Synthetic Reason, Aesthetic Order, and the Grammar of Virtue



adapted from "Synthetic Reason, Aesthetic Order, and the
Grammar of Virtue,"

Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
18: 4 (2001), pp. 13-28.

See also N. F. Gier, Wittgenstein and Phenomenology
(SUNY Press, 1981), Chap. 8

    The etymology of the logos, the Greek word behind
"reason" and "logic," shows that the idea of synthesis is at the
origin of these words. The Greek logos is the verbal noun of lego, which, if
we follow one root leg

means "to
gather," "to collect," "to pick up," "to put together,"
and later "to speak or say." We already have the basic ideas of any rational
endeavor. We begin by collecting individual facts and thoughts and put them together in an
orderly way and usually say something about what we have created.

    Except for Parmenides the pre-Socratic philosophers did
not appear to follow any logical principles. Aristotle thoroughly criticized them,
especially Heraclitus and Anaxagoras, for this deficiency. It is, however, the synthetic
nature of Heraclitus’ logos and Anaxagoras’ nous (=cosmic mind) that I wish
to make central to my argument. It is significant that Aristotle called his logic
Analytics, so let us call the logic that conforms to traditional rules analytic reason,
and let us call the mode of thinking drawn from the etymology of logos synthetic
reason. Furthermore, synthetic reason is descriptive rather than prescriptive, a way to
understand how people actually think rather than how they ought to think.

    The Logos Christology of the book of John, obviously
influenced by Heraclitus, is an instructive example of synthetic reason. The famous
prologue begins: "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was
with God, and the logos was God." The standard English translation of logos
is Word, following the basic meaning of lego as to say or speak. In other words,
God is the author of the logic of the world, and his son is the expression of this logic.
Furthermore, in the Genesis account of creation God speaks, or as Leonard Bernstein has
suggested, sings the structure of the world into being. In Christian theology Christ is
the one who orders the world; he is the one who puts it together, gives it meaning, and
then redeems it from its fallen state. As Paul states: "For in him all things were
created . . . and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:16-17).

    With the rise of modern science and mathematics, the words
reason and logic took on, except in the case of Leibniz and the Hegelians, a strict
analytic meaning. The Latin ratio, the translation of Greek logos, became
mathematical ratio, and modern logos became the rigorous deductions of formal logic
and mathematics. Logic and reason were closely tied to incontrovertible proof, syllogism,
and other forms of exact demonstration. Therefore, to analytic reason the God-man of the
Incarnation is just as absurd as a round square and involves making the same type of
logical mistake. Equally unintelligible is a cosmic logos reconciling all opposites
in a grand synthesis.

    Let us now define the concept of synthetic reason more
carefully and in more detail. At the most fundamental level it deals with the order of the
human mind and the structure of the world. On this definition humans are rational because
they are able to put the world together (lego) in a certain way, a way that makes
‘sense’ to them. An individual does not have to be able to do a mathematical proof or
construct a syllogism in order to be rational in this sense. All that a rational person
has to do is to put word-meanings together in grammatical order and communicate them to
another person.

    Synthetic reason would obviously include mythological
constructions, for this is still the predominant way in which people put their world
together. Therefore, synthetic reason bridges the gap between mythos and logos.
In myth we see the passive interpretation of logos: the world and its order are
already laid out by God or a divine agent, or it is simply just there. Humans then are
exhorted to conform to this preestablished order, and to celebrate this union through
ritual and magic. These individuals do not actively put the world together; rather, they
passively submit to a fait accompli. As Leibniz states: "Human combination can
only imitate and imperfectly reproduce divine Combination." One etymology of the word
religion is re-lego, with the clear implication that religion involves saying the
creed or taking the sacrament over and over again.

    The active form of synthetic reason is a modern or
postmodern phenomenon, the best examples being artists of the 19th and 20th Century.
Breaking away from religious iconography and traditional schools, modern artists actively
shape new ‘worlds’ or new ways of looking at the world. Cezanne, for example,
rejected the laws of perspective and replaced it with an innovative method of color
modulation. The active view is also found in contemporary physics where the difference
between a particle and a wave does not lie in ‘reality out there,’ but lies in
the human perception and instrumentation.

    There is obviously no advantage to synthetic reason we
want to distinguish valid and invalid arguments or if we are to determine what the truly
objective facts are (if this indeed is possible). As a purely descriptive method, one
cannot expect this sort of result from synthetic reason. Merleau-Ponty, however, proposes
that synthetic reason can become the basis for an appreciation for cultures not informed
by Euro-American analytic reason. He explains that it was Hegel who

started the attempt to explore the irrational and integrate it into an
expanded reason which remains the task of our century. He is the inventor of that reason,
broader than [Kantian] understanding, which can respect the variety and singularity of
individual consciousness, civilizations, ways of thinking, and historical contingency, but
which nevertheless does not give up the attempt to master them in order to guide them to
their own truth.

    While synthetic reason may not be normative for strictly
logical argumentation, it may very well be normative in value theory and even in the
theory of scientific discovery. Scientists working on the cutting edge go with their
intuitions, putting together the most elegant and sometimes daring new theories. Synthetic
reason and aesthetic considerations most definitely play a role in the origins of
scientific theories, so Leibniz is correct to claim that the "art of discovery"
is synthetic. Scientific theories, however, must be eventually tested by appeal to
evidence and formal logical rules. Artists and persons of virtue share the same creative
origins but rightly resist any such testing by the canons of analytic reason.

    Let us now relate synthetic reason to the distinction
between rational order and aesthetic order. (Here rational is used in the analytic sense.)
By abstracting from the particular, rational order is ultimately indifferent to concrete
individuals because it generates the rule of complete substitutability. For example, p’s
and q’s can stand for any word in any natural language, just as the one physical
atom can take the place of any other atom without changing the whole. Morally this idea of
substitution finds its ultimate expression in the interchangeabiliy of the sovereign in
Kant’s Kingdom of Ends. An equivalent uniformity is obtained in the modern
bureaucratic state where individuals are leveled and made abstract by social rules and
regulations. Even libertarians who criticize the welfare state for these indignities share
the same axiom of social atomism with their social utilitarian opponents. The social atom
of classical economic theory can take the place of any other economic agent regardless of

    Aesthetic order, on the other hand, focuses on the
concrete individual so much so that there can be no substitution and no
interchangeability. This applies to the work of fine art as much as the person of great
virtue. This means that something aesthetic is ordered primarily in terms of internal
relations, the basic elements being dependent on one another. By contrast physical or
social atoms are externally related, independent from their environments. (The dependent
relations of paired subatomic particles indicates an organic rather than mechanical model
for contemporary physics.) Again Kant serves as the contrast in moral theory: rational
autonomy requires independence from the emotions, the body, and the environment. Even
though Aristotle is the source for the idea of rational autonomy, this actually applies
only to the intellectual virtues and only when he holds that the highest good is pure
contemplation. It is important to remember that Aristotle joined reason and the passions
in moral virtue and he argued that these virtues are the unique self-creations of
practical reason. Any view that ignores the constitutive role of the passions is bound to
be numb (anaesthetic) and will fail to do justice to experience.

    Theoretical reason would give us an arithmetic mean
between excess and deficiency, and it would fulfill the criterion of universilizability in
deontological ethics. Moral agents will have exactly the same duties, so moral rationalism
also conforms to analytic reason’s rule of subsitutability. It should be clear, however,
that such a theory cannot determine any individual action. For example, one might hold
that it is always wrong to eat too much but only individuals themselves can find the mean
that is right for them. (It is interesting to note that this decision is not simply a
subjective whim, but it is governed primarily by objective factors such as body size,
metabolism, and general physiology.) Aristotle saw moral virtues as relative means derived
not from a universal moral calculus but from a careful process of personal discovery.
Aristotle’s practical reason, therefore, could be seen as the moral expression of
synthetic reason and its creative aspects further augment our case for an aesthetics of

    Analytic reason establishes rational order by reducing the
whole to a simple sum of parts, while aesthetic order is synthesized from particulars in
such a way that its unity is organic and immune to complete analysis. Rational order is
ruled by universal laws–either physical or moral–while aesthetic order is created by
imprecise rules of thumb, by emulating the virtuous person or master artist, or ideally
self-creation by practical reason. Rational order can be articulated in clear language,
but no one can tell us explicitly how to be a good person or a great artist. Rational
order involves a ‘knowing that’ whereas aesthetic order is produced by a
‘knowing how’; the former can be said and cognized, the latter can only be shown
in practice. Demonstrating the synthetic nature of Buddhist epistemology, David J.
Kalupahana, says that Buddhist perception is a "putting together and knowing,"
while conception is a "putting together and speaking," and "if they are
things ‘put together’ any attempt to discover essences in them would be

    Confucius says that virtuous persons (junzi)
"seek harmony not sameness; petty persons, then, are the opposite" (13.23). Hall
and Ames propose a contrast between the rational order of liberal democracy in the
sameness of consensus making and the junzi’s attempt to harmonize among real
differences. They refer to a culinary analogy in a commentary on Analects 13.23 on
which I would like expand. The recipe could be seen as an explicit formula for the
rational ordering of the ingredients. But just as in the case of following the rule of not
overeating, a tasty dish is not guaranteed by merely following the recipe. Rather, good
cooks must judge the nature and condition of their ingredients and as the dish is near
completion they must adjust the seasonings. Those who follow the li in all their
social roles must make the same personal judgments and appropriate adjustments. This is
the making of aesthetic rather than rational order.

    Applying the concept of aesthetic order Hall and Ames
portray the Confucian sages as virtuoso performers who create their own unique style of
appropriating the social patterns (li) of their community. This achievement is both
moral and aesthetic because it results in the embodiment of the good (li) and the
personal creation (yi) of an elegant, harmonious, and balanced heat-mind (xin).
In another paper on Confucian virtue ethics I have argued that the Confucian concept of yi
has instructive parallels to Aristotle’s concept of practical reason. It is also
important to observe that the Chinese li and dao join dharma, rita,
and logos as the great normative doctrines of world culture. In fact, neo-Confucian
philosophy transformed the early li of social custom to a rational principle that
makes everything the thing it is.

    Confucian philosophers believe that one becomes virtuous
by choreographing every movement of one’s life in a veritable dance of virtue. This means
that sages literally "image" the virtues in their bodies in what Flint Shier has
called a "physiognomic perception of virtue." Modern European philosophy has
always held that since virtues are internal properties there can be no objective theory of
the virtues. But even Hume agreed with the Confucians that we can clearly perceive the
shame of vice and the glow of virtue. The Confucians, therefore, anticipated the rejection
of the Cartesian dichotomy of the inner and outer that is now well attested in pragmatism,
phenomenology, process philosophy, and Wittgensteinian philosophy. Perhaps this is what
Wittgenstein means by the enigmatic phrase "meaning is a physiognomy," a motto
that expresses his semantic holism and his doctrine of intentionality. The clear
implication is that meaning is based on aesthetic order rather than a strict rational
order of words relating to objects regardless of their context.


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