Reason, again, is solely directed to the attainment of truth, and careless of money and reputation. In accordance with the difference of men’s natures, one of these three principles is in the ascendant, and they have their several pleasures corresponding to them. Interrogate now the three natures, and each one will be found praising his own pleasures and depreciating those of others. The money-maker will contrast the vanity of knowledge with the solid advantages of wealth. The ambitious man will despise knowledge which brings no honour; whereas the philosopher will regard only the fruition of truth, and will call other pleasures necessary rather than good. Now, how shall we decide between them? Is there any better criterion than experience and knowledge? And which of the three has the truest knowledge and the widest experience? The experience of youth makes the philosopher acquainted with the two kinds of desire, but the avaricious and the ambitious man never tastes the pleasures of truth and wisdom. Honour he has equally with them; they are “judged of him,” but he is “not judged of them,” for they never attain to the knowledge of true being. And his instrument is reason, whereas their standard is only wealth and honour; and if by reason we are to judge, his good will be the truest.—Plato, The Republic
Few terms generate as much controversy as reason—ironically, given how reasonable it seems to subordinate ourselves to reason. The straightforwardness of this position might explain the appeal of Stephen Hicks, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky and others, who push back against irrationalism and relativism by upholding the virtues of the Enlightenment project. Of course, critics can always point out that reason seems to lead these figures to very different conclusions about how the world operates and what should be done. Reason inspires the pious objectivist disciples of Ayn Rand to declare that the world can be known in itself and that the right thing to do is to invoke the virtues of selfishness; and it has also inspired centuries of Marxist theorists, who dedicated themselves to developing a true science of society and emancipation from capital. Such controversies go at least as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers, who disputed what reason demanded of thinking and action. But what unites all these figures and traditions is a belief that, at least in principle, we can know some truths about the world and what constitutes moral human behavior.
Yet, for as long as there have been Apollonian sages preaching the advantages of reason, there have been opponents who have scorned its alleged authority. The Greek sophists emphasized that power and rhetoric are more important than appeals to the rational capacities, and generations of skeptics from Gorgias to Derrida have questioned whether we can actually know what we claim to know. Even some Enlightenment thinkers—such as Hume and Kant in their darker moments—conceded that human intelligence may be so limited that our aspirations to discover the truth will be eternally foreclosed in many areas.
A specific type of anti-reason developed during what Isaiah Berlin called the counter-Enlightenment. It has been associated with irrationalist sociopolitical movements from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day.
The Counter-Enlightenment and the Politics of Reaction
Few periods were as enamored with reason then the Enlightenment. From the late seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century, developments in the arts and sciences persuaded many thinking people that human intelligence could not just discover the deepest inner workings of the world, but also how to organize all elements of human life for the better. The prevailing sunny atmosphere was best captured in Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?,” written in one of his more optimistic moods. Kant makes the startling claim that all previous human history was a period of immaturity and superstition from which individuals are only now waking up:
Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have the courage to use your own intelligence is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.
However, even at the time, some were highly skeptical of the new church of reason, notably Joseph de Maistre, a hyper-conservative Catholic, who insisted that the new philosophies were fundamentally destructive. He argued that the power of the human mind to know anything is intrinsically limited, and its capacity to develop a just society independent of traditional authority and religion virtually non-existent—beliefs to the contrary reflect the kind of rebellious pride depicted in Milton’s Lucifer. The foundation of knowledge and ordered civil society, de Maistre believed, is not some hypothetical and superstitious conceit about rational individuals thinking and cooperating for the common good. De Maistre rarely tried to demonstrate the validity of his positions (his St. Petersburg Dialogues are a notable exception). Attempting to offer proof would concede too much ground to the rationalists. Instead, de Maistre insisted we accept both epistemic and political authorities, such as the Church and the crown. The alternative would be horror and chaos.
De Maistre’s irrationalist disdain for reason extended to an admiration for the spectacular qualities of violence, when necessary to uphold ordered authority. This is why Berlin regarded him as both a major figure of the counter-Enlightenment and the godfather of fascism. But his often manic denunciations lacked the theoretical and charismatic weight of his successors.
Probably the most infamous critic of the Enlightenment was its dark offspring, Friedrich Nietzsche. The power of his criticism stemmed in no small part from his profound capacity to carry the positions of reason’s defenders to dark places. Nietzsche famously observed that what remained unquestioned by the Enlightenment project was why reason should feel compelled to submit to its own authority? Reason was first and foremost an attempt to understand the world as it truly was, but people like Kant wanted to go further and insist that reason could tell us how to behave and what to value—to provide existential meaning. But no collection of facts or philosophies about how the world is can lead to conclusions about what ultimately matters. The world is simply what it is: death, suffering and resentment are part of existence. Reason can only overcome this by insisting that the world as it is, is insufficient. But on what basis could a rationalist claim this, while still invoking pure reason? According to Nietzsche, the Enlightenment thinkers shy away from this nihilistic abyss by smuggling irrational faith back into their projects. Kant argues that we must posit the existence of freedom, immortality of the soul and God, to provide a justification for the imperatives of so-called practical reason. Late Enlightenment thinkers like Hegel and Marx argue that history has an inner logic that reason can apprehend, and is moving towards inevitable universal emancipation from alienation.
Nietzsche would have none of that. He pointed out that, since Plato, the priests of rationalism have run into the dilemma that the real world is filled with imperfection. They overcome this by sacrificing the real world to the ideal. Christianity—Platonism for the masses—became a worldwide force by insisting that this life was but a suffering-filled simulacrum of the true existence to come. Scholastic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas insisted that both reason and faith demonstrated this, but their final appeals were to faith. Even the Enlightenment, which prided itself on casting off the yoke of religious superstition, remained in the shadow of this outlook. The philosophes, liberals and socialists viewed their time with disdain, invoking quaint phrases about rationalizing our understanding and society to hide their powerless resentment. Instead of adopting secularized Christian reason, Nietzsche argues, we should will the pursuit of inegalitarian excellence. The Übermensch to come will scorns the idea of trying to improve the world, in accordance with a superstitious universal plan dictated by mysterious reason. Instead he will remake it in accordance with the dictates of taste and aesthetics.
This position was later radicalized by Martin Heidegger, who was both one of the twentieth century’s great philosophers and—notoriously—a supporter of the Nazi party. In Being and Time, Heidegger insists that the history of Western civilization has been a long decline from the glory of the Greeks, who had the audacity to live in awe of the question of Being: why is there something instead of nothing at all? Since Plato, we have gradually abandoned interest in this mystery in favour of technical problems that we believe reason can solve. For example, we have moved from the question what is justice? to what rights should people have? and, finally, to what should the marginal tax rate be? In our inauthentic modern epoch, the key issues are all limited by technical reason. In his Introduction to Metaphysics, which is based on a lecture given towards the height of Heidegger’s Nazi involvement, the philosopher claims that capitalism and communism/socialism are “metaphysically the same.” Both are technical and rationalistic approaches to the world, which emphasize the satisfaction of human desire as the sole end of existence. All the military bluster and partisan mewling aside, according to Heidegger both capitalism and its left-wing competitors are just debating the best way to design and distribute better refrigerators. Heidegger claims that we need to reject this for a project of individual and national authenticity. We should heroically face the absurdity of the world and the nihilistic expectation of our inevitable destruction, along with all that we know and believe to be stable, by trying to make something grand and complete out of ourselves.
These irrational philosophies resonate in part because they capture many of our deepest anxieties. Despite our aspirations to understand the world and discipline our behavior, many of us often feel powerless in the face of systems that purport to be rational but whose motives and processes none can understand. Dostoevsky’s work suggests that rejecting reason can be deeply satisfying in such a world. In his Notes from the Underground, the Russian novelist depicts a world in which both liberal capitalists and proto-Bolsheviks are struggling to remake society in their image. They promise that once they have accomplished their goals all will be right with the world. But they also claim that there is no other choice but to submit to their allegedly scientific outlooks. The capitalists invoke the laws of economics and the socialists the laws of history to deny people the freedom to act or remake the world as they wish. In such a setting, Dostoevsky argues, the greatest satisfaction may come from resisting the force of reason and willing free acts purely to disprove the inexorability of the rationalist claims.
But the dangers of embracing irrationalism have been demonstrated by the recent ascendency of postmodern conservatism (which I have written about here), whose mantra that truth is not truth suggests that the appeal of irrationalism hasn’t worn off. To defend reason, we need to moderate its claims. From Plato through many iterations of Enlightenment thought, there has been a totalizing desire to subordinate human life to a single unified principle or set of principles, which both explain the world and provide moral obligations. Perhaps the most characteristic of these principles is the classical principle of utility, which suggests that all human action is governed by the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain. This means that the moral thing to do is to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Such a claim has great purchase on our rational faculties. But it doesn’t capture many elements of human life that provide us with resonant value, even if they entail suffering. One rather mundane example—which even Heidegger might appreciate—is the inner satisfaction that comes from overcoming hardship and developing a sense of self. If this is rationalistic utilitarianism, it is utility understood in what Mill might call the last instance. Or consider the feelings of affect and association we feel towards the dead, both those we knew and others we encounter only through reputation. The fidelity we have towards departed fathers, daughters and so on can mean a great deal to us. Reason can interrogate all these forms of value successfully, but only if it is fine-grained enough to appreciate their qualitative differences in a spirit of pluralism and sincere curiosity. In a postmodern era in which the charms of irrationalism are becoming increasingly apparent, we badly need such an outlook.