Book 2. A Short Critique of Kant’s Unreason

Chapter 6. Ratiocinations

Formal logic (including both its deductive or inductive branches) analyzes and validates all sorts of components and processes of human knowledge (or knowing). Looking at the totality of it, one may get the impression of a static collection of ways and means. But this is only, of course, the finished product, and we cannot claim to really understand logic till we have captured the many unit rational acts underlying every thought.

This refers to the smallest building blocks of dynamic thought, which we may call ratiocinations. In formal logic, we usually think of terms, propositions and arguments as units of thought. But in fact such units are far from primary; they are mostly complex constructs, which we may call cogitations, made by various simultaneous and successive ratiocinations.

Ratiocinations and cogitations are of course all judgmental (to use Kant’s term), insofar as their truth is open to doubt or discussion to various degrees (which does not mean that they are necessarily or even usually false), in contrast to pure experience which must be taken as given (i.e. true in principle).

I suspect and suggest that when Kant formulated his theory of “pure forms”, the forms of sensibility and forms of understanding, he was trying to identify the rational acts that underlie what on the surface appears to most of us as thought. His distinction between “transcendental logic… which gives an account of the origins of our knowledge as well as its relationship to objects”, and “general logic… which abstracts from the conditions under which our knowledge is acquired, and from any relation that knowledge has to objects”, seems to point in that direction[1].

This programme of Kant’s was very interesting and laudable, although he erred in focusing directly on relatively complex concepts like space and time (which he classed as intuitions) and substance and causation (which he classed as simpler concepts), instead of on the more primitive rational acts which give rise to those concepts. The latter are admittedly close to basic; but since they can (as we shall presently make clear) be reduced to sets of the former, they are not as basic as Kant implied them to be.

We wish, nevertheless, to implement Kant’s good idea in its essence, and look for the true elements or irreducible primaries of reason. What are these ‘ratiocinations’? They are, first and foremost, acts of reason or rational acts, from which (in various combinations, in various circumstances) all others are gradually built up. To say that they are acts is to mean that they are acts of will, volitional acts, voluntary efforts of the subject of rational cognition, i.e. the soul, the one who thinks.

Note well, I am not referring like Kant does to some mechanisms or structural determinants that in some mysterious and uncontrollable manner form thought out of sensory impressions (first percepts ordered in space and time, then concepts ordered by the categories); and thus present us, take it or leave it, with a finished product of doubtful logical validity or certainty. Kant’s theory of knowledge makes ignorant, stupid and passive marionettes out of us, with no say over our noetic destiny. It is, as already mentioned, a self-contradictory position.

What I am saying is that the subject (i.e. you or me) is an active agent in the process of reasoning. It is no accident that reason and volition occur in the same biological entities – they naturally go together; they are mutually dependent faculties. They occur in individual humans in proportion to each other, because they are essential to each other’s functioning[2].

The elements of reason are not cognitive “atoms”; they are not notions, ideas, concepts, and much less propositions or arguments. They are not entities, but the means through which we produce such entities; they are cognitive events. And they do not just occur without our participation: they are thought by us – they are actions we are called on to take to advance in our knowledge of the world by way of reason.

‘Conception’ refers to the act of conceiving, i.e. to the cognition of abstract relations (notably those of similarity or difference). This concept is formed by analogy and contrast to that of ‘perception’, which is cognition of concrete phenomena (and to ‘intuition’, which concerns non-phenomenal concretes). Abstracts relate concretes to each other but are not phenomenal or concrete objects themselves.

Conceptual insight (which in a broadened sense includes logical insights of compatibility or incompatibility) is something indeed mysterious (a ‘seeing’ without eyes and whose objects are invisible). It is the miraculous human capacity for understanding, our distinctive act of intelligence.

Before any verbalization in terms of common nouns is possible or meaningful, some sort of conception is necessary. For this reason, any attempt to deny the validity of conceptual knowledge as such is absurd. It is itself conceptual, so it cannot logically deny conception as such. Thus, conception as such (though not necessarily every conception) is necessarily valid.

Whereas Kant told us what he regarded as conditions of perceptions, I would here like to stress the conditions of conception. These include an intelligent Subject, with the power of volition, able to build concepts out of percepts. Reason is impossible without volition. Volition is needed to wonder, to ponder, to intend, to research, to check results, to logically evaluate hypotheses, to change one’s opinion, and so forth. These are not functions that any machine-like entity can perform, but only someone with free will.

It is true that the effort involved in our simplest acts of reason is not always apparent. That is to say, much of our reasoning goes on subconsciously, indeed (for all intents and purposes) unconsciously. This might seem to confirm Kant’s essentially mechanistic position. The brain does seemingly continuously feed our minds with thoughts of all kinds, whether we like it or not. And if any effort is involved, it is rather the effort needed to stop thought – a far from easy feat. Are such thoughts “ours” in any meaningful sense? Are we just passive observers of them, or intelligent doers of them?

However, we can still profess and insist that thought is essentially volitional, by pointing out how simple, easy and quick the elementary rational acts are bound to be, and how they can become reflex and habitual and so almost invisible to us. Consciousness does not always imply self-consciousness, or consciousness of all aspects of a situation. We only become aware of our rational acts when they reach a certain level of complexity, difficulty and cumbersomeness, i.e. when an unusual, more conscious effort of thought is required of us. It is thus quite reasonable to claim that no thought is at all possible without some “presence of mind” (more precisely stated: “presence of spirit”), however minimal (or subliminal) it be[3].

This affirmation becomes all the more credible when we consider what specific acts might be listed under the heading of ratiocination. Certainly not all of Kant’s pure forms, although some of them might fit the bill. Two approaches are possible to answer our question. (a) We can proactively observe the rational acts through which we gradually build up our terms, propositions and arguments, even as we do them, or (b) we can retroactively analyze the genesis of our thoughts into the simpler components to which they are reducible.

However, as we do so, it becomes obvious that we cannot dichotomize all thought into simple and complex, or ratiocination and its products. It becomes obvious that there are in fact many gradations between the simplest, irreducible rational acts and the most complex static products of these. When I first proposed a concept of ratiocination some years ago, I had in mind certain very simple rational acts; but the analytic listing below (incomplete though it be) shows that the concept must be expanded somewhat.

Some rational acts are primitive (elementary, irreducible), but others (equally important) are composed of two or more simpler rational acts. More precisely still: composite rational acts are not merely the simultaneity or succession of two primitive acts, but a combination of acts such that the second one performed depends on the results of the first one performed. It is difficult to label such an act primary, since it includes another primitive act; but on the other hand, it is difficult to label it secondary, since it adds something new to the preceding. The word ratiocination should therefore not be taken too rigidly, and range across simple to more complex rational acts.

Moreover, I do not here propose a precise and comprehensive list of ratiocinations, but only make suggestions of some possible candidates for the job, in the way of illustrations. We do not have to have a fixed list, but may engage in an ongoing research project, using open-minded trial and error as our method. The answer to our question is not some dogmatic neat doctrine, but a heuristic and flexible way. We do not want to fall into the trap set by Aristotle and Kant of a finite number of specified units, or of an artificially symmetrical scheme. We may propose candidates cautiously, tentatively and reversibly; we may proceed uncertainly and change our minds. We do not have to claim omniscience in such a delicate and crucial matter.

The following, then, is a brief, non-exhaustive survey of how we acquire knowledge, with reference to some of the most important rational acts or ratiocinations:

Ø Observation of the presence of something and its consequent affirmation. This is clearly a simple, primary act of reason, an acknowledgment of experience in accord with the law of identity.

Ø Observation of the absence of something and its consequent denial. This act is not quite primary, because we must first think of some sought for presence and look for it (far and wide) and not find it (thus far). It is thus an inductive activity (and so open to later revision), rather than a simple act, and it refers to the second and third laws of thought as well as the first.

Ø Observation is essentially a passive act, although one may observe the results of more active interventions (whether directed at the object or at the subject), called experiments. These, whether physical or mental, are also rational acts.

Ø Mentally (or more precisely, spiritually) intending things, and physically pointing at them. These rational acts serve to tell ourselves (and each other, eventually[4]) what we mean to refer to during subsequent rational acts.

Ø Distinguishing and isolating one thing in the field of experience from others, or subdividing one thing into two or more things. This is done by mental projection, and involves imaginary drawing of boundaries, so that some aspects of the whole are considered as one thing while other aspects are considered as other thing(s).

Ø Making comparisons and contrasts of measure or degree. This involves observations of similarity and dissimilarity between things in the same field of experience or in different fields. Comparison is positive, and therefore more direct; contrast is negative, and therefore requires more processing.

Ø On the basis of the preceding activities, we abstract aspects of things from things, and then group together things that are similar and separately things that are dissimilar. Note that negation is an important aspect of abstraction.

Ø Abstraction is a crucial aspect of concept formation or conceptualization. Abstraction allows us to engage in classification, collecting distinct and similar things together; then developing hierarchies and orders of classes. Note that classification involves both integration and differentiation; including some things in a class implies excluding others from it[5].

Ø After initially grouping some things together in a class, we may add on more cases, or remove some instances. These are the intentional processes of inclusion and exclusion. Such changes in subsumption are based at first on apparent similarities and differences between new and old instances.

Ø Eventually, efforts may be made to explicitly define the common and distinctive character(s) between things classed together. Sometimes definition is immediate and fixed; but usually it is gradual, tentative and adaptive. A definition may at first be vague, then become more precise.

Ø Naming a particular, or a concept that one has constructed (as above), is also a rational act. Such verbalization is not always necessary, but usually useful.

Ø Measurement, of course, depends on number, especially as it gets more accurate. This depends on counting, starting with one then two or more successively. Note that the unit is formed by distinguishing (as above detailed); some grouping may be needed; numbers greater than one depend on reiteration of addition of one.

Ø Also involved in measurement is the comparison and contrast of numbers (equal or unequal, i.e. greater or smaller). The numbers refer to entities (e.g. people or commensurable portions of a line) or to qualities (e.g. degrees of a color or speed of movement). The numbers involved may be the same, or considered approximately so; or they may different, or different enough to constitute a negation.

Ø Numbers also make possible statistics, from which we develop frequency concepts like all, some, none, few, most, through which we define the quantity and other types of modality of propositions.

Ø Proposing (i.e. formulating a proposition) categorically, then conditionally or disjunctively, are obviously complex rational acts, since they depend on many of the previously mentioned simpler acts being performed first (i.e. a proposition involves many concepts).

Ø Propositions are initially singular and actual, and thus by implication particular and possible. We try to generalize them as far as possible, and have to particularize them as much as necessary. These are crucial rational acts, depending on the laws of thought and the principle of induction, and on numerical concepts.

Ø Asking questions and looking for answers are rational acts, which help us advance in our conceptualizations and formulations of propositions. We make suggestions or speculations in reply, which we then must test before we can adopt or reject them.

Ø Theorizing involves not only forming concepts and propositions, but also interrelating them together and with experience by means of various arguments. Theories may consist of one proposition or large and intricate conjunctions of propositions. What most distinguishes theorizing from mere proposing, however, is the invention of new terms, i.e. the use of imagination.

Ø Frequently, we move from one abstraction to another by way of (rough or precise) analogy, using one conjunction of characters to construct another. This involves imagination, the power of reshuffling mental data at will.

Ø An important aspect of theorizing is the search for causes, whether in the epistemic sense of reasons (attempted explanations, premises or items of evidence), or in the more ontological senses of causatives, volitional agents or influences of various sorts. For knowledge of causes in any of these many senses is the main source of our understanding.

Ø Theories are always in flux, being constructed, modified or dismantled. If they fit in with the totality of experience and logical considerations they may be adopted; if they don’t they are rejected or at least made to adapt. This is the inductive process of adduction, which involves complex rules of comparison and contrast between competing hypotheses.

Ø Arguing, from premises to conclusions, using inductive and deductive logical processes, like adduction or syllogism, is used to justify and clarify. Arguments are still more complex rational acts, dependent on previously formed concepts and propositions.

Ø Arguments, and indeed the various rational acts preceding and succeeding them, refer to the laws of thought and the principle of induction. This means acknowledging appearances, looking for contradictions between them, looking for solutions to problems, judging truth and falsehood, estimating probabilities.

Ø Logic may be exercised ad hoc, without using theoretical knowledge of logic, or may be applied with reference to logic theory previously developed or studied. Every insight or act of logic is of course a rational act. A movement of thought not disciplined by logic is irrational.

The above list shows many of the main rational acts involved in everyday reasoning. It is clear that the acts here listed are all deeply involved in the formation of concepts, propositions and arguments of all kinds. It is also clear that there are both inductive and deductive movements of thought in most of these various acts.

Note that some ratiocination is pre-conceptual and pre-verbal treatment of experiential data. It is distinctively aimed at perceived particulars, rather than at conceived universals. Such ratiocination prepares the ground for further thought – thought of a more conceptual variety. The latter is also composed of ratiocinations; for instance, naming is a distinct rational act, one of the many components of verbal thought.

If we analyze our rational acts closely, we find them all to be intelligent responses to the way things appear to us. Through them, we use given experiences to form concepts of varying complexity (for example, causation cannot be understood or known in a given case without first grasping and using affirmation, negation, classification, statistics and conditioning).

These constructs are not necessarily true in a given case, because the more complex they get the more they involve inductive assumptions (for example, assuming some negation by generalization). Nevertheless, the simplest ones are pretty reliable because of the narrow limits of their assumptions.

Some ratiocination involves direct insight, i.e. it refers to evidence given in experience alone (e.g. affirming, on the basis of observation of presence). Some, however, is more indirect, involving some reasoning (e.g. denying, on the basis of non-observation of presence). Thus, on the whole, ratiocination appeals to both experience and logic, and not merely to the one or the other.

It is clear from our list that ratiocinations are necessarily volitional at some level, in conscious accord with the laws of thought. We can do them, or abstain from doing them. We can do them conscientiously and correctly; or we can fudge them, and err. We retain the capacity to think irrationally, i.e. to misuse our powers of judgment. Purely mechanical acts (such as Kant conceived for us) cannot yield valid judgments, for validity is a value judgment presupposing freedom of action and of choice. Machines or computers may of course be programmed to do as we will them to, but in such cases it is still our judgments that are evaluated, not theirs.

Since ratiocinations, and thence all thought processes, are acts of the Subject, and the Subject is a non-phenomenal entity known only through intuition, they cannot readily be pointed out in phenomenal terms. We can perceive their phenomenal products in us, but the productive acts themselves can only be apperceived, i.e. known introspectively by each one of us. For this reason, it is rather difficult to pin them down publicly. We can say that they occur, but we cannot describe them in terms of something more concretely manifest than our self-knowledge. That is no doubt why many logicians tend to ignore this important field of logic. Ratiocination is too insubstantial and psychological for their liking. They prefer to dwell on more solid and verbal objects of study.

None of this material is very new within my own works, or in general. What is being emphasized here is the need to be aware of all the little rational acts that underlie the larger, more commonly studied, movements of thought. A lot of work might be done by future logicians, to expand on this list and describe the acts involved more precisely, but we shall rest content with the present illustration. A more systematic study would ideally involve traversing the whole of formal logic in detail and noting the exact ratiocinations underlying each item in it. This field of logic could be called descriptive or generative (as against formal) logic[6].

Logic is mostly dished out to people like a menu, and a menu is of course no substitute for cooking and eating. The traditional rather static presentation is inevitable, as logic is a verbal educational tool; but we must try to keep in mind and somehow bring to the fore the more dynamic aspects, if we wish to give a true picture of logic. That is, how logic is “cooked up” by logicians and how it is “eaten up” by those who study it.

Conclusions. Some of the items we have listed are comparable to Kant’s categories. For instances, the first and second ratiocinations, viz. affirmation and denial, obviously correspond to Kant’s first two categories. The ratiocinations concerning numbers are related to Kant’s category of quantity. The ratiocination of proposing (which is, note well, dependent on other acts) can be assimilated to Kant’s categories of relation. Nevertheless, the two approaches are clearly different. Kant’s categories are on the whole not as basic constituents of human knowledge as the ratiocinations are.

There is a complex scale of gradation and interplay of mutual dependencies between most of our basic concepts. Some can surely be considered as direct outcomes of primary acts of reason. But others are complex products of many and varied such ratiocinations. It would be a gross simplification to lump all basic concepts together as equal “categories”, let alone assign them special powers of control over our thinking, as Kant attempted. There is no basis for considering our faculties of cognition as machine-like entities, which – using some arbitrary, possibly crazy “logic” of their own or programmed into them by nature – could well distort our experiences.

Space and time are, like substance and causation, rather basic concepts, which we form in quite ordinary ways by abstractions from experience. It is because we find the phenomena we experience (be they seemingly physical or mental) are extended, are changing, are seemingly constant in the midst of other changes, and are regularly conjoined and disjoined, that we form such concepts. Let us keep the horse before the cart. These concepts do not tell us what to think out of the blue – we make them what they are in accord with the way things seem to us in experience and in logic. They are tools of ours; we are not their playthings.

Furthermore, conception has many levels or degrees. At the lowest or notional level, it is produced by wordless rational acts, for instance just noticing that two things are distinctly alike in some respect and mentally classing them together on that basis. More precise measurement of the similarity may be sought. It may be decided that the items are worth not only grouping together, but also naming. Once the concept is named, it may become the object of detailed discussions. At an advanced stage, it may be more and more studied and complex theories about it may be formed.

Thus, we should not confuse the humble uses of the wordless concepts of space and time in particular acts of reasoning, with the grand intellectual abstractions and debates of physicists and philosophers about them. Similarly with regard to many of the categories. An ordinary person can properly identify a causal relation without being able to discourse on the ontological and epistemological basis of causality. If we do not keep this distinction of conceptual level in mind, we are likely to get confused about the order of things in knowledge. Kant tended to blur it.

To conclude the present essay, although Kant has been an extremely impressive and influential philosopher in the modern Western tradition, his description and critique of reason are far from credible and ought not to be taken so seriously. He was clearly in no position to criticize reason, because he evidently neither sufficiently understood its workings nor had the logical tools needed for such a task, lacking especially knowledge of the logic of paradox and that of induction.



[1] Here quoting from the aforementioned Wikipedia article, without my necessarily agreeing fully with this terminology or these definitions.

[2] Higher animals may well have some (more limited or just different) rational and volitional powers too; if they do, or to the extent that they do (for I do believe they do), these powers are likewise necessarily proportional to each other.

[3] I discuss various so-called involuntary acts of volition throughout my work Volition and Allied Causal Concepts, always postulating a minimum level of consciousness for them, since they are considered acts of volition, and all will is freewill. “Involuntary” in such contexts does not mean literally “non-volitional” but more mildly almost so.

[4] Note that while one’s own “pointing” is an intention that we know intuitively, someone else’s “pointing” is ultimately understood by inductive means, i.e. by hypothesizing what might be intended and eliminating erroneous hypotheses, with reference to the enduring or repetition of such pointing in a changing context.

[5] The only classes that include everything are terms like “thing”, in the sense of existent or real. Their contradictories (non-thing, etc.) are necessarily merely verbal fictions, i.e. essentially empty classes, in which we dump figments of our imagination that we cannot include. On this basis, we have a broader term “thing” that includes both things and non-things in the preceding sense. The value of such a broader term is that it allows us to name things that we are not yet certain about either way. That is, it has inductive value as a temporary way-station.

[6] Or perhaps psycho-epistemology (borrowing the term Ayn Rand coined for another purpose).

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