Are arguments that Reason is circular themselves circular and/or self refuting?. I am basically open to the idea of using Reason to show Reason doesn't work, but really only for specific cases - case by case.

Would a claim that all Reason is unreliable itself be unreliable? That would suggest to me that something is nonsense and our language as run away with us.

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    jut confused, not making a polemical point
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 20:55
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    One way through this is to distinguish reason-as-practiced from reason-as-asserted. In the latter case, we make claims like, "Reason supports X," i.e. we metareason about things. But then to say that metareasons support the outcome of direct reasoning is to perilously conflate levels of concepts (c.f. first- vs. second-order logic and the problem of higher-order evidence). Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 21:19
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    The inmates are running the asylum.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 21:45
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    @doot_s maybe like, "When we try to justify statements about reason, using specific such statements, this might be viciously circular; but if we appeal to further other reasons (other than the previous statements), then the specific reasons we use to support reasoning in general are not given in a vicious circle." So: I use reason x to support X; I use reason Y to support, "Reason x supports X"; then reason Z supports, "Reason Y supports reason x supporting X," etc. Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 22:12
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    so i'm right @KristianBerry but not precisely
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 22:14

3 Answers 3


Ludwig Wittgenstein even went as far as to say that these types of contradictions reveal the limits of our language and thought. In his view, some things simply cannot be meaningfully discussed or understood within our current conceptual framework

Imagine you're using a ruler to measure a table. Now, if someone asks you, 'How do you know your ruler is accurate?' You might say, 'I'll measure it with itself.' But you see, that's a bit odd, isn't it? You're using the same thing to check itself. That's what we're doing when we use reason to prove reason.

But there's more to it. If you say, 'All reason is unreliable,' you're using reason to make that statement. If reason is truly unreliable, then your statement can't be trusted either. It's like sawing off the branch you're sitting on.

But this doesn't mean reason is useless or that we can't trust anything. Wittgenstein suggests this stuff about the language:

  • Language is a tool: When we discuss abstract concepts like reason, we're using language as a tool to try and grasp something complex and intangible. But just like using a screwdriver to hammer a nail, sometimes we might be using the wrong tool for the job.

  • Language games: The way we use words like "reason" can change depending on the context or "language game" we're in. In a philosophical debate, "reason" might mean one thing, while in everyday conversation it might mean something else. So, when we argue about whether reason is circular or self-refuting, we might be playing different language games without realizing it.

  • Limits of language: Our language has limits that prevent us from fully capturing some aspects of reality. For instance, we can describe the process of reasoning, but we struggle to explain how we can trust reason without using reason itself. This might not be a failure of reason, but a limit of our language.

  • idk. you are i assume familiar with the idea of virtuous regress etc.?
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 21:34
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    you mean when we are in a continuous cycle of questioning and learning?
    – user66933
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 21:38
  • not using, rulers to measure themselves
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 21:39
  • i just think it's a poor analogy! but thanks for the answer anyway
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 21:41
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    Perhaps there is no right tool for the job? This is a big part of why AI makes me uneasy: we could be creating nuclear powered stupid.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 21:50

One expression of this problem is as a matter of metaphysical grounding and a comparison of two levels of questions about causal explanations (so to get at your issue, replace "causal" with "rational" generically):

  1. X causes Y, Y causes Z, Z causes z, z causes zz, ...
  2. What is the cause of the whole sequence (1)?

Or then, "What is the reason for the whole series of reasons?" Answers to (2) based on X, Y, Z, z, zz, ... could seem to form a vicious circle; using (2) as an answer to itself is either unwell-formed (as a gesture of thought) or also circular, but trivially so instead of viciously. Note that if we accept the conceptual stability of (2), we can then ask, "What is the cause of/reason for (1) and (2)?" and it would seem that we have lost the point of separating (1) from (2), since we are extending (2) to (3), etc. Usefully enough, however, when it comes to the distinction between second- and third-or-higher-order logic:

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... which they round off by noting that "even though higher than second-order logics are strictly speaking stronger than second-order logic no difference can be seen by the usual criteria of strength of expressive power." So when it comes to the question of reasons-metareasons-metametareasons-etc., we would find that there is less of an importance to the (2)/(3) distinction above, than the (1)/(2) distinction; or, then, something about the expanding-circularity process collapses at (2), and then we will be resigned to or offended by (2)-circularity and not have to worry about (n)-circles swallowing logical space like so many overlapping false-vacuum collapses.


I'm with Gödel on this one. Self-referential systems of reasoning lead to madness. In order to declare a system of reasoning sound or circular, you need a greater system of reasoning outside it, that can make statements about the first system. The first system refers to objects. The second system refers to -- among other things -- arguments in the first system. It is conceivable to use the big system to conclude the small system is circular, without concluding the big system is circular.

  • And there would be no way to make statements about the big system. Reason has no Appellate Court, let alone a Supreme Court. It's the only game in town. Ante Up!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 12:44

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