On the need to make sense of life
18 October 2009
How can the extremes of rationalism, logicism, and idealism even be taken seriously today? Have we not yet laid the ghost of Hegel?
We cannot put contemporary conceptions of the ultimate rationality of the world to Hegel and his notorious reality of the rational (and the rationality of the real), simply because this springs from a deeper source. It is not only the philosopher who wants to make sense of life. Indeed, the philosopher may be more willing to consider the arbitrariness and absurdity of life than will those innocent of philosophy.
One form which the need for meaning frequently takes is the imposition of meaning through the transformation of life into a story. The further reaches of this irrational need for rationality coincide with histrionic hermeneutics and, eventually, madness.
We are not limited to a purely negative characterization of the rational; i.e., we are not left to a definition of the irrational, from which we deduce the rational by negation, but can offer positive and constructive definitions of rationality. Logic is chief among these definitions. Nevertheless, without the irrational and the arational as a contrast to the rational, the latter would be incomprehensible. If rationality had no limits it would possess neither value nor meaning. It is the possibility of the failure of rationality, the possibility of error, fallacy, non sequiter, and paradox which lends to our attempts to reason rigorously a certain urgency, if not poignancy.
We are, all of us, fallible. This unavoidable human truth is a spur both to logic and to humility: they proceed from the same source. Humility is the cultivation of a sense of compunction following from fallibility. Logic is a cultivation of a sense of the ameliorative possibilities of fallibility. One cannot recognize an instance of fallibility without seeing in what way one might have done better, and this is an invitation to improvement. One may think of one’s mistakes as reminders to do no worse in the future or to do better in the future.
The imposition of order where there is no order, of meaning where there is no meaning, or of reason where there is no reason, is in each case as much an affront to reason as a failure to see obvious order, meaning, and reason where it is to be found.
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