Reason in Itself: A Definition

I have started a podcast series on the topic of reason. Below is a transcript of the episode  “Reason in Itself: A Definition.”

You can listen to the series here.

Listen to this episode here.


Welcome to my series on Reason. Today I will be talking about reason in itself or a definition of reason. I’d like to read a quote to you from Aristotle’s Metaphysics book four:

“Let this, then, suffice to show that the most indisputable of all beliefs is that contradictory statements are not at the same time true… But on the other hand there cannot be an intermediate between contradictories, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate. This is clear, in the first place, if we define what the true and the false are. To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false …”

In this quote, Aristotle is reflecting upon the most certain of all beliefs – that contradictory statements cannot both be true. Here he is reflecting upon the nature of reason itself.

As a student and teacher of philosophy, I have been thinking about the nature and definition of reason for about 25 years. I am in the process of writing a paper for a conference in May on the topic of “Reason and its Other,” or what reason is and what it is not. I have a longer-term book project in the works on the subject as well. I think the topic is important because of the loss of reason in our day as is evidenced in contemporary political clashes, which I call public discourse disasters. Public discourse is a shared exchange of reasons. When we lack an understanding of what reason is, we will necessarily be lacking in our exchanges with one another. When we cannot or do not use reason to persuade, we will resort to emotional appeals and or the use of force to get what we want.

Discourse assumes the exchange of reasons. Reasons assume Reason. But what is reason? It is one of those things that we know what it is until we are asked that question. What is reason in itself? How would you define reason? What is its essential nature?

Reason in itself is the laws of thought as first described by Aristotle in Book IV of his Metaphysics. There are three laws of thought. The first law is the law of identity, which states: ais a. “A” stands for any a being or state, relation, property, or activity of a being. This includes imaginary being. Rock is rock, red is red, cold is cold, unicorn is unicorn, human is human. Or, as my Mom always says: “it is what it is.”

The second law of thought is the law of non-contradiction, which states: not both aand non-ain the same respect and at the same time. Rock is not non-rock. Red is not non-red. Cold is not non-cold. Unicorn is not non-unicorn, and human is not non-human. Some people object to the law of non-contradiction on the basis of some things being in a state of processes such as a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, or a man going through the process of balding. But at any moment in the process of change, that being is what it is at that given moment. That is why we add “at the same time.” A man is not both balding and non-balding at the same time. He is “balding-1” at time-1 and “balding-2” at time-2.

The third law is the law of excluded middle, which states: either aor non-a. Rock or non-rock, red or non-red, cold or non-cold, unicorn or non-unicorn, human or non-human. Some have resisted the law of excluded middle with the objection that this is “binary” thinking. Things are not so clear cut. Things are not black or white. We have to consider the many shades of grey. There may be legitimate questions to raise with binary thinking, but this is not where binary thinking is located. Instead, the laws of thought are “unitary” thinking – identifying one thing and distinguishing it from all else. The law of excluded middle does not state that things are either black or white. Instead, they are black or non-black, white or non-white, any shade of grey or non-shade of grey.

The laws of thought are not a human invention just as any other law is not a human invention. Aristotle may have written these laws down, but they are laws – an aspect of reality – that are discovered. These laws are first principles and are assumed any time we think. We automatically use them and cannot not use them. But don’t take it from me, try it out yourself. Try to think without identifying any object of your thought.

The laws cannot be proven but are the basis for any further proof. Do we prove the laws of physics? Or are they assumed in all that is physical? In MetaphysicsIV, Aristotle attempts a negative proof for the law of non-contradiction. I wrote about it in my book Retrieving Knowledgeif you want to read more on the negative proof. The laws of thought are not fallible, but our application of them is highly fallible. Our use of reason is fallible. This is why we must be taught to think well.

The laws of thought are foundational for logic, which is the science (or knowledge) and art (or technique) of right thinking. So, there is a knowledge of how to think and a technique for thinking right, and we must be taught. Are we being taught how to think right? Logic is the foundation for critical thinking, our use of reason.

Reason in itself (the laws of thought) is not the same as reasoning or the use of reason. In addition, the laws of thought must be distinguished from the faculty of rationality, or reason in us. I hope to explain more about how we use reason and how reason is a part of human nature in future episodes.

My theory is that if we can understand what reason is and what it is not, we will become more conscious of our loose use of the word “reason” and we will become more consistent in defining reason aright. Here is a challenge for the week: note the many ways people use the word “reason” but mean something other than the laws of thought. Drop me a line if you find examples, and I will incorporate them in future epis0des.

I put the question to my Facebook community “what are your questions about reason?” Some of the responses I got were: “What is reason’s relationship to faith?”; “Is reason affected by the fall of humankind?”; “How is “reason” related to reasons, rationalizations, and human reason?”; and “How is reason related to metaphysics and one’s worldview?” These are all good questions. I hope that this episode clarifies one of these questions: “How is “reason” related to reasons, rationalizations, and human reason?” I have begun to distinguish between reason in itself and our use of reason, which includes reasons and rationalizations. Additionally, I have distinguished between reason in itself and our faculty of rationality (or human reason). I will attempt to address the remaining questions in the future and incorporate them into my paper for the conference in May.



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