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The Reasonableness of Reason by Bruce Hauptli

Raymond Pfeiffer finds The Reasonableness of Reason not entirely unreasonable.

This book presents a sustained argument for a definitive answer to a perennial philosophical question: Is reason the best guide to reliable belief? Bruce Hauptli does not have a weak stomach in answering this, nor is he lacking in focus or persistence: he has published a work that is both encyclopedic in scope and microscopic in its attention to the details of philosophical arguments.

Reason is, of course, multi-faceted. It includes canons and standards of both deductive and inductive logic; mathematics; empirical science, and more. Proof, by its very nature, employs reason. So it would appear that any effort to prove anything must employ reason. And therefore any effort to prove anything about reason would be based on and presuppose the use of reason, which would make the proof circular, proving nothing. This is the sort of problem Hauptli must overcome.

Approaches To Reason

Hauptli addresses three main approaches to reason. The Pyrrhonian skeptic argues that the lack of conclusive proof of the supremacy of reason justifies only a suspension of belief, or a frank acknowledgement that we just do not know; that we should admit this, and that we should think and do what seems best, avoiding truth-claims and continually gathering more evidence. Others have taken the position of the fideist; for example René Descartes, who maintained that faith, even in reason, is unavoidably the basis of both knowledge and life. A philosophical approach that has re-emerged in the past century is naturalism. Traditionally, this was the view that study of the natural world will reveal all there is to know. Hauptli develops a thorough-going naturalistic defense of the use of reason, by relying mainly on the work of the late Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000). Quine’s naturalism can be stated as the thesis that all our knowledge and beliefs are part of the natural world, and so can be studied just as we study other parts of this world. In relation to this idea, Quine and other analytic philosophers of the twentieth century argued at length against the plausibility of a ‘First Philosophy’ containing some indubitable set of basic truths upon which all other knowledge can be grounded. Rather, any part of our knowledge or belief can be doubted, and perhaps altered in response to new evidence – even logic. We rely on one part of our body of beliefs in order to examine and evaluate another part.

How Quine’s naturalism works can be seen in terms of a metaphor coined by the once-logical positivist, Otto Neurath (1882-1945). Neurath argued that the evaluation and reconstruction of our beliefs takes place much as one rebuilds a ship at sea. One relies on one side of a ship as one tips the ship up to replace planks on the other side, but there is no firm ground, nothing solid and indubitable, there is only the effort to keep the water out and the boat afloat. Similarly, although it appears that all our knowledge and all our inquiry, in philosophy as well as elsewhere, is subject to various rules that we come to believe are indispensable, this may not be the case. With new evidence, even the seemingly indispensable aspects may be modified in detail or in application, as we have seen occur repeatedly in the history of science. Hauptli focuses on how this approach can be used to reveal the superiority of the use of reason over that which is unsupported by or contradicts reason. Although Quine did think that his naturalism supports reason in this way, he did not clearly state just how it does so.

Besides Quine, the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein is central to understanding the nature of naturalism. Hauptli surveys in depth the literature of analytic philosophy developed to vindicate the pre-eminence of reason as a guide to human knowledge in all spheres. He discusses Bayle, Pascal and Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore, Karl Popper, Nicholas Rescher, William Alston, Roderick Chisholm, Kai Nielsen, and John Kekes, showing how all make important contributions to the debate, but fail in one way or another. To Hauptli, the answer to the riddle lies in a combination of clarifying both the nature of the problem and the nature of naturalism itself. Hauptli makes a major contribution in both of these areas.

First the question What justifies reason? is itself circular, presupposing that one must use reason to justify reason, since ‘justify’ means ‘give good reasons for’. Hauptli makes clear that one misconception here is a failure to understand that the real, practical issue is why one should continue to use reason, or try to become more reasonable in one’s thinking. Once this reformulation of the question is established, naturalists can appeal to their study of human goals to argue, in a non-circular and non-regressive manner, for Hauptli’s second major insight: that human goals are best fulfilled by using reason, not any of its competitors.

The Use of Reason

Intellectually, we act in two distinct capacities: as the holders of theories who are trying to extend them, or as actors seeking to alter a theory, or perhaps create a new one. The kind of thinking we do in one role is different from that in the other. But in each role, we rely upon different parts of our background theories – Quine’s ‘web of belief’ – scrutinizing the evidence for the other parts.

Naturalists argue that the best confirmed theory of the nature of human goals comes to us from a naturalistic approach to the subject. This approach reveals that there are some general goals that almost all humans in all societies have in common, such as obtaining safety, food, love, meaning, and an understanding of the world . In fact, no one has suggested possible alternatives. Naturalists further argue that actual human goals are best achieved by a group of standards, rules and methods for applying a theory that is and has been held by all people, that has been referred to as ‘the theory of middle-sized physical objects’. This theory is the idea that there is a world inhabited by everyday objects that behave in the kind of way they seem to behave in our experience of them. The naturalistic claim is simply that a preponderance of evidence reveals that using the claims, methods, standards and rules of the theory of middle-sized physical objects (a.k.a. using reason) is the best way to fulfill human goals. Of course, detailed parts of how we now understand this theory might turn out to be different; but if so, we will be relying on other parts of the theory to support our new viewpoints. This process – which is the use of reason and the scientific method – has produced the best confirmed and most useful thinking about reality, and continues to do so.

Others may choose a different process to understand the world, such as basing some of their beliefs on faith. But history has shown that such an approach often goes wrong in some way, and that, when corrected, is corrected by the use of reason and the scientific method. Furthermore, Pyrrhonian skeptics, who suspend belief in reason and seek to follow the customs of the culture in which they live, use the very same theses, methods and rules of thought as are fundamental to the theory of middle-sized physical objects, and so use the tools of reason anyway.

Hauptli concludes from this argument that “If we seek optimum goal-fulfillment, the use of reason will promote this best in the long run.” So there’s no certain proof of the advantage of using reason over all other possible ways of thought, but coupled with the best-confirmed, naturalistic theory of the nature of human goal-fulfillment, using reason provides a better option than any known alternative.

Conclusions of Reason

If the argument is not circular, then where is its contact with reality? Human goals and purposes provide the contact. A study of them reveals that they have, historically, led to the development of the way of thinking embodied in the current theory of middle-sized physical objects. Of course, our study of human goals turns out to take place using the standards of this same theory, just as we rely upon parts of this theory to evaluate all of our beliefs. There is no escaping naturalism, which is all-pervasive and thorough-going. It is an illusion for anyone to think that one can somehow profitably get outside of it, as has been argued in depth by Wittgenstein and many others.

In the end, Hauptli provides a ‘weakly independent’ vindication of the reasonableness of reason. He has relied upon the acceptance of the philosophy of naturalism to reveal that the theory of middle-sized physical objects implies basic theses, methods and rules of thought (i.e. reason) that are most likely to promote human goals better than these methods’ and rules’ competitors. This is a weak vindication because it is conditional: it is dependent upon a point of view that could later be revised. However, even if it is revised, its opponents would still need to demonstrate that reason is better abandoned and an alternative adopted. Such a denouement seems unlikely, at best.

Hauptli’s work is serious, dense and focused. It is not casual armchair philosophy. But it engages some of the most important philosophical thinking of the last century, and it addresses one of the most elusive philosophical issues of all time. In the end it is rewarding, and helpful for those concerned to develop answers to either the skeptic or the fideist, who would both throw out the baby with the bathwater.

© Prof. Raymond S. Pfeiffer 2014

Raymond S. Pfeiffer is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, author of books and articles, an islander at heart, and a US Editor of Philosophy Now.

The Reasonableness of Reason: Explaining Rationality Naturalistically, Bruce W. Hauptli, Open Court, 1995, 276 pages, ISBN: 978-0812692839

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