William Forest for King’s College London Undergraduate Conference 2014
Non-rational human beings, the poverty of philosophy, and suicide: still the most important philosophical problem
"Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards" - so wrote Albert Camus in his essay on the matter. The man - who contemplated suicide himself - was so preoccupied by the question that it formed a good part of his life's philosophical work. Like most post-enlightenment thinkers, he had consulted the reason, and found it wanting. Life for him had no rational meaning or order at all. He was famously unable to decide between committing suicide, or getting a coffee. He eventually resolved his problem, but only after abandoning philosophy as it is conventionally understood completely. This journey, titled by Camus as the doctrine of Absurdism, far from being simply an idiosyncratic story on the fringes of 1960s French Existentialism, is far more important than anyone currently believes. This essay will argue that there is a realm of human thought that is innately non-rational, and that it is a poverty in modern philosophy that it is unable to engage with this realm. There will be a focus throughout on Camus' problem of suicide, as a particularly evocative case study, and one illustrative of the importance of these claims.
First it is necessary to elucidate what is meant exactly by 'non-rational', both by defining it and giving examples of considerations which are it. For the purposes of ths essay, 'rationality' will be defined as the modality of human thought which ascertains the truth value of statements with logical content, i.e. propositions; 'irrationality' as the misuse or poor application of rationality; and 'non-rationality' as all human thought which is neither rational nor irrational. This distinction makes sense; it means that by definition 'rational' considerations can be worked on by systems of logic and conclusions can be drawn within this field that are in a certain sense objective. That is what is usually taken as meant by rational, in the sense that man is a supposed rational animal and is thus able to understand that if the apple is released from the tree it will fall to the ground, that if you add two more apples you will have three apples, and know the truth of propositions of this kind. One example of non-rational thought is the apprehension of music and art, a clearly aesthetic, rather than rational, experience. The existence of this aesthetic sphere of contemplation may be instructive in deciding how to characterise other ways that we think non-rationally. A second example of non-rational behaviour is the assignment of normative value to actions. A more detailed examination of the subjectivity of morals is not possible within the confines of this essay, it is salient to note that in fact, that there is no objective morality is a commonly held moral intuition amongst modern laypeople, sociologists and is a near uniform consensus amongst anthropologists. None of this changes that values exist, and it does not entail that they have no meaning. The charge is merely that their contemplation takes and ought to take place in the non-rational realm of thought. The same applies to the assignment of normative value to things, in the way that a sceptre holds symbolic meaning, or a grandmother's ring can have value beyond its worth. A third non-rational activity is the assigment of a narrative to a progression of historical events. What this means is best elucidated by means of example again. In Soviet Russia, large numbers of people were moved from the sattelite states and replaced by Russians, as part of Stalin's policy of Russification. This is a fact in every sense that the word normally signifies, but what that fact means to you depends on whether you are Will Forrest, a peasant in 1930s Ukraine, or Joseph Stalin, even before you have assigned a moral value to the fact. There is no standard by which this fact can be fit into a narrative that is in any way more objective than any other, and thus it fails on the necessary condition for rationality as here discussed; objectivity. It is clearly not an irrational activity either, without a narrative to give form to historical analysis no understanding can be achieved at all beyond merely listing occurences. So three notable manners in which human thought is non-rational are the assignment of normative value to things or actions, the selection of narratives within which to comprehend events, and the appreciation of music and art.
These non-rational activities can all be categorised under one heading: thought which helps us frame events in a Camusian world, devoid of inherent meaning or order. Moral values enable us to assert good and bad, a natural human activity; historical narratives impose order on fundamentally chaotic events, where all causality is inferred, and unsituated knowledge of facts is impossible; and music and art likewise posit framings by which we can take in information. Guernica springs to mind; in Picasso's world, it was not a heavily bombed Spanish city, but a 'Tragedy'. Categorisations like these are not for the reason to work on, but they are clearly not devoid of meaning either. What must be rejected is the proposition that rationality is the only valid modality of human thought, and it is this that the second half of this essay will tackle.
Turning again to Camus' problem of suicide, it becomes instantly quite clear that the decision of whether or not to destroy oneself is not a rational one. The lack of any meaning that might inform that question was apparently a truth not in need of further justification to Camus, but it fits in with the account of non-rational thought as a framing apparatus within which understanding takes place. This is corroborated by modern psychological practice. One does not treat depression with three point syllogism. Rather, it is modelled as a disorder with how someone perceives the world, and how they internalise value-neutral facts. Art and music have powerful capacities to influence our choice of framing, but, I will argue, so does philosophy. To further develop this point, it should be examined what Camus actually proposed as a solution to his 'problem'. He abandons cogent logical argument in favour of a more aesthetic form, recommending itself to this other part of the mind. He famously references the myth of Sisyphus, whose scorn of the Gods earnt him a punishment forever rolling a rock up a hill, only to have it fall back down again. But Camus sees Sisyphus as triumphant, claiming that every time he trudges back down the mountain to retreive the stone, he proves that he is "stronger than the rock". In this informal argument he recasts the decision to keep on living as an act of rebellion. By becoming conscious of the futility of our existence, we take ownership of it, according to Camus. If the cold light of the reason of the analytic philosophers is turned on these statements they are quickly found to be free of the kind of logical content that they ordinarily require, but that is manifestly not sufficient to say that Camus' enquiry was not a meaningful, or to refuse that he is a philosopher at all. More, it is a demonstration that there is more to philosophy than the analytic school. In the same manner as art, music and literature, it can suggest framings within which we can understand the world. It's direction of thought can explore outwards, rather than refine inwards. It can be an art, not a science.
To conclude then, the 'poverty of philosophy' is therefore British philosophy's inability to take up this mantle and engage with the project initiated by the existentialists. The two central points of this essay, that there is human thought which is non-rational, and that there is space within philosophy for this thought to occur, have been exposited in full. There is scope for further consideration, not least for the restrictions of the format on exploring every possible avenue of discussion. For example, does the assignment of moral value share anything with that of historical narrative, or value to art? (Neuroscience can presumably make limited statements about this, but the conscious phenomena, rather than the physical, are the subject of the question) Is it possible to be an analytic philosopher and one in Camus' aesthetic tradition at the same time, or does one require the cultivation of a way of thinking incompatible with the other? Are there political implications? All these and more are the subject of essays in a discipline given to exploring the non-rational, and one I hope will germinate in good time, though perhaps not with the name philosophy assigned to it. Time will tell, but it is certain that whether analytic philosophy accepts it or not, it is something with which it shall have to contend.