The Limitations of Reason Exposed in Crime and Punishment
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Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment illustrates an important idea. The idea is
that "reason," that grand and uniquely human power, is limited in
reach and scope. Social critic Friedrich August von Hayek
commented once that, ". it may be that the most difficult task for
human reason is to comprehend its own limitations. It is essential
for the growth of reason that as individuals we should bow to
forces and obey principles we cannot hopefully to understand, yet
on which the advance and even the preservation of civilization may
depend." Such limitations imply that on life's most important
questions - particularly those of a moral or ethical nature -- reason
alone can produce chilling consequences. Without adequate or any
moral illumination, reason alone, when pushed to its limits, can
produce consequences which stand dramatically opposed to those
moral demands. Dostoevsky's narrative is directed as a specific
critique of Russian manifestations of purely rational political
theories current in the 1860's in his homeland. But the challenge
he poses has meaning for us at the end of the 20th century.
Dostoevsky's parable focuses on a particular brand of 19th century
Russian ideology, as it begins to crystallize in the mind of a young
idealist. But the modeling procedure Dostoevsky uses in teasing
out the contradictions of Raskolnikov's unguided application of a
morally bankrupt theory, could equally well be applied to
contemporary thinking around several important and equally
bankrupt modern ideas - ideas harshly criticized by thinkers such
Without direction - the source of which is ultimately beyond
rational understanding - in the domain of the meta-rational --
reason-as-reason will, sooner or later, run aground. Directed reason
on the other hand provides an orientation - an orientation that
gives purpose and direction to inquiry -- by allowing us to select
from an infinite range of possibilities the right path - the "right"
reason. Problems emerged for Raskolnikov then, and for us now
when we deny the need to recognize, acknowledge and bow to
external guidance. The rational and the meta-rational must operate
symbiotically: one pointing the way, the other uncovering the
Raskolnikov rationalized murder. We are appalled. Why? Each of
us will attempt to answer in a different way. Fundamentally though
I think that most of our answers boil down to the same idea.
are appalled because it wasn't the right thing to do.
We know that - Raskolnikov himself eventually came to know that
too. But the reason his crime wasn't right had nothing to do with
Raskolnikov's rational theories. Political theories, scientific
theories, medical theories, anthropological theories, psychological
theories, as theories are nothing more than intricate exercises in
calculus. They apply a coherent set of rules to the objects they
reference. Like arithmetic or calculus this involves plugging in
values, applying the rules, and observing the consequences.
Theories as calculus have no moral content. Whatever moral
framework we as humans use to regulate the operation of theories
comes from a domain outside of the calculus. This all seems so
But is it? Our century seems a poor test case for the symbiotic and
morally illuminated application of theory. Global wars, genocide,
environmental decay, and massive economic disparity are but a
few examples of theories running aground in our century. We seem
no better that our ancestors.
We may be worse off. Not just because the consequences of
unguided applications of reason are more far reaching now -
global population is large and our technologies powerful. We may
be worse off now because of the emergence of theories that not
only deny the importance of a symbiotic relationship between the
rational and meta-rational, they deny the meta-rational altogether.
These theories enable their practitioners - like Raskolnikov tries to
do in our story - to cross over the barriers erected by traditional
morality, by denying the barriers. They are not meta-rational to
Raskolnikov; they are irrational. Hence they are destructible. In
crossing those barriers Raskolnikov is in a position to act outside
the constraints of good and evil.
Such theories (i.e. those of Raskolnikov) - unlike most ideas we
draw on to shape our lives and give meaning to our existence -
actively close off and deny mystery.
This is not true for physics or biology or political science
generally. None of those systems make explicit moral demands as
such - but nothing in those sciences as traditionally articulated
expects their practitioners to be blind to the moral universe.
I'd like to offer three contemporary examples. While each of these
streams offers differing approaches, they are similar in this respect
to the specific form of pure rationality Dostoevsky warns about:
none of these systems are open to, make reference to, or are guided
in any meaningful way by reference to externals. Universes onto
themselves these systems attempt to capture the universe and make
it their own.
The first of these ideas is called historicism. An underpinning
principle of the approach is that "Truth" with a capital "T" or
"Truths" have no enduring meanings in human cultures In fact, the
claim is that all historical ideas and arguments and moralities are
relative only to the times in which they were developed. No
amount of dissection, interpretation or critical analysis of the past
can provide us with anything other than a measure of Truths as
they once were. There may be nothing rationally wrong with such
If we deny the main claim of historicism and accept a priori that
truth does endure we must draw on a belief which really can not be
established rationally. To believe that Truths are intelligible and
invariant is to believe something about the universe we can not
establish with certainty - except as a kind of faith.
A second modern purely rational stream is represented by an
approach from within the positive sciences. It's called "scientism."
Not all scientists think this way. In fact scientism isn't particularly
scientific - it is more an attitude toward the positives sciences held
by some both in and out of the sciences. The basic contention -
and it may account for the disdain many of us have for modern
science - is that the only knowledge in the would that has any
validity is knowledge derived from the positive sciences.
Scientism as scientism would claim that all ethical, moral,
aesthetic, or metaphysical statements are meaningless. The only
real meaning is that which can be attached to technical feasibility.
If something is technically possible - it is morally admissible. We
don't need Dostoevsky to respond here - Mary Shelley has already
done so. What's wrong with building a monster, detonating a
hydrogen bomb or cloning a Bill Clinton? Nothing - from the
perspective of this purely rational approach.
A third example arises from a position that argues that moral
decisions should only be based on pragmatic considerations and
that practical concerns should always prevail over theory or ethics.
From a purely rational point of view - if we deny the universality
or existence of external forces, we are rationally bound to follow
such a course. In fact, the very word "rationalize" has come to
imply the kinds of consequences flowing from this sort of
reasoning. If you think about it, pragmatism - in this guise - taken
to extremes can be used to rationalize just about any action any one
or any nation has ever taken.
The rational ideologies that were capturing the imaginations of the
Russian intelligentsia in the 1860's were a blend of ideas
influenced by an intermingling of the currents of English
Utilitarianism (Mill), Utopian Socialism (Marx and others), and
Social Darwinism: all of these are reflected in some way in the
character of Raskolnikov. For example, Raskolnikov's notion that
superior individuals had the right to act independently for the
welfare of humanity reflects an influence of Social Darwinism. But
Dostoevsky's main target seems to have been what has come to be
known as Russian Nihilism - a rather negative doctrine which
found nothing to approve in the established order of anything:
morality, religion or politics.
Joseph Frank who writes on this in the commentaries at the back of
the Norton text draws attention to an interesting poem by
Wordsworth, "The Prelude" which Frank says offers an essential
commentary on "Crime and Punishment." Here is the poem:
This was a time, when, all things tending fast
To depravation, speculative themes -
That promised to abstract the hopes of man
Out of his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth
For ever in a purer element-
Found ready welcome. Tempting region that
For Zeal to enter and refresh herself'
Frank says that these next and final two lines of Wordsworth's
poem define the theme of "Crime and Punishment" with far more
exactitude than the mountain of critical literature on Dostoevsky:
Where passions had the privilege to work,
And never hear the sound of their own names.
Frank argues that Raskolnikov's crime is planned on the basis of a
rational Utilitarian calculus. Raskolnikov believes that his reason
can overcome the most deeply rooted human feelings. Ordinary
criminals, according to Raskolnikov's theories, are motivated by
greed or viciousness. They break down when they do their deeds
leaving all sorts of clues about, because inwardly they understand
the justice of the laws they are transgressing. Conscience - which
is outside rational framework - and after all a product of an
irrational belief - interferes with such purely rational actions.
For Raskolnikov this crime was not really a crime. His reason had
persuaded him that the harm - he accepts some harm - would be
far outweighed by the good. That's the calculus. Raskolnikov had
to show that he was indeed up to the task. This conscience thing
had to be overcome. Conscience - which is a product of some
mythological conditioning in Raskolnikov's mind -- could not be
allowed to distort his reason.
Dostoevsky's procedure was to take such an ideological theory and
show how -- when pushed to extremes - it would generate
distasteful contradictions. The contradictions that emerge are in the
form of a clash between Christian values - love, altruism,
sympathy - and the amorality of his ideology.
Of course in the novel Raskolnikov is not successful. Under the
influence of the meek and illiterate Sonya - an embodiment of
wisdom of the meta-rational kind - Raskolnikov's project
eventually falters - or seems to. What did the defeat mean? Has
Dostoevsky demonstrated the necessity of a symbiosis between the
rational and mystery (or the meta-rational)?
Let's examine the problem.
My starting point works like this. I freely acknowledge that these
meta-rational forces are not subject to rational analyses. But, when
I ask myself this question: Can Truth present itself to me via a
meta-rational path? I cannot say no. I can't say no because my
reason alone can not negate the transcendental. Reasoning - as I
understand reasoning - can not rule out the possibility that there
are regions where conventional human reasoning is inoperative.
The best way I understand to express this is to say that it is not
irrational be receptive to mystery. This in no way proves the meta-
rational - it simply declares that openness to mystery is not
In Christian discourse the label attached to this act of receptivity to
mystery or meta-rational knowledge is called Faith. Enormous
tensions emerge when rational reason - in Raskolnikov -
encounters Faith - in Sonya. For Raskolnikov life is a calculus.
Sonya knows but cannot express rationally why that cannot be so.
She says simply that, "God has to be. "
In Christian terms Faith provides the illuminating knowledge
which guides reason. That knowledge - for Christians - as claimed
in the gospels - is that Jesus Christ is, "the way, the Truth, and the
Life." But this "knowledge" is offered, in the gospels, not as a
rational argument, but as a revelation - provided by God as a free
gift to anyone who is disposed to receive the gift.
That knowledge provided through Faith is represented as
fundamentally different from rational knowledge because it is
experiential and interpersonal. It is analogous to the knowledge
that we "experience" of "love" or "friendship" when we enter into
human relationships. Loving relationships generate awareness and
sensibility purely rational analyses of such relationships can never
adequately explain. These mysterious understandings emerge when
we surrender to the idea of love. Plato alludes to this sort of thing
in a pre-Christian context in the Republic and the Symposium
when he references the domain beyond the divided line. In the
Christian context, this openness to Faith requires that we divest
ourselves of arrogance, egoism and pride. That of course is a
painful thing to do. Any such surrender is painful and humiliating.
We must symbolically fall down, kiss the earth and accept the
inevitable suffering - as Sonya urges Raskolnikov to do:
"Go at once, this instant, stand at the crossroads, first bow down
and kiss the earth you have desecrated, then bow to the whole
world, to the four corners of the earth, and say aloud to the world:
`I have done murder.'"
And that Raskolnikov does seem to do - albeit half-heartedly:
"He knelt in the middle of the square, bowed to the ground, and
kissed its filth with pleasure and joy. He raised himself and then
bowed a second time.[but] . stilled the words `I am a
The importance of grounding certainties derived from meta-
rational sources which then serve as references for philosophic
inquiry is not confined to Christianity.
Divested of the labels of religious terms, all Truth seeking can be
seen as driven at its deepest level by what can best be described as
a sense of "wonder." That wonder itself may be seen as powered
by a rationally unconfirmed and unconfirmable "belief" that the
search itself is meaningful - that there is some purpose for the
search, and that although the goal may be only dimly perceived -
there is a goal and that the goal is enduring. This "wonder driven"
impulse can itself be understood as the external reference
necessary for any meaningful inquiry. Wonder is a kind of faith.
This notion that there are unverifiable universal principles that all
philosophic systems share is sometimes also called "right reason."
The abandonment of the idea of common references shared by all
philosophies leads invariably to confusions and fragmentation.
Each system of thought claims ownership of the all. This is
sometimes called "philosophic pride."
Whenever we abandon external reference our inquiries are subject
to caprice and their achievements judged by pragmatic criteria or
empirical data. The neglect of "right reason" leads to agnosticism
and relativism and skepticism and undifferentiated pluralism. In
effect all positions are equally valid and everything becomes
reduced to "opinion." In his specific critique of Raskolnikov
Dostoevsky shows how all of the above may emerge when any
proudful theory rules our thinking.
You might maintain that setting faith aside, trivializing wonder, or
dismissing "right reason" is a sign of rational maturity - a
liberating decision as we free ourselves from the chains of
irrational mythologies. My only response to that is to offer that it is
NOT freedom to decline to be open to the transcendental. Faith,
wonder or right reason may be seen as the keys that can liberate
reason - by enabling reason to attain correctly what it seeks.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition - the context of external reference
in this novel - the first man and woman in the allegory of Genesis -
- had no need for reason - represented in Genesis by the tree of
knowledge of good and evil. Human pride caused man to seek
unreferenced knowledge. He did not need God.
The Fall meant that from that point forward the path to Truth
would become strewn with obstacles - reasoning would become
inclined to falsehood. The coming of Christ was the saving event
which redeemed reason from its weakness - in effect setting reason
free. Faith for the Christian became the external reference and
provided the orientation in the seeking of Truth through reason.
Such faith is not grounded on rational evidence because it indeed is
based on an interpersonal relationship which in some way is
deemed richer than evidence.
The Faith/Reason model in Truth seeking abandons the elitism
attached to the purely rational Russian ideologies Dostoevsky is
challenging in the novel. Truth is NOT something accessible only
to the privileged few.
All of the above brings intelligibility to the novel.
What is the meaning and role of suffering? It is for Raskolnikov
the experience of divesting himself firstly of his innate connection
with external reference - that makes him ill. Redemption causes
suffering too - Raskolnikov must abandon all he holds dear: that
he is a superman, his pride, his arrogance, his despotism.
What lies beneath the unexpected and unbelievably tumultuous
psychological struggle Raskolnikov experiences? I think
Dostoevsky is showing us how difficult it is to abandon the
external reference: that the demands of conscience are so harsh
points to the Truth of the source. The psychological struggle is
represented as a real spiritual drama between the protests of
conscience and the justifications of reason.
In the same sense finally, the duality of motive throughout the
novel is another manifestation of that spiritual drama. Far from
being a flaw in the story the conflicting motivations become the
devices Dostoevsky uses to portray the struggle between a rejected
morality that refuses to go away and Raskolnikov's rational
ideology. Before the crime Raskolnikov in the early tavern scene
with Marmeladov characterizes his motive in his theory of the
altruistic Utilitarian crime.
But the motive he confides to Sonya in his confession some time
after the deed is far from altruistic. He admits that he committed
the crime solely for himself - that is completely opposite to
altruism. He killed to show that he was a superior being who - as
such - stood outside of moral law - beyond good and evil. He did
it to see if he was strong enough to have the right to kill - a kind of
egomania. So what was it, egomania or altruism? The two motives
seem mutually exclusive.
I take Dostoevsky's warning seriously. Human survival may
indeed - as Hayek says - depend on bowing to principles which
will remain a mystery. Individual or global refusal to do that is
represented in the character of Svidrigaylov. For Svidrigaylov
good and evil are completely equivalent. Murder or generosity are
morally neutral. Faced with the meaninglessness of such a life,
Svidrigaylov realizes - as we might one day - that there is at the
end of the day but one option for such a life - annihilation - or, "a
trip to America."