Walking the Tightrope of Reason: The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal by Robert Fogelin

It’s a long title for a short book about how difficult it is to be completely rational. 

Professor Fogelin begins by arguing that it is irrational to ignore the law of non-contradiction (we should never maintain that P and not P). However, he then shows that our beliefs are rarely completely consistent and that complete consistency is not even a reasonable goal.

Fogelin suggests that the rules we follow, such as the rules of language, logic, ethics and law, in fact, all of the rules that govern our lives, are “dilemma-prone”. Yet these rules are perfectly acceptable if we apply them in a “serious, purposive manner”. It is also crucial that we test our conclusions against experience — ideas need to be tested against something other than other ideas. He concludes that skeptical doubts can never be eliminated, but that skepticism has a role to play in limiting fanaticism (what Hume called “enthusiasm”). 

The helpful lesson of this book (helpful for philosophers anyway) is that the quest for certainty is a waste of time, even dangerous, since it can distract us from more important intellectual pursuits. It is good enough to be rational without aiming for complete and perfect rationality.  (6/3/11) 

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