Reason, Responsibility, and Spiritual Crisis

By McGuire, Steven | Modern Age, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Reason, Responsibility, and Spiritual Crisis


McGuire, Steven, Modern Age


The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age

by Ralph C. Hancock

(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011)

Ralph Hancock's The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age represents an impressive effort to unearth and counter the deep source of the nihilism toward which our society continues to propel itself. In essence, he argues that modernity is characterized by both a failure to take a balanced stance toward transcendence and a parallel misconception of the relationship between theory and practice. Having immanentized the transcendent and asserted the absolute priority of theory to practice, we moderns attempt to master nature (including ourselves) according to autonomous reason. But by turning ourselves over to reason so conceived in the name of freedom, we neglect to take moral and political responsibility for ourselves and thus become subject to the whims of power.

The solution, Hancock proposes, is to take on the responsibility of reason, that is, to recognize the limits of reason and to accept that our efforts to theorize are always tied to our practical inheritances. He weaves this argument through interpretive chapters on Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, and Alexis de Tocqueville, ultimately arguing that the last best understood--and practiced best--the art of responsible reason in response to the crisis of modernity. Finally, following Tocqueville's example, Hancock advises us to be friends of liberal democracy-not flatterers, but good and wise friends, who recognize that liberal democracy partakes of something deeply true about the human condition while also understanding that it must be managed lest it undermine our humanity.

At the core of his analysis Hancock couples the recognition that we can never develop an unadulterated understanding of the good with an acknowledgement that the human condition is moral through and through. Paradoxically, this means that "the rule of simple reason is as impossible as it is inevitable" (1): we cannot rule ourselves according to pure reason because "the good or goods to which reason is necessarily oriented cannot be produced by reason itself," but we must rule ourselves according to reason "because this rule follows from our nature as speaking and political beings" (2). Although we cannot discern the good with absolute clarity and certainty because it transcends the horizon of our existence, we must nevertheless rely on what we can or do know because we must act.

This means that human thought is always dependent on inherited practices, since it emerges from but can never utterly transcend prejudice, opinion, and tradition: "the bondage of the mind is the natural and inevitable condition of humanity" (257). Yet practice is always guided by theory, since the mind is capable of transcending particular prejudices, opinions, and traditions: "we humans are also beings capable of reflection, of standing back from (which does not mean achieving a standpoint altogether apart from) the common or public world in order to examine and to question what is generally taken for granted in practice" (16).

The situation so described explains the need for what Hancock calls "responsible reason": those who engage in reasoning (everyone, but especially, for Hancock, would-be "Legislators") must attend to the nature of the human condition as they pursue theory and relate it to practice. We must recognize that "responsible reason necessarily stands ambivalently in relation to commonly held beliefs and assumptions: it negates or questions them at the same time as it depends upon and reinforces them" (2). Thus, we must reason responsibly, which suggests at the very least that we should not pursue purely rational practices without regard for the existing practices of our society, although it also suggests that we should not simply accept the practices of society without reasoning about them. …

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