Reason Radical, Rationality Revolutionary

Reason Radical, Rationality Revolutionary (Is thinking, after all, abnormative?)

            When are we called upon to think? Or casual idioms are suggestive: ‘thinking things through’ is about following a thread to its end, but one that is centered around things; both the things of this world, which would include objects and objectives, as well as relations between and amongst persons. Such ‘worldly’ things demand an utmost pragmatism; the ability to consider only our conduct in that same world. Or take ‘think about it’, a hortatory device in turn demanding of us to pause for a moment and consider potential alternatives. While generally handy, there is still the presence of the ‘it’, once again, the thing, about which we are supposed to direct our fullest attentiveness. ‘Think before you speak’, an admonition usually levelled at children in all their as-yet not fully present sociality, as well attracts the mind to the dynamic between thought and world; one should marshal the former in complete service to the latter, but the latter as it is at present or as it has been known to be thus far. It is this world-as-it-is that presents to us a contrasting, even conflicting duet; on the one side, custom and tradition, on the other, what needs be done in the mutable day to day.

            Though the weight of what has been done directs our present-day action, tradition is not history. Very often, the two are in confrontation with one another. History is change, after all, tradition stasis, so the tired phrase ‘the dead weight of history’ is actually a misnomer; it is more truly referring to custom, that which we idealize as unchanging. If the definition of gender, say, is a current and apparently newsworthy example of how change conflicts with custom, history with morality, it is simply one of a myriad of possible exemplars of this type. Tradition proffers to us the act, history counters with action. At once we are compelled to work in the world, all the while knowing that the vast majority of it is not of our making. The world is not the result of our work alone. Further, the world itself ‘works’, gets along, moves in an expected manner, in part through forces which seem bereft of humanity. The world, in short, worlds itself, as Heidegger as famously noted. In this worlding of itself, the once-shared and acted-in world takes on its own mantle, one of anonymous rather than eponymous movement.

            In between human institutions, which have their own air of aloofness about them, atmospheres slightly alienating within which we are nonetheless compelled to breathe, and a world which is, in both its nature and cosmic source, alien to us, we humans are called to live. History is our willing ally, so we are not alone in our projects, but history can only present its presence to us through living action, and these actions, taking place in the spaces of institutions such as family or school, the workplace or the State, in their turn can only be effective in their dialogue with history and thus in their confrontation with the tradition, through human reason. One says ‘human’ here because, traditionally, there was also a reason divine, and today, a natural ‘reason’ which the cosmos orders unto itself, as well as the basis upon which this order rests and evolves. Even so, reason divine or cosmic are more metaphors than anything else, and though reason may well be possessed by other, as yet unknown beings, for now it is the singular province of humanity alone.

            And so oft singularly ignored. Why, when we know that our very nature is change, that history begins with the advent of humanity, do we more shun this unique character in our daily lives and in our relationship to the customary than wield it? Perhaps we imagine that the leg-work has already been done, at least when it comes to those issues less profound. But this is a conflation between that which requires only recreation and that which demands creation. Alongside this, a confusion between pragmatism and practicality is present. The former, as stated, centers our attention upon the results of our conduct in the world, rather than the sources of our ability to think and act. It does not disdain metaphysics, but it brackets it, places it in a mental docket, something to be reflected upon in the slower hours, when one has accomplished the needs of the day. The latter does not recognize either the metaphysical or the pragmatic; it is solely concerned with the easiest thing, never the best thing. In this, practicality inevitably slides toward what has already been done, what has been done before, and thenceforth issues a further error; that what has been done is also the best way, even the only way to in fact carry onwards.

            Even our managerial phrase, ‘best practices’, reflects this series of errors. Knowing only the presence of what has been done, we seek to emulate what gives the appearance of working, indeed, of ‘managing’ the world as it comes to us. Certainly, there are situations in which nothing else can immediately be done. Time is always a factor, which is appropriate in the sense that time and history are neither the same nor are they generally friendly to one another. Time suggests presence alone, a lack of change, which is why we find the seeming redundancy ‘historical time’ in textbooks and like studies. Contexts that are defined precisely by deadlines commit us to a certain style of work in the world, even though this same world has nothing about it that is suggestive of an ending. It is this which troubles both the person interested in metaphysics as well as the practitioner, for whom whose practice is all in all. This lack of ending brooks alongside that of an absence of goal or even objective, so for our human projects, we must construct an end. We ask, ‘what are we doing this for?’, and this has a pragmatic ring to it. But we seldom ask ‘why are we doing this at all?’, a question that calls into play our very existence in relation to both tradition and history alike. It is the child who, using the first language, actually intends the second. ‘This for’ is uplifted into ‘this at all’ only to be placed back into itself by the adult, who interprets this nascent call to conscience as a mere mechanical error. Our answers to our youth orbit the practicality of worldly activity; all action tends to its center of gravity. ‘This is why’, we also mistakenly respond, for we are not, in fact, providing an answer to their ‘why’ but only a goal-orientation. In the same way, our ‘reason’ for acting the way in which we do, is not a product of human reason in general but rather a reaction to a worldly demand, as often as not unreasoned and certainly sometimes even unreasonable.

            Through this other series of conflations and casual speech, it is likely that we ourselves begin to distrust reason even as a conception. ‘Reason’ makes demands upon me that I might not be able to meet.’ Reason’ is what the boss gives me, why I’m even working at all. ‘Reason’ is a political paradiddle more promise than premise. ‘Reason’ forces me to ‘be reasonable’, ignore my feelings, put my own experience aside and consider others. I’m only human, we might respond with some bitterness. Just so, it is authentic reason which is, in part, guiding our affective reactions to these genuinely unreasonable articles of daily life. They are so because, for the most part, they themselves are unreasoned reactions to whatever is occurring in the moment, in people’s lives, within the social context at hand. Biography, at once an individuated history – we are as a microcosm, rewriting our own existence moving forward – as well as an anti-history – in this rewriting we confront history as it has been written – exerts an inordinate effect upon our reason, casting it down, as it were, and committing it to actions it would, by itself, never sanction. It is not truly a case of a contrast or yet conflict between ‘emotion’ and ‘reason’, but rather a self-misrecognition that these casually oppositional aspects of the human character exist only because our consciousness, in its very character, presents their union. We are beings with reasoned emotions, with emotive reason, and through this confluence, a third form emerges; that of rationality.

            Rationality is the agentive aspect of thought itself. If reason is radical, thinking is revolutionary insofar as action in the world changes that very world, and in a novel fashion. The profoundly radical exists, and can exist, only in our imaginations. Once we set to work in the world, we find that such a conception rapidly adjusts itself to the demands of the day. There is no shame in this as long as no sycophantic posture is inclined toward the tradition or the customary. The world worlds itself, once again, and we are thus placed in a dialogue with it, as well as with others-to-self. Nevertheless, what change we biographically promote carries its own weight into that collective, that which is exerted by a ‘spirit of the age’, the very one in which I myself exist, a child of my own time and no other. The aggregate of human action in the world is what we call history. Its source, at its best, is rationality; reason enacted, thought made work, presence becoming present. That this process is abnormative only exemplifies that at once history is a task as well as a gift; it is never automatic that we know how to think about this or, indeed, that knowing ‘what’ to do is, simply due to its mimesis of what has been done, is more easily accessed. Even so, thinking is human through and through. We cannot avoid it; we cannot lose it. If it seems that we are often in denial of this essential basis upon which our history and our persons rest, it is because there is a weakness in our ethical characters, and not in those existential.

            Rationality too is not bereft of emotion. It eases the discomfort of authentic action in the world. It makes our agency, in its most intimate motives, understandable to others, who may thence even share it. And though the customary carries undue weight, history undoes its burden, even casts it bodily aside. And history is only possible because of the action of reasoned emotion in the world. We never act ‘against the world’, but rather through our care, even love, of that world. Sometimes we may find ourselves mistaken; the world worlds itself after all. These are the moments when others can be unmistakably correct, and the sobriety of reason as well as the relief of emotion will help us recognize this. Ultimately, this contrasting dynamic, held within the chalice of reason becoming rationality, will allow us to equally become other than we have been, for we cannot expect the world to change if we are not first willing to change ourselves.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 57 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.