Relation Between Reason and Understanding

Z. Soner Dinç Philosophy, Master’s Degree)
With the famous quote “Cogito ergo sum / I think therefore I am” by Descartes who is shown among the initial figures of the modern philosophy, the researches on the superiority of what is reasonable, and its decisiveness became intensified. Simultaneously with this fact, the discussions regarding what the ability called “reason” was, how the information is processed on it, and what the origins of reason (German: Vernunft) and understanding (German: Verstand) that is directly associated with became one of the essential topics of agenda in the English-speaking world in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Within this context, two philosophers, John Locke from England (1632-1704) and David Hume from Scotland (1711-1776) become prominent.  Even the titles of the studies focusing on the subject carried out by both are nearly the same:  Locke’s study is “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, and that of Hume is “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding”. We can say that both are classical epistemological studies concerning reason and understanding, with both philosophical and various forms of psychological aspects.

John Locke preserves his position in the history of philosophy as a unique philosopher in this field.  His contributions are the products of fundamental studies of an early period as to the origin of knowledge, how knowledge emerged, and how this knowledge took place in the memories of the people.  As per Locke’s thought, the concept of “idea” stands at a central point.  According to him, the things called “ideas”, which we can name as the drafts of things or the equivalents of such things in the form of cores or in the mind at the cost of simplification, are the essences of pure knowledge obtained through experiments.  According to Locke, the action arising from this experience lies beneath all the things we know, and our knowledge comes from this.  There is no information or ability congenitally planted inside our brains as a seed. This idea was also defended before Locke.  The things strengthening and supplying our understanding emerge and develop together with all of our observations within this period of time.

It is said that the state of a human acquiring a concept by any means or the fact that they express that they understood an emotion, or a word is controlled by looking at how they use it, rather than researching where and how they acquired that concept.  Just like in colors, a color exists or is possible for a person only as an experience.  Within this context, as a classical problem, there is question whether congenitally blind people are able to mentally perceive the things called colors, and when considered over this intellectual background, any person who has not experienced the related things by any means will not understand that thing.  Therefore, the color category will not gain a place in the mind of a (congenitally) blind person as it is beyond the borders of his/her world of experience, and thus will not constitute a meaning.  Nevertheless, Hume claims otherwise; despite having various hesitations, he implies that this person might have the idea of the color “blue” and that its psychological factors might be present.

Of course, he also claims that human mind harbors different serious potentials and has the power to develop.  In fact, the mind structurally has the power and adequacy to create new ideas through the mediation of traits such as integrating the parts, isolating and comparing the things having various aspects, etc.  It is possible to say that they are the indicators of the fact that the things called “ideas” are neither congenitally fixed things nor do their contents expand as a result of the core attempts of humans.  Thus, as a consequence and reflection of all these efforts, the ability called perception will be able to finds the grounds for development.  By having what is necessary for understanding, reason enables the development of the understanding in its practicable form.

According to Locke, the concept of language almost naturally creates itself at this point, because the most fundamental tool to transfer information is language.  In the part titled “on words” included in his book, he discusses the origins of the words as a continuation of the discussion of ideas.  For Locke, words have a pivotal function like transferring the ideas.  It can be diagrammed as follows:  The ideas and words obtained by reason through experiences can reach the level of comprehension by acquiring of the language.  Although we know that tongueless people have also established communication and developed their mental capacities for a long time, we cannot deny the fact that language is a significant tool for the entire history of civilizations.

Nouns are general things both in respect of reason and obligation.  In addition, it is not possible to go into any theoretical activity over proper nouns, because scientific studies, which are the purest form of the use of reason, seek for what is general and follow its theory.  At this point, Locke also inquires what general nouns could be and how they emerged, and he follows a route starting from ideas and leading to general words regarding the creation of the means of using the reason.

As a consequence, Locke initiates his research on reason and understanding from the creating of the cores of knowledge, which he deems the most fundamental structure, and finalizes it by emphasizing the classification of sciences that could be considered to be at the most macro level.  Although the study he carried out had some deficiencies in terms of contemporary epistemology, it still preserves its significance by the uniqueness of the topics it takes into consideration.

After Locke, David Hume continued to work on similar questions.  He put forward studies on topics like human nature, the function of the reason, causality.  At the same time, Hume is a philosopher about whom Kant, one of the greatest philosophers of the modern age, said “the one who woke me up from my dogmatic slumber”. He asserts the purpose of the aforementioned work as the research of human nature, namely the mental structure of humans.

His main purpose is to research the origins of the mental abilities like thinking, feeling and perception. According to him, philosophy, which he says to have lost its reputation (probably referring to the middle age), could only regain that reputation through competent remarks on such issues, and he says that a study about the clarity of the mental capacities of humans, which also sets bounds to the same, could bring this reputation back.  By more technical expression, according to Hume, this would be possible by the “science of human nature”. Today, although it is difficult to determine a single field for this much-desired science of human nature, it appears that it would not be so wrong to say that it can form in the intersection zones of the fields of philosophy, psychology and medicine.  As a matter of fact, according to Hume, almost all sciences are actually related to humans; nevertheless, their ways of discussing this topic determines their partial relevance or irrelevance.  Hume, through a unique concept, approaches this situation over the “conquest of human nature” and believes that it would be possible to make inquiries regarding the reason and understanding as a way out from this field that seems to be complicated.  As much as science is based on experiments and observations, researches on human nature must be present on the ground all sciences need to take for themselves.  Questions to be set forth on human and his nature in all forms must be at the focus of the scientific efforts.  When human is the subject of the study, according to Hume, it does not prejudice the scientific effort itself, even though it is possible to encounter various unknown situations.  The concepts of reason and understanding will always be the main themes of the researches concerning human nature.

In line with the remarks of these two classical philosophers said, it could be said that the reason and the capacity of understanding are two determinant traits of characteristic importance for humans; they push the boundaries when active and it is possible for them to reach a full competence. Reason will enable the humans realize themselves by putting themselves forward as unique creatures and to head for the purpose of happiness having a considerable significance within the course of life.  Understanding, however, is a mental skill and a capability unique to the human species, enabling one to cope with arduous situations encountered and to provide solutions to that problem.  It can be said that human is a creature capable of providing solutions to the problems thanks to the power given by his/her reason, both in terms of bodily health and mental health. Marx, at some point, emphasized that humankind does not cause problems that it cannot solve.  The two most basic human skills enabling this are reason, which is the initial necessary ground, and understanding which processes, operates and virtually shines the first.

Although it is apparent that these two abilities are criticized (sometimes in a rightful manner) due to their negative uses of destructive proportions in specific periods of time, such as the wards and mass destructive weapons produced by reason, it is not very likely that the humankind will be able to preserve its life by remaining within the borders of the humanity without these two abilities. Negative uses do not justify an essential withdrawal or being pushed to an irrational plane through a radical abandonment; these two abilities preserve their essentialness by being fueled from the criticism within the context of timeliness and necessity.

– John Locke, İnsan Anlığı Üzerine Bir Deneme (Translated by: Vehbi Hacıkadiroğlu), Ara Yayıncılık, 1992
– David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford’s World Classics, Oxford University Press 2007