Saturday, July 12, 2014

Thomas Nagel's account of reason

A redated post.

Reason, if there is such a thing, can serve as a court of appeal not only against the received opinions and habits of our community but also against the peculiarities of our personal perspective. It is something each individual can find with himself, but at the same time it has universal authority. Reason provides, mysteriously, a way of distancing oneself from common opinion and received practices that is not a mere elevation of individuality... not a determination to express one's idiosyncratic self rather than go along with everyone else. Whoever appeals to reason purports to discover a source of authority within himself that is not merely personal or societal, but universal... and that should also persuade others who are willing to listen to it. The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 3-4.

One way we might approach some of this is to ask whether reason in this sense exists, as I claim, it must if philosophical and scientific inquiry is to be truly possible, and second, what are the metaphysical implication of the existence of reason in this sense.


B. Prokop said...

Not exactly sure what the author means by "[Reason] is something each individual can find within himself." Is this the "inner light" the Eastern mystics are always referring to, as in the Incredible String Band's A Very Cellular Song?

May the long time sun shine upon you
All love surround you
And the pure light within you
Guide you all the way on

(my emphasis)

Hard to see how something so individual can claim universal authority, without its origins being ultimately outside one's self.

Or does he mean that Reason has been planted (from without) within each of us, but it is up to us to find it?

brownmamba said...
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brownmamba said...

I am skeptical that there is any profundity stemming from anything Nagel has said here. I think the language Nagel is using implies that reason exists as something above ourselves and our capacities, but this is most certainly false. When one makes an appeal to reason, one makes an appeal to a shared understanding. The shared understanding concerns concepts that are comprehended by both parties.

For example, if someone erroneously believes that a square is not a rectangle, then one can appeal to the shared understanding that a rectangle is a shape that has four sides, and since a square has four sides it is thus a rectangle. If someone understands the concepts, then they should be able to make the connections, and this connecting ability is what we call reason.

The capacity to appeal to reason is limited, however, to conceptual paradigms. For instance, even an intelligent bat, (Nagel's favorite animal), would likely not be able to comprehend the concepts of "square" or "rectangle", since it uses echolocation as its sensory apparatus. It does not use "shapes" to organize and conceptualize reality. Because these concepts fall outside the conceptual paradigm of a bat, then an appeal to reason concerning such concepts will not be possible for it.

If reason were some sort of entity that is "consulted" and exists as an authority above and beyond our conceptual capacities, then there wouldn't be these limitations on reason. But there are. Thus, I don't think there are any profound implications in anything Nagel has said.

wayfarer said...

'Reason' is not 'the inner light of Eastern mysticism'. It is foundational to Western philosophy, as a matter of fact. Pythagoras, whose theorem is studied to this day in schools all over the world, was the first to be named 'philosopher' and is also, arguably, amongst the first scientists. The significance of the idea of the 'ratios' that the Pythagoreans explored through harmony and geometery are foundational to mathematics and therefore to science. We take all this for granted without realising how profound it really is and Nagel has done excellent work pointing that out.