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.
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.”