The Life of Reason

The American philosopher, George Santayana, wrote a book with the title of this post. In that book he famously said, among many other things, that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But it is mainly an attempt to trace the development of reason in the human mind from birth to old age. The book is complex and somewhat technical, but it draws on the fact that reasoning in humans is developmental and natural, though certain prompts are required at certain points along the way. This notion was later fostered by the French psychologist Jean Piaget who started the school of “developmental psychology” that stresses the various stages of mental development in children and adults.

In any case, the conclusion of these two men is clearly stated: reason is not something that just “happens,” it develops in stages and requires the right kind of encouragement along the way. And in an alarming number of cases, as is evident in the current race for the presidency, reason remains undeveloped altogether. This thesis has been verified by recent tests that show the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain, which is the “analytical” side, requires that parents read to their very young children and tell them stories — and keep them away from television and electronic games. Now, while analysis is only a part of our reasoning capacity, which also includes synthesis (the ability to make connections) it is critical for the ability to think one’s way through complex issues. Reason must be developed and nurtured along the way and it begins with reading and telling stories, but it goes well beyond that.

Santayana gives us a hint at what might be required in developing reason in young people:

“The child, like the animal, is a colossal egoist, not from want of sensibility, but through a deep transcendental isolation. The mind is naturally its own world and solipsism needs to be broken down by social influence. The child must learn to sympathize intelligently, to be considerate rather than instinctively to love and hate; his imagination must become cognitive and dramatically just, instead of remaining, as it naturally is, sensitively, selfishly fanciful.”

This is an example of the close, compact — and somewhat technical — way Santayana writes. But his point is worth unpacking and taking to heart. He suggests that children are, at the outset, much like other animals. The development not only of reason but also of sensitivity and human sympathy come with socialization. It is the job of the family, the church, and the schools — not to mention the many people whom the child will encounter outside those specialized institutions — who help him or her to develop into a mature human being. Interesting in this regard, is the role that sports might play in the development of the whole person. As Santayana outs it,

“Priceless in this regard is athletic exercise; for here the test of ability is visible, the comparison [with others] is not odious, the need for cooperation clear, and the consciousness of power genuine and therefore ennobling. Socratic dialectic is not a better means of learning to know oneself.”

Thus, in this man’s carefully developed opinion, we seem to be on the wrong track today in rewarding children for little effort and handing out such things as participation trophies. The young need to learn from failure and we must all, in turn, acknowledge the growth that such failure can prosper. The things that young people need to learn, to come out of themselves (“egoists” as we all are as very young people) come with age but especially with nurturing and education. Age comes naturally; development of the mature person comes with guidance and support from family, friends, and institutions such as schools and churches. The tendency to turn on the TV, hand the kids an iPhone or a video game, emphasizes their instinctive, strong sense of living in a fantasy world, fosters further “isolation,” keeps them within themselves and prolongs childhood well into the later years. This is a serious problem not only for the survival of our democratic system (if that horse hasn’t already left the barn) but also for the survival of the planet. We desperately need people who have a sense of duty to the community, a strong sensitivity to the needs of others, and the ability to reason if we are to survive. Santayana was a wise man and his words are well worth careful consideration.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Life of Reason

  1. Hugh, I think your final sentence to sum up does so very nicely. We have too many “what’s in it for me?” thinking and not enough “what’s in it for all?” This may be a Nash Equilibrium exercise, especially with environmental and climate concerns, that we need to pursue the best outcome for all, or we may be sealing our own fate. That seems reasonable, does it not? Keith

  2. We continue to play to our lowest common denominator, from the classroom to the presidential candidacies. We are in a race to the bottom, and we are winning.

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