Neither Rationalism Nor Empiricism

If Descartes’s rationalism leaves us with despair, Hume’s empiricism doesn’t provide us with anything more compelling.

A purely rationalist model like Descartes’s that finds its basis in radical doubt first leaves us with despair because we cannot have certain knowledge if we affirm that as a basis for our understanding of the world. Hume’s empirical system (we gain “ideas” via “impressions,” or, to put it a little more simply, any knowledge we gain about reality is gained via sense experience) leaves us with an inability to reasonably believe in the transcendent or the existence of ethical norms. How we ought to act is simply a matter or custom and the social nature of human beings.

That’s why Kierkegaard’s claim, a little less than a hundred years later, that “subjectivity is truth” is necessary. Ethico-religious truth isn’t actually knowable rationally or empirically. That realm of human life is off-limits to objectivity, because objectivity necessarily is disembodied. It’s also important to note that Kierkegaard was approving of both a form of rationalism and empiricism (I think this was likely due to a Kantian influence). He understood that the form of rationalism that affirms abstract truth (mathematics and necessary, logical assertions) and an empiricism that seems to bestow approximate knowledge of how the world functions and historical fact are good, necessary things.

We just can’t submit ethical and religious truth to the same level of inquiry, because they are categorically different spheres. “Knowing” these kinds of truth necessarily implies embodiment of those truths. If we don’t embody selflessness, for example, we reveal that we don’t know that selflessness is a worthwhile virtue. If we don’t embody Jesus, the same can be said. Kierkegaard attacked philosophical abstraction, but only at the service of honesty about our current ethical and religious states. This is a different kind of epistemology — a religious one, and one that doesn’t allow the modernist assumptions about the superiority of human rationality to set the standards for truth in all spheres.

Why We Need Kierkegaard

I obviously have some sense that Kierkegaard’s whole project, especially as it relates to ethico-religious epistemology, is something that needs to be explored. But the real question I think most people have when I tell them about what I’m writing on is why? Why does some relatively obscure (to people outside of academia) philosopher from Denmark in the 19th century have anything to say to us? What hath Christian existentialism to do with modern American Christianity?

I think the short answer boils down to this: we are obsessed with finding the right answer to our ethical and religious questions, and with objectively knowing that the we know with certainty that how we are acting and what we believe is “right.” We are so obsessed, in fact, that many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.

Many of us American Christians grew up in faith traditions that placed heavy emphasis on believing the right things (that Jesus died for our sins). Those faith traditions told us that doing so was the guarantee of our salvation. The paradigmatic Bible passage here was Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This, most of us were told, meant that mental assent to this historical claim was sufficient for our salvation. So those of us who believed this particular claim (Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected by God) were saved. And our time needed to be spent doing two things:

  1. Convincing other people that the claim was true, in order that they may also be saved.
  2. Building up apologetic frameworks that helped us to remain convinced that what we believed was true. (In the age of science and information, that particular claim is a difficult one to defend, both rationally and with historical or natural evidence.)

Kierkegaard never argued that there was no objectively right way to live or objectively correct religious framework — that was not his concern at all (he didn’t have that concern, partially because he didn’t face globalism and religious pluralism the way we face it today). His concern was that the objectification of faith claims like Jesus’ death for the sins of humanity and his subsequent resurrection robs the claim of its existential force. In other words, the more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of that claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

This was the problem with modernity that Kierkegaard was trying to combat. He saw in the epistemological frameworks of those modern philosophers that came before him, and his contemporaries (Descartes, Hume, Kant, and especially Hegel), the human tendency for objectifying faith claims in order that we could ignore the ramifications in our own singular, individual lives.

The Two-Fold Challenge of (Post)Modernity

The challenge of (post)modernity is two-fold:

  1. We have recognized that our observation of evidence and the rational thought processes we use to build coherent models of reality are shaped by language, but the language we use is contingent and relative. The language we use is shaped by the communities of which we are a part, which means that our very ability to reason is shaped and formed by our communities.
  2. The radical individualism that arose from the Enlightenment (which, again, was shaped by the language and culture of Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries) has woven itself into the fabric of the way we all experience reality. This means that we think we are individually autonomous, able to personally, individually shape the way we view reality. We think we are not beholden to the communities of which we are a part.

So — our very ability to reason is shaped by social context, but we operate under the assumption that it isn’t. What could possibly go wrong in a situation like this?

Alasdair Macintyre and the Narratives That Shape Rationality

Macintyre on Moral Reasoning:

To make progress in philosophy one must sort through the narratives that inform one’s understanding, struggle with the questions that those narratives raise, and on occasion, reject, replace, or reinterpret portions of those narratives and propose those changes to the rest of one’s community for assessment. Human enquiry is always situated within the history and life of a community. There is no alternative ahistorical, non-traditional way to make progress in human enquiry.

 

If modern morality has been revealed to be “a theater of illusions,” then we must reject it, and this rejection can take two forms. Either we follow Nietzsche and defend the autonomy of the individual against the arbitrary demands of conventional moral reasoning, or we reject both moral autonomy and arbitrary conventional moral reasoning to follow Aristotle and investigate practical reason and the role of moral formation in preparing the human agent to succeed as an independent practical reasoner.

 

MacIntyre rejects individualism and insists that we view human beings as members of communities who bear specific debts and responsibilities because of our social identities. The responsibilities one may inherit as a member of a community include debts to one’s forbearers that one can only repay to people in the present and future. These responsibilities also include debts incurred by the unjust actions of ones’ predecessors.

 

For MacIntyre, there is no moral identity for the abstract individual; “The self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities” (p. 221).

Macintyre on Rationality:

For MacIntyre, “rationality” comprises all the intellectual resources, both formal and substantive, that we use to judge truth and falsity in propositions, and to determine choice-worthiness in courses of action. Rationality in this sense is not universal; it differs from community to community and from person to person, and may both develop and regress over the course of a person’s life or a community’s history.

 

To the extent that a person accepts what is handed down from the moral and intellectual traditions of her or his community in learning to judge truth and falsity, good and evil, that person’s rationality is “tradition-constituted.” Tradition-constituted rationality provides the schemata by which we interpret, understand, and judge the world we live in. The apparent reasonableness of mythical explanations, religious doctrines, scientific theories, and the conflicting demands of the world’s moral codes all depend on the tradition-constituted rationalities of those who judge them.

 

From the subjective standpoint of the human enquirer, MacIntyre finds that theories, concepts, and facts all have histories, and they are all liable to change—for better or for worse. MacIntyre’s philosophy offers a decisive refutation of modern epistemology, even as it maintains philosophy is a quest for truth.

 

Modernity does not see tradition as the key that unlocks moral and political understanding, but as a superfluous accumulation of opinions that tend to prejudice moral and political reasoning.

Although modernity rejects tradition as a method of moral and political enquiry, MacIntyre finds that it nevertheless bears all the characteristics of a moral and political tradition.

 

MacIntyre focuses the critique of modernity on the question of rational justification. Modern epistemology stands or falls on the possibility of Cartesian epistemological first principles. MacIntyre’s history exposes that notion of first principle as a fiction, and at the same time demonstrates that rational enquiry advances (or declines) only through tradition.

All taken from this essay on Alasdair Macintyre’s life and work, by Christopher Stephen Lutz.