[This is a "reprint" of part 1 of a series I posted on my home blog, ldsphilosopher.com]

Early Greek philosophers saw reason as the conduit through which human beings could access the unchanging certainties of the cosmos. This perspective actually makes some sense. We may age, wither, and die, but the Pythagorean theorem remains unchanged through time. The conclusions of rational thought were seen as the bedrock truths at the bottom of our swiftly changing world.

This understanding of human reason implies that rational people will converge on the same ideas. An interesting, subtle, but extremely important side effect of this point of view is expressed aptly by John Locke: “All that is voluntary in our knowledge, is the employing or withholding any of our [rational] faculties. … But they being employed, our will hath no power to determine the knowledge of the mind one way or another.” Thus, the conclusions of rational thought are inevitable.

Modern philosophers have, to some extent, rejected this ancient perspective on rationality. Instead, reason has been seen as a human tool for satisfying our individual desires. This is easily seen in the example of Sigmund Freud, who believed that human beings possess, at the bottom, a sea of insatiable desires (the id), which are satisfied more effectively by forming a rationality more suited to pursue them (the ego). While few overtly subscribe to Freud’s philosophy, it is merely an instantiation of a widespread modern trend which David Hume summarized when he described reason as “the slave of the passions.”

Michael Oakeshott’s Point of View

In contrast to both trends, Michael Oakeshott did not describe reason as either a conduit to certain truth or a slave of human passion. According to Shirley Robin Letwin, Oakeshott believed reason was “a purely human, but creative power.” Rationality, according to Oakeshott, “is a faculty for inventing interpretations of and responses to experience.”

Basically, reason is the human capacity to “make sense” of the world, to create order and make patterns out of otherwise unordered experience. “In this picture,” explained Letwin, “if a person’s faculties are in good order, he exercises his rationality in whatever he is doing because he is always interpreting his experience and responding in the manner that he selects. This means that whenever a man is aware of anything, he has made something of it.”

There is no single path that rationality may follow. A person may make sense of the same experience in any number of ways. For example, he may make sense of his trip to the fast food restaurant as a deserved reward after dieting for a lengthy time, or he may make sense of the trip as an unfortunate indulgence after a long time of resisting temptation. Which way a person makes sense of his experience is his choice. “In short, to say that a man is a rational being is to say that he makes of himself what he will and that things appear to him as he chooses to see them.”

When we see rationality this way, we see that all of human action and perception involves choice. “To say that human beings possess individuality,” explained Letwin, “means that all are the makers of their own thoughts, … and that they are responsible for what they become.” With this insight comes a danger, however. Letwin warns,

But if understanding rationality in this fashion (as a purely human attribute, instead of as a pipeline to non-human certainties) offers a better explanation of individuality, it also suffers from a great drawback: It allows no escape from the constant flux of human life. And the implications can be highly disconcerting. As there is no cosmic necessity for any human contrivance, everything can be questioned.

What this means is that none of our beliefs or truth claims can be indisputably justified through rational analysis. For example, said Letwin,

however firmly we assert that “every human being is to be treated as an end and never as a means,” that understanding must be a commitment because we accept it even though there are alternatives to it that we cannot demonstrate to be necessarily false. We can elaborate and embellish this commitment, but we cannot establish a universal and wholly uncontentious obligation to regard every human being as an end in himself.

In other words, our most cherished beliefs can never be demonstrated to be indubitably true; we can simply commit to them as an act of faith. We can certainly persuade others to do the same thing; we may even use logic and other persuasive tools to convince them to. However, any subsequent conversion is best compared to a voluntary shift in allegiance, because at no time did we prove that our beliefs were true—we only persuaded others to relinquish their commitment to their former beliefs and commit to a new point of view. According to Letwin, “science is as vulnerable as morality.” He continues:

If we accept a scientific explanation of the precipitation we call rain, we may confidently say that anyone who expects to produce precipitation by rolling stones is mistaken. Our awareness that we may later change our views on rain need not prevent us from declaring the statement to be true. But we cannot ultimately justify our view to the stone-rolling rainmaker other than by declaring a commitment to a particular manner of explaining such phenomena—the manner which we consider to be “scientific.”

In other words, certainty is no longer the product of reason; certainty must be found elsewhere, if at all. I suspect that certainty is not impossible from this point of view—it just cannot be rational certainty. Rational certainty is no more than conviction.


This view of human rationality makes individuality inevitable. While the ancient view of reason implied that rational people will converge on a single idea, Oakeshott’s perspective implies that divergence of worldviews is possibly inevitable among rational people. Letwin explains, “Disputes are bound to arise not just because human beings can be wicked [as in the ancient view of reason], but because they are rational. … In short, once we cease to think of human rationality as a pipeline to eternal verities, we can achieve a coherent understanding of human individuality.”

Does this point of view conflict with a Latter-day Saint worldview? I haven’t yet made up my mind about the issue. Many moralists argue in favor of the ancient view of reason because the implications of the modern view of reason can lead to nihilism. Oakeshott’s view of human reason, however, lacks the certainty provided by the ancient view, but may, perhaps, avoid the nihilism of the modern. Consider: few Latter-day Saints claim to know indubitably, through logical deductions, the restored doctrines of the gospel. That kind of logical pursuit is not the invitation we find in scripture. Rather, we are invited to commit ourselves to follow the Savior by making promises, and then to be true to those promises afterwards.

Certainly, we claim certainty through divine revelation. Consider Bruce R. McConkie’s claim that the divinity of the Savior Jesus Christ is not established through logic, but by apostolic witnesses. It doesn’t seem as though revealed truth is something that requires reason to be a conduit to certain truth, since none of the important truths of the gospel are rooted in the claims of reason. I will discuss more of the epistemological implications of Oakeshott’s point of view in a future post. For now, let’s consider the possibility that divine revelation is one of many kinds of experiences that we subsequently make sense of. Unique to the experience of divine revelation is the fact that it frequently invites us to reconstrue our understanding of the world, and to make sense of it differently than we had before.

All quotations taken from Shirley Robin Letwin, On the History of the Idea of Law, (Cambridge: Camrbidge University Press, 2005).

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