Saturday, 11 December 2010

Rationalism and Naturalism

(A short piece inspired by Prof. Norris, whose article appears following my own:)

Rationalism and naturalism have developed such firm and complex connections in our single, grand, integrated philosophical text that, like so many other simple philosophical ideas, their treatment to an ordinary language analysis would be academically impossible without years of research spent wandering through the labyrinth of their references.

This gives the amateur some advantage though, of course, no-one need listen to that species.

“Naturalism”, whether or not we like to privilege it with animal thuggery, is another word for immediate, primary, experience. This provides frameworks (such as “language games”) through which objects are manifested or identified. “Rationalism” is the activity of plunging one framework into another or assessing one framework from the viewpoint of another, thus reducing one of them to an object, while the other is its manifesting condition.

Thus the play of naturalism and rationalism is the play of framework and object. It is difficult to see how any animal, no matter how primitive cannot, in that case, be rational.

Naturalistic “events”, or the primacy of experience, brings us the manifesting, identifying, condition of rational objects. There are no rational objects per se because rationalism proposes no objects and requires the frameworks of naturalism to invoke/manifest/identify them.

This reduces rationalism to mere report - report of naturalism, as natural experience necessarily involves the play of frameworks.

Ideas of the 21st Century
Ideas of the century: Naturalistic rationalism (36/50)
Written by: Christopher Norris | Appears in: Issue 50

Posted by: TPM ⋅ November 19, 2010
Christopher Norris continues our special 50th issue series

Man's evolution
It is my distinct impression (sorry to spoil the party) that this first decade of the second millennium hasn’t been especially rich in brilliant, original, ground-breaking, or even very useful and productive new philosophical ideas. To some extent – my impression again – this has to do with the increasingly specialised character and the consequent narrowing of focus typical of so much work in the homegrown “analytic” tradition. Allied to that has been the impact, in Britain at least, of an academic culture predominantly given over to a short-term, results-based notion of “research” in philosophy and other disciplines. But it is also the upshot of a problem that goes much further back and which now – especially during this past decade – has come to strike a good many philosophers as involving a basic and highly damaging misconception. This is the supposed conflict between rationalism and naturalism, one that has long been apt to break out in various forms and contexts of debate, from philosophy of science and epistemology to philosophy of mind, ethics, politics, and (latterly) cognitive psychology.
On the widely-held incompatibilist view, rationalism involves a firm commitment to certain guiding or founding precepts, chief among them the priority of reasons over causes in matters of human understanding, self-knowledge, and moral conscience. This must entail a flat rejection of naturalism, which – at least in its full-strength versions – is taken to involve a more or less overt denial of the human capacity to engage in certain kinds of rationally oriented enquiry whose exercise requires the willed deployment of just such autonomous cognitive and intellectual powers. On the contrary: that we can have full-strength naturalism and full-strength rationalism without excessive conceptual strain is a fact about human beings and their place in the world that follows directly from their nature as thinking animals. More precisely, as the classical adage has it, this follows from their peculiar nature as creatures constitutionally “capable of reason” rather than creatures somehow guaranteed to be “rational” simply in virtue of that very nature.
This possibility could have been lost to view only through the curious effect of bifurcated vision brought about by the grip of Cartesian notions on so much of our everyday commonsense as well as our more specialised philosophical thinking. The very word “thinking” comes with a large burden of associated crypto-Cartesian ideas about the mind as a realm of private or inner goings-on. However it is wrong to suppose that such talk of “thinking”, “reflecting”, “imagining”, or any of their manifold analogues, must involve some residual dualist commitment. After all, it has been among the chief lessons imparted by anti-dualists from Gilbert Ryle to the present that we can carry on using such language just so long as we accept that it denotes nothing like Descartes’ disembodied res cogitans or that notion of the solitary, self-absorbed revolver of private thoughts famously captured in Rodin’s sculpture Le Penseur.
There is no reason why the thoroughgoing naturalist should not be thoroughly committed to a language of thinking, reflecting, meaning, intending, and so forth. Indeed it is the besetting vice of many debates in this area to set the terms or raise the stakes in such a starkly uncompromising way that any talk of that kind must be seen either as a striking vindication of the “old” presumptively discredited dualist paradigm, or else as an unfortunate backsliding into antiquated “folk-psychological” beliefs. Yet of course the latter case cannot be made without the most basic vocabulary of “belief” and all its near-synonyms, unless by going some tortuous (e.g., behaviourist) ways around in order to avoid it while often smuggling it back through the use of proxy or surrogate terms. However there is no need for all these credibility-stretching ploys and stratagems if one accepts the thesis that naturalism and rationalism are perfectly compatible just so long as the naturalism finds room (as surely it must) for an adequate range of cognitive capacities or rational-discursive powers, while the rationalism is duly purged of any lingering appeal to Cartesian, that is, first-person-indexed and presumptively infallible epistemic grounds.
Still one needs to acknowledge the depth of resistance to naturalism of this sort amongst many philosophers. Naturalism represents a sizeable challenge or a downright threat to the widespread consensus regarding the need for philosophy to carve out a certain elective domain within which its own practitioners can enjoy, perhaps to a higher since more self-conscious degree, the kind of intellectual and ethical autonomy that properly distinguishes human beings (or persons) from other sentient creatures and everything else besides. Accepting it at anything like full strength, as opposed to the various scaled-down versions currently on offer, can feel very much like just giving up on philosophy and switching to one or other of those nowadays more naturalistically-oriented disciplines (from sociology to cognitive psychology) that have shown greater willingness to place due emphasis on the second term of their contested designation as social or human sciences. That philosophers nevertheless can and should do so – can without any such affront to their intellectual dignity and should as a matter of retaining that dignity on respectable, scientifically conversant and humanly responsible terms – is a case that has been made with increasing energy and conviction during the past decade.
Further reading
Re-Thinking the Cogito: naturalism, rationalism and the venture of thought, Christopher Norris (Continuum, 2010, forthcoming)
Christopher Norris is distinguished research professor in philosophy at Cardiff University

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