The Unmaking of Wisdom

Andy Norman

How We Compromised Reason’s Capacity to Transform the Human Condition, Part I: How Rationalism Lost Its WayAndy Norman

 

One hundred generation s ago, a curious character from Athens, Greece, staked his life on a radical proposition: by cultivating reason, he argued, we can gain wisdom, promote moral development, and fashion more just and harmonious societies. Socrates would pay a steep price for his prescient wager: he was tried for espousing heretical views, found guilty, and put to death. His cause found a new champion, though, when a young protégé captured the story in a memorable series of dialogues. Plato’s writings have inspired advocates of reason, or rationalists, ever since.

Rationalists contend that reason can be a powerful force for good. History bears out this contention. Devotion to reason has inspired periods of openness, learning, and scientific progress. It has loosened the grip of ignorance and superstition. It has propelled the development of more inclusive and humane moral codes, conceived more just and tolerant modes of governance, and paved the way for technologies that improve quality of life. Of course, these advances had other contributing causes—significant historical developments always do—but no one who has studied history doubts that a commitment to reasoned inquiry was an essential ingredient in each case.

We remain embarrassingly far, though, from realizing the rationalist ideal. Two thousand and four hundred years after Socrates, folly and unreason plague humanity, wreaking havoc on a mind-numbing scale. Religious zealotry inspires senseless violence. Stupid wars cause terrible suffering. Poverty, hunger, and injustice afflict billions. We plunder the planet for short-term gain, straining ecosystems and courting environmental collapse. Our political and economic arrangements threaten Earth’s capacity to support us, yet the wisdom needed to create just, sustainable alternatives is in conspicuously short supply.

Where will we find the wisdom our world so desperately needs? Both history and common sense suggest that commitment to reason is the surest way to promote wisdom. If this is right, a revival of rationalism would seem to be in order. Indeed, of the options that remain, it may be our best bet.

What Sidelined Rationalism?

The rationalist project, though, seems to have stalled. The twentieth century was supposed to demonstrate the life-enhancing promise of reason and science. Two world wars later—not to mention the advent of nuclear weaponry, the persistence of poverty and famine, the accumulation of industrial toxins, and accelerating climate change—doubts have crept in. Was Western civilization really right to embrace reason as a guiding ideal?

The idea that reason is responsible for such tragedies enjoyed some popularity in recent decades, but it is almost certainly false. Indeed, it is not hard to show that these tragedies involved significant abdications of reason. Even so, modernity’s passion for reason has given way to postmodern ambivalence. Facile intellectual movements contest reason’s status as an ideal, and absent a compelling vision of a brighter, reason-guided future, many well-educated Westerners lack a sense of common purpose. Meanwhile, millions turn to intolerant religious fundamentalisms for answers. Billions more, of less militant bent, embrace faith as a virtue—or view it, at any rate, as a psychological (or epistemological) necessity. Sectarian divisions abound, and the idea that a commitment to reason might unite us, promoting understanding and prosperity, slowly fades. The centrifugal forces of economic injustice, fundamentalist fervor, and resource scarcity are overwhelming the centripetal pull of reason; centuries of progress are in real danger of unraveling.

Clearly, something must be done. But what? We can start by understanding the root cause of rationalism’s failure to win hearts and minds. In his 2007 address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, E. L. Doctorow challenged his audience to fathom the troubled state of the movement (“The White Whale,” FI, October/November 2008):

What does it say about the United States today that this fellowship of the arts, sciences and philosophy is called to affirm knowledge as a public good? What have we come to when the self-evident has to be argued as if—500 years into the Enlightenment and 230-some years into the life of this republic—it is a proposition still to be proven? How does it happen that the modernist project that has endowed mankind with the scientific method, the concept of objective evidence, the culture of factuality responsible for the good and extended life we enjoy in the high-tech world of our freedom, . . . How does it happen for reason to have been so deflected . . . and vulnerable to unreason?

The generic fact of reason’s vulnerability to unreason, presumably, is in no great need of explanation: human nature pretty much guarantees that irrational impulses will sometimes win out. Doctorow’s question makes sense, though, when we reflect on humanity’s variable receptivity to reason. The cause of reason was once ascendant, and good things came of it. It is now in decline. Why? And why have we not made more headway in promoting reason as a way of life?

Without attempting a definitive answer, Doctorow discusses some of the forces that appear to be “deflecting” reason, including on his list of culprits “racism, nativism, . . . fundamentalist fantasy, and the righteous priorities of wealth.” It is natural to mention such forces in this connection, but none constitutes a root-cause diagnosis. After all, fundamentalist fantasy and racism are part of the phenomenon—the persistence of unreason—to be explained, and nativist prejudice and the righteous priorities of wealth are something like historical constants, hence unable to explain historical variation in humanity’s commitment to reason.

There is little to be gained from railing against the usual suspects. We have tried combating unreason by challenging fundamentalist fantasy, racism, wishful thinking, and the like, and these efforts, though noble and important, do not appear to hold the promise of transformational change. What we need is a game-changer—something that enables a fundamental course correction. To get the rationalist project back on track, we need a diagnosis that reveals the root cause of its derailment. We need a prescription that brings clarity and direction to the task of cultivating wisdom.

Years ago, I stumbled upon an intriguing explanation of how the cause of reason lost momentum and cultural currency. I began testing the hypothesis and found, to my surprise, that it brought a stunning clarity to the issue. I have since pieced together the truly remarkable story of how rationalism lost its way. The deep reason the rationalist movement failed to take root, and blossom into its full potential, is conceptual. As we shall see, a seductive misconception has lured the ship of rationalism onto the shoals of ruin, in the process blocking meaningful progress toward collective wisdom. Moreover, the culprit is one of rationalism’s own most cherished assumptions. We rationalists must get our own house in order before we can inspire a broad movement for reason as a way of life.

The Enemy Inside the Gates

The rationalist project is in the middle of its third millennium, and—in a true scandal—we still don’t have an adequate account of reason’s requirements. Philosophers have explored dozens of alternatives, but even the best are riddled with problems and consensus remains elusive. Moreover, epistemology (the branch of philosophy that focuses on things like knowledge and reason) has become “academic” in the worst sense: preoccupied with arcane considerations, haunted by a radical, all-corrosive skepticism, and seldom taken seriously outside a small circle of specialists.

Meanwhile, outside the circle of professional philosophers, a common misconception has led millions of thoughtful, tolerant people to conclude that rationality is ultimately “relative” to one or another set of “basic” beliefs. The thinking goes something like this: suppose your basic commitments are different from mine. “Basic” means “as fundamental as it gets,” so in such cases, there is (by definition) nothing more fundamental to which reason can appeal. Thus reason is impotent to adjudicate disputes between parties with different basic commitments. What is rational for me might not be rational for you, and there is no objective standard for resolving such differences.

It seems that a certain understanding of reason—one closely tied to the notion of “basic” belief—breeds relativism and, with it, pessimism about reason’s potential. It doesn’t seem to matter that philosophers have challenged such thinking many times: like a weed, it keeps coming back.

The same misconception, it turns out, robs rationalists of conviction. For under its influence, conviction is easily confused with dogmatic tenacity. For example, the conviction that animates Richard Dawkins’s critiques of religion is often mistaken for dogmatic attachment to atheism. Clearly, though, one can feel strongly about something without becoming closed-minded or turning a blind eye to evidence. The prevailing understanding of reason, though, obscures this difference, making wishy-washy nonattachment seem the only alternative to closed-mindedness. The confusion is especially pronounced among those anxious to appear open-minded.

Among those less concerned with open-mindedness, the prevailing understanding serves to excuse a dangerous closed-mindedness. The argument—which I do not advance but merely display—goes something like this: everybody who stands for anything must have fundamental commitments—things they accept without further question or justifying reasons. A believer’s faith and a scientist’s basic assumptions are each of this type, hence on an epistemological par. Each is, in an important sense, nonnegotiable. Like everyone else, scientists must take things for granted, so rationalist critiques of (say) religious closed-mindedness are hypocritical at best.

There is little doubt that this argument has gained currency. I hear students voice variants of it all the time. Presumably, it allows millions of people to rationalize dogmatic commitment and still think of themselves as reasonable. Meanwhile, rationalists have failed to successfully promote an understanding of reason that blocks such self-serving sophistry.

These failures stem from an unresolved tension at the heart of rationalism. A simple argument serves to bring this tension to the surface. It takes the form of a dilemma that pits the rationalist commitment to thoroughgoing open-mindedness against the hope that there exists a principled way of distinguishing reasonable from unreasonable beliefs. It goes like this: Either we treat everything as open to question, or we don’t. If we do—and the rationalist commitment to thoroughgoing open-mindedness seems to mandate nothing less—then a critic may question the rational credentials of any claim whatever. Of course, he may also question any claim brought forward in support of another. The supply of reasons is finite, though, so a sufficiently rigorous and persistent questioner will always win in the end. Apparent cases of reasonable belief, it seems, are mere artifacts of our customary complacency and lack of rigor: for on the assumption that everything is open to question, any fully rigorous testing of a belief’s credentials must eventually return a negative verdict. In other words, if everything is open to question, the skeptic ultimately wins and rationality is exposed as a pretense. The alternative, though, is equally corrosive of genuine rationality. For if some things are exempt from critical questioning, rationality may prove possible but only relative to one or another set of essentially dogmatic commitments. Dogmatic commitment, in other words, appears unavoidable, hence excusable. Either way, the genuine rationality we had hoped for proves impossible.

Following William Warren Bartley, I will call this argument the “dilemma of ultimate commitment.” As we shall see, rationalism must untangle this knot to realize its life-enhancing promise.

Radical skepticism, relativism, and dogmatism: the cause of reason faced these same difficulties in antiquity. Rationalists failed to resolve them then, and a thousand years of dogmatic faith ensued: a period of ignorance, folly, and suffering that truly deserved the label “Dark Ages.” Arguably, the very same difficulties sidetracked modern rationalism, paving the way for some major twentieth-century tragedies. Could our civilization descend into another dark age? Yes. It is happening already. The stakes could not be higher. This time, we must get reason right.

Two Models of Reason

To get reason right, we must begin at the beginning. Rationalism’s founder and patron saint had a modus operandi that presupposed a certain understanding of reason’s requirements. When Socrates wanted to determine the worthiness of a claim, he would test it with questions and see how it fared. The implied standard in such an approach was, quite simply, this: judgments that survive questioning might merit acceptance, but those that don’t, don’t. Reasonable beliefs differ from unreasonable ones by being dialectically defensible. I call this idea—that reasonable beliefs are the ones that can withstand questioning—the “Socratic” model of reason.

As we shall see, there is much to recommend this model. A curious thing happened, though, before Socrates’s example could become the guiding light of the rationalist program: another understanding of reason eclipsed it. The story of this fateful event needs telling, for this alternative conception captured the imagination of philosophers and worked its way into the very language we use to think and talk about reason. It became an article of widespread faith, one that quietly subverts the rationalist enterprise. By telling this story, I hope to expose a disastrous conceptual error and give rationalism a fighting chance to become what we always hoped it would be: a driving force for a more humane and prosperous world.

One aspect of the Socratic model likely bothered Plato: it implied that the realm of ideas is articulated by the process of asking and answering questions. More precisely, it implied that reason must be understood by reference to a fluid practice roiled by shifting epistemic demands and contingently available epistemic supplies. On this picture, reason-giving performances of various types can alter the standing of the claims discussed; epistemic status is subject to the shifting vagaries of a messy human activity.

Plato hoped that knowledge—especially moral knowledge—would prove to be built on firmer stuff. So he suggested another model, one suggesting stasis. In fact, his metaphor of choice stressed this very fixity. Knowledge, he proposed, differs from mere opinion by being “tethered”—literally tied down—with a logos, or reason. Put differently, reasonable judgments differ from unreasonable ones by being anchored or grounded. For Plato, the theorems of Euclidean geometry—each derived, via sure steps from axioms—represented the ideal. There is an intuitive picture here, one of the mo
st natural thoughts one can have on the subject, specifically: reasonable judgments are reasonable because they rest atop good reasons. More broadly, being reasonable is a matter of having adequate support. I call this the “Platonic” picture of reason.

Plato’s model of reason was meant as a friendly complement to the Socratic model, and even today, they are often viewed as complementary notions. In fact, though, Plato’s idea is not a friendly complement to the Socratic model. It had—and still has—unintended logical, methodological, and in the end, cultural consequences. This fact is of great moment and merits illustration.

Plato’s Wager

On the Platonic picture, you evaluate a claim by examining its grounds, and a solid basis is sufficient to ensure its status as rationally permissible. On the Socratic model, however, the presence of grounds is never enough to rule out the possibility of a rationality-undermining question or challenge, possibly from another quarter. Reasons for can count, but so, too, can reasons against. Yes, evaluation requires the examination of considerations with the potential to validate, but it also requires that we look at those with the potential to invalidate. Can evaluation focus narrowly on supporting reasons or evidence, ignoring potentially undermining considerations? On the Platonic picture, the answer is yes; on the Socratic, no. Hence the Socratic and Platonic models suggest very different ways of conducting our epistemic affairs.

There is another, more fateful, difference. It concerns the necessity of supporting considerations. On the Socratic model, the need for supporting evidence may be common, but it is ultimately situational: when questions calling for grounds “arise,” they must be answered, but their arising is a contingent matter. Some claims stand in need of support but others don’t, and context matters. In normal circumstances, for example, “I feel fine today,” “Two plus three is five,” and “Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo” are viewed as rationally in order and not in need of justifying support. The same is true of “Treat others as you would have them treat you,” “Dolphins have large brains,” and “We should postpone the picnic if it rains.” This is in fact how skilled thinkers treat countless judgments: as presumptively rational, or reasonable by default. By contrast, Plato was suggesting that adequate support is the very form or essence of reason, hence a requirement in every case—which is to say, all candidates for rational acceptance need backing, and all the reasonable ones get it. Unlike Socrates, Plato made the demand for grounds universal.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this development. Plato was in truth proposing a profoundly revisionary conception. The key difference bears repeating: our pre-theoretic understanding treats many judgments as presumptively reasonable—as reasonable on their face and not in need of backing—but the Platonic conception implied that every judgment stands in need of support. In effect he claimed that no judgments are presumptively reasonable. Plato was essentially betting that we could replace our ordinary, situated grasp of what needs justifying—a grasp governed by subtle, context-sensitive discriminatory powers—with a global, indiscriminate rule and end up with a better, more stable understanding of reason’s nature.

This was not a winning bet. Not only did the better understanding of reason never materialize, the gambit drove a deep wedge between theory and practice. Henceforth, practice would be governed by one understanding of reason’s requirements, and theory would be governed by another. The split has drained epistemology of practical relevance and blocked the path to an understanding of reason that is both philosophically enriched and pragmatically useful.

At the time, however, the fundamental incompatibility of Plato’s and Socrates’s models of reason was less than clear. Both models were appealing, and it was tempting to merge them. The merger was accomplished by interpreting dialectical practice as the sensible trace of an underlying intelligible order—a structure that epistemological inquiry might some day fully illuminate. Ever since, philosophers have accepted the Platonic picture, sought grounds where ordinarily we would not require them, and thereby hoped to illuminate the logical structure of our knowledge. Often, this has meant keeping two sets of books and vacillating between structural and dialectical interpretations of epistemic phenomena.

By the time Plato founded his Academy—an early precursor of the modern university—the misconception that would subvert the rationalist enterprise already had its foot in the door. Rationalism was barely out of the gates, and its Trojan horse was already inside it.

A Regress Redressed

Did Plato inadvertently compromise the very rationalist project he inspired? Consider the fact that Plato’s model of reason immediately generates what philosophers call a “regress.” For on this account, reasonable belief requires supporting reasons. The reasons, though, must themselves be reasonable to provide genuine support. Thus they must stand at the receiving end of rationality-conferring inferences too, and so on with the next set of reasons. Taken seriously, in other words, the model seems to imply that one needs to have an impossibly long chain of reasons in order to have even one reasonable belief!

This regress argument can easily seem a bit of technical sophistry. Real-life reasoning never goes on forever, so why worry about it? This response misses the point. The point is that the Platonic conception leads in a circle. Plato’s account tells us that a judgment’s being reasonable consists in its having a supporting argument. When we ask, though, how an argument can be genuinely supportive, we are directed back to the idea of its premises being reasonable. It is as if we were to say: “Claims are only as good as the arguments that back them up,” then add: “Arguments are only as good as the claims that make them up.” The prospect of an endless chain of reasons is merely a symptom; the real problem is that two components of the Platonic picture pass the explanatory buck to the other.

The difficulty is precisely analogous to the famed causal regress problem, which goes something like this: it seems nothing happens without an antecedent cause, but before such a cause can cause anything, it must itself happen, and that requires yet another, even earlier cause. Thus it seems an impossibly long chain of causes is needed for anything at all to happen. How then can the origins of the universe, or indeed anything that has happened since, be fully explained? Aristotle—Plato’s most gifted student—was much impressed by these arguments, and in answer to them developed parallel pictures of the causal and epistemic realms. He reasoned that a “First Cause” must preside over the causal order, imparting motion to all that moves, and that “first principles” must preside over the rational order, imparting rational validity to all knowledge. In this way, Plato’s concept of reason exerted a decisive influence on Aristotle’s picture of knowledge.

Ancient Skepticism and Medieval Faith

Aristotle’s solution, though, did not satisfy the philosophers of Plato’s Academy. They understood that first principles could themselves be questioned and concluded instead that rigorous reflection on the nature of reason leads invariably to skepticism. According to leading scholars, for more than two hundred years the Academy philosophers employed a skep
tical strategy that “attempted to show that all claims were groundless. ‘Why do you believe that?’ became the leading question in philosophical discussion. ‘You can have no reason to believe that’ became the skeptical refrain” (The Modes of Skepticism by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes).

The best explanation of this curious episode in the history of philosophy is this: Plato’s early followers were in thrall to his concept of reason. The Platonic conception had made an all-corrosive skepticism appear the only alternative to dogmatism. Of course, from the standpoint of serious researchers in other fields, such “Academic” skepticism seemed ridiculous. (Indeed, this is the likely origin of the disparaging phrase “merely academic.”) Epistemology had begun its long decline into near-irrelevance.

Naturally, academic skepticism proved unstable. The pragmatic need to distinguish between more and less reasonable claims soon reasserted itself. This led early Christian thinkers to try a different tack. Questioning cannot go on forever, they reasoned, so we must accept some things on faith. In the same way that the creator god (likened to Aristotle’s First Cause) can halt the regress of causes, faith in God can halt the regress of reasons. Just as God provides the true and only possible basis for existence, faith provides the true and only possible basis for knowledge.

This understanding of the “space of reasons” would prevail, with minor alterations, for more than a thousand years. It helped entrench an orthodoxy that would systematically discourage challenges to church teaching. Medieval epistemology reached its fullest expression in the twelfth century writings of Thomas Aquinas. As Aquinas saw it, “All knowledge proceeds from first principles”—principles themselves underwritten by faith-enabled “apprehensions of intelligible form” (The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, edited by Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump, 1993). This view would hold sway well into the sixteenth century.

Thus, Aristotle, the ancient skeptics, and leading medieval thinkers came to very different conclusions. But they all took it for granted that a belief must be somehow warranted or supported to count as reasonable. That is, they shared a commitment to Plato’s picture of reason. By the time modernity was taking its first wobbly steps, Plato’s conception had dominated attempts to understand reason’s requirements for close to two thousand years. The European Enlightenment was about to turn the worldview of the West upside down, but the Platonic conception, it turns out, wasn’t through. In fact, it was about to harness a fascinating mechanism to embed itself yet more deeply in our collective consciousness.

Gravity’s Cradle, Gravity’s Grave

By the late sixteenth century, the rationalist project had entered a new phase. The printing press had dramatically expanded the reach of ideas, and a new spirit of openness and critical inquiry had swept through Europe. Traditional orthodoxies were challenged, and the solar system was turned inside out. Revelations of corruption emboldened critics of the Catholic Church, and Europeans took a more skeptical view of religious authority. Protestants challenged the Church’s authority to interpret God’s will, the Church fought back by persecuting heretics, and for one hundred years, religious wars wracked the continent.

These developments dealt a severe blow to fideism—the idea that faith ought properly to determine our fundamental commitments. It became abundantly clear to all who chose to reflect on the matter that faith-based rationality was a recipe for sectarian conflict, ignorance, and intolerance. Meanwhile, positive advances in the sciences made a return to radical skepticism impossible. Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons, for example, demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that some knowledge was not just possible but actual. Clearly, reason must play a role in resolving even basic differences. The search was on for an account of knowledge’s true basis.

It fell to the French philosopher Rene Descartes to frame the problem in its distinctively modern form. If we hope to establish anything “firm and lasting in the sciences,” Descartes wrote, we must raze the foundations of received opinion and build all of knowledge afresh upon beliefs that cannot be doubted. His candidate for foundational belief (the famous cogito—popularly rendered as “I think, therefore I am”) would become a topic of lively dispute, but prove, in the end, to furnish too slim a basis for a robust system. However, it was not Descartes’s solution but his framing of the problem that would prove decisive. In particular, his clever use of the foundations metaphor would capture the imaginations of generations of thinkers and decisively shape our collective understanding of reason.

This metaphor gave modern thinkers a convenient way of casting the central philosophical problem of the age: On what foundation does true knowledge rest? But it also did something more subtle and far-reaching, something that has, until now, escaped philosophical notice: the Cartesian foundations metaphor projected a gravitational field onto the space of reasons. In other words, the idea that knowledge needs a foundation only makes sense if, absent support, beliefs invariably gravitate to their (epistemic) demise. And this is precisely what Descartes presupposed. Indeed, he declared it a “fact” that “the destruction of the foundations [of opinion] of necessity brings with it the downfall of the rest of the edifice.” Claims are not to be upheld unless there is something to hold them up; “baseless,” “groundless,” or “unsupported” claims are unworthy. These thoughts presuppose what we might call “epistemic gravity.” But what is this mysterious force, exactly? Where does it come from? Why should we suppose that it exists, let alone that it pervades the space of reasons?

A moment’s reflection reveals the conceptual origins of epistemic gravity: it was implicit all along in the Platonic idea that reason requires support. The idea that support is the hallmark of rational judgment had actually been projecting a gravitational field onto the space of reasons for centuries. As we might put it today, the Platonic picture gives that space a distinct curvature. Descartes’s most decisive contribution was to grasp this and make it explicit. More precisely, he popularized the foundations metaphor, thereby giving generations of philosophers an intuitive, almost visceral sense of the “physics” of Plato’s space of reasons—as a place where nothing stands firm or merits acceptance unless something else supports it. (It must be something else, of course, because an idea can no more support itself than a weighty object can levitate; gravity rules out bootstrap levitation.) Of course, Descartes did not see that epistemic gravity was an artifact of Plato’s model; to him, it was simply a “fact” about the space of reasons, and an obvious one at that.

The metaphor proved irresistible. It caught on and generated an entire idiom for thinking and talking about reason. Gravitationally loaded terms like baseless, grounded, unfounded, and supported gained currency; people’s intuitive sense of how things work in the space of reasons adjusted accordingly. In this way, the Platonic picture actually became embedded in our language, making it difficult to imagine that rational merit might consist in anything other than a solid support structure. This is how foundationalism—the doctrine that knowledge rests on a stratum of “basic” beliefs—came to seem self-evident to
many of the greatest minds of the modern era. In fact, the Platonic conception enjoyed the nearly unanimous support of modernity’s great thinkers:

“There can be no certainty of the last conclusion, without a certainty of all those affirmations and negations, on which it was grounded and inferred.”
—Thomas Hobbes

“[Do] not entertain any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.”
—John Locke

“If I ask why you believe any matter of fact, which you relate, you must tell me some reason . . . or allow that your belief is entirely without foundation.”
—David Hume

“The conclusions of reason are all built upon first principles, and can have no other foundation.”
—Thomas Reid

“In virtue of the principle of sufficient reason, we assume that no fact can be true or real and no judgment correct without there being a sufficient reason or ground why it is thus and not otherwise.”
—Gottfried Leibniz

“Every proposition must have a reason.”
—Immanuel Kant

This list could easily be multiplied, for the Platonic conception was almost universally assumed. Moreover, such tributes to Plato’s model were not ancillary to the philosophies of these thinkers. In each case, the possibility of knowledge (given the presumed need for solid foundations) becomes one, or in some cases the, central problem. The Platonic concept of reason, in other words, not only survived the Enlightenment; it traversed it in grand style, borne along by the foundations metaphor and its attendant assumption of epistemic gravity. Modern thinkers made heroic efforts to revive rationalism, and in some respects, they were successful. But they did not untangle the conceptual knot Plato had tied. Indeed, they had drawn it tighter.

Part 2 of this essay, to appear in the next issue of Free Inquiry, aims to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Platonic paradigm and show how we can move beyond it. —Eds.

Further Reading

  • Annas, Julia, and Jonathan Barnes. The Modes of Skepticism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Bartley, William Warren. The Retreat to Commitment. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1984.

Andy Norman

Andy Norman is professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and director of CMU’s Humanist Initiative. He is working on a book titled Unhinged: Faith, Ideology, and the Ethics of Belief, Boosting Mental Immune Response in the Ideological Animal.


How We Compromised Reason’s Capacity to Transform the Human Condition, Part I: How Rationalism Lost Its WayAndy Norman   One hundred generation s ago, a curious character from Athens, Greece, staked his life on a radical proposition: by cultivating reason, he argued, we can gain wisdom, promote moral development, and fashion more just and harmonious …

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