Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Thinking about an illusion while staring out a Starbuck's window on an autumn day

About a week ago, I was drinking a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s early in the afternoon. I stared out the window idly thinking about Reason while an unending line of folks walked by the window and distracted me. People watching I guess people call it.

I wondered if my notion that I possess an effective reasoning power was an illusion. I certainly do not arrive at my initial conclusions about most things by using logical arguments or scientific observation. First, comes the conclusion, and then comes the argument. The argument often seems like window dressing to my emotions about something, or my desire to project myself favorably in another’s eyes. Aristotle talks about arguments, sort of, this way in his Rhetoric.

Emotion and desire are fundamental if not foundational. We often hear of emotion and desire as a retreat from reason, but they are inescapable. We would not have ideology if our emotions and desires did not allow us to create a space between philosophy and political action. We want others to accept us at the same time we want to be right. We must have a framework in which to fit the facts, and we dare not take a lot of time doing it if we wish quickly to arrive at basic political decisions. I do not denigrate ideology, for it has its place.

Reason attaches itself to the political after I have made my choices. Reason justifies my decisions rather than creates them, whether I choose consciously or unconsciously. I have read about these things in the past—Hume in particular. It is one thing to believe that reason is the slave of the passions and yet another to actually feel it on an autumn day while staring out a Starbuck’s window.

The ill consequences of conservative ideology caught my attention before I seriously inspected what was driving those consequences. The Iraq disaster, the economic descent of the working class, and the erosion of human and civil rights presented themselves for disapprobation before I have tried to discover what it is about conservatism that gets things wrong. That seems shameful to admit. Maybe, the illusion that my reason rules my passions is an excuse to be idle and indolent in my thinking right up to the point when disaster happens.

At any rate, I think there is truth to the old saying that we do not miss our water until the well runs dry. One must always guard against that lamentable situation regardless of the status of reason in our lives.


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