JR'S Free Thought Pages
from A C Grayling (from Meditations for the Humanist- 2002)
Reason can wrestle with terrors – and overthrow them – Euripedes
The conflicts which attract most attention in the news tend either to be political and military in nature, or they involve the struggle between people and the natural environment when, in floods, drought and plague, it turns hostile. But behind these, and detached from them because it is a struggle whose proportions are those of history itself, is another struggle, a profound and consequential one because it shapes long-term human destinies. This is the struggle of ideas, expressing itself in terms of ideologies, politics, and the conceptual frameworks which determine beliefs and moralities. Our understanding of the human situation, and the choices we make in managing the unruly and difficult complexities of social existence, are founded on ideas - usually, ideas systematized into theories. Ultimately it is ideas that drive people to peace or war, which shape the systems under which they live, and which determine how the world's scarce resources are shared among them. Ideas matter; and so therefore do the questions of reason, by which ideas live or die.
On one view, reason is the armament of ideas, the weapon employed in conflicts between viewpoints. This suggests that in some sense reason is an absolute which, rightly used, can settle disputes and guide us to truth. But reason so understood has always had enemies. One is religion, which claims that revelation from outside the world conveys truths undiscoverable by human enquiry within it. Another is relativism, the view that different truths, different views, different ways of thinking, are all equally valid, and that there is no authoritative standpoint from which they can be adjudicated. The great debates between science and religion are classic expressions of this underlying conflict between competing conceptions of the place and nature of reason.
Most science and philosophy is on the side of the argument which says that reason, despite its imperfections and fallibilities, provides a standard to which competing standpoints must submit themselves. Reason's champions are accordingly hostile to currently fashionable 'postmodernist' views which say that there are authorities more powerful than reason, such as race, tradition, nature, or supernatural entities.
Human traits and values were once thought to be constants, but social and other forms of engineering have turned them into manipulable variables, with the result that we have lost premises from which to reason about aims and means. The power of technology offers us many choices, and thus usurps the fixed starting points of old; so we are afloat, undecided as to values and goals alike. In such circumstances, siren voices grow louder: let us, they say, believe in gods, or potions, or planetary configurations, to find our way. Or, in postmodernist Newspeak, let us recognize that there are only 'discourses', each as valid as any other.
It might be true that human experience is now more fragmented and beset by ironies than it once was, thereby under mining confidence. But still, say the champions of reason, reason remains by far the best guide in the search for knowledge, so despite its failings and limitations we must cling to it.
There are many who reject this view outright. Western civilization is in crisis, they say, precisely because we believe in reason. We live in thrall to a Utopian ideal of rational society, first mooted by Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth century; but the result, contrary to the hopes of such as Voltaire, has not liberated humanity but enslaved it to a bureaucratic corporatism which stumbles, unconstrained by moral purpose, from one disaster to another.
The anti-rationalist argument goes something like this. Enlightenment philosophers sought to rescue people from the arbitrariness of royal or priestly power and to replace it by the rule of reason. But their dream collapsed because of reason's own limitations. All that happened was an increase in the influence of technical elites. The world, in short, became the fiefdom of managers. Owners of capital do not control capital; voters do not control politics; everything is run by managers who alone know how to manipulate the structural complexities of society. And the managers' goals - profits, election victories -are not shaped by morality.
This technocratic corporatism applied as much to the now-collapsed Eastern bloc as it does to the West. Indeed the East-West distinction, like that between Left and Right, is not a real distinction at all, such critics argue, but a fiction of the managerial strategy by which the Age of Reason sustains itself.
Simply by listing the problems of contemporary civilization anyone can make telling points. Reason's critics do so eloquently enough. Politicians, they remind us, get away with speaking literal nonsense because what counts is the manner, not the content, of their utterances. Governments brazenly continue despite their failures because the concept of responsibility no longer applies. Television, advertising, and the worship of artificial heroes such as soap-opera stars blind people to the world's predicament.
These phenomena, and many besides, are symptoms of deep malaise. Worse still are such examples as the arms trade, encouraged by governments who make pious pronouncements about peace and freedom, but who subvert both by their participation in what amounts to legal gun-running. And this is only part of a story in which military establishments flourish, drunk on obsessions with management and technology; and in which many parts of the world are perennially engulfed in war.
Although this compendium of problems contains nothing new, restating them serves to keep us alert. But blame for the world's problems rests not with a concept - still less the Enlightenment's favourite concept of reason - but with people. Reason is merely an instrument which, correctly employed, helps people draw inferences from given premises without inconsistency. Choosing sound premises is what matters, and it is solely a human responsibility. Blaming 'reason' is as meaningful as blaming 'memory' or 'perception'. It was the racism of Nazis, not the logic they applied to put their hatred into effect, which caused the Holocaust.
Do critics mean that the use of reason is bad without qualification? I imagine them at their word-processors, answering the telephone, taking antibiotics for their sore throats, flipping switches to get warmth and light as cold night falls. Are all these products of reason contemptible?
The muddle in the thinking of reason's critics appears when we examine their alternative. They offer us a list of virtues to put in reason's place: one such reads 'spirit, appetite, faith, emotion, intuition, will, experience'. One immediately notes that all but the last, if ungoverned by reason, are exactly the stuff which fuels fanaticism and holy wars. Here lies the poverty of the anti-rationalist's account.
Only the educated are free – Epictetus
Education, especially ‘liberal education’, is what makes civil society possible. That means it has an importance even greater than its contribution to economic success, which, alas, is all that politicians seem to think it is for.
To understand the civilizing and ethical role of liberal education we need to escape from narrow definitions of 'morality' as conceived in modern times (i.e. since the seventeenth century), and return to a more inclusive classical conception of 'ethics'. As the notion now operates, morality applies just to part of life - to some aspects of human relationships, and to some aspects of character and behaviour. No one thinks that eating bananas is a moral matter, nor whether a person chooses to work in a bank or a building society, or what colour he paints his house. The ancient Greeks thought differently. For them the whole of life is an ethical matter: one lives and does well as a whole person, they said, and both one's flourishing and one's effect on others flow from one's overall character. For this reason life has to be considered - remember Socrates' dictum - and it can only be considered if it is informed. And this is where liberal education comes in.
By 'liberal education' is meant education that includes literature, history and appreciation of the arts, and gives them equal weight with scientific and practical subjects. Education in these pursuits opens the possibility for us to live more reflectively and knowledgeably, especially about the range of human experience and sentiment, as it exists now and here, and in the past and elsewhere. That, in turn, makes us better understand the interests, needs and desires of others, so that we can treat them with respect and sympathy, however different the choices they make or the experiences that have shaped their lives. When respect and sympathy is returned, rendering it mutual, the result is that the gaps which can prompt friction between people, and even war in the end, come to be bridged or at least tolerated. The latter is enough.
The vision is Utopian; no doubt there were SS officers who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven, and then went to work in the gas chambers; so liberal education does not automatically produce better people. But it does so far more often than the stupidity and selfishness which arise from lack of knowledge and impoverishment of insight.
Liberal education is a vanishing ideal in the contemporary West, most notably in its Anglophone regions. Education is mainly restricted to the young, and it is no longer liberal education as such but something less ambitious and too exclusively geared to the specific aims - otherwise, of course, very important - of employability. This is a loss; for the aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased; who think, and question, and know how to find answers when they need them. This is especially significant in the case of political and moral dilemmas in society, which will always occur and will always have to be negotiated afresh; so members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable.
Educating at a high level is expensive, and demands major investment by a society. But attaining the goal of high-quality education offers glittering prizes. It promises to produce a greater proportion of people who are more than mere foot-soldiers in the economic struggle, by helping them both to get and to give more in their social and cultural experience, and to have lives more fulfilling and participatory both in work and outside it - especially in the amenities of social intercourse, and in the responsibilities of civic and political engagement. People who are better informed and more reflective are more likely to be considerate than those who are - and who are allowed to remain - ignorant, narrow-minded, selfish, and uncivil in the profound sense that characterizes so much human experience now.
There is no denying that education is an essential preparation for life and work in an advanced economy. Modern economies require skilled and motivated workers, who can only profit from the opportunities they afford if they are equipped to respond to their demands. So much is now received wisdom.
But a large part of the problem with education is that this connection has become too direct. Aristotle said that we educate ourselves so that we can make noble use of our leisure; this is a view directly opposed to the contemporary belief that we educate ourselves in order to get a job. To that extent the contemporary view distorts the purpose of schooling, by aiming not at the development of individuals as ends in themselves, but as instruments in the economic process.
The key is to distinguish education from training, to recognize that people require both, and to be unabashed about what is involved in the latter. Young children need to be trained in multiplication tables, reading, spelling and writing, exactly as an athlete trains his body: it takes coaching, repetition and practice. When children have acquired skills they can use by reflex, it gives them the confidence and the materials to profit from the next step, which is education proper: the process of learning to think and to know how to find and use information when needed. Above all, education involves refining capacities for judgment and evaluation; Heraclitus remarked that learning is only a means to an end, which is understanding - and understanding is the ultimate value in education.
'Education' etymologically means 'leading out' or 'bringing out', an idea which owes itself to an improbable but long-influential theory put forward by Plato. He believed that we have pre-existing immortal souls which know all things in their disembodied state, but which we forget at birth. On Plato's theory, learning is thus remembering; schooling is the activity of bringing out what is immemorially lodged in our minds. The theory was modified in more sensible directions by later thinkers, who saw education as the evocation of talents and capabilities implicit in the individual, rather than innate knowledge. In one good sense, this is closer to the mark: we still think that human gifts can be helped to flourish if given the right opportunities.
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
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