Philosophy And The Quest For A Justified Worldview—A Review of Kekes

Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

     In his The Nature of Philosophy1 John Kekes breathes new life into the characterization of philosophy as perennial argumentation which aims at the resolution of inevitable and enduring human problems.  While some of our problems are removable in that their solution leads to their disappearance, others will not disappear and are termed enduring—here we must develop a policy which will allow us to cope (36).  Some of these problems are not merely problems for particular individuals, they are externally and unavoidably forced upon us all given the sort of creatures we are and the sort of environment we inhabit.  Failure to resolve such problems of life places our very lives in jeopardy.

     According to Kekes, philosophers should provide justified worldviews—systematic and comprehensive theories which combine a reliable account of the nature of reality with a system of ideals thus offering a systematic response to our enduring problems of life (56).  Debates about the justifiability of or precise nature of our ideals are termed perennial arguments.  In external perennial arguments disputants disagree as to the acceptability of an ideal, while in internal ones they accept the ideal but disagree as to its nature or specification.

     Kekes is committed to the rationalists’ ideal that we ought to rationally justify all our beliefs and theories and he thus believes the resolution of perennial arguments is both possible and important.  The book is an extended development and defense of this ideal—thus it participates in both the external perennial argument between the rationalists and the fideists or irrationalists, and in the internal perennial argument amongst the various rationalists as to the nature and specification of their view.

     In the internal perennial argument amongst the rationalists Kekes develops a view of justification which emphasizes the controlling influence of problems upon inquiry—theories and beliefs may be evaluated and understood only relative to the problems they would resolve.  He does not present a pragmatic theory however.  Instead he maintains there are two distinct contexts of justification which must be kept clearly separate as each has its own particular justificational standard.  In the first, the context of introduction, the main question is whether it is reasonable to suppose a theory could constitute a successful resolution of an underlying enduring problem.  Here the justificational standard of problem-solving provides a “context independent standard of justification”(44) and “cultural influences” (such as one’s history, politics, sociology and psychology) play an important role since we consider “conformity to the existing worldview as a sign of initial plausibility” (107).  The introduction of several theories, of course, will be justified by this standard and they will each offer somewhat different counsel.  In the context of acceptance our task is to determine which of these theories should be accepted.  Here the justificational standard is that of truth-directedness: the theory we ought to accept is the one “...which has the best chance of being true” (111).  This probability is gauged by comparing rival theories in terms of their consistency, the adequacy of the interpretation they offer, and their ability to withstand criticism.

     Accounts of truth-directedness have become quite complex recently.  Most follow Popper,2 maintaining that the critical methodology is truth-conducive—the fact that a theory survives critical scrutiny is said to indicate that it is preferable to others which do not or could not.  Like Popper, Kekes suggests that truth is a “regulative ideal.”  Both cite Xenophanes who maintains that even if one could achieve true theories or beliefs one could not recognize that this was the case.  That is, they recognize that we are fallible and that there is a gap between the truth and falsity of our theories and the justifiability of our acceptance of them.  According to them “truth and falsity are ideal limits between which the justification of theories must fall” (122).

     In accepting this thesis, however, Kekes makes it quite difficult for us to accept his additional claim that the rational methodology is truth-conducive.  According to his view truth is our goal in the context of acceptance and truth-directedness our standard here.  Yet if this standard is to be useful, it must be employable.  Given the idea of truth here, however, the standard is unemployable—even if one perchance held theories and beliefs which were true, one could not know that this was the case.  In short, we seem to be unable to determine whether we are approaching our goal here and, thus, it seems the context of acceptance is essentially ungoverned.  Both Kekes and Popper would deny this as they maintain that the critical methodology is truth-conducive.  This claim itself must be justified for it to be acceptable to a rationalist however.

     Popper is avowedly fideistic at this point.3  Kekes would avoid this infelicity by appealing to the enduring problems of life.  He maintains that truth-directedness should be judged in terms of the relative degree of a theory’s susceptibility to and survival of critical scrutiny where such scrutiny is to provide a comparison of the relative merits of different interpretations of those facts and problems we confront given our nature and the nature of our environment.  In short, truth-directedness is to be judged in terms of which theory most adequately recognizes, accounts for, and resolves the inevitable facts and problems of life.  Here critical scrutiny appears to be wholly pragmatic however: the critical question seems to be “Which theory better resolves the enduring problem of life?” rather than “Which theory is true(r)?”  Thus the standard of truth-directedness is actually a disguised version of the standard of problem-solution.  In the context of acceptance we are to choose amongst a set of rival theories that one which has the “best chance of being true” and this is to be judged in terms of relative truth-directedness which is, ultimately, gauged in terms of problem-resolution.

     Kekes’ recommendation of the standard of truth-directedness in the context of acceptance was to distinguish his view of rational justification from that of the pragmatic rationalists—his foes in the internal perennial argument.  It would seem, however, that Kekes follows pragmatists like Laudan4 in distinguishing two contexts of justification and offering one standard (that of problem-solving) which applies in both rather than, as Kekes claims (110), offering two different standards.  In the internal perennial argument in regard to the nature of the rationalists’ ideal, then, Kekes’ discussion does not seem to live up to his goal.

     In the external perennial argument between rationalists and irrationalists (those who maintain that any justification of ideals is ultimately impossible) Kekes would refute the latter view by pointing to the enduring problems of life we all unavoidably face.  Such problems provide a primary standard of justification which is both context-independent and universal—appeal to it is not arbitrary.  Without such a universal, independent, and unavoidable standard, the rationalists’ view would, of course, be indefensible and rational choice amongst worldviews would be impossible (207)—choice would be required but no standard of choice would be independently defensible.  Any choice, then, would be arbitrary and as good as any other.  According to Kekes such a skeptical relativism or a fideistic view which touts some particular choice on irrationalist grounds arises from an absurd view of human nature and the nature of our environment.  Once one recognizes that we all naturally and unavoidably face certain problems, the irrationalists’ suggestion that the standard the problems supply might be arbitrary appears disingenuous—they too, after all, face and must resolve such problems.  Thus they can not avoid recognizing the controlling influence these problems exert over human theorizing.

     This argument is initially plausible.  His assertion that given our nature and the nature of our environment, such problems necessarily arise for us all is itself a part of a well-developed theory however.  The generally Darwinistic account he offers here is one few would reject today.  Nonetheless, it is a view which must be justified if it is to be a thesis a rationalist might accept.  The requisite justification will be supplied, of course, by various natural scientists.  They will arrive at this naturalistic conception in response to a variety of problems which they themselves face.  Their problems are of the sort Kekes terms problems of reflection—problems which arise as we attempt, in thought and theory, to resolve problems of life without actually trying out rival solutions in practice (33).  These problems, however, are theory-relative.  They arise only given the presupposition of one of the rival putative solutions to the underlying problem of life, they are resolved only given the adoption of the problem-solving methodology, and the adequacy of a solution is judged relative to this underlying problem, the theories held by the agent, and the various alternative theories and resolutions available.  Thus the solution the empirical scientists offer to their problem of reflection is one which may be offered and advanced only relative to the theories they hold and the problems of life which they confront.

     Traditionally irrationalists respond to rationalists’ attempts to ground and justify their rational standard by pointing out that any such argument must itself be based upon presuppositions and, further, any attempt to ground these leads either to an infinite and vicious regress, a circular justification, or an unargued, arbitrary, and unjustified (e.g., fideistic) commitment on the part of the rationalist.  Kekes’ appeal to the enduring problems of life is to circumvent this argument and provide the requisite justification thus settling the perennial argument in the rationalists’ favor.  Unfortunately, his justification is circular—the justification for the characterization of the self and environment which would make the enduring problems of life universal, unavoidable, and nonarbitrary (thus assigning a controlling influence over all inquiry), is itself the result of an inquiry which is conducted, ultimately, in response to and controlled by such problems.

     Kekes may be seen as attempting to meet this line of criticism in his discussion of common-sense (Chapter 9).  There he maintains our common-sense beliefs are basic.  Such a belief is “universally held, unavoidable, a necessary condition of action, and the likelihood of its truth cannot and need not be increased by additional evidence” (132).  These beliefs constitute the foundation of all our other beliefs. According to Kekes, the common-sense beliefs are not held as a result of any “cognitive scrutiny.”  In fact, no such scrutiny could undermine such beliefs—any theory which would contradict their foundations would be inconsistent.  Thus we have no alternative to that of interpreting our experience in light of these beliefs.  The reason no alternatives are possible here is that the common-sense beliefs are “physiologically based” (136)—these are the beliefs normal human beings must start with.

     The beliefs as to the characterization of human nature and the nature of our environment, surely, count as among the beliefs of common-sense.  If this is the case, however, it might seem that the irrationalists’ attempt to question such beliefs and, thus, challenge the rationalists’ justification of the rational standard of problem-solving, is doomed to failure.  Since basic beliefs constitute the foundation for all our other beliefs, any later beliefs which would contradict them would yield an inconsistent system (144).  In short, beliefs about the universality, unavoidability, and necessity of our confronting and resolving the enduring problems of life would be beliefs the irrationalists must accept—any attempt to question, contradict, or supplant them would be disingenuous.

     Unfortunately this response merely parallels the initial move on the part of Kekes’ rationalist.  Kekes’ characterization of philosophy demands the rational justification of our ideals.  Thus the belief, theory, or claim that the common-sense beliefs are “physiologically based” and that they have no alternatives is itself one which must be justified.  Appeal to common-sense, of course, will beg the question (as will appeal to the enduring problems of life), appeal to some unmentioned factor threatens to engender a vicious regress, and failure to provide the requisite justification plays into the irrationalists’ hand.

     Here, it should be stressed, I no more wish to question Kekes’ claim that such beliefs are basic than did I earlier wish to question the characterization of human nature and the nature of our environment which he offers.  What I do question is his claim that he has resolved the perennial argument between the rationalists and irrationalists.  That his justification for the offered characterization and the basic nature of our common-sense beliefs is circular, of course, does not establish that the irrationalists’ view is correct.  It does, however, seriously undermine the most central argument of the book.  The external perennial argument between the irrationalists and rationalists is exactly the one which must first be resolved (in the rationalists’ favor) if Kekes’ characterization of philosophy as the rational justification of worldviews is to be deemed acceptable.5

     Aside from the obvious pragmatic benefit of providing a comprehensive and consistent framework for solving enduring problems, philosophy is worthwhile according to Kekes since it provides an individual with a system of ideals which “...makes these solutions worthwhile, thus giving meaning and purpose to his life” (74).  Individuals must possess both the rational justifications which result from the successful resolution of perennial arguments and a sensibility or “interior emotional climate” (175) if they are to be wise and live well.  This sensibility is developed by making comparisons amongst different ideals and it requires imagination and emotional agility as one must imagine oneself guided by a variety of distinct ideals (176).  Kekes believes such comparisons provide preferable ideals allowing an individual “to come to terms with the scheme of things.”  He or she understands what is possible and “has emotionally accepted what he understands” (70).  Here the individual’s sense of values “ not an externally imposed set of duties and obligations, but an internally motivated system of feeling judgments” (199).

     Sensibility is opposed to alienation.  Individuals with either emotional orientation may possess rationally justified worldviews but only those who had the former trait would reap the benefits proposed.  Individuals who are alienated lack wisdom since they are made unhappy by the worldview which they find to be rationally justified.  Wisdom, then, is a “...felicitous state in which rational justification coincides with what one wishes, hopes, and desires to be true” (175).  The alienated individual may well recognize the inevitability, universality, and inescapability of the enduring problems of life, the common-sense beliefs, and the adoption of the problem-solving orientation and may develop policies for coping with such problems.  Kekes, however, believes it is better if individuals “emotionally accept” what they understand—if their values, duties, and obligations arise from an internally motivated system of feeling judgments rather than from some external source (200).

     Kekes, of course, must (according to his own conception of philosophy) establish the preferability of one’s having values because one recognizes one ought to and because one emotionally needs to over the case where one has them merely because one recognizes one ought to (or must).  Here, however, the standard of justification will not be problem-solving since both the alienated and those who possess sentiment are said to possess a justified worldview.  Nor does the standard of truth-directedness seem to be appropriate here—the unhappy seem as capable as the happy of developing true theories.  The justification of the claim that the wise person has a better chance for the good life, then, must appeal to some standard other than problem-solving or truth-directedness.  Many may perceive the suggestion of a third justificatory standard as most important, but the suggestion is not developed here and a fair appraisal of this aspect of Kekes’ argument must rest on his arguments in another book of his on the merits of the examined life.

     The critical comments here should not hide the strengths and virtues of Kekes’ work.  Whether his defense of the ideal he sets forth is successful or not, his is a significant attempt to provide such and a penetrating analysis of the philosophic endeavor.  His account forces his readers to confront fundamental problems in regard to rationality and justification and to rethink the nature and purpose of philosophizing.  Both those sympathetic and those hostile to his orientation will profit from a reading of this work.


1 John Kekes, The Nature of Philosophy (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980).  All further references to this work are followed by the appropriate page reference.   Back

2 Cf., Karl Popper’s “Truth, Rationality, and the Growth of Knowledge” in his Conjectures and Refutations (N.Y.: Harper and  Row, 1963).   Back

3 Popper’s fideistic characterization of his rationalism is in evidence on p. 246 of the second volume of his The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton: Princeton, 1966).  The difficulty in defending rationalism is clarified in J.W. Watkins, “Comprehensively Critical Rationalism” in Philosophy v. 46 (1969), pp. 57-62 and in J. Aggasi’s “Rationality and the Tu Quoque Argument,” in Inquiry v. 16 (1973), pp. 395-406.  Aggasi attempts to defend rationalism in his article and, along with I.C.Jarvie and T. Settle, attempts to meet Watkins’ criticism in “Towards a Theory of Openness to Criticism” in Philosophy of the Social Sciences v. 4 (1974), pp. 83-90).  Cf., my "A Dilemma for W.W. Bartley's Pancritical Rationalism," Philosophy of the Social Sciences, v. 21 (1991), pp. 86-89.   Back
4 Cf., Larry Laudan, Progress and Its Problems (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1977).   Back

5 I develop this criticism of Kekes’ view in more detail in my “Kekes on Problem-Solving and Rationality,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, v. 14 (1984), pp. 191-194.   Back

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