Reason and the Ethical Imagination

[This review first appeared in the December 1987 issue of Chronicles.]

"A perfect democracy is… therefore the most shameless thing in the world."
—Edmund Burke

More than 50 years after his death, Irving Babbitt continues to evoke a sympathetic response from minds and temperaments attuned to the ethical worldview fostered by classical and Christian thought. Within the last decade, much of his writing has been reprinted, and a cluster of critical studies has appeared. His sense of transcendent moral purpose, his dualistic vision of human nature, his concepts of inner check and the law of measure, his distrust of rationalistic absolutes, his recognition of the vital role of will and imagination—all these are perennially appealing to those who are uncomfortable with the naive worship of materialistic rationalism and with the moral relativism characteristic of our age. For the sympathetic reader of our decade, Babbitt's writing often elicits an assenting nod; consequences that for Babbitt were predictions are for us facts, and the cultural criticism his contemporary detractors found outdated and irrelevant often seems more timely and penetrating now than when it was written.

But no philosopher or critic has all the right answers. Indeed those we value highly often have very noticeable blind spots and limitations, and their strengths are inextricably dependent on their weaknesses: They could not have achieved in one area without slighting another. This is particularly true for a generalist like Babbitt, who addresses large issues that spread across disciplinary boundaries. In his literary criticism, for example, he could not have been so insightful concerning the history of ideas and the nature of the ethical imagination if he had devoted himself more extensively to matters of form and aesthetics.

Moreover, cultural and intellectual climates change continuously, and even the soundest ideas need adjustment and amplification to retain vitality in the living present. Babbitt's influence has been considerable, even if not always acknowledged, and it seems reasonable to expect this influence to grow as his ideas are reexamined, supplemented, and newly applied. This, in any case, is Claes G. Ryn's expectation.

Ryn is a brilliant and philosophically systematic new conservative voice. Born in Sweden, he was introduced to the writings of Babbitt and Paul Elmer More by his friend and teacher, the philosopher Folke Leander (1910-1981). Russell Kirk's books were also part of his extracurricular reading while he was a student at the University of Uppsala. Several years later. Kirk advised him about coming to the United States. Ryn realized, partly from the experience of Folke Leander, that his rejection of positivism and moral relativism, which held sway in Swedish academic circles, would obstruct a scholarly career in his own country. He completed his graduate study in the United States and is professor and former chairman in the department of politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of Nykonservatismen i USA, published in 1971 in Sweden, and Democracy and the Ethical Life (1978). He is coeditor of Irving Babbitt in Our Time (1986) and has published significant articles in scholarly journals. His writing has centered on large philosophical and literary matters rather than on practical politics.

Will, Imagination and Reason is not simply a study of Irving Babbitt. The motive underlying the book is to revise and supplement Babbitt's ideas in such a way as to provide a basis for a new approach to the epistemology of the humanities and social sciences. Ryn began this study in collaboration with Folke Leander. Both men were keenly interested in More and Babbitt and believed that the appreciation of these writers would be enhanced by systematic philosophical study. Leander began the task with The Inner Check (1974), which brought certain aspects of Croce's philosophy to bear on a key tenet of More's thought. The argument: Croce lacks More's ethical sensitivity but provides a philosophical rigor More lacks. Will, Imagination and Reason supplies the same Crocean supplement to Babbitt's thought. It is Ryn's book, marked by ideas and suggestions provided by Leander before his death in 1981.

Several primary ideas shape Ryn's thought. They are recurrent in his previous writing and animate this book on Babbitt. Most fundamental is the idea that "life is subject to a universal moral order which is accessible to philosophy." The moral order he has in mind is essentially that of the enduring Western traditions in ethics, particularly those of Christianity and ancient Greece. But Ryn advocates no simple return to ideas of the past: "A reconsideration of older traditions means their rearticulation and development in new intellectual circumstances." He has in mind a dynamic traditionalism in ethics based on "a creative, discriminating absorption of the moral insights of the past." He argues for "a value-centered historicism," an approach that acknowledges the existence of a universal moral order while at the same time fully recognizing the historical nature of knowledge (historical in the sense of continuously changing and developing in time and circumstance). His essay on "Knowledge and History" is the fullest exposition of this notion of thought as continuous activity aiming at truth but never static, "a dialectical straining towards, never the achievement of, perfect clarity." According to this idea, a written work is, in a significant sense, always unfinished: "A given treatise is a report on a continuing process of inquiry and is out of date even before it is finished." Ryn repeats this argument in Will, Imagination and Reason partly to explain and justify his rearticulating and complementing Babbitt's thought.

Another of his primary ideas is that modern conservatism has been in some measure debilitated by a tendency to fall back too quickly on intuition. Men like Babbitt, More, and Peter Viereck (Ryn has published a comprehensive essay on Viereck) share a suspicion of narrow rationalism, of theory, ideology, and systematic logic. They favor experience, common sense, will, and imagination. Ryn believes their emphasis on intuition tends toward an unjustified abandonment of reason to their opponents. He concedes that the direction of our lives is determined by will and imagination, but insists that a type of reason is inherent in the very operations of these faculties. Therefore, his fundamental assumption is that "will, imagination and reason can be adequately understood only in relation to each other." Being inclined toward and trained in technical philosophy, Ryn believes that any successful intellectual effort to restore a sense of man's transcendental moral purpose must grapple with fundamental philosophical problems, particularly those of epistemology. Moral purpose needs philosophy, and intuition needs the complement of reason.

But what kind of reason? Reason can be understood in various ways. Ryn agrees with Babbitt and likeminded persons about the limitations and abuses of the reifying rationalism of positivism, the abstract system-making of metaphysical rationalism, and the pragmatic rationality of natural science and other experimental sciences such as psychology. These, besides being inadequate for explaining the rich complexity of human existence, tend toward a dangerous exclusivity. Ryn posits another kind of reason, which he calls "philosophical reason." The term is scarcely adequate because it is not distinctive enough, but it is probably better than a conspicuous neologism. He intends the term to refer to the perception of the duality of human nature that Babbitt and More constantly emphasize. They call it an "intuition," but Ryn, taking his cue from Croce and Leander, understands that "the organon for observing immediate, intuitive experience is a kind of reason." Philosophical reason operates dialectically. Human existence is, in Babbitt's words, a "oneness that is always changing," and philosophical reason is the perception of the simultaneous existence of a universal moral order and the historically conditioned state of human knowledge.

The principal argument of Will, Imagination and Reason, therefore, is that Babbitt's work is significantly valuable for understanding and dealing with the problem of reality, but it needs to be supplemented by elements of systematic philosophy provided by Croce's Logic as the Science of Pure Concept (1917). Babbitt provides the wisdom and probing insights; Croce supplies the system and clarity of technical philosophy. The central thesis presented is that:

Knowledge of reality rests upon a certain orientation of the will and upon the corresponding quality of the imagination (intuition) that the will begets. Reason is dependent for the truth and comprehensiveness of its concepts on the depth and scope of the material it receives from the imagination. Babbitt's important contribution is the doctrine that only the highest form of the imagination—which he regards as sustained and anchored in ultimate reality by ethical will—pulls man toward a comprehensive and proportionate view of life.

Anyone who is sympathetically disposed toward Babbitt will find this book engaging and stimulating. Ryn reconsiders Babbitt's ideas with admirable philosophic intelligence and sophistication. His concept of philosophical reason may take a natural place alongside Babbitt's familiar concepts of dualism, inner check, law of measure, and ethical imagination.


[Will, Imagination and Reason: Irving Babbitt and the Problem of Reality, by Claes G. Ryn (Chicago: Regnery Books) $15.00]

Stephen L. Tanner

Stephen L. Tanner is a professor of English at Brigham Young University.

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