“All we ask is that decisions be based upon reason.”

The speaker was a political scientist, addressing other political scientists. The subject was the role of the American judicial branch. But the frustrated assertion of the authority of simple reason is a familiar one in contemporary American political discourse.

The assertion is frustrated because “reason” is taken to have a simple meaning. And the meaning of “reason” seems to be simple because it is taken to be simply opposed to mere opinion, to prejudice, and to the mother of all prejudices, revealed religion.

This simplification has roots that go back hundreds of years, to Marsilius of Padua’s truncated Aristotelian response to priestly political claims and to Machiavelli’s separation of “the effectual truth” from the truth simply, or the truth of the soul. In another sense, this modern simplification is prepared by the Christian complication to which it responds, the separation of Ceaser’s realm from God’s. This simplification has certainly served a worthy purpose in enforcing a truce among warring sects, in checking the real or potential claims of popes and priests to political rule over the souls of men, and in channeling rationalized energies towards the “relief of man’s estate.” But the questions of the meaning of reason, of its competence and limitations with respect to human purposes or to what was long called “the soul,” cannot be deferred forever. Modern rationalism’s debt of reflection, after many quite successful restructurings, may be falling due, again, perhaps one last time.

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 human beings are naturally aware of being part of some larger whole. 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.” [DA II.i.5] The good or goods to which reason is necessarily oriented cannot be produced by reason; the meaning of the good cannot escape contamination from shared and inherited understandings of ultimate purpose and thus of the way things are. 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.

And yet the rule of reason is necessary or inevitable because it follows from our nature as speaking and political beings – as rational but not wholly or simply rational beings. Our most basic and necessary activities: self-preservation, production and reproduction are not governed by 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, as in these very thoughts I am now articulating. 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 secrete meanings by which we more or less knowingly contribute to the production of 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.

Because 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 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. 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 the theoretical or “ontological” question of the way things are.
[To be continued, maybe.]

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