What is ‘reason’?

What is ‘reason’? How do we reason? Ask a philosopher these questions about what they claim is their practice and what they most pride themselves on, and you will most likely be met with examples or…by a rabbit in the headlights. They take it for granted – you do philosophy, ipso facto, you reason. In philosophy, suffused with overt and – post the rise of science – concealed gods, reason is held to be linguistic and primarily propositional. On this, philosophy is its own worst argument. The time is long overdue for the Man of Reason with his patriarchal dualisms that Lloyd and particularly Plumwood exposed so well to be got rid of, so it is good to hear another and at least equally important form of reason – non-linguistic, non-propositional, rich, dialectical, wholistic, fluid and instantaneous (on this occasion in relation to morality) – to get a smidgen of a run on The Philosopher’s Zone – I refer to intuition.

(Academic) philosophers, you will be hearing a lot more of intuition (and of more ‘primitive’ forms of ‘reason’) as brain science develops and what is increasingly getting an airing in adult education courses with the decline of that stage of bourgeois ideology known as postmodernism – I refer to mysticism, to which intuition is central – is absorbed by an eager public, leaving those who are committed to that which is only linguistic and propositional further behind.

Reasoning is what the brain does towards our acquiring knowledge of the world (matter reflecting on matter) and the brain draws on all of its potential towards that end – the truth of the achievement of that end being tested in practice (distinct from the linguistic contemplation, divorced from practice, of philosophy). As Lenin wrote ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature’  Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our philosophic dead!


Excellent words from a priest

The masses are the victims of the deception of a priesthood which, in its envious conceit, holds itself to be the sole possessor of insight and pursues its other selfish ends as well. At the same time it conspires with despotism which…stands above the bad insight of the multitude and the bad intentions of the priests, and yet unites both within itself. From the stupidity and confusion of the people brought about by the trickery of priestcraft, despotism, which despises both, draws for itself the advantage of undisturbed domination and the fulfilment of its desires and caprices, but is itself at the same time this same dullness of insight, the same superstition and error.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans., A.V.Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 330


Matter and Motion

The indestructibility of motion cannot be conceived merely quantitatively; it must also be conceived qualitatively; matter whose purely mechanical change of place includes indeed the possibility under favourable conditions of being transformed into heat, electricity, chemical action, life, but which is not capable of producing these conditions from out of itself, such matter has forfeited motion; motion which has lost the capacity of being transformed into the various forms appropriate to it may indeed still have dynamis but no longer energeia, and so has become partially destroyed. Both, however, are unthinkable.

Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 37


Jürgen Habermas: ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ – ‘the Kingdom of God on Earth’

Habermas and Ratzinger, 19.01.04

Habermas and Ratzinger, 19.01.04

I will first summarise what I think are the most salient points made by Habermas in his chapter ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ and I will then respond to what I think are the main issues raised.

The chapter is a study in the relation between reason (knowledge) and faith. It begins with a funeral service for an agnostic held in a church, indicating that ‘modernity’ could not offer a replacement for a religious ritual in order to mark a person’s death.

Habermas argues that the secular and the religious should engage in communicative dialogue. They share a common source in the Axial Age and while the secular must not presume to speak on religious truth the religious must accept the domination of the secular state and the ‘factual knowledge’ of science.

  • modern science compelled philosophical reason to break with metaphysics and little more was left to philosophy
  • modern reason can only come to understand itself when it addresses religious consciousness
  • Habermas rejected the Enlightenment’s unenlightened view of denying religion rational content and Hegel’s position regarding religion’s subordination to philosophy
  • Habermas states that his motive ‘for addressing the issue of faith and knowledge is to mobilise modern reason against the defeatism lurking within it.’ He is referring to postmodernism’s relativism and to scientism.
  • where ‘practical reason can justify law and morality, it falls short in motivating collective action in response to threats. Kant aimed to counter this with God as postulate. Habermas asks if an engagement with religion might resolve this dilemma for ‘postmetaphysical thinking’. Such an engagement would bear on current religious conflicts around the world ‘triggered…by (an) unexpected spiritual renewal’ and the politicisation of religion. The main religious winners are the Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims. The Protestants in Germany and Britain, due to their national organisations, not so. The primary issue since the destruction of the World Trade Centre has been the instrumentalisation of Islam.
  • the neutrality of the state towards worldviews has set off conflicts which are either power struggles between state authority and religious movements or conflicts between those with secular or religious convictions. The liberal state cannot continue with this position – it requires convictions. And to acquire legitimation, it requires reasons to justify its neutrality which can be accepted by both the religious and the secular. On the basis of this the religious must accept the neutrality of the state in relation to worldviews, broad religious freedom and the independence of scientific research and its monopoly in producing factual knowledge. The secular state must at the same time protect freedom of belief for all. Habermas asks if the state might require the religious to justify themselves non-religiously with regard to politics or should a worldview-neutral language only be expected of politicians?
  • the liberal state must expect its secular citizens not to treat religious ideas as irrational. This engenders the question of how ‘modern’ reason and religion should relate with the other.
  • Habermas concludes with a brief genealogy of the rise of secular reason, arguing its development through a ‘shared reason’ of people of faith, unbelievers, and members of different religions.’


> Habermas refers to several ‘reasons’: ‘secular reason’, ‘“natural” reason, ‘philosophical reason’, ‘modern reason’, ‘practical reason’, ‘religious reason’, ‘shared reason’, ‘secular knowledge’ and ‘revealed knowledge’ – not to mention ‘postmetaphysical thinking’. There is one reason – and that very poorly understood, particularly in philosophy where Lloyd’s Man of Reason with his dualist exclusions is dominant. And this reason is that of Habermas – linguistic, propositional, undialectical, ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

> Habermas writes that ‘modern science compelled…philosophical reason…to break with metaphysical constructions of the totality of nature and history.’ But metaphysics is not the point – it is a straw man for the question which underlies all others – ‘Which takes precedence and which the derivative – consciousness and language or ‘matter’ – the philosophical concept for objective reality?’ What modern science compelled was that God come from heaven to earth and go within. I refer to the rise of mysticism in the West, its primary manifestation Neoplatonism. And this mysticism, this ‘secret accomplice’ via Böhme, Habermas acknowledged was of great significance to him – in fact his theory of communicative reason, his magnum opus, is built on it.

> Habermas writes of the blinkered, unenlightened enlightenment, which denies religion any rational content. He takes his place on a continuum from Hegel through Nietzsche and Weber, critical of the enlightenment from a spiritual perspective, particularly from that of unity. Habermas wrote ‘the decision to engage in action based on solidarity when faced with threats (such as the tensions and fracturings of ‘modernity’) which can be averted only by collective efforts calls for more than insight into good reasons. Kant wanted to make good this weakness of rational morality through the assurances of his philosophy of religion.’ Hegel’s answer was that philosophers find sanctuary as an isolated order of priests and that the Holy Spirit come to a speculative Lutheran cultus; that man of god, Nietzsche’s, his mystical Übermensch; Weber’s his no less mystical hero of Beruf and Habermas’s a linguistified God, detranscendentalised in the mutual recognition of communicative subjects – for all, truly a ‘Kingdom of God on earth’.

> ‘Could an altered perspective on the genealogy of reason rescue postmetaphysical thinking from this dilemma?’ Certainly, but not in the direction Habermas advocates. The grounding would need to be material (which would immediately remove religion from claims to reason) not an abstract normative.

> Habermas writes of ‘conflicts which are currently being triggered around the world by the unexpected spiritual renewal and by the unsettling political role of religious communities.’ When the only form of organised resistance available is one’s religious structure, because the government of one’s country is so compromised and democracy crushed, undoubtedly this spiritual renewal will come as unexpected to many in the West.

> Habermas writes of ‘the neutrality of the state towards worldviews.’ I disagree. The state is the organ of the capitalist class and its fundamental purpose is to embody and represent the world-view of that class. While it is necessary for cohesion that the state give the appearance of impartiality, this is not the case in practice. Perhaps the potentially most dangerous instance of this is the delicate two-faced two-step between the state and the media with regard to China. At regular intervals a story is fed to the media on China – a recent one concerning Chinese spies on this campus. Could anyone possibly argue against there being Australian and American spies here as well? Wikileaks exposed the disgusting servility of Australian political leaders to the US on the subject of China. These stories keep the tension ‘just right’ so that if and when the state with the assistance of the media needs, at the behest of the US, to whip the majority into the acceptance of war, all is in place.

And on the point of public and religious schools, Habermas’s words do not stand up – funding by Federal and state governments for decades has increasingly been taken from the public education system and given to religious and so-called private schools. If it weren’t so serious, the rorting by religious schools that occasionally appears in the media would be amusing.

> Habermas writes that ‘the liberal state must…expect its secular citizens…not to treat religious expressions as simply irrational.’ There is everything right with calling the irrational such. What would be wrong would be to do so with intolerance, abusively and with the intention of provoking violence. Habermas writes of ‘the rational core of faith’ yet in ‘Fundamentalism and Terror’ he wrote ‘Every religious doctrine rests on a dogmatic kernel of belief’.

Habermas’s late concern with religion is that of its prodigal son.


Jürgen Habermas, ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ in An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010


What is Man?

And from the first animals were developed, essentially by further differentiation, the numerous classes, orders, families, genera, and species of animals; and finally vertebrates, the form in which the nervous system attains its fullest development; and among these again finally that vertebrate in which nature attains consciousness of itself – man.

Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 33


A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Two

Philosophical skepticism is impacted by truth that is both absolute9 and yet, to the skeptic, impossible to accept.10 That it cannot be found justifies them in their epochē. At the beginning of Outlines of Skepticism Empiricus wrote of his opponents ‘Those who are called Dogmatists in the proper sense of the word think that they have discovered the truth – for example, the schools of Aristotle and Epicurus and the Stoics, and some others.’11

Cicero wrote ‘I am burning with the desire to discover the truth.’12 He believed that ‘The determination of truth and falsity and what is known and unknown is, after all, the governing rule of any philosophy.’13 Montaigne, with a Christian flavouring, thought the same: ‘holy Truth herself, Truth must present the same face everywhere.’14

Maclean wrote that Montaigne believed that the aim of philosophy is ‘to seek truth, knowledge, and certainty.’15 Descartes, who believed his cogito had defeated skepticism sought ‘true,’ ‘certain,’ and ‘perfect’ knowledge.16 With modernity, the absolute truth that overshadowed the ancient skeptics’ philosophising had become openly sought, with God as the guarantor.17

Further, the absolute truth against which skeptical argumentation functions is fundamental to that argumentation in the form of syllogistic validity. Empiricus’s extensive discussion of proof in Book II of his Outlines is based on syllogisms.

In On Academic Scepticism both Lucullus and Cicero built their arguments on syllogistic reasoning. Cicero wrote ‘There are four premises to the conclusion that nothing can be known or apprehended, which is the only subject at question here.’18

Such a formal approach to truth is continued by those who wrote on them. Frede wrote ‘Arcesilaus and his followers…not only did not want to be committed themselves to the truth of the premises and the conclusion of their arguments, they also did not want to be committed to the validity of their arguments.’19

Stroud writes in the same vein with regard to Descartes ‘So both steps of Descartes’s reasoning would be valid and his conclusion would be true.’20 Annas and Barnes applied the same formal and symbolic analysis throughout The Modes of Scepticism.21

The truth of the world and life is not that of formal, syllogistic validity and symbolic analysis. As the reflection of life and the world in our thought (matter reflecting on matter), this truth is inseparable from uncertainty, contradiction and change.

Metaphorically, it is a ‘living’ concept with ever-deepening content – it was once true that the earth is flat. All truth is relative to a theoretical absolute because change is unceasing. Darwin’s theory of evolution is not an absolute truth, but it is a truth which is repeatedly reinforced. Truth is established, tested, confirmed and developed upon through practice.22

Part two/to be continued…


9. ‘it is no miracle if we are told that we may acknowledge that snow seems white to us but cannot guarantee to establish that it is truly so in essence. And once you shake that first principle, all the knowledge in the world is inevitably swept away.’ Montaigne, ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond‘ op. cit., 676.

10. ‘Sextus himself, being already a sceptic, does not and cannot believe in the truth of the propositions he advances.’ Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, 45. ‘“The sceptic”, Sextus says at the end of the Outlines, “being a philanthropic sort, wants to cure by argument, to the best of his ability, the conceit and rashness of the dogmatists” (PH III 280). He presents himself as a doctor (or better, as a psychiatrist) whose task it is to cure the intellectual diseases – the rash beliefs and the conceited opinions – of his fellows. Just as a doctor need not take his own drugs, so a sceptic need not believe his own premisses.’ Ibid., 45. In response to criticism of his Meditations ‘Descartes protested that his sceptical phase was only feigned, that he never had the doubts of the First Meditation, and that no serious, attentive, unprejudiced person could have them, as long as he was aware of some clear and distinct ideas. The doubts, he said, were put forth for therapeutic and dramatic effect’ Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, 170.

11. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 3

12. On Academic Scepticism, op. cit., 38

13. Ibid., 19

14. ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’, op. cit., 640

15. Ian Maclean, ‘Montaigne and the Truth of the Schools,’ The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, Ed., Ullrich Langer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 142-162, online, 142

16. Peter Harrison, ‘Original Sin and the Problem of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 63, No. 2, April 2002, pp. 239-259, 248.

17. Popkin wrote: ‘as Pascal avowed, as long as there are dogmatists, the sceptics are right. But if one eliminates the dogmatic standards for genuine knowledge, then the Pyrrhonian attack becomes ridiculous, since it is developed in terms of these strong demands or conditions laid down by the dogmatic philosophers.’, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, op. cit., 120. The usually implicit demand for a truth which is absolute underlies all stripes of skepticism – it can be seen in the difference between a skeptic and a relativist who does not suspend judgement but holds that something is a particular case in relation to something else. As Annas and Barnes wrote ‘mud is pleasant for pigs, unpleasant for humans – and that is all there is to it. The relativist is surely right: scepticism about ‘real’ pleasantness in this case is silly. …the relativist is the sceptic’s enemy, not his ally, and…victory for relativism is defeat for scepticism.’ The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations, op. cit., 98.

18. On Academic Scepticism, op. cit., 48

19. Michael Frede, ‘The sceptic’s two kinds of assent and the question of the possibility of knowledge’ in Philosophy in History: Essays on the historiography of philosophy, Eds., Richard Rorty, J.B.Schneewind, Quentin Skinner, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, 257

20. Barry Stroud, ‘The Problem of the External World’ in Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim, Eds., Epistemology An Anthology, Blackwell, Malden, Massachusetts, 2000, 19

21. Moore used premises to prove there is an external world. Ibid., G.E. Moore, ‘Proof of an External World’, ibid., 24. Montaigne regarded the syllogism as evidence of our inability to reason: ‘In (Montaigne’s) attack (on reason) pride of place is given to the syllogism, of which he gives the standard parodic example: “ham makes us drink, drinking quenches our thirst, therefore ham quenches thirst.” He also undermines the truth-claim of the syllogism in the example of the liar paradox (“if you say ‘I lie’ and if you are speaking the truth, then you lie”) ‘Montaigne and the Truth of the Schools,’ op. cit., 147.

22. Practical activity is the basis of cognition and the criterion of truth. Annas and Barnes wrote ‘Thus science resolves the sceptical doubt. …We know of no specific sceptical reply to any specific scientific resolution of this type.’ They rightly add ‘it is, at the very least, not evident that the ancient scientists and their optical theories had the capacity to resolve the Pyrrhonists’ doubts, or to repel the sceptical conclusions which they drew from these examples.’ The Modes of Scepticism, op. cit., 108-09.