by Daniel A. Kaufman
In “Excessive Reason,” an essay I published in these pages last year, I argued that mainline philosophy is characterized by a pervasive and systematic rationalism, the main characteristics of which I summarized as follows:
- The acceptability of a belief, activity, practice, institution, etc., rests entirely on whether or not it can be rationally justified.
- The rational justification of beliefs is comprised either of empirical evidence or of inductive or deductive proof. The rational justification of activities, practices, and institutions may include appeals to utility, where this notion is grounded in a scientific conception of human nature (like Bentham’s), or to duty, as long as it is grounded in some clearly definable, logical conception of reason (such as Kant’s).
- Rational beliefs and actions are the logical and causal products of rational intellection.
- Rejected categorically are those beliefs, activities, practices, and institutions grounded in the authority of individuals, classes, customs, or traditions—the collective sources of what Burke called “prejudice”—adherence to which is broadly identified with pre-modern civilization and is considered intellectually and behaviorally atavistic.
- Also rejected are those beliefs, activities, etc., which are grounded in common sense, intuition, or sensibility, obedience to which, inasmuch as they do not constitute rational grounds for obtaining knowledge or motivating action, is also treated as regressive; the province of children or of incurious or otherwise unreflective adults.
- Truth is the end of all inquiry and belief and trumps all other intellectual ends. The fulfilment of one’s duty (service to the Good, the Right, and the Just) is the end of all activity and consequently, supersedes all other practical ends.
I also suggested that these ideas support an ethos or conception of the Ideal that is also characteristic of mainline philosophy and which is defined as a conjunction of the following
A. Disinterestedness (impartiality) in belief and conduct: one must eschew bias, prejudice, and any other form of pre-judgment, in everything that one believes and does, and go wherever the evidence, logic, cost-benefit analysis, or other rational calculus leads.
B. Dispassion in belief and conduct: one must believe and act solely on the rational merits of the case at hand. One should never believe because of appealing rhetoric or wish-fulfilment or act on the basis of critically unexamined sentiment.
C. Autonomy: The ideal person is a free agent, both in belief and in action, but this freedom must be rigorously defended: from the forces of nature, by having one’s reason sit in constant judgment over one’s inclinations and sensibility; and from the forces of social conformity, by maintaining one’s independence from the influences of others and especially from the often unconscious influence of habit, custom, and tradition.
D. Consistency and Fairness: As inconsistency is the most obvious manifestation of irrationality, consistency is a bedrock rationalist virtue. Fairness is a manifestation of both consistency and dispassion, so it too is a rationalist virtue.
E. Purity of Purpose and Perfectionism: Absolute fidelity to the supremacy of truth, goodness, rightness, and justice in everything that one believes and does, over the course of one’s life. (1)
In that essay, I attributed both this rationalism and the ethos that follows from it to what I called a “tacit dualism” that pervades mainline philosophy and for which the chief intellectual engineers were Plato and Descartes. Of this dualism, I said that it,
combines a quasi-Cartesian estrangement of mental from bodily and social life – in which consciousness and reasoning comprise the mind’s lone necessary, “indigenous” activities, while perception, sensibility, and the full range of conative states are relegated to the contingent bodily and social dimensions of life – with a Platonic devaluation of bodily and socially-influenced belief and activity and corresponding inflation of the value of consciousness and ratiocination.
It is no secret that I strongly disagree with mainline philosophy’s rationalism. Indeed, much of the professional work that I’ve done, especially in epistemology and metaphysics, has been devoted to dismantling it. (2) In “Excessive Reason,” I outlined just what a comprehensive critique of rationalist philosophy might look like, from the perspective of a philosophy that accepts the idea of intellectual and existential givens and boundedness, in the manner described by Hume, Reid, Wittgenstein, and others. But what I have not said much about is how harmful rationalism is – although I did point out some of the ways in which it can have perverse results, in my recent essay, “Self-Made” (3) – and this is what I want to address here; the moral, social, political, and ultimately the civilizational effects of embracing rationalism.
If there is a general characterization of what is wrong with rationalistic philosophy it is that it represents a rebellion against our humanity; one that has played and in my view will continue to play a negative role in the lives of individuals and in the civilization of the modern West. This rebellion ranges from rationalism’s hostility to our natural and customary beliefs, sensibilities, and inclinations, to its outright rejection of our humanity, if conceived of as an integrated, organic unity of mental and bodily capacities that is only fully realized in a social and cultural context and which possesses a complex and heterogeneous good. Rationalist philosophy rejects this on behalf of a wholly abstract personhood which, in “Excessive Reason,” I identified most strongly with Descartes, Locke, and Kant, but which I traced back to Plato and even earlier, to the Pythagoreans and the Orphic mystery cults. Two significant areas in which modern mainline philosophy has persistently urged resistance to our natural and customary beliefs and inclinations, in the service of rationalist perfectionism, are ethics and epistemology.
With respect to ethics, modern mainline moral philosophy’s perfectionism — particularly, its requirement that one adopt a disinterested, dispassionate, and impartial stance, in identifying and carrying out one’s moral duty, and its rejection of sentiments such as love, hatred, sympathy, attraction and aversion as morally legitimate motives — far from advancing the cause of goodness and justice, in fact constitutes an obstacle to it. On the epistemological front, the rationalist’s rejection of nature and custom as legitimate sources of belief and insistence that every belief be rationally justified do not serve the cause of liberal, democratic politics, as mainline political philosophers have liked to claim, but instead create intellectual conditions conducive to totalitarianism, by leaving a vacuum at the foundations of social, civic, and political belief and thereby exposing the public to the manipulations of propagandists and demagogues.
I trust that it is uncontroversial to observe that our natural inclination is to be interested rather than disinterested, partial rather than impartial, sympathetic and unsympathetic rather than detached and that we needn’t go as far as invoking animal behavior or the genetic imperatives that operate across species to make the point; that we need only consider that disinterestedness, dispassion, and detachment are not manifest in childhood, but must be cultivated over the course of one’s youth, or reflect on the fact that even once acquired, the exercise of disinterest, dispassion, and detachment requires effort and is never entirely successful, in order to see that these traits are the products of acculturation. (4) Our natural inclination is to be partial to our own good and to the goods of those close to us in affection, who are those with whom we typically also enjoy physical, social, and other forms of proximity. This point was made most strongly by Hume, whose observation that “a man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers, where everything else is equal” was intended to show that justice and other disinterested virtues are the products of artifice, rather than nature; that we are primarily affective and only secondarily reflective beings; that we are defined by sensibility more than by ratiocination; and that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (5)
Doubtless, there are contexts where the artifice of impartiality is not only beneficial but required, a prime example of which is the law, but modern mainline moral philosophers like Kant and Mill, as well as contemporary rationalistic moralists like Peters Singer and Unger, have deemed impartiality an inherent feature of morality and consequently, have construed the moral stance as essentially indistinguishable from that of the jurist. The problem with this, aside from its dubious validity — one wouldn’t have thought that a stance appropriate to an institution, whose scope is the entire population of a city, state, or nation, would be appropriate to one’s personal conduct and family life — is that it represents an unattainable ideal. It’s just not reasonable to expect a person not to privilege himself or those whom he cares about or loves over those whom he doesn’t know, to whom he feels indifferent, or whom he loathes. Singer and Unger may want to claim that the fact that a person is a close relative as opposed to a total stranger or that a suffering person is right in front of you, as opposed to being a statistic, in a newspaper story, has no relevance to your moral obligations towards one person or the other, but this will never change the fact that people overwhelmingly will privilege their intimates over strangers and will be more moved to help those people whose need is imminent and manifest than those whose suffering is distant and unperceived. (6)
Many will want to point out that being moral can be difficult and may require a person to turn against his natural inclinations, which, depending on the circumstances, may be true (though it is worth noting that Aristotle described the morally virtuous person as one who is inclined to do the right thing and feels pleasure in doing so), but I would like to suggest that maintaining an entire system of unattainable moral ideals is dangerous; that despairing of one’s ability to live up to the moral ideal, a person may give up on morality altogether and become amoral, adopting a “plague on both your houses” attitude towards the moral and the immoral alike or even embrace immorality, out of the resentment that commonly follows from unremitting failure, possibilities that Singer simply dismisses as “remote” and which Unger acknowledges, but treats as minor difficulties to be surmounted with a bit of clever rhetoric. (7) In contrast, Bernard Williams believed these to be real and serious consequences of the kind of perfectionist moralizing upon which Singer and Unger have built their careers. As Williams put it:
Some writers aim to increase a sense of guilt in their readers. Peter Singer is an example, and in his book Practical Ethics he is evidently more interested in producing that effect than he is in the theoretical basis for it, which gets very cursory treatment. As moral persuasion, this kind of tactic is likely to be counterproductive and to lead to a defensive and resentful contraction of concern. This can be seen in research and, at the present time, all around us. (8)
What rationalist moral philosophers have failed to understand is that our capacity to care about and feel obligated towards strangers is derivative of the natural affection that we feel for those who are close to us. “We pity even strangers,” Hume explains, “but if we examine these affections of pity, we shall find them to be secondary ones, arising from original affections, which are varied by some particular turn of thought and imagination.” (9) So, when Unger urges us to neglect the interests of our children and elderly parents, in order to send as much money as possible to poor strangers living in the far corners of the earth (in one particularly surreal passage, he tells us that global poverty obligates us to send our children exclusively to public primary and secondary schools, “even if it means …moving to a different neighborhood,” and to spend as little as possible on our elderly parents, even if they are infirm), he is demanding a state of affairs in which no one would be inclined to be charitable at all. (10)
As Hume explained, the natural affection that we feel for others is proportionate to their proximity to us and the extent to which they “resemble” us, the latter of which includes a sense of social, economic, religious, and other non-physical varieties of closeness. Hence the fan-like structure of Hume’s account — in which our affection and care are initially directed towards ourselves, after which they reach out to others — that we’ve already encountered in his remark concerning a person’s relative affections for his children, nephews, cousins, etc., and which is simply a specific instance of his more general idea that the “force and vivacity” of our ideas is proportionate to the immediateness of their objects. (11) One consequence of this is that our sense of concern and obligation decreases as the potential objects of our good will are perceived as being at a greater distance from us, whether physically or in the ways that they resemble us, to the point at which the only source of charitable feeling is the sense in which every human being resembles every other, which Hume says is not sufficient to constitute any sort of “love for mankind” and which, given competing demands for care from family and friends, amounts, effectively, to none. (12) Nonetheless, we are capable of caring about and feeling obligated to others, because we are able to imagine that they might have been close to us, whether physically, socially, economically, etc. “I [cannot] feel the same lively pleasure from the virtues of a person who liv’d in Greece two thousand years ago, that I feel from the virtues of a familiar friend,” Hume explains, “yet I do not say that I esteem the one more than the other. Our situation, with regard both to persons and things, is in continual fluctuation; and a man that lies at a distance from us, may become a familiar acquaintance.” “We blame equally a bad action, which we read of in history, with one perform’d in our neighbourhood,” Hume continues, “the meaning of which is that we know from reflexion, that the former action wou’d excite as strong sentiments of disapprobation as the latter, were it plac’d in the same position.” (13)
The disinterested ideal that pervades mainline moral philosophy and requires that we disregard the natural asymmetry of our affections and care and deny our intimates pride of place in our generosity thus constitutes an assault on the very ground from which the charitable instinct springs and is a force for its diminishment, a fact that can only be exacerbated by the scolding, hectoring approach to the subject favored by the Singers and Ungers of the world. None of this should surprise us, for it was long understood by Western thinkers of antiquity and the Middle Ages that the civic and political orders are derivative of the smaller-scale forms of social life and ultimately, of the family, and that the very concepts and habits that make good civil and political society possible — obligation, prerogative, fealty, obedience, authority, and the like — have their origins and are first acquired and exercised in the context of one’s relationships with family and friends. (14) Indeed, it is precisely because they play this foundational role in civil and political society that the institutions of the family and of friendship are among the first targets of any aspiring totalitarian regime, whose aim is not merely to achieve effective absolute rule, but to reconfigure the moral template of the citizen; something that can only be accomplished, when the emotional connections between parents and children and between friends and neighbors have been severed and the grounds of natural affection thereby destroyed. (The people living in the totalitarian society described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are raised from infancy in state-run institutions and are conditioned to conceive of the very words associated with family life — ‘family’, ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘sister’, etc. — as obscenities. (15))
If a collapse in moral sympathy and concern is one of the hazards posed by the mainline tradition’s moral perfectionism, what of its epistemological ideals, which are equally extreme? Skepticism, when understood as a position rather than as a method, is the product of a frustrated rationalism — the result of the rationalist being convinced that the high epistemological standards to which he adheres cannot be met — and would seem, therefore, to entail that we should suspend all of our beliefs and activities and adopt the posture of the Pyrrhonist or at least, the Pyrrhonist of popular legend. Now, on first glance, the risk here, would appear to be purely theoretical: even though Hume warned that such a person would suffer “pensive melancholy” and would receive a “cold reception” from others and Reid thought that “a man who did not believe his senses, could not keep out of harm’s way an hour of his life” (16), both were convinced that the rationalist-skeptical stance was unsustainable; that the force of natural belief and inclination and inherited habits and customs would always overcome even the most hardnosed rationalist philosophy and that consequently, neither rationalism nor skepticism posed any real danger to individuals or to mankind as a whole. “The great subverter of the excessive principles of skepticism is action and the occupations of common life,” Hume wrote. “These principles may flourish and triumph in the schools; where it is difficult, if not impossible to refute them. But as soon as they leave the shade and are put in opposition to the more powerful principles of our nature, they vanish like smoke.” (17) Reid agreed, observing that “in all the history of philosophy, we never read of any sceptic that stepped into fire or water because he did not believe his senses, or that showed, in the conduct of life, less trust in his senses than other men have.” (18)
But if we skip forward several centuries and consider G.K. Chesterton, whose Orthodoxy is partly devoted to the same question — in two chapters entitled “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought” — we find that he is profoundly worried that widespread skepticism, sustained by the belief that human thought and activity can never live up to rational standards, would engender an equally wide-ranging irrationalism. “Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea,” he wrote, “so one set of thinkers can prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.” (19) Indeed, Chesterton believed that this process of collective mental derangement had already begun, writing that “The whole modern world is at war with reason, and the tower already reels.” (20) In 1908 (the year of Orthodoxy’s publication), he was in a position to see the effects of earlier such losses of faith, whether the irrationalist moral and political philosophies that followed the French Revolution, Terror, and Napoleonic Wars, which were widely interpreted as representing the failure of rationalist thought, or the sublime madness of Romantic literature, painting, and music, much of which was directed against industrialization and urbanization, children of the Scientific revolution and of the rationalist outlook both. But Chesterton also despaired of developments in his own day and expressed alarm at hearing the kinds of skeptical arguments, which previously had been the unique province of philosophers, increasingly coming out of the mouths of prominent figures in the popular culture, most notably H.G. Wells, whose Oxford Philosophical Society presentation, “Skepticism of the Instrument,” suggested to Chesterton that what had once been a purely academic idea had now penetrated the public square (21), and which, given the literary and rhetorical gifts of Wells and others like him, would quickly make its way into the popular consciousness.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, with Europe’s experience of the French Revolution and its aftermath and of Romanticism behind him, Chesterton could understand both that the kind of credulity that makes it possible for a person to trust his senses, his reason, his instincts, and his acquired customs and habits is crucial, if any intellectual or practical regime grounded in rational procedures is to be sustained and that the kind of systemic incredulity that accompanies a perennially frustrated rationalism represents not just the end of any such regime, but an invitation to intellectual and social anarchy. But, with the mechanized mass murder of the first and second World Wars and the sweep of totalitarian ideologies and governments across Europe and Asia still ahead of him, the Chesterton of Orthodoxy could not see beyond the prevailing incredulity of his day to the point at which it would become credulity once again, but a credulity of a most terrible kind; one that would clear the way for human monstrousness on a scale and of a scope hitherto unknown. For beyond that self-absorbed mental condition, in which a person refuses to believe or act, there comes an even more wretched point at which he will believe and do anything.
Hannah Arendt has argued that as much as the catastrophic economic depression or the collective humiliation experienced at Versailles, this degenerate, post-skeptical credulity is crucial to understanding the rise of Nazism; specifically, it explains how the people of advanced societies like Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire could place themselves, their legacies, and their futures in the hands of a ranting lunatic like Hitler and his rabble of costumed perverts, petty criminals, and thugs. “The problem of Hitler’s charisma is relatively easy to solve,” Arendt wrote. “It rested on the well-known experiential fact that Hitler must have realized early in his life, namely, that modern society in its desperate inability to form judgments will take every individual for what he considers himself and professes himself to be and will judge him on that basis. Extraordinary self-confidence and displays of self-confidence therefore inspire confidence in others.” (22)
The Nazi problem, of course, is only an instance of a more general problem that we continue to live with today. If Hume and Reid are correct that it is in a human being’s nature to believe and to act and if belief and action require an initial credulity in order to get off the ground and to be sustained thereafter, then the sole question that remains is what that credulity will consist of. In a human being’s natural condition, it is a credulity born of the world and of human nature, experience, and history, but in the post-skeptical condition that comprises rationalism’s legacy, this reality-based credulity is lost, to be replaced by one that derives from whatever ersatz-reality can be designed and promoted with the greatest combination of cleverness and assertiveness. “In such an atmosphere any kind of fraud becomes possible,” Arendt explained, “because there appears to be no one left for whom the difference between fraud and authenticity matters. People therefore fall prey to judgments apodictically expressed because the apodictic tone frees them from the chaos of an infinite number of arbitrary judgments.” (23)
This remains true, whether the counterfeit reality is of the brutal, Orwellian kind effected by the Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos of history or the softer, Huxleyan variety that we see every day in the efforts exerted by corporations in the selling of their respective products, the chief force for which is the implantation of fabricated desires into the minds of the public, a job that falls to their hired-guns from the social sciences. Like the totalitarian dictator, the contemporary marketer does not seek to persuade his target audience by appeal to reasons that ultimately are accepted or rejected according to a person’s natural and customary instincts and beliefs , which belong, as we’ve just said, to the world and to human nature and history and are not easily controlled, but relies instead on our trust in these natural and inherited instincts and beliefs having been so thoroughly undermined by skepticism and its innumerable popular articulations that he can replace them with artificially created instincts and beliefs that can be counted on to produce favorable reactions to the reasons that he offers on behalf of whatever it is he is selling.
Intellectuals have a distinctive susceptibility to this sort of deceit, because they are the people most likely to buy into the rationalist conceit, and once they have abandoned that backbone of given basic beliefs, inclinations, and habits that connects everything else that they believe and do to the realities of the world, their own nature and history, they are left exposed and vulnerable to the manipulator’s fictions, especially when those fictions are placed within the reassuring settings of science, philosophy, and other respected institutions and frameworks. As Stanley Rosen warned:
If philosophy is understood as a thoroughly extraordinary event or activity having nothing to do with ordinary experience or sound judgment, then there is no basis on which to distinguish between genuine and specious philosophical speeches. If philosophy claims that ordinary life is irrelevant to philosophy, then philosophy is indistinguishable from arbitrary rhetorical assertions. (24)
This may help explain why so many of the last century’s most distinguished thinkers sympathized with and to some extent were complicit in its worst totalitarian causes, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre being the most famous examples. In her review of Max Weinreich’s 1946 book, Hitler’s Professors, Arendt describes the Nazis as having exploited precisely this sort of gullibility in the way that they used Heidegger to gain respect in Germany’s elite universities, after which he was replaced with Alfred Bäumler, a known charlatan. (25) And it is why C.S. Lewis, in That Hideous Strength, his fictional tale of an aspiring totalitarian movement’s efforts to take over Britain, described the coup as beginning in a college and explained, through the mouth of the character one of the movement’s leaders that,
It’s the educated who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and buys it for the football results. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’ll believe anything.” (26)
If some of rationalistic philosophy’s rebellions against human nature arise from the conviction that our intellectual and practical instincts and habits are atavistic and ought to be entirely disregarded in favor of pure, rational reflection, another derives from its obsession with radical autonomy; with the idea that not only should our beliefs and actions be self-originating, in the sense of deriving exclusively from our own contemplative and ratiocinative activity, but that our very being should be self-made; that nothing about who or what we are should prevail independently of our own rational will; that nothing should be given and by implication, nothing should bind or otherwise constrain us. This, of course, was the primary subject of “Self Made,” but I would like to examine it in greater detail here.
If rationalistic philosophy’s dualistic heritage created a pecking order, in which our conscious lives are given pride of place over our embodied and social existence, and contemplation and ratiocination are privileged over sensation, conation, and habituation, then one result of its contemporary misapplication of modern science and scientific method to the understanding of human nature has been to harden that dualism to the point where one’s entire self-identification is with one’s rational consciousness and all the things that are connected with one’s embodiment are treated as mere tools. (There also has been another, even more extreme result, namely the complete abandonment of the conscious, rational dimension altogether, in favor of an entirely scientistic, thoroughly evolutionary and mechanistic picture of the human being and human life, more about which I’ll say a bit at the end of these remarks.) Lewis described this situation as on in which we have “abolished” man and replaced him with an “artefact” (27), an idea that has been the subject of some of the most powerful humanist and dystopian literature of the last century. (28)
The modern scientific stance is essentially analytical, quantitative, reductive, and impersonal, by which I mean that understanding is accomplished by: (i) breaking objects and processes down to their most basic parts; (ii) defining objects and processes in terms of entirely quantifiable characteristics; (iii) explaining objects and processes in ways commensurate with the explanations provided by the most fundamental physical sciences; (iv) engaging objects and processes from an objective, depersonalized point of view (rather than as they are experienced by people). This stance, it should be emphasized, is perfectly suited to the ends that modern science serves. Since the industrial revolution, scientific understanding has been pursued almost exclusively for its engineering potential — it enables us to make and use things — and in this regard, the type of understanding that it provides is the right kind, not only because it provides the sort of information that one needs, if one is to manipulate matter and energy, but because it enables us to justify treating the natural world as something to be used; as something with no ends of its own that consequently may be employed entirely in the service of our own ends. The modern scientific vision is a devaluated one, and devaluation is the crucial first step to revaluation, which is required if one is to justify the subordination of any thing or process to one’s own ends. “We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them,” Lewis wrote, and so “the price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature.” (29)
When this perspective is turned from the world to us, what was a largely eschatological dualism in antiquity is brought down to earth and rendered in high relief. The conscious, rational mind, in the position of the user, analyses, reduces, neutralizes, devalues, and finally instrumentalizes its own embodiment, something that is manifested not only in many of our theories of human nature, morality, and politics, but in practice as well. As we’ve already seen, it is pervasive in the philosophy of the mainline tradition, whether in its disregard for human emotional imperatives or in the assignment of moral, legal, and political rights and duties exclusively on the basis of a rationalistically conceived personhood, one result of which has been the weird treatment of the human body as private property (30), to do with as one sees fit and whose distinct imperatives and constraints must never be permitted to interfere with the ends of conscious selves. The observation that such attitudes are hubristic seems quaint today, but it is worth noting that Chesterton, Lewis, and Iris Murdoch all described them as essentially Luciferean, in the (metaphorical) sense that they represent a combination of resentment at having been made by forces other than one’s own will and a hunger for absolute – in the sense of counter-causal – freedom. (31)
More serious still is the alienation effected by the withdrawal of the conscious self from its body, its world, and its history, on which Carl Jung hung the ongoing and currently metastasizing pandemic of neuroses, afflictions that arise not simply from a sense of distance from the world, from others, and from one’s past, but from the horrible over-awareness of self that results. “Whenever there is established an external form, be it ritual or spiritual, by which all the yearnings and hopes of the soul are adequately expressed, then no spiritual problem, strictly speaking, exists,” Jung wrote. (32) The modern man, however, “has become ‘unhistorical’ and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live within the bounds of tradition,” the consequence of which, he explained, is that we have “suffered an almost fatal shock and fallen into profound uncertainty.” Indeed, the very need for clinical psychology, Jung believed, “is symptomatic of a profound convulsion of spiritual life.” (33)
The most potent criticism of the rationalistic dream of being entirely self-made and radically free, however, is also an ironic one, for the arc that begins with the rationalist’s core premises and ends with our “self-made” people, far from describing the rise of freedom is rather a tale of its erosion and ultimately, its loss. For, the very rationalistic framework that renders an individual’s body a tool to his conscious mind also justifies a political picture, in which the individual is conceived of as an object to be managed by the state. With human nature reduced to a mechanical, value-neutral point, politics, which in antiquity was conceived of as the arena in which richly, “thickly” rendered human beings realized their full potential, becomes indistinguishable from social engineering and maintenance. The result, today, is a still somewhat light, but undeniable technocracy, in which public policy and governance are the province of experts — natural and social scientists, engineers, mental and other healthcare professionals, economists, and a professional class of bureaucrats — whose transformation of civic life and government into a form of “human resource management” is familiar enough to the average person, but whose methods have become ever more inscrutable, as the scientific basis for policy has become more and more advanced and the logic of politics and administration has become increasingly complex.
The result, for those who have come to view themselves and their lives through the reductive lens of resources-to-be-maintained and problems-to-be-solved, is an ever-increasing dependency on the experts, which is hardly the radical autonomy dreamt of by the architects of modernity. Indeed, precisely this complexity has been used by some to argue for the subversion and manipulation of the public, as in the case of Walter Lipmann’s notorious arguments for the “manufacturing of consent” in modern democracies. (34) As Lewis described this paradoxical outcome of our attempts to attain individuality, strength, and freedom by using the theoretical and practical instruments of modern science to conquer nature: “If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man,” to which I would add, “or a free one.” (35)
A few pages back I spoke of the other effect of our misapplication of the modern natural sciences to the study of human nature and human affair, and that is the collapse of what is a clearly untenable, unstable dualism in favor of a thoroughly physicalistic monism; one in which the Scientific Image, as described by Wilfrid Sellars, has entirely supplanted the Manifest one, and in which our account of ourselves and our activity no longer has any room for selves or persons or reason or autonomy, even of the humble, non-rationalistic variety. Once such a view has fully taken hold and pervades not only our civic and political institutions, but our common understanding and practices, we will essentially be living in the world described and hoped for by B.F. Skinner, in his technocratic manifesto Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and therein will lie not only the greatest tyranny, but the greatest irony of all.
If the rationalistically-inspired scientific takeover of our conception of human nature points towards technocracy — if as Lewis wrote, “Man’s conquest of nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men” (36) — then the question of the principles on which those few hundreds of men rule becomes essential. The promise, of course, is that they will be rational principles; that rule by experts will mean rule by reason, by way of rationalistic philosophy and science, as opposed to rule by unreason, by way of prejudice, superstition, or archaic myths about man. “We have made immense strides in controlling the physical and biological worlds, but our practices in government, education, and economics have not greatly improved,” Skinner lamented, after which he went on to say:
We need to make vast changes in human behavior, and we cannot make them with nothing more than physics or biology. What we need is a technology of behavior [that will allow us to] adjust the growth of the world’s population as precisely as we adjust the course of a spaceship or move toward a peaceful world with something like the steady progress with which physics has approached absolute zero. (37)
Unfortunately, Skinner seemed to have missed the wild inconsistency involved in making the case for a plan on the grounds of its being more rational than the rest, while simultaneously claiming that the people who design and implement the plan are not rational agents, but act solely on the basis of their physical nature and conditioning. (38)
There is no one more enslaved to his nature then one who is unaware of it or who was once aware of it, but has denied it to the point where he believes his own lies and has forgotten it. For the person who accepts the fact that his every act of reasoning is ultimately grounded in the uncritical acceptance of his world, his faculties, and his inclinations and habits, reason remains a real, active force for sound behavior and thought. But for the person who insists on the rationalist’s rarefied conception of reasoning, reason is no longer a real, active force for soundness in his life, but at best an empty proceduralism, taking place in a vacuum; a void that will be filled either by his own unreasoned, unrecognized nature or that of others. In either event, he is controlled. The greatest irony of all, then, is that a philosophical movement that for two and a half thousand years preached the rational ascendance of man over nature and the wills of others may very well be responsible for effecting his utter subordination to both.
- Daniel A. Kaufman, “Excessive Reason,” The Electric Agora, February 28, 2016.
- For example my “Between Reason and Common Sense,” Philosophical Investigations, Vol. 28, No. 2 (April 2005) and “Reality in Common Sense: Realism and Anti-Realism from a ‘Common Sense Naturalist’ Perspective,” Philosophical Investigations, Vol. 25, No. 4 (October 2002).
- “Reason requires such an impartial conduct, but ’tis seldom we can bring ourselves to it, and our passions do not readily follow the determination of our judgment.” David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), 2nd Edition, eds. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 583.
- Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 415.
- Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die Our Illusion of Innocence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 33-36; 149-150; Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring 1972) p. 232.
- Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” pp. 237-238; Unger, Living High and Letting Die, pp. 156-157.
- Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 212, fn. 7.
- Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 369.
- Unger, Living High and Letting Die, p. 150.
- Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 427 & 581.
- Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 481.
- Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 581 & 584.
- See, especially, Aristotle, Politics, 1252a25-1252b30; 1276b20-1277b30.
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932) (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 37-41.
- David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777), 3rd Edition, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 9; Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), ed. Baruch Brody (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1969), p. 115.
- Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, pp. 158-159.
- Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, pp. 115-116.
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 38.
- Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 37.
- Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 38. Tellingly, Wells’ paper was subsequently reprinted, with some revisions, in Mind. H.G. Wells, ‘Skepticism of the Instrument’, Mind, Vol. 13, No. 51 (July 1904), pp. 379-393.
- Hannah Arendt, “At Table with Hitler” (1951), tr. Robert and Rita Kimber, reprinted in Essays in Understanding: 1930-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1994), p. 291.
- Arendt, “At Table with Hitler,” p. 292.
- Stanley Rosen, ‘Philosophy and Ordinary Experience’, the 1996 Bradley Lecture, Boston College, reprinted in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 228.
- Hannah Arendt, ‘The Image of Hell’ (1946), in Essays in Understanding: 1930-1945, p. 202.
- C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 99-100.
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944) (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 64.
- The aforementioned That Hideous Strength was intended by Lewis to be a novelization of the central ideas of The Abolition of Man. See Lewis, That Hideous Strength, p. 7.
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 71.
- John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, C.B. Macpherson, ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980), p. 19.
- G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (1909) (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995), p. 1; C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, esp. pp. 177-179; Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (New York: Routledge, 1971), pp. 77-78.
- Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, tr. W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1933), p. 201.
- Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, pp. 197; 200; & 202.
- Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1921), esp. Ch. XV.
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 54.
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 58.
- B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2002), pp. 6 & 4-5.
- Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, pp. 182-3; 215.