Tag Archive: rational discussion

Owing our reason to other people

When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others – not by simply taking over another’s opinions, but by gladly allowing others to criticize his ideas and by gladly criticizing the ideas of others. The emphasis here is on the idea of criticism or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us achieve new ideas. But he does think that, in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that only critical discussion can give us the maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgement of it.

This assessment of critical discussion also has its human side. For the rationalist knows perfectly well that critical dis­cussion is not the only relationship between people: that, on the contrary, rational critical discussion is a rare phe­nomenon in our lives. Yet he thinks that the ‘give and take’ attitude fundamental to critical discussion is of the greatest purely human significance. For the rationalist knows that he owes his reason to other people. He knows that the rational critical attitude can only be the result of others’ criticism, and that only through others’ criticism can one arrive at self-criticism. [84]

The supposed limits of the critical method

Erstaunlicherweise pflegt man im deutschen Sprachbereich gerade eine der ältesten und darüber hinaus eine der wirksamsten und für unsere kulturelle und soziale Entwicklung bedeutsamsten Traditionen des europäischen Denkens nicht selten zu vergessen, zu bagatellisieren oder gar zu diffamieren, oder aber sie zumindest als frag­würdig zu behan­deln: nämlich die Tradition des kritischen Denkens und der kritischen Diskussion, der unvor­eingenommenen Analyse und Prüfung von Anschauungen, Wertungen, Autoritäten und Institutionen. Die bei uns noch immer weitverbreitete Gewohnheit, kritisches Denken mit einem negativen Wertakzent zu ver­sehen, mag dazu verleiten, daß man die Rolle und die historische Bedeutung dieser Tradition falsch einschätzt, zumal sich alle möglichen Verfechter von Auffassun­gen, die durch kritische Untersuchungen gefährdet sind, große Mühe geben, eine solche Fehleinschätzung zu fördern und den Wirkungsbereich der Kritik nach Möglich­keit einzuschränken.

What participation means

The conditions of ‘fairness’ as conceived in the various social-choice problems are misconceptions analogous to empiricism: they are all about the input to the decision-making process – who participates, and how their opinions are integrated to form the ‘preference of the group’. A rational analysis must concentrate instead on how the rules and institutions contribute to the removal of bad policies and rulers, and to the creation of new options.

Sometimes such an analysis does endorse one of the traditional requirements, at least in part. For instance, it is indeed important that no member of the group be privileged or deprived of representation. But this is not so that all members can contribute to the answer. It is because such discrimination entrenches in the system a preference among their po­tential criticisms. It does not make sense to include everyone’s favoured policies, or parts of them, in the new decision; what is necessary for progress is to exclude ideas that fail to survive criticism, and to prevent their entrenchment, and to promote the creation of new ideas. [345-6]

It’s all about argument

Only argument ever justifies anything – tentatively, of course. All theorizing is subject to error, and all that. But still, argu­ment can sometimes justify theories. That is what argument is for. [146]

The catalysts of reason

School ought not be about factual knowledge. That simply shouldn’t matter. Facts aren’t so clear cut anyway, and it is hard to remember them unless you can make regular use of them. Education ought to be about preparation for real life. The intellectual issue in real life is reasoning, not recitation. We need to avoid telling students how things are and instead help them discover things for themselves. The job of a school and a teacher is to serve as the catalyst for that discovery. [22]

Science teaches thinking

The idea of the outward-looking, self-transcending stance expressed itself in two connected ways for Russell. One related to science, the other to personal relationships and the individual’s attitude to others in general. In regard to science, the objectivity and scope of science is obviously such as to make individual self-concern a very minor if not indeed nugatory thing. In the essay ‘The Place of Science in a Liberal Education’ Russell worte, ‘The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires and interest as affording the key to the understanding of the world’, and this immediately entails that the disciplines of reason and evidence are the sole legitimate determinants of thinking in general. [69-70]

Getting nearer to the truth

The myth of the framework can be stated in one sentence, as follows.

A rational and fruitful discussion is impossible unless the participants share a common framework of basic assumptions or, at least, unless they have agreed on such a framework for the purpose of the discussion.

This is the myth I am going to criticize.

As I have formulated it here, the myth sounds like a sober statement, or like a sensible warning to which we ought to pay attention in order to further rational discussion. Some people even think that what I describe as a myth is a logical principle, or based on a logical principle. I think, on the contrary, that it is not only a false statement, but also a vicious statement which, if widely believed, must undermine the unity of mankind, and so must greatly increase the likelihood of violence and of war. This is the main reason why I want to combat it and refute it.

As indicated, I mean by ‘framework’ here a set of basic assumptions, or fundamental principles – that is to say, an intel­lectual framework. It is important to distinguish such a framework from some attitudes which may indeed be precon­ditions for a discussion, such as a wish to get to, or nearer to, the truth, and a willingness to share problems or to under­stand the aims and the problems of somebody else. [34-5]

We’re not in it for the ‘win’

Serious critical discussions are always difficult. Non-rational human elements such as personal problems always enter. Many participants in a rational, that is, a critical, discussion find it particularly difficult that they have to unlearn what their instincts seem to teach them (and what they are taught, incidentally, by every debating society): that is, to win. For what they have to learn is that victory in a debate is nothing, while even the slightest clarification of one’s problem – even the smallest contribution made towards a clearer understanding of one’s own position or that of one’s opponent – is a great success. A discussion which you win but which fails to help you to change or to clarify your mind at least a little should be regarded as a sheer loss. For this very reason no change in one’s position should be made surreptitiously, but it should always be stressed and its consequences explored.

Rational discussion in this sense is a rare thing. But it is an important ideal, and we may learn to enjoy it. It does not aim at conversion, and it is modest in its expectations: it is enough, more than enough, if we feel that we can see things in a new light or that we have got even a little nearer to the truth. [44]

Fruitful Discussion

I think that we may say of a discussion that it was the more fruitful the more its participants were able to learn from it. And this means: the more interesting questions and difficult questions they were asked, the more new answers they were induced to think of, the more they were shaken in their opinions, and the more they could see things differently after the discussion – in short, the more their intellectual horizons were extended. [35-6]

Science, Philosophy, and Method

And yet, I am quite ready to admit that there is a method which might be described as ‘the one method of philosophy’. But it is not characteristic of philosophy alone; it is, rather, the one method of all rational discussion, and therefore of the natural sciences as well as of philosophy. The method I have in mind is that of stating one’s problem clearly and of examining its various proposed solutions critically.

I have italicized the words ‘rational discussion’ and ‘critically’ in order to stress that I equate the rational attitude and the critical attitude. The point is that, whenever we propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it. Few of us, unfortunately, practise this precept; but other people, fortunately, will supply the criticism for us if we fail to supply it ourselves. Yet criticism will be fruitful only if we state our problem as clearly as we can and put our solution in a sufficiently definite form—a form in which it can be critically discussed.

I do not deny that something which may be called ‘logical analysis’ can play a role in this process of clarifying and scrutinizing our problems and our proposed solutions; and I do not assert that the methods of ‘logical analysis’ or ‘language analysis’ are necessarily useless. My thesis is, rather, that these methods are far from being the only ones which a philosopher can use with advantage, and that they are in no way characteristic of philosophy. They are no more characteristic of philosophy than of any other scientific or rational inquiry.

It may perhaps be asked what other ‘methods’ a philosopher might use. My answer is that though there are any number of different ‘methods’, I am really not interested in enumerating them. I do not care what methods a philosopher (or any­body else) may use so long as he has an interesting problem, and so long as he is sincerely trying to solve it. [xix-xx]

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