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Reason and Violence

A fragment of the ideology of liberal intellectuals

Ray Edgley
The antithesis between reason and violence: some
contemporary examples
I want to consider a version of the ic!ea that
violence is contrary to reason, or to put another way
what may seem to be the same point, that reason and
violence are antithetical or mutually exclusive.

Like many philosophical doctrines, this idea, in all
its stark unqualified simplicity, runs counter to
common sense; yet it’s widespread and deeply entrenched,
especially among those involved in certain current
issues, whether on one side or another. On one side,
the antithesis between reason and violence is taken
to show that violence is to be rejected: this is part
of the ideology of many liberal intellectuals. On
another side, the antithesis between reason and
violence is taken to show that reason is to be
rejected: this is part of a romantic ideology.

propose to say little about violence and more about
reason. For however much at the social level one
admires reason and deplores violence, philosophically
it’s reason that is the chief troublemaker. It’s a
common misconception of reason, shared by both sides
in this dispute, that generates, or at least supports,
the antithesis.

I shall take some examples of the use of this
antithesis in the discussion of current affairs, and
then move on to another example, my chief target,
namely an abstract and philosophical deployment of
the antithesis. This conjunction of examples will
show how discussion of practical social problems may
be infected with a kind of confusion that is in a
widely acknowledged sense philosophical. 1,1y argument
will therefore suggest how philosophy can be relevant
to current issues and need not leave everything as it

Examples of the antithesis are not difficult
to find these days, when there has been an increase
in violence on the part of individuals, such as
students and professional people, who belong to
classes traditionally thought of as composed and
reasonable and responsible citizens. Indeed, one
might suppose that it’s reason that is chosen as
the antithesis of their objectionable violence not
only because the objecting is done by liberal
intellectuals but also because the people being
appealed to are of these traditionally reasonable
and responsible classes. But faced seriously with
this choice, those who see violence as necessary
will reject reason. The alienation of reason is
personal and political. What I shall suggest is
that it may nevertheless be rooted in the remotest
recess of the academic ivory tower, the philosophy
of logic.

Here, then, in the first of my examples is a
consort of two British politicians, one Torr and
one Labour, arguing (in the words of the Observer
newspaper report .of December 7, 1969) ‘against the
rejection of reason and the cult of violence’. Of
Quinton Hogg (now Lord Hailsham again) the report
says that he was ‘addressing an academic audience
at Trinity College, Dublin … and he criticised
people who tried to use physical action to prevent
the tours of the Springbok rugby team or the South
African cricketers … ~1r Hogg said he could understand that socialists should do this but not
Liberals. “I am in some ways”’, he is reported
as saying, ”’what used to be called an old-fashioned
liberal (with, however, a small ‘1’). I believe
in the power of reason and persuasion”‘. For all
Hogg’s sneer about socialists, however, the report
shows that when it comes to reason and violence
Labour supporters can be as reasonable and responsible as Liberals and Tories. Indeed, George
Thomson was more explicit about the antithesis.

According to the report, ‘he found much to admire
in the new generation … but “what I find
depressing”‘, he said, ”’is their rej ection of
reason in favour of the romantic violence of Che
Guevara”‘. Going on to draw further familiar contrasts commonly thought to be related to this
antithesis, he called for ‘new thinking about new
problems’, but stipulated that “‘it should he
thinking – however fallible and fumbling – and not
simply feeling or shouting … feeling can become
a substitute for thinking”‘; and in the words of
the report he referred to ”’our democratic socialist
philosophy, with its strong ethical and national
content, its emphasis on brain rather than blood”’.

In this context, the conclusion is irresistable that
‘national’ is here a misprin~ for ‘rational’.

All of my examples come from that side of the
dispute where I locate the ideology of liberal
intellectuals, the sid6, that is, which, valuing
reason, uses the antithesis to deplore violence.

~1y selectivity is discrimination but not prejudice.

I’ve said that it’s a misconception of reason that
generates tne antithesis. That aspect of the misconception that can be described more generally as
an alienation ‘of reason is common to many kinds of
intellectuals. Intellectuals generally, heing
themselves reasoners, or what Ezra Pound irreverently calls ‘ergoteurs’, have tended narcissistically not only to exalt reason and, if philosophers,
to subject it to close and detailed, not to say
loving, scrutiny, but also to see at the centre of
the concept, as paradigmatic of reason, their own
professionally favoured subject, other matters
being thus excluded from its scope. Both Platonistic rationalists and empiricists have alienated
reason in this way. But in modern times at least,
it’s intellectuals of the liberal sort, those most
closely related to the empiricist tradition, which
revives and flourishes when spectacular advances
in natural science dazzle philosophers, who are
chiefly responsible for and responsive to the
particular misconception of reason relevant here;
This paper was read at a conference on Practical
Reason at Bristol in September. It will appear
also in the proceedings of the conference, edited
by Professor S. Ktlrner and published by B1ackwe11s.

and historically, the romantic reactions that
follow such phases denigrate reason under that very
misapprehension of it transmitted to them by these
liberal intellectuals. The antithesis’lbetween
reason and violence, whether used to deplore
violence or to deplore reason, is in this way a
characteristic produce of the liberal intellectual


I’ve already mentioned the fact that the popularity of the antithesis between reason and violence
is due partly to the growth of violence among sectors

of society traditionally expected to be more
rational than most. In particular, of all our
social institutions those most common identified
with the ‘cult of violence’ are the universities.

We have perhaps by now got so inured to the situation that it may take .an effort to realise how
severe a shock this identification delivers to the
traditional sensibility, with its accumulated images
so taken for granted that they have been enshrined
in our very language. The first university was in
the grove of Academe, and Plato’s academy gave us
the adjective ‘academic’; and both this and the
idea of the university as an ‘ivory tower’ project
an image in which the university’s institutionalisation of reason and objectivity appear as possible
only in a place detached from the rough-and-tumble
of society, where studious thought and scholarly
discussion can proceed without impediment from
more violent activities. In these circumstances,
the antithesis between reason and violence has a
special appeal to liberal intellectuals on the
university faculty, who in their turn take it to
have a special application to university students.

Here, then, in my second example is Lord James of
Rusholme, a distinguished educationist and university
vice-chancellor, writing through the medium of the
Guardian newspaper of October 20, 1969, an ‘Open
letter to a new student’, a letter addressed to all
university freshmen at the start of the academic
year: ‘ … ultimately the universities exist to
promote the life of the mind. As soon as their
members reject reason, whether by the use of force,
or by showing racial prejudice or taking L.S.D.,
they’re lost. Your greatest task will be to
reconcile your new liberty with an underlying
authority, that of the pursuit of truth. You are
joining a community which, with all its imperfections and inadequacies, is based on the assumption
that since you are, ex hypothesi, pretty intelligent,
you will behave rationally most of the time, and if
you want to change things, as you well may, you
will use rational arguments, and never anything
else’ .

those professional exponents of the a priori, the
philosophers, ancient and modern. I suggest that
acceptance of the antithesis between reason and
violence among liberal intellectuals has a philosophical rationale, conscious or otherwise,in those
conceptual considerations about reason that have
impressed, and been made some of them explicit by,
philosophers, especially, so far as contemporary
liberals are concerned, by those twentieth century
philosophers in the empiricist and analytical

I come now, therefore, to a contemporary
philosopher who has both articulated the relevant
features of that tradition, and explicitly committed
himself, at a philosophical level, to the antithesis between reason aRd violence.: Popper.

Popper’s views on reason and violence are to be
found most compactly in the address ‘Utopia and
Violence’, originally delivered in 1947 but re~
printed in 1963 as essay 18 in Conjectures and

Let me quote from this paper some
examples of his use of the antithesis. ‘I am a
rationalist’, he says ‘because I see in the attitude
of reasonableness the only alternative to violence’ ;
‘There are many kinds of disagreement in social
life which must be decided one way or another …

There are, in the main, only two possible ways:

argument … and violence’; ‘I believe that we can
avoid violence only in so far as we practise this
attitude of reasonableness when dealing with one
another’; ‘I choose rationalism because I hate
violence’; ‘you cannot, by means of argument, convert those who suspect all argument, and who prefer
violent decisions to rational decisions’.

Popper refers to ‘the hope of defeating
violence and unreason’, and in his peroration he
says of ‘the true rationalist’ that ‘Reason is for
him the precise opposite of an instrument of power
and violence: he sees it as a means whereby these
may be tamed’. That this is still Popper’s view is
shown by a very recent paper, ‘Reason or Revolution’

(Archiv. Europ. Social. XI, 1970), in which he says
that ‘reason is the only alternative to violence so
far discovered’ .

American universities are even more obvious
targets for the liberal use of the antithesis, and
my final example at this popular and commonplace
level comes from an American source that is no less
exalted for being popular and commonplace. I draw
the quotation from the book Academia in Anarchy, by
Buchanan &Devletoglou, where it stands in pride of
place as setting the book’s theme, admirably
matching in message and quality the book’s own
chapter on violence. In a passage in which the
well-known lawyer subversively implies that the law
itself is outlaw, President Nixon has said:

‘Intimidation and threats remain outlaw weapons in
a free society. A fundamental governing principle
of any great university is that the rule of reason
and not the rule of force prevails.

It’s an oddity, perhaps not incidental, that
in these popular appeals by liberals who use the
antithesis to deplore violence and recommend rational
argument, the antithesis is not itself supported by
rational argument. Reasoning with people who already
reject reason might, of course, be recognised as
futile. But since not many people are capable of
rejecting reason all the time, even these might be
caught and conve~ted in an off moment; and in any
case, there are waverers to be convinced, and even
the convinced would have their conviction clarified
and strengthened by such an argument. The sheer
absence of argument by those who value argument so
highly suggests (cynical suspicions and personalities apart) that those who accept the antithesis,
whether liberals or not, accept it as too obvious
to require argument. It seems to have for them the
force of an a priori opposition, as if the mere use
of these words in stating the opposition were
enough: a conceptual matter, if not too obvious for
words, at least too obvious for further words.

This suspicion is strengthened when one considers
how the concept of reason has fared in the hands of

Reason as argument and reasoning: the theoretical
conception of reason
If we examine these and the other quotations
I’ve given from newspapers, together with the rest
of Popper’s ‘Utopia and Violence’ and another essay
in which he explicitly defends ‘rationalism’,
namely ‘Oracular Philosophy and the Revolt against
Reason’ (Chapter 26 of The Open Society and Its
Enemies, Vol.II), we find the antithesis between
reason and violence aligned with some contrasts that
are differently denominated. On the side of violence
we find: emotion, passion, and feeling. On the
side of reason: argument, thinking, criticism,
discussion, talk, language. The popular current
attitude that demands ‘a dialogue’ as the solution
of every dispute clearly favours something that can
be grouped with these latter items under the general
heading of ‘reason’.


Of these associated items it is the notion of
argument that figures as the central element in
Popper’s idea of reason. There is in his writing
an easy transition from ‘reason’ to ‘argument’. The
change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last
consequence. Popper tends, in fact, to identify
reason with argument. The temptation to do this is
one to which philosop~ers and intellectuals in
general readily succumb; for they are ergoteurs by
profession. It’s a temptation, moreover, that is
constantly present, for obvious reasons, in the
field to which Popper has made his most distinguished
contribution, the philosophy of science, and this
is so whether the philosopher concerned supports or
is opposed to Popper on that issue to which the
matter is most relevant, the issue of the rationality
or otherwise of science.

simply by arguing would be a paradigm of rationality?

Argument may be required at some point of other in
these affairs, but argument alone is hardly likely
to be effective.

Feyerabend, for instance, now one of Popper’s
most uncompromising critics, seems to hold that
science is less rational than Popper and others
have thought, and one of his reasons is that
argument is less effective and important in science
than Popper implies. In ‘Consolations for the
Specialist’ (Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge,
ed. Lakatos &Musgrave), Feyerabend refers, in a
section called ‘The Role of Reason in Science’, to
‘entirely new reaction patterns’ that may occur in
the development both of children and of science,
and he writes: ‘the only function of rational discourse may consist in increasing the mental tension
that precedes and causes the behavioural outburst.

Now – is this not exactly the kind of change we may
expect at periods of scientific revolution? Does
it not restrict the effectiveness of arguments
(except as a causative agent leading to developments
very different from what is demanded by their content)?

Does not the occurrence of such a change show that
science which, after all, is part of the evolution
of man is not entirely rational and cannot be
entirely rational? For if there are events, not
necessarily arguments which cause us to adopt new
standards; will it then not be up to the defenders
of the status quo to provide, not just arguments,
but also contrary causes? And if the old forms of
argumentation turn out to be to weak a contrary
cause, must they then not either give up, or resort
to stronger and more ‘irrational’ means? (It is very
difficult, and perhaps entirely impossible, to
combat the effects of brainwashing by argument.)
Even the most puritanical rationalist will then be
forced to leave argument and to use, say, propaganda
not because some of his arguments have ceased to be
valid, but because the psychological conditions
which enable him to effectively argue in this manner
and thereby to influence others have disappeared.

And what is the use of an argument that leaves
people unmoved?’ An almost identical passage occurs
in ‘Against ~lethod’ (Minnesota Studies in the
Philosophy of Science, vol.4), in a section significantly entitled not ‘The Role of Reason in Science’

but ‘The Limits of Argument’; and in footnote 27 of
that paper he mentions ‘K.R. Popper, whose views I
have in mind when criticising the omnipresence of
argument’ and adds’ … are irrational changes an
essential part of even the most rational enterprise
that has been invented by man? Does the historical
phenomenon “science” contain ingredients which defy
a rational analysis? Can the abstract goal of
coming closer to the truth be reached in an entirely
rational fashion, or is it perhaps inaccessible to
those who decide to rely on argument only?’

In some of the contexts referred to in my
earlier quotations, on reason and violence, the role
of argument is so peculiar that nobody but a philosopher could swallow it without acute indigestion.

Notice, for instance, the oddity of Lord James’

advice to the new university student: ‘If you want
to change things, as you well may, you will use
rational arguments, and never anything else’.

Clearly Feyerabend is right here. By and large,
the only things that can be directly changed by
argument alone, rational or otherwise, are people their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviour.

But if these people are themselves students who
follow Lord James’ advice, they in their turn will
use nothing but rational arguments in order to
change things. One gets a picture of Lord James’

ideal university as an insane community of ergoteurs
arguing incessantly among themselves and with others,
but never actually doing anything else in order to
bring about the changes they want. They would
never, for instance, cast a vote in an election in
order to change things, for casting a vote is not
arguing, either rationally or irrationally. They
would never book a room for a meeting, for booking
a room is not They would r”l.ever change
their surroundings by painting pictures or making
music, for these are not arguing. Is it really
suggested that someone who stood in front of a
blank canvas and tried to change it into a picture

Popper’s discussion of reason and violence is
restricted to a narrower context than Lord James’,
a context not of ways of changing things in general
but of ways of settling disagreements or disputes
between people. But even within this more restricted
range of topics, Popper’s claim that ‘there are, in
the main, only two possible ways: argument … and
violence’ is obviously false unless the qualification is given so much weight that the whole alternation becomes highly misleading. The general
problem is this: in a dispute, what methods are
there of changing people’s states of mind in such
a way that the dispute is’ resolved or ended? It’s
clear that argument and violence are far from
exhaustive. One extremely pervasive way, at both
the personal and large-scale social level, is by
the threat of sanctions, and another is by the
actual use of such sanctions. The law uses these
methods, and not all its sanctions involve violence.

Workers on strike use them and strikes are not
necessarily violent. Non-violent civil disobedience is a further example, and boycott another.

Neither is any of these in itself argument; but we
should note that as methods of trying to bring a
dispute to an end their mode of operation is to give
one of the parties a reason for doi~g something he
would not otherwise do. Though arguments involve
the giving of reasons, reasons can be given to
people in other ways than by argument. Another
method of trying to resolve a dispute is by
demonstration – and I’m not referring to the kind
of demonstration after which one can write ‘Q.E.D.’

At the level of personal disputes and disagreements
Popper’s alternatives of argument or violence are
even more obviously far from exhaustive. Without
wishing to suggest that I’m here making disclosures
about my own private life, I list the following as
other ways of resolving disputes: keeping quiet,
singing a song; making jokes, especially at .one’s
own expense; giving a present; cooking and eating
a meal; having a drink; going for a walk; going to
bed and forgetting it; going to bed and making love.

Some of these some of the time can be done, and I
hope I won’t be accused of canvassing my merely
subjective opinion if I commit myself to the valuejudgement that they should be done, both without
violence and without being introduced or accompanied
by the solemnities of argument and discussion.

am here confusing two different things, on
the one hand settling or resolving a dispute and
on the other merely ending it? Isn’t it the case
that there is a dispute or disagreement only if
there is some question to which two or more people
are offering incompatible answers, so that the
disagreement is resolved only if the problem in
dispute is solved, at least in the eyes of the
disputants? If, for instance, you and I disagree
and dispute about whether the British and Stormont
policy of internment has strengthened the hand of
the I.R.A. provisionals in Ireland, I can end the
dispute by shooting you dead. You then no longer
disagree with me. But neither, of course, do you
agree with me. Have I then resolved the disagreement, even though we are still not in agreement?

If this is a confusion, it is Popper’s: for he
regards violence as an alternative·method to argument in deciding disagreements.


An argument, then, may come not merely to an
end but also to a conclusion, and it’s with conclusions of arguments in this sense that ergoteurs are
most familiar. In particular, philosophers and
logicians have refined a conception of argument
(identified with the concept of inference) according
to which an argument is a set of propositions
distinguishable into premise(s) and conclusion,
between which holds some logical relation, e.g. of
implication, such that the truth or probable truth

of the conclusion either does or does not follow
from the premise(s). This logician’s conception of
argument is typical of the anti-psychologism of much
twentieth century thinking in and about logic.

Popper himself has played a leading part in the
campaign against psychologism, and his ‘third world’

and ‘epistomology without a knowing subject’ are the
latest products of this campaign. But whatever
its value as a demarcation device isolating the
logician!s specialism, the doctrine of antipsychologism in the philosophy of logic has been a
persistent source of confusion on certain crucial
topics. In conjunction with another familiar dogma,
the doctrine of the logical autonomy of values, it
has for instance helped to breed the illusion that
reason is value-free, obscuring the facts that the
concept of a valid argument is evaluative or
normative (‘valid’ arguments being ‘good’ or
‘legitimate’ arguments) and that the concept of
argument or inference as the concept of what is
being appraised or evaluated is essentially psychological, i.e. it identifies certain activities or·
states attributable to people. The notion of logic
is closely connected with that of reason, and both,
like validity, function as terms of appraisal in
this context. Thus an argument that is valid can
be said to be a rational, reasonable, or logical
argument, as opposed to an irrational, unreasonable,
or illogical one. If the premises of such an
argument are true the conclusion is justified, and
the conclusion as well as the argument can be said
to be rational or reasonable; and as the argument
argues for, rather than against, that conclusion
(i.e. in its favour), so the premises themselves
then constitute reasons, good or strong or perhaps
conclusive, for accepting the conclusion, i.e. for
thinking or believing it to be true. [1]. The
favourable evaluative force of these concepts of
reason justifies the liberal claim that what is
contrary to reason is unacceptable and to be

that the arguments produced are invalid: the reasons
offered to support the conclusion may fail to
justify it and so may be bad reasons or, as we
sometimes say, not reasons at all; and more strongly,
the conclusion itself may be contrary to reason in
having nothing to be said for it, no reasons in
favour of accepting it. It might be thought,
however, that though arguments and reasoning, and
the conclusions and beliefs we can argue for or
against, may be irrational, nevertheless it’s only
the activity of reasoning and the beliefs and
propositions it leads to that stand any chance of
being rational and so justified. Among activities,
on this view, it’s only in that activity of thinking or talking known as reasoning that reason can
be exercised, and only on this activity and the
beliefs and propositions that can constitute its
conclusions that the positive normative force of
reason can be brought to bear.

This tendency to associate the value of reason
solely with the ‘theoretical’ items I have mentioned,
namely propositions, belief, thinking, and talking,
has been characteristic of much philosophy, and
some of the linguistic philosophy of the twentieth
century has strengthened the tendency by helping to
shape a linguistic conception of logic, in which
logical relations are supposed to hold in virtue of
the linguistic rules governing the use of words and
thus essentially between utterances or things that
can be said or put into words. Liberalism’s Hamlet
syndrome, the temperamental inactivism that historically leads it to a preference for words and thought
rather than deeds, here finds a philosophical
rationale. The theoretical (and linguistic) conception of reason may in this way function as part of
the substructure of the ideology of liberal intellectuals. It remains to be shown that this substructure
is a muddle, not to say mystification.

First, it’s to be observed that this conception
of reason alienates reason not only from violence
but from every other human activity or response
excluded from the ‘theoretical’ items I have listed.

For instance, human passions, emotions, feelings,
and attitudes are excluded: the contrast between
reason and’passion is another potent part of the
philosophical background, and as my examples show
is easily associated with the contrast between
reason and violence. I,tore relevant here is the
exclusion of all human actions and activities other
than those of reasoning itself. It is this exclusion,
though unrecognised as such, that accounts both for
the gap between Popper’s alternatives of argument
and violence and for Lord James’ contention that the
only rational way of changing things is by rational
argument. Lord James’ view follows from the
theoretical conception of reason, and this I count
as a reductio ad absurdam of that conception.

The logician’s conception of argument identifies an argument solely in terms of its premise(s)
and conclusion. But such a set of propositions can
be regarded as an argument only in the sense of
being what somebody could or might argue – and this
word ‘argue’ is here an activity verb, signifying
something that people can do. Arguing is producing
arguments in the logician’s sense, and doing this
involves thinking to oneself, or talking to somebody
else; and this thinking or talking is what is called
reasoning. Now it’s only reason in the sense of an
activity, i.e. as reasoning, the kind of thinking
or talking that is arguing, that can be properly
regarded as a way, means, or method of doing anything. In other words it’s only this notion of
reason that can enter into any contrast between
reason and violence as ways of doing things. And
it’s clear that there’s something [2] to be said for
the view that in this sense reason and violence are
exclusive of each other. The a priori antithesis
between reason and violence is at least plausible
as an a priori distinction between reasoning and
violence: clubbing a victim to the ground is
certainly not reasoning with him. Violence, a
logician might say, is a contrary of reason in this
sense. Does it follow that violence is contrary to

Second, it does not follow that these excluded
items are contrary to reason, i.e. irrational or
unreasonable, and therefore to be rejected. In
particular, though clubbing a victim to the ground
is not reasoning with him, it does not follow that
violence is contrary to reason. For on our account
so far, properly understood, the evaluative contrast
between rationality and irrationality, between
conforming and being contrary to reason, is applicable only within the range of theoretical items,
not outside it. What follows is that violence is
neither rational nor irrational; that violence is
not un-reason but non-reason.

The favourable evaluative force that I have
drawn attention to in some uses of the word ‘reason’

and its cognates is not transmitted in any straightforward way to the cOllcept of reasoning. For
example, a piece of reasoning may be unreasonable
or irrational, i.e. contrary to reason, in the sense
For a fuller account of these matters see my
Reason in Theory and Practice, Hutchinson, 1969.


But only something. As Keith Graham and others
have pointed out to me, an argument ~ay be
violent and may in some circumstances constitute
an act of violence against someone.


Third, there is in any case a serious muddle
in the list of ‘theoretical’ items reserved for
reason’s accolade, a muddle involving the inclusion
in that list of an item that could be regarded as
practical rather than theoretical, namely the
activity of reasoning. I’ve already pointed out
that it’s only reason in the sense of an activity
that can be contrasted with violence as a way of
doing things; and I’ve said that the favourable
evaluative force in some uses of the word ‘reason’

and-such will be whether doing that thing is
effective in doing something else, e.g. achieving
a purpose that one has. For instance, if I want
to kill the greenfly on my roses and know that
spraying them with insecticide will kill them then
I know how to kill them and in knowing this I know
of a reason for spraying them with insecticide.

Hume himself thought that even here it is ‘strictly
speaking’ not this action that is rational but the
judgment that spraying them with insecticide will
kill the greenfly; for only this, and not the
action, can be true or false. But anyone who thinks
that actions can be rational in this way, and only
in this way, makes a minimal concession to the
idea of practical reason, constructing this idea
essentially from the materials provided by the
theoretical conception of reason.

Since the
result construes practical reason a~ a matter of
know-how, discovering means to ends, I shall call
this the technological conception of practical

and its cognates is not transmitted straightforwardly
to this concept of reasoning. So far, however, I’ve
been content to go along with the idea that a piece
of reasoning can be appraised as rational or irrational according to whether the argument is valid
or invalid, good or bad, in the logician’s sense. ‘

But these notions of rationality and irrationality
will therefore apply, at least primarily, to the
argument in the logician’s sense, and though the
activity of arguing or reasoning will contain, as
what is argued, an identifiable argument in that
sense, it does not follow that the rationality or
irrationality of the activity of arguing can be
understood in the same way. In fact, it’s clear
that arguments as activities can be appraised in
ways for which the logician’s criteria are not
sufficient and possibly not necessary. Certainly,
the fact that an argument in the logician’s sense
is rational is not sufficient for it to be rational
for everybody, or anybody, to produce such an
argument or piece of reasoning on any or every
occasion. For instance, I may know or think that
my daughter has measles, and if my wife questions
whether she has I may be able to produce evidence,
and thus an argument giving adequate reasons for
my belief. But however rational my argument, and
however rational a thing this might be to do in
those circumstances, the rationality of the argument
in the logician’s sense would make it a rational
thing to do in other circumstances, e.g. at a
political meeting about Vietnam, or in the middle
of a performance of ‘The Three Sisters’, or when
I’m trying to change a blank canvas into a picture.

Similarly, though there may be many rational arguments in the logician’s sense in favour of the conclusion that my next-door neighbour smokes pot,
whether or not it would be reasonable for me to
reason out whether he does seems to depend on a
variety of other considerations, such as whether the
thing would be worth knowing, or useful to know, or
just none of my business.

Popper himself makes this concession in his
paper ‘Utopia and Violence’: ‘I believe’, he says,
‘that it is quite true that we can judge the
rationality of an action only in relation to some
aims or ends’. But given that arguing is action,
and that as ways of doing things violence is to be
contrasted with reason as argument in that sense,
i.e. as reasoning, this is enough of a concession
to raise Feyerabend’s insistent questions about the
effectiveness of argument, to generate some doubts,
only apparently paradoxical, about the reasonableness of reasoning, and to undermine the view, a
priori or otherwise, that violence is contrary to
reason. For if we admit the possibility of practical reason, even in its truncated technological
form, and raise the question of the rationality of
arguments and reasoning as activities, argument
will now have to compete for the accolade of
rationality with any other action or activity open
to the agent in the circumstances. The question
whether it’s reasonable to argue with somebody or
to reason something out will now depend on what
other things one could do in the circumstances,
things that in those circumstances one might have
more reason to do, and which certainly might be more
effective ways of achieving one’s aims. For the
p.ower of reason, one’s own and others’, might be
limited in such ways as this, that one’s capacity
to reason may not be adequate to solve one’s problem,
or that the person one is arguing or reasoning with
might be too irrational to be convinced. We are
familiar with the idea that in and since the eighteenth century the Enlightenment faith in reason has
come under attack from such thinkers as Hume, ‘1arx,
and Freud, who are sometimes thought to have claimed
that man, far from being a rational animal, is
essentially irrational or non-rational. Harx
attacked the doctrinaires on the ground that no
amount of arQument criticising society, however
justified as criticism, and no amount of argument
advocating improvements, however desirable the
improvements, was enough either to convince people
or to effect those improvements. Koestler has said:

‘To go on preaching reason to an inherently unreasonable species is, as history shows, a fairly
hopeless enterprise’. Yet Harx was not an
irrationalist, nor is there here any ground for
irrationalism or for despair of reason. For the
cunning of reason is inexhaustible and a match for
any conceivable circumstances. Its message is that
when reason is useless or ineffective, it’s unreasonable to use reason and perhaps reasonable to
use some more effective means: even violence. The
black who is attacked by a white thug and retaliates
with violence is not, of course, reasoning with his
assailant; but he has good reason to stop the
assault, with violence if necessary; and his violence
is then itself, though not a piece of reasoning and
not a conclusion drawn from premises, an exercise
of reason, a literal example of reason in action.

We might respond to these matters by adhering
to the theoretical conception of reason but purifying our idea of what is theoretical by eliminating from it the activity of reasoning or arguing.

On this purified theoretical conception of reason
the only items that could be rational or irrational
would be arguments in the logician’s sense, and the
only items for or against which there could be
reasons would be the propositions or beliefs that
could form the conclusions of such arguments. At
the height of the Enlightenment Hume used a pithy
version of this conception (‘Reason is the discovery
of truth and falsehood’) as a weapon against rationalism, and so helped to pave the way for the romantic
reaction. Violence on this view could not conform
to reason; for though someone might conclude an
argument by clubbing his victim to the ground, this
act of violence could not be the conclusion of an
argument in the logician’s sense, i.e. it could not
be a true proposition drawn from facts that could
figure as premises and thus as reasons supporting
that act. But it would also follow that violence
could not be contrary to reason either; and any act
or activity whatsoever would be similarly excluded
from rational appraisal, including the activity of
arguing or reasoning.

Practical reason, technological and otherwise
However, Hume realised that some questions
about the rationality of action seem to be indistinguishable from questions about the rationality
of certain related propositions or beliefs (or
judgments, as he called them). In doing something
of one description one necessarily does things of
other descriptions; and the question whether there
are reasons for doing a thing will depend in part
at least on what other things one is thereby doing.

This is a general condition of which considerations
about the effects of one’s actions are a special
case. Thus one kind of consideration involved in
deciding whether there are reasons for doing such-


In ‘Utopia and Violence’ Popper seems prepared

Whatever is true of violence, it’s in situations of this sort that the continued demand for
argument and dialogue is peculiarly reactionary,
working in the defence of privilege. It’s a demand
for reason that plays into the hands of the unreasonable: the same reason that enables liberalism to
adopt its characteristic posture of endorsing
reasonable aims while condemning the means that may
be necessary to achieve them. For any reasonable
person, it must be said, there’s a point when the
futility of argument appalls and when argument
itself may involve one in the very corruption one
is arguing against. Writing of his participation
in lectures, discussions, and forums on Vietnam,
Chomsky says (in the Introduction to American POI.,er
and the New Mandarins): ‘Perhaps I should mention
that, increasingly, I have had a certain feeling of
falseness in these lectures’and discuS’sions …

Without awareness, I found myself drawn into this
morass of insane rationality … By entering into
the arena of argument and counter-argument, of technical feasibility and tactics, of footnotes and
citations, by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already
lost one’s humanity … ‘. Popper’s sceptical modesty,
his willingness to suppose that he may be wrong and
the other side right, would of course inhibit any
such feelings as these. But though perhaps a way
of avoiding intellectual commitment, this scepticism
induces an inactivism that cannot escape moral
commitment. In a footnote to his ‘Responsibility of
Intellectuals’ (reprinted in American Power), Chomsky
refers to the view put forward in The End of Ideology
‘that one who advocates action … has a responsibility to assess its social cost’, and adds in
parenthesis that this is also true of those who advocate inaction – ‘a matter’, he says, ‘less frequently noted’. Doing nothing is not doing something,
but it is something that can be appraised from a
practical and moral point of view, and for which one
can be held responsible. To do nothing but argue
against a situation when argument is ineffective is
to do nothing about that situation; and if effective
ways of changing it are open, doing nothing is to
share the responsibility for maintaining tl’ie si tuation, and may be contrary to reason.

to admit this in substance, though he fails to draw
the crucial conclusions. Basing his advocacy of
reason on a kind of scepticism, he says: ‘What I
call the attitude of reasonableness may be characterised by a remark like this: “I think I am right,
but I may be wrong and you may be right, and in any
case let us discuss it, for in this way we are
likely to get nearer to a true understanding than
if we each merely insist that we are right”‘. In
the face of violence this modest scepticism is
seriously compromised: ‘ … it always takes two to
make a d’;.scussion reasonable ‘” You cannot have a
rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting
you to being convinced by you. In other words,
there are limits to the attitude of reasonableness.

it is the same with tolerance. You must not, without
qualification, accept the principle of tolerating
all those who are intolerant; if you do, you will
destroy not only yourself, but also the attitude of
tolerance’. Of the person who does not, like himself, hate violence, he says: ‘ … you may not be
able to argue with the admirer of violence. He has
a way of answering an argument with a bullet if he
is not kept under control by the threat of counterviolence’. What Popper fails to see, or at least
to admit, is that on his own technological conception
of practical reason he is committed to the view that
for those who do not happen to hate violence, violence is not contrary to reason, and for those who
hate it only when they are its victims, violence
towards others may be perfectly reasonable. But
then, even in the case he does consider, the case
of the person who, like himself, hates violence as
such, he still fails to admit the crucial conclusions
that follow about reason and rationality, namely
that as a way of preventing greater violence,
counter-violence, which is of course a sort of
violence, would not be contrary to reason, and that
in the circumstances he describes, what he calls
‘the attitude of reasonableness’ would be an extremely unreasonable attitude. The qualifications
reveal Popper’s repeated antithesis between reason
and violence as facile and superficial, but it would
b~ cynical to suggest that this is why he fails to
make them explicit, even when they are staring him
(and us) in the face. Such glaring omissions can
be explained, I think, only in terms of the subterranean pressures exerted by an idea of reason
that is basically the theoretical conception, but
whose confusions have been worse confounded by its
being stretched into the idea of practical reason
that I have called the technological conception.

But there is an objection that at a practical
level is far more serious. The only limit Popper
places on discussion in a dispute is when one party
resorts, or is prepared to resort, to violence: in
that situation, and only in that situation, he
seems to think, violence is permissible, i.e. violence is permissible only as counter-violence. Let’s
consider a case, one in which some people have
similarly insisted from the start on ‘a dialogue’.

The Ulster government might well have been delighted
to continue a dialogue with the Catholics, endlessly
if necessary, provided that the Catholics themselves
did no more than talk. It needed to exercise no
violence against those Catholics other than the
violence recognised in any country as that involved
in the legitimate sanctions of the law – a kind of
violence easily represented, especially in a parliamentary democracy, as counter-violence, justified
as society’s ultimate weapon against the ‘violence
and unreason’ of criminals and subversives. In
general, when there is a dispute in which one party
objects to existing arrangements and wishes to change
them, but the other party stands to lose by the
change, the latter party can resist the change
endlessly by agreeing to talk, provided that his
opponent agrees to go on talking unless subjected
to violence. When the privileged party has political
power, the whole range of legitimate political
activities between talking and violence may still
be ineffective. In these circumstances violence
may be the only way of effecting change, and it may
be rational even though it’s not counter-violence.

I concede, finally, something to the view that
violence is a priori contrary to reason. But this
very concession involves a denial of the theoretical
conception of reason and its associated technological
conception of practical reason. As I’ve already
suggested these two ideas of reason, though so
closely related, diverge widely on the range of
items that each allows to be reasonable: the
theoretical ·conception excludes all actions and
activities except reasoning, and even, in the
purified version, all actions and activities whatsoever; whereas the technological conception of
practical reason includes all actions and activities,
not excepting violence, under the weak condition of
their being a means to some end. Any adequate
conception of reason (and in particular of practical
reason) will make violence neither so easy to
exclude nor so easy to include.


It’s part of the meaning of the word ‘violence’,
then, that an act of violence against someone
involves harming or hurting that person, or at the
least causing him some discomfort or inconvenienc~.

It follows that an act of violence is necessarily
contrary to reason in this sense, that the fact
that it necessarily involves harm, hurt, discomfort
or inconvenience is necessarily a reason against it;
and this is so regardless of the agent’s aims or
ends and in particular of his hatred or otherwise of
violence. It may be conscious or half-conscious
recogni tion of. this fact that has led to the view
that violence is necessarily contrary to reason and
therefore always unreasonable. But this does not
follow. For someone who does something that is an
act of violence will also thereby be doing things of
other descriptions; and this necessary reason against
violence may therefore, in the circumstances, be
overridden or outweighed by contingently related

facts that constitute reasons in favour of that act
of violence. In other words, when it’s claimed
that the fact that something is an act of violence
is necessarily a reason against doing it the
necessity here is in its being a reason, not
necessarily a conclusive reason, i.e. in its
bearing with some pressure on what it’s a reason
against. It is not to be confused with that
necessity in which someone who has a conclusive
reason against doing something must not do that
thing. An analogous a priori case in favour of the
rationality of reasoning with people could also be

The failure to grasp these matters may itself
be due to the influence of the theoretical conception of reason. In the field of reasons for
believing things we have the notion of reasons that
can conflict, some pointing in favour of some
particular belief, some pointing against. But
whenever reasons for or against believing some

Roy has done a service in clearing away some of
this liberal muck.

But it seems to me that his
discussion of violence towards the end is itself a
basically liberal one. I shall try to say why.

Arguing from what he claims to be part of “the
meaning of the word ‘violence'” he says, ‘it follows
that an act of violence is necessarily contrary to
reason in this sense, that the fact that it necessarily
involves harm, hurt, discomfort or inconvenience is
necessarily a reason against it ••• ,l
There is
necessarily a reason against violence (‘against persons’)
because of this, but this may be ‘overriden or outweighed by contingently related facts that constitute
reasons in favour of that act of violence.’

I doubt
that this is anything that most liberals would disagree
with, ready as they are to defend the violence of the

This approach abstracts violence from the particular
historical context in which it occurs, as, say, arising
out of certain political struggles, seeking some essence
of violence such that the onus is always on the committers of it to justify their departure from the pressure
of reason not to cause ‘harm, hurt, discomfort or
inconvenience’. Instead of addressing such questions
as what in these definite material circumstances is
the role of violence (and what kind of violence?) in
the struggle for socialist revolution, he talks
historically, as liberals do, about the ‘meaning of
the word’ and what allegedly follows necessarily from
it. This abstracts not only violence, but the particular person who is harmed, etc., from the context of
social relations, relations of power and control, in
which they stand. Ultimately, it involves seeing
society in liberal individualistic terms as consisting
of a set of persons, not as a system of social relations
into which various persons may at times enter.

The abstractness of Roy’s approach seems to me
to lead away from the kinds of questions we need to
investigate; it depoliticises the issue, making it
seem like a neutral problem of analysis ( what is the
meaning of the word ‘violence’?) rather than one which
has an important place in relation to revolutionary
practice, and the analysis of capitalist society.

The answer to questions like the above are meant to
be central to any discussion of actual or proposed
violence. In every such situation, the fact that
someone will be hurt or harmed is supposed to have

particular thing conflict, the implication is that
this conflict is, so to speak, only apparent, since
some of the reasons are only apparent, not real,
reasons: in other words, such conflicts occur only
because our knowledge is deficient in one way or
another. The concept of a reason for believing
something is such that, with respect to any particular belief, if our understanding were adequate all
the facts that constituted considerations relevant
to that belief would point in the same direction:

they would either all be reasons for, or all be
reasons against, believing that thing. Theoretical
reason, we might say, is monolithic in this sense.

Practical reason is not. Reasons for doing a
particular thing can conflict – shall I, say? objectively. Violence is contrary to reason only
in this partial and non-monolithic way. It is
necessari ly regrettable, ‘out i t a regrettable necessity; and the word ‘necessity’ signifies
the pressure of reason.

Jerry M. Coben
the same bearing, one that presumably, revolutionary
and oppressor are supposed to be able to agree upon;
a person is going to be hurt, so there is a reason
for not doing that. But whether that is a reason will
surely depend on the nature of the situation: what
weight each places on this fact will also vary. It is
not that the revolutionary is less concerned than
others about ‘people being hurt’: the opposite is
the case. But she/he knows that people are being
hurt, harmed, oppressed throughout their lives by the
miserable system in which we live, so that her/his
need is to find the most effective forms of struggle
against this system. Focussing on the most abstract,
rather than the most concrete, description of an act
and its situation as what is initially relevant to
the assessment of it seems to me at once ‘a philosophical
and a political mistake, to distract us from the questions that we need to be considering, and to play into
the hands of those who use the appeal to abstract moral
principles to turn our attention away from the grim
realities of oppression and institutionalised violence.

It results in part at least from taking a too contemplative approach to the whole problem: or, from being
too contemplatively related to the arena within which
these problems arise. Liberals have a definite interest in and need for mystification here, in maintaining the pretence that they are not actually supporting
definite forms of violence (e.g., state violence, the
violence of everyday life: see Joe’s piece on violence
in the family, and Fact Folder No.2 2 for material
relating to the use of ECT to get workers back on
the production-line, itself, perhaps a form of violence).

Again, it is not so much particular acts of violence
that need to be focussed on, but a system which systematically produces or generates violence, both as part
of its own mode of operation (Indochina, Latin America,
etc.) and as a response to it. In this context the
question of the role of revolutionary violence may
arise, not as a question about individual or isolated
acts of violence (which themselves might be open to
criticism for just being individual,isolated acts:)
but out in the context of working the forms of
struggle appropriate to the situation.

So the problem will be one of analysing and
understanding the predominant forms of existing
violence, and of seeing whether violence has any role
to play in the development of a liberation struggle.

Roy’s way of discussing the problem seems instead to
encourage the liberal myth of our society as one in
which basically things carry on without violence,
without people being hurt and harmed, and that it is
the occasional ‘act of violence’ which disrupts the

1. Successful strikes necessarily involve discomfort
or inconvenience to the bosses; is this necessarily a
reason against them? – And revolutions involve all four,
whether necessarily or not.

2. Available from Compendium Bookshop

rational framework of society. This myth needs to
be smashed: once capitalism is recognised as a system
to which violence is intrinsic, we need to work out
how to struggle against and overcome this system and
its violence. The question is not: violence or not?

but, do we acquiesce in the existing and continuing
violence, or do we struggle against it, and if so how:

to abstain from violence against the oppressor may be
to acquiesce in violence against the oppressed. Does
Roy really think that there is the same reason against
doing what will harm or hurt the oppressor as there is
against doing what will hurt or harm or contribute to
the oppression of, the oppressed?

It is not enough
to say that this reason, initially the same, may be
overridden by other ‘contingently related facts’: are
we really to place the claims (and violence) of
oppressor and oppressed on the same footing, even

This too seems to me part of the hoax
of liberalism, in its pretended concern for all equally,
in historical situations in which to do so is to be
impartial between oppressor and oppressed, i.e., not
to be impartial, which is impossible, but to contribute
to maintaining oppressive social relations.

These remarks do not entirely deal with the problems
raised by this point, but perhaps they suggest their

These points are not just another way of saying
what Roy does about ‘overriding reasons’, for to treat
the problems in this way involves a fundamental switch
of perspective, from that of the ideal observer to that
of the politically committed, from that of the concern
with timeless essences (‘the meaning of the word’) to
thinking which takes its start from concrete historical
realities and possibilities.

Some people have made the following pOint to me:

don’t you agree that whenever we can achieve our ends by
non-violent means, this would be preferable to the use
of violence?

However, it is unclear just what this

1. It might be very difficult to find convincing
cases in which the ‘very same end’ could actually be
achieved by either means. This applies especially to
the revolutionary situation. (This also raises important questions about the possibly diversionary character of bringing in here the sort of imaginary cases
which philosophers discuss as a substitute for the
examination of the real world, but I canpt go into
them here.)
2. Violence cannot always be assessed in purely
instrumental, means-end terms. There are situations
in which the only adequate, human response is a violent
one; situations of oppression, for example, in connection with which you have to say: that was the only thing
she/he could have done.

The making of the revolution is thus itself in
part the working out of what such a society might be.

How should this perspective affect what we think about

Does it show a limitation on theapplication of that idea? Or does it show what great care
needs to be taken in consciously adopting violence as
a weapon of struggle?

I hope these remarks will at least serve to
stimulate further debate about these difficult questions.

— .



An International Cultural Quarterly
Table of ContenCI
Fall 1972


SERGIO BOLOGNA: Class Composition and Theory of the Party
KAREL KOSIK: Our Present Crisis
LUCIO COLLETTI: The Theory of the Crash
RONALD ARONSON: The Root of Sartre’s Thou… t
GIOVANNI PlANA: History and Existence in HUsserl
Notes and Commentary:

MAXY BEML: William Burrouihs and·the Invisible Generation
CONSTANTIN SINELNIKOV: Early “Marxist” Critiques of Reich
Cost for sin”e copies is $2.00; Subscriptions are $6.00 individual for one year (4
issues): $8.00 institutional. Back Issue no. 3 (SprinI1969) Is available for $2.00;
issues nos. 7 – 12 are available for $1.50 to individuals and for $2.00 to
institutions. Address ail correspondence to:

The Editor
Department of Socfoloty

Willhlnaton Unfvenlty
St. Louis, MIuourI63130

Lastly, I’d like to briefly touch on a point which
was alluded to earlier. Many of us, especially those on
the libertarian left, believe that the character of the
reVOlutionary movement must as far as possible be made
to reflect and display the character of the society we
want to build, that the character of that society will
be largely determined by the character of the struggles
of which it is the outcome. (For a marvellous presentation of this view, see Murray Bookchin’s great book,
Post-Scarcity Anarchism, published by Ramparts Press,
available at Compendium: read it, order it for your
library, etc.)


This is not an assessment of the act as a means to
some end , and it might be the right assessment even if
the consequences were, say, increased repression. But

Number 13

even in situations not of this kind, the assessment is
often not in means-end terms: e.g., we might think that
the workers who roughed up Langston a few weeks ago
were quite right to do so, though this ‘violence’ may
not have served as means to any definite end. (Probably
the insistence that it is only justified when it does
leads to an authoritarian politics: you must not give
way to your emotions, there must be a definite end
which the violence would further, etc.

This can involve remarkable insensitivity to a person’s experience
of oppression and to the situation in which she/he was
in, and to the importance that being able to react in
that way might have had for the person as an assertion
of their humanity, or as a stage in their liberation
(though the violence wasn’t necessarily done as a means
to that end).

This is not to deny the importance of
getting beyond that stage, or in general the desirability
of avoiding it, but it is to reject tihe automatic dismissal of such modes of response as ‘spontaneist deviations’ or whatever. I hope it is clear that none of
this is meant as in any sense a glorification of


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