Brand Blanshard: rationalism’s “working hypothesis” and the Van Tilian verdict

Image result for brand blanshardIn the discourse we call philosophy, noncognitive interests are in play, interests that compete with, threaten to interfere with if not overwhelm the interest in knowing the truth.  Brand Blanshard—the one member of my pantheon of former philosophical heroes whom I could have met, but now regret never having exerted myself to do so—acknowledged their efficacy:

What our intelligence wants is, of course, the truth.  What the rest of our nature asks from our intelligence is not what is true but what will satisfy. By that we mean what will appease our impulsive and emotional nature, our longing to be liked, our desire to see our future secure, our character respected, our faith vindicated, our party shown to be the party of sober sense, or nation triumphant. When one considers how hidden and barricaded the truth commonly is, how definite it is, allowing no alternative, how feeble is our passion for it, and how overwhelming the tendencies in us to look for it through distorting prisms, the wonder is not that most of us are irrational but that some of us are as rational as we are.[1]

He denied, however, that non-cognitive interests smothered the interest in truth. He thought it worthwhile to cultivate the latter to see (almost experimentally, ironically enough) how far one could go if one gave reason its head.

Unlike Blanshard’s empiricist and pragmatist critics, however, I affirm an irreducibly distinct love of truth. But that’s because I presuppose that the One who is Truth (John 14:6) created the context within which human truth-seeking takes place and makes sense. 

God created us to pursue truth and love wisdom, with which pursuit our sinful impulses interfere. This condition Blanshard did not presuppose. He reasoned elegantly, but in a void and so bequeathed us literary artifacts from which we may learn a thing or two about the conduct of controversy, but nothing of substance. Many admire the manner of his failure, but most remain silent about the barrenness of the autonomous starting point he shared with his misosophical rivals. But it was to that starting point that Blanshard was fervently, even religiously committed, even according to his definition of “religion”:

Religion is an attempt to adjust one’s nature as a whole to ultimate reality. . . . [R]eligion seeks to go behind the appearance of things to what is self-subsistent, to something which, intellectually and causally, will explain everything else. And it must be conceived as a response of man’s nature as a whole.” Reason and Belief, 434. Emphasis in the original.Image result for blanshard reason and belief

By Blanshard’s own admission, the moral determination so to adjust is founded on nothing more than a “working hypothesis” fueled by a faith in the reality of complete intelligibility that exceeded the evidence and therefore by his own standards had no purchase on the mind of a rational person.

In a world or reasonable people, he wrote near the end of Reason and Belief, faith “would be unseated from its old primacy.” (565) No, it would just go by another name and be ordered toward the impersonal Absolute that he excogitated rather toward than the personal God in whose image he was created. For the idea of “evidence” that allegedly supported his “hypothesis”—all of it dependent on interpersonal human collaboration and reliability of memory and sense perception—shamelessly borrowed from the Christian theistic worldview he deemed intellectually discredited, the worldview that alone makes sense of such imperfect yet reliable collaboration.

Image result for cornelius van tilCornelius Van Til figure for the truce between the rationalist and the irrationalist was washerwomen taking in each other’s dirty laundry. This is what I think of when rationalists like Blanshard borrow ideas like “hypothesis,” which depends on a notion of empirical testability in a vain effort to purchase plausibility for its commitment to the rational ideal. Blanshard’s operational definition of philosophy may be found in his “The Philosophic Enterprise.” Philosophy, he writes:

… deals with the infrareds and the ultraviolets of science, continuous with the central band but more delicate and difficult of discernment … comes before science …. the sense of taking for examination the main concepts and assumptions with which scientists begin their work … does not merely put a bit of filigree on the mansion of science; it provides its foundation stones; … the interdepartmental conciliation agency, the National Labor Relations Board, or if you prefer, the World Court, of the intellectual community; and … is an attempt to carry understanding to its furthest possible limits. It brings into the picture the foundations on which science builds and the arches and vaultings that hold its structures together. Philosophy is at once the criticism and the completion of science.[2]

The phrase “interdepartmental conciliation agency” makes for a delightful metaphor, but I expected better of the champion of “reason.” Providing science’s “foundation stones” and the rest of the architectural picture is more promising, but how reason provides them, apart from employing a “working hypothesis,” is left for the reader to guess. As Van Til put it:

Naturally, Plato was “helpful” when he pointed out to the Sophists that, if reality were subject to universal flux, then human predication would cease to have meaning, and that relativistic theories were generally proposed with a claim of absolute truthfulness. But then, having said this, it would have been well to investigate the other half, namely, that the Sophists were, of course, equally capable of refuting Plato. His highest law, the absolute universal, was a purely empty form. Whatever else was to be said of it, it had still to be made correlative to the idea of pure contingency.

But by merely speaking, Plato became a relativist; thus, he took pure contingency into his pure absolute. As with the Sophists, he had to, if he spoke at all, contradict himself with every word. For appearances of justification in predicating on any subject, it thus behooved the Platonist and the Sophist to take in each other’s washing. Pure form and pure “matter,” or pure contingency, are correlatives of each other.

Possibly, Christians throughout history would have an emotional preference for the idealist thinking of Platonism, as over against all forms of sophism, as well as mechanism, materialism and pragmatism before or since. But, as to logical priority, neither was able to “make peace with the law of contradiction,” i.e., neither one could offer a positive foundation upon which the law of contradiction might have been employed at all. Only the Christian position, with its teachings of the triune God as the creator and redeemer of men, is the true starting-point for all argument without contradiction. Scepticism is defeated only by Christianity. Who Do You Say That I Am?, Phillipsburg, NJ, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1975

Image result for Cornelius Van Til, Who Do You Say That I Am?

The empiricist claims to be guided by “the facts,” but his concept of fact precedes his observation of any fact and is not itself an observable fact.

But when rationalists claim to “follow the argument where it leads” they are as uncritical of logic as empiricists are about “facts.” That is, the rationalists have only chosen to favor the Parmenidean over Heraclitean pole of Western philosophy’s dialectic.

Speaking autobiographically, my preference for the former over the latter, however, was ever only a matter of taste, not cogency, for both poles makes intelligible predication impossible (as does any attempt to combine them, as in Kant’s thought). Dialectical idealism has nothing on dialectical materialism.

Apart from the revelation of God in the world and in his inscripturated Word, one reasons in a void, a void that mocks whatever one utters, whether in the manner of Parmenides or Heraclitus, Plato or Aristotle, Hegel or Hume, Royce or James or of any of their twenty-first century epigones.

[1] “On the Difficulties of Being Reasonable,” The Swarthmore College Bulletin, January 1982, 15-18.  The text is available here.

[2]The Owl of Minerva, Charles J. Bontempo, S. Jack Odell, eds. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975, 163-177.  A revision of his Mahlon Powell Lecture delivered at the University of Indiana in 1961.  The text is available here.

2 thoughts on “Brand Blanshard: rationalism’s “working hypothesis” and the Van Tilian verdict”

  1. Thanks, Scott, I’m happy to reason together with you (Isaiah 1:18), but the rationalist who regards human reason as legislator rather than a tool is no better off than the franker irrationalists. See James Cassidy’s discussion of rationalism’s reversibility here: https://reformedforum.org/the-essential-van-til-how-irrationalism-is-rationalism/

    Here’s his concluding paragraph:

    “[I]rrationalism (or pushing all forms of ultimately authority, i.e., God, into an unknowable realm) serves rationalism by pleading ignorance (“makes a universal negative statement”) about time. It knows nothing about the meaning of history (because it does not know God whose plan stands back of history) nor does it know what the future holds (because it knows no God and his plan back of the future). The true meaning and significance of time (whether past or future) is inaccessible to man. Therefore time (whether past or future) only has the meaning that autonomous man would assign to it. That is to give to man’s mind a quasi-divine status, thus breaking down the distinction between the Creator and creature. And that is the heart and soul of rationalism.”

    The rationalist attempts to reason in a void.

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