NL XIV: “Reason”

Index to this series

Summary added January 29, 2019, revised May 8, 2019. Practical reason is the support of one intention by another; theoretical, one proposition by another. Reasoning is thus always “motivated reasoning”: we engage in it to relieve the distress of uncertainty. Reason is primarily practical, only secondarily theoretical; and the reason for saying this is the persistence of anthropomorphism in theoretical reasoning: by the Law of Primitive Survivals in Chapter IX, we tend to think even of inanimate objects as forming intentions the way we do.

Reasons for adding this summary of Chapter XIV of Collingwood’s New Leviathan include

  • the tortuousness of the following post on the chapter,
  • the provocation of a Guardian column by Oliver Burkeman on motivated reasoning.

Says Burkeman, whose “problem” is apparently motivated reasoning itself,

One of the sneakier forms of the problem, highlighted in a recent essay by the American ethicist Jennifer Zamzow, is “solution aversion”: people judge the seriousness of a social problem, it’s been found, partly based on how appetising or displeasing they find the proposed solution. Obviously, that’s illogical …

On the contrary, how we reason cannot be “illogical,” any more than how we speak can be “ungrammatical.” Logic is an account, or an analysis, of how we do actually reason; grammar, of how we speak. Of course we may make errors, by our own standards.

Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399/1400-1464), Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399/1400–1464),
Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, oil on panel
National Gallery of Art, Washington; Andrew W. Mellon Collection


There was a rumor that Collingwood had become a communist. According to David Boucher, editor of the revised (1992) edition of The New Leviathan, the rumor was one of the “many reasons why [that book] failed to attract the acclaim which had been afforded Collingwood’s other major works.” Boucher says further,

Perhaps most damaging was the preface to the posthumously published The Idea of History in which T. M. Knox, the editor, dismissed Collingwood’s later writings as uncharacteristic of the high standards of which Collingwood was capable, and attributed much of which he disapproved, including what Knox took to be a dramatic shift towards the Left, to Collingwood’s ill health.

In the revised (1993) edition of The Idea of History, editor Jan van der Dussen describes Knox as “a former pupil of Collingwood and one of his most devoted students,” though Knox seems to have mistreated Collingwood’s manuscripts. Collingwood did manage to see New Leviathan through publication before he died in 1943. I sometimes sense a certain sloppiness in this book. Gaps in the numbering of the paragraphs often suggest sectional divisions, which I have made note of in writing these commentaries; but sometimes the gaps may mean only that Collingwood has deleted something.

Collingwood, Idea of History, cover with writing hands

Boucher edited also the 1989 anthology of Collingwood’s writing called Essays in Political Philosophy. The final essay is a draft preface to New Leviathan, longer than the actual preface, and describing a fifth part of the book as taking up the question of “how a society which considers itself civilized should behave in the face of this revolt.”

“What we are fighting for, nobody knows.” If it is civilization, Collingwood describes this as entailing “law and order, prosperity, and peace”; but according to the rebels against it, civilized society is both “fraudulent,” because it “does not live up to its own ideal,” and “misdirected,” because “The very ideal of civilization is false. A civilized man is a bad man … not only a coward, but religious in it.”

These accusations are today the official doctrine of a country which is at war with our own, and of the ruling parties in at least three other countries.

The doctrine referred to must be what is called nazism or fascism; the country at war, Germany; the other three countries, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. However, unless Collingwood was writing before June 10, 1940, Italy was also at war with Britain.

Collingwood, Essays in Political Philosophy, cover with Collingwood’s photo


The next part of New Leviathan is “Society.” Of the eighteen chapters of the current part, which is “Man,” five chapters remain to consider: “Reason, Utility, Right, Duty,” and “Theoretical Reason.” These chapters could be treated all at once. Utility, right, and duty are three reasons why we do what we do, as I said at the head of the article on “Desire” (Chapter XI). They are practical reasons. As suggested by a quotation I made there of 18. 5 and 51, from the final chapter of the part, theoretical reason derives from practical reason. Depending on whether you explain your own actions in terms of (1) utility, (2) right, or (3) duty, your science, in the broadest sense, will be (1) “Greco-Medieval” natural science, (2) modern natural science, or (3) history. Such is Collingwood’s general doctrine.

Of all doctrines that exist, one is that knowledge is “justified true belief.” Some logicians extract this doctrine from Plato’s Theaetetus, in order to refute it as follows. Suppose I believe that I have a coin in my pocket. I may justify this belief by observing that I habitually carry a coin so that I can buy a newspaper. Then I have a justified belief that one of us, be it you or I, is carrying a coin. This is a true belief, even if I have forgotten my coin today, but you are carrying one. In that case though, my belief would appear not to be knowledge. This is called the Gettier Problem.

I read the Theaetetus in college in 1983–4, but learned about the Gettier problem at a logic meeting in Greece in 2007. I am embarrassed that my logician colleagues approach Plato with this kind of thinking. I appreciate Collingwood for not treating philosophy as if it were mathematics. The long dialogue called Theaetetus is all about what knowledge is, but reaches no clear conclusion. The supposed definition of knowledge occurs almost at the end, when the title character says (201C–D),

Oh yes, I remember now, Socrates, having heard someone make the distinction, but I had forgotten it. He said that knowledge was true opinion accompanied by reason (ἔφη δὲ τὴν μὲν μετὰ λόγου ἀληθῆ δόξαν ἐπιστήμην εἶναι), but that unreasoning true opinion was outside of the sphere of knowledge.

The translation is by Harold North Fowler in the Loeb edition; the Greek text is there too, but I have cut and pasted it from Project Perseus. Knowledge is epistêmê, reason is logos, and they combine in English to give us “epistemology.” The dialogue continues, but Theaetetus ultimately admits that he does not know what he is talking about.

Plato, Thaetetus and Sophist, green Loeb cover

Collingwood’s account of knowledge is refreshing for not being hung up on the requirement of truth. In the “Desire” chapter, in the last of its four parts that I detected, where Collingwood observes that the good is simply the desirable (11. 5), he fairly ridicules the question of whether the desirable is really good, or only apparently so (11. 65). I took this up with the next chapter, “Happiness.” The conclusion is, “desire first makes us able to know …; and good is the first thing we come to know” (11. 69). The ellipsis represents the parenthetical absolute, “knowledge being the theoretical function of which desire is the practical counterpart.”

Near the beginning of “Desire,” Collingwood has a disclaimer in a footnote. Propositional thinking alone is not quite knowledge. Merely to think, “This is a good article,” is not to know it. By the account of 14. 22, “Knowledge is the conviction or assurance with which a man reaffirms a proposition he has already made.” If I decide that it is good that I have said “This is a good article,” then I know it is a good article.

Collingwood looked at conviction in Chapter IV, “Feeling”:

4. 74. Feelings are not the only objects about which it is fallacious to argue. A man convinced by a piece of mathematical reasoning is immediately aware of conviction. Whether he is convinced or not is a question on which to argue would be to indulge the Fallacy of Misplaced Argument. Yet conviction is not a feeling. It is a highly developed form of consciousness.

4. 75. Yet that form is an object immediately given to another form of consciousness in which a man reflects on it. Whatever is thus immediately given is removed from the sphere of argument.

It is fallacious to argue about whether one knows something. And yet knowledge itself is fallible (14. 23). Collingwood ridicules those who would require that something fallible not be knowledge. It is knowledge: “You cannot fight the dictionary” (14. 24).

If I know a theorem is true, it is fallacious to argue about whether I really know it. We may still argue about whether the theorem is true. My knowledge is not the theorem itself, but rather my conviction of the truth of the theorem. Conviction comes with argument. Merely repeating the theorem is not enough; we need “a new kind of reassurance” (14. 25).

14. 26. A ground or reason for a given proposition is what provides this new kind of assurance.

14. 27. It is in fact a second proposition, y, standing to the first, x, in the relation yx.

Collingwood has already explained that the expression yx is to be read as, “somebody thinks x because he thinks y” (14. 12). I assume Collingwood is imitating logicians, perhaps in parody, by using the arrow. Let me just note in passing that, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1922, starting at 5.101, Collingwood’s slightly younger contemporary Wittgenstein denoted material implication with the sign ⊃ (as in q ⊃ p). This sign had been used by Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica. I think they were adapting Peano’s sign: for him,

b C a is read b is a consequence of the proposition a. But we never use this sign. The sign Ɔ means one deduces; thus a Ɔ b means the same as b C a.

Source: “The principles of arithmetic, presented by a new method” (1889), in Jean van Heijenoort, editor, From Frege to Gödel. I turned the C into Ɔ with, but the new letter turns out to be #390 in decimal, #x186 in the hexadecimal Unicode table.

From Frege to Gödel: gray cover

In the expression yx, the letters y and x stand for propositions: ground and consequent respectively. “A piece of rational thinking involves at least two propositions standing to each other as ground and consequent” (14. 12). I suppose x is “the that,” and y is “the why,” when Collingwood says,

14. 29. It is this practical act of trying to alleviate the distress caused me by the untrustworthiness of my knowledge that gives rise to the distinction between ‘the that’ and ‘the why’.

Reasoning is practical. It should relieve our distress. When I was young, I got into a dispute about a pet mouse. I said I ought to be the one to keep it. I had my reasons. I had a rational argument. The other person had abandoned the mouse, assuming I would take care of it. This made it mine. I took too long to admit that I cared about the mouse. I should be distressed if the mouse fell back into the hands that had left it to die. This was my real reason for wanting to keep the mouse, as an adult pointed out.

In his preface to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Russell writes, “The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts.” Well, no, the essential business of language is to relieve our distress—or perhaps to share our joy.

Wittgenstein, Tractatus cover

A refinement is now needed in the account of reason. Reasoning about propositions is theoretical (14. 35). To ask why a proposition is true is to presuppose that one could think it false (14. 36). Thus theoretical reasoning assumes free will (14. 37). It contains “a primitive survival of practical reason” (14. 38).

Practical reason concerns not propositions, which are the province of logic, but intentions, which are the province of ethics or morality (14. 3). An intention is explained, or rather fortified, by another intention: in Collingwood’s example, I intend to get out of my sleeping bag, go outside the tent, and hammer in a peg, because I intend for the tent not to blow down (14. 33).

A reason why theoretical reason should be understood as a modification of practical reason (14. 5) is the persistence in theoretical reason of anthropomorphism (14. 51).

14. 52. We reason anthropomorphically when we seek reasons for the behaviour of things other than ourselves on the analogy of the reasons we have already found for our own behaviour

—as “when a fly-rod hooks me in the ear, a hammer hits me on the thumb, or a bicycle throws me into the ditch” (14. 53). Collingwood has a very practical response to this kind of thinking. We cannot avoid it, but we can ridicule it (14. 61).

Collingwood finishes the chapter by explaining, as I have, that the next chapters will catalogue three types of practical reason detected among modern Europeans. One can say that one has done something because it is useful, it is right, or it is one’s duty. To fit this kind of assertion into the form yx seems difficult to me. Collingwood will adjust the arrow, depending on whether one is being utilitarian, regularian, or dutiful. But if I do x because it is my duty, what then is y? That will be a question to take up when reading Chapter XVII specifically.

Collingwood seems not too concerned with explaining actions that we regret. His discussion of sin in the “Happiness” chapter suggests weakness as an explanation for wrongdoing. Further consideration of this will wait until Part II.

I recall Collingwood’s suggestion in An Autobiography that only an intention that is carried out successfully can be explained:

How can we discover what the tactical problem was that Nelson set himself at Trafalgar? Only by studying the tactics he pursued in the battle. We argue back from the solution to the problem. What else could we do? Even if we had the original typescript of the coded orders issued by wireless to his captains a few hours before the battle began, this would not tell us that he had not changed his mind at the last moment, extemporized a new plan on seeing some new factor in the situation, and trusted his captains to understand what he was doing and to back him up. Naval historians think it worth while to argue about Nelson’s tactical plan at Trafalgar because he won the battle. It is not worth while arguing about Villeneuve’s plan. He did not succeed in carrying it out, and therefore no one will ever know what it was. We can only guess. And guessing is not history.

As Collingwood said in the last chapter, “The most successful men of action prefer … to leave the details for extemporary decision.” On a personal level though, if we try to do something, but fail, shall we not try to find out why?

ink painting with single brush stroke

18 Trackbacks

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