The Limitations of Reason Exposed in Crime and Punishment

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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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

a claim.


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."

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