Reason as the Leading Motive

French Philosophers

Posted by Jerry on February 7, 2006

I found this article on a very cool site, Arts & Letters Daily. It's a very interesting article that comments upon the interplay between Sartre and Heidegger's existentialism on French intellectual thought. I was particularly interested in this passage I quote below, and I am amused by how Sartre decimates Heidegger's mysticism only to propose in replacement a humanist, man-centered perspective – that in essence is the primacy of the consciousness in Subjectivism.

It is strange however, given that Sartre was an Existentialist, that his essential approach was the subjective primacy of the consciousness. I think Rand observes correctly that at their root, these philosophies are simply the two sides of the same metaphysical coin.

Anyway, I believe the article is a good read, and the excerpt below is interesting for what it reveals about these philosophers:

"Heidegger's philosophy is predicated on a radical criticism of reason and metaphysics. He once observed that "Reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought."
But by rejecting reason, Heidegger and his French followers simultaneously severed the pivotal link between insight and emancipation. Socrates famously claimed that "knowledge is virtue." In other words: Insight and reflection are the keys to a life well lived. As Socrates declared, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Without the association between insight and emancipation, neither the doctrine of Marx nor of Freud would be possible. For, like that of Socrates, their theories are predicated on the idea that knowledge and human freedom are intrinsically related.
As a recovering Heideggerian, Sartre understood the problem better than anyone. He realized that a philosophy like Heidegger's, which demands unquestioning obedience to nameless, higher powers such as Being, the gods, fate and so forth, is a warrant for human bondage. By preaching submission, it is latently authoritarian. As Sartre astutely observed, a philosophy that "subordinates the human to what is Other than man…has hatred of man as both its basis and its consequence…. Either man is primarily himself, or he is primarily Other than himself. Choosing the second doctrine simply makes one a victim and accomplice of real alienation."

Further down, the article discusses Emmanuel Levinas, another philosopher, who argued for "Ethics as first philosophy". Levinas argued that western philosophy had predominantly focused on the "Being", metaphysics, or ontology at the detriment and expense of the study of ethics and human relationships. The article goes on to state Levinas' argument:

"The basic problem was that, from time immemorial, metaphysics had privileged "ontology"–the study of Being, or of what things essentially "are"–over ethics. In other words, our most intimate and valued philosophical traditions have cared more about "beings" and how to define them than about our ethical dealings with fellow humans."

Therefore, Levinas had "sought to redress this pervasive and debilitating imbalance" by reinstating the centrality of human relationships and interactions in a philosophical discourse. In his pursuit of understanding and discovering an ethical theory of humans, he found himself emphasizing the moral and ethical derivative of the "Other" as having primacy over the self or the ego. Levinas criticizes "reason" as leading to totalitarianism. According to him, the rigid requirements of reason, and the "rational approach" can lead to totalitism and "ego-centrism" in its apparent voice of logical authority. Hence, Levinas rejected the approach of "reason" to ethics, and focused more on the "spiritual power of "love", or caritas."

I would agree with Levinas that western philosophy has, to a larger extent, given more time and study to the questions of Being and ontology. However, his position on the other end of the spectrum – of jumping to ethics while leaving an undefined, unidentified metaphysics or epistemology – is just the same kind of mistake that he is railing against.

The hierarchical nature of knowledge requires that for any attempts at reaching an explicit philosophy of ethics (which is essentially the study of morality in relation to men), one must have an explicit formulation of metaphysics (what is man) and epistemology (how can man know, or gain knowledge). Rand had consistently emphasized that jumping to ethics without a strong philosophical foundation in metaphysics and epistemology was futile and mystical. She observed that ethics flows from epistemology and ultimately from metaphysics. One of the reasons why Rand argued against and eschewed Libertarianism is because Libertarians use moral and ethical concepts like "rights" and "freedom" as their starting point while ignoring the fundamental philosophical foundations.

Moreover, Rand emphasized Reason as the only epistemic faculty. Sciabarra had noted correctly that despite, and maybe because of her emphasis of Reason, Rand had constructed a full system of philosophy that had freedom and individualism at every level of its hierarchy. He admired Rand for having constructed such a system without letting Objectivism descend into a totalism or authoritarianism that many of its critics argue Reason invariably leads to. Sciabarra says that Rand may be the only one philosopher yet to have constructed a full system of philosophy that cannot be totalitarian because it is intricately fused with freedom at its very core.


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