Published December 31, 2014 Updated July 19, 2020

This article argues that the concept of rationality should be diversified and understood in the plural. Rather than treating it as a fixed noun, I suggest we should contextualize “reason” and look at propositions and their supporting arguments instead. “Reasons” are statements found in the process of thinking about something “real,” which means that there is, beyond the real, not only language as the medium of expression, but also a mediating psychic process-like fluidity which is itself without pre-determined direction. I am skeptical towards Hegel’s optimistic idea that “the real is rational.” More research is necessary in order to understand the relations between reality and the mind, and in the end, we will still ask, what does it mean for us? Philosophical reflection is “really” a three-way conversation between me, others like me or unlike me, and whatever appears in the place of reality. We talk to each other about what is real, and how this reality functions in itself, as well as for us. But what is the role of rationality in all of this?

The role of reason in the history of philosophy.

We habitually take “reason” to be a faculty of the mind. The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states that humans are “endowed with reason and conscience…” Philosophers often speculate about the extent of reason in the human animal, or they question the universality of reason (postmodernism). Enlightenment philosophy gets criticized for being too optimistic about the power of rationality. And yet, modern sciences have been extremely successful in applying principles of research to their fields that are themselves supported by a form of thinking which is based in logic and mathematics. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas distinguishes between emancipatory and instrumental reason; this distinction raises the question how much of human reality is governed by reason, and whether reason itself is not governed by other principles, like emotions or a “will to power”. Adorno goes a step further and claims that if instrumental reason is fully unleashed, it is not merely irrational, but drunk with its own power, which leads to collectivized aggression, or self-destruction.

Reasoning tries to establish causes, but the idea of causation is itself a physical and philosophical problem. How exactly does one event cause another? Aristotle distinguishes four types of causes that constitute anything: Formal, material, efficient, and final. He creates a conceptual system based on human experience, and then applies it to nature. Even though this approach is empirically unverifiable (what is a “form,” for instance?) it is convincing because it is so human. After Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, philosophical reasoning follows along these lines, thereby perpetuating an imagined structure of reality. It is worthwhile to study this model, because it teaches us about the errors of philosophy. It took centuries in the history of Western thought to overcome it. Today, philosophers are more self-aware and often engaged in elaborate attempts to explain themselves. This leads to more modest approaches. One can start from a simplified philosophical position and ask: what needs to be explained, and why? Philosophical reflection has a tendency to end nowhere, unless we focus it through particular interests. Some people prefer to stay with questions and call this a philosophical stance; others provide answers that are often pseudo-philosophical arguments leading to highly speculative or ideological propositions.

Reason breaks down into arguments that are the elements of human interactions. Also, the actual use of reasoning is never de-contextualized. The attempt to theorize something is always the response to a perceived problem. It is the backbone of science as well as the key ingredient for a democratic political process. We have formalized ways of reasoning that are based on logic, and the discipline of rhetoric teaches us how to apply these argumentative structures to human interactions. What are the larger purposes served by the process of argumentation? Argumentation solves problems, and facilitates almost all aspects of life, because life is mostly a process of working through conflicts. Argumentation is a means of collective judgment and decision making, and therefore an important tool of governance. Argumentation also is a way of knowing, because we decide what to believe through the testing of claims. And it helps us to achieve the goals of a democratic society by cultivating the skills of critical thinking, reflective judgment, and active participation. A culture of argumentation and debate is vital support for a robust public sphere. I will briefly describe these outlined goals and functions of reasoning. Let’s start from the end:

How do controversies end?

An argument is a statement that claims something. You use an argument in order to make a point od some sort. This point can lead to another argument, and so forth. We call this a discussion, a political or scientific debate, and in its totality, this process forms the progress of philosophy. Philosophical inquiry may be eternal questioning, but as a social activity, it can end in various ways.

  1. Agreement: The parties reach a common understanding or judgment; such an end is the ideal outcome for a critical discussion.

  2. Arbitration: Time can run out, and a third party renders a judgment that the participants agree to accept. In this case, the inquiry is not about truth, but pragmatism. What is the best way forward in a given situation, when we don’t have the resources to determine a real winner?

  3. Time resolves the issue: Sometimes the controversy is overtaken by events that either render it moot or point the way toward resolution. To simplify Thomas Kuhn, in long-term philosophical debates the ruling paradigms can change simply because the proponents retire.

  4. A conceptual breakthrough can occur that results in looking at the situation from a different perspective. This has happened in some key debates in the human history that we remember as “paradigm shifts.”

  5. Certain controversies will continue forever, because the same underlying problem may be raised repeatedly by different surface concerns. The concepts may be “essentially contested,” gaining meaning only in relation to their opposites, in which case the controversy is perpetual. This takes the form of a dialectical problem, or a problem that has no solution: How to implement justice in this world, how to live a meaningful live in the face of death, how should men and women get along with each other, etc. Philosophy continues because some of its core problems can never be answered.

Argumentation is a means of collective judgment and decision making

The same force of reason is applied in philosophy as well as in our individual and social lives. The strongest tool we have is the power of the mind.

  1. Much of human affairs is uncertain and contingent, yet decisions are required.

  2. Argumentation justifies decisions under conditions of uncertainty. It subjects ideas to rigorous testing. Rigor is achieved through a seemingly adversarial process, although the goal is shared, and the activity is fundamentally cooperative. The result is to ground decisions in good reasons – reasons that withstand the scrutiny of critical thinkers.

  3. Tests of claims are successive, not final.

  4. The outcomes of argumentation are commitments that people are willing to make and defend but also to revise if circumstances change.

Argumentation is a way of knowing

This aspect of reasoning is closely related to the traditional philosophical concept of reason as discovery of the intelligible structure of the world. Knowledge is intricately intertwined with belief systems, as the attempts to justify modern religions demonstrate. Roughly speaking, we can distinguish four ways of knowing and believing:

  1. We belief something through repetition. Tenacity is the method of chance; one sticks to the most plausible beliefs one gets. These are superstitious forms of belief that lead to strange knowledge claims, but they can persist for a long time, and over many generations.

  2. Knowledge grounded in authority: Belief in another person’s proclaimed truth involves the uncritical acceptance of an untested belief system.

  3. Various philosophers have tried to argue that there is innate knowledge. if there exists an apriori correspondence between knowledge and reality, then knowledge can be deduced from self-evident premises. This is Plato’s solution. One can also argue that the system of language carries a lot of implicit knowledge, and children learn it so fast at the beginning of their lives that we can assume that language acquisition is a process of discovery of pre-existing knowledge “structures”.

  4. Finally, there is also the method of science, which is based on verification of knowledge claims. The question: what do you mean by “verification”? has produced a whole field of research into the methods of science. Popper for instance argues that verification never works; we should try to disprove a statement rather than prove it, because the former is much easier to do than the latter. In general, science is a methodical approach: it has tremendous advantages over the other three methods. It is open to public inspection, it can be replicated by others, and its results are obtained by design rather than by accident.

The limitations of reason

Scientific knowledge has its limitations. If scientific method were the only acceptable path to knowledge, then we would be unable to know about some of the topics that concern us most. There would be no way to know about values, probabilities, predictions, recommendations for action, situations with ethical or legal dilemmas that require judgments based on the unique combination of values and circumstances. Simple questions like: where do you want to go for vacation? cannot be answered based on science. In these cases, the alternative is to look for analogues that achieve many of the same purposes as the scientific method, but that work for these harder-to-judge topics. Argumentation is such an analogue. It assumes that there is mutual agreement on the procedures to be followed. The norms of candor and sincerity must be shared, and reflective judgment is the goal. The knowledge that one’s views may be challenged creates an incentive to search for arguments of high quality.

The view that argumentation is an approximate way of knowing has some important implications:

  1. In the vast realms of the uncertain, truth is relative to the argument that is advanced for it.

  2. We develop knowledge through interaction with others. If the self is a composite of what we know, it is developed only through this interaction

  3. Argumentation carries an implicit value: it legitimizes freedom of speech and, thereby, permits a free society to function.

When we reflect on reason as it is used in the big tradition of philosophy, or on the patterns of arguments that have practical use in almost every aspect of life, we learn that even the most mundane cases of argumentation participate in larger purposes. At a minimum, the freedom of speech enables a free society; and this idea is best expressed in Rosa Luxemburgs statement that “freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.” Controversial argumentation is itself philosophically justifiable. Philosophical reflection and its expression through dialog, debate, and controversy, is a primary way of improving the quality of our lives, and understood in this light, a “culture of argumentation” is something to be embraced rather than despised.