Reviews of Brand Blanshard’s Major Works
(Author’s note: These reviews were written some ten years ago and may not reflect my current views in every detail although they do still represent the general tenor of my thought.)
Brand Blanshard has been my favorite philosopher for some twenty years now. A rationalist and to some extent an absolute idealist, Blanshard embodied the ‘rational temper’ about which he wrote.
Here are short reviews I’ve written of some of his works. Missing from the list are a couple of books that aren’t currently available online — notably Reason and Goodness, which of course I highly recommend if you can find it.
[NOTE: This list is in chronological order, not the order I’d recommend for actually reading them. Readers new to Blanshard will probably want to start in one of three places, depending on their interests and their prior knowledge of philosophy. The Uses of a Liberal Education is probably the best introduction for those without much background in philosophy; Reason and Analysis is probably the best for readers who have some philosophical background and want to read Blanshard on rationalism and the nature of reason; and The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard is probably best for readers who want a broad but detailed overview of Blanshard’s entire outlook and career.]
- The Nature of Thought
- On Philosophical Style
- Reason and Analysis
- The Uses of a Liberal Education and Other Talks to Students
- Reason and Belief
- The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard
- Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick
The Nature of Thought
In this brilliant two-volume work, rationalist Brand Blanshard traces the development and immanent purpose of human thought from the beginnings of perception to its ultimate, transcendent end: the grasp of all reality as a tremendous whole, a vast system interconnected throughout by intelligible relations of necessity.
Not, of course, that he thinks we have arrived at such an understanding, or indeed even that we ever will arrive at it. His concern here is to present this degree of understanding as an ideal, as the final goal at which thought implicitly aims to the extent that it deserves to be called thought at all. And his account of this implicit ideal throws its light on the development of human cognition from its very beginnings, just as knowledge of an oak throws light upon the nature of an acorn.
Blanshard was the most empirical of rationalists, having been driven to his rationalist position by a close examination of the realities of human thought; this work is the fruit of that examination. And because he stays close both to philosophy and to human psychology, his work can be profitably read by those in either camp.
And it should be read. Great philosophical treatises are all too seldom written, and this is one of the twentieth century’s greatest. Nothing since has matched it in either scope or rigor.
On Philosophical Style
Brand Blanshard’s prose style was itself a seamless implementation of the content of his philosophy: intelligible, clear, precise, and invariably suffused by what he called the “rational temper.”
In this book (really an extended essay) he offers helpful advice to would-be writers of philosophical prose-advice that he had more than earned the right to give. This single volume, if its advice were heeded, would have spared us the dark cogitations of many an obfuscatory philosopher and left the field of philosophy in the hands of those who had something to say. Those who are impressed by the bold pronouncements of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein will find little solace here, but anyone who expects philosophers actually to love wisdom will be delighted to encounter a kindred spirit.
Read it not only to profit from its advice on prose style but also to absorb something of the spirit of twentieth century philosophy’s greatest exemplar of reasonableness.
Reason and Analysis
In this, his best-known work, rationalist philosopher Brand Blanshard mounts a thorough defense of reason against an onslaught of twentieth-century attacks.
Some of the positions he reviews — e.g. logical positivism and linguistic analysis — are no longer as strongly represented as when he wrote. But his positive account of reason is as fresh and important now as then.
In a nutshell, Blanshard’s view is that reason is the power of grasping necessary connections; that the universe itself is a coherent logical and causal whole, shot through with threads of necessity and in which every specific “fact” is entailed by every other if we could but see it fully; that to understand something is to see it in the context of its necessary relations to that whole; and that this whole operates causally on our minds to lead us to truth through logic. (It is this last point that prevents his determinism from being futile and self-undermining: to be determined by reason is, for Blanshard as for Spinoza, what the rational man means by freedom.)
This work also bristles with important insights about the limits of formal logic and offers a theory of universals that has not, to my knowledge, received the attention it deserves. It is, in short, a must-read for any serious student of philosophy.
The Uses of a Liberal Education And Other Talks to Students
In this volume, Eugene Freeman has helpfully collected and edited twenty-three talks by rationalist philosopher Brand Blanshard, twentieth century philosophy’s finest exemplar of what he himself called the “rational temper”.
The talks are grouped loosely around the theme, “What is the purpose of education?” They are divided into three sections: “Ends,” a series of eight talks in which the question is pretty directly addressed; “Corollaries”, eight talks in which several related issues are canvassed; and “Homilies”, a group of seven “humanistic sermons” in which Blanshard offers reflective advice on matters from “Books” to “Courage” to “Admiration”.
I won’t try to summarize the specific content of this broad collection, but the overall thrust is the same as that of Blanshard’s philosophy in general. Basically, Blanshard identifies education with philosophy, not as a narrow technical specialty but as the broad attempt to “see things steadily and whole”. He develops this theme with his usual style, grace, vigor, and urbanity, and very effectively excoriates the antirationalism of most of the twentieth century.
Readers new to Blanshard and without much background in philosophy might want to start with this volume, which is uniformly accessible and non-technical and deals with themes that will be of general interest. Many passages present nontechnical discussions of themes Blanshard treats at greater length in his longer works (particularly Reason and Goodness). Most of these discussions cover territory that will be familiar to Blanshard’s longtime readers, but even they (well, “we”) will find some new delights here. (I am thinking particularly of “Sanity in Thought and Art”, which is cited several times in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard but is not in print anywhere else.)
As Blanshard notes in this volume, our admirations tell us something about ourselves and prompt us to become more fully what we are and should be. One object of my own admirations is Blanshard himself, and I recommend his works highly for the inspiration I have drawn therefrom.
Reason and Belief
In this uniformly clear and incisive volume (the third in Brand Blanshard’s landmark trilogy in defense of reason), the twentieth century’s greatest philosophical rationalist carefully examines the claims of religion in the light of reason (including its claims that something other than reason may provide an ultimate standard of truth).
Entering sympathetically but critically into the thought of great religious thinkers in the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, Blanshard concludes that whatever legitimate content religion may have, the claims of reason as ultimate arbiter of truth cannot be compromised.
This conclusion does not, Blanshard insists, remove the whole of religion. He conceives religion as the response of the “whole man” to whatever he regards as ultimately true and important, and he finds much in Christian tradition that is worthy of a rationalist’s praise. And in the volume’s final, positive section — “A Rationalist’s Outlook” — Blanshard sets out in detail what he thinks we may and may not accept from received religious tradition.
The concept of “God” is one that he finds we must at least attenuate; while Blanshard can profess belief in an “Absolute” (roughly, all of reality regarded as a logically and causally coherent whole), this Absolute does not share enough features with the “God” of traditional theism for Blanshard to feel comfortable retaining that word as a description of his own quasi-theistic belief. Nevertheless he also does not argue for scrapping the concept completely, and his disagreements with more traditional theists are always presented with the utmost generosity.
Despite its fairly explicit focus on Christianity, this brilliant work also presents a model for budding non-theists in other traditions who seek to take a similarly sympathetic-yet-critical approach to, say, Judaism or Islam. For Blanshard, the primacy of reason does not involve wholesale rejection of religion as inherently “irrational”. Indeed, he concludes that reason, properly conceived, has been the unadmitted architect of religion all along, and that taking it seriously is precisely the way to transform our world for the better.
Blanshard, in short, takes the service of reason as his own religion. His thorough account should be read by anyone who takes either reason or religion with the seriousness such topics deserve.
The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard
Brand Blanshard, easily the twentieth century’s sturdiest defender of reason, rationality and the “rational temper”, exemplified that temper in every line of his graceful prose.
His solid defenses of e.g. the nature of mind as seeking and striving after ends, the end of thought as systematic understanding, the coherence theory of truth, the objective existence of necessary logical and causal connections, the universe as a strongly coherent logical and causal whole in which every fact entails and is entailed by every other, the meaning of “goodness” as the objective fulfillment of human ends accompanied by the taking of satisfaction in that fulfillment-his defenses of these views and others won the admiration of friends and critics alike, both for the thoroughness of his approach and for the generosity with which he treated opposing positions.
In this volume he exchanges essays with many of those friends and critics, providing yet again not only a defense of his views but an admirable example of how to conduct oneself in philosophical controversy. In a departure from the practice followed in the other volumes in this series, Blanshard replies to each critical essay individually rather than in one long reply at the volume’s end. The effect is that the book reads like an extended philosophical conversation, in which Blanshard deals personally and closely with each thinker in turn.
His replies also indicate where his thought had grown and developed since the publication of The Nature of Thought in the 1930s, thereby continuing his thought along the lines laid down in Reason and Analysis, Reason and Goodness, and Reason and Belief. The essays and replies are arranged topically, covering the full range of Blanshard’s rationalist philosophy. And an introductory autobiographical essay provides a delightfully personal introduction to the man himself.
No student of Blanshard can afford to miss this thorough and thoroughly engaging volume.
Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick
Brand Blanshard, twentieth-century philosophy’s greatest exponent of rationalism, here turns his pen to an examination of reasonableness in action, as exemplified in the lives of Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, and (Blanshard’s own favorite exemplar of the “rational temper”) Henry Sidgwick.
Though himself a rationalist, Blanshard was not under the illusion that only avowed rationalists could be reasonable, as his selection of examples clearly shows. In each essay, he presents a lucid and sympathetic account of his subject’s life and thought in a seamless combination that deserves to be called “philosophical biography”.
While this volume is of course highly informative about each of its four subjects, it is also of interest with regard to Blanshard’s own thought. He was ninety-two years old when he wrote this delightful and highly readable work, and his examinations of these four men distill a lifetime of his own reflections on the role of reason in the ordering of human affairs. A final chapter — “The enemy: Prejudice” — summarizes his mature views on the nature and importance of the rational temper.
The entry under Blanshard’s name in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy closes on an uncharacteristically personal note: “Blanshard’s personal demeanour,” writes the entry’s author Prof. Peter H. Hare, “was one of extraordinary graciousness.” That graciousness, evident throughout his work, is especially so here, where Blanshard deals less directly with philosophical questions and more directly with reasonableness as instantiated in actual human lives; his generosity and sympathy (much neglected rational virtues!) are almost palpable. If the rest of us could absorb something of his rational temper and spirit, our lives and the life of the world would undoubtedly be transformed for the better.
And there is no better place to begin than this volume by a great man whose religion was the service of reason.
What do you think of this article? Discuss it on Scholardarity’s message board.