On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism

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Given that Enlightenment rationality developed in Europe as European nations aggressively claimed other parts of the world for their own enrichment, scholars have made rationality the subject of postcolonial critique, questioning its universality and objectivity. In On Reason, the late philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze demonstrates that rationality, and by extension philosophy, need not be renounced as manifestations or tools of Western imperialism. Examining reason in connection to the politics of difference—the cluster of issues known variously as cultural diversity, political correctness, the culture wars, and identity politics—Eze expounds a rigorous argument that reason is produced through and because of difference. In so doing, he preserves reason as a human property while at the same time showing that it cannot be thought outside the realities of cultural diversity. Advocating rationality in a multicultural world, he proposes new ways of affirming both identity and difference.

Eze draws on an extraordinary command of Western philosophical thought and a deep knowledge of African philosophy and cultural traditions. He explores models of rationality in the thought of philosophers from Aristotle, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes to Noam Chomsky, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and Jacques Derrida, and he considers portrayals of reason in the work of the African thinkers and novelists Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka. Eze reflects on contemporary thought about genetics, race, and postcolonial historiography as well as on the interplay between reason and unreason in the hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He contends that while rationality may have a foundational formality, any understanding of its foundation and form is dynamic, always based in historical and cultural circumstances.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Eze’s] commitment to preserving a wide range of forms of reason, and rendering them productive of rationality, accomplishes his lifelong task of showing the ethnocentrism inherent in myopic forms of reason in Europe and Africa, and at the same time accomplishes the equally important task of showing the way to productive dialogue across the borders of forms of reason.” - Bruce B. Janz, South African Journal of Philosophy

“[On Reason] is a brilliant book, which will be read widely because Eze eloquently argues for the use of reason in philosophical discourse in world of conflict and racism. It is a welcome follow-up to Eze’s work on race and pluralism.” - Elias K. Bongmba, Africa Today

“This is not a work of sociology, but it is a work of philosophy that many will find resonates with a sociological imagination, especially one open to the impact of postcolonial thinking across the humanities and social sciences. It merits reading (and re-reading) and matching its philosophical reflections with sociological reflection on its themes. It is a thoroughly rewarding and valuable book and one which makes a significant contribution to the field.” - Gurminder K. Bhambra, The Sociological Review

“[V]aluable for all philosophy collections, and for related fields dealing with race and politics. Highly recommended.” - R.M. Stewart, Choice

“Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze has done significant work thinking critically about race, politics, history, and the discipline of philosophy. In On Reason, he makes evident the breadth and depth of African philosophy and its deep and often problematic connections to the political. The political must, as it were, be thought, and that is difficult, demanding, necessarily creative and troubling work. It is work that Eze does not shirk from, especially as a thinker deeply rooted in the cultural traditions and philosophies of Africa.”—Grant Farred, author of What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals

“Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze takes on one of the most difficult challenges of the day: the possibility that reason, and therefore philosophy, transcends culture and history and does not simply reflect the hegemony of one culture. I like his attempts to ‘ground’ reason in experience while still maintaining reason’s authority. This is a difficult trick given our habits of thought, but he makes a plausible and important case especially to be prized by cultural theorists who want to think ‘diversity’ without having to fend off endless arguments about ‘relativism.’”—William Rasch, author of Sovereignty and Its Discontents: On the Primacy of Conflict and the Structure of the Political

Elias K. Bongmba

“[On Reason] is a brilliant book, which will be read widely because Eze eloquently argues for the use of reason in philosophical discourse in world of conflict and racism. It is a welcome follow-up to Eze’s work on race and pluralism.”
Bruce B. Janz

“[Eze’s] commitment to preserving a wide range of forms of reason, and rendering them productive of rationality, accomplishes his lifelong task of showing the ethnocentrism inherent in myopic forms of reason in Europe and Africa, and at the same time accomplishes the equally important task of showing the way to productive dialogue across the borders of forms of reason.”
R.M. Stewart

“[V]aluable for all philosophy collections, and for related fields dealing with race and politics. Highly recommended.”
Gurminder K. Bhambra

“This is not a work of sociology, but it is a work of philosophy that many will find resonates with a sociological imagination, especially one open to the impact of postcolonial thinking across the humanities and social sciences. It merits reading (and re-reading) and matching its philosophical reflections with sociological reflection on its themes. It is a thoroughly rewarding and valuable book and one which makes a significant contribution to the field.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341956
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze was Associate Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University, the author of Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of the Postracial Future, and the editor of Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader and African Philosophy: An Anthology.

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Read an Excerpt

On Reason


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4195-6

Chapter One

Varieties of Rational Experience

In this chapter I discuss six varieties of theories of reason. These theories implicitly or explicitly advocate different ideals-models-of rationality. When I speak about the theories of reason and their corresponding rational ideals I call them conceptions of rationality. It will be obvious that whereas some of the conceptions of rationality are internally consistent as well as compatible with other conceptions of rationality, others are not. That is why I have preferred to speak about all of them as varieties of conceptions of rational experience. From my point of view, reason-on account of these theories and the forms of rationalities they collectively advocate-can be accurately characterized as internally diverse and externally pluralistic. Without arguing for a particular hierarchical ranking-only for their diversity and their compatibility or incompatibility-I will explain and critique the calculative, formal, hermeneutical, empiricist, phenomenological, and ordinary conceptions of rationality.


Calculative rationality is the model most familiar in the periods and places we characterize as modern. The historical identification of this form of rationality with modernity is due largely to the dominance of empirical science and its technologies in the modern processes of acquisition, organization and archiving, and practical uses of experimental knowledge. A modern culture's idea of knowledge is inescapably embedded in the rational self-image and in the historical teleology of the natural and the social sciences. This historical teleology is most explicit in the philosophical thought emerging out of the European Enlightenment, notably in the works of Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon.

Hobbes gave the modern idea of rationality its clearest formulation. It is his terminology that justifies describing this theory of reason as calculative. Hobbes thinks that when we "reasoneth," all we do is calculation. Thinking is the act in which we conceive "a sum total from addition of parcels; or conceive a remainder, from subtraction of one sum from another: which, if it be done by words, is conceiving of the consequence of the names of all the parts, to the name of the whole; or from the names of the whole and one part, to the name of the other part. And though in some things, as in numbers, besides adding and subtracting, men name other operations, as multiplying and dividing; yet they are the same: for multiplication is but adding together of things equal; and division, but subtracting of one thing, as often as we can." If all reasoning is reducible to calculation-specifically addition and subtraction-then the best model of acts of reasoning may be found in the mathematical sciences.

But beyond the field of mathematics, one could also translate the basic mathematical requirements of Hobbes's model of rationality into the metaphorical languages of positivity (addition or multiplication) and negativity (subtraction or division). In this translation, any domain of experience, including the realm of language, could be subjected to the mathematically and instrumentally quantifiable. By the same token, the task of any valid philosophy or science must consist in discovering, through verifiable and replicable experimental procedures, the rationality of nature and of the world in just this way that rationality has been defined. In modeling rationality on this logical and technical presupposition, this notion of reason and the underlying rationality of the world are considered directly or indirectly regulated by logical processes represented, or potentially representable, as usable information. All information would be, in turn, actually or potentially numerically quantifiable.

An intuitive appreciation of Hobbes's picture of thinking, however, reveals a number of problems-notably, its reductionism. After all, one could easily think of occasions when reasoning has little or nothing to do with addition and subtraction. When we take pleasures or displeasures (e.g., in poetry), or speak in order to rationally stipulate the permissible and impermissible in morality, it is difficult to see exactly how the thought in this kind of experience is merely a process of addition or subtraction. How is it possible to reduce aesthetic experience or moral feelings to a mathematical calculation? Hobbes, however, insisted that just as we learn in mathematics to add and subtract numbers, or in geometry to add and subtract angles and proportions, we also add and subtract "in consequences of words" when we make aesthetic and moral judgments. In logic, Hobbes believed, we generally learn to "add ... together two names to make an affirmation, and two affirmations to make a syllogism, and many syllogisms to make a demonstration." This logical principle, he believed, is the same in acts of linguistic reasoning, such as poetic grammar and moral rhetoric, as in mathematical or geometric demonstrations. Similarly, in domains such as politics and law, the logic of addition and subtraction is also the rule. For example, politicians follow the principle of calculation because they "add together pactions to find men's duties." Lawyers, too, merely add and subtract "laws and facts to find what is right and wrong in the actions of private men."

In its strongest terms, Hobbes's claim means that any natural facts or human actions that can be quantified are rational, whereas those facts or actions that are not quantifiable, not calculable, cannot be deemed rational. This is a quantitative-formalistic conception of reason, in which quantifiability and calculability are isomorphic with rationality. An intended consequence of this doctrine is new conceptions of science and philosophy: whatever is not intelligible through calculation is simply unscientific, and a philosophical proposition is practically irrelevant as well as meaningless if it does not conform to the principle of addition and subtraction. Reason, under this theory of science and philosophy, is nothing more than a natural logical machine good only for material computation. This model of rationality simultaneously bears on what may be considered meaningful and meaningless, true and false, and useful and useless. That is why, for Hobbes, all meaningful, truthful, and useful words are proper names. For example, a truthful statement "consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations," and a proposition is meaningful only if in it "a man that seeketh precise truth had need to remember what every name he uses stands for, and to place it accordingly." A useful statement is one that contains nothing but truthful and meaningful names in an order that accurately reflects the quantifiable logical relations of addition and subtraction among the names.

In light of this theory of names, we can say that Hobbes's is a mechanistic and materialist model of the rational. This model embodies a radical naturalism that had its origins in scientific Renaissance movements. The rise of natural philosophy during the Renaissance suggests a rejection of medieval scholasticism in favor of introducing more empirical approaches into philosophical inquiry. Philosophers sought models of reasoning that allowed better classifications of objects in the natural world. This was one motivation behind the origins and growth of the field of natural history, for natural history was predicated on the belief that a correct taxonomy of beings reflected an order believed embedded in nature by its creator. Classifiability itself became evidence of the existence of this order and a reflection of the providential intelligence. Human reason and its capacity to classify was thus understood as a direct instrument to uncover God's own intelligent design in nature and perfect the moral ends of humanity. Hobbes saw in mathematics and technology a combination of humankind's divinely endowed intelligence and the earthly power of this intelligence. The purpose of this power was scientific comprehension of the material world and the technological application of this knowledge to ends intended by God and humans: dominion and guardianship over human destiny and the rest of God's creation. Hobbes explains that "in geometry-which is the only science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind-men begin at settling the significations of their words; which settling of significations, they call definitions, and place them in the beginning of their reckoning." Then, to highlight the systematic natural design of the mathematical and technological model of reasoning, he adds that the "light of human minds is perspicuous words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity. Reason is the pace; increase of science, the way; and the benefit of mankind, the end."

Hobbes's view of rationality and science has a deeper anthropological and historical structure. I call this an articulation of necessary relations between identity and reason. This is evident in Hobbes's conjunction of the imperative to produce useful knowledge with the need to expand the structures of the rational in the spheres of language, culture, society, and politics. Furthermore, this view of reason requires that the rationality, function, values, and ends of aesthetic experience, and the fields of the arts in general, must remain marginal in relation to idea reason, because aesthetics is without obvious "meaning." (The meaningful relates to the meaningless in just the same way the useful relates to the useless and order to disorder.) For Hobbes, the meaning of any proposition can only be instrumentally determined. And since, for him, instrumentality and function define not just the core but also the whole of rationality, the rationality of art is not self-evident as long as art is considered primarily subjective and to be judged only by the non-instrumental or non-objective idea of individual or cultural taste. If one asked about poetry or painting, "Is it true or false?" Hobbes would reply that the arts potentially belong, ontologically, to a realm of ambiguity in which truth and untruth, order and disorder, and reason and unreason compete for reality. Hobbes condemns poetry as "senseless and ambiguous words." Poetic use of metaphorical language is nothing but an ignes fatui "wandering amongst innumerable absurdities." Hobbes was convinced that poetry and the arts in general lead in only one direction: toward the debasement of language, the corruption of culture and of morality, social strife, and, ultimately, seditious behavior.

We can confirm that Hobbes worked within an emerging modern consensus about the nature of rationality when we consider the writings of one of his mentors, Francis Bacon. In writing The New Organon, Bacon hoped to undertake the first study of modern scientific consciousness. Whereas Galileo wished to extend scientific knowledge to the objective bodies of the planets, Bacon saw himself as mapping out the subjective order of reason. But both thinkers are united in the belief that causal laws regulated both the objective and subjective dimensions of nature. The Organon is a systematic, naturalistic, and materialistic account of the conditions of rationality. It claims to establish the best principles and methods of knowledge. The word "new" in the title suggests an intention to supplant the Aristotelian organon, or logic, that dominated the works of medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.

Prior to the publication of the New Organon in 1620, Bacon had already made a name for himself with A Treatise on the Advancement of Learning, a shorter book published in 1605. The main thesis of the Treatise is that only the natural sciences can provide dependable knowledge. "Invention," Bacon writes in that book, "is of two kinds: the one of arts and science." In line with what we see in Hobbes, however, the arts are devalued in favor of the sciences. The arts, Bacon writes, are "absolutely deficient." The reason for this deficiency, again consistent with what was advanced by Hobbes, is that the arts have little or no instrumental, that is, applied technological function. In quite crude terms, Bacon argues that "the immense regions of the West Indies [would have] never been discovered" had the explorers relied on poetry, painting, or music. Instead, it was their knowledge of mathematics and geometry, and their application to shipbuilding and navigation, that allowed the political and economic expansion of the British Isles into what eventually became the British Empire.

Hobbes's and Bacon's ideas about science are inseparable from their advocacy of technology. For them, the truth of reason is science and the truth of science is technology, hence Hobbes's definition of reasoning as calculation and Bacon's dictum that knowledge is power. By reducing rationality to quantitative scientific reasoning, and all scientific thinking to useful calculation, Bacon placed himself in a position to lament the wastefulness of time spent pursuing artistic achievements. For Bacon, as for Hobbes, the pursuit of the arts actively threatened both the growth of scientific knowledge and the economic and cultural cohesion of the social and political order. Yet Bacon was harsher than Hobbes in his warnings about the corrupting effects of nonscientific activities. Bacon's critique of epistemic and moral decadence manifesting itself as artistic and literary activity was entirely radical: "The advancement of arts," he warned, "hath made no ... progress" in production of useful knowledge about any aspects of nature. The project and promise of his Organon was to redirect the course of science away from nonproductive and misleading beliefs about the supposed harmlessness of the arts.

If, as Bacon argues, reasoning outside thee rules of mathematics, geometry, and closely related sciences is no reasoning at all, then arts are manifestations of irrationality and must be not only culturally degraded but also, when possible, banned. Similarly, academic study of the arts is unnecessary because whatever legitimate objectives such courses of study might have could be better accomplished and realized in the methods of the New Organon. Whatever moral or technical worth or authority lay in artistic works could and must, Bacon and Hobbes hoped, be reduced to a combined system of meaning, truth, and logic that conformed to the mechanical and instrumental model of reason. This combined system, however, cannot reveal in its own methods any appropriation of the subjectivity or outright irrationality associated with the arts. The scientific method can advance only by overcoming competing methods-a competition resulting from, in the first place, a confusing plurality in which the scientific method is tempted by the diversions of the nonscientific spirit of the arts. "Let men," Bacon advised, "cease to wonder if the whole course of science be not run, when all have wandered from the path, quitting it entirely, and deserting experience, or involving themselves in mazes, and wandering about, whilst a regularly combined system would lead them in a sure track, through its wilds to the day of axioms." The expectation was that a newer form of rationality would emerge by a reordering of the plurality of methods. But this reordering is possible only if science assumes as its sole mission the will to truth in the formalistic-quantitative principle of science-as-technology.


Excerpted from On Reason by EMMANUEL CHUKWUDI EZE Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: What Is Rationality? xi

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction: Diversity and the Social Questions of Reason 1

1. Varieties of Rational Experience 24

2. Ordinary Historical Reason 90

3. Science, Culture, and Principles of Rationality 130

4. Languages of Time in Postcolonial Memory 181

5. Reason and Unreason in Politics 227

Notes 269

Bibliography 297

Index 319

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