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Evaluate the Strengths and Weaknesses of Reason as a Way of Knowing Essay Sample

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Evaluate the Strengths and Weaknesses of Reason as a Way of Knowing Essay Sample

Reason is a priori. All humans are born with it. It is a way of knowing as it is used in every area of knowledge and in collaboration with the other ways of knowing. Unlike the implication of the prescribed essay topic, reason is not a distinctive way of knowing. To say that is an oversimplification of the complexity of knowing. Knowledge can only be obtained through the inextricably linked ways of knowing. Reason comes to us naturally. For example, we purposely choose to recall past experiences to apply it to new and similar experiences. Most people value reason over the other ways of knowing. For example, North Americans have the “be reasonable” and “think before you act” idioms, and the Chinese have the “do not use emotions to act” idiom. Whenever I get angry or sad, those around me would remind me of those sayings. As can be inferred from the Chinese saying, emotion as a way of knowing is interpreted, at least by the Chinese, as the most unreliable. Globally, emotion is largely seen as the opposite of reason. The importance of reason changes per person, depending on academic background, philosophical traditions, culture, gender, age and etcetera.

However, this investigation will attempt to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of reason as a way of knowing in art and natural science, and compare it with emotion. In art, reason is a definite weakness. With art and literature, you use imagination and creativity. Maybe a bit of reason is used to choose which colour to use, but it does not allow us to understand beauty, intrigue and mystery, which are fundamental to our existence. The rich experience of art is lost. Without such things, progress would probably not occur, and the current human race might still be in pre-stone age times. Art cannot be understood with reason. “Artistic expression, when effective, often bypasses the human reason and appeals directly to emotion.”This is why in courses such as English, when given a piece of poetry and asked to write about for example, how the poet conveys meaning through images and sounds, the first step is to grasp its general tone. Reason is not used to define your first impression. Say that this poem has a feeling of sadness.

Emotion is the first and instantaneous way of knowing that is employed. Even when going through the poem again, emotion is required to pin-point the specific effects of the literary devices. Reason cannot be used to feel; therefore as a way of knowing art, it is a weakness. Conversely, reasoning is essential to science. Processing information collected from an experiment requires a balanced approach of viewing the data from multiple angles, which reflects proper and educated reasoning. A general statement conclusion must be supported by current and reputable findings. The scientific method is based on this idea. Otherwise, the conclusion will not be accepted by the scientific community as scientific. In this case, reason enhances the quality of scientific work and helps us advance. In this case, reason serves as a regulatory standard, which acts as the backbone for science and of which most within the community agree to. Nevertheless, there is always a small chance that accepted theories are wrong. Take climate change as an example.

The majority, for clear reasons, say that it is occurring, but there are a few that disagree. To be purely reasonable is to not accept that climate change is a fact, even if investigation after investigation proves it to exist. It is true that reason is essential and central for human discourse and enquiry, but we have monitor it, or else nothing in science would advance. This idea of reason being a stumbling block to progress can be reinforced. Intuitive approach can accelerate progress, but to prove or to disprove the result by reason is a long process. Science would never accept conclusions that are emotional, intuitive and not reasonable.

In addition, intuitiveness can be a superior way of knowing. A common example is the doctor. A physician fresh out of medical school may examine a patient several times because one set of symptoms could point to several different causes. Conversely, an experienced doctor may settle on one diagnosis immediately. In an emergency, this experienced doctor is valued for his “unreasonableness.” If the less experienced doctor was used, the patient coughing up blood profusely would probably die before a diagnosis was reached. Another example of reason not being an asset in science would be when science is turned into a faith, like eugenics, the “scientific” improvement of the human race. Until the arrival of the Nazis, eugenics was an accepted part of science. This twist on reason must be somehow regulated.

This twist on reason must be somehow regulated, leading into the following comparison between reason and emotion as ways of knowing. As stated previously, most cultures view reason and emotion as opposites. The speed of emotional response is seen as inferior to the slower reasoned response. An instance of this might be deciding whether to walk out of a meeting because your ideas are put down, or to stay and attempt to justify your idea. Of course, the latter would be the better choice. However, in some cases, an emotional response may be the wiser choice. The classic yet strong and applicable example would be leaping back in the face of a dangerous situation such as a stalker suddenly approaching you. However this may also cause us to jump to hasty conclusions and attack back, when the stalker may just be an old man wearing a large trench coat who has found something on the grass. Against popular belief, in some cases reason and emotion complement each other; one can guide the other. In reasoning, one obtains data to organize and compare it with past experiences and knowledge. In contrast, emotion is a reaction to perception.

No categorizing and processing is needed. Therefore, reason is used to establish patterns within human experiences. In this way, you can know and categorize feelings (i.e. “this is grief”). It also allows us to know what others are feeling and not to provoke them, helping in everyday interactions between people. Sometimes, my reasoning is based on my emotions. For example, I may feel really sick of eating chips and not attend a friend’s party. Another example of when emotion can guide reason is when I was deciding which universities to apply to. I will take the University of Hong Kong as an example. I chose it because of its location in my birthplace, to which I will always have an emotional attachment of it being my home even though I moved to Canada when I was five. The prospect of having my relatives close to me and of living in a fast-paced environment has attracted me. This was definitely not a reasonable choice, as I had no prior research or knowledge of the university or program. Unfortunately, the Holocaust and the millions killed serve as a grim reminder of the consequence of reason bent by emotion. Propaganda deforms reason through emotion, and destroys the ability of people to think for themselves. Such emotionally-charged reasoning is terrifying, as it causes people to do irrational deeds, like commit genocide.

However, this is not to say that reason void of emotion is the way to go. Imagine a world where utilitarian rationality dominated. The elderly and the disabled would become too costly to keep alive, happiness and fulfillment would not matter and everyone would become the same. Truthfully, nobody wants to live in those conditions, as it is imperfection that makes us human. Noted, reasoning can guide emotions as well. An instance would be when I received the volunteer schedule for December from church. I had made it clear to the coordinator that I would take that month off, in preparation for exams. However, I was still scheduled to serve one Sunday. As a result, I was angry with the coordinator. But when I realized that there was simply no other choice, and that I was already scheduled only once instead of twice, my anger subsided. Reason must own up to its own limitations.

This raises the question of what is even meant by “reason” and “being reasonable.” Reason can be thought of as a standard that differs from person to person. To be reasonable is to adhere to this standard to some degree, knowing that it is impossible to always meet expectations. This is because one cannot have all the answers, and likewise one cannot necessarily answer to all his or her actions. With this in mind, it is clear that since everyone’s perception of reason and adherence to their own standard differs, everyone’s conception of “being reasonable” also differs. The people of Hitler’s Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, were all being reasonable to their own standards. Reason should not be applied to understanding art, and when it is mixed with the emotions that shape art, we lose something central to humanity. Reason is definitely applied to science, but it needs to be appropriately regulated so as not to hinder the intuitive progress of society. One method of regulating reason is through emotion, and vice versa. It is important to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of reason as a way of knowing, given the current times. Nuclear bombs have been created, and pollution is on the rise. These have to do with the naive belief that reason is enough; when it is not.


Edwords, Frederick, “Humanism, Reason and the Arts,” Frederick Edwords,

[ 1 ]. Frederick Edwords, “Humanism, Reason, and the Arts,” Frederick Edwords, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/fred_edwords/humart.html (accessed February 24, 2009).

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