The Limitations of Reason Exposed in Crime and Punishment

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The Limitations of Reason Exposed in Crime and Punishment

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

as Hayek.

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.

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