Friday, June 24, 2011

The Fear of Reason: In defense of rational argument

by Leon Wieseltier

New Republic
June 23, 2011

“I just want to point out,” declared the student at the far end of the seminar table, “that when Maimonides offers a proof of God’s existence, he is not saying that he has really proved it. What he’s saying is: This works for me, and if it works for you, great.” I was teaching a graduate seminar on The Guide of the Perplexed at a fine American university, and I was pleased to see my students warming to my insistence that the old masterpiece is still alive, and one of the most formidable obstacles ever erected against a thoughtless existence. We returned repeatedly to the question of what medievals can teach moderns about the indispensability of a worldview, and about the proper methods for justifying one. But the young man’s comment about the subjectivism of Maimonides’s proof—anyway the least interesting part of the book--startled me. It was so American and so wrong. After explaining why it was not just historically correct, but also philosophically respectable, to conclude from the text that its author really could have believed that a proof was possible, I proposed that we quit the twelfth century and put a little pressure on the talismanic words “and if it works for you, great.” I began a discussion of the shortcomings of pragmatism, which allowed me to launch into a withering—and of course intellectually devastating—analysis of the ideas of Richard Rorty and their poisonous impact upon thinking in America. My students offered surprisingly little resistance; but then they had signed up for a winter of rationalism and religion--this countercultural band was not ashamed of its interest in the idea of truth. Yet the Rortyan shrug was still there in the young man’s comment, and so I asked him for his opinion about reason. He said that it frightened him and discouraged him. The problem with reason, he explained, was that it claimed to settle matters once and for all, and that this was arrogant, and that it left him with nothing more to say. Rationalism made him feel excluded and late. I replied that he had it backward. It is not reason, but unreason, that shuts things down. You cannot argue against an emotion, but you can argue against an argument. That is why we were still contending with Maimonides, and why he was still contending with Aristotle. A reasoned discussion is always open and a reasoned intervention is always timely. Unreason is more arrogant, more impatient, more cruel, than reason. Since reason is general, it is inclusive. Reason, I said, is strict but fragile, forever hounded, forever distracted, the minority cause, provisional, fair, curious, fallible, public—not tyrannical but heroic, in its lonely insurrection against the happy and popular hegemony of passions and interests. I told my students about Maimonides’s life, the persecution, the tragedy, the depression, the paranoia, so that they would see the creatureliness of the rationalist, and honor his confidence in the mind as a human triumph. Reason is even poignant.


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