Sunday, 20 November 2016

Antidotes to Extreme Rationalism - quotations on the status of reason

"I enter thoughts of this kind in this account because they arise when I am confronted with nature. If thoughts are simple experiences arising from common sensation, they are sometimes worth putting down. I hope I have Reason on my page. But not ratiocination, not thinking before I experience. It is Wordsworth's "feeling intellect' that holds interest for me. The old adage 'I think therefore I am' is less helpful than the other way round, 'I am,' that is 'I experience, therefore I think.' Wordsworth held that ecstasy is the highest form of thought, since it is the nearest we get to communication with truth."

J Stewart Collis - "The Wood"


"One of(Michael Oakeshott's) most famous anecdotes was about a rationalist and a non-rationalist seeing Helen of Troy. The non-rationalist would marvel at her beauty, at the elegance of the necklace of pearls strewn carelessly around her neck. The rationalist would want to arrange the necklace properly before he could admire it. Taking the world as it is is what Oakeshott recommended: present laughter over utopian bliss."

Andrew Sullivan on Michael Oakeshott from "Taking the World as it is" in The Spectator


"...the fact that our intelligence is not the subtlest, the most powerful, most appropriate instrument for grasping the truth is only one reason the more for beginning with the intelligence, and not with an unconscious intuition, a ready-made faith in presentiments. It is life that, little by little, case by case, enables us to observe that what is most important to our hearts or to our minds is taught us not by reasoning but by other powers. And then it is the intelligence itself which, acknowledging their superiority, abdicates to them through reasoning and consents to become their collaborator and their servant."

Marcel Proust "The Fugitive" page 7 (Everyman's and Millennium Library edition)


"The heart has reasons which the Reason does not know."

Blaise Pascal


"James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation."

TS Eliot on Henry James


Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Wallace Stevens


'Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu.' 
Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. 

Thomas Aquinas


“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

A Treatise of Human Nature (1738),  David Hume


"The distinction between the imperial and the metric systems corresponds to the distinction between the reasonable and the rational, between solutions achieved through custom and compromise and those imposed by a plan. Muddled though the imperial measures may appear to those obsessed with mathematics, they are - unlike the metric system - self-evidently, the product of life. In the ordinary, cheerful and yielding transactions between people, measurement proceeds by dividing and multiplying, not by adding. The French revolutionaries believed that by changing weights and measures, calendars and festivals, street names and landmarks, they could more effectively undermine the old and local attachments of the French people, so as to conscript them behind their international purpose. The survival of the old weights and measures in England testified to the underlying principle in English society - the principle that society should be governed not from above but from within, by custom, tradition and compromise, and by a habit of reasonableness of which the single most important enemy was Reason."

Roger Scruton - "England: an Elegy."


'“the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (GK Chesterton on insanity). As Chesterton knew, a view of life that systematically attempted to exclude or transcend the irrational would itself be, perhaps paradoxically, highly irrational in the sense that it would be deeply inhospitable to our humanity.' 

Roger Kimball


"A clear, precise, discriminating intellect shrinks at once from the symbolic, the unbounded, the indefinite. The misfortune is that mysticism is true. There are certainly kinds of truth, borne in as it were instinctively on the human intellect, most influential on the character and heart, yet hardly capable of stringent definition. Their course is shadowy; the mind seems rather to have seen than to see them, more to feel after than definitely apprehend them. They commonly involve an infinite element, which of course cannot be stated precisely, or else a first principle—an original tendency—of our intellectual constitution, which it is impossible not to feel, and yet which it is hard to extricate in terms and words."
The Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot, in his essay “The First Edinburgh Reviewers” (1855)

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