Veatch review of Brand Blanshard's Reason and Analysis

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Reason and Analysis by Brand Blanshard

Reviewed by Henry Veatch

It is ten years since the appearance of Brand Blanshard’s book, Reason and Analysis. That such a book should have been a marked event in both British and American philosophy is something that one would have thought was only to be expected; but that it should have turned out to be a book rather less well remarked than it might have been by professional philosophers is something that one can do little more than wonder at and bemoan. But why? Why should so superior a book have enjoyed so comparatively inferior a reception? Unhappily, the only answer is that Blanshard’s book, being a sustained and vigorous defense of human reason and rationality, and a defense conceived largely in the mode and manner of traditional Western thought from Plato right down to the beginning of the present century, it is little wonder that both book and author should have had to swim dead against the current of our latter-day, new-fashioned philosophy which has come to dominate almost the entire Anglo-American philosophic scene in the last several years, viz. so-called analytic philosophy. In fact, in terms of this latter sense of “analysis,” Blanshard’s book might well have been entitled, not so much “Reason and Analysis,” as “Reason vs. Analysis.”

Nor is that all, for perhaps the metaphor of Brand Blanshard’s having to swim against the current of contemporary philosophy is almost too bland. Instead, it is much more a case of the man’s having planted himself like a rock in the midst of the many currents and winds and tides of irrationalism in our time, setting his face firmly against them all. For as he himself remarks early in his book, it is not just contemporary philosophy that seems to have lost respect for reason, but contemporary art, contemporary literature, contemporary theology and perhaps even contemporary life as well. And so it is that Blanshard’s book continues to loom large on the horizon today—and yet unfortunately withal-too-many people paying it all-too-little heed—as a sustained and unremitting diagnosis and exposure of an entire variety of irrational ills in contemporary thought.

Still, may there not be something of paradox here, thus to characterize Blanshard’s book as being but one long and relentlessly detailed critique of the anti-reason of contemporary analytic philosophers? For it is these very philosophers whose stock in trade is no less than what they themselves would designate as being logical or linguistic analysis. How, then, can they of all people be accused of being the supreme irrationalists? To this question the answer must needs turn on an understanding of Blanshard’s notion of reason and of what he would regard as being the long-time reign of reason in Western thought.

As he sees it, reason is just that power by which we human beings are raised above the condition of mere animals. And what it is about reason that carries us beyond the mere reaches of sensory experience and memory and imagination is jus reason’s capacity to discern the necessities and necessary connections of things. Thus it is as rational creatures and only as rational creatures that we are able to recognize not merely that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but that it must be so, and why it must be so. Or again, to take still another rather crude example, it is one thing merely to become habituated to expecting heavy objects, when unsupported, to fall to the ground; but is a very different thing to see that this must happen and why it must happen. In other words, it is reason that enables us to understand the very natures and essences of things, in terms of which it becomes intelligible why such things should be as they are and do the things that they do. Or again, it is reason that acquaints us with the causes in terms we can go beyond a mere recognition of the fact that various occurrences or events have taken place or do take place to a comprehension of why they take place.

Enter now the analytic philosophers, and, as Blanshard interprets them, what do they do but promptly set about to deflate all of man’s lofty pretensions to understand either himself or his world in terms of reasons, causes, essences, purposes, necessities and all other like resources of intelligibility! Thus do we imagine—to revert to our earlier example—that necessarily and in the very nature of the case a straight line is the shortest distance? Ridiculous, the analysts would say, for what is involved here is no more than a convention or stipulation as to how the word “straight line” is to be used. It thus no more reflects a real necessity embedded in the very nature and structure of reality than do such mere verbal truths as “A bachelor is an unmarried man” or “A brother is a male sibling.” Nor is the supposed necessity attaching to the principle that all unsupported bodies must ball in any better case. For so far from there being any rational necessity involved in this or in any other more sophisticated laws of falling bodies, it would rather seem to be no more than a case of repeated occurrences of certain phenomena, the reason or necessity for which we do not see, and when we then but dupe ourselves into believing are intelligible in terms of various imagined and suppositious grounds or necessary causes.

Accordingly it is to just such skepticism regarding reason’s capacity to disclose the meaning and the intelligibility of things and events in the world, and in ourselves no less, that Blanshard undertakes in this book to mount a most detailed and devastating rejoinder. For the book is long—nearly 500 pages of closely reasoned discussion and argument. And although Blanshard in no wise pretends to anything like an exhaustive historical coverage of all the figures and developments that have cropped up in the course of the last 50 years and more of analytic philosophy, he does single out with an unerring acuity the major trends and the major thinkers representative of these trends, and he subjects them to a detailed and withering analysis—or perhaps since it is with analysts that he essays to deal, one had better say that his procedure is one of counter-analysis and refutation.

It is true that due to its very length, as well as to the intricacies and technicalities of its philosophical subject matter, Reason and Analysis is not exactly easy reading, and one sometimes wonders whether in the very thoroughness of Blanshard’s expositions and refutations one may sometimes lose sight of the woods for the trees. At the same time, the prose style in which the book is written is nothing if not superb, almost majestic, and yet not without its being frequently and refreshingly interspersed with sallies and asides that it takes but a single deft phrase or so to unmask both the pretensions and often the reputations of some of his more eminent opponents. For instance, it is hard not to quote an early and passing judgment made on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work which in the early days of the analytic movement was regarded invariably with awe and cited only with bated breath:

In this curious work it is as if a set of Sibylline oracles, scattered on flying leaves, had been gathered together, some of them extremely astute, some of them absurd, and many of them too dark to be classified as either. It is full of dogmatic pronouncements, introduced abruptly and left without explanation or defence; the reader is puzzled whether its “take-it-or-leave-it” manner is due to willfulness or expository ineptitude, and is only likely to throw the book impatiently aside,. I share the reader’s impatience with this way of writing philosophy. But the book remains an important one….” (pp. 120-121)

Needless to say, this sort of thing is devastating. And yet unfortunately, the very virtues of Blanshard’s style—and Blanshard himself in one place seems rather ruefully to recognize as much—may have become something of a disability when it comes to his appreciation by contemporary philosophers. For now-a-days the current fashions in philosophical prose call for something of a very different stamp. Sometimes, it is Wittgenstein’s mode of the cryptic pronouncement with no explanation and minimal supporting argument that contemporary philosophers seem bent on imitating. Or sometimes, it is the painstaking and seemingly belabored analysis of individual points and particular questions, in the manner of Moore or Malcolm, that is the norm. Or still more recently, one tends to encounter the chopped and broken style in which the writer’s philosophical exposition is constantly interrupted by strings of symbols, presumably indicating how the points and arguments in question can be given the fixity and precision characteristic of the rigor mortis of modern logic. In contrast, Blanshard’s flowing sentences, with their magnificent lucidity and finely turned argument, seem to come across, in the current philosophical scene, as strangely old-fashioned and unhappily dated. For which more’s the pity!

May we nevertheless be permitted to conclude this review with but one note of criticism, or at least with an indication of a possible shortcoming in this otherwise admirable book? For when one puts the book down after having gone through its page after page of analysis and criticism of the irrationalism of the analysts, one may well be inclined to ask, “But just what is Blanshard’s own position? Where, after all, does he himself stand philosophically?” Of course, he stands for reason, both in philosophy and in human affairs generally. And yet that is hardly a particularly distinguishing philosophical characteristic, when one considers the history of Western philosophy. For could it not be said that thinkers as different from one another as Aristotle and Kant, Aquinas and Descartes, Plato and Hegel, were all defenders of reason and of the power of human reason to recognize the rational necessities and necessary connections in things and in the world? What more specifically, then, is the character of Blanshard’s rationalism, and what, more fully and concretely, is it that Blanshard would offer as being an alternative to the prevalent analytic philosophy of which he is so critical?

From a reading of Reason and Analysis, as well as from what one knows of Brand Blanshard’s general philosophical outlook, one senses that his critique was mounted largely from the standpoint of that Absolute Idealism that so largely dominated Anglo American philosophy at the turn of the century and against which recent analytic philosophy has been largely a reaction. Not only that, but in his comparatively brief concluding chapter, he does suggest that his rationalism leads him to subscribe to a doctrine of the necessary interconnection of each and every event or happening in the world, and even to a doctrine of the essential inescapability and inevitability of everything that we do and everything that happens to us in the course of our lives. Such views, however, are hardly developed in detail, nor would it seem entirely clear how a repudiation of analytic philosophy on the grounds that Blanshard adduces would necessarily lead to a rationalism of these particular consequences.

Nor is this omission in Blanshard’s book entirely without significance, when one takes a brief look at the rapid developments that have occurred in philosophy just in the ten years or so since the publication of Reason and Analysis. For once thing, the philosophic world has witnessed a sudden flowering of so-called modal logic, which represents an apparently striking departure from the logic of Principia Mathematica, this latter having been not just the instrument, but in many ways the very cornerstone of the entire program of the logical positivists, the logical atomists and the other analysts of a generation ago. Indeed this new logic is one which is apparently quite tolerant of necessities and of necessary connections, of essences and of essential attributes—yes, of the very things which Blanshard is so critical of the analysts for having repudiated. Yet ironically enough, this newer type of logic is one born and bred of analytic philosophy, and is being cultivated today as the very darling of a new generation of analyst. But what must Blanshard say to a development such as this? Could it be that his diagnosis of the irrationalism of the analysts was mistaken? Or would he say that this new-found rationalism is not a genuine rationalism; or if genuine, then perhaps not a rationalism of his, Blanshard’s kind? Alas, to questions of this sort it would seem that even a most careful rereading of the book will yield scarcely any answer.

Or suppose we were to shift our philosophic gaze so as to consider a very different philosophic scene from that of analytic philosophy. On the continent of Europe, ever since the end of World War II, the philosophic movement that has been largely in the ascendancy is that of existential phenomenology. And although British analysts and Continental phenomenologists have scarcely been on speaking terms with one another, much less achieved anything like a mutual understanding or influence, still one may well ask whether the phenomenologists’ way of acknowledging the role of rational necessities in human knowledge may not have some affinities with recent developments in analytic philosophy. Indeed, one might even ask whether both of these movements have not come to acknowledge “the power of reason to forecast the structure of experience; in much the way that Blanshard himself considers Kant to have done: “There was only one possible way to explain it. [Kant] concluded, and that was to assume that the framework of our world, the systems of space, time, and number, for example, was not found in nature by our minds…but were brought by our minds to nature, unwittingly imposed by ourselves on the material of sense experience.” (p. 114)

Very well, then supposing that both phenomenologists and latter-day analysts have, either consciously or unconsciously, all tended to fall back on something like this Kantian device as a means of guaranteeing the relevance of reason to experience, what would Blanshard say to this? So are as the phenomenologists are concerned, Blanshard does not deign so much as even to mention them in his book; and existentialism he dismisses out of hand as being a hopeless irrationalism. And yet is it possible that in this very day we are witnessing a resurgence of a kind of rationalism from out of what Blanshard would appear simply to have written off as but so many existentialist and phenomenological ashes? Was Blanshard’s diagnosis, the, all wrong? Or would he say that what would appear to be a new-found Kantian or transcendental rationalism in the contemporary philosophic situation is no more than a bogus rationalism?

Doubtless, though, critical questions of this sort may seem unfair and out of place with respect to Blanshard. For why should a many who professes to be writing no more than a critique of some of the bad philosophy of his contemporaries by chided for not giving us much in the way of a good philosophy of his own? Or why should a work that was published in 1962, and that undertook to say what’s wrong with certain philosophic movements up to 1960, at the same time be expected to be prophetic of movements up to 1960, at the same time be expected to be prophetic of what would happen in philosophy by the year 1970! Whatever though, one may think of the pretence or impertinence of such criticism, there I no denying that Reason and Analysis is a great book and a remarkable one, and a notable achievement in American letters no less than in American philosophy.

[This review was first published in Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 4, April 1974 and was posted to Objectivist Living with permission on Saturday, October 14, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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  • 4 years later...

Veatch quoting Blanshard on the Tractatus: "It is full of dogmatic pronouncements, introduced abruptly and left without explanation or defence; the reader is puzzled whether its 'take-it-or-leave-it' manner is due to willfulness or expository ineptitude, and is only likely to throw the book impatiently aside."

This was my feeling after reading about five of the Wittgensteinian assertions. We very quickly go from "the world is full of facts" to much more absurd and unintelligible nuggets.

All the little snippets in Tractatus are numbered. Unless to help W. organize 3x5 cards of them when compiling his manuscript, what could be the reason? Perhaps so that they could be more easily cited during cocktail-party chatter?

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Veatch quoting Blanshard on the Tractatus: "It is full of dogmatic pronouncements, introduced abruptly and left without explanation or defence; the reader is puzzled whether its 'take-it-or-leave-it' manner is due to willfulness or expository ineptitude, and is only likely to throw the book impatiently aside."

This was my feeling after reading about five of the Wittgensteinian assertions. We very quickly go from "the world is full of facts" to much more absurd and unintelligible nuggets.

All the little snippets in Tractatus are numbered. Unless to help W. organize 3x5 cards of them when compiling his manuscript, what could be the reason? Perhaps so that they could be more easily cited during cocktail-party chatter?

That is so cruel. But it is very likely true. Perhaps that is why the later Wittgenstein repudiated the earlier Wittgenstein.

As to Veatch's review. It is beautifully written. He has a marvelous command of the English language.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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