Friday, May 24, 2019

On The Dark Side of Reason

How rational are the people who assert that they are the men of reason? Why do social philosophies that are based on the perfection and application of reason for the solution of society’s problems transform or harden into fascism? Why is it that the pursuit of rationality often leads to an explosion of irrationality?

Such are the questions that Justin E. H. Smith is grappling with in Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. In the Introduction to his book, he points out that the faculty of “rationality” or “reason” was discovered by the Ancient Greeks, but it was elevated to a divine status in the modern period in Europe. Here’s an excerpt:
"For the past few millennia, many human beings have placed their hopes for rising out of the mess we have been born into—the mess of war and violence, the pain of unfulfilled passions or of passions fulfilled to excess, the degradation of living like brutes—in a single faculty, rumored to be had by all and only members of the human species. We call this faculty “rationality,” or “reason.” It is often said to have been discovered in ancient Greece, and was elevated to an almost divine status at the beginning of the modern period in Europe. Perhaps no greater emblem of this modern cult can be found than the “Temples of Reason” that were briefly set up in confiscated Catholic churches in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. This repurposing of the august medieval houses of worship, at the same time, shows what may well be an ineliminable contradiction in the human effort to live our lives in accordance with reason, and to model society on rational principles. There is something absurd, indeed irrational, about giving reason its own temples. What is one supposed to do in them? Pray? Bow down? But aren’t these the very same prostrations that worshippers had previously performed in the churches, from which we were supposed to be liberated?" 
According to Smith, the problem of "reason" or "rationality" is of dialectical nature, “where the thing desired contains its opposite, where every earnest stab at rationally building up society crosses over sooner or later, as if by some natural law, into an eruption of irrational violence. The harder we struggle for reason, it seems, the more we lapse into unreason. The desire to impose rationality, to make people or society more rational, mutates, as a rule, into spectacular outbursts of irrationality. It either triggers romantic irrationalism as a reaction, or it induces in its most ardent promoters the incoherent idea that rationality is something that may be imposed by force or by the rule of the enlightened few over the benighted masses.”

P.S.,  I think that Prof. Justin E. H. Smith is suffering from an acute case of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” I got his book yesterday and right now I have read only the Introduction—in the 22 page Introduction he rants against Trump seven times and twice draws a very silly kind of ideological connection between Trump and Putin. I have a feeling that the rest of the book would also be full of such rants. Yikes! Why clutter a book of serious philosophy with such petty political rants? But I still think that Smith has written a good book. I am impressed by his unorthodox approach to the problematic history of reason and enlightenment. I think I will enjoy reading this book.

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