The Vanity of Reason

December 1, 2000 Topic: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: Cold War

The Vanity of Reason

Mini Teaser: A look at reason's self-destructive side, and an example of the same thing.

by Author(s): Kenneth Minogue

J.W. Burrow, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)

John Dunn, The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Western civilization was founded on the idea that reason might save us from the passions and show us the way to a just society. The idea that man was a rational animal thus hovered between description and aspiration. Christianity brought great changes in the assumptions of classical rationalism, and in time a new kind of reason, that of instrumental rationality, came to dominate European thought. Philosophers such as Hobbes argued that even this thinner version of reason could generate a peaceful and commodious life. In Hegel, the old classical reason turned into the animating genius of history, leading to the famously ambivalent formula: the real is the rational. But more recently, reason has fallen on hard times. Two books with reason in their titles exhibit its self-destructive side and might help us to understand this fall.

In J.W. Burrow's The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914, a dense and brilliant account of the movement of ideas, the year 1848 features as a watershed in which discontent with the current condition of Europe fused with hopes that salvation was at hand. Contemporaries, he observes, "began to see themselves under the sign of continuous intellectual history." Less than a century later, reason, even truth, had fallen out of fashion. "Which reason? Whose truth?", demanded the dimmer kind of skeptic. Everything believed to be representational, bourgeois, true, pious, respectable, progressive or Western was under attack. The philosophers of suspicion -- Marx, Nietzsche and Freud -- had triumphed. Burrow deals with these men, but they are merely part of a wider panorama. Some scenes from this panorama will be familiar to the reader; others will be a revelation. The key figure in this development was, of course, Nietzsche, but (as Burrow clearly shows) it was the Zeitgeist what done it. Cognitive chaos is the way we live now, and as Burrow remarks at the end of his history, "Post-modernism in literature, for all the volubility expended on it, looks more like a gloss on Modernism than its historical grave digger. Modernism is our tradition." The allegiances of tradition did not immediately collapse. The necessities imposed by two world wars and the threat of communism kept many virtues in being. Only today do we harvest the full fruits of reason's collapse.

What Burrow brings clearly to light is a world in which reason escaped from the philosopher's cell to prowl the streets. Philosophy had always been regarded by the custodians of social cohesion as a dangerous occupation. In Islam it virtually had been strangled soon after birth, while in Europe up until the eighteenth century reason had been held in check by a censoring state and a church actively guarding its monopoly. But by the nineteenth century, cities, mass communication, the spread of education -- one might even add "globalization" -- had eroded these limits, and reason was let free to tear up tradition, convention, common sense and, eventually, itself.

Burrow, like any serious historian, stands loose to the general thesis expressed in his title, and the remarkable thing is that the most obvious way of treating this period is almost the opposite of that which he has chosen. It could have been characterized as "the crisis of religion" at the hands of reason. By 1914 the educated world had in large measure given up on religion. Universities were virtually faith free, and Christians entered them at peril to their belief. All had heard faith's long, withdrawing roar. Once one grasps this more conventional way of understanding the period, a significant aspect of Burrow's telling of it comes rather starkly into focus: most of his subjects seem to be trying to construct a rational substitute for religion.

Some thought they could find a substitute in a pantheistic materialism supposedly underwritten by physics, others in an evolutionary theory generated by biology and zoology. Communist salvationism emerged from Marx's brutal caricature of Hegel and the Scots. Sociologists looked for a new kind of human community free of the alienation and anomie of industrialized Europe, while political scientists thought they could detect a higher ethical substance in the state. Symbolism turned poetry into a kind of free-standing ritual -- and so on.

Two things happened: first, reason as an active power of the mind had lost interest in coherence, and set to work tearing up anything construed as a foundation. Its essence was criticism, and criticism meant rejection. Second, reason had acquired a self-flattering posture as heroic and courageous by contrast with the timidities of conformity to convention. Its myth, one might say, was that of Prometheus, of the Titans seeking to storm heaven. Piety was cowardice. Vitalism, pantheism, teleology and heavenly communities were all affirmed and rejected. In Nietzsche, of course, this dynamic found an all around exemplar.

Science was the dominant model of explanation. Reason had played a part in its success, but not the kind of reason that enraptured the journalists and popularizers of this period. By the mid-nineteenth century, science was generating metaphysical, salvationist and ethical versions of itself. One such example is materialism -- only for materialism to acquire a spiritual dimension that turned it into a form of pantheism. Again, Darwinism soon became adorned with social, racial and ethical encrustations flattering to the civilization that had created it.

Such was the respect for reason and science that many fell victim to the exhilarating belief that, after the blood-stained blunderings of human history, mankind was at last beginning to take conscious control of its own destiny. The intellectuals would bring peace and justice to mankind. This hope was especially cultivated in popular political ideologies such as socialism, nationalism and, above all, Marxism, whose prestige depended on the belief that it was a pronouncement of scientific reason. A rather peaceful and prosperous nineteenth century was half in love with the apocalyptic. Less millennial dreams envisaged the coming of brotherhood and community. The individualism of liberals such as Mill came to be formalized as the "character" of the later Victorians, only to dissolve into mere sensations and impulses of critics.

Burrow's story is likely to induce humility in any intellectual. Ideas that wowed the campus, even the world, for a generation ended up derided and forgotten. What Burrow remarks in a dry aside could be vastly extended: "It is hard not to feel that someone with the nervous system of Kaiser Wilhelm II should ideally never be allowed anywhere near a phrase like 'the struggle for existence.'" Philosophy and science are balanced with drama and the novel, but in a sense the presiding mode is popularization, a world of intellectuals rather than of educated professionals.

The climax of Burrow's story comes at the beginning of the twentieth century, by which point reason has destroyed virtually everything it has touched: reality, truth, nature, the state and the self had all been atomized. We are left with a motley of nervous Prometheans only half exhilarated by the terror of those infinite spaces of meaninglessness that had terrified Pascal.

How do we explain the tragedy of reason? Part of the answer would seem to be that the active power of reasoning got lost in the efflorescence of its own products. Marx, following Feuerbach, thought that man had become tyrannized by his alienated essence in the form of religion. It is not a bad formula to describe the consequences of this astonishing explosion of the rational intellect. Reason lost its architectonic role as sustaining the coherence of Western culture and found itself demoted to a mere department of human power in some wider story such as evolution, or technological determinism, or part of a conscious mind declared insignificant in comparison with the unconscious, or perhaps merely a parochial attribute of one among the many civilizations of the world. As reason swept away the cultural traditions of Europe, it gave birth to a small, nasty creature called will. This was not the rational will of more settled times, but the impulsive will of people nervously intoxicated with their own technological power. "What we cannot find, we shall make"; "Let's murder the moonlight", as the Futurists said in their attack on symbolism. The death of reason brings forth monsters, as Goya put it, and these were monsters that could imitate righteousness.

Such a collapse of reason could lead us to diagnose the cunning of unreason, which might be a possible formula for subsuming the horrors of twentieth-century ideology. Such a formula would, of course, parody Hegel's account of how the hidden rationality of history has generated modern civilization. John Dunn's The Cunning of Unreason merely puns the formula but is not concerned with its substance. His aim is to explore the character of politics. One's initial pleasure in finding a book of political theory that is not in thrall to the normative evaporates as one discovers that reading The Cunning of Unreason is like being trapped inside a rambling and interminable conversation at some Cambridge high table. Diffidence, irony, posturing succeed each other. Evidence and argument are largely missing.

What is "the cunning of unreason"? It is not easy to say, because Dunn's prose is the kind sometimes called "clotted" -- all trees, no forest. A central candidate for unreason's cunning is Dunn's talk of "the gap between rich and poor." There was a time, he observes somewhat nostalgically, when "the modern republic . . . moved . . . away from the outcomes preferred by the rich to those preferred by the poor." Alas, that no longer seems to be the case. The abstract cause of this supposed unreason is our old friend, global capitalism. Its human form is Margaret Thatcher, the devil woman of the Oxbridge high tables. You get the flavor when Dunn raises the question, as an issue for democracy, of "why the Germans succumbed to Adolf Hitler in 1933, or the British succumbed to Margaret Thatcher in 1979." She promised economic dynamism, and, according to Dunn, she failed. He supplies no evidence for this remarkable judgment.

Dunn, like Burrow's subjects, identifies reason with an outcome: namely, an equal distribution of consumables in a modern society. This is a popular opinion among the elite, though not one that corresponds much to how anybody actually behaves. My own response is to wonder that anyone should dream of so boring a world of homogenized mediocrity. Apart from my taste, the fact is that the outcomes Dunn imagines the poor prefer could only result from the most ferocious despotism. It would be the ultimate servile state. It is no wonder, perhaps, that Dunn, in a moment of irritation with Thatcher, throws off the remark that he does not know what a "free society" is. This may just be posturing, yet it is actually entailed by his political program, presented here in the guise of an attempt to understand politics.

What is this thing called "the modern republic" that Dunn talks about? It is a curious transposition of the more normal term "state." It occurs, one may guess, because there is a current campus fashion to take "republicanism" as the telos of modern societies, a substitute for the painful loss of socialism, but it merely illustrates Dunn's insensitivity to realities. For the point about modern societies is that they have emerged from a millennium of monarchical rule, and whether they have monarchs or not, they have an essentially monarchical character. They are composed of individuals, for example, not of citizens. They are not subject to neurotic worries, as the classical republics were, that their virtue could no longer sustain their regime. Political correctness is perhaps a kind of pseudo-virtue that a republic might try to enforce, and perhaps Dunn would support such a dictatorship of virtue. In a remarkable note at the end of the book, he objects to metaphorical talk about "mastery" of the world because it employs "an obtrusively [sic] gendered language . . . an indolently [?] offensive residue of now mercifully challenged and increasingly discarded routines of gender subordination." All one can say is: "Wow!"

Reason in its formal guise as logic and grammar was long a powerful tool of Western rationality, a triumph of intellectual hygiene that saved us from the nonsense that imagination can conjure up. The crisis of reason came when it moved out of the philosophical business of clarifying rules and arguments and fancied itself the promoter of a superior way of life. Dunn's arguments for equality are one more way of life masquerading as the pronouncement of reason. Our modern problem is that reason has destroyed itself through its own vanity, and weakened Western civilization in the process. What we are left with is reason's husk: rationalism, the view that every dissatisfaction can be construed as a problem, and every problem can be solved by deliberate and (in politics) collective action. We keep imagining that the headless chicken aspect of modern politics might be cured by the next brain transplant. But the endless search for a cure is part of the disease. The point is not to change the world, just to understand it.

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