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Constraint

Dan Sportiello | Friday, April 20, 2012

Rationality – that is, our reflection upon how things seem to us – allows us to understand the world. In its quest to understand itself, however, rationality is pulled in two contradictory directions – and worse, both directions lead rationality to a position that would undermine whatever understanding it achieves. But let us begin at the beginning.

In the beginning, rationality inherits an arbitrary array of beliefs and desires – a perspective upon how things are and how they should be. These raw materials upon which rationality works are thoroughly conditioned by biology and culture. In our youth, we believe and desire broadly what we do because we were born doing so, or were taught to do so. Rationality, in other words, does not choose the perspective from which it begins – and, to judge from history, the breadth of possible perspectives is broad. But rationality is not chained to what it inherits: When its beliefs and desires conflict with one another – as, it seems, they inevitably do – rationality can transcend them, reordering them so that, upon reflection, they no longer conflict with one another. It does this by coming to see its inherited beliefs and desires as illusory – as, that is, mere products of the interaction between its limited perspective and how things actually are and should be.

There is no guarantee that rationality will succeed in this task of reflectively reordering its raw materials. Insofar as it does, however, rationality will have rendered its beliefs knowledge and its desires justice – will have, that is, come to a new perspective on how things are and how they should be. This new perspective will be justified – will, that is, give reasons that things ever seemed otherwise.

To call them knowledge and justice assumes, of course, that rationality’s reordered beliefs and desires are, respectively, true and right – that they will not, that is, conflict with the beliefs and desires to which rationality’s newly transcendent perspective gives rise. In case they do – as, it seems, they inevitably do – rationality must transcend them also. It must take its theory and ethics – that is, its reordered beliefs and desires, respectively – and reorder them in turn. Rationality must, in other words, come to see its new beliefs and desires as illusory, just as it came to see its original beliefs and desires as illusory.

There need be, in principle, no limit to this process. There is, however, an obvious condition upon it: Whatever theory and ethics rationality yields must not conflict with rationality itself. On the one hand, any theory must explain rationality’s past activity – must, that is, give reasons to believe that rationality has approached knowledge and justice; on the other hand, any ethics must value rationality’s future activity – must, that is, give reasons to desire the further pursuit of knowledge and justice.

And thus rationality comes, at last, to Kant. Though its theory and its ethics might threaten to diverge in any number of directions – for the same beliefs and desires can be reordered in any number of ways – said theory and said ethics must converge, at least, upon the explanation and the value, respectively, of the reordering itself. In its quest to understand itself, in other words, rationality is ever drawn to build its foundation upon its own activity: Such is the only foundation, Kant insists, that cannot be shaken.

The problem is that transcendental idealism – that is, Kant’s foundation – turns out to be no foundation at all. For among the inheritance that rationality can reorder is its own method of reordering. What it means for beliefs and desires to conflict with one another is itself something that rationality can change – and, to judge from history, the number of times when it has done so is large indeed. There seem to be no limits as to how far rationality can, given enough time, reorder its own activity – and so the mere fact of reordering turns out to be a constraint upon neither theory nor ethics. No matter how thoroughly rationality reorders its inheritance, it has no reason to suspect that it converges upon where it would have arrived had its inheritance been different – that it converges, in other words, upon truth and righteousness.

In the end, then, rationality finds itself, just as it did in the beginning, with an arbitrary array of beliefs and desires. But for rationality to admit the arbitrariness of its beliefs and desires is for it to surrender as empty the criteria of truth and righteousness. Since every theory and every ethics is the result of reordering some arbitrary perspective – and every method of reordering is itself arbitrary – rationality has no reason to suspect that it will ever converge upon a perspective within which there will be no further conflict. In a sense, then, all beliefs and desires are illusory – which is just to say, of course, that none are.

And thus rationality comes, at last, to Rorty: If it is to believe in and value the arbitrariness of its theory and its ethics, then rationality must reorder its beliefs and desires to yield a theory and an ethics from which truth and righteousness are absent. In its quest to understand itself, in other words, rationality is ever drawn to build its foundation upon nothing at all: Such is the only foundation, Rorty insists, that cannot be shaken.

The problem is that ironism – that is, Rorty’s foundation – turns out to be no foundation at all. For if there is, ultimately, neither truth nor justice, then no particular beliefs and desires are, ultimately, justified: There is no reason to believe or desire anything rather than its contradiction. And there is no reason, therefore, to believe with Rorty that rationality should seek a theory and an ethics from which truth and righteousness are absent – or, for that matter, to believe any of the narrative that led him to that conclusion. To his credit – or something like it – Rorty admits as much. Though this does nothing to help his case.

To say that rationality is left in a difficult position is an understatement: it cannot build its foundation upon either transcendental idealism or ironism, much less both at once – and yet it seems that it has reason to move toward both. For rationality should believe in and value both its ability to transcend its inheritance and its admission that it can never fully do so. Is there a way, however, for it to respect both of these without collapsing fully into either? Is there a foundation for rationality that is not at war with itself?

Such a foundation would have to admit the ability of rationality to reorder and thus transcend any particular array of beliefs and desires, but would also have to limit the ability of rationality to reorder its own method of reordering. Moreover, it would have to have faith in itself – would, that is, have to understand this relative limitation upon its transcendence of itself not as a weakness but rather as a strength. It would have to believe in and value the ability of its relatively fixed method of reordering to converge upon a perspective within which there will be no further conflict. Rationality would have to have faith, in other words, that its seemingly arbitrary method of reordering beliefs and desires is not, in fact, arbitrary at all – that it is, rather, precisely what is necessary in order to achieve knowledge and justice.

But this would just be to reconstruct the teleology that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had not yet thought to question – that is, to have faith in a human nature fundamentally oriented toward truth and goodness.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.