The Public Use of Reason

Lately I’ve been thinking about what some people refer to as freedom of the pen, or what Kant specifically calls the public use of reason. It is apparently flagrantly ignorant of me to believe that the reasons that people give for things are the reasons that they believe it to be the case, in a public fora. Many current affairs issues, political, social, economic or cultural rely on providing views as rationalised ideals and negotiable, subject to a truth or falsity, or part of the forum of rational discussion. However, it would be ignorant to suspect that more isn’t going on. Engaging in public discussion, whether this is a presence on the print media, bloggosphere, television or other form of video discussion, or even dare I say it, comments pages, often rely on a point of view that is backed up by a form of reasoning. The notion of a public use of reason presumes a communicability of our values to a wider audience, however there is an extent where privately, our values are not so communicable.

In this post I shall consider the distinction between private and public reasons; the application of public reason in ethics, aesthetics and finally some epistemic and normative considerations about communicability and the public use of reason.

Private and public use

What is a private appeal, or a private reason as opposed to the public use of reason? One may be to say that arguments against gay marriage for some people a thinly veiled prejudice against social change, or their inherent lack of acceptance of sexual difference. Another may be how I have encountered people who claim to be considered socialists who enjoy stating their point, but any appeal to conservatism by name (as in conservative thought and its history , or current party issues) will brand you as a party to right-wing tarnishing where their priming automatically inclines them to disagree. Often our public reasons are different to our private reasons. We cannot convince an agnostic audience of our view if we are basing it upon an unjustified fear, or an unquestionable conviction. However that said, I can often find a segregation of views, in that discourses may emerge where everyone is in broad agreement and the level of argumentation is poor because the vocabulary is non argumentative, and presumptive.

Just say a few words like ‘priviledge’ or ‘globalisation’ and our audience can be presumed. The appeals to private reason becomes a shorthand of an argument enthymatic. We cease to argue, and simply claim the assent of our listeners. If we disguise public reason as a private reason we undermine the role of the public forum, and we segregate those who disagree with us. By excluding those who disagree with us, we have no argument, simply we repeat views. Eventually if we are around enough repeaters, the shorthand for our reasons loses any form of reasoning. This to me looks like a form of populism.


To have a private reason does not undermine that we have this conviction. However, it may be that we cannot convince our audience of an argument, or the veracity of a claim, or a political/ethical position through it. In Kant’s own time, the role of Reason was an appeal against religious moralistic kinds of reason in addressing issues of public and ethical importance. It is one thing to hold a moral conviction, or one based on a religious insight, but it is inadmissable in a public discourse to assume that others will come from this background or form of conviction. In order to appeal to a wider audience we must appeal to a universal kind of language that appeals wider.

I suppose this is where my catholic leanings betray me. It was the view of many Catholic thinkers from Aquinas to the 19thC that our reasons should appeal beyond the convictions of faith, but using a wider language of reason. The truths of the world would be revealed through in their terms, not just the scriptural revelation of the Bible, but also through the observable and grasping empirical world. The emphasis on rational thought as well as a faith conviction is understood to be one of the differences between Catholic (rational theology, or analogia entis) and protestant (revealed, analogia fides, sola scriptus) Christianities.

For individuals to engage outside of their own community of conviction they must appeal to argumentation, or facts that support their convictions. In the public context, this may be through empirical studies, secondary anaylsis of existing data, or some other form of scientific appeal. It is not enough to communicate an ethical or political conviction on the basis of a feeling, and even if it were, it would not be reasoning but a form of rhetoric. Unfortunately, Rhetoric is very popular these days, when democracy is built on consensus and the confidence of the public. This isn’t necessarily to conclude that democracies are poorly suited to rational discussion, but rather it may suggest the importance of an informed and well reasoning populace.  By well reasoning, I mean those who can distinguish between reasons which are convincing to others beyond themselves.


When it comes to aesthetics, communicability is a bit of a difficult one for me. Why is it, you might ask, that a public form of reasoning could ever be important to justify what one’s favourite poem is, or why such and such a guitar riff is so powerful. I also consider it a point of asymmetry with ethics. In ethical and political discourse, it is considered a good to appeal to reasons of communicability, however when it comes to our experience/aesthetics, how could we appeal to anything but the subject-ive, or in other words, our response to the object?

Someone like MIchael or Destre would try to convince you that the reason to enjoy Bach is because of its formal beauty, but they themselves (Michael especially) would be personally highly emotively moved by the 48 preludes and Fugues, but could not possibly use this as an appealing reason to convince someone why they might like Bach. Appeal to private reasons I have stated resort to dispositions and temperaments that one already has, but how can we appeal to our sentiment of art and music when it is our personal response? The only way it would seem, is that if another agent we are talking with also has that engendered response. So I could only talk with other fans of Pearl Jam about my love of the ‘Ten’ album, and in this respect we are merely assenting agreement. This is not a form of communicability, only an assent to agreement or disagreement.

If political discourse worked this way, or ethical consensus, we would end up simply hanging around people we agreed with all the time. I think that this is in fact what happens in a lot of online discourse. People who tend to agree with each other camp together, and this may not be in political spheres but social spheres, the comedian Kate Smurthwaite has pointed out how a certain kind of comedian is commercially viable and popular due to the way that the industry of comedy orients towards favouring late-night comedy, where a certain kind of audience who enjoy a certain kind of joke are roused by samey routines that enable audiences to let off some steam.

Epistemic considerations

I think that communicability is a good way of trying to justify our beliefs. Instead of relying on our feelings and what we hold to be true as a brute fact (some epistemologists such as Williamson over the past decade have tried to encourage the merit of brute fact type reasons, or ‘primitives’ over epistemic schemes). Are we convinced of our beliefs if we can communicate it with others? I remember one piece of editorial advice I got from blogging here which was ‘if you can’t communicate it in simple words, you don’t have a valid idea’, communicability is quite a good epistemic benchmark for humbug arguments or reasons. In a sense, it is the first hurdle, the necessary benchmark but not one sufficient for being convinced of our beliefs. I propose this from a position that is unconvinced that epistemic primitives (such as the brute fact of our believing or percieving of some thing) are prima facie convincing.

Normative considerations

This whole proposal about the public use of reason is presumptive, I am for example presumptive of the fact that within public discourses, our believes must answer to some form justificatory schema and not brute reasons which command assent or disagreement among those whom there is no form of discussion, but simply appealing to what they already believe. This is what I would take to be a populism. So lets go back to our values. The public use of reason is what I would take to be a starting point in points of discussion, whether these are current issues or issues of political ideology. I would take it to be an epistemic norm and an epistemic good to hold to the ideal of the public use of reason.

Coda: current issues

I’ve been led to thinking about the public use of reason from a variety of stories that have emerged lately. The phenomenon of trolling, or specifically the appeal to derogatory and defamatory language as a form of silencing, undermining and derailing reminds me of the public and private distinction I have made. News services in the Gaming industry IGN and to a lesser extent, Machinima display a level of journalism which is outright misogynist at times and is unapologetic, this I think reflects the fact that a certain type of male gamer is so visible as the archetypical gamer, who casually swears, enjoys trash talk and wouldn’t think twice about the symbolism of using sexual violence analogies to describe playing a game. Gamers feel so strongly about this behaviour as a form of entitlement that they would go so far as to defame and troll a Kickstarter project forged by Anita Sarkeesian on Gender and gaming.

Likewise I have heard numerous stories of journalists and writers who have experienced campaigns of trolling and defamation for speaking out on various issues. Judith Butler had a petition against being awarded the Adorno Prize for her views on Israeli politics, her response was nuanced and pertinent to this distinction. I’ve also recently explored a website called Reddit, which has a bizarre mix of private reasons and public reasoning. There is one extreme where all of the threads are mostly reactionary and highly rated comments are those that refer to people as fagets in full caps lock, while others involve informed debate where people are open minded enough to disagree or willing to change their mind. The internet age was initially considered as a democratising force for creating an informed public who had a forum for public reasoning, but the way that customisation and orienting around ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’ surrounds an internet user simply around people and environments in which they would agree. It’s like going to a party and only hanging around with people you know: you don’t need to cover any new ground, being around those you agree with or share the same sentiments simply fosters a shorthand of discussion, where little is actually elaborated and everything is simply agreed upon.


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