2.4 — How Rational Are Rationalist Values?


The semantic pitfall for the man in the street in the use of the terms rational, rationalist and rationalization is nothing compared to the real psychological pitfall in "rationalism." For the clinical psychologist virtually turns the philosopher's enshrinement of reason upside down, considering words and reason as devices given to hide our motives both from others and ourselves.

By "rationalist" here we mean, however, an historical tradition (growing lustily in the late eighteenth century) intending to apply reason to social matters previously handled by superstition, dogma and rule of thumb.

Today this is not enough, in the first place because of the shabby psychological tricks that we know reason can play, e.g., in defenses emanating from the unconscious, and, secondly, because reason without empiricism is only a half of science, and a dangerous half. The rationalist tradition is today still strong, especially in the ways in which would-be-progressive journalists, dramatists and radical politicians approach social problems. It therefore needs to be clearly dissected from the new applications of social science per se that we envisage as a true source of progress.

For today the persisting fashionableness in the "intelligentsia" of the unmatured rationalist movement (which, after Greece, began in the Renaissance and flowered with the French "Enlightenment" and the American revolutions) presents the true progressive with a distracting nuisance. This is recognized by many sophisticated people who today fully endorse the thesis of Carl Becker's Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers (1932) that the rationalists of the Enlightenment were, in their habits of thought and truth-testing, much nearer to the medieval philosophers than to the modern physical (and ultimately social) scientists. For at present the pseudo social scientists and certain activist social reformers often work unquestioning, with methods and values that are still uncritically based on the "liberal enlightenment."

Rationalism was admittedly the indispensable spearhead in the breakthrough which delivered us from the rule of hide-bound traditions. But in retrospect its contribution has been more evident and impressive in its exposures of inconsistencies and absurdities in revealed religious dogmas and old socio-political habits — as superbly done by Voltaire, Volney, Diderot, Hume, Locke, Comte, Mill, Russell, and many others — than in any real creation of new values and goals for mankind. Reformist, not to say revolutionary, enthusiasm is unfortunately stirred up more by such witty rapier thrusts against authority and convention than by the essentially scientific, constructive work of say, the Webbs or Spencer or Owen or Lenin. Unfortunately, in emphasizing a purely negative use of criticism it often attacks values and practices which are vital to survival, as, indeed ridicule and the political wit or cartoonist can always easily do. For rationalism — especially as verbal reasoning devoid of research — is inherently incapable of recognizing the empirical laws which sometimes make an incomprehensible practice vitally necessary to society. Joined with respect for the natural sciences — especially biology — rationalism could have succeeded. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries no biological science effective for man existed. And the offspring of rationalism in the obsolete brand of liberalism persisting today continues to think that reason is literary and philosophic rationalism, not the painstaking discovery and complex creativity of science. The more empirically enquiring liberals of the nineteenth century at least originally took a far more scientific approach. Mill (1863), Comte (1905), Malthus, Veblen (1899), Marx (1890), Bentham (1834) and de Noόy (1947) had respect for social laws that did not necessarily work quite as reason would like. (Indeed, liberals generally at that time recognized that individual liberty and equality, for example, both extolled by the rationalism of the French Revolution, were, in fact, incompatible.) But many followers, nevertheless, still tried to thrust a personal philosophy upon the laws of nature, and it is this pure rationalizing tradition, rather than that which developed into social science, that we are here concerned to inspect for its dangers.

There are offshoots of rationalism, especially in literary satire and the cartoon, so esteemed by the youthful gallery, in which the smartest reasoning is that which is unreasonable and escapes the discipline of cold fact. The simplest and cheapest form of originality is to turn God (or anything else) exactly upside down, as Oscar Wilde loved to do. If reason sometimes unearths paradoxes then — the rebel believes — the unearthing of paradoxes must be constructive progress. To anyone continuing this last degeneration of rationalism, it suffices, for example, if he has been brought up in a Western ethic of productive work to write in praise of idleness. Or if, in a religious background, where a firm conscience has conventionally been assumed a source of serenity, he attacks it as the origin of all neurosis, and so on. The most eminent in the history of rationalism, such as Rousseau, Voltaire or Shaw, are far from free of the sheer vanity and hubris which might be thought to belong only to a decadent phase. Rationalist satire, as when Oscar Wilde tells us that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, or that an ideal marriage is a contradiction since marriage is not an ideal institution, convinces, by its brilliance, the immature; but the entertaining flash of half-truth is accepted by the experienced person merely as showing the limitations of verbal symbolism. Even in the sober domain of science, pure wit and "rationality" have frequently attacked and ridiculed great discoveries, as when Liebig and Wφhler were ridiculed for claiming to create organic compounds that were "logically impossible", Harvey for claiming that blood makes a complete circuit, Newton for saying that white light is composite, or Einstein for his "absurdities" in the general relativity theory.

Logical reasoning carried out in the setting of hard philosophical thought by a Kant, a Hume or a Leibnitz is a very different and more creative tradition than what we see in these mere rebounds of the ball of wit from accepted religious morality or conventional social authority. But even the serious constructions of rationalist philosophers — with the single exception of some contributions to mathematics — stand today like empty houses which the march of empirical science has passed by. Indeed, the progress of social science in the next fifty years will undoubtedly leave all the existing inventions of political scientists and the Utopias of social theorists as useless museum pieces.

As we now follow rationalism in its excursions into our present domain of concern — that of moral truths — we find it disabled by the same defects as have marked its action in other areas. First, as indicated above, there is a naive continuing cultural movement which regards reason without science as enough to handle all socio-political value problems and, secondly, and more seriously in this domain, there is an unawareness of what psychology has brought out regarding the real role of reasoning in human behavior. Rationalism, beginning in pride of human intellect and encouraged by the remarkable constructions of philosophy and mathematics became, in our cultural history, a system given to reasoning by deductive methods, without the sense of any need for inductive checks. Brilliant inference from first principles, rather than the patient watchfulness and learning of empiricism, has been admired and preferred in philosophy for two thousand years — until it was chastened and gave way, as late as the nineteenth century, to the discipline of scientific investigation. But it gave way only in the physical sciences, where the power of the more mature method was obvious. A mathematical logician like Russell (in Marriage and Morals) or a rhetorical logician like Shaw (in The Doctor's Dilemma), and thousands of lesser writers, can still talk nonsense in the name of rationalism.

The second weakness of reason — or, at least, a discrepancy between the powers assigned to it by philosophers as a supreme instrument and the findings of psychologists about its natural functions — needs a little more description. Throughout the realm of animal problem-solving experiments, reasoning, such as it is, operates as a means of finding paths to instinctually given ends. Biologically, reason is a servant to life. Let us recognize that in some sense the choice of the ultimate values with man, as with other forms of life, must be determined by biological purposes. It cannot be pulled by reason out of thin air. The actual supremacy of biological goals is patent in the individual's use of rationalization and doubtful reasoning in trying to save his own life and interests. But it needs to be recognized in a broader, more dignified and ethical sense, namely, in appreciating the proper role of reason in defining general human goals. Alas, in a more specific sense and through what psychoanalysis has recognized as the defense mechanisms, including rationalization, reason is not even a servant of inborn needs, but an abject slave, ready to live if necessary by dishonesty.

Apart from this questionable integrity, reason has failed because, without some illumination by science (or revelation), it has simply found itself — in and of itself — unable to set up a life goal. Even Plato and the classical philosophers who, in the first rapturous worship of reason, one supposes would have dearly loved to assign this privilege to it, failed in the main to find the precise goal it seemed always about to unveil. Before Christianity seized the emotions of the Roman Empire, attempts at the tour de force of developing ethics from reason led either to Stoicism or Epicureanism. The former died of emotional starvation and the latter perpetually degenerated into the goal of pleasure. The latter realized itself at best as the refined pleasures of a sybaritic life of luxury, wherever material conditions briefly permitted. It took less than a decade for the ceremonies set up for the Worship of Reason, at the first flush of the French Revolution, to fall into decay. In spite of all early enthusiasms reason persistently led to an insipid religion and fragile morality. The question remains: "For what are we being reasonable?"

Three brief instances of how confusion is added to the modern scene by "social science" movements in the name of rationalism must suffice for illustration — the Freudian impact on sexual values, the reaction of the "authoritarian personality" concept in psychology upon education, and the impress of Marxian economics upon social organization. What Freud actually said about the conflict of libido and superego in producing neurosis, and what the literati and even many popularly read psychiatrists (such as Albert Ellis), made out of it are, as Professor Mowrer has recently argued very cogently (1960), two quite different things. Freud was as austerely aware of the dangers of rationalization as one would like a scientist to be: his followers were not. Wishful thinking on a mass scale quickly led to the self-styled "rational" — but actually rationalized — view that neurosis could be wiped out if people would get rid of their antique Victorian consciences and satisfy their sexual needs in an enlightened (and, of course, uninhibited) fashion.

Rather than master the far more complex therapeutic procedures which Freud and later researchers have indicated, many psychiatrists, professional and amateur, took to the simple practice of whittling away, in session after session, the genuine strengths of the patient's superego. The couch set out to cancel the choir. The result — as Frenkel-Brunswik showed (1954) in one of the rare follow-ups of a sufficient sample of "psychoanalyzed" cases — was the conversion of anxious neurotics into impulsive psychopaths. It may be true, as some leaders in personality research point out, that Freud himself had a distorted view of personality function because his evidence came too largely from pathology, but at least he respected the empirical approach. By contrast, the rationalist simplification by literary or journalistic intellectuals ended in a crude philosophy that he would not have accepted for a moment. Thus he certainly never proposed a modification of general cultural-moral standards purely in the interests of a diseased minority, but this is exactly what the "anti-inhibition" school of social reform has reasoned itself into. Essentially, psychoanalytic theory proposed a reconstruction of the faulty childhood relations of id and superego, not an abdication by the superego. Freud's view of the relative roles of the culture and those who cannot bear its burdens was clearly shown in Civilization and its Discontents (1930), and it should have been clear that the Freudian concepts envisaged culture as working toward a destiny of its own. The neurotic was to be helped by individual clinical therapy, not by asking culture as a whole to backtrack. The progress of the cultural pattern was not to be dictated by the neurotic, but by intractable and probably unpopular leaders gifted with genius and vision (as Freud indicated, for example, in Moses, an Egyptian, 1939).

Another instance of what simple-minded "rationalism" can do to values also sprang from an alleged social science concept, namely the "authoritarian personality" writings of Adorno, et al. (1950) at the end of World War II. In this case, unlike the Freudian, where a great man saw his views, in Kipling's phrase "twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools," it ended up by the followers being more scientific than the leaders, and eventually destroying by a weight of empirical evidence what was either deliberately or emotionally an attempt to dress up propaganda as science. (Adorno had escaped from Nazi Germany and his personal emotional reaction to the dictatorship began by confounding authority, as in science or scholarship, with authoritarian, and really with totalitarian, practices, which are very different things indeed.) The rationalization that authority is bad, in moral or any other values, gave Adorno a free ride to fame on the wave of the perennial revolt of the young against authority. It overlooked that Nazism was itself a revolt — unfortunately a temporarily successful one — of the less cultured, lower-middle-class, immature youth against the established religious authority of Christianity and political authority of liberal Weimar Germany[4].

The third exemplification suggested above of a rational but not scientific attempt at seeking new values was deliberately chosen from economics, to balance two from psychology. However, since the Marxian formulation deserves more discussion, it will be deferred to the next section. It suffices that economists have agreed for at least fifty years that the Marxian system has the character of a rationalization, fitting economic observations to an essentially a priori premise.

It is not our purpose here to pin down the specific errors and trace the confusions in social and moral thought spawned by these instances, but only to point to the general character of the rationalist tradition. It is true that in these instances, as in all such fabrications over the last hundred years, there is some introduction of scientific data or theory, but only by way of lip service. For the writers are essentially concerned to apply "reason" to social affairs — by which is meant some a priori principle, in which they escape all the reflection on alternative hypotheses and all the labor of trial and error experiment necessary in investigating the real causes of the natural phenomena in question.















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