Taking it to the Third Order

June 15, 2010 | 29 comments
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Since my “second-order” questioning elicited little discussion (albeit 200+ responses), let me try to “take it up a notch,” as George Constanza might say (forgive the erudite cultural references).  Herewith, the “third order,” the Meta-Meta Meditation on the problem of politics/morality/religion.  (I gather my guest privileges will expire before we have a chance to go to the Fourth Order, which would start to make me a little nervous anyway, since I don’t know what the Fifth Order might be.)  Anyway, here, from my forthcoming blockbuster, The Responsibility of Reason*, is a fragment of that third-order reflection.  (Is it relevant to LDS concerns?  Only, I suppose, if thinking about the relation between reason and revelation is relevant to us as LDS.  You help me judge):

 Reason’s responsibility is a problem because the rule of simple reason is as impossible as it is inevitable. It is impossible because a clear and distinct grasp of the meaning and goodness of human existence eludes our natural powers, if only because we human beings are naturally aware of being part of some larger whole that exceeds our grasp. Thus an answer to the practical question of human purpose cannot be simply separated from the theoretical question of the way things are, of the nature or Being of what is highest or somehow ultimate. As Tocqueville saw with great clarity, human existence, considered personally or collectively, depends on “dogmatic beliefs,” and nothing can prevent beliefs or intimations regarding what is highest or ultimate “from being the common spring from which all else originates.”[i] The good or goods to which reason is necessarily oriented cannot be produced by reason itself; therefore, the meaning of good and right—the purposes and norms that provide reason’s compass—cannot escape contamination from shared and inherited understandings of ultimate purposes and laws and thus of the nature of things. Thus reason can never be autonomous in any simple sense, if only because the independence or integrity of practical in relation to theoretical reason is not a given, but, as we shall see, a standpoint that must somehow be secured. To make reason our “only star and compass,”[ii] it would first be necessary to know what that can possibly mean.

Yet the rule of reason, however problematic, is also necessary or inevitable because this rule follows from our nature as speaking and political beings—as rational, though not wholly or simply rational, beings. Our most basic and necessary activities: self-preservation, production, and reproduction are not governed by simple instinct but mediated by thinking—by awareness, foresight, and speech. Indeed every recognition of the limits of reason, and therefore of the necessary subordination of human agency to ancestral ways or to a revealed Word, is mediated by reason. To recognize the limits of reason is itself an act of reasoning, an act that must have a positive or constructive as well as a negative or critical moment. If we are flies caught in the web of an understanding of Being that precedes and exceeds us, then we are also spiders who actively create threads of meaning by which we more or less knowingly contribute to the production of these webs. Perhaps the direct and comprehensive rule of God or of an absolutely comprehensive and unambiguous Divine Law would cancel the necessity of the rule of reason, but such a condition would not be the human condition as we know it, and the beings so ruled would not be what we mean by human beings. As long as we remain human beings, even the sacrifice of the rule of reason would seem somehow at some point to engage reason’s responsibility.

Since the simple rule of reason is impossible—because reason cannot autonomously produce the meaning or purpose with a view to which it might rule—responsible reason necessarily stands ambivalently in relation to commonly held beliefs and assumptions: it negates or questions them at the same time as it depends upon and reinforces them. Reason draws its own meaning from mere opinion or prejudice even as it guides and shapes less rational understandings. The problem of the constitution and character of the elusive public, authoritative horizon (or, if you prefer, of the field of the perpetual renegotiation of authoritative horizons), out of which we more or less knowingly assume responsibility for ourselves as individual persons, and the problem of the meaning and status of reason—of our imperfect and ever-renegotiated awareness as speaking, thinking beings of the way things are, an inescapably governing awareness of our being in relation to our surrounding world—these are pervasively, inescapably bound up together. Truth must be extracted, disentangled from opinion. Yet we must choose and act, and somehow do so reasonably, before this task is complete, because we never finish it. The existential-ethical questions as to who I am and what I am to do are inseparable at once from the political question who we are and from inexhaustible theoretical or ontological question of the way things are.

*subtitle under review: Propadeutic to an Erotic and Thumotic Ontology


[i] Tocqueville, DA II.i.5

[ii] Locke, First Treatise…

29 Responses to Taking it to the Third Order

  1. Dane on June 15, 2010 at 9:23 am

    So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that it’s impossible to define reason objectively because there is no external measure for reason. If we want to know what the laws of simple reason are, we can only discover them by creating them, and the creative process is not necessarily reasonable. Is that right?

  2. SLO Sapo on June 15, 2010 at 9:53 am

    “Since my ‘second-order’ questioning elicited little discussion (albeit 200+ responses). . .”

    Boy, you really know how to warm up an audience.

  3. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Truth must be extracted, disentangled from opinion. Yet we must choose and act, and somehow do so reasonably, before this task is complete, because we never finish it.

    We’re apparently fated to engage in the useful at the expense of the true.

    I think I’ve heard this somewhere else before.

  4. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Not to be glib, and I’m sure some brighter lights will weigh in and set me straight (no pun intended), but I’m stumbling over “dogmatic beliefs” (good) vs. “opinion” (bad). That said, I think Dane is on point and asks a very good question re Ralph’s last sentence:

    The existential-ethical questions as to who I am and what I am to do are inseparable at once from the political question who we are and from inexhaustible theoretical or ontological question of the way things are.

    I’m gonna kick back and take in this last sentence for a while. It’s a doozy.

  5. Dave on June 15, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Fine post. In response to the first paragraph, I think it is certainly the case that the relation between reason and revelation is relevant to LDS thinking. There’s plenty of general discussion out there about faith and science, but the reason and revelation question is a narrower one that touches more directly on LDS concerns. The limits of revelation as well as the limits or reason both need more LDS discussion.

    Here’s my own stab at summarizing the thrust of the post: Reason necesssarily mediates our views and beliefs about the good and the right, but cannot by itself supply them. That seems very much in line with Hume’s view that reason is subject to the passions (e.g., desires and opinions) and that morality is therefore not grounded in reason.

  6. Bob Cheeks on June 15, 2010 at 11:10 am

    If the ‘reason’ you are discussing here is what Voegelin (via Plato and Aristotle) referred to as “Nous,” e.g. “mind, intelligence, reason,” and includes a factor of the “heart” (an intuitive desire in the tension of inquiry toward the “transcendent”). Which is, if I understand him, provides being with an intuitive, though undifferentiated, awareness of the ground of existence.

    Another component of being is the searching, question, and desire for that ground of existence experienced and intrinsic in the metaleptic event (the communion of man and divine being). “Revelation” itself merely signifies the outburst of pneumatic consciousness that has provided the insight into a ‘better’ way of experiencing the divine. It is the nous/reason that demands the quest, at least for the philosopher, for the pneumatic outburst?

    Nous/reason then, is intrinsic, inherent, and fundamental to being.

    Nous/reason by definition can not participate in philodoxy.

    As Tocqueville saw with great clarity, human existence, considered personally or collectively, depends on “dogmatic beliefs,” and nothing can prevent beliefs or intimations regarding what is highest or ultimate “from being the common spring from which all else originates.”[i

    This statement introduces the problem of docrinal/dogmatic distortions discussed by Voegelin in his essay, “Immortality,” (CW, Vol.12, Univ. of Missouri, Published Essays, 1990) related in this instance to the philosophy of history but applicable, in the same sense, to theological doctrine. Here, Voegelin remarks, “…the conventionally so-called ideologies are constructions of history which interpret the doctrinal mode of truth as a phase of human consciousness, now to be superseded by a new phase that will be the highest as well as the last one in history.”

    Thanks for your blog here, I really enjoyed it.

  7. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    OK, I’ve kicked back, here are my thoughts:

    My suspicion (based on this and Ralph’s previous thread/comments) is that Prof. Hancock welcomes court-imposed marriage equality.

    Why? Because post-Roe v. Wade, certain communities suddenly rallied behind questions of who I am and what I am to do and who we are … all in response to the way things are.

    Like abortion, marriage equality will soon be the law of the land. It will be the way things are and Prof. Hancock (and Matthew Holland) are not supinely waiting for that day. They are welcoming it with daring assertions that, yes, we are anti-gay.

    In other words, they are here to move the process along and then get on to the business of rallying certain communities to stand opposed to the way things are.

    Prof. Hancock knows full well that the thrust of the current Prop 8 trial is to determine whether anti-gay animus was or was not the primary rationale for the Yes on 8 campaign’s promotion of “traditional marriage.”

    It was. He freely admits it and thereby welcomes a defeat at the hands of Ted Olson and David Boies.

    Long story short, losing, not winning, has always been the point for this crew.

    Robby George knew this was a lost cause once the numbers didn’t add up for a constitutional amendment. What he’s been doing since that realization is recruiting folks like Ralph and Holland, Jr. to wage rearguard actions. And Robby’s Mormon friends happily took it on because it was such an obvious community-building exercise.

    But in terms of actually changing anything … well, how long has Roe v. Wade been law? It’s settled. The only hope Ralph and Matt have is to mount an appeal to the rubes and hope to influence a random Republican election here or there. At this point, it’s already little more than a GOP GOTV effort on both their parts, and they know it. Sadly, it’s a strategy that’s probably good to last for another 10-20 years, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules (and we already know which way that’s going). Scalia wouldn’t have spoken up for a modicum of “civil courage” if he wasn’t tired of hearing the complaints from his ersthwile Mormon comrades who seem unable to stop whining about persecution.

  8. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    “Ersthwile”? Good grief, I’ve developed a lisp.

  9. B. Bishop on June 15, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    To pick up Dave’s comment (#5):

    “Reason necessarily mediates our views and beliefs about the good and the right, but cannot by itself supply them.”

    I’d venture to say that this is right … as far as it goes, which is still not far enough. Isn’t it also your point, Ralph, that our views about the good and the right, while finally not supplied by reason alone, are also not supplied entirely apart from reason? Part of the point is (isn’t it?) that faith/revelation/tradition, on the one hand, and reason, on the other, are bound up with one another.

    Revelation, if it is to guide practical views and decisions about who I am, who we are, how to live, etc., is not strictly segregated from reason … indeed, it must and does speak at least in part to our rational capacity as language-bearing, concept-forming, ends-means-measuring, Being-considering beings, even if the revelation is not comprehensively reduced to such reason. To constitute authoritative practical directions, revelations must and do precipitate into some form capable of being spoken or written, recorded, remembered, taught, learned, etc. Even if the full measure of faith/revelation remains partially inarticulate, the fact that it at least partially lends itself to the human capacity of reason permits it to be understood, recorded, remembered, transmitted … in short, to form the ground on which we make sense of who we are and what we should do. And isn’t this relationship of faith to reason what Romans 10 points to: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? … So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

    But, by the same token, reason does not entirely provide its own ground. At least in human being as we experience it, there is no rational account that is both comprehensive and impervious to question or wonder. Rational accounts are either questionable to us or find traction for us as human beings at least in part because and insofar as they clash with or appeal to our (more or less explicit) intuitions or commitments that spring from tradition, revelation, beliefs or societal mores.

    My own sense is that our human agency is made possible precisely in the way reason and faith are at once bound up with one another, but not entirely within one another’s grasp.

    On a more practical level, I would use “Propaedeutic to an Erotic and Thumotic Ontology” as a subtitle only if you are determined to scare more people away from the book.

  10. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Personally, as subtitles go, I’d run with “Propaedeutic” as “Milk before Meatheads” (bonus points for a worthy Archie Bunker erudite pop culture reference) … And save Moore’s quote for the next available blank page: “… wimps suffer from a want of manly spirit altogether. They lack what the ancient Greeks called thumos, the part of the soul that contains the assertive passions: pugnacity, enterprise, ambition, anger. Thumos compels a man to defend proximate goods: himself, his honor, his lady, his country; as well as universal goods: truth, beauty, goodness, justice.”

  11. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Didn’t Luc Besson direct “The Fifth Order” ?? In any case, Milla Jovovich rocked (as she never did before and has never done since), although she was pretty good in Le Cinquième Élément as well.

  12. Kaimi Wenger on June 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    I don’t know, Chino. I had a hard time accepting a silly anorexic model as the soul of the universe.

    She did look awfully cute in the scarlet wig, I’ll give her that much.

  13. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Somehow, simply knowing that PG-13 is OK in these parts puts me at ease. By the way, it wasn’t the anorexia so much as the love that saved us all, Kaimi.

  14. CT on June 15, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    A few random thoughts:

    1) Perhaps you could clarify what you mean by the responsibility of reason? Our moral responsibility for our reason? You later use the phrase “responsible reason” which seems like it has a different meaning (reason well-used or something like that). I will focus on the latter.

    2) Here’s my take away, and I’d appreciate your corrections: Rationalism, to the extent it fails to recognize its own limitations, becomes, like other views about “the way things are,” unreasonable. But reason’s inherent limitations do not justify repudiating reason, for reliance on reason is inevitable as human (reasoning) beings. Thus, the trick is to reason responsibly, which is to say, embracing a form of rationalism that is aware of its own limits, preconditions, and effects. One’s staring point is in the cave, but one must advance out of the cave, all the while maintaining an awareness of the impact of that advance on the rest of those in the cave. In short, one must engage in political philosophy, in both senses of the word political.

    3) Your post (or maybe just what I described in #2 above) reminded me of Aristophanes’ Clouds.

  15. CT on June 15, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    And please tell me Propadeutic to an Erotic and Thumotic Ontology was a playful proposal.

  16. CT on June 15, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    “The existential-ethical questions as to who I am and what I am to do are inseparable at once from the political question who we are and from inexhaustible theoretical or ontological question of the way things are.”

    Chino Blanco, I can’t tell if you’re trying to take the post seriously or not, but I thought I’d try my hand at explaining this sentence, which, for all your kicking back, I think you’ve misunderstood. Based on what Ralph outlined in the post, the ethical questions of what I should do, how I should I act, what is a virtuous life, etc. cannot be separated completely, on the one hand, from the political question of what defines “us” as a political community since our reason is situated in, bounded by, and partially defined by that community. On the other hand, as reasoning beings, we are also drawn beyond the political community to a concern for and a desire to know “the way things are,” i.e., the truth about mankind, our nature, and our relationship with the world.

  17. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    CT – This post is a postmodern manifesto of sorts. It’s allowed to be playful, as am I.

    Also, I don’t see a whole lot of daylight between your understanding of Ralph’s last sentence and mine.

  18. CT on June 15, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Chino Blanco, actually my question about your seriousness in engaging with the OP came from your comment 7, and not the later bits about Archie Bunker and The Fifth Element, which I have no problem with. And in that post, you seem to interpret “the way things are” as the currently accepted legal/political practice, which is quite a bit different.

  19. Chino Blanco on June 15, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    CT- I concede. You’ve correctly identified what I don’t take seriously: I don’t think the OP could give a toss about “the way things are” in terms of “the truth about mankind” or “our nature” or “our relationship with the world.”

    On those fronts, my sense is that the OP is beginning from a very specific Mormon a priori and working backwards, all the while being careful to leave that a priori unspoken.

    It reminds me of something I noted in 2008. A letter from Bob Packer to the LDS in California. Step #1:

    Congregations of LDS all having been taught the doctrine in July so that they may see the importance of fundraising and grassroots participation.

    We can talk about all those other things you mention (“truth” “nature” “world”) or we can talk about doctrine. To the extent that doctrine subsumes all those categories in Ralph’s world, why speak of anything else? Why not just have an upfront discussion and stop pretending we’re not all Mormons of one kind or another who know exactly the a priori that Ralph is coming from?

    But, at the end of the day, that’s the whole point of Ralph’s project, isn’t it? To dazzle Mormon audiences with something that convinces them that Prop 8 truly was a world-historical struggle, and not simply a mistake.

  20. RW on June 16, 2010 at 7:50 am

    The Problem. Reason vs Belief vs action.

    So where is the spirit among all this?

    I always base my philosophical musings back on the wet stuff, the Darwinian gift, the evolutionary thought. All philosophy, to be correct, must fit in that basic context. This is because the wet stuff has its own logic. We, humans, are “doing machines” who must be doing something. It is driven by some archaic urge from deep in the brain stem, to get up in the morning and produce.

    The rational mind, the mind of reason, floats on top of all of the irrationality of brain stem and mid brain. The “rational” mind (ha) finds itself as the handmaid of the irrational. Struggle as you might you will never be free and the “higher” functions of our psyche will be steered and guided by the idiot at the helm.

    It is that idiot which contains all of the beliefs and faiths and superstitions which we engage in and which dominate our existence. It is with these that the idiot sets a course.

    I say idiot with some caution. The idiot is an idiot because it has little reason but it has been tasked with the difficult overarching responsibility to keep us safe, to help us procreate, to find good food and to find good company. So many important things for a creature with so limited ability to learn and change. We see visions under its guidance.

    No ontology, thumotic or erotic or otherwise, is complete without this consideration.

  21. Nate Oman on June 16, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Ralph: It seems to me that this aria is a nice starting point from which to attack various foundationalist projects that try to construct a political order on the basis of pure reason. Now I understand that a hand full of philosophers have tried this in the past, and a large number of postmodern philosophers worry abou this today. On the other hand, I wonder how often one actually runs into a foundationalist project of constructing a political order on the basis of pure reason in the real world. It seems to me that actual politics is always carried on the middle of things, which is precisely your point. You worry about appeals to the self-evidence of contestable categories such as public versus private, and speaking about the paradoxical embeddedness and necessity of reason is a good way of breaking the spell of such categories. I wonder, however, if the spell is really as strong as you suggest, considering the way in which the boundaries between public and private are constantly renegotiated and shifted around to suit the needs of concrete rhetorical situations.

    Put in simpler terms, if you look at how people act rather than what they say about why they are acting, it seems to me that we all already know and believe this. That being the case, it may have fewer political implications than you believe and we may be stuck arguing back and forth about contingent historical facts where political philosophy provides us with no special insight. Perhaps it is just as well that our politics are dominated by not especially philosophically sophisticated lawyers and former business executives.

  22. Ralph on June 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks, all who have striven to rise to the “third order.” I will not be addressing those who insist on reducing everything to a dichotomy between “we rational and progressive ones” on the one hand and “you prejudiced ones” on the other.
    Nate, you raise an excellent question. In fact, you might say that the point of my in a way postmodern position would be in a way to liberate regular, practical lawyers and former business executives from the intimidation of a kind of secular foundationalism or fundamentalism. But don’t some of the comments on this and my other threads give evidence precisely of the need for such a liberation? But set them aside if you wish — in act, let’s do. Isn’t practice oriented by theory, especially in modern societies, whether we like it or not? I recall CS Lewis’s line about the need for good philosophy, if only to face down bad philosophy. Isn’t John Rawls massively influential in law schools, at least certain elite law schools, and much juridsprudence? That’s bad philosophy, in my view (and believe me, I could explain). Are not our politics infused with a certain liberationism that has deep “theoretical” roots (if not exactly “foundations”)? I think a certain liberationism is so deeply embedded in much practice that it requires some deep counter-philosophizing to expose it to questioning. The “foundation” of this liberationism can be seen in our deference to the twin idols of scientism and unlimited personal freedom. (See Pierre Manent, A World Beyond Politics?) Everything else is considered mere “prejudice.”

    RW: if it all comes down to the “wet stuff,” if there is no freedom, no dimension higher than material causation, then what are we talking about? Materialists, whether evolutionary or otherwise, cannot account for their own activity. The most primary, empirical evidence there is is the evidence that our thinking, choosing, aspiring is not a matter of mere material causality.

    CT: Yes, I think you’re seeing what I’m up too. My book tries to show that “responsibility” is more than a moral factor added to reason — it has to be considered inherent in the very activity of reason itself as a self-aware, self-critical activity.

    B. Bishop has got me just right, I see — but then he’s had a head start. Maybe I should ask him to finish my book for me, since he seems to be clearer than me on what is at stake.

    Dave, the connection with Hume is important, but Hume falls back into some kind of materialism, I think.

    Dane, your question is a good, searching one: I’m trying to break down the absolute barrier between discovering/ creating. It can’t be one or the other, can it? Meaning can neither be constructed by reason, nor an object simply outside reason?

  23. Nate Oman on June 16, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Ralph: Where I suppose that I am most sympathetic to your project is your attempt — an attempt that obviously is advanced by other philosophers such as Gadamer — to rescue the idea of “prejudice” for intellectual obloquy. A public discourse in which universal aspirations like freedom, rights, and reason were tempered by an appreciation of the value of habit, tradition, and the inchoate mental and social habits that make life possible would be a great improvement. On the other hand, I think that so often when we actually look under the hood of the political projects that travel under universal banners like freedom, rights, and reason (forgive the mixture of metaphors) what we actually see are local ameliorative projects. I take it that there is nothing in your call for a responsible and chastened reason that offers any principled reason for opposing the continual process of localized ad hoc tinkering.

    You offer the example of law schools. To be sure, egalitarian liberalism of some vaguely Rawlsian variety is intellectually popular in such places. This is important because as Toqueville long ago pointed out, lawyers form the civic aristocracy in America and how we go about training them matters. However, I suspect that as a philosopher looking in, such “Rawlsian” tendencies can seem more dominant than they in fact are simply because as a philosopher the “philosophy” is what jumps out as being most salient. However, the good news is that rationalist and liberationist intellectual tendencies in the law schools always run up against the fact that lawyers and law professors must deal with the vast, never wholly digested mass of the law. Law students will pick up a smattering of Rawlsian ideas and it would be nice for them to pick up something else. On the other hand, beyond Rawls what they read are judicial opinons — thousands of pages of judicial opinions. While these often contain a veneer of philosophical rhetoric, a good professor will teach students to treat this with a great deal of skepticism, seeing instead the way in which judges are constantly trying to come up with sensible, localized solutions to particular problems in an on going process of adjusting social rules to the realities of social practice. Hopefully that sounds sufficient anti-foundational to give you hope. I certainly would be the last to deny that pathologies of various kind lurk in American legal thought, but there is reason to suppose that more is going on the a thoughtless slouching toward the original position.

  24. Nate Oman on June 16, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    rescue “prejudice” FROM intellectual obloquy

  25. CT on June 16, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    It is certainly true that no particular theory rules in practice, but that is not to say that the theories don’t claim to, that they don’t aim to, or that their partisans don’t seek to extend and maximize the political salience of their favored theory. Hence it would seem to me a useful exercise to consider the impact and suitability of such theories for, I’m not sure what to call it, the good of the community, human flourishing, etc. Presumably it would be better to have a public discourse that is a bit more self-aware, which might in turn lead to better deliberation and better outcomes. However, that need not be the case.

  26. Mark Ashurst-McGee on June 17, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Reminds me some of W. Jay Wood, _Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous_ (InterVarsity, 98).

  27. MoHoHawaii on June 18, 2010 at 4:30 am

    In other words, ideas matter more than people. This post and its predecessor remind me why religion has a reputation for cruelty.

    The best and kindest Mormons I know don’t think this way.

  28. TMD on June 18, 2010 at 9:04 am

    The idea that you can separate people from ideas is misguided. Even the interpretation of personal, invidual experiences (including physical experiences) is profoundly shaped by ideas, most all of which do not originate in the individual.

  29. Robert Couch on June 23, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Ralph, I’m late in reading your series of posts, but I just wanted to thank your for their thoughtfulness.