The Fate of Reason

by Ken McClure 

"From the beginning of the modern period in philosophy ... the philosophers of the Continent had stressed the certainty and power of Reason, while the English had insisted that Reason, whatever its scope or certainty, has to base every one of its ideas upon sensory experience.  The remarkable thing about our period is that the cleavage between English and Continental philosophy, though quite as marked as in the previous centuries, acquires a very different sense:  Now it is from the Continent that one hears the boldest questionings of reason, and the urgent pleading that reason, if it is to become once more the rule of our troubled time, must be refashioned upon some new and more radical bases."  (William Barrett, p. 126, Introduction to Volume 3 of of Philosophy of the Twentieth Century, Part Four, "Phenomenology and Existentialism.")

Philosophy in the Twentieth Century is a four-volume work, published in 1962, edited by Barrett and Henry Aiken, which puts before us representative selections from major philosophers, organized into their respective movements or schools, with each such section introduced by an essay written by one of the editors. 

Professor Barrett makes the above assertion in a majestic essay which introduces "Phenomenology and Existentialism" and contains as brilliant an exposition of Heidegger as I have ever read.  But I think, in this preliminary observation, he is incorrect.  The English philosophers at issue here are questioning reason just as boldly and seeking to refashion it just as avidly as are the Continental philosophers.  And their fight is really the traditional fight about how much "reason" is to mean.  While the Continental philosophers generally object to reason being conceived too narrowly, the English object to it because it is not conceived narrowly enough. 

What characterizes the reach of English thought here is a dissatisfaction with natural language and a desire to transmute it into a purer language, in an effort to assure more logically precise thought.  Natural language is the medium of reason, the atmosphere in which it lives.  In renouncing natural language for a more abstract notational system, these philosophers renounce reason for logic.  When they discriminate between "cognitive" and "emotive" uses of language, it is in order to demean the intellectual value of any such emotive use.  When Bergson enthrones intuition as the central instrument of consciousness and when Heidegger extols the redemptive value of poetry as the essential form of speech, we witness an entirely different reach of thought.  The British philosophers question reason because it is too much for them and they intend to make it less; the Continental philosophers question it because it is not enough and they summon us to make it more.

This has been a characteristic conflict since the beginning of the modern period in philosophy.   As Michael Moran observes, "as a guide to the true understanding of nature, Bacon [in contradistinction to Descartes] distrusts not so much the senses (or the 'sensuous' imagination) but the human mind itself.  And really, for him, the role of 'reason' is just as suspect as the role of 'imagination' in metaphysics" (Moran, p. 215).

This distrust of mind arose coincident with the Scientific Revolution.  "Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement that, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, something like a mutation in human nature took place" (Trilling, p. 19).  Professor Butterfield sees it marked by a change in our feeling for matter itself (Butterfield, p. 130).  Man now summons a resolutely adversarial posture toward matter.  The marching orders require him to put Nature on the rack and force her to tell him her truths; matter which is at once alive and can be construed as feminine is to be met with an opposition that can only be called bloodcurdling.  It is perhaps not too much to say that our feeling for matter has changed into a feeling of hatred for it.  We hold ourselves above this feeling only insofar as we are not matter, only insofar as we are mind, suspended thus by the thin thread of our stature as thinking substance.  And the reach of Bacon's argument, in his intense distrust of mind itself, is to cut that thread and plunge us into the world of matter.  Were that to happen, man would be in the unhappy position of hating himself, and the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself, if fulfilled, would then result in a world very much resembling our own in its worst dimensions.  Quite a fall.

It may be that conceptual thought, by its nature, inclines us to such a fall.  Let us follow William James in the essay "Does Consciousness Exist?"  There, as Professor Daniel Robinson instructs us, he adopts a functionalist view of consciousness.  Consciousness is not a thing, a material entity attached to the brain.  Rather it is a process, a flow of experience knit together by a higher intelligence.  What is consciousness for?  Consciousness is necessary to regulate the flow of mental functioning, through such specifically conscious functions as attention, selection and will.  Without it there would be a blooming buzz of confusion.

Although language is not usually considered among these regulatory conscious functions, perhaps it should be.  It may also play a regulatory role in consciousness.  We have concepts which reveal to us the forms of things.  These are perhaps not only constitutive of reality but regulatory of consciousness as well.  The fact that we are able to "see" not particular horses but the concept of a horse may allow us to regulate the flow of experience.  It also may serve to shape the functions of attention, selection and will.  This is because conceptual mastery over the perceived world inclines the individual to existential mastery over it, and may set him adversarially against the things he is to master. 

Indeed, thought of sufficient abstraction can lead to apparent existential mastery of things, but the concurrent alienation which allows such thought may doom the master to neurotic mismanagement of his kingdom.  Our existential mastery over things is "apparent" precisely because we do not see deeply enough into them to understand them, and so we really don't know what to do with them.  Additionally, having set ourselves over and against things, we have learned to hate them.  And finally, unhinged even from the power of language to connect us to the world, we lose touch with ourselves as spiritual beings, see ourselves as merely one other alien thing, and hate ourselves as well.  We do not see deeply enough into things to understand what to do with them; in the absence of such knowledge, we hate them and wish to destroy them. 

We began our journey to this dubious pinnacle of abstract thought with Greek philosophy; the fall that Bacon so passionately promulgated was a "second fall."  This story is detailed in much of Walter J. Ong's work, most concisely in Orality and Literacy, which is irrigated by many streams of scholarship.  Ong's story enjoys a remarkable resemblance to Owen Barfield's theme of the evolution of consciousness, which is rigorously argued but also enriched by a profound poetic imagination.  Barfield himself contended his work was perfectly consonant with but subordinate to the larger teachings of Rudolf Steiner, which, with much reverence and with no irony, I must say is hard to characterize. 

The point is that when we today pick up an essay like Barfield's "Thinking and Thought," we are more likely, in the first place, to understand him; and then, having understood, be in a position even to agree with his central points.  This is not to say we are on thoroughly familiar ground or that the light of his genius does not show us new things.  The distinction he makes between thinking and thought is made with a fusion of rigor and poetic imagination that is characteristically beautiful. 

Earlier in this essay, I suggested that conceptual thinking, the fact that we see not a horse but the form of a horse, may incline us to set ourselves adversarially against the world.  But there is something wrong with this suggestion.  To discover what it is we need only consider "the Helen Keller moment," when Helen received language after her teacher brought to her understanding that there was a symbol for the reality of water, and for everything else in the world.  This unleashed in Helen an unquenchable desire to know the name of everything.  Language did not set her adversarially against the world but made her understand that she was home in it, leading her further to understand that to be incarnate spirit need not imprison one's spirit but may set it free.  In this light, it is clear that natural language cannot be, in itself, our problem.

In "Thinking and Thought," Barfield concurs.  If we attend again to Bacon's efforts as Barfield directs us, we see him transmuting "the forms" into "the scientific laws" through which we perceive our thoughts about the world.  The psychological consequences of perceiving the world at that considerable remove, we have already rehearsed.  So to say that the question Barfield next pursues has some urgency to it is not to say enough.  How, Barfield asks, are we to get back to the experience of the individual soul? 

We cannot go backwards and think in so lively a fashion as the Greeks before Aristotle or the philosophers.  Their problem was "to get outside a plane of consciousness in which they normally lived, so as to be able to conceive it: to turn thinking into thought....We are outside it already.  Our task is twofold, first to realize that it is still there, and then to learn how to get back into it, how to rise once more from thought into thinking, taking with us, however, that fuller self-consciousness which the Greeks never knew, and which could never have been ours if they had not laboured to turn thinking into thought" (p. 61).

Barfield notes that the first part of the problem was solved by Steiner, whose "comprehensive work is enough and more than enough many times over to enable any really unprejudiced, unobsessed mind to realise that this great world of formative thinking is still there, awaiting us, if we have but the will to reach for it. ... The second part is not solved, and it depends on ourselves, the men of this generation and the next.  This is the problem of actually reaching the etheric in fully conscious experience of thinking.  The preservation of continuity in Western Civilization depends on how many and how active may be the spirits which shall succeed in doing this" (p. 62).

Readers of Barfield will be familiar with the admonition not to go backwards.  Frequently, in many  contexts, he cautions against such misapprehensions; our path is in the future, towards final  participation, not back towards original participation.  But, that having been acknowledged, I do not regard an attempt to recover the forms as a futile, retrograde endeavor.  Thinking through the forms, I suggest, is another way that we can at least glimpse this great world of formative thinking that is still there. 

Thinking through the forms is not to be confused with the lively Greek thinking Barfield describes as characterizing prephilosophical Greek thinking.  The forms "were nothing else than the memory, so far as it had been retained by European thought since Plato's and Aristotle's day, of those elements, as it were, of NOUS -- of the mind -- or spiritual world, which the best Greek thinking could still apprehend in its time as living Beings" (p. 57).  The forms, of course, engaged the Western mind right up until the Baconian metamorphosis, or, as Barfield fixes it, from about the time of the Reformation (p. 51).

I am confident that the forms are, in some fashion, accessible to us today.  Reading Plato affords us such access.  Now, the point is not whether we grant them the same ontological status that Plato did; the point is that we can entertain that possibility.  This may seem to be a dry residue of a dry residue.  But it has a virtue.

People who utterly deny the existence of a supersensible basis to reality may be behaving quite honorably.  On the one hand, they have no evidence of such existence.  On the other hand, they have evidence to the contrary:  The fruits of their perception.  If God is implicated in the created order, since we perpetually perceive the created order, we should have some evidence, however remote, of that intimate connection.  To a remarkable degree, perception occurs linguistically, in the stream of consciousness.  As Barfield demonstrates, the words at our disposal now have either an objective/material meaning or a subjective/ immaterial meaning.  We unconsciously assume that "material" words designate reality and "immaterial" words unreality.  The world as we experience it linguistically, every moment, thus confirms to us, every moment, that nothing other than the objective world exists.  Constrained by our language, we are trained by our habitual perception to experience a world of outsides without insides. 

Anything that gives pause to this process, that allows us to suspend disbelief in such perception, has value.  And the forms at least do this:  "There stands before me a horse.  It is an individual horse; and yet I recognize it to be AT THE SAME TIME a member of the species or class or set of horses.  Somehow or other it has the form of a horse.  How can that be?"  Now, without concerning ourselves with where that question takes our perceiver, something has already been accomplished in the naked act of perception.  The objective reality of the horse has been complicated.  It now has, and I have been made conscious of it having, something of a symbolic quality:  It stands for the class of horses.  This is a small step.  We have not yet gotten to the inside of things.  But we have been given pause.  We have suspended disbelief.  A small beginning.  We must start where we find ourselves. 

It is a source of continuing consternation to Anthroposophists -- and one detects a measure of it in the closing cadences of Barfield's essay --  that so few, relatively speaking, have followed Steiner's way.  This failure can be ascribed to many causes, foremost among them being the prevalence of scientific materialism both as an unconscious metaphysic and a mode of perception.  A second and somewhat related explanation for this failure has to do with the ground of many of Steiner's insights.  It is not simply that we are inclined to disbelieve any knowledge claims someone makes on those grounds; we are inclined to dismiss anyone standing on those grounds out of hand as a charlatan.  Then there is the somewhat less significant explanation, the difficulties posed by the Steiner's style of expression, sufficiently different from contemporary style as to inspire resistance.  Additionally, he advances the argument agonistically, in the traditional Western mode.  This in itself may be stylistically offensive to a culture that finds simple declarative sentences to be unacceptably self-assertive, and perpetually seeks, you know, to mute their self-expression by softening them into, like, metaphorical assertions, or modulating them into questions through the interrogative lilt of perpetual upspeak?  Finally, there is the inherent difficulty of the material Steiner presents, which may prevent some people from "getting" him.

Twentieth century Western philosophy has quite effectively disputed -- I would say dispositively vanquished -- scientific materialism.  For a long time it looked like the Baconian distrust of mind had carried the day.  "Reason" had been diminished from a robust means of embracing the world in natural language to a computational method of keeping it at bay with a logically rigorous notational system.  It is that shrunken "reason" which the Continentals call into question and would have us refashion.  The positive content of the work of Heidegger, Jaspers and Bergson is especially illuminating on how that is to be done. 

Elsewhere, in Ego and Instinct, Yankelovich and Barrett draw attention to a philosophical consensus among thinkers as diverse as William James, Dewey, G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger and Whitehead, who, as a jury, adjudicate scientific materialism and find it to be wholly inadequate (pp. 227-273).  And among these thinkers, the positive philosophies of the Pragmatists (which must here include Charles Peirce), and, of course, of Whitehead, are united in appealing for a heightened, bolder use of reason, although, as with the Continental philosophers, there are differences among them about precisely how that is to be achieved. 

My point is that the kind of thinking that is being called for bears a family resemblance to the kind of thinking Barfield calls for.  Nor should we be contemptuous of such resemblance.  These thinkers may be "producing the spiritual as an abstraction from their own experience" (Steiner [1956], p. 18).  But one starts from where one finds oneself.  And modern philosophy, in several of its most important branches, is reaching for the same sun as is Anthroposophy, in its philosophical modulation. 

As evidence of this point, I would cite The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas, which purports to be essentially a traditional history of Western thought.  To be fair, Tarnas was at the time of publication a faculty member of the California Institute of Integral Studies at San Francisco, and formerly director of programs at Esalen Institute.  Such affiliations suggest a "New Age" orientation and partisanship that has the potential to impede his judiciousness.  But I submit that that potential is not realized; the quality of the work demonstrates that.  If anything, Mr. Tarnas gives relatively more space than he should to the premodern periods.  His discussion of those periods is brilliant but perfectly sober, and his judgment is unremittingly sound.  My point is that both Barfield and Steiner appear in the book's bibliography, chronology of important events, and in the body of the text itself:  They are contributing to and being integrated with other important voices in discussions which purport to adjudicate ideas central to the destiny of our world.

As people standing on different grounds than Steiner, speaking in idioms closer to, and sometimes identical to, the contemporary idiom, come to conclusions that, so far as they go, are commensurate with his, it becomes less likely that he will be rejected out of hand, more likely that he will get a real hearing.  Also, the intrinsic difficulty of the material he broaches is made less difficult when approached from a variety of perspectives and explained in different voices. 

Further, to the extent the vitality of Steiner's connection to Western philosophy is grasped, it becomes more likely that his works on science and philosophy and the supersensible will be taken seriously.  Although Philosophy of Freedom is often referred to as his principal work, there are many others which provide valuable insight into their general subject matter even without reference to Anthroposophy. 

In this connection, I would single out The Redemption of Thinking.  Steiner saw himself as answering the unanswered question of scholasticism, as building on a Thomistic insight.  In any case, he sensed an affinity between himself and Thomas.  In a conventional formulation, we might say that Thomas held that reason could take us some way along the path to divinity, but at a certain point it becomes exhausted and faith must take us the rest of the way home.  Without distorting the case, we might say that Steiner holds that a certain kind of reason or thinking can take us farther than Thomas thought, perhaps even all the way.  But this doesn't tell us enough. 

It often seems that if we are to turn to the world, we must turn our back on God; or if we are to turn to God, we must turn our back on the world.  Thomas's great beauty was achieved out of his struggle to allow a way for us to turn to the world and to God at the same time. This may seem to us to be Steiner's great beauty as well.  What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  "Everything," they answer, at once, in concert. 

Perhaps here I should expand upon my dispute with Professor Barrett's introductory remarks.  He tells us about a difference in tone assumed by Continental philosophers in the twentieth century.  That there was a different tone is certainly true.  I think this is due to their turning to the world more wholeheartedly than did traditional Rationalists.  Perhaps this accounts for my sense that they are now, if you will, "closer" to Steiner.  The best image for this change seems to be the transition from the windowless monads of Leibniz to the actual occasions of Whitehead.  And, as if to make a brief but important digression impossibly complex, the Pragmatists and Whitehead in his American incarnation are considered "Continentalists" for our purposes here. 

The Thomistic synthesis was rather quickly succeeded by nominalism.  Although he had "fashioned his theory of the universals as objectively real links between the physical and the yet-more-real spiritual worlds" (Steiner [1956], p. 18), these universals went the way of the forms, which, notwithstanding their power to enchant our speculation from the moment philosophy began, simply stopped being talked about at a certain point, as we have seen.  And we are now in a circumstance where, as I have sought to show, an honorable person can testify on the basis of self-evident perception that the spiritual world is not implicated in the real world.  This condition would perhaps delight Kierkegaard, who believed that no species of thinking could bring us closer to God and therefore required us to take a blind leap into faith.   But it threatens to defeat Thomas's plan. 

Under these circumstances, all those in sympathy with Thomas must welcome any enterprise of thought that can move us down the road to its divine source.  And I suggest that even those who doubt that Steiner's kind of thinking can take us very far along that road should welcome its being tried.  For many of us today, the road of reason is a one-way street that moves us ever farther away from the ever-more-unreal spiritual worlds.  Steiner argues for much more than this, and there is a deeper affinity than this suggests between his vision and Thomas's.  But this is, if you will, a pragmatic incentive for the allegiance that is implied in The Redemption of Thinking to actually be struck.
I have mentioned the proclivity to dismiss Steiner in toto, without a hearing, because of the grounds of many of his insights.  As Thinkers of the 20th Century describes it, "his later thought became distinctly esoteric, as he explored through a series of visions and special insights what he took to be the ultimate nature of reality" (Ruse, p 540).  That statement in itself is enough to trigger the proclivity in question.

Yet the source of creative thought remains for us esoteric and mysterious.  We don't know where it comes from; it seems to come from a faculty inside someone.  It begins when one person sees something that no one else does.  Then, eventually, everyone, or almost everyone, sees it.  It has become reality.  Now, ours is a culture that distrusts the mysterious.  We deal with creative thought in the nonsciences by deeming it "emotive expression" and -- ipso facto poof -- declaring it meaningless.  Creative thought as expressed in the sciences is -- well, "creative thought."  There is an essential mystery to it that we have not been able either to explain or explain away. 
It is not for lack of trying.  From the mid-fifteenth century until Bacon's Novum Organum was published in 1620 there flourished rich speculation on the mystery of imagination and its role in all forms of knowledge, including magical knowledge.  Paracelsus saw the imagination as "'the inner sense of the soul" capable of perceiving things to which physical senses were immune.  "Sense  perception and reason are the cognitive organs of the physical body; imagination that of the sidereal body" through which things inaccessible to the physical senses can be perceived.  Bruno saw the imaginative soul as the organ through which cosmic effects enter into us.  The mind can confront images that magically excite the imagination and bring into consciousness the intelligible forms from the realm beyond the senses, so the mind "recovers ... its fundamental unity with the cosmos" (Moran, pp. 211-212). 

Paracelsus and Bruno exemplify how inspiring to the mind can be the ancient intuition of a macroscosm/microcosm correspondence between the universe and man.  All the classical Rationalists retained this intuition, although they restricted that microcosm to the higher range of reason.  The Pythagorean version of it restricts the microcosm to mathematical thought alone, and it is that residue of the intuition that may be seen living on today, notwithstanding the impact of non-Euclidean geometry and Godel's theorem.  Bacon was uniformly averse to it in any form at all. 

In sum, the abhorrence that Bacon felt for mind carried the day.  It expresses itself today when we rule the entire corpus of Steiner's work out of court because some of it is based on insights we deem completely unscientific.  As for that portion which may be so judged, I think Steiner puts his own case best, as in How to Know Higher Worlds.  I have here made the case that, even if one rejects his work which rests on esoteric grounds, there is considerable value to be found in much of his work that is based on more "conventional" grounds.

I would again add a pragmatic perspective on this.  Consider the following two statements: 

"That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.  Only within the scaffolding of these, only on the firm foundations of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be built (Bertrand Russell, quoted in Sheldrake, pp. 6-7)."

In the following statement, please keep in mind that Whitehead means "metaphysics" to sound honorifically, and means by it "a dispassionate consideration of the nature of things, antecedently to any special investigation of their details" (Whitehead p. 219-220).

"There is no real dualism, says Whitehead, between external lakes and hills, on the one hand, and personal feelings on the other:  Human feelings and inanimate objects are interdependent and developing together in some fashion of which our traditional laws and cause and effect, of dualities of mind and matter or of body and soul, can give us no true idea.  The Romantic poet, then, with his turbid and opalescent language, his sympathies and passions which cause him to seem to merge with his surroundings, is the prophet of a new insight into nature.  He is describing things as they really are; and a revolution in the imagery in poetry is in reality a revolution in metaphysics" (Wilson, pp. 5-6).  

Insofar as we have two metaphysical positions here with no way to choose between them, I submit that Whitehead's is much to be preferred.  And although this is a variant of Pascal's wager or the case seen from a pragmatic perspective, it really lacks even that grandeur and is perfectly elementary.  In a situation where one must choose between two positions, all things being equal, you choose the one that affords you the most psychic good. 

But all things aren't quite equal here.  Whitehead is saying:  "I see a vital connection between the universe and myself."  Russell is saying:  "Well, I don't.  So neither do you."

The very great sadness in Russell's perspective may indeed have been born of a rupture between macrocosm and microcosm that his creative work in mathematics revealed to him.  But he was doing the work in partnership with Whitehead, who apparently was able to see something Russell was not.  Before discounting another's vision, we must try to see for ourselves.  And even having failed to see it for ourselves, we would do better not to absolutely discount what another has descried.

Rudolf Steiner's voice is not a conventional philosophical voice, but neither have been the most summoning voices in Western philosophy for the last hundred years.  His voice is harmonious with theirs in its insistent efforts to have each of us know reality more vividly than we have been habituated to know it:  We have conceived thinking too narrowly and must learn to make it a more vital enterprise.  It may be that Steiner believes that enterprise to be more vital than any in this company.  The torrent, as Barfield would have it, may still be seen to gush from a single spring.  But there are other sources of water for the traveler, dying of thirst.  And we truly must be glad to take and use such thinking wherever we find it. 


W. Barrett, "Phenomenology and Existentialism," in Philosophy in the Twentieth Century,  ed. H. Aiken and W. Barrett, Vol. 3, Part 4, (New York, 1962).  O. Barfield, "Thinking and Thought," in Romanticism Comes of Age (Middletown, Connecticut, 1966).  H. Butterfield, Origins of Modern Science (New York, 1951).  M. Moran, "Metaphysical Imagination," in Dictionary of the History of  Ideas, ed. P. Wiener, Vol III (New York, 1973).  W Ong, Orality and Literacy (London and New York, 1982).  D. Robinson, Toward a Science of Human Nature, (New York, 1982).  M. Rule, "Rudolf Steiner," in Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, ed. E. Devine, et al., (Detroit, Michigan, 1983).  R. Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past (New York and Toronto, 1988).  R. Steiner, The Redemption of Thinking  (Spring Valley, New York, 1956); idem, How to Know Higher Worlds (Anthroposophic Press, 1994).  R. Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York, 1991).  L. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972).  A. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, 1925).  E. Wilson, Axel's Castle (New York, 1931).  D. Yankelovich and W. Barrett, Ego and Instinct New York, 1970).

© 2005 Kenneth McClure

 Born in 1949, Ken McClure received his BA from NYU in 1972. Since that time he has worked as a court reporter in New York, Vermont, and South Carolina. From 1996-2004, he and his wife, Kathi, owned and operated Rivendell Books in Montpelier, Vermont. They currently run McClure's Bookstore in Clemson, South Carolina.