. The first, embraced by Tracinski, is to stick to the ambitions of the Enlightenment, despite its inability to establish a compelling shared account of reason. The dull-witted do this because they do not notice the problem posed by competing and incompatible theories of reason. The more astute do so because they believe either that someone got it right (even if that theory has failed to sway most philosophers), or they have faith that that someone will eventually fulfill the Enlightenment’s philosophical ambitions: Enlightenment rationalism has not failed; it just has never been tried.

The second alternative is the natural response to the failure of the Enlightenment project: relativism. In this view, justice is a social construct and truth, moral or otherwise, is what we decide it to be. Reason is personal and perspectival, rather than impersonal and absolute. Nietzsche was the greatest philosopher of this view, revealing the prejudices and irrationalities behind Enlightenment presumptions of unprejudiced rationality.

These first two alternatives rely on each other. Enlightenment rationality appeals to those repulsed at the prospect of thoroughgoing relativism, while relativism in its turn attracts those who recognize the Enlightenment’s failure to establish an impersonal standard of public rationality. Each benefits by positing itself as the only alternative to the other.

However, there is a third option, which is to consider reason in non-Enlightenment terms. If the Enlightenment was mistaken about what human reason is, then the Enlightenment failure to provide an adequate conception of public rationality does not necessarily vindicate relativism. As MacIntyre put it, “What the Enlightenment made us for the most part blind to and what we now need to recover is … a conception of rational inquiry as embodied in a tradition.”

This has been his project, and related efforts have been made by many other philosophers. It is in large part a recovery of philosophy as practiced before the self-styled Enlightenment, with the addition of lessons learned from the Enlightenment and its critics.

The ideal of Enlightenment rationality was a dead end for philosophy, not its culmination. We are finite, contingent beings, and we must not presume that our reason is capable of transcending this to achieve a sort of God’s-eye view of reality. What is needed is not faith in the discredited goals of the Enlightenment, but the development of a conception of rationality that accounts for the apprehension of reason and truth within our existence as limited, historical beings.

** On the American side, I suggest starting with “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” “The Myth of American Individualism,” “Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, The Minutemen and Their World” and “The Creation of the American Republic.” On the philosophical side, assuming a prior basic philosophical education, I would commence with “The Portable Enlightenment Reader,” “Truth and Method,” “Personal Knowledge,” “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” and “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”