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Rescuing Reason

By P. Engelbert Recktenwald

In February 1943, C. S. Lewis held three lectures at the University of Durham. They were published the same year under the title “The Abolition of Man”. Lewis describes the abolition of man as a result of the abolition of reason.

The following year, in February 1944, the Marxist philosopher Max Horkheimer held lectures at Columbia University in New York, which were published in 1947 under the title “Eclipse of Reason.”

Horkheimer criticizes the same process as Lewis. While Lewis is almost entirely ignored in the world of philosophy, Horkheimer’s analysis was highly regarded, even though it was not able to stop the development which it lamented. More significant, though, is a further difference between the two of them: While Horkheimer did not find any recipe for rescuing reason, Lewis can help us.

The starting point for Lewis’s considerations is a narrative scene in a schoolbook, in which a tourist refers to a waterfall as sublime. The authors of the schoolbook write: "When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall... Actually... he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word 'Sublime', or shortly, I have sublime feelings."

What is happening here? The statement “This is sublime” is a value judgement. If this value judgement does not constitute a statement about the waterfall, but rather, as the authors suppose, merely about one’s own feelings, then this would mean the denial of this value in reality. In other words, reality is void of values. Values are merely projections of the one making the judgement. In the case of aesthetic values, this may not pose a problem. But this changes as soon as it is a case of moral values. There are then no more reasons for approving of a good deed and condemning an evil one. For if I say: “This crime is outrageous”, then I am saying, according to this logic, nothing about the deed, but rather only something about myself, namely, that I sense outrage. Reality then falls into two parts, which have nothing to do with each other: the objective world of value-neutral facts and the subjective world of my feelings. One has to do with science, the other with morality. Morality becomes a matter of taste. Value judgements are then unscientific and subjective. Rationality is banned from the world of morality and limited to the realm of the empirical sciences.

We then have the opposite of the classic understanding of morality. According to Thomas Aquinas, for instance, morality is defined by nothing less than its reasonableness: For according to him, we act morally precisely when we act in line with reason. Kant views it similarly: The categorical imperative is a fact of reason. For Kant, an action is only reasonable when it is moral, i. e. when it is performed out of respect for the moral law. It must result from the correct attitude. It is morality which makes the action reasonable.

So the question is, whether reason is able to bring us into contact with the reality of values and of the moral law. The charge brought about against Kant by the philosopher Ernst Tugendhat, that of “deception through abuse of a word”- the word reason – shows how hotly debated the concept of reason remains today. This charge is only possible against the backdrop of the reduction of reason to a purposive rationality as proposed by Max Weber. Weber contrasted purposive rationality and value rationality. The former deals with scientifically clearly measurable criteria of success or failure, while value-oriented action responds to the intrinsic value of a thing, values such as dignity, beauty or goodness. For Weber, however, this has nothing to do with science. Values are removed from the realm of reason and delegated to the realm of personal taste and subjective ideology. The sociologist Theodor Geiger was even bolder and denounced value judgements as illusionary objectifying of subjective sentiments, thus representing exactly the attitude of those schoolbook authors whom Lewis criticizes.

This is where Horkheimer’s criticism sets in. For him, the reduction of reason to purposive rationality means reducing it to instrumental reason, which is only concerned with maximizing its benefit. Reason is reduced to the ability to find the means for our goals of action, while becoming incapable of assessing these goals themselves according to their inner meaning and value. Reason can nowhere discover an inner meaning which justifies itself. It is blind to the value dimension of reality: “The idea that an aim can be reasonable for its own sake – on the basis of virtues that insight reveals it to have in itself – without reference to some kind of subjective gain or advantage, is utterly alien to subjective reason” (Horkheimer).

The consequence is an altered attitude towards nature. It is no longer a matter of appreciating things in their intrinsic value, but rather of mastering nature, indeed, exploiting it. Ultimately, man is also caught up more and more in the maelstrom of the empirical perspective of instrumental reason, is viewed as a piece of nature and is at the mercy of the rulers of nature and their appetites for manipulation: Mastering nature changes into mastering mankind. Both Lewis and Horkheimer describe this dialectical change. Ethical concerns lose their power, as value judgements have no place in the concept of purposive rationality.

The situation can only be remedied by recovering a more comprehensive concept of reason which includes the ethical dimension and rehabilitates it as part of reality preceding every insight. This is one of the concerns which the theologian Joseph Ratzinger has pursued his entire life. As Pope Benedict, he wrote in Caritas in veritate: “Yet the rationality of a self-centered use of technology proves to be irrational because it implies a decisive rejection of meaning and value.” Meaning and value appear here to be something through which rationality itself even comes into existence. Lewis views this similarly. He considers vales to be rational, indeed, to be “rationality itself,” “as things so obviously reasonable, that they neither demand nor admit proof.”

But this is only possible if value and reason belong originally to reality, or, expressed more systematically: if reason itself is the origin of all values and all reality, that is, if there is a divine reason, which “stands at the source of all things and on their foundation.” (Ratzinger, Speech at the Sorbonne 1999).

Horkheimer has a similar view. The following statements of his are well-known: “Without God one will try in vain to preserve absolute meaning” and “The death of God is also the death of eternal truth” (Theismus-Atheismus, 1963). Horkheimer sees here the path to the solution, without, however, taking this path himself, for his thinking is “too contaminated by materialism”, as he once admitted in a letter. For him, the connection between faith in God and affirmation of reason remained hypothetical.

C. S. Lewis, on the other hand, had gone down this path to the solution, or, rather: He was led down it, when faith in God was given to him. He was, as he describes in his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy”, overtaken by God and faced with the choice of either acknowledging him to be God or not. Two of his statements describing his experience of God are quite revealing: God is, on the one hand, “by definition reason itself”, on the other hand, he is the one whose being known coincides with the knowledge that he deserves our obedience. This means: He experiences God as the epitome and source of all moral normativity and value. In God we have the original identity of reason and goodness, an identity which brings about and makes plausible that which is postulated in the order of creation by Ratzinger, but denied by instrumental reason, namely the connection between value and rationality.

In an essay, C. S. Lewis writes: “I believe in Christianity, such as I believe that the sun rises, not because I see it, but rather because I can see everything else through it.” In the light of Christian faith all pieces of knowledge fit together like pieces of a puzzle, to create a complete picture. Everything finds its place and receives its meaning. Reason ceases to be a foreign object in a material world, and values are transformed from human illusions into that reality, which provides all other reality with meaning and reason with its dignity. In this way, Ratzinger’s words about moral reason in a 1987 speech hold true: It “is reason in its highest sense, for it reaches deeper into the actual mystery of reality than experimental reason does.”


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Engelbert Recktenwald: Mercy Defiled

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