A New Theory of Reason (Again)

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding (Harvard University Press / Allen Lane, 2017)

A quick post before the one I meant to write. It’s admissions time so my mind is occupied by the many and varied achievements of this year’s applicants.
      I have mentioned this Big Idea from Mercier and Sperber before, here. Reason, they say, is not a special sort of thinking that happens in the abstract and applies to the world in theory. Rather, it is all about persuasion, argument, social life, and so on. This helps explain the strange strengths and weaknesses of our thinking, how slack we are at evaluating our own arguments, how keen we are when analyzing those of others.
      The book expands upon the article in a couple of key ways, I think (as well as, of course, arguing the main points more fully). Reason is seen as one of several inference ‘modules’ in human thinking: it’s the bit that reasons about ‘reasons’, they say, and we have other processes that draw inferences from sensory data, etc. Inference is a major theme for Sperber’s wider work; he is, for example, with Deirdre Wilson, one of the founders of the Relevance Theory of communication.
      The book also tells lots of good stories, especially about the foibles of famous reasoners, not just of reason itself. Mercier and Sperber take pleasure in showing that solitary scientists tend to gain a great deal from having someone to talk to, and that they are capable of thoroughly perverse thinking alongside their achievements in rational problem-solving. Linus Pauling’s commitment to the cause of Vitamin C is cited as an example of the latter. This makes it a pretty lively read for all its technicality at certain key moments.

In the earlier post I linked this interest to the history of rhetoric, and the idea that the art of persuasion, and examples of that art in practice, might be philosophically interesting in a new way. I still think there’s something there. Now I am thinking (no less obviously) about the countless representations of argument-in-action in literature. Take Shakespeare, for example. We may see Othello’s scrutiny of Iago’s arguments to be very ineffective; is this necessarily a failure of reasoning? What sort of inferences are going wrong? I would also be interested to look at how Iago generates these arguments. He does seem to be interestingly casual about evaluating some of his own thinking, for example his throwaway suspicion that Othello has slept with Emilia. He may just be pretending, putting a motive out like a smokescreen. Perhaps, though, he is a monster of the ‘Enigma of Reason’, spectacularly good at reading others, capable of being horrifyingly casual when generating a thought of his own. It seems to me that the problems of reasoning might take very strange forms in this play, and that this could reflect back on some of the patterns being described by Mercier and Sperber.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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