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The Myth of Reason

1 Many streams within Western philosophy of Modernity have spared no effort to – at least verbally – ban spiritual, mystic, religious and other similar phenomena and experiences from their midst and, with a few exceptions, have seemingly done so with success. Philosophical activity is to be founded on reason alone – this is the dictum and it is held up against everything that does not invoke a rationalistic discourse.
»No culture has only been rational. The same is true for philosophy. The oration from mythos to logos is an oration that reason itself invented.«

Ram Adhar Mall
(Essays zur inter-
kulturellen Philosophie
Nordhausen 2003, 87)
2 The politics of many countries have for the most part not differentiated themselves from this hymn of praise to reason but rather have pathetically agreed to discard all tones of strange religiousness, declaring them discordant. At the same time such tones have been orchestrated with the alleged euphony of the own religion – an example being the values of the Christian occident, which have lately become the civilized religion of human rights.
3 It seems a historical constant that, in the caroussel of ideologies arising from this, religious and conceptual convictions often play the least important role of all and solid political and economic interests instead set the tone.
4 When power – or powerlessness – forms an unhallowed alliance with religious doctrine, then results are similarly desastrous. The assurance to have truth on one's own side justifies any means for any purpose. The question, which role the reference to religious convictions takes, has to be raised also at this point. It will not be easy to tell the cynic apart from the fanatic, the former instrumentalizing religion for his power interests, the latter believing in instrumentalized religion.
5 Faced with an abyss of human-condemning hatred on one side and similarly human-denouncing selfishness on the other, how can understanding then be possible? Which criteria can critical questions use as their basis? Which kind of responsible actions can they refer to? The answer to all these questions has been provided in the beginnings of many western philosophies throughout history and is alluring: based on reason.
6 In this answer, danger is five-fold:
7 First, it is a frequent practice to dismiss religion as an irrational monster against the background of violence that is motivated by religion. For this reason religion is said to have no place in either politics or philosophy. Phenomena, denounced by the majority of members of a religion, are assessed as characteristic for a particular religion.
8 Second, the exclusive reference to reason simply fails to acknowledge the historic reality of the multifarious other forms of the human quest for deeper insight and wisdom that are practiced in certain fields, including parts of western philosophy, that the West calls religion. Western philosophy then denies also part of its own tradition as well as many traditions of thought from beyond the borders of Europe.
»The own mythos is always forgotten or ignored; finally mythos and logos belong together. The dialogue of religions, if it is truly alive, cannot leave myth aside.«

Raimon Panikkar
(El diálogo indispensable. Paz entre las religiones.
Barcelona 2001, 66)
9 Third, the focus of Modernity on philosophy remains, as a purely rational undertaking, blind to its own myth of precisely this rationality, as this rationality itself – this may be debatable – cannot be founded upon reason.
10 Fourth, the intersubjective mediation of convictions is not to be equated with convictions themselves. Convictions arising not from rational reflection, but from intuition, inspiration, meditation or religious authority, can very well be explained rationally. While it will be a different form of rationality, this alone does not mean that it is not rational.
11 Lastly, a differentiation between religion and philosophy has historically never been made in many cultures, nor is it at all feasible from a conceptual point of view – and so remains unintelligible and futile in the light of its own culture.
12 For philosophy this should mean a return to modesty that is both new and old. Just like Pythagoras, who, according to legend, did not want to presume to call himself sophos, a wise one, and more humbly identified himself as a philosophos, a friend of wisdom, we should also not believe today that we possess wisdom and the means to express it. What we know is merely our own myth, the myth of reason, which is one of many, and what we should then practice is the appreciation of this myth as it consequently always is also an appreciation of other wisdom and an appreciation of the other who is seeking and devoted to wisdom. Wisdom thus has many faces, one of which reveals itself in religious seeking and finding.
13 The integration of religious thinking therefore appears as an imperative of intercultural philosophy. This is not to be confused with the harmonizing romanticism of some sort of spiritual love dance, quite the opposite: the practice of philosophy, if alive and well, will implement itself especially in the critical antagonism of positions and attitudes, but always with a basic respect and openness for the other. With an awareness of one's own relativity, the mythical nature of one's own reason, the myth of the other becomes possible.
14 In the common search for wisdom (and perhaps also for truth) it will be a challenge for many to not agnostically shrug off insight gained during a spiritual experience, an argument justified by religious authority or an immersion practice with just that goal to detach from thinking. But those that pause at the perplexity of »pure« reason, end the dialogue before it has even begun and do not keep abreast with the demands of intercultural dialogue.
15 The events in the world show on a daily basis again and again how pressing this intercultural dialogue is, in philosophy as well as in politics, and especially within the context of religious and conceptual convictions: terror, war and violence take place in the name of religion and of absolute values. Only in the dialogue with the other can we become aware of our own myth and the other of his myth. Only when religious reason is not excluded, it has to rise to the challenge of criticism. Critical dialogue alone will not stop the ubiquitous violence taking place in the public as well as in the private sphere, but it will question its legitimacy. And it can, separate from all political questions, open new worlds.

Bertold Bernreuter

Translation from the German by Marlies Gabriele Prinzl.

polylog. Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/4/edit-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Bertold Bernreuter, Munich (Germany)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.
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