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What Ever Happened to Reason?

Roger Scruton

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Roger Scruton writes about the revolt against reason in modern culture, particularly in the academy. He takes on such luminaries as Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. The debunkers of Western culture are all opponents of objective truth Scruton argues. "They owe their role not to their ideas (of which there are precious few) but to their role in giving authority to the rejection of authority, and to their absolute commitment to the impossibility of absolute commitments."

The Enlightenment made explicit what had long been implicit in the intellectual life of Europe: the belief that rational inquiry leads to objective truth. Even those Enlightenment thinkers who distrusted reason, like Hume, and those who tried to circumscribe its powers, like Kant, never relinquished their confidence in rational argument. Hume opposed the idea of a rational morality; but he justified the distinction between right and wrong in terms of a natural science of the emotions, taking for granted that we could discover the truth about human nature and build on that firm foundation. Kant may have dismissed "pure reason" as a tissue of illusions, but he elevated practical reason in the place of it, arguing for the absolute validity of the moral law. For the ensuing 200 years, reason retained its position as the arbiter of truth and the foundation of objective knowledge.

Reason is now on the retreat, both as an ideal and as a reality. In place of it has come the "view from outside"--which puts our entire tradition of learning in question. The appeal to reason, we are told, is merely an appeal to Western culture, which has made reason into its shibboleth and laid claim to an objectivity that no culture could possess. Moreover, by claiming reason as its foundation, Western culture has concealed its pernicious ethnocentrism; it has dressed up Western ways of thinking as though they had universal force. Reason, therefore, is a lie, and by exposing the lie we reveal the oppression at the heart of Western culture. Behind the attack on reason lurks another and more virulent hostility: the hostility to the culture and the curriculum that we have inherited from the Enlightenment.

For the complete article go to the City Journal website.



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