The Rights of Reason

Thomas Masini

Everything that can be thought can be understood, and everything that can be rationally understood must find a place in philosophical discussion.


     Our philosophical journey, after Hume, should now deal with the complex and indispensable thought of Immanuel Kant, and then continue at a rapid pace throughout the nineteenth century with Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. However, before proceeding, I would like to add a few words to what I wrote in the article that appeared in the first issue of this magazine in order to recalibrate that general argument on Philosophy in the light of the almost two thousand years of thought addressed.

     First of all, I hope to have shown readers that philosophy is a serious matter. This does not mean that under certain circumstances we cannot approach it with irony, nor that it isaverse to any amusement. From a certain point of view, however, it does mean that approaching it lightheartedly is worse than not dealing with it at all. Superficiality, in this sense, would make the work worthless for the person doing it and mortifying for the thought itself. When a philosopher speaks of Truth, setting out what he or she believes is the world’s reality, be it physical or metaphysical, he or shethen expresses fundamental ideas from which no dimension of the human being is alienated. He or she is taking on a great responsibility and is doing so with the investment of his or her whole self and abilities. Regarding this as if it were a mere dialectic game is foolish and demonstrates the stupidity of the judge more than that of who is being judged.

Secondly, I hope to have also shown that philosophy is a difficult and complex subject. In the canon of the History of Philosophy there are some of the greatest minds in the history of Western humanity. This is why I always feel a certain embarrassment when I see the enormous ‘self-confidence’ in those who think that, after a few hours of studying it, they have not only fully understood the thought developed by a philosopher in the course of a lifetime, but also believe to be in possession of such skills like the ability to criticise and discredit it in such a short time, doing so according to reason and truth. I hope these people will always find themselves in places large enough to contain the immensityof their ego.

     I would now like to talk about the moment of crisis in which philosophy is today. For although there continue to be faculties in our universities, and courses in our high schools, philosophy is still seriously ill  and is almost on its deathbed. No, I do not think that my judgement is too harsh, and I shall now explain why I believeit is true.

     During the course of its long journey, philosophy has always had enemies ready to plunge a dagger into its chest at the first opportune moment, and this I think is quite normal. A part of living is knowing how to cohabit with one’s enemies, whether one considers them as such or not. And today, those rivals who have always coexisted with philosophy are still alive, ready to strikeeven if they wear different masks than those that covered their faces in the past. I therefore choose to unmask two of them.

The first of which is Dogmatism. So far, so good. Yet, that something should be true for everyone just because I – and those who I accompany – believe so, is the exact opposite of philosophical thought. It is the dòxa (opinion) that opposes the alètheia (Truth), the latter being understood as the idea supported by rational reasoning that proves its indisputability. This could either be because anyone who wanted to deny it would be forced to reaffirm it (élenchos: e.g. the principle of non-contradiction); orbecause something is so self-evident that anyone, in any place or time, brought to reason on such an idea would recognise it as true (e.g. the analytical judgement: “a triangle is ashape which has three sides and three angles”). In the past, dogmatism was mainly about ‘truths’ of faith, and even today in some countries it is so. For example, those ruled by Islamic theocratic governments, where Shari‘ ah law is in force; or also the Jewish theocracy de facto in Israel. However, today, this dogmatism manifests itself in far more insidious and pervasive ways. During a discussion, how often does someone wield their club (because this is its physical equivalent) when it comes to”non-negotiable principles”, or “unquestionable truths”, or rather sets a limit beyond which thinking ‒ and in order to think it is always necessary to fully grasp all sides, including those negative ‒ is morally and rationally, if not legally, forbidden? I would like to make this point clear: however loftily noble the intentions behind it, to think that there is something that must not be allowed to be discussed is a dogmatic attitude, and immediately an anti-philosophical one.

I would now like to open a parenthesis, in order to avoid the ‘village idiot’ from butting in; I am obliged to make a premise that expressing an argument is quite different from expressing an insult. Yet if any of my readers really thinks this could be the case, i.e. that I am protecting some form of freedom to insult and denigrate, I invite them to stop reading this article and simply close it. I doubt they would benefit anything from reading what follows. Having said that, I use several terms here that in common language fall under the category of ‘insults’, but apart from not being addressed to any particular individual, they should be read in their technical sense, as denoted by their etymologic origin. I shall hereunder proceed with my argument, closing parenthesis.

This widespread dogmatic attitude ‒ I know very few people who are immune to it and in public debate, it is truly pandemic ‒ stems, I think, from two opinions, two prejudices deeply rooted in our society.

The first of which is the identification of understanding and justifying. For example, trying to understand the rational motives for a violent actor speech, or one that is contrary to common sense, is considered a form of justification. Trying to rationally understand, for example, the racially based, or generally discriminatory, nefarious acts of the Nazis is forbidden because it seems to justify them. It is much easier to affirm ‒ and even worse to teach in schools ‒ that one bad day a madman took power and devastated both Europe and the entire world. By doing so, there is surely no risk of justification; but it does of course breed generations of idiots who, precisely because they have not understood, are destined to make the same mistakes. For some, however, the opposite attitude is as follows: they always try to rationally understand and implicitly justify any atrocity and violent act ‒so long as they are committed by people who are economically or socially disadvantaged. This too is dogmatism.

     The second prejudice is that whoever expresses a discourse contrary to certain values, or certain principles is morally and rationally disqualified; that is to say, according to the occasion, a villain or a madman. Some opinions (and I say ‘opinion’ because, if it were an idea, it would have no problem being subjected to the scrutiny of reason) are believed to be so true, so certain and evident, that whoever tries to question them, appears to be suffering from a mental or moral disorder. I find it interesting to notice how those who today are calling for the opening of re-education centres for their ‘rivals’, are actually proposing a modus operandi that was common to both Nazi-fascism and communist totalitarianism; perhaps without physical violence, but the underlying project is the same. One of the greatest evils that we are trying to eradicate from our societies today is so-called “hate speech”, i.e. any statement that is critical ‒ in a more or less violent way ‒ about a category deemed “to be protected”. In this way, I would like to make a couple of pointsclear. The first is that insult ‒ legally, calumny and term of abuse ‒ is already punished by all Western legislative systems. So why not use these cases? Because we are trying to punish something much broader and more nuanced ‒almost, if not practically everything. Secondly, the proverb ‘wounds from words kill more than the sword’ is nonsense. In fact, physical violence strikes regardless of whether the victim wants to be hit or not. Words, on the other hand, whether written or spoken, can certainly vex or offend but if no one intends to do so, they are harmless. It is not a question of an evangelical ‘turn the other cheek’ but rather about deciding how much power others can exercise over us. For these reasons, in order to make anyone feel always offended by criticism, we have invented touchiness by proxy: someone criticises a category of people, and those who retaliate, almost always in a verbally or socially violent way, are people who have nothing to do with that category at all. It would be nice if this came from an understanding of Terence’s words «Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto»; but, unfortunately, this is not the case. What is really at stake here is to exacerbate tempers, to direct the masses, with a view to instrumentalisation for less than noble purposes. All this, too, is dogmatism; and of the worst kind.

    The second enemy of philosophy is the complete opposite of dogmatism: cynicism. I am obviously not referring to the ancient philosophical theory, but to an attitude that stems from a bad interpretation of relativism, and that has become almost a fashion among those individuals of younger generations who are not enlisted in any ideological movement. Every truth or lieis relative; therefore, everything is worthless and therefore many imbeciles feel intelligent only because they do not approve anything, nor believe in anything, they do not support anything but merely criticise and destroy whatever they come across. The preferred method is that of irony, but not with the intelligent sagacity of Karl Kraus, Ennio Flaiano or Oscar Wilde. They are rather stale, idiotic jokes, which simplify the argument to the extent of turning it into a farce, always missing the heart of the matter. These farces are far from showing the original intelligence of the person who thought them and generate in readers a certain pity and embarrassment about him or her. The ‘cynical’ person is motived by the desire to prove their superiority to those who fideistically believe in something; but, as always, if one tries to avoid any extremism by irrationally taking the opposite side, they will necessarily commit the same mistake – though with an inverted sign. This counterpart of dogmatism fully reflects its superficiality, and for this reason it is an enemy of philosophy. I will not add anything more, because anyone who has ever dealt with social media will have experienced it, which is more than enough.

   Finally, as philosophical practice dictates, after the pars destruens of the discourse comes the pars construens. In his work The Fundamental Problems of Philosophy, Georg Simmel writes: «If art can be said to be an image of the world seen through a temperament, philosophy is in turn a temperament seen through an image of the world». [1] I agree with Simmel that philosophy, as a true description of the Whole, is a manifestation of the temperament of the subject who thought, reasoned, and structured it. One could say that philosophy is the philosopher, or at least the philosopher’s rationality, his or her worldview, his or her aspirations, his or her virtues, melancholies, and faults. His or her whole being is invested in the act of philosophising and, at the same time, this act is by no means private or exclusive. Philosophy has rationality as its primary language  because by doing so every human being ‒ as a zoon logon èchon, a rational animal ‒ can take part in it; every philosophical system is open to understanding and criticism by any living being who has the rationality to deal with it. It most certainly has its complexities, its specific language, its customs and habits, but nothing that cannot be learnt by constantly and seriously applying oneself. Furthermore, this is the true nature of rational and free thought, which does not succumb to the sirens of dogmatism and cynicism:be affordable for everyone, so that everyone can understand it, discuss it and criticise it. No re-education centre for dissidents, no rational or moral disqualification. The truth is that we have walked too far, overcome too many difficulties, counted too many martyrs of thought to let the impresarios of God-Yhaweh-Allah-Jehovah, or of any other deity, tell us what we can or cannot think; and even more so today, the same applies to any ideology, be the it of republicans or democrats, conservatives or progressives. By the same token, we cannot be influenced by the cheap cynicism of a few insipid people who only know how to hoist, like a banner, the sneer of superficiality.

    For all this, I want to metaphorically stand up and expect ‒ yes, that’s right, not ask but expect that in philosophy one has the right to speak about anything. To listen to and pronounce every pro-position, to reason about every occurrence, every idea, every aspect of reality. If this were no longer possible, if for some reason some speeches or some standings were erasedby default, ousted from the debate, silenced, hidden or worse prosecuted socially and legally, then there would be no point in philosophising. Everything that can be thought can be understood, and everything that can be rationally understood must find a place in philosophical discussion. Then, whether it is true or false, right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable, it will have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis individually, but only after it has been understood thoroughly. Each of us must claim this right and take on this duty, without dogmatism, without cynicism. For our freedom can only survive if we choose to not lay our rationality down before any so-called idol.

[1]  George Simmel, Hautprobleme der Philosopie [The main problems of Philosophy], translated by LaLivella’s translator from the Italian version, available by Georg Simmel, I problemi fondamentali della filosofia, SE, Milano 2009, p. 46.

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