Defining Reason

Definitions of "logos"Week 4, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Define reason
  2. Discuss the cultural context of the term “reason”

In our previous lectures we’ve been discussing the methods used by science and religion to understand the world.

The scientific method gathers its evidence through experimentation and uses this kind of evidence to refine hypotheses. These hypotheses are developed to predict future observable phenomena. The results of this testing protocol are communicated with others so that those other folks can recreate the conditions of the experiment in order to see how reliably the experiments validate the hypothesis.

In the religious context personal revelation is an admissible form of evidence that can be used to support an argument. Frequently there are sacred texts that can be relied upon to support one’s claims or to aid one in deciding what to do. Because the core of religious practice is being guided by and trusting the truth of one’s faith, faith requires at some point a leap away from reason.

I’ve previously said that philosophy is the pursuit of reason by tracing its residue found in arguments. I then began to define what an argument means in this context and to provide the structure that gives shape to an argument.

The foundation of an argument is called a “premise” and premises are observations of the world. From these observations one can arrive at conclusions. When we give our conclusions logical support, we have ourselves an argument. What does “logical support” entail? This is where we present the reasons why our premises are true and by presenting these premises as true we are imploring the listener to believe that our conclusions are also true.

At this point, or perhaps last week, even, you may have said, “Okay, so philosophy pursues reason by evaluating and analyzing arguments. Got it.

But how can you pursue reason through analyzing and evaluating arguments if your definition of an argument rests on ‘giving reasons’ to support an argument?” Right? It looks like I’ve defined a word by using the word being defined.

That is called a tautology. A tautology is an argument that repeats a word but slightly varies the phrasing in such a way that the argument seems obvious and undeniable, and yet the argument has been presented in such a way that it’s hard to tell that there is a lack of evidence or valid reasoning to support the argument.

So what is reason?
1. a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.
2. the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.

1. to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.

The English language acquired the word “reason” from the French word raison and it means pretty much what we think “reason” means. Where did the French language acquire raison?

From Latin where the term borrowed was ratio, which had several connotations, including “explanation, method or manner, and calculation or accounting.”

Ancient Roman culture absorbed and innovated upon a lot of ancient Greek culture, especially the methods and techniques developed by Greek philosophers. A central concept for the ancient Greeks was the term logos λόγος (which we discussed is the root of our term “logic”).

Logos in the ancient Greek context had several meanings: “that which is said” (a sentence, a speech, a story, etc.), “that which is thought” (consideration, reckoning, computation), “an account or story,” and “causation.”

It’s because logos refers to not only to an account in the sense of a story but also in the sense of the work an accountant does, we can get the sense of how our word “ratio” (from the Latin above) makes sense for the ancient Romans: logos refers to the units (words and numbers). And, crucially, we can start to sniff out the cosmic reverence the ancient Greeks had for understanding numbers. Here we return to our friend Pythagoras.

We’ve been reading and discussing Plato’s Phaedo over the last several days and you may recall from the introductory comments made by our editor that Phaedo’s conversation here is between some Pythagoreans who’ve fled from Italy to Greece. Among the core tenets of the followers of Pythagoras is the transmigration of the soul. That humans have souls and that these elements of us continue to exist and experience beyond the grave.

In Plato’s Phaedo we are introduced to his theory of knowing which requires that there be a dimension of our being which is undying (psyche, soul) and this part of us apprehends the noumenal dimension of the world. Our hands can hold the phenomenal world, our souls grasp the noumenal world.

We have ideas because eidos (εἶδος) is a dimension of our experience. For example, we have an intuitive sense of what a horse is, but we do not have a full biological sense of what a horse is (and so we cannot, say, locate all the vessicles and arteries of any particular horse that is presented to us, but we understand the shape—eidos—of horses).

Let’s consider what contemporary Japanese philosopher, Koujin Karatani, tells us about the relationship between eidos and noumena.

“That is to say, the task and concern of the philosopher are the liberation and separation of the soul from the flesh. However, this bears no resemblance to the thought of Socrates in the Apology. This line of thinking rather recalls that of the Pythagoreans.

Further, in addition to the idea of the immortality of the soul, Plato brings out in Phaedo the idea that things such as beauty, the good, size,  and so forth exist in themselves. That is to say, in contrast to the objects of the senses, which are ceaselessly changing, the eternal and unchangeable exist as ideas. Sensory objects only participate in the idea (eidos). It was Aristotle who observed that this kind of thinking was inherited from Pythagoras. ‘Only the name “participation” was new; for the Pythagoreans say that things exist by “imitation” of numbers and Plato says they exist by participation, changing [only] the name.’

Plato’s theory of ideas, of course, differed from Pythagorean thought. Aristotle continues, ‘Further, besides sensible things and Forms [eidos] [Plato] says there are the objects of mathematics, which occupy an intermediate position, differing from sensible things in being eternal and unchangeable, from Forms in that there are many alike, while the Form itself is in each case unique.’

In Pythagoras’s case, since his thought proceeds from number as its basis, sensible and suprasensible things are indissolubly linked. In Plato’s case, however, the ideas (forms or eidos) exist in a realm separate from sensible things and ideas, Pythagorean thought, where the two are inextricably linked from the start, provides no resources. Plato discerned the key to understanding the combination and division of the sensible and the ideal in the death of Socrates. Here he recognized the drama of the liberation of the idealistic object caught up in sensible things. In this way, the death of Socrates became the indispensable axis of Plato’s philosophical system.” (Karatani, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, 125–126)