Way of Knowing

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Reason is the most effective tool to use when trying to convince someone of an argument because a well-reasoned argument has no room for interpretation and is thus always true. Because every knower uses reason more than any other way of knowing, it should be seen as the most essential one, without which the knower’s range of knowledge would be strictly limited. These statements lend themselves to a lot of scrutiny because of all the affirmations they make so boldly.

Ironically enough, the statements were put together through the use of reason. This presents the following question: How accurate can an analysis be if the very thing we are trying to analyze is involved in the process? This question should not be undermined since the only way of knowing I will be using to form my arguments will be reason. I do not personally believe in these statements but I do think they present a series of knowledge issues that are fundamental in evaluating reason as a way of knowing. In the essay I will make a clear contrast between objective knowledge and subjective knowledge.

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Objective knowledge will simply be the raw data that has been reasoned with to become a statement. Subjective knowledge will be the raw data which has been interpreted to form an argument. Reason will be referred to as an objective process and interpretation as a subjective one. Having defined the crucial concepts I will proceed to state the knowledge issues in the form of questions: To what extent is reason a persuasive tool? Is reason a purely objective process which leaves no room for emotion or interpretation? Is reason equally applicable to all the areas of knowledge? Does reason affect the other ways of knowing? In order to address the title question I will then ask myself if the answer to these questions should be considered a strength or a weakness.

When we form an argument we make use of reason and interpretation. In a discussion we try to persuade the other person of our argument by leading them through the same steps we underwent when we reached it. However, the part where the statements are interpreted is subjective and this is what makes convincing the other person of our argument a challenge. For example, when we study history we theoretically do it in a way that does not involve any interpretation. But when we go one step further and analyze history, we begin to interpret facts or objective knowledge. If we are studying, for example, the origins of the First World War, we will look into what caused the war. We could begin with a statement like “The First World War began in 1914.” That is a statement because it is a fact that has no room for argument.

Then I can interpret the statement and say “The First World War began in 1914 because that was the year Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated.” However, my classmate can interpret the statement differently and respond by saying “The First World War began in 1914 because the tangle of alliances forced a small conflict to explode into a World War.” My classmate believes firmly in his interpretation so he tries to convince me of it. In this setting the application of reason is quite limited because only the first statement is completely objective; the arguments depend on the interpretation of each person. Another way of approaching this is by widening the definition of reason.

In society, the parameters of reason are widened to envelop part of the interpreting process when morals and values become fixed. This relates directly to ethics. For example, it is generally accepted that taking something from another person is wrong (be it in civil law or in religious belief). This law is an interpretation of a statement that says that most people do not like to have things taken from them. However, the exceptions to this rule are not significant enough to make it unreasonable. Thus, because this interpretation is accepted by the majority, it goes on to being reasonable. The distinction here is that what is now considered reasonable is in fact not completely objective because it is still only the interpretation of a statement. Now we understand that when we make an appeal to reason we are trying to go back to the basic statements which formed that argument.

Then we try to guide the other person through our process of reasoning. Eventually the process will stop being objective and become more dependant on interpretation, but it is the debater’s challenge to try to reason with the other person to get him as far through the process as possible in order to convince him. In a familiar context where one is debating with a person of the same beliefs it is easier to reason because his interpretations will be similar to ours. However, if we change the context dramatically, reasoning will become harder because now the bases of the argument will have a lot less in common.

Therefore, the extent to which reason can be considered objective depends solely on the common ground that exists between the knowers. Consequently, reason becomes harder to use as a persuasive tool when there are less common grounds. In response to the title question, the usefulness of reason is neither a strength nor a weakness since it depends too much on the context and on how the knower uses it.

Now that we have fixed the process by which we apply reason I will go on to fix the places where we apply it. The kinds of questions I ask myself here are whether or not we apply the same amount of reason to every area of knowledge. Take for example, mathematics, the area of knowledge most often compared to logic and objective knowledge. When solving a trigonometric proof for math, I use reason in its purest form. There is absolutely no subjective knowledge in a proof. We can then derive that the knowledge we obtain from mathematics is completely irrefutable since it is 100% objective. On the other hand, the amount of reason we apply to the arts is a lot more restricted than the one we apply to mathematics. I recall from when I took an art class that there were some specific guidelines we had to follow if we wanted to make a good painting.

One guideline stated that we had to center our drawing in the page in order to create a better art work. This statement was completely objective, and I followed it for all my paintings. However, I had a classmate who chose not to follow this rule. In the end, her art work looked much better than mine. This poses the following question: Under what kind of scoring sheet or rubric did her art work look better than mine? Under the professor’s grading scheme she lost points for not centering her painting like she had been told to.

This grading scheme was, again, merely a statement. The teacher’s interpretation of the art work was quite different, but for the purpose of giving it a grade and enforcing his mark scheme he had to deduct the points. The reason here disappeared after exceptions came up for the rule. When exceptions appear for a statement, that statement can no longer be held true for all cases because now an argument can be held over it. Sense perception, language and emotion all come into play here. But what knowledge is more reliable?

The one that has been passed down to us and that we have learned through meditation, or the one that we have experienced first hand? This, in my opinion, forms the greatest weakness of reason: it cannot be used to obtain completely new knowledge. Truly new knowledge can only be achieved through experience and thus the other three ways of knowledge. This happens with every emotion or feeling. We cannot apply reason to understand what swiss cheese tastes like or what it feels like to be angry. On the other hand, reason saves us from committing mistakes in the other ways of knowing like sense perception. As we are introduced to chemistry we are taught what is inside an atom through the atomic model.

If we did not use reason here we would very easily fall into the empiriomorphic fallacy (Wood 36). Under this fallacy we try to perceive of everything through the use of the senses, without being aware that there is in fact no similitude between the atomic model and the atom itself. The more we use reason here, the more we realize that we can only perceive of the atom as an abstract concept. Likewise, reason allows us to make the correct decision when emotions cloud our judgment. In contrast to the weakness, I believe this to be an extremely powerful application of reason.

Hopefully if the reader now reads the first two sentences of the essay again he will be able to say, with a greater degree of certainty than before, what is wrong with them and why. In summary, reason has one major weakness; it cannot be used to obtain new types of knowledge. It also has one major strength though, and that is that it serves as a check for all the other ways of knowing. Its use in arguments can be considered a strong point if it is used properly and in the right context, but if not; it will not help at all. As a final remark I will declare that in my opinion reason is given too much credit as a way of knowing. It is blatantly placed above all the others and defended with petty arguments that attempt to credit it. If we applied reason to our reasoning process too we would learn how wrong we can sometimes be.


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