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Philosophy and the Historical Perspective$

Marcel van Ackeren

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266298

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266298.001.0001

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Reason in History

Reason in History

(p.104) 7 Reason in History
Philosophy and the Historical Perspective

John Skorupski

, Marcel van Ackeren, Lee Klein
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses two Hegelian themes that are important for the history of philosophy: the way in which reason is active in history, and the role of history in revealing reason. These are approached through the history of philosophy by considering (i) the epistemological significance of tradition and conviction, and (ii) the nature of ‘rational explanation’ and its role, alongside other factors, in explaining historical changes of philosophical outlook. The Hegelian themes are then discussed by examining two great changes in late modern philosophy: one in philosophy of science and mind, the other in ethics and political philosophy.

Keywords:   tradition, conviction, rational explanation, reason, history of philosophy

WHY STUDY THE HISTORY OF philosophy? Philosophers may argue that we should simply address philosophical problems as they strike us. Historians may wonder whether the history of philosophy is more than the history of an esoteric subject which has no obvious influence on wider social issues, and can safely be left to specialists. The standing danger is that history of philosophy comes to be isolated both from general history and from general philosophy.

It will be said that historians of philosophy must focus strongly on a specific object of study to get it right. That is true, most of the time. Yet, if the focus becomes too exclusively specialist, something vital is lost, both to philosophy and to history: a broader understanding of the role of reason in history, and of the role of history in revealing reason. If these two themes sound rather Hegelian, they are meant to. They are at any rate the themes I propose to address.

7.1. Philosophical Traditions and Common Cognition

The history of philosophy is both history and philosophy, in a way that the history of science is not both history and science. Why should that be so?

Two factors are central: the plurality of philosophical traditions and the rational weight of conviction. Philosophy deals with fundamental questions, questions that give rise to divergent basic outlooks that persist through centuries and inspire conviction among their adherents. Much philosophical progress consists in sharper and more detailed articulation of such outlooks, and hence clearer understanding of what the possibilities are. Some alternatives lose ground and disappear as live options, perhaps forever. In the philosophical outlooks that remain, the considered and settled views of great philosophers rightly remain important: they exert continued authority and attract allegiance. However, it is not just a matter of great philosophers. What matters is the continuity, connectedness, and vitality of an outlook over time, developing (as it seems) under its own momentum, with many people contributing in many ways. Such an outlook, connected over time, is a philosophical tradition. Traditions vary in their character. Aristotelianism, as (p.105) a tradition, has always been strongly focused on the Aristotelian texts; utilitarianism is not particularly focused on Bentham’s texts. In the latter case, the leading element is not a complex outlook anchored in a particular person but a very big and seemingly simple idea. In both cases there turn out to be many possible interpretations, developments, and variations, all of which have come to be more and more extensively explored.

Then there are completely new ideas in philosophy. Some fade, but some bring revolutions that make a permanent difference. Kant’s philosophy is a prime example of the latter. It is no exaggeration to say that it takes philosophy into its late modern era. This is so, even though a great deal of late modern philosophy, from the beginning in the 1780s to well into the 20th century, was a reaction against Kant or an attempt to go beyond him. Yet, despite this, Kantianism stands firm. It is a tradition that shows no sign of fading; it has established itself as one of the great options.

A first task for history of philosophy, considered as a contribution to philosophy, is to keep alive a vivid sense of the plurality and force of traditions. A second task follows: to engage in a continuing critical estimate of their normative weight. This question of the weight of traditions is, in turn, a special case of a fundamental question about the authority of conviction. How much epistemic authority attaches to the fact that people have thought something? In the case of a tradition, there is a group of ideas that has been developed and defended in assiduous and capable ways, standing firm over generations. Such a fact has positive historical interest, but it also seems to have epistemic importance: the fact that some people—in this case a connected succession of able people—have thought something, gives us some reason to take it seriously.

At the same time something else is important in the same way: the weight of common cognition. I mean this Kantian term to cover something less intellectually reflective and developed than a philosophical tradition: it refers to the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and methods of enquiry in a place and time—‘common sense’, the ‘appearances’, the ‘natural attitude’, the ‘life world’.

As these phrases drawn from philosophy indicate, philosophy has always recognised the sheer ‘thereness’ of common cognition. It is what is stable, entrenched, immediately felt or thought in common, what stands firm as quite evident or obvious. It is resistant to change; nevertheless, over time, it may change, whether through implicit adaptation or explicit criticism. In epistemology, common cognition centres on the natural realism of the life world. In ethics, it is moral common sense, for example that assault, cruelty, and fraud are wrong. Aberrations can occur, but there is a tendency to return to stable equilibria.

Still, the epistemic authority of philosophical traditions and of common cognition is only one side of the story. The other side of it is that common cognition seems rationally incomplete, while philosophical traditions, insofar as they go beyond it, whether by rejecting it or trying to complete or systematise it, vary. This raises obvious questions about the role of philosophical reason. Is there some standpoint outside tradition and common cognition from which they can be (p.106) criticised? Or can they be criticised only immanently, from within, by reference to tensions, ‘contradictions’, implicit in their taken-for-granted commitments? Or is it that they implicitly contain criteria which can be extracted from them and by which they can then be judged? These questions respectively bring to mind Cartesian, Hegelian, and Kantian styles of approach. They are questions of method within philosophy.

In pursuing the history of philosophy, however, we soon come to an important question of another kind. How far can the convictions we acquire from tradition and common cognition be non-rationally explained away? The question arises when we approach tradition or common cognition from the ‘outside’ in an explanatory way, historically and sociologically. We shall come to it through examples in Sections 7.4 and 7.5. But there are some preliminaries to discuss: the ‘conviction principle’, as I will call it (Section 7.2), and the difference between ‘rational’ and ‘internal’ explanation (Section 7.3).

7.2. The Conviction Principle

The claim that tradition and common cognition carry epistemic weight is based on an epistemological claim about conviction: call it the ‘conviction principle’. This says that the fact that someone is sincerely convinced that p, and they are credible, is a reason to believe that p is true—not necessarily a conclusive reason but a reason. A person is credible with respect to their judgement that p only if their judgement cannot reasonably be assessed to arise from inadequate or misleading evidence or faulty judgement. Note that this makes the credibility of another person’s judgement a matter of what assessment it is reasonable for the hearer or reader to make of the judgement, given their own epistemic state. Note also that while credibility gives some degree of reason to accept a claim, it does not entail its truth. Compare the courtroom notion of a credible witness.

We can add a consensus principle: the greater the number of credible people who converge on a conviction, the more reason there is to accept it. And a dissensus principle: when credible people dissent in accepting a proposition, that fact is sufficient reason to suspend judgement on it. I put this dissensus principle in terms of a sufficient reason; it follows that you can only reasonably hold on to a judgement of your own if you can reasonably retain the idea that dissenters are not credible: that their contrary convictions can reasonably be judged to arise from inadequate or misleading evidence or faulty judgement. If you cannot reasonably hold on to that idea, you must give up your own conviction and either agree with the dissenters or withhold judgement.

There is much more to be said about these principles of conviction, consensus, and dissensus, not least about the notion of reasonableness (it is a virtue which steers between obstinate self-certainty and credulousness, making fair-minded judgements of an interlocutor’s credibility). However, I shall (p.107) assume here that they are broadly correct and consider their implications for our topic.1

A judgement that is purely a priori it is not based on evidence, so the reference to evidence in the conviction principle drops out. The only question that remains is whether the judgement can reasonably be judged to be faulty. However, the effect of the conviction principle (itself a priori) is to make evidence about the history of philosophy, the variety of traditions, and the range of common convictions relevant to that question. Thus, the purist ideal of philosophy in the armchair, where one does nothing but apply absolutely a priori reflection to absolutely fundamental questions—elegant and attractive as it is—is seriously misleading.

Tradition and common cognition soak their way into consciousness and influence one’s thinking from the start. Their contemporary weight is something you already ‘just know’ by being one of the contemporaries. They are with you in the armchair, so the purest enquiry is already impure. Moreover, your knowledge of them is liable to mislead if you do not make it explicit and place it against knowledge of the history and plurality of traditions. Any philosopher who takes the conviction principle, and thus history and common cognition, seriously (say Aristotle, or Hegel) will say that there is always a case for getting out of the armchair into the library, or the manuscripts—or the psychology lab or the sociological investigation.

Some ways of undermining conviction are familiar: he has not thought about it hard enough, her judgement is distorted by prejudice, parti pris, counter-suggestibility, a need to believe arising from other commitments, mere fashion, a wish to conform, and so on. In general, one undermines the authority of a conviction by explaining it away as the product of ‘alien causes’ (in a Kantian phrase to which we will return). This applies across the board, but in particular to historical traditions in philosophy and to common convictions, where these are in conflict with a philosophical view one wants to advance.

For these reasons—the plurality of traditions, the conviction principle, the hope of explaining disagreement away—philosophy, more than any other a priori discipline, is inherently a dialectical contest, a kind of ongoing wrestling match. (Other a priori disciplines become more dialectical as they hit controversy about foundations, as in logic and set theory.) Philosophy proceeds by taking opposing views into account, assessing their plausibility, trying to assimilate or displace them, seeking in general to achieve reflective equilibrium.

If study of the history of philosophy is to contribute to this process, it must engage in rational assessment of the traditions it studies. It would miss its vocation if it simply dumped, so to speak, at the door of current philosophical reflection, a set of facts about what people have thought at other times and places. This is not to deny that simple information can be useful when real ignorance (p.108) prevails, or, equally, that obsessive finding of faults in the arguments of past philosophers can become tedious, especially when the faults found could easily be eliminated by a restatement which retains the overall strategy. The point is simply that the history of philosophy cannot ignore the rational worth of the arguments it studies.

We do not spend all our time facing the dilemma of either explaining away a conflicting philosophical view or withdrawing from our own. Much of our time is spent on elaborating our view, working out its implications. We can suspend judgement while doing that. Nevertheless, the choice of accepting a conviction as sound or explaining it away is constantly there. So too, then, is the contrast between beliefs that are held for good reasons and beliefs that can be explained in some other way. What is involved in this crucial contrast?

7.3. Internal versus External; Rational versus Non-Rational

We must separate two distinctions: between internal versus external explanations, or explanatory factors, and rational versus non-rational ones. It is the second that interests us, but it is all too easy to assimilate it into the first.

Roughly, an internal explanation is a cause of change in philosophical opinion that occurs solely within philosophical discourse. Finding a new argument (valid or invalid) or finding a flaw (genuine or apparent) in an old one would be paradigm examples. An influential rethinking of a supposedly satisfactory reflective equilibrium would be another. An external explanation is, then, any explanation that cites a cause of change in philosophical opinion that is not internal. If the fact that philosophers stop being employed in monasteries, and start being employed in aristocratic courts or public universities, causes philosophical change, that is an external explanatory factor. The death of this philosopher in a car accident, and the survival of that one, would be another. Often explanation may be mixed, citing both internal and external explanatory factors.

A rational explanation of the belief that p is one that cites a rational explanatory factor—a fact that gives some degree of reason for the belief that p—and explains the belief as caused by recognition of that reason. A non-rational explanation cites an explanatory factor that is non-rational.2

Suppose that the fact (i.e. truth) that q gives some reason to believe that p. Suppose we can explain a shift of opinion towards believing that p as resulting from the fact that one or more people have observed that q, recognised that it counts to some degree in favour of (normatively supports) the judgement that p, and just in virtue of what they have observed and recognised have moved opinion, their own or other people’s, somewhat in favour of p. Then that is a rational explanation (p.109) of the shift, and the explanatory factor cited in the explanation is a rational explanatory factor.3

The two distinctions, ‘internal versus external’ and ‘rational versus non-rational’, are not co-extensive. An internal factor may not be rational, and a rational factor may not be internal. So, for example, false assumptions and mistakes of reasoning are possible in the armchair or seminar room. If a shift of philosophical opinion results from such mistakes, the explanatory factor is internal but non-rational. Equally, a rational factor may not be internal. In particular, extraphilosophical beliefs or attitudes and discussions and conclusions in areas other than philosophy may exercise a rational influence on philosophy, as we shall see.

The distinction between rational and non-rational explanatory factors raises hackles among some historians and sociologists. Whereas ‘internal versus external’ is intended as a non-normative classification, ‘rational versus non-rational’ involves normative judgement. That in itself may lead some to think that it should be avoided: because it departs from the value neutrality that a historian or sociologist should maintain, or perhaps from some underlying scepticism about reason. Such views are themselves philosophical theses; they seem to me to be seriously mistaken.

We shall come back to this in Section 7.7. But first let us examine the idea that external explanations of philosophical change can be rational explanations. Some examples will show the very considerable issues at stake.

7.4. Science and Philosophy

Over the last two centuries of philosophy, two striking changes worked their way through epistemology and metaphysics. One was a shift to acceptance of the hypothetical method as a canon of truth—that is, towards realism about the results of scientific theorising. The other was a shift from experientialism to physicalism. In both these cases we see a dialectic of internal philosophical arguments, for and against; but in both cases the development of science appears to be a major external influence.

The shift towards acceptance of the hypothetical method as a canon of truth—‘inference to the best explanation’—rather than just a heuristic device, began in the middle and latter part of the 19th century, with leading defences by Whewell and Peirce. Eventually, it became, ‘under such descriptions as “hypotheticodeduction” or “conjectures and refutations” … the orthodoxy of the twentieth century’.4

Yet there was a standard objection to the claim that when a hypothesis fits the data that gives us reason to accept it as true: namely, that more than one (p.110) hypothesis may fit the data and even tie for first place by criteria such as simplicity. This is possible even if only one such hypothesis has actually been produced; but often more than one hypothesis is produced. How then can the simplicity and predictive adequacy of a hypothesis justify one in accepting it as truth? Mill challenged Whewell with this question. Whewell had argued with copious examples from the history of science that scientists made hypotheses all the time, and had examined in what circumstances they accepted hypotheses as true accounts of reality. Mill, in response, conceded as much about the practice of scientists and the fruitfulness of hypothesising as he could, but still insisted that its fruitfulness belonged in the heuristics of discovery, and that validation or ‘proof’ of a hypothesis had to be inductive (where this included use of his ‘eliminative’ methods). His basic argument was the point about the underdetermination of theory by data.

Next, consider the historical shift from experientialism. This group of views holds that our present conscious experience is all of which we are immediately aware. It then moves to an ontological claim, that physical reality is in one way or another a construct out of experience. Various forms of that doctrine were put forward; it was the mainstream view in the 19th century and well into the 20th. But then various forms of physicalism began to take over, and the question became what to say about conscious experience from the physicalist standpoint. Thus, we have gone from the dominance of a philosophical outlook which took the ontological primacy of experience, consciousness, more or less for granted, to one in which the assumption that reality is physical is virtually taken for granted. Physicalist monism has replaced experientialist monism, and the question on many philosophers’ agenda is how to fit experience into the physical (the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness).

Overall, then, in just a few generations, philosophy has moved from widespread acceptance of the idea that physics must somehow reduce to the contents of consciousness, to equally widespread acceptance that consciousness must somehow reduce to a set of local elements or processes within physics. And this change has marched in step with the one just noted: the growth of scientific realism, based on acceptance that the method of hypothesis is not merely a heuristic device but a basis for warranted belief.

There is a clear curve of development, and it suggests an obvious external explanatory factor: the rise of ‘big’ physics. Modern physics has a fundamentally hypothetical structure, and a great and steadily increasing predictive power—also, it seems, a great explanatory reach; moreover, since the 19th century, it has acquired enormous technological relevance. We increasingly assume that all special sciences must in some way be ‘contained’ in it or ‘in principle reducible’ to it.

We are dealing here with a change of world view, of our understanding of ourselves and our relation to the world, a change that outruns internal developments in philosophy. The two philosophical shifts, to scientific realism and from experientialism to physicalism, are linked, and the explanation seems to reside in (p.111) the growing prestige of physics and perhaps in deeper cultural changes associated with that.

But is this external explanation of the shifts a rational explanation, in the sense in which we are using that term here? This may be denied, for example, on the grounds that first-order progress in science is rationally irrelevant to questions about its ontology, whatever its actual influence may be. But there is also a case for an affirmative answer, based on the conviction principle. If we apply that principle to scientists’ practice, and their considered reflection on their practice, we derive the conclusion that there is reason to accept the physicalist world picture to which that practice leads. It is not necessarily decisive. The under-determination issue remains and constitutes a reason to take an instrumentalist view of science. The old difficulties that consciousness poses for physicalism also remain (in my opinion). A convinced idealist may argue, in line with the dissensus principle, that people who ignore or underestimate these points exhibit poor judgement. Nonetheless, given the conviction principle and the consensus principle, the progress of science at least shifts the weights in reflective equilibrium, even though it is a factor external to philosophy. Although there are other rational considerations to debate, it may be enough to change where the equilibrium lies.

Given the conviction principle, the impact of science on philosophy can be rational, though external. I emphasise that this judgement is itself made by philosophy. To put it more generally: when the history of philosophy demonstrates the influence of some external factors on a philosophical position, it is philosophy itself that judges the rational relevance of these factors, and if it judges the influence to be non-rational, it downgrades the authority of the position in question.

7.5. Ethics and Social Change

My second example is of an even more momentous change, this time in ethics. It is the historic shift away from feudal Catholic values, which took place in Europe, culminating at the end of the early modern period. The nature of this change is crystallised in the discussions, philosophical and political, that took place during the French Revolution.

The feudal Catholic ethical order had an intelligible value structure. It was holistic, agent-relative, virtue-oriented, eudaemonist. This was a structure that could take a variety of forms in relation to a variety of social wholes. In the ancien régime, the ultimately valuable thing—the social whole to which the individual belonged—was the Christian kingdom of France. Satisfaction, fulfilment, or eudaimonia was to be achieved in virtuous fulfilment of a station in that social whole: that of an aristocrat rooted in a landed estate, or in a legal office; that of a cleric ministering to souls; that of a townsman, or a peasant on the land; or, in the case of the king, that of father of the nation. Of course, a received ethical order is one thing, the degree to which people live up to it is another. Quite apart from (p.112) that, however, this value structure was in trouble in 18th-century France. It lacked congruence with a centralising monarchical absolutism that had worked its way through the early modern period, destabilising the crucial role of land-holding aristocrats in the traditional moral order, polarising them into courtiers and rentier-owners of real estate.5 It encouraged a kind of individualism and equality: that of the levelled many against the government of the king. Hence, repeated attempts by the king’s government to raise taxation looked like oppressive raids based on no legitimate ethical tie—whether arising from traditionally sanctioned understandings, rights, and duties, or from the agreement of the people, the nation (as many increasingly saw themselves).

The strength of traditional Christian royalism during and after the French Revolution shows how effective the feudal Catholic ethic of service still was, despite its decay. But, against it, reformers and revolutionaries gravitated to two new visions. One was the agent-neutral or impartial individualism of Enlightenment proto-liberals, who dominated the early phases of the revolution from 1789, and were influential in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the subsequent Constitution of 1791. Then, there was the radical-democratic ethic of Rousseauists, Robespierrists, or Jacobins. It was radical in that it effectively took the general will, the will of the people, to be the sole source of normative legitimacy. It was obviously quite different to the feudal Catholic ethic, yet it also differed fundamentally from the impartial individualism of mainstream Enlightenment. Like the feudal Catholic ethic, it had a holistic/eudaemonist value structure: the good was the public good, the good of the democratic republic, and the good of the individual lay in participation in that good.

Enlightenment individualists divided in various ways, tending to some combination of utility and rights philosophically, and to constitutional monarchism or constitutional republicanism politically. But they found that they could not make stable alliances with either of the other two groups. Lines of philosophical division became lines of political enmity. The three-way political conflict that emerged from these philosophical differences turned bloody. Radical-democracy gained ground in the political clubs and in the Paris Commune, briefly taking power in 1793, sparking the famous period of revolutionary terror. It lost power with Robespierre’s execution in 1794.

The traditional view that the revolution was shaped by shifts of philosophical ideas went out of fashion with historians for a time. And, of course, it goes without saying that many other factors were in play; however, the crucial influence of philosophical ideas is not in doubt.6 But we can still ask how important rational factors were in explaining these philosophical shifts themselves.

(p.113) To simplify drastically, consider this threefold hypothesis: (1) material changes in French society produced a tendency for relations of contract to replace feudal relations, generating an opportunity and a need for the state to centralise finance and administration; (2) these effects made the old feudal Catholic moral order practically dysfunctional; and (3) they were, however, congruent with two newer visions that have become stable political philosophical traditions in modernity—individualist, cosmopolitan liberalism, and radical national or republican democracy.

Consider current moral and political philosophy. Much of it takes place in a framework of impartial individualism, whether welfarist or rights-based. Democracy, despite its political entrenchment, continues to raise a philosophically contested question: Do we try to derive its legitimacy from impartial individualist premises, or do we see it in radical Rousseauist terms, as itself the fundamental normative source? Eudaimonism retains a place, associated with virtue ethics; however, the historical association nowadays is more with the ancient polis than the feudal Catholic order.7 This focus gives virtue ethics an affinity to radical-democracy’s rejection of both individualism and hierarchy. The two ethical visions that took over at the time of the French Revolution remain with us.

The threefold hypothesis explains this philosophical story in terms of material changes in European society.8 This hypothesis appeals to an external explanatory factor. Is it a non-rational factor?

A change in which virtues seem important can be a rational response to a change in polity and economy. Honour, trust, loyalty, moral and physical leadership, courage: these are all intelligible virtues, virtues whose normative force one can see and respect. Plenty of social entities of one kind or another, from family to football clubs, cannot flourish without them. But they have far less application to the larger, more impersonal political and economic framework of modern societies. A hierarchy of estates specialised by feudal and religious function is no longer possible in such societies. In contrast, such virtues as peacefulness, honesty, economic prudence, reliability in agreements with relatively unknown others, ‘professionalism’—these have a useful function. The ethic of individual responsibility and equal citizenship—whether or not it is an emergence from immaturity9—is a rational response to the modern world. To explain its rise in these terms is to explain it in terms of a factor which is both external and rational.

But what about the continuing divergence between an impartial individualist and a radical-democratic philosophical tradition? Both are, in different ways, adaptive to modern circumstances with regard to the virtues they respectively (p.114) emphasise. But as well as a contrast in their vision of the virtues, they differ on philosophical questions about what normative principles are fundamental. Thus, is anything finally and unconditionally valuable other than the welfare of individuals? Are there rights other than rights of individuals? Do individuals have rights irrespective of any agreement, convention, or act of collective will? Or is the right and the good a construction of the general will? These are questions about fundamentals—how, if at all, do they relate to external factors?

Consider a class analysis which links all three ethical schemes to forms of class dominance: the Catholic-feudal order to aristocratic and clerical, the impartial individualist to bourgeois, and the radical-democratic to ‘popular’ or ‘proletarian’ hegemony. For the propertyless and powerless, the liberal individualist values of personal responsibility and representative government offer far less protection than do collective action and radical-democracy.

As an explanation of the differences about fundamentals, this explanation, in terms of class interests, is both external and non-rational. It is a debunking explanation. (‘You only think impartial individualist values are fundamental because you are a bourgeois for whom they are useful.’ ‘You only think the general will is the source of legitimacy because you think that your interests would be best protected in a radical-democracy.’) The explanation could be pushed further, to the conclusion that there is no rational explanatory factor to be found: no explanation, that is, in terms of reasons to believe one of the conflicting stories about normative fundamentals as against another. That, in turn, would mean that there is no objective, determinate answer to these questions.

This conclusion cannot be ruled out a priori. But to accept that class analysis has explanatory value is not to accept that it is all there is. Class interests permeate politics, affecting the popularity of opinions on fundamental moral and political questions. No historian or sociologist can ignore them. Philosophically, however, the class explanation of disagreement on questions of ethical and political fundamentals defuses application of the dissensus principle to those questions. It leaves open the issue of whether credible inquirers, who were able to set these alien causes to one side, would arrive at a rational consensus. Only a naive class-determinism could hold that issue to be closed.

7.6. Rational Explanation

We have considered some ways in which external explanations of shifts of philosophical outlook may be rational explanations, and some ways in which they would be non-rational, by being based on ‘alien causes’. Let us examine rational explanation a little further.

An explanation that is fully or partly rational explains a person’s response (belief, action, or feeling) in terms of a reason for that response. A fully rational explanation explains it in terms of a sufficient reason; a partly rational explanation explains it in terms of a reason which was not sufficient but did exist, (p.115) where the agent’s response was caused by taking it (at the moment of the response) to be sufficient. Furthermore, a fully rational explanation explains the response as responding to a sufficient reason by virtue of recognition that it is a sufficient reason.

What kind of explanation is this? Does it involve an uncaused cause? It will be useful to approach the question in terms of a quite humdrum example.

Suppose I am driving to a destination and I see a traffic sign that tells me my preferred route is closed. I take what I recognise as the next best route among the remaining options; I do that because I can see that the fact that the best route is closed, together with the other relevant facts, is sufficient reason to take that route. My recognition that there is sufficient reason to take the other route is why I take the other route: I act from that recognition.

I believe that there is sufficient reason to take route B because there is. And I take route B because I believe there is sufficient reason to take it. What is the force of ‘because’ in these cases? Is it causal? We have a choice. We could say: (1) that the relation between the normative truth and my recognition of it is causal. That makes the normative truth an uncaused cause, since a normative truth is not itself ‘caused’ by anything. If we take this option, however, we are introducing a kind of causation that is quite dissimilar to empirical causation: it involves nothing like the usual notion of a discoverable productive link from causal antecedent to effect, constituted in a way that is open to empirical investigation. Alternatively, we could say: (2) that the uncaused cause is my recognition of the normative truth. The formation of this belief is, of course, partly caused by relevant empirical circumstances: my noticing the traffic sign, my psychological make-up. Likewise, there are various empirical facts in virtue of which route B is the next best: it is because I am aware of them that I see that route B is the next best. However, that these empirical facts give me sufficient reason to judge that route B is next best is again not itself an empirical fact; it is a purely normative truth. Here again what I do is a response to a normative truth.

On option (2), when we say that I judged that there was sufficient reason to take route B because there was, we take ourselves to be giving an explanation, but not a causal explanation. What we have is, first, a purely normative truth which is no part of the empirical world and has no natural causality and, second, my recognition of that truth, which consists not in an empirical relation of causality between two distinct empirical facts, but rather in an intelligible relation of rational insight, between a normative truth and my recognition of that truth. We are explaining an empirical event—my forming the belief that I should take route B—in terms other than its accordance with the laws of nature.

I prefer option (2). Insight into normative truth is not a causal notion, as option (1) takes it to be. In taking it to be a causal notion, option (1) countenances a disjointed, mystifying account of causation that is all too likely to give rise to misplaced ontologising. In contrast, Kant (whose account is clearly relevant here) seems to take option (1), inasmuch as he characterises rational explanation in terms of ‘the causality of freedom’. He then seems to fall into misplaced (p.116) ontologising, postulating a noumenal self that responds receptively to this noumenal causality. It is not clear, however, how much weight to put on this reading, for he also takes judgements of reason—that is, purely normative judgements—to be acts of pure ‘spontaneity’ or ‘self-activity’, involving no element of receptivity to an independent noumenal cause.

However one reads him, Kant seems to me to be absolutely right in his conception of autonomy as rationality and his contrast between an empirical and an intelligible standpoint on human thought and action:

A rational being must view itself, as an intelligence … as belonging not to the world of sense, but to that of understanding; and hence it has two standpoints from which it can consider itself, and recognise laws for the use of its powers, and consequently for all its actions: first, in so far as it belongs to the world of sense, under laws of nature (heteronomy), secondly, as belonging to the intelligible world, under laws that, independent of nature, are not empirical, but have their foundation merely in reason.10

There is or may be an ‘empirical’ level of description of the events involved in what we describe (at the intelligible level) as my taking route B, and an explanation at that empirical level in terms of laws of natural causality. In contrast, the standpoint or ‘world’ of understanding is the world of persons, reasons, and responses to reasons. When we think of ourselves as autonomous thinkers and agents, we think of our responses as explicable in rational terms.

As Kant also says, free action is action determined by reason ‘independently of alien causes’.11 Alien causes are non-rational causes that diminish sensitivity to relevant reasons and their weight. Not every non-rational cause is an alien cause. For example, one cause of my diverting to route B was that the diversion sign was well lit, causing me to notice it. The fact that it was well lit was one of the non-rational causes of my taking route B, since I would not have diverted if I had not noticed the sign, and I would not have noticed it if it had not been well lit. It was not an alien cause, but it was not one of the rational causes either: the fact that the sign was well lit was not itself a reason to take route B—it was the fact that the sign said that route A was closed (together with various other facts) that was the reason.

Non-rational factors can facilitate or impede rational action. They facilitate when they open access to information, a line of reasoning, or a rational insight (this is what the well-lit road sign does). They undermine when they divert, reduce, or block your sensitivity to relevant reasons.

Philosophical thinking aims to be autonomous. It seeks to be sensitive solely to reason and to eliminate alien causes from the debate. But the autonomy of philosophy does not imply the irrelevance to it of any factors outside pure philosophical reasoning. As emphasised in earlier sections, not every external cause is an alien cause. Of course, it can be hard to judge whether a given external (p.117) factor is or is not a rational factor. To return to the discussion of Section 7.4, we saw that it was debatable whether the progress of science is or is not a reason to accept realism about science. If it is a reason, it is debatable whether there are stronger countervailing reasons for treating scientific hypotheses as instruments for prediction rather than as truths about the nature of things. Perhaps the prestige of science occludes our understanding here. But certainly, to have this debate we need to have a detailed, philosophically informed account of the practice of science and the judgements of scientists. Similar points hold for philosophical traditions and common convictions. To assess their rational significance, we need philosophically informed accounts of their history and their phenomenology, and realistic assessments of their aetiology. This is work for the history of philosophy (and for other disciplines as well).

7.7. Reason in History

Much of everyday belief and action is open to rational explanation in a perfectly uncontentious way. The case of diverting to an alternative route (Section 7.6) is but one example. If all this humdrum rational activity is included, then it is obviously true that ‘reason is active in history’. Or, to be more precise, if less catchy, it is obviously true that people’s responsiveness to reasons makes a difference to what actually happens. However, if what is meant by the slogan ‘reason is active in history’ is that responsiveness to reason is what gives rise to great philosophical changes—changes in the very framework of our thinking—then that is not so obvious. It is a major and fascinating question in the history of philosophy whether or not, or to what extent, it is true.

The kind of thing the more ambitious thesis might say is (for example) that large numbers of people come to adopt a background of impartial individualism in their thinking because they are influenced by people who have reasonably adopted it; that is, they come to see that impartial individualism is the correct normative view. Or they come to reject proofs of the existence of God because they have been reasonably influenced by people who reject them; that is, they come to see that they are unsound.

One reason why such examples are controversial is that the proposed philosophical truth that serves as the ultimate explanans is typically controversial. Someone who thinks impartial individualism is false, or that the proofs are sound, will not accept that a truth plays the ultimate explanatory role in these cases. At this point, one might retreat to saying that impartial individualism gained influence because it seemed to be correct, or that the proofs lost ground because they seemed to be unsound. Should not a social scientist or historian stick to that, leaving the philosophical question to the philosophers?

No. According to the rational explanation of these philosophical theses, they did not seem to be correct; they were seen to be correct. If that is true, it closes the explanatory quest in one important respect (though not historical enquiry (p.118) into the rich context of enabling and disabling factors). If, on the other hand, rational explanation does not work, we want to know why those philosophical theses seemed to be correct. The explanatory quest is now no longer closed; a search is triggered for alien causes. Hence, anyone interested in pushing on with explanation cannot leave the question there. They have to assess the plausibility of the rational explanation, as against debunking explanations which effectively take the rational explanation to be incorrect. Refraining from that assessment is not a neutral stopping point.

The history of philosophy is inevitably interested in the role of reason in history, just because it is interested in the rationality of philosophical traditions. You can argue, pessimistically, that such a global question as ‘Is reason active in history?’ is too big for the history of philosophy to handle; you cannot say it is not cogent, or that it is unimportant.

The other Hegelian theme I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter is the idea that history reveals reason. The two themes hang together in the famous formula that what is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational.12 The rational is actual—reason is active in history. And the actual is rational—what reveals reason is what works, what stands firm against the ‘non-actual’, the evanescent, which in the end falls away. On this view, the very persistence of a philosophical tradition, however transformed—that is, its continuing ability to stand firm—is an indicator of its rationality.

What should we make of this Hegelian confidence about the work of reason? Few would now appeal to the dialectics of Spirit as way of underpinning it. In the reaction against this metaphysical philosophy of history, Hegel’s claims about the actual and the rational have seemed extravagant, even nonsensical. I hope I have shown they are not nonsensical. The history of philosophy shows how both sides of the Hegelian formula can work. Are they extravagant? They are not extravagant, but nor are they safe. If the actual and the rational overlap, it is only through the contingent, fragile fact that enough people, often enough, have been able to recognise reason, respond to it, and influence others. It would be nice to be able to say something less tame, more ambitious, more conclusive, more philosophically reassuring, by finding something less contingent and fragile. Alas, it no longer seems plausible that there is anything like that to find.


Bibliography references:

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991), Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Irwin, T. H. (2007–9), The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Israel, J. (2014), Revolutionary Ideas (Oxford & Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press).

(p.119) Kant, I. (1996), ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’, in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, ed. M. J. Gregor (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 16–22.

Kant, I. (2011), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Laudan, L. (1981), Science and Hypothesis (Dordrecht, Reidel).

Skorupski, J. (2010), The Domain of Reasons (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Tocqueville, A. de. (1856), The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans. J. Bonner (New York, Harper & Brothers; facsimile by the Liberty Fund).


(1) The philosophical ideas I rely on in this chapter are spelt out in Skorupski (2010). On the role of the dissensus principle, see especially ch. 16, §4. On ‘rational explanation’, see ch. 10. On the metanormative framework, see chs 16 and 17.

(2) It may be obvious, but perhaps it is worth stating that ‘non-rational’ explanation does not mean ‘irrational’ or ‘bad’ explanation. A non-rational explanation may be a perfectly correct one, while a rational explanation may be incorrect.

(3) Let R be the proposition that the fact that q normatively supports the judgement that p. These people came to believe that p because they recognised the truth of R.

(5) As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out: ‘In the old feudal society, the seignior’s extensive rights were counterpoised by extensive obligations … When the seignior’s rights were taken from him, he shook off his obligations …’ (1856: 58–9).

(6) For a persuasive defence of this view, a demonstration that Enlightenment ideas in particular were a major factor in the French Revolution, and a gripping account of their conflict with traditional royalism on the one hand and radical-democracy on the other, see Jonathan Israel (2014).

(7) An important recent attempt to show that the sidelining of Aristotelianism in modern ethics has been a historic wrong turning is to be found in T. H. Irwin’s three-volume history of the development of ethics (2007–9), which gives a major role to Aquinas as well as to Aristotle.

(8) Obviously not in terms of France and the French Revolution alone. Similar forces were at work elsewhere in Europe; albeit not as explosively, with different levels of influence, and with markedly different national effects.

(9) As Kant suggested in ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (Kant, 1996).