Have We Reason to Believe? | The Nation


Have We Reason to Believe?

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Scratch a philosopher, find a reductionist revolutionary. Thales thought he'd shake up the world by claiming everything was made of water, a resourceful guess by a sixth-century-BC thinker stuck in a port city. Pythagoras declared that all things consisted of numbers because harmonies and ratios did. Heraclitus judged the sole primary element to be fire, then made sure we had enough rivers to douse it in an emergency.

About the Author

Carlin Romano
Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and critic at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education,...

Also by the Author

As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the
knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological
economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side

Devotees of "balanced," "objective," "fair" and "evenhanded"
nonfiction--well, they be hurtin' in these early days of the
twenty-first century. Enough, perhaps, to demand that self-help, how-to
and "wisdom of menopause" books return to dominate, as they once did,
the now separated-from-birth (and diet and crosswords) New York
nonfiction bestseller list. In the
April 21 issue of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, nearly
half the top ten nonfiction bestsellers belong to a genre that
middle-of-the-road innocents might label "one-sided," "unbalanced,"
"exclusionary" or worse, though the Times's blurbs artfully avoid
the issue.

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, which manages the non-Euclidean
trick of being centrifugally one-sided, denounces us as a racist, sexist
"nation of idiots" even though we're plainly not a nation of idiots.
Whether you love Moore for blasting the "Thief-in-Chief" or adore him
for bashing Clinton and paying dues to the NRA, he's still guilty, as
Ben Fritz's stiletto review in Salon demonstrated, of being "One
Moore Stupid White Man," because "Moore gets his facts wrong again and
again, and a simple check of the sources he cites shows that lazy
research is often to blame."

David Brock's Blinded by the Right castigates the conservative
movement, which Brock recently fled, as "a radical cult" bored by ideas
and committed to a "Big Lie machine that flourished in book publishing,
on talk radio and on the Internet through the '90s." Brock insists on
that even though many conservatives believe in right-wing principles as
honestly as leftists and liberals believe in theirs. While it was lauded
by Frank Rich as "a key document," by Todd Gitlin as a book that "rings
with plausibility" and in these pages by Michael Tomasky as essential to
understanding this "fevered era," its credibility on the left seems
largely based on Brock's hawking a story the left wants to hear, just as
the right thrilled to The Real Anita Hill: that a "convulsed
emotional state," as Tomasky construes it, rather than an ideology, "is
the real binding glue among the right." Despite Brock's repeated
acknowledgments that he's been an unscrupulous, self-serving liar
throughout his life, flatterers of his book give little credit to the
possibility voiced by Slate's Timothy Noah that lying may be "a
lifelong habit" for the author. Bernard Goldberg's Bias, in turn,
offers mirror-image goods to true believers on the right: chapter and
verse on how his old employer, CBS News, and the media in general,
"distort the news" in a liberal direction, even though the media, by and
large, do not distort the news--they report it. On the strength of one
purported conversation with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, however,
and his own epiphanic experience after writing an anti-CBS Op-Ed for the
Wall Street Journal, Goldberg sounds certain that he's packing
smoking guns. No matter that he fails to clarify, in case after case,
how "bias" differs from a presumptive judgment held on the basis of
revisable evidence, or why conservative bias poses no problem within
eclectic media.

Finally, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown, another targeted killing
by the only national publishing house with the reflexes of a helicopter
gunship, leaves Jesse Jackson barely breathing as a political player.
But if fairness ruled the world of book manuscripts, this one would have
swelled to far more than 512 pages. Because while Rod Dreher of The
National Review
complimented the author for "collecting the dossier
on Jackson between two covers," a dossier in court or an academic
department typically contains both good and bad. The Washington
's Keith Richburg, crediting Timmerman's "meticulous research,"
rightly noted that the author also wholly ignores "Jackson's
accomplishments," like his registration of millions of new voters.

So is Moore a direct literary descendant of Adolf Hitler, that
over-the-top idea man whose snarly diatribes grabbed Publishers
's number-seven bestseller slot for 1939? Will self-confessed
"right-wing hit man" Brock--political sex-change operation or not--be
remembered as an heir to the legacy of Barry (Conscience of a
) Goldwater? Should Timmerman, whose Shakedown
batters Jesse so badly his reproductive equipment may never recover, be
considered just another scion of Victor Lasky, whose ferociously
critical attack on John F. Kennedy awkwardly arrived in 1963? And what
of Goldberg, our redemption-minded spy who came in from the ill-told?
Will his Bias someday be taught in the Columbia publishing course
alongside that 1923 bestseller, Emile Coué's Self-Mastery
Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion
, whose system apparently involved
repeating to oneself, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and

Yes, Flannery O'Connor was right: "There's many a best-seller that could
have been prevented by a good teacher." Each of these polemics keeps
rolling as a big commercial success for its publisher, even though, by
any standard of evenhandedness, each practices the big lie by what it
omits. Are they skyrocketing hits because they're tantamount to "big
lies," texts unwilling to address contrary views?

Maybe we've entered an era in which publishers and readers no longer
care about two hands working at complementary tasks--about evidence and
counterevidence, arguments and counterarguments, decency toward subject
matter. One way to interpret the ascent of the Feckless Four is to
accept that literary producers and consumers think we should leave all
that to college debating societies, scholarly journals and books,
newspapers of record and the courts. That's truth territory--this is
entertainment. And could that actually be the crux of the putative
trend? The recognition, by publishers, buyers and canny trade authors
alike, that well-balanced, evenhanded, scrupulously fair nonfiction
books bore the hell out of readers, however many prizes they may win?

Perhaps, in other words, the rise of the polemic is not simply a passing
curiosity, a reaction to political correctness cutting both ways in 2002
America, but a stage of evolutionary development in a post-
eternal verities culture. Educated readers--whether right or
left--hunger for books that simply smash the opposition and make one
feel the only sensation sweeter than orgasm: the sense of being utterly,
unimpeachably right. To update an old saw by publisher William Targ, too
many people who have half a mind to write a nonfiction bestseller do so,
and that's roughly the amount of brainpower the reader desires.

It certainly feels as if we're facing an epiphenomenon of the moment, an
upshot of the electorate we saw polarized on that red and blue 2000
electoral map. And yet, over the decades one spots many precursors of
Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman (a crackerjack adversarial firm
that might cost hundreds per hour if journalists billed like lawyers).
Michael Korda's recent Making the List: A Cultural History of the
American Bestseller, 1900-99
(Barnes & Noble), suggests
that curators of American bestseller lists could have put up the neon
Onesided Books 'R' Us sign long ago. Diet books, medical guides, how-tos
and self-improvement schemes, after all, ritually command readers to do
it this way, not that way. Dale Carnegie made it to the list with How
to Win Friends and Influence People
, not How to Win Friends,
Influence People and Also Estrange a Ton of Other Folks
. Books by
political candidates advancing their platforms may not sizzle with
Moore's streety phrases or Brock's inside snitching, but they slant the
truth just the same. Similarly, the titles of leading bestsellers of the
1930s--Ernest Dimnet's What We Live By, Walter Pitkin's Life
Begins at Forty
and Walter Duranty's I Write as I
--suggest unshakable points of view promised and delivered.
Even in that war-dominated decade, one sees the forerunners of today's
divided left/right list, with Mission to Moscow, which offered,
Korda writes, a "benevolent view of Joseph Stalin," coming in second on
the 1942 bestseller list, while John Roy Carlson's Under Cover,
"an expose of subversive activity in the United States," rose to number
one in 1943. Yet, Korda observes, while Americans favor books that
"explain to them what is happening," they "still want to be amused,
entertained, and improved." So when authors like Moore, Brock, Goldberg
and Timmerman bring added assets to their unbalanced texts--Moore's
over-the-line wit, Brock's salacious gossip, Goldberg's hate-the-media
vibes and Timmerman's avalanche of dirt--it's like attaching an extra
rocket to the binding.

The presence of one-sided books on bestseller lists, in short, is no
fleeting phenomenon. It's a tradition. But might their increase threaten
the culture? Not likely. Here an insight from Korda fuses with a larger
appreciation of how philosophy in the broadest sense--the way we
organize what we know into views that hang together--operates in
American culture.

Korda extrapolates from bestseller history that "American readers have
been, since the 1940s, increasingly willing to be challenged and even
attacked. They might not have been eager to accept these challenges in
person...but they were willing to buy and read books that criticized the
status quo." He cites fiction as well Laura Hobson's novel
Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with its critique of anti-Semitism,
and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which
eviscerated the "white upper-middle-class lifestyle." It's equally true
that American bestsellers from the beginning sometimes set themselves
against a prevailing yet vulnerableview. Tom Paine's Common Sense
took off and became common sense after he insulted George III and monarchy
the way Moore zaps George the Second, and, well, monarchy.

Korda's insight jibes with a larger truth. Our growing readiness not
only to tolerate but to prefer lopsided views of things arises from our
gut-level understanding that America, at the dawn of the twenty-first
century--and contrary to its clichéd cultural image--stands as
the most vibrant philosophical culture in the history of the world, an
unprecedented marketplace of truth, argument, evidence and individuated
positions on sale to any browser with a browser. Anyone with a pulse and
a laptop can access material supporting the right, the left, the up, the
down, the Israeli view, the Arab view, the Zoroastrian, the pagan, the
poly, the foundationalist, the nonfoundationalist, the libertine, the
puritanical, the environmental, the deconstructionist, the Lacanian, ad
infinitum. That reservoir of opinions, attitudes and slants lifts our
tolerance for one-sidedness into an appetite for edifying entertainment.
Because we can order or click our way to the other side of almost any
viewpoint, and can get it wholesale or retail, we forgive omissions. In
our cornucopia culture, only diners have to offer everything.

TV executives, of course, knew from early on that brash, partisan
talk-show hosts would outrate scholarly balancers every time. (The talk
show, from Alan Burke and Joe Pyne to Bill O'Reilly, has mainly been an
exercise in getting someone to scream uncle.) So, in turn, canny
commercial publishers know that supplying "the other hand" can safely be
left to the equally one-sided polemicist around the corner, or to the
culture at large (particularly if the status quo is the "position"
omitted). The nonfiction polemic, like provocative theater, demands an
interactive audience member who'll supply or obtain elsewhere whatever's
missing, up to the level of individual need. The upshot of rampant
American pluralism, if not neatly packaged truth or beauty in marketable
texts, is an unburdening of public intellectuals and trade authors from
the academic obligation to be fair, judicious and open-minded. Like
artists, they're simply expected to arouse.

It's an unholy system, all right. A typically American market solution
to our supposedly innate demand for equity in the pursuit of knowledge.
But it's ours. And the big bucks it produces for paperback and foreign
rights? Don't even ask.

That monomaniacal spirit, obsessed with balancing the world on one foot or idea, meanders through the Western philosophical tradition, stopping at major stations such as Spinoza's sole substance of "God/Nature" and local curiosities like Bergson's élan vital. Thus it has ever been: If you would stir tumult in the canon, surround a concept, then exalt it, make it over or drive it out of the temple, whipping the mangy beast if necessary.

In these fin de millénaire dog days for philosophy, "reason" presents an especially inviting conceptual target. Humiliated and marginalized by twentieth-century politics and war, belittled by psychoanalysis, stripped of its capital letter by everyone except the Germans, it hobbles along in the humanist vocabulary, mainly surfacing in musty older-generation conversation. ("Won't he listen to reason?") Even intellectuals who treasure its Enlightenment glory days treat reason like a rickety emeritus, worthy of deference during chance encounters but not of mention in one's current work. Many philosophers and cognitive scientists exclude it from their books and indexes, ignoring it like some now embarrassing cousin of phlogiston.

So the first thing to say about Donald Calne, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is that they buck those who refuse to listen to reason and attempt to put it back at center stage, if not atop its old pedestal. They treat "reason" not just as an idea that still matters but as perhaps the proper cynosure of philosophy, rightly understood. Their voices exude familiar revolutionary commitment: Listen to my big ideas, because they may change your thinking about thinking forever.

Calne speaks in the softer register. A Vancouver neurologist who specializes in neurodegenerative disorders, he comes not to bury reason in the new semantics of neurons, synapses and the anterior cingulate sulcus (where Francis Crick locates free will) but to raise it out of wet matter and see what's left. Reason, Calne assures, may still be regarded as a psychological "faculty" in traditional style, so long as we recognize that it's "a biological product" and understand that we're "motivated by instinctive urges and emotions linked to cultural forces--reason is their servant and not their master." Calne argues that modern neurology gives reason no role in setting our goals: It deals with "how" issues, thus explaining why ours is not to reason "why." It is "simply and solely a tool" fashioned by evolution, a capability that "cannot assign or control the purposes to which it is put," something we use "to get what we want, not to choose what we want."

Lakoff and Johnson deliver their goods in preachier language, particularly when taking swings at philosophy as a discipline. This is unquestionably their "big trade book," coming after the influential work on metaphor they developed together in Metaphors We Live By (1980) and More Than Cool Reason (1989), then elaborated separately in Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987) and Moral Politics (1996), and Johnson's The Body in the Mind (1987). Philosophy in the Flesh aims to mine the gold of that corpus for the well-educated nonspecialist, to trumpet for the sentinels of lay culture that a Cartesian-sized turn in philosophy is here (however anti-Cartesian its bent).

Lakoff, a distinguished professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and Johnson, head of the philosophy department at the University of Oregon, begin with "three major findings of cognitive science": first, that the mind "is inherently embodied"; second, that thought "is mostly unconscious"; and third, that abstract concepts "are largely metaphorical."

"More than two millennia of a priori philosophical speculation about these aspects of reason are over," the two declare in their introduction, for these findings "are inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy. They require a thorough rethinking of the most popular current approaches, namely, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and postmodernist philosophy."

The best way to see why is to examine how these findings alter the concept of reason. "Reason," the authors state, is still viewed as "the defining characteristic of human beings." It includes "not only our capacity for logical inference, but also our ability to conduct inquiry, to solve problems, to evaluate, to criticize, to deliberate about how we should act, and to reach an understanding of ourselves, other people, and the world."

Reason, according to cognitive science, however,

is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience.... The very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding.

Reason, in short, is not independent of perception and bodily movement, and neural associations take place between perceptual and inferential acts. Our bodies and brains determine the kinds of categories we will form for making sense of experience. So, for instance, our spatial notions of "in front of" and "in back of" derive from our being creatures with fronts and backs who project that distinction onto objects like cars and TVs. Reason is also "evolutionary, in that abstract reason builds on and makes use of forms of perceptual and motor inference present in 'lower' animals." That discovery "utterly changes our relation to other animals and changes our conception of human beings as uniquely rational."

According to Lakoff and Johnson, reason is therefore not universal in the sense of being transcendent--it is "not part of the structure of the universe." That led some early readers to tag the pair as "relativist" or even "multiculturalist," which they deny. They acknowledge that reason may be widely or universally (if contingently) shared by humans because of our similar bodies, a position they call "embodied realism," as distinct from the philosophical tradition's "disembodied realism." As such, reason is not "completely conscious, but mostly unconscious." It is "not purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative," not dispassionate but rather "emotionally engaged."

If all this is true--and Philosophy in the Flesh attempts to demonstrate it by applying "embodied realism" to classic metaphysical puzzles (such as time and causation) and the history of philosophy itself--out goes much of our philosophical baggage from "major classical views of what a person is." Goodbye to the Cartesian subject, with a mind independent of the body. So long to Kant's radically autonomous person, because reason doesn't transcend the body. Adieu to the ideal utilitarian agent, since embodied humans don't control most of their reasoning, let alone the part that maximizes self-interest. Equally dispensable is the fashionable image of the mind as purely computational--fungible software working on fungible hardware--because real, embodied minds do not merely manipulate empty symbols.

It's a heady onslaught of ideas, and Lakoff and Johnson deserve enormous credit for their work, both over the years and in this cagily disguised textbook. For all the repetition and jargon that make the volume a homely "container" for marvelous ideas, they've taken momentous insights associated with Continental thinkers from Fontenelle to Derrida--the most important being that metaphor suffuses all supposedly abstract philosophical language--and explored them in a characteristically American, empirical spirit. They've marshaled heaps of scientific and social-scientific data, and schematized them to a degree that would have fatigued a lightly empirical concept reviser like Foucault and would seem ploddingly dull to a skeptical ironist like Derrida.

Lakoff and Johnson's dissections of what they call our primary metaphors--paradigms like "Affection is Warmth" ("They greeted me warmly") or "Happy is Up" ("I'm feeling up today")--significantly illuminate how we form abstractions by grafting physical phenomena onto subjective experience. Whereas study of metaphor remained a back alley of philosophy for decades, their work, and landmark anthologies such as Andrew Ortony's Metaphor and Thought (1993), mean no respectable philosopher or linguist can now ignore metaphor's upshot for epistemology and metaphysics.

Further, the authors are right in their claim that what insider cliques in analytic philosophy continue to consider prestigious work--piecemeal defining of truth conditions for abstract words as if they bore a literal rather than metaphorical pedigree--is bankrupt stuff. Lakoff and Johnson are the Lewis and Clark of philosophy's Age of Metaphor, not always getting their positions right but endlessly clearing intellectual paths for others.

That said, the repercussions they announce for "reason" and the way they clash with Calne suggest why Philosophy in the Flesh, despite its girth, fails to settle the brute matter of what reason is. It should, for instance, give Lakoff and Johnson pause that while they claim "evidence from cognitive science shows that classical faculty psychology is wrong," Calne finds considering reason a "faculty" perfectly adequate. That's because he, the professional neurologist and amateur historian of ideas, unlike Lakoff and Johnson, the gushy devotees of cognitive science, never forgets that "reason" and its cognates are cultural terms whose delineation can never exceed in precision the official compromises of lexicographers.

Lakoff and Johnson, instead, believe that concepts such as reason "are neural structures" and that conceptual inference is simply "sensorimotor inference." They thus accept materialist identification between words and concepts, on the one hand, and neurological matter, on the other. Far from being radically new, of course, that flirting with mind-body identity is as old as Plato's Phaedo. And, contrary to what they claim, nothing in contemporary cognitive science or philosophy requires us to accept it.

None other than Steven Rose, a leading neuroscientist, reminds us in From Brains to Consciousness?: Essays on the New Sciences of the Mind (1998) that "being able to map mental processes into physiological, anatomical and biochemical mechanisms" may be able to tell us "how the brain/mind works," but it "will not be able to tell us what the mind is doing and why. These questions will have to be answered at a higher level of analysis, and using a different language, than that offered by the best of neuroscientific technology."

It's clear, however, that Lakoff and Johnson see their work as analogous to the human genome project, with metaphorically soaked concepts ultimately to be neuronally coded and pinned. Unless, however, neurologists find name tags in the gray stuff, of the sort Mom sewed into your Camp Kitcheewawa T-shirts ("This sliver of cerebellum holds Bobby Smith's conception of happiness"), the connections will depend on culturally driven associations. The authors should have spent more time with amateur etymologist Raymond Williams, whose entry on "Rational" in Keywords (1976) provides a judicious guide to the zigs and zags of reason and its oddball relatives (particularly "reasonable" and "rationalize").

The authors might also have acknowledged that the straw-man philosophical tradition they persist in depicting as massively Cartesian and hostile to the body has been powerfully altered by pragmatism, Wittgenstein and deconstruction, so that many anti-a priori beliefs Lakoff and Johnson advance might be regarded as articulated by the others, minus the neuronal chemistry. (The authors do offer Dewey and Merleau-Ponty appreciative bows, but ignore their focus on the social construction of concepts.)

Calne, the neurologist, recognizes better than Lakoff and Johnson that it's not "science" that decides where a concept begins and ends but culture, often after a spirited rhetorical battle. As a revisionist intellectual, he thus plunges ahead, seeking to tailor reason to his own wishes even as he blithely speaks of "reason's nature." Why does he believe reason can't direct our goals?

Unlike emotions, reason does not entail needs that crave satisfaction. It is, furthermore, hard to imagine how reason would operate if it did crave satisfaction, for then it would not compete with emotions, it would be an emotion; we would feel reason in the way we feel anger (which craves a fight) or fear (which craves a flight). The separation of reason from motivation is fundamental to--even constitutive of--human cognition.

Despite Calne's argument, scientific and philosophical juries remain out on whether to slice motivational aspects of thought away from reason and dump them in the "emotion" category. In this volatile intellectual arena, Calne can thus safely construe reason as a solely instrumental activity, just as Lakoff and Johnson can equate it to embodied metaphors. The point Calne, Lakoff and Johnson all play down in their eagerness to promote customized versions of reason is that it is ultimately public, deliberative lobbying and usage that determine what will count as "reason," not neuronal reactions associated with individual judgments.

On that score, for all their industry, Lakoff and Johnson display little energy for considering how their vision violates deeply held views of metaphorical genius as an individual gift. They slight the creative side of metaphor, the ability of literary and scientific genius to reject clichéd associations and images. In their final chapter, Lakoff and Johnson assert that "we do not, for the most part, have control over how we conceptualize situations and reason about them," and "we cannot freely change our conceptual systems by fiat."

Tell it to Newton and Mallarmé, to Einstein and Yeats. Aristotle famously wrote that to be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing of all. Lakoff and Johnson describe our minds as products of metaphor. The truth, Aristotle would doubtless point out, is in between.

Finally, if the new reasoning about reason sometimes falters because it fails to square with previous wisdom we still support, it also loses a few revolutionary points for reiterating the previously better said. Does Calne truly take us far beyond Hume's 1739 judgment that "reason is...the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them"? Or Ovid's observation that "what is now reason was formerly impulse"?

As for Lakoff and Johnson, we can similarly ask whether the tiresome social-science sedulousness with which they proceed renders their message vastly different from Roger Bacon's thirteenth-century insight that "reasoning draws a conclusion--but does not make the conclusion certain, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience." And whether Wilde did not intuit the essence of Philosophy in the Flesh in having Lord Henry observe in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable.... It is hitting below the intellect."

Philosophical revolutionaries resemble political ones in speaking too quickly for the rest of us. Science may solve various mysteries of neural causation, but it will be "culture" that decides how the numbers and chemistry hook up with the words and concepts we know and love. Stimulating as they are, these books offer reasons of which reason itself knows nothing.

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