Simon Blackburn, Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy (The Sleep of Reason)


…One of the series of satires etched by the Spanish painter Goya is entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”. Goya believed that many of the follies of mankind resulted from the “sleep of reason”. There are always people telling us what we want, how they will provide it, and what we should believe. Convictions are infectious, and people can make others convinced of almost anything. We are typically ready to believe that our ways, our beliefs, our religion, our politics are better than theirs, or that our God-given rights trump theirs or that our interests require defensive or pre-emptive strikes against them. In the end, it is ideas for which people kill each other. It is because of ideas about what the others are like, or who we are, or what our interests or rights require, that we go to war, or oppress others with a good conscience, or even sometimes acquiesce in our own oppression by others. When these beliefs involve the sleep of reason, critical awakening is the antidote. Reflection enables us to step back, to see our perspective on a situation as perhaps distorted or blind, at the very least to see if there is argument for preferring our ways, or whether it is just subjective. Doing this properly is doing one more piece of conceptual engineering. 

Since there is no telling in advance where it may lead, reflection can be seen as dangerous. There are always thoughts that stand opposed to it. Many people are discomfited, or even outraged, by philosophical questions. Some are fearful that their ideas may not stand up as well as they would like if they start to think about them. Others may want to stand upon the “politics of identity”, or in other words the kind of identification with a particular tradition, or group, or national or ethnic identity that invites them to turn their back on outsiders who question the ways of the group. They will shrug off criticism: their values are “incommensurable” with the values of outsiders. They are to be understood only by brothers and sisters within the circle. People like to retreat to within a thick, comfortable, traditional set of folkways, and not to worry too much about their structure, or their origins, or even the criticisms that they may deserve. Reflection opens the avenue to criticism, and the folkways may not like criticism. In this way, ideologies become closed circles, primed to feel outraged by the questioning mind. 

For the last two thousand years the philosophical tradition has been the enemy of this kind of cosy complacency. It has insisted that the unexamined life is not worth living. It has insisted on the power of rational reflection to winnow out bad elements in our practices, and to replace them with better ones. It has identified critical self-reflection with freedom, the idea being that only when we can see ourselves properly can we obtain control over the direction in which we would wish to move. It is only when we can see our situation steadily and see it whole that we can start to think what to do about it. Marx said that previous philosophers had sought to understand the world, whereas the point was to change it – one of the silliest famous remarks of all time (and absolutely belied by his own intellectual practice). He would have done better to add that without understanding the world, you will know little about how to change it, at least for the better. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern admit that they cannot play on a pipe but they seek to manipulate Hamlet. When we act without understanding, the world is well prepared to echo Hamlet’s response: ” ‘S’blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” 

There are academic currents in our own age that run against these ideas. There are people who question the very notion of truth, or reason, or the possibility of disinterested reflection. Mostly, they do bad philosophy, often without even knowing that this is what they are doing: conceptual engineers who cannot draw a plan, let alone design a structure. We return to see this at various points in the book, but meanwhile I can promise that this book stands unashamedly with the tradition and against any modern, or postmodern, scepticism about the value of reflection. 

Goya’s full motto for his etching is, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders.” That is how we should take it to be.

– Introduction

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