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Can We Trust Reason In The Pursuit Of Knowledge?

Every day, millions trust reason to arrive at an important decision like whether they should invest in a hedge fund rather than a property to trivial ones like whether they should drink tea or coffee. Reason has so intrinsic a part of one’s thought process, that life without reason seems too chaotic to even imagine. Over the course of human civilization, reason has garnered such infallible notion of trustworthiness that Italian Scientist Galileo Galilei said, “When the senses fail us, reason must step in” and famous Philosopher Immanuel Kant paid the highest homage by proclaiming, “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason ’.

After careful examination, taking into consideration the subjective nature of ‘trust’ and ‘pursuit of knowledge ’, the multi-faceted personality of ‘reason’ itself and, at a philosophical level, the ambiguity in trying to define ‘correct knowledge’ at all, it is safe to say that the knower, is at liberty without judgment in whether he/she can or should trust reason, to arrive at an understanding, which he/she is comfortable with. Having said that though, in a specific sense of resolution of the knowledge question, in Ethics, rather than assuming a purely reason-based moral foundation, it is more trustworthy to couple reason along with intuition to arrive at a more holistic ethical compass, while in Arts, depending on the which art-form is considered, the trustworthiness and relevance of reason will vary in such a way that in some cases reason might have to be coupled with sense-perception, while in other cases, especially performing arts and literature, imagination, faith, emotion, language and intuition might have heavier parts to play.

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In Ethics, some knowers are more inclined to Emotivism whereby, they would deem certain conduct as right/wrong based on their emotional response while Others are bound to employ a utilitarian approach, in which they would weigh the greater good over their individual interests. Deontologists would act more out of duty irrespective of the consequences of their actions while Supernaturalists, base their code of conduct as thought to be dictated by God. Famous Deontologist Immanuel Kant, maintained that one’s ethics should purely be based on reason and not on human inclinations, emotions and consequences of one’s actions. He argued that Man is the only living being with a propensity towards reasoned thought and action, and thus should use such a faculty to determine one’s moral code.

In the ‘Rationalist’ school of thought, the ‘Innate knowledge and concept thesis’, ‘Indispensability’ of reason thesis’ and the ‘Superiority of reason thesis’, render reason and innate intuition superior to sense perception or experience as a source of knowledge. Aristotle, in Nichomachean Ethics, states that “Acting according to reason means acting virtuously” and, “Strictly speaking, only human beings with full use of reason can be considered happy because happiness is action in accordance with reason”. The aforementioned schools of thought attribute reason the highest role in pursuing an accurate ethical knowledge system. But, what exactly is the reason? Reason has been categorized into three major types – Inductive reason, Reductive Reason and Deductive reason. Inductive reason moves from a particular observation to a more generalized statement of fact, Reductive reason involves breaking down a statement or situation into simpler components, while Deductive reason is moving from a general statement of fact to a particular judgment of observation.

Some extrapolate more categories like intuitional reasoning, analogic reasoning and abstract reasoning. How trustworthy is reason’s role in ethics, when reason itself is categorized into many sub-categories, which might even conflict with each other? Consider the ‘Trolley Problem’ in which A train is hurtling down a track and one sees that it is going to hit a group of 5 people and will certainly kill them all. However one happens to be standing next to a switch that can divert the train down another track where only a single person would be killed. Should one pull the lever? Based on which type of reason is being employed by the knower, the ethical landscape is filled with a myriad of solutions. The utilitarian would pull the lever, the deontological would not, the emotivist will eventually act out of impulse, the supernaturalist could go either way and so on. All knowers, channelizing their sense of reason in different directions have arrived at unique moral choices. Reason has provided a framework for judicious and satisfactory contemplation of individual right and wrong.

It is rather difficult to show validity in the counter-claim of a reason not being trusted in the pursuit of knowledge, since reason is so omnipresent in one’s thought process, that whether it be imagination or emotional or intuition or faith, reason, in its purest connotation, is being used as a motive to justify the respective ways of knowing. On further exploration, the exclusivity of trust the knower places in reason differs and is an individual trait. For example – In my personal sphere, I don’t exclusively jeopardize my entire morality on the faculty of ‘reason’ alone. I eventually arrive at the resolution of ethical dilemmas by a combination of intuition, emotion and reason. A second issue is the much-debated validity of reason itself. Many argue that reason and rationality themselves might have a cultural bias or conditioning bias. If such bias is agreed upon, how trustworthy is ‘reason’ then as compared to ‘emotion’? Cannot anything be reasoned to suit one’s own convenient theories?

Let’s explore the trustworthiness of reason in Arts. When a knower armed with the faculty of reason (sense perception granted) stares at Pollock’s drip paintings (Image 1) or Ad Reinhardt’s abstract paintings (Image 2), the knower might attribute the drips as being an expression of anger on Pollock’s part since the brushstrokes are quick and aggressive as evidenced from the huge splash marks made by the drips. One could also reason that the use of colours suggests a certain mood, perhaps excitement and confusion. In the case of Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract, ‘Reason’ might lead one to a dead end in his ‘pursuit of knowledge ’. At best, using sense perception and reason, one can gauge that Reinhardt is in a dark frame of mind while those with a bit more patience would be able to see the subtle variation of black in the painting.

  • Macintosh HD:Users:audreylee:Desktop:pollock.number-8.jpg
  • Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings Macintosh HD:Users:audreylee:Desktop:CRI_179264.jpg

Ad Reinhard’s black painting. Another example of the efficacy of the dual effect of reason and sense perception in Arts would be Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans. Using sense perception, one can come to a conclusion that it might be about uniformity, as all cans look the same but also about variation, as minor differences would surface on intricate perusal. Further reasoning would perhaps give way to the notion of deception – how differences of content can be hidden by superficial uniformity of colour and appearance. But, are there works of Art, where reason can’t be trusted?

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Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans. Revisiting Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup Cans, Andy himself explicated the motive verbalizing “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again. Someone said my life has dominated me; I liked that idea.” So, armed with just reason and sense perception, a knower might not be able to come to such understanding. To arrive at such an inference, one would need ‘language’ – which embodies the cultural history and Warhol’s personal life- to reach a deeper and accurate understanding. Another example where reason would fall short would be a 140 bpm trance hit or a symphonic masterpiece. Last week, at a dinner party, my cousins and I were listening to Beethoven’s Symphony 6. After 15 minutes, I had tears in my eyes whereas my cousins were probably not as emotively carried away by the piece.

Being classically trained in Piano symphonies and being a music connoisseur all my life, I have a more sensitive ear to music and the ability to go beyond the technicalities of the notes to a plane, where my imagination and emotion will allow me to flow with the music. Performing arts is another area that elucidates the weaknesses of reason, rationality and all faculties left brain in the full understanding. Some Literature texts might even call for, emotion and faith, to be used by the knower in the actualization of the message. On a deeper note, what is ‘correct knowledge’ in Art? Is there any such thing as accurate and trustworthy knowledge in Art? Is there something specific that the artist is trying to convey, or is Art’s primary role to invoke a subjective response of the viewer?

As Aristotle once said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”. In that sense, Art might not be conveying any concrete knowledge principles at all but merely providing a channel of expression for the artist himself/herself. Having said this, there is then nothing ‘wrong’ in trusting reason in trying to gain the most meaning of the artwork since the inner significance is both personal and unique to each knower. Before resolving the knowledge question of whether reason can be trusted or not in the pursuit of knowledge, one has to realize the personal and idiosyncratic nature of trust to each knower, the ambiguity of ‘correct knowledge’, and the multifaceted nature of ‘reason’ itself. Knowledge, after all, might just be one’s own take on the external and internal world around and might not have a relative benchmark of comparison. Therefore, one is at liberty to trust reason in the pursuit of his/her own knowledge, if the knower finds it reliable to do so.


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Can We Trust Reason In The Pursuit Of Knowledge?. (2021, May 25). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from