Rand's uses of the word reason


Michael Stuart Kelly

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Rand's uses of the word reason

I made a post on another thread about Rand's different meanings for the word "reason" and illustrated them with excerpts. This clarified so much for me that I think it deserves a separate discussion. I am giving that part of my post here (with a couple of small changes for greater clarity). I think this discussion is extremely important since reason is one of the fundamentals of Objectivism.

Of course, I am certain that Objectivism will not be damaged by this premise-checking. The reason I check premises is for clarification and proper understanding. It it not to debunk Rand or denigrate her. (It is almost embarrassing to have to say that, but in O-land there is no lack of misguided people who, like paranoids, know what you are "really up to" regardless of what you say or do.)

Rand's use of the word "reason" is quite varied and it takes a lot of effort to maintain all the different contexts. Even then, some problems can be encountered with more subtle issues like the role of sensations and emotions in reason. Below are some quotes, without any pretension at being complete.

Reason as a mental faculty

I always understood Rand to mean the faculty of reason is made up of percepts, concepts and volition. She holds that volitional cognition starts with integration of percepts into concepts and considers that the integrations of sensations into percepts is automatic (and could even come under Barbara Branden's term, "psycho-epistemology"). Since Rand held reason to be volitional, and percept formation happens to be automatic, she usually did not include it in "reason." Still, integration of sensations into percepts is the raw material of reason and Rand fudges this exclusion right at the start. Here is a good example (Galt's speech, Atlas Shrugged, p 934):

Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind.

Reason is the faculty that perceives ... the material provided by his senses? Hmmmm... Isn't perceiving the material provided by the senses the act of percept formation—the act of integrating percepts from sensations? She said clearly here that reason is the faculty that does this.

Here is another fudge, but a less clear one with a rather circular introduction. It seems that her concept of reason as a mental faculty is now drifting away from including percept formation, but it has not quite shaken it off ("The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 22):

The faculty that directs this process ["conceptualizing"], the faculty that works by means of concepts, is: reason. The process is thinking.

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses.

Still, integrating the material provided by man's senses is exactly what percepts do in Objectivism, so for the time being, percept formation would have to be an integral part of reason. But later, Rand rejected this and said "perceptual observation" was different from reason ("Concepts of Consciousness," Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition, p. 35):

These concepts are formed by retaining their distinguishing characteristics and omitting their content. For instance, the concept "knowledge" is formed by retaining its distinguishing characteristics (a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation) and omitting the particular fact(s) involved.

This statement clearly states that they are different. A process of reason can be based on perceptual observation, but it is not the same. By using the expression (perceptual observation) twice, this difference is emphasized. Also, I am presuming that "a process of reason" is carried out by the "faculty of reason."

As percept formation is no longer a process of reason, the conclusion is that Rand no longer considers it part of the faculty of reason. There are more quotes I could garner to show where this is confusing, but this is enough for now.

Reason as volition

The double use of the word "faculty" below stretches the meaning beyond precision. Volition a now a full-fledged mental faculty, not just an integral part of the faculty of reason ("What is Romanticism?," The Romantic Manifesto, p. 105):

The still deeper issue, the fact that the faculty of reason is the faculty of volition, was not known at the time, and the various theories of free will were for the most part of an anti-rational character, thus reinforcing the association of volition with mysticism.

Setting aside the implied denial of the term "volition" for irrational choices (which is really strange), if you think this is a nitpick, look at the following quote where reason is equated with mind, and choice (volition) is equated with morality ("Racism," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 147):

Racism negates two aspects of man's life: reason and choice, or mind and morality, replacing them with chemical predestination.

The implication here is that they are separate issues whereas volition was a part of reason before.

Reason contrasted with emotions

The normal impression you get in Objectivism is that reason is one thing and emotions are another. There are many quotes like the following where this understanding is presented clearly or implicitly ("The 'Conflicts' of Men's Interests," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 58):

In choosing his goals (the specific values he seeks to gain and/or keep), a rational man is guided by his thinking (by a process of reason)—not by his feelings or desires.

Yet Rand warns about "a lethal dichotomy" in separating the two ("Art and Moral Treason," The Romantic Manifesto, p. 148):

Thus the foundation of a lethal dichotomy is laid in his consciousness: the practical versus the moral, with the unstated, preconceptual implication that practicality requires the betrayal of one's values, the renunciation of ideals.

His rationality is turned against him by means of a similar dichotomy: reason versus emotion.

This goes way beyond stating that emotions are dominated by reason. If that was her intent, this passage is not as clear at all. It implies that no dichotomy exists between reason and emotions, at least no dichotomy that makes one be opposed to the other. And if no dichotomy exists, then they are integral (fundamental) parts of the same thing.

But Rand makes even another meaning ("Philosophy and Sense of Life", The Romantic Manifesto, p. 33):

And if there are degrees of evil, then one of the most evil consequences of mysticism—in terms of human suffering—is the belief that love is a matter of "the heart," not the mind, that love is an emotion independent of reason, that love is blind and impervious to the power of philosophy.

...

When that power is called upon to verify and support an emotional appraisal, when love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion, of mind and values, then—and only then—it is the greatest reward of man's life.

Now emotions are things that can be integrated with reason, not merely dominated by reason. There are even other meanings in other quotes, but these examples should indicate that Rand used several meanings for discussing reason and emotions in her writing, not just one.

Reason as a moral value

To add to the mix, Rand also uses reason as a moral value. If you think reason is a mental faculty for the brain like eyesight is for the eyes, this new use of the term can be very confusing. The faculty is treated like a principle. ("The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27)

Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it. The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one's ultimate value, one's own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.

How can the faculty of reason itself be a moral value? Aren't we all born with it? We merely choose to use it properly or not. The proper use of reason is the moral value, not the actual component of the mind. So long as a man has a healthy brain, this component will exist. I suppose the faculty itself is a biological value that one "acts to keep" by simply keeping the organism healthy. But that is a far cry from the moral meaning Rand gave it here.

Reason as discussion and persuasion

In the following case, Rand uses reason to mean something else entirely, contrasting it with force ("The Nature of Government," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 108):

The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.

This meaning of reason does not even imply rational thought except as a normative idea. Rational persuasion is the best, but for this meaning of reason, plain old rhetoric will do—just so long as force is not used.

Reason as explanation

Then, to make sure that you always have to keep context in mind, Rand often used the word reason in its colloquial sense of being a cause or justification or purpose for something. Here are a couple of quotes to show you what I mean:

"The same reaction, for the same subconscious reason, is evoked by such elements as heroes or happy endings or the triumph of virtue, or, in the visual arts, beauty."

("What is Romanticism?," The Romantic Manifesto, p. 102)

"There is, however, an epistemological reason for the present designations, which we shall discuss when we discuss definitions."

("Abstraction from Abstractions," Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition, p. 23)

I did all this because I see a strong need to do some righteous premise checking for my own thinking. As reason is the cornerstone of Objectivism, this investigation is crucial. It is clear that Rand was not consistent in her definitions at times, and she used several different meanings for "reason." So the context needs to be specified for proper understanding.

Some of the issues I just raised about Rand's writings and reason in this post can easily be expanded into full articles. All I have done is just get started.

Michael

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For the record, my own understanding of how Objectivists normally use the word reason is that it means "rational thinking."

I have no problem at all with "rational thinking" as one of the main meanings of "reason." I think that this is what most people (not just Objectivists) mean by it most of the time when they use the word "reason" in connection with the mind. Under this meaning, I clearly see reason as distinct from emotions.

I get stuck when that pesky little word "faculty" crops up, though. That sounds like some kind of biological organ (but a mental one) instead of a method of thinking. In this case, reason (the organ of the means of human survival) goes beyond "rational thinking" (the process). Eliminating any mental part that is fundamental for survival then starts to become doubtful because this contradicts the definition of what that organ exclusively does (according to the classic Objectivist definition).

Just chewing for now...

Michael

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Michael, a quick informational tip: Look up Scottish school, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart. The Scottish school in turn influenced Franz Joseph Gall, who developed phrenology.

It's never been clear to me if Rand was influenced (and, if so, through what routes) by the faculty psychology of the Scottish school, or if she was using "faculty" only in the sense of "capacity." To me, she often sounds as if she is talking, as did the faculty psychologists, of a sort of "organ of the mind." Today faculty psychology has descendents in the idea of modular functioning. Jerry Fodor (whose work I don't know much about) is someone to research on that.

Ellen

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Michael, a quick informational tip: Look up Scottish school, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart. The Scottish school in turn influenced Franz Joseph Gall, who developed phrenology.

It's never been clear to me if Rand was influenced (and, if so, through what routes) by the faculty psychology of the Scottish school, or if she was using "faculty" only in the sense of "capacity." To me, she often sounds as if she is talking, as did the faculty psychologists, of a sort of "organ of the mind." Today faculty psychology has descendents in the idea of modular functioning. Jerry Fodor (whose work I don't know much about) is someone to research on that.

Ellen

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Ellen and Michael, it's always been my impression that Rand and Branden were using the term "faculty" in the sense of ability or capacity, not in any more mechanistic, "modular" sense than that. They prided themselves on their Aristotelian, biocentric view of biology and psychology, and they viewed humans as entities with certain attributes that were their capacities to engage in certain actions.

Come to think of it, if you're curious, Michael, why not ask Nathaniel?

Michael, you have looked at "reason," but looking at "rational," it's clear that Rand et al have used it to refer not only to the acquired nature of a person who characteristically engages in reason, but also to the inherent nature of a being that has the inborn capacity to engage in reason, whether or not he characteristically does so. Many naive Objectivists and critics of Rand have blundered by thinking that her definition of man as "the rational animal" means the former, when it actually means the latter: the inborn, natural capacity that distinguishes humans from the other animals.

More generally, I think this thread points to something I would ~really~ like to see happen on OL. I think we should put many other concepts/words under the lexical microscope -- chewing the Ayn Rand Lexicon, as it were. For instance, think of the various ways and contexts in which she used the word "metaphysical." We used to go round and round on that one on Atlantis, before Jimmy Wales pulled the plug on us.

REB

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Ellen and Michael, it's always been my impression that Rand and Branden were using the term "faculty" in the sense of ability or capacity, not in any more mechanistic, "modular" sense than that.

Probably they do just mean "ability or capacity," but if so her word use is odd.

[Rand] Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind.

The faculty that directs this process ["conceptualizing"], the faculty that works by means of concepts, is: reason. The process is thinking.

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses.

Would you write "the ability or the capacity that [...]"? And generally, unless one has a faculty psychology type implication, one says "the faculty of." (The faculty of speech, e.g., not the faculty that talks.) It's an odd usage, and there are other places where she sounds to me as if she's thinking in terms of separate faculties. I wonder where she got the usage.

Ellen

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Ellen,

Thanks for the tips. I will look into them. I am glad I am not alone in being uneasy with this word.

Roger,

Ask NB? Not a bad idea.

I agree that reason has to include both the innate capacity and volition. I likened it to the "faculty of sight" in another thread. You are born with eyes that will develop sight whether you want to or not (presuming they are healthy). Later you can choose what you want to look at and even if you want to look at all. So you can call both the innately grown eyesight together with the volitional control of it a "faculty of sight."

If "faculty of reason" means something like that, except with the brain, I have no problem with it—not even limiting it to rational thought. (I see it that way anyway.) But in that case, I do have a problem with saying that reason (rational thought only) is our sole means of survival. I consider it in this case to be one of our major means of survival, but not the sole one. And it certainly is not stand-alone in mental operations. Like I have continually pointed out elsewhere, without emotions, rational thought does not function for survival.

But if reason means the "sole faculty of survival" of human beings in a biological modular sense, it has to include emotions. Either that definition gets chucked along with the emotions, or they both stay. It doesn't make any sense to me to define something contradictory.

More later. (And I do have many thoughts on microcosm that are coming...)

Also, I so intend to do use this approach with other key Objectivist words and concepts and I am glad you are interested in it. You have much to contribute that I can learn.

Michael

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