Reflections on Reason: Response to Schindler, part 1

I started reading this week D.C. Schindler’s The Catholicity of Reason (2013). It is an excellent work of philosophy that profoundly challenges our modern notions of reason and truth. It is a difficult read (I can only process a few pages at a time and I have to re-read many paragraphs), but far worth the effort. Since most of the people that read this blog will never pick up the book, I would like to share and interpret some of its important ideas with you. Doing so will help me digest and internalize what I am reading by explaining it in my own words.

Schindler uses “catholic” in the sense of universal, or “according to the whole.” Reason is a way of knowing universal truths, a way of knowing that extends beyond our immediate perceptions in space and time. Through reason we make inferences – logical conclusions from truths we know to truths we didn’t know. Through reason we discern coherence, which is an essential quality of meaning. Through reason, we make generalizations from experience so that we can learn from our experiences across time.

Historically, reason as a way of knowing is associated with the Enlightenment, which is commonly called the Age of Reason. The philosophers of this era hoped that reason would lead to certain knowledge of all things. This modern optimism toward reason has been countered in the 20 and 21st century with postmodern skepticism, which emphasizes the limitations and even liabilities of reason. Postmodern thought characteristically rejects the possibility of knowing universal truths and is suspicious of the “totalizing” (imposing artificial absolutes on the world) effects of the primacy of reason. It criticizes the “arrogance” produced by the belief that reason can lead to absolute certainty.

Schindler argues, surprisingly, that the problem with modernism is not that it put too much faith in reason, but too little; not that it made reason too expansive, but not expansive enough. Contra post-modernism, he argues that the only way to resist “totalizing” is not to limit reason’s excesses, but to embrace its “wholeness.”

According to Schindler, there are four senses in which reason is catholic:

(1) It is defined by its relation to being as a whole, and (2) it involves the whole person in its specific operation, (3) it always grasps the (whole as) universal, on the one hand and (4) the (whole as) concrete, composite being or individual thing in each particular act, on the other hand.

I will close this post commenting why these principles are especially important to grasp in our cultural moment.

(1). In spite of being more connected via technology to the rest of the world, we see ourselves more and more as atomistic individuals, and less and less as members of a community. We live moment to moment, historically disconnected, not understanding our relation to the whole of time. We need to recover a sense of how we are related to the whole of reality; reason enables us to do this.

(2). Our internal lives are fragmented. Reason is divorced from emotion; the mind from the heart.  We associate the rational with public life and science, but our private lives and religion are the domain of the irrational. Matters of faith, beauty, meaning are cutoff from matters of fact/truth. We need to recover sense of how all aspects of our being are involved in engaging with reality.

(3) We are skeptical about the possibility of knowing universal truths and are even ashamed to claim to know them, believing that it is offensive to those who do accept our claims, and fearing that such claims threaten diversity. We need to recover confidence in human capacity for knowing universals, for the progressive search for them brings meaning to human existence.

(4) We do have to reckon, though, with a cultural history that has devalued concrete particulars and diversity in the pursuit of universals, whether that be from religious or secular totalitarianism, from the right or the left, seeking to impose a monolithic view of reality and squash dissent. We need to recover a way of knowing that affirms unity (universals) and differences (particulars)

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