Silence, Humility, Creation: The End of Rational Inquiry?

“There was a moment’s silence, such as often follows the triumph of rationalism” –
E. M. Forster, A Passage To India

Philosophy often deals in the highest levels of abstraction; the most general, yet fundamental frameworks of our understanding and misunderstanding fall within its remit. There is no intellectual pie into which philosophy has not stuck its finger, so to speak. But what, if it is at all conceivable, is the end of such reasoning? Is there anything worthwhile to be discovered in thinking about how philosophy might at some point, in some sense, be “done”, “finished”, “concluded”? Take what follows as an exercise in “blue-sky thinking” on this topic; a not-entirely definite speculation on where philosophical inquiry might ultimately take us.

The above quotation from E. M. Forster follows the renunciation of superstition by Mr. Fielding and Miss Quested. Forster’s protagonists are stunned, even alarmed by the “triumph of rationalism”. I cannot help but see in this a parallel with Wittgenstein’s (in)famous final statement in the Tractatus: ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein is generally thought to be attempting to posit a perfect language, and thereby draw a limit to what can meaningfully be expressed. Most traditional philosophizing falls outside the scope of this language, and is, therefore, simply nonsense. So he thinks we should let such discussions fall silent – they cannot even be meaningfully discussed, perhaps not even intelligibly thought.

It is true that reason sometimes leads us to shocking, inescapable conclusions, or to the boundary between the comprehensible and the ineffable. And this seems somehow terrifying, in a way that induces a begrudged silence, quite unlike the serene and definite “consolations” that Boethius sought from the Lady Philosophy.

We often assume that all the facts of the universe are within the scope of our reasoned expression; we can, in short, discover, comprehend and express them. In extreme contrast to this, the ancient sceptic Pyrrho declared οὐ μαλλον – “No more”. The universe is neither one way, nor another and any attempt to formulate definite propositions is an act of deception, a reasoned mirage. To speak of definite truth and knowledge is to fill an indeterminate void with a meaningless clutter, a cacophony of falsities. Hence, “No more”, says Pyrrho: reason leads us inexorably to solipsistic silence and the suspension of the rational enterprise. Only when this is achieved, can true happiness be attained, free of illusion.

I would argue, however, philosophy can provide more definite consolations than Pyrrho would have us believe. This comes not from paralysis, but from humility, in the form of the acknowledgement of our conceptual limitations and recognition of our creative capacities (more on the latter below). Philosophical humility discovers the border-stones in the empires of thought, using them as perspective-guiding with regard to our intellectual achievements. Reason often runs dialectically – one side pitted against the other – and when an argument reaches a successful conclusion, what can follow but quiet satisfaction? Silence is not only a boundary, but a goal to be striven for. The “triumph of reason” is like that moment when you finish a good book; when you’ve stayed-up late just to turn those final pages. Your head is filled with the noise of the characters, the scene, the narrative structure; until at last you reach the final paragraph: resolution is found and the words run out. Silence. Only then do you sleep with contentment.

Humility comes in where this analogy no longer holds. When we have run through a problem so many times, that we realise we are running in circles. We often think about our quest for knowledge in philosophy, science and other areas as a series of problems we desire to solve. Problems frustrate us; they exercise us and sometimes defeat us. A conception of philosophy as therapy can treat this frustration; we may realise the problem does not strictly need a solution, because it is not a proper problem. If this is so then we must seek explanation from within ourselves, by coming to understand that what we thought was a problem was actually a product of our own misconception or expressive constructs. Or we may appreciate that we have truly reached the edge of reason. Either way, humility is gained and this in itself ought to offer consolation.

But this does not mean philosophical humility is a case of “a bad workman blaming his tools”. In fact, we have proven that we can use our faculties of reason to extraordinary ends. One only has to take a cursory look at science, or the richness of modern philosophical theory to see that we are capable of great things. Where we have created, we have done so with incredible variety and power; and where we have discovered, we have done so with remarkable precision and purpose. The search for the end of rational inquiry can only be completed if we are willing to concede our limitations with humility, whilst admiring the achievements we have garnered within those same remits.

But what do we do when we do when we feel satisfied that we have reached such a state of humility? Perhaps we merely survey our accomplishments or continually retrace our steps in order to maintain our hard-earned intellectual corpus. Perhaps we end up like Pyrrho, paralysed but happy, even a little smug. But surely this in itself would exhibit a kind of arrogance, contravening our requirement of humility?

In my view, a better answer would be to recognise that reason does not fully capture or contain the extent of human capabilities. The intellect is a tool of discovery, but it is also one of creation. We employ the successes of reason in our capacity as creators. Creators of paintings, poetry and music. Of great architecture and engineering. Of societies and cultures. But most fundamentally, we are the creators and re-creators of ourselves at personal and biological levels. Vital to our continuation is pedagogy, communication and the development of socio-cultural personhood. It is this that ensures the transitory nature of the silence that follows reason. The silence of understanding enables personal and aesthetic creativity of the highest calibre. Thus creativity pushes us to break our silence in order to create; creation emerges as the crowning glory of our inquiries.

Here end my speculations. All this is of course, dependant on the paths of reasoning behind some philosophical problems coming to some kind of clear, definite conclusion we can all agree on. In most cases I can see no prospect of this happening. However, I maintain a hope that at least in some cases we might find the consolation of a few moments of silence, following a triumph of reason.

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