Reason and It’s Other

This is an outline of my talk for the Sixth Annual Aquinas Leadership International Congress on May 3, 2019.

Reason and It’s Other: The Cognitive and Non-Cognitive

  1. Introduction: The meaning of the title is inspired by a book I have been reading on post-Enlightenment German philosophy. Here is a quote from that book:

“The issues raised by the German receptions of the new French thought are complex, and the controversies continue. In far-ranging discussions, the status of reason, science, the Enlightenment, modernity, and progress have all been called into question. There have also been various attempts to rehabilitate the significance of the body, desire, nature, art, and religion as “Others” of reason.”[1] The truth is, post-modern thinking has called into question not only reason but the very foundations of the West, which is founded upon reason.

  • Why the topic is important
    1. Philosophy requires reason: Reason is the tool for understanding what is.
    2. Public philosophy requires reason as one component for common ground. We are all rational beings and have common recourse to the authority of reason.
  • Retrieving Reason: A book that I am writing inspired by a handout I received 25 years ago in Dr. Gangadean’s Introduction to Philosophy course. It has been the most valuable piece of learning in my whole career.
  • Reason in itself: The Laws of Thought /
    1. Human beings are rational animals (body/soul)
    2. It is self-evident that we think
    3. The laws of thought are self-evident first principles
      1. Identity
      2. Non-contradiction
      3. Excluded middle

Copi on the laws: Irving Copi, in his Introduction to Logic, says of these laws:

Those who have defined logic as a science of the laws of thought have often gone on to assert that there are exactly three fundamental or basic laws of thought necessary and sufficient for thinking to follow if it is to be “correct.” These have traditionally been called “the principle of identity,” “the principle of contradiction” (sometimes “the principle of noncontradiction”), and “the principle of excluded middle.’”[2]


  • The laws of thought are not fallible (Aristotle quote)

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….[3]


  • Reason in its use: Reasoning
    1. Reasoning is fallible (“human” reason). It is why we take Logic and have to learn to think critically. We are inclined to neglect, avoid, resist, or deny reason in light of what is clear to reason.
    2. Reason is used to form concepts, judgments, and arguments (the logos). Let us call this one aspect of the descriptive use of reason.
      1. Logos and language: Concepts are expressed by words/ logos. Concepts grasp the essential nature of a thing. We can more or less grasp what is. We can grasp more or less meaning.
      2. Logos and truth: Judgments are about what is/the logosin things (genus). But we may make false judgments.
      3. Logos and knowledge: Arguments tie down true belief with a logos. But an argument may be unsound. So, we need more.
  1. Reason is a test for meaning. Meaning is more basic than truth. Let’s call this the normative aspect of the use of reason: we ought to think critically. We ought to be careful to be sure the words we use express meaning, the judgments we make are true, and the arguments we make are sound. There is a moral obligation in our use of reason. Have we tested the meaning of our basic beliefs?
  2. Reason is used to interpret our experiences in light of our basic belief. We have experiences of the external world, of our thought world, our emotional and volitional world. We must make sense of all of these experiences because they are not self-certifying. Reason is used to interpret or give meaning to our experiences. Dr. Redpath recently said in an interview “We reason with our senses and we sense with our reason.” What I think this means is that we are constantly having experiences and we are constantly interpreting them.
  3. Reason is used to construct our world and life view. This is where our use of reason is systematic, culturally, and is historically situated. There is something systematic to the use of reason. There is something cultural and historical to the use of reason. But it is not the whole story.
  4. Reason in us: Rationality/ Rational
    1. Reason in us as human beings is natural. It is not cultural, not conventional. Because it is natural it is universal and a source of common ground.
    2. Reason in us is ontological (the logos). It applies to being as well as to thinking. Aristotle discusses the laws of thought at the beginning of his Metaphysics because reason is about being. It is not mere abstraction or logic. Reason, the laws of thought, tells us what cannot be, such as a square circle, or uncaused event, or being from non-being. Reason applies to the highest being, including the being of God. God cannot be both eternal and non-eternal.
    3. Reason is transcendental. It is the highest authority, to which all other authorities are subordinate. It cannot be questioned, but it makes questioning possible.
    4. Reason is fundamental. It is basic to other aspects of the human soul. It is basic to the emotions and to the will. Its use is the source of our greatest good – meaning, truth and knowledge. Its denial is the source of our deepest misery – meaninglessness, falsehood, and ignorance.
    5. Humans not irrational but may be non-rational: We consistently neglect, avoid, resist, and deny the use of reason in light of what is clear to reason. Why is that?
  1. Problems with Reason: Misuse and Misconceptions
    1. We may make a split between theoretical and practical reason (Plato vs. Aristotle vs. Pragmatists). Plato and Aristotle disagreed over whether one can know the good but not do the good.
    2. Rationalism: We may use reason constructively (system building) without using reason critically to examine the basic beliefs upon which we build.
    3. Logic (inductive/ deductive): We may divorce the laws of thought from being and create formal systems that do not touch reality.
  2. The “Other” of Reason: Non-Cognitivism. When we neglect, avoid, resist, or deny reason we must turn to the non-cognitive, or the other of reason, since we are rational beings that must give an account of what we think, feel, and do. There are many ways we turn aside.
    1. Emotion/intuition/feeling: We may appeal to non-cognitive feelings as a claim to knowledge or to justify our actions or to motivate others to act.
    2. Poetry/ the spirit of the artist/Sophistry: Philosophy becomes the “play of language,” but what does language represent? Signs about other signs unendingly? Aristotle addresses this in Metaphysics There cannot be an infinite number of predicates.
    3. Nature: Is reason opposed to nature? Or is reason fundamentally fitted to grasp the meaning of nature/ the logosin the world?
    4. Mysticism: We may claim to “go beyond” reason in an internal mystical experience as a source of knowledge and fail to recognize that all experience must be interpreted in light of our basic beliefs. Similar mystical experiences may be interpreted differently based upon our beginning assumptions about the nature of reality.
    5. Will/pragmatism/instrumentalism: We may appeal to non-cognitive volition as a claim to knowledge or to justify our actions or motivate others to act.
    6. Empiricism/scientism/common sense: We may appeal to external experience as a source of knowledge and fail to recognize that we always interpret our experiences in light of our basic beliefs.
    7. Informal fallacies/ rationalizations: We may reason poorly and think that we have reasoned well or we may come up with poor excuses thinking that they are reasons. Reason is a test for meaning and can help us in this area.
    8. Critique/ Logocentrism/ The Patriarchy: Some may say that “reason” is a product of white male colonial privilege. Some may say that the West is caught in logocentrism (valuing the spoken word/ dialogue over the written word). Some may say that reason is only useful as a form of critique and rooting out our assumptions. But if reason is natural and universal it cannot possibly be restricted to the “Patriarchy,” or to a particular class, race, culture, or civilization. To suggest so is dehumanizing. Both the spoken word and written word are expressions of concepts, which are universal, so logocentrism is a misnomer. Reason used as critique is one aspect of the use of reason, and those using Critique are generally uninterested in the most interesting use of critique, that is the critical examination of metaphysical assumptions.
    9. Madness (Nietzsche and Derrida): Madness is the result of the failure to use reason to find meaning. Madness, at least as in Nietzsche’s case, is the result of the denial of the use of reason at the basic level and the use of reason at the constructive level to follow the implications of assumptions. Nietzsche both failed in the use of reason (critically) and excelled in the use of reason (constructively). One must use reason critically and constructively to find meaning and to continue to grow in meaning.
    10. Skepticism is one aspect of anti-reason. It assumes (uncritically and without reason) that nobody can really know by reason.
    11. Fideism is another aspect of anti-reason. It assumes (uncritically and without reason) that nobody can really know by reason, but one must believe (blindly) anyway.
    12. Others: The body, miracles, chaos theory, etc.
  • Conclusion
    1. We must retrieve reason for the sake of the individual seeking meaning, for the sake of the future of philosophy, for common ground, for the culture, for Western Civilization, and for the global future/ kingdom of God.
    2. Questions, comments, concerns and critique are welcome
  • Future work
    1. Retrieving Reason: A Critical Analysis of the Sources of Skepticism
    2. A Syntopicon of Reason
    3. The Logos of History and the History of the Logos


[1]Freundlieb, Dieter and Wayne Hudson. Reason and Its Other: Rationality in Modern German Philosophy and Culture. (Oxford: Berg Publishers; 1993).

[2]Copi, Irving M. and Carl Cohen. Introduction to Logic, tenth edition. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998), 389.

[3]Jonathan Barnes. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Ox­ford Translation(Princeton: Princeton University, 1984) MetaphysicsIV.6.1011b 13-15 & 23-24, 1597.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! 2018 was a big year for local philosophy. The PVCC Public Philosophy lecture series hosted nine public lectures. In addition to the PVCC lecture series, I participated in the ASU Philosophy Out West lecture series and the GCC God and Truth panel discussion. Audio recordings of lectures from 2018 may be found here. Public Philosophy in the Phoenix area will continue in 2019. Stay up to date by visiting the site for more information on upcoming events.

In the summer of 2018, I started an independent niche philosophy publishing company, Public Philosophy Press. Our first publication was my book, Retrieving Knowledge: A Socratic Response to Skepticism. The book went to #1 in Amazon’s New Releases for Epistemology in the ebook category and #2 for paperbacks. We hope to reach #1 in paperback new releases in January. Public Philosophy Press has several new publications to be released in 2019. Stay tuned for more details.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a virtue that we recognize as supremely necessary as we are inundated with greater amounts of information. We want our university graduates to be independent and critical thinkers. The words “critical thinking” seem to be on the lips of many in the field of education. What do we mean by “critical thinking?” To adopt the virtue and pass it on to the next generation, we must be very clear about what critical thinking is, and what it is not.

Critical “Thinking”
Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, a book about the nature of being, begins with a discussion of the laws of thought. The laws of thought are also the laws of being. These laws are the law of identity, which states that a is a; the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both a and non-a in the same respect and at the same time; and the law of excluded middle, which states that something is either a or non-a. These laws deserve a more detailed treatment in a future post, but these laws need mention here because they are necessary for all thought. If a statement violates a law of thought, then it is meaningless and cannot be true. The laws of thought are the cornerstone of critical thinking.

What is the activity of thinking? In his Organon, Aristotle defined three aspects of thinking, which are logically ordered from more basic to less basic. The most basic, and perhaps most important, level of thinking is forming concepts. We form concepts, according to Aristotle, when we grasp the essential nature of a thing. Grasping the essential nature of a thing requires understanding what a thing is. It involves understanding what is an essential feature and what are accidental features of a thing. When we grasp a concept, we express it with words, terms, or symbols that allow for communication of concepts with others. Words are either meaningful, or they lack meaning. Meaning is the category for evaluating concepts. Meaning is prior to truth, and without understanding the meaning of the words we use with one another, we cannot agree on whether what we say is true or not.

We may make errors in falsely identifying what a thing is. We may fail to understand the words that others use to communicate concepts to us. Critical thinking begins at the level of concept formation and concept communication. Often, we must ask one another “what do you mean?” when discussing. For example, two people may say that “God is love” but have very different understandings of the concept “God” and “love.” This level of critical thinking requires that we carefully define our terms, and seek agreement on our definitions. If we fail to find agreement here, the next level of thinking will result in an inability to understand one another, and frustration in communication.

Following concept formation in the act of thinking is making judgments. A judgment is not a bad thing. It is an unavoidable activity. Every time we are engaged in thinking or saying “x is y” we are making a judgment. For example, “the horse is brown,” “tomorrow is Thursday,” “God is love,” and “the marker is blue” are all examples of judgments. Judgments are either true or false. If we do not first know the meaning of the concepts being used in a judgment, such as “God” and “love,” then we cannot know whether a judgment is either true or false. Pausing for clarification and understanding is what it means to say that meaning is more basic or is logically prior to, truth. Critical thinking involves understanding the meaning of the terms used in a judgment, but it also involves assessing the truth claim being made in a judgment, since judgments are either true or false. We should note that some judgments are neither true nor false, but are matters of taste, such as the claim “ice cream is better than pie.” To think critically, one must also be skilled at identifying those judgments that are neither true nor false.

Judgments that are either true or false ought to be supported by giving an account. Plato says in the Theaetetus that knowledge is true belief “tied down” with an account. The word for “account” that Plato uses is logos, which is translated as “reason.” Knowledge is true belief supported by reason. In the Theaetetus, Socrates demonstrates by example what it is to support a judgment by reason. He does this by asking for and giving arguments for the judgments that he and his interlocutors make. Theaetetus begins the dialogue by making the judgment that knowledge is perception. “Knowledge is perception” is a judgment that is either true or false. In effect, Socrates asks young Theaetetus to “prove it.”

Proving a judgment requires an argument. An argument uses premises (judgments) to support a conclusion (a judgment). One of the most famous arguments goes like this:
Major Premise: All men are mortal
Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal
Arguments may be tested (this is the function of the discipline of Logic) for validity and soundness. The validity of an argument is a way to test the form of an argument. Some argument forms are invalid and thus cannot possibly support the conclusion. Soundness of an argument is a way to test the form and truth content of an argument. If an argument is valid, and the premises are true, then the conclusion will necessarily be true. A necessary truth is equivalent to knowledge. It is a true belief with an account.

Some people will object that we cannot prove everything, or that necessary truths are rare and do not prove much. To respond to the first objection, it is true that not all judgments will need support by an argument. Determining which judgments do, and which do not require an argument is a crucial role for critical thinking because it requires that we have the ability to identify assumptions. Philosophical assumptions and judgments require support using an account, proof, or an argument. Non-philosophical assumptions and judgments may require some other kind of support or evidence. If I claim that “saturated fat is healthy,” I would be more likely to prove my point by providing empirical data than a syllogism. Critical thinking requires us to be able to identify different kinds of assumptions, which require different kinds of support, evidence, or account, and then supplying the proof when necessary.

The Goal and Means of Critical Thinking
Why do we so highly value critical thinking? What is the goal of thinking critically? It seems pretty clear that the goal of critical thinking is to reject what is false and to arrive at what is true. The truth is the goal of critical thinking. We want the judgments that we accept to accord with reality. Also, we want to grow in our understanding of what is true. If Aristotle is correct, then all men by nature desire to know. Critical thinking is the means by which we come to know.

How is critical thinking a means to attain knowledge? We have to begin with self-knowledge. Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is a failure of self-knowledge. It is to go through life with little to no reflection upon who we are, and what makes for a good life. The unexamined life is a life lived according to unexamined assumptions, or what we often call biases. The most basic assumptions we carry with us are our philosophical assumptions. We may have picked up these assumptions from our upbringing, our culture, our education, our religion, etc.. Our philosophical assumptions are the uncritically examined answers that we provide to the following questions: How do I know things? What is ultimately real? And what is the good life? We have all answered these questions. Answers to these questions are what stir our emotions and drive us to action. Poor assumptions lead to unruly emotions and bad actions. Critical thinking begins with self-examination about our answers to these basic philosophical questions. Why do we believe as we do? What reasons, proof, or evidence do we have for believing as we do? Have I ever considered alternatives to what I believe? What reasons, proof, or evidence is there for alternative positions? Going beyond self-examination, can I thoughtfully articulate my beliefs and reasons with my parents, peers, or professors? Critical thinking begins with self-examination regarding our philosophical assumptions.

Beyond our assumptions, critical thinking enables us to identify and analyze philosophical assumptions and biases all around us in the media, online, in what our fellow human beings say. Every time we speak, we speak from a philosophical position. Anytime anyone speaks, they speak from a philosophical position. Are those positions well founded and supported by reason? Are they true? Critical thinking helps us to identify assumptions and then test those assumptions for meaning, or rational consistency. We start with concepts, are they meaningful? Then we examine judgments made, are they true? If they are true, we should be able to support them with a sound argument. Critical thinking is essential for meaningful human communication in pursuit of the truth.

Several virtues and attitudes accompany critical thinking in pursuit of truth. To find the truth, one must look for it. The attitude of seeking for truth, what Socrates attributes to “wonder,” is necessary for obtaining the truth. The truth may be hidden; it may need searching out, like a rare hidden treasure, it requires digging and dedication. But the truth is much more valuable than gold. So, if we are willing to work hard for gold, we must be all the more willing to work hard for truth and the wisdom that results from knowing the truth.

Critical thinking requires humility. Socrates, when told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, did not accept the judgment. First, he asked, “I wonder what the oracle means?” Then he set out to show that someone else was wiser than he. When he could not find one wiser, he realized that his wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he did not know. Humility rests in our knowledge that we don’t know as we should, that our understanding is limited, and that as finite beings we will always be growing either in truth or falsehood. Let us hope that we are engaged in critical thinking and growing in understanding in the truth. This growth may require grace, a gift that we don’t always talk about in philosophy, but a gift about which Socrates knew. He attributed his philosophical pursuit to a calling from the god. Grace is a gift from outside of ourselves, either from the Divine or from our fellow human beings that helps us to grow. As social beings, we are meant to live in a community. The community is meant to help us to achieve the good life. Grace is for this purpose.

Critical thinking requires courage. It’s hard to examine oneself. It is difficult to subject one’s views to others who may not extend the gift of grace and may instead criticize. Self-examination is uncomfortable. Courage, the willingness to move forward in the face of difficult challenges, is necessary for thinking critically about one’s presuppositions. But, courage is also needed to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in every area of life, for the whole of one’s life.

“Critical” Thinking
Having spent some time discussing thinking, we should address the “critical” part of critical thinking. To think critically is to be engaged in rational analysis. It begins first with understanding what a statement means. We then analyze arguments presented in support of the statement given. In addition to this, we must recognize that truth is not piecemeal but fits into a system of truth. To think critically is also to think systematically. How do the truths that I hold, that I have rational support for, fit together coherently? If the foundational beliefs in our system of beliefs are faulty, the structure that we build upon those foundational beliefs will be unsupported. Critical thinking helps us to lay a strong foundation, to analyze the supports and pillars, to construct a strong and beautiful house from which to live a rich, meaningful, and fulfilling life.

Critical thinking enables us to reject what lacks meaning by means of reason. We cannot discern what is meaningful or meaningless based on emotion, prejudice, pragmatism, tradition, ideology, what goes by the name of science but is not science, and what goes by the name of reason but is not reason. Emotion, will, and experience may be aspects of human life, but they are not critical thinking, nor can they substitute for the pursuit of meaning and truth.

Critical Thinking and Assumptions
Knowing the truth would be relatively easy if we would seek after truth and we could recognize assumptions in ourselves and others. Recognizing assumptions requires training, practice, and the lifelong habit of self-examination. We must get into the habit of asking ourselves “what do I think about x?” and “why do I think that about x?” Self-examination is hindered by our not seeking after truth, and by our thinking that we are doing okay. We are self-deceived about our seeking to know. Who in their right mind says “I do not want to know what is true.” We all like to think that we are interested in the truth, but if we were, wouldn’t there be a lot more people who were producing sound arguments for the judgments that they make? In addition to self-deception, we tend to justify ourselves. We have other goals besides knowing the truth that motivates our communication and action. Perhaps our motivations are pleasure or power. We justify what we do with rationalizations rather than reason. Rationalization is just another word for self-justification. Self-examination would help us to cut through our lack of knowledge and the excuses we make for ourselves for not knowing.

Self-examination would be easier if we recognized that some things are clear to reason. When the truth is clear, and we do not see it, we should repent. Repentance is a change in mind, thinking, or direction. If we are going down the wrong path, we should turn around and show the results in our way of thinking and living. Being self-aware of our tendency to be deceived about our interest in seeking the truth will help us in a forward moving direction. Engaging in dialogue with others with the goal of understanding ourselves and others will help us to overcome self-justification in the pursuit of philosophical justification (i.e., knowledge).

The Ethics of Critical Thinking
Aristotle tells us that we are rational, political, animals. With this nature comes moral responsibility. We are responsible for the use of reason to the fullest. Failure in the use of reason to the fullest is dehumanizing and destructive to ourselves and directly leads to the harm of others. It leads to intellectual stupor and societal decay.

We are political beings. We live in society and have moral obligations to one another. We are a society of rational beings and participation in, or separation from society is predicated on our use or non-use of reason. We are morally obligated to one another to give an account for what we say and what we do because what we say and do affects us all. Also, we are morally accountable for upholding the dignity and responsibility of every rational being regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc..

We are animals. We have bodies and sensations. We are embodied rational beings, but we are not merely animals. We have sensations, but we do not merely have sensations. Our rationality is what distinguishes us from other animals. It is what makes us different and what gives human dignity. To reduce human beings to mere animals is to dehumanize. Reason is to rule over our animality or our senses. We cannot deny the demands, needs, and joys of the body, but we can rule over them. This rule requires critical thinking.

Rational political animals require critical thinking to rule over our physical nature, to thrive in human society and to have a thriving society, and to achieve what is good for all human beings – knowing the truth. Knowing the truth results in happiness and a fulfilling life. Therefore, critical thinking is a means to the highest end. It is our most valuable tool. Let us encourage one another in the virtue of critical thinking in pursuit of what is true and good.

To sum up: Critical thinking begins with using reason to identify the meaning of the words that we use, assess the truth of judgments that we make, and to prove the judgments that we make with arguments. We cannot substitute critical thinking with emotion or bypass it for pragmatic reasons. The goal of critical thinking is knowledge of the truth. Knowing the truth is a communal activity. Therefore, critical thinking is for the good of the individual and the common good.

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