Creativity / Ideology / Incompleteness / Philosophy

Reason and Proteons

File:Todd WILLIAMSON, Another Reason (36x64in), Oil on canvas (2014).jpg

I suggest that reality, and especially human cognition and the culture created by it, is a proteon. A proteon, by definition, is an entity for which a complete and exact description is not possible. If human thought, science and culture is a proteon, there cannot be a single systematic and logical basis of all human thought.

Does that mean we have to give up reason and have to embrace irrationality? I don’t think so; but we should give up the idea that reason is limited to logic.

As long as reasoning acts inside the confines of a formal theory (e.g. a physical theory), we may equate reason with logic. Within a formal theory, errors can be avoided. But if no single exact (formal) theory can describe reality in its totality, we will repeatedly, if not even most of the time, have to tolerate partial vagueness and perform creative ”jumps” or “structural breaks” of thought that cannot be logically justified at the time (although such a justification may be developed later, in hindsight). There will always be the risk of errors and mistakes.

What is required, then, is a permanent critical reflection of our theoretical thought processes and our concepts and of the empirical and experimental methods of our scientific enquiries. Reason then means not only employing logic, but also this permanent critical reflection of our methods, concepts and reasoning processes, including a critical reflection of that critical reflection itself, a process that cannot, in turn, be formalized completely. This process of creative critical reflection is required both at the level of the individual thinker or scientist and at the level of groups and communities.

Natural scientists doing “normal science” (in the Kuhnian sense), applying a set of established methods and concepts to solve problems from a defined class, thus operating within the limits of a scientific paradigm might forget about the necessity of this creative and critical self-reflexivity of thought. Since they are operating in very large analytical spaces, the philosophical edges of their activity may disappear from their view, behind their horizon. On the other hand, for scholars engaged in the humanities, with their much smaller and more complex analytical spaces, this mode of permanent critical reflection on one’s methods and concepts is everyday business.

During its historical development, the progress of philosophy consisted largely in the branching off of new disciplines that ceased to belong to philosophy and turned into systematic sciences applying organized sets of methods and concepts to well-defined sets of problems. But a core of philosophy has remained: the mode of creative and at the same time self-reflexive and critical thinking that remains necessary at the borders of analytical spaces. Here, the need for philosophical thinking remains. And if reality is a proteon, especially the reality of human thought, language, culture, society and even the part of our culture called science, this core of philosophy is going to remain. The reason it will not go away is that if we face a proteon, a unification of all analytical spaces, i.e. of all partial, systematic chunks of knowledge about reality, is and will remain impossible.

If we view this creative and at the same time reflexive and critical mode of thinking as the persisting core of philosophy, then philosophy cannot itself be considered to be a science, although it should be an integral part of all academic disciplines, including the sciences. Without the philosophical mode of thinking that enables us to extend our thoughts and knowledge into new directions, academic disciplines would degenerate into ideologies. If, on the other hand, one tries to turn philosophy into a science, it will lose its generality and disintegrate into a collection of small (and often quite irrelevant) special analytical spaces. It looks like this is what has been happening in some parts of analytic philosophy, which is characterized by attempts to formalization of thought on one hand and a trend to increasing specialization on the other.

I propose to use the term “reason” primarily for this “philosophical”, creative, sometimes inexact and vague, but at the same time critical and self-reflexive mode of thought, not only for the logical, inferential, formalizable and algorithmic mode of thinking. However, I consider logical reasoning as part of reason. But exactness and generality are mutually exclusive and if we restrict ourselves to exact thinking alone, we would be losing a large part of the possibilities. It would be unreasonable to do so. We need both.


(The picture, showing a painting by Todd Williamson called “Another Reason”, is from,_Another_Reason_(36x64in),_Oil_on_canvas_(2014).jpg. It is exhibiting a mix of regular and irregular shapes and features. In the context of this article, these may be interpreted as symbolizing both logical and informal reasoning as components of reason).

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