Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reason and Anxiety

My understanding of the Spinoza Controversy of the late-18th century has changed over time.  I first read about it years ago, first in Frederick Beiser's The Fate of Reason, and then in Paul Franks' All or Nothing.  I initially thought of it solely in terms of the quid juris of reason itself.  Do the concepts of reason represent reality?  What's the place of reason in the universe?  Can reason justify itself, or is there no ultimate reason to be rational?  Does reason lead to atheism?  In other words I saw the Spinoza Controversy - which I affectionately term "18th century flame wars" - either as an 18th century problem or as a dress rehearsal for Nietzsche.

But since returning to the problem over the past few weeks, I've come to see it in a broader context.  This quote from Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (from Paul Franks' "All or nothing: systematicity and nihilism in Jacobi, Reinhold, and Maimon"), describing an experience he had at the age of 8 or 9, changed my mind:
That extraordinary thing was a representation of endless duration, quite independent of any religious concept.  At the said age, when I was pondering on eternity a parte ante, it suddenly came over me with such clarity, and seized me with such violence, that I gave out a loud cry and fell into a kind of swoon.  A movement in me, quite natural, forced me to revive the same representation as soon as I came to myself, and the result was a state of unspeakable despair.  The thought of annihilation, which had always been dreadful to me, now became even more dreadful, nor could I bear the vision of an eternal forward duration any better.
...I gradually managed not to be afflicted by this trial so often, and finally managed to free myself from it altogether...
This representation has often seized me again since then, despite the care that I constantly take to avoid it.  I have reason to suspect that I can arbitrarily evoke it in me any time I want; and I believe that it is in my power, were I to do so repeatedly a few times, to take my life within minutes by this means.
What jumps out at me is the vivid description of existential despair.  "The thought of annihilation" which "seized" him and which was so "dreadful" adds a human and perhaps universal dimension to what previously seemed like a mere thought exercise.

There was a discussion about this years ago on Crooked Timber, and I remember in one of the follow-ups someone referring to Jacobi as the Eric Cartman of the 18th century.  It's an odd comparison, given his religiosity.  But at least in Beiser's account, he comes across as a bit of a pain-in-the-ass.  The whole Spinoza Controversy got kicked off when Jacobi published his version of a conversation in which the late Gotthold Ephraim Lessing declared his Spinozism.  Lessing was a hero to the German Enlightenment movement, and Spinozism was the same thing as atheism.  The intent of publishing the correspondence was to show that Enlightenment leads to atheism.  Later, Jacobi accused the philosopher Fichte of atheism, directly leading to the latter being removed from his position at Jena.  So - he was kind of an asshole!

But reading this passage makes conspicuous for me the particular experience of existence motivating Jacobi.  It wasn't pure intellectual arrogance or whimsy that caused Jacobi to go after Enlightenment and reason.  It was an experience of horror and threat of annihilation.  What's interesting is why Jacobi connected this threat with rationalism.  Understanding this explains the connection between the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) and a host of problems lying outside 17th and 18th century philosophy.

Is the PSR Passé? 
In my previous post about recursion and the Agrippan Trilemma, I presented the problems inherent in the PSR as epistemological problems, i.e., problems explaining things.  According to the PSR, we can have complete understanding of something if and only if reason finds rest in ultimate, self-justifying conditions.

A common response to this problem - at least from our 21st century perspective - is: so what?  Science is the best example we have of knowledge of the world.  Yet science does not require ultimate explanations.  Science requires only that we reason to the best explanation.

Our theories function as models of reality, and the worth of those models comes from their ability to supply explanations and make predictions.  There are problems in any theory, things which the model can't explain or has difficulty explaining.  For example, there used to be a problem explaining the planet Mercury's orbit using Newtonian physics.  In order for a new theory to be accepted, in the long run it has to not only solve those old problems but do as good a job of explaining things as the old theory did.  So general relativity not only solved the problem of Mercury's orbit; it also explained everything good old Newtonian physics was able to explain, too.

But it's not as though anyone believes Einstein gave us a transparent window on to the physical world with his theory.  It's able to explain more than any previous cosmological theory.  Its predictions are more accurate than any other theory ever devised by the human intellect (with the possible exception of the Standard Model).  It's not able to explain why the gravitational constant is what it is, why the speed of light is just so, or what happens in the centers of black holes.  But no one believes for that reason that it's a bad theory, or that we won't understand anything about the universe until these problems are resolved.  We have an incomplete understanding of things.  We may always have an incomplete understanding of things.  But this is nothing to despair over.

So then why was Jacobi so freaked out by this?  I think it makes more sense if you think about it, not so much in terms of causation, but rather in terms of grounding.  There's no proof from the passage that he was worrying about which physical theory explains the current state of affairs.  What he seemed to be worrying about was how there was a present moment at all.  Not just "Why does the world appear this way and not that?" but "Why is there anything?"

Reason and Angst
In one of his essay “Facticity and Transcendental Philosophy,” (From Kant to Davidson: Philosophy and the Idea of the Transcendental, ed. Jeff Malpas (London: Routledge, 2002), 100-121.), philosopher Steven Galt Crowell argues that, in the experience of Angst, we're confronted with the fact that our existence is grounded in something we can neither understand nor control.  Every moment is potentially pregnant with such horror - not because we lack the right scientific account of reality, but just because our being is constituted this way.  We're not fully self-grounding, nor can we be.

But these moments are also pregnant with mystery.  Beingness in general is problematized for us in Angst.  It's as though beings as a whole "recede from us" (Heidegger), and a giant question mark hangs over everything.  One wonders why there should be anything rather than nothing at all.  Indeed, people who have these experiences at a young age are often propelled into philosophy or religion.

But why should that be?  If one is confronted with the opacity and finitude of one's existence, why should they be propelled into a pursuit like philosophy, the goal of which is to answer, amongst other things, the question of why we're here?  Shouldn't such pursuits appear immediately futile?

What this shows, says Crowell, is that reason itself has its source in such experiences.  When I experience Angst and hear a telephone ring, I don't doubt the existence of the telephone or the ringing.  But I will wonder, at least implicitly, at why such a thing should be at all.  Reason doesn't recede in the face of Angst.  It's generalized and encompasses everything all at once.  Far from being a philosophy of irrationalism, existentialism proves reason is coextensive with existence itself.

The Problem of Ground
I think if we look at Jacobi's experience, not just as an epistemological problem (there's no evidence that it is), but rather as an existential problem, it begins to make more sense.  It also explains why he was driven into a confrontation with rationalism.  Far from being a mere external imposition upon facts, the principle of sufficient reason erupts full-grown from Angst itself.  And if one inclines one's questioning toward reality in the right way, it's possible to evoke Angst.

Now, how you respond to such experiences determines approximately everything about you down to your soul.  The natural response to such experiences is to flee them - to reabsorb oneself back into experience, back into particular things, back into playing with concepts (even philosophical or religious ones).  One might also choose to face such experiences with courage and either try to accept them or overcome them.  Heidegger believed such experiences were the root of all fear, and that facing them and overcoming them would destroy the capacity for fear.  Heidegger was also a Nazi.  There's also evidence that dealing with such experiences with equanimity is part of the path toward enlightenment in Buddhism.  This leads to the end of fear, but it also leads to the end of suffering and great compassion.

In the context of Western enlightenment, the question is: what relation is revealed in Angst between reason and existence?  The situation is ambiguous.  Being is revealed, equally, as horror and problem (question).  The question: Why are there beings rather than nothing?  There is no self-evident answer to this question.  It seems anything you can plug in - even God - gets swallowed up by the question.  One could be led, with some justification, toward the view that reason is not only insufficient to solve this existential problem, but that it in fact exacerbates it, since even the sort of ground that would ordinarily satisfy such concerns (God) is shown in such experiences to be without ground.  This appears to be the conclusion Jacobi drew from the experience.

The other response is to take Angst as a challenge to lay the ground.  Since reason is invoked in its purest form in such experiences, one might interpret it as a call to develop reason more fully until, perhaps, one has finally laid a sufficient ground.  In this case, groundlessness is given as a condition that reason might remedy.  This is transcendental philosophy as a cognitive, autonomous project.  Crowell argues that Heidegger's philosophy is an example of this.

The Fate of Reason
No one knows yet what the fate of reason is.  It seems to owe its existence to an original anxiety about the world that few people are even aware they have.  Is reason merely a byproduct of the anxiety, in which case it should not worry us per se?  Is reason able to assuage the anxiety somehow, either through transcendental philosophy or perhaps in concert with meditation (as in Buddhism)?  Or are reason and Angst somehow in their own recursive loop, with Angst giving rise to reason, and reason deepening Angst by revealing time and again the insufficiency of any ground?

The only thing I'm sure of is that Jacobi perceived a problem with reason that is not particular to 18th century rationalism.  There's more here than political reaction and the failing morals of modern society.  Jacobi's thought of annihilation is still with us.

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