Human beings are both supremely rational and deeply superstitious, capable of believing just about anything and of questioning just about everything. Indeed, just as our reason demands that we know the truth, our skepticism leads to doubts we can ever really do so.
In Walking the Tightrope of Reason, Robert J. Fogelin guides readers through a contradiction that lies at the very heart of philosophical inquiry. Fogelin argues that our rational faculties insist on a purely rational account of the universe, yet at the same time, the inherent limitations of these faculties ensure that we will never fully satisfy that demand. As a result of being driven to this point of paradox, we either comfort ourselves with what Kant called "metaphysical illusions" or adopt a stance of radical skepticism. No middle ground seems possible and, as Fogelin shows, skepticism, even though a healthy dose of it is essential for living a rational life, "has an inherent tendency to become unlimited in its scope, with the result that the edifice of rationality is destroyed." In much Postmodernist thought, for example, skepticism takes the extreme form of absolute relativism, denying the basis for any value distinctions and treating all truth-claims as equally groundless. How reason avoids disgracing itself, walking a fine line between dogmatic belief and self-defeating doubt, is the question Fogelin seeks to answer.
Reflecting upon the ancient Greek skeptics as well as such thinkers as Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Whitman, this book takes readers intoand throughsome of philosophy's most troubling paradoxes.
Taking on the "problems that make reasoning itself a precarious activity," Dartmouth philosopher Fogelin offers an admirably clear, concise, provocative approach to avoiding pitfalls "inherent in the rational enterprise." When people reason seriously and philosophically, he argues, they inevitably get into trouble: paradox; belief in either an absolutist metaphysics or a relativist jumble of perspectives (both of which he calls "dialectical illusions"); and abject skepticism. Having analyzed this "trinity of threats" ("inconsistency, illusion, and doubt") he proposes a cure: "becoming engaged in the world in ways that put our thoughts under constraints that are not themselves further thoughts." Essentially, this boils down to not philosophizing so much. Instead, people should accept the dilemma-prone nature of human systems of thought; restrict themselves to questions whose answers can be checked against experiment and experience; and go out and enjoy life when skeptical brooding gets them down. Some of this advice sounds like good common sense, but his approach is itself precarious, with its main pitfall being a tendency to argue from the authority of Wittgenstein, Kant and Hume, all of whom have been shown to have weak points. And there is something dubious about a philosopher saying he philosophizes only to quit philosophizing-like a smoker saying he smokes only to quit smoking. Still, the book is an intellectual pleasure for those who like their philosophy cool and combative. (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.