"The Heights School" - Faculty Workshop Talk: "Bring Reason Back:" Director of the Upper School - Michael Moynihan
Wednesday, September 2, 11:00 a.m.
The title of this talk is, “Bring Reason Back.” This title might sound like a rather strange topic for a talk to a group of teachers at the beginning of the school year. Don’t we teach our students many important subjects? … mathematics, literature, languages, empirical sciences, art, music, history, and religion? Don’t we teach them a rich classical and fairly well thought out curriculum? What is missing? In what sense do we need to “bring reason back?”
And yet it is not difficult to see that there are problems with a school model that is organized to teach “subjects.” In a typical school today, students sign-up to take a set of classes according to their ambitions, interests, and institutional requirements. Then they shuffle from one period to the next, stopping for a dose of English one period, then math, Chemistry, Art and so on. The process somewhat resembles a factory model where a machine is gradually built up by passing through different stations where more is added until the finished product, a car or a dishwasher, is ready for use. But is a school set-up to effectively teach subjects the best way to teach persons? To help them embrace the full use of their reason?
The factory model of education runs against every aspect of the spirit of the Heights. And we have done many things to counter this pervading paradigm: personal attention to students through advisory, integrating curriculum through 7th and 9th grade core classes, programs like the History of Western Thought class as a capstone course, natural history integrating the study of empirical science with the natural surroundings of the valley, and so on. In fact, in almost every way we are different than a typical school we are also more personal and less institutional, specifically though these differences.
But I do not want to analyze how well we do as a school. To be able to say that we do many things better than others is still perhaps too little. I want to highlight what I consider to be the single biggest educational crisis of our times: specifically what Benedict XVI calls the “self-imposed limitation of the scope of human reason” from which the entire western world currently suffers. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the west is currently like a mountain climber precariously balanced on a small ledge half-way up a cliff, with the real possibility of a fall into general nihilism but the hope of a climb to reach new heights still present as well. Alvaro mentioned some aspects of the challenges facing us in his reflections on culture yesterday. And the strong cultural forces he mentioned -- hedonism, consumerism, entitlement, disloyalty and impurity -- are in a way symptoms of a deeper reduction of the human person that certainly has as one of its root causes the intellectual reductionism Pope Benedict talks about.
So what does Benedict mean by identifying the problem as a “self-imposed limitation of reason” and calling for a return to a more expansive rationality as the solution? These phrases come from Benedict’s Regensburg Address, which he gave on September 12, 2006. This address was developed in the context of the problem of scientism, the false belief that only the methods of the empirical sciences are valid methods to arrive at truth. I’ve recently enjoyed reading a book, Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo, which took place over several days beginning on September 1, 2006, less than two weeks before the Regensburg Address. In this book it is possible to “see” the Regensburg Address emerging as Benedict comments on the proceedings. The methods of the empirical sciences are valid and do lead to true conclusions. But we know that human reason must include more than just experimental studies, that there is a great value to common human experience, the wonder of a contemplative view of the world, and human and ethical values that resist being reduced to an empirical study. Benedict is especially concerned with how scientism and modern reductive thought in general has flattened the way people view the world and negatively informs how Christians view God as creator. He identifies 3 stages of dehellenization (“turning away from Greek philosophical thought” or “turning away from the full scope of human reason”): the protestant reformation or revolt, the historicism of 19th century scholarship as especially manifest in the quest for the historical moral figure of Jesus, and the subordination of all truth and values to expressions of a collective subjectivism of a particular culture. Benedict is particularly concerned that theology be recognized as a science with a true place in a university, and rightly sees that scientism, and more generally all reductionism, makes this impossible.
As Benedict notes, the rich synthesis between Biblical faith and Greek thought, started to experience the first signs of fissure in the late Middle Ages. He mentions Duns Scotus (d. 1308… only 34 years after Thomas Aquinas) as a figure at the beginning of the disintegration of rational thought. We could also highlight William of Ockham and especially Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. In fact the first stage of dehellenization to which Benedict refers, that of the protestant reformation (or revolt) emerged as a rejection of a corruption of Medieval Scholastic thought. Many Europeans perceived that the ossified system of scholastic argumentation risked obscuring the richness of simple Biblical faith and thus revolted against their mother the Church, which undoubtedly had its problems along with genuine sources of renewal and life. An excellent book on this is Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. What Benedict writes is completely consistent with Bouyer’s thesis:
Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.
Bacon and Descartes took advantage of the cultural instability present during this first stage to advance two agendas that are at the heart of the modern world. First, they radically questioned things in a new way, shifting rational inquiry away from understanding the external world and more toward the human subject as a knower. And, secondly, they set aside the whole project of knowing about reality as it is, focusing rather on learning how to exercise dominion and control over reality. In classical terms this can be described as reducing causality to mainly efficient causality (“mechanisms”) and some material causality (although in a redefined way). Formal and final causality were basically set aside to make room for the new project of forcing nature to yield her secrets through scientific experiments so as to discover ways to improve the conditions of human life. So classically reality is fundamentally something that is rich with meaning as a given, to know the nature of each being (formal causality) and to see the ends to which it is directed (final causality) is to be able to see the handiwork of God and to discern some insight as to where our proper place in the world is and how we should order our lives. After Bacon and Descartes the world increasingly becomes an inert set of passive particles or “modular construction units” that are arranged in certain configurations for mechanical functions, the so called “mechanical philosophy.” Man exercises dominion over nature and other men through discovering how things work mechanically or efficiently and putting this knowledge to use.
This limitation of the scope of human rationality to only considering knowledge of how a thing functions and its quantifiable aspects as real knowledge is at the root of modern reductionism. Reductionism, of which scientism is a type, is any attempt to deny that the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. In Benedict’s words the western world suffers from reductionism that leads us to suppose that only
the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned… In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology's claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.
So what does this mean for our students and how we teach them? First of all, it means that we should not be too comfortable with where we currently are as a school. We may do many things right but in light of the overarching problem of the need to restore the full scope of human reason as something our students make their own we still have a long way to go. Our students suffer from the same reductionism that we all do, in this time in history, to one extent or another. Today people are intellectually typically either part of what I, following some of Romano Guardini’s analysis in his End of the Modern World, will call late modernity or postmodernity.
Late modern thought has devolved to the point where people basically see 2 types of thinking: on the one hand there is what is objectively true and this is what is known by the “hard” sciences and mathematics; on the other side of the Cartesian object-subject divide are the humanities, which are considered “subjective” in the sense that they are primarily about a person’s subjective experiences, especially on the emotional level. Granted that some people have a more refined appreciation of the humanities and all “art” and “nature”, and that it can be valuable to thus “endow” or even study (if that is your “calling”) the humanities, it nonetheless is true that these areas lack an objective correspondence to reality, that they lack truth, which is only known through the methods of the empirical sciences according to this perspective. This late modern thought, as Benedict notes, is especially dangerous for faith as religion becomes now perhaps the most subjective part of the humanities… the part most dependent on feelings… the “experience of faith” detached from any real objective content. It becomes impossible to talk about faith and difficult to talk about ethical concerns in the public square. We see this when students and parents do not take certain classes seriously, such as religion. At a recent religion department meeting it was brought up that it is a challenge to get students to see religion classes as serious subjects. This happens as well with literature, poetry, drama, music, and the arts in general; these subjects are seen by many of our students as subjective in a way that removes any possibility of an objective connection to reality, instead of each subject being a window through which we reach an aspect of reality.
Some of our students also display what I am calling postmodern thought, which is especially characterized by a skeptical attitude to the possibility of any truth existing at all. On the positive side, the simplistic division of the intellectual life into objective knowledge (empirical sciences) and subjective reflections is seriously challenged. But this is done by doubting that there can ever be anything more than word games… that what is known by scientists today will be contradicted by scientists in the future just like changing opinions on what science tells us about how healthy butter or eggs are. This perspective is thankfully not pervasive among our students and certainly not among our faculty, but it comes out from time to time. I would place the tendency for the boys to identify more with their peer group and to see truthfulness and honor to this group as more normative than to society at large, what Alvaro formerly talked about as the “second family,” as a fruit of this postmodern perspective. Guradini has many interesting things to say about the new type of “community” that is forming for postmodern man, which he refers to as “mass man.” His reflections match well with Benedict’s third stage of dehellenization, specifically that “truth” or (or to put it more in line with contemporary sensibilities…“values”) are culturally determined and only relevant within particular cultural groups.
So what is the solution? How can we help our students to be complete as thinking human persons? Even though we are not going to be able to fully shed the “teaching subjects oriented approach to education” (if we fully did this we would look rather strange… not like any other school… and there is some value in respecting different disciplines which should not be entirely conflated), we can still work toward developing an integrated curriculum that places the education of the person at the center. Part of this involves deepening our connection to and commitment toward offering a classically informed education. I have been recently reading quite a bit on the growing classical education movement. An interesting, although partly flawed, essay on this topic is Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 address to Oxford University called The Lost Tools of Learning, an essay that has become a “founding document” of sorts for classical education. Sayers argues for a return to the trivium, the beginning of the medieval education system where students are taught how to think and reason well through learning grammar, logic and rhetoric. Though these 3 elements of the trivium need not be considered separate stages as Sayers strongly suggests, it is very true that education must be about teaching the person, and that teaching the person includes helping him to learn how to think correctly about reality.
The biggest missing part of our education here at The Heights currently is what has been traditionally called logic. I think that logic has great unifying potential for our curriculum, the ability to connect the curriculum as a whole in a way similar to how our 9th grade core class integrates English and history which respecting the legitimate differences between the subjects. Most importantly, including logic across the curriculum is a practical way to help our students employ the full scope of their rationality, for them to be trained to reason in a more complete way, the best counter to reductive tendencies in the culture around us.
If we do not lay the ground work for the full recovery of human reason, if we allow a Cartesian outlook where, for example, a living thing (Aristotle “naturally organized body”) is reduced to a machine, where function and mechanism are all that really matter and that we can safely omit all concerns of formal and final causality, we will be turning out students who are defenseless against real challenges facing the western world today. As Pope Francis so passionately argues in his recent encyclical, if we do not recover an integral understanding of nature and learn to respect it in its givenness as creation, then we will be unable to effectively discuss contemporary challenges to the created order such as the current transgender movement, not to mention the beginnings of a transhumanism movement, where people are starting to actively promote the “singularity”, the next stage in evolution where computing technology will be integrated into human biological systems to create a new and higher species.
Blogger: I responded to Michael erroneously taking the word and concept “logic” as the formalized abstract method of correct thinking (although not necessarily true), and offering remarks from John Henry Newman on same:
1 1) Excellent talk!
2) You surprised me by suddenly aiming at expanding reason by logic. Unless I misunderstand and dotage is doing me in, the expansion of reason is via experience of the self transcending itself. That is, reason expands as being expands. And the first text that came to my mind was Newman’s Universit y Sermon XIII (“Implicit and Explicit Reason”) #7. I.e. reason comes to assent as “a living spontaneous energy within us, not an art.” He wrote:
”The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some in ward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and, unable to teach another. It is not too much to say that the stepping by which great geniuses scale the mountains of truth is as unsafe and precarious to men in general, as the ascent of a skilful mountaineer up a literal crag. It is a way which they alone can take; and its justification lies in their success. And such mainly is the way in which all men, gifted or not gifted, commonly reason, - not by rule, but by an inward faculty.
8. Reasoning, then, or the exercise of Reason, is a living spontaneous energy within us, not an art…”
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Me: It becomes the “art” of logic when we reflect on our assents and tidy up the process and discover the main principles
And, the depth of this is in Newman’s “ Grammar of Assent” Chapter Six where he takes on Locke and explains that assent does not rest necessarily or truly on inference.
My absolute bottom line is Ratzinger’s Thesis 3 of “Behold Pierced One” where he offers his “theological epistemology” which is to know the Person of Christ “not by flesh and blood,” but by being drawn by the Father – i.e. prayer as the action of going out of self – and experienced. Since Christ is ontological center that holds it all together, the fundamental epistemology of all knowing is assent from experience.
Great talk!! Fr. Bob