Enlightenment rationalism may be said to have been birthed with the writings of Francis Bacon
and René Descartes
, and to have come to self-awareness in the works of the French philosophes (e.g., Voltaire
, and d’Alember
t), and their allies, such as Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant,
and Thomas Paine
. But almost contemporaneously with the birth of this movement, it attracted critics. The aim of this project is to provide
of some of the most important of the many critics of “Enlightenment rationalism,” a term we use in an historically loose sense, to cover not just leaders of the Enlightenment itself, but also latter figures whose model of what is rational closely resembled that espoused during the Enlightenment.1
The essays on each thinker are intended not merely to offer a commentary on that thinker, but also to place him in the context of this larger stream of anti-rationalist
thought. Thus, while this volume is not a history of anti-rationalist
thought, it may contain the intimations of such a history. Some may wonder at the mixed bag of thinkers we address: poets, philosophers, economists, political theorists, and urbanists. But there is unity in this diversity. Although these authors
worked in a variety of forms, they all sought to demonstrate the narrowness of rationalism’s description of the human situation. It is our hope that surveying the variety of perspectives from which rationalism has been attacked will serve to clarify the difficulties the rationalist approach to understanding faces, rather than dispersing our critical attention. In other words, we hope that these divergent streams flow together into a river, rather than meandering out to sea like the channels of a delta.2
The subjects of the volume do not share a philosophical tradition as much as a skeptical disposition toward the notion, common among modern thinkers, that there is only one standard of rationality or reasonableness, and that that one standard is or ought to be taken from the presuppositions, methods, and logic of the natural sciences. In epistemology, this scientistic reductionism lends itself to the notion that knowing things consists in conceiving them in terms of law-like generalizations that allow for accurate predictability. In moral philosophy, scientism leads to the common notion among modern ethicists that any worthy moral theory must produce a single decision procedure that gives uniform and predictable answers as to what is moral in any particular situation.
While the subjects of the volume are united by a common enemy, the sources, arguments, and purposes of their critiques are extraordinarily various and, though they often overlap, they often contradict one another. There are epistemological pluralists like Gadamer, Oakeshott, and Berlin who draw sharp distinctions between scientific, aesthetic, historical, and practical modes of discourse, and, thus, reject the Enlightenment rationalists’ claims concerning the superiority of scientific explanation. There are religious believers like Kierkegaard who criticize the “faith” in human reason exhibited by Enlightenment rationalists (this group of critics tends to be Augustinian Christians). There are aesthetes like Eliot, Lewis, and Kirk who decry the insipid and desiccated conception of humanity put forward by the Enlightenment rationalists. There are critics of modernity itself like Heidegger and MacIntyre who deplore not merely Enlightenment rationalism, but other forms of modern rationalism associated with many of the other subjects of this collection. And there are those who attack the Enlightenment rationalists’ understanding of scientific activity and explanation, like Polanyi and Hayek.
Other than Nietzsche, we have not included thinkers who are deeply skeptical of any form of human reason, and who view human interactions almost solely as the result of power relations or unconscious desires, motives, or beliefs. So the variety of postmodern thought that owes such a great debt to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud is not included (Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al.), though all are highly critical of Enlightenment rationalism. Additionally, due to limitations on space and time, we were not able to include a number of other figures within our bailiwick, such as Herder, De Maistre, Carlyle, Coleridge, Spengler, Arendt, Gray, and Scott. We hope to produce a second volume that can remedy these omissions.
Having looked at our criteria for selecting what thinkers to include, let us now turn to the thinkers themselves. In his chapter on Edmund Burke (1729–1797), Ferenc Horcher argues that Burke’s critique of the French Revolution focuses specifically on the inappropriateness of the philosophes’ and revolutionaries’ attempt to apply an abstract and rationalistic blueprint to the messy complexities of French political life. According to Horcher, Burke is justly understood as the founder of a political tradition which might with good reason be labelled as British conservatism. One of the central features of Burke’s position is his skepticism about the usefulness and applicability of theoretical abstractions in political affairs. Horcher notes that Burke’s criticism of the French philosophes centered on the practical destruction caused by their “social engineering,” and on the ever more radical (and more bloodthirsty) revolutionary regimes created by such “social engineering.”
Further, Burke argued that the nature of politics is exceedingly complex. (As Jane Jacobs, discussed later in this volume, would have put it, it is a matter of organized complexity, rather than simple order or pure randomness.) Thus, the optimism characteristic of enlightened intellectuals when they enter the political arena is not only logically unfounded, but also politically counterproductive and often pernicious. Horcher focuses his attention on those parts of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France which helped to identify a less optimistic, but more realistic view of politics which has characteristic British traits, the most significant of which is a belief in the value of such non-instrumentally rational political institutions as precedents, custom, and political experience.
Travis Smith and Jin Jin discuss Alexis de Tocqueville’s (1805–1859) nuanced criticism of rationalism by examining his views on the relationship between philosophy and politics in Democracy in America and Recollections . According to Smith and Jin, Tocqueville claims that the preservation of liberty requires a new political science to educate the ineluctably emerging democratic social state. Tocqueville argues that the ascendant political science of the Enlightenment, which aimed at wholesale social engineering , is actually an unscientific and partial ideology that is oblivious to certain aspects of the human condition, and obliterates other parts.
For Smith and Jin, Tocqueville’s recognition that both ethics and politics require educated virtue means that reason and political liberty are inherently complementary. However, Tocqueville notes that the kind of rationalism espoused by the French philosophes depends on assuming ever more control over people’s lives. Smith and Jin observe that Tocqueville witnessed at firsthand multiple attempts to implement rationalistic systems following the end of the Old Regime, and his more realistic science of politics explains why they necessarily failed to produce the supposedly just society or free people they were purportedly designed to construct while succeeding instead at fostering ever more dehumanizing injustices.
According to Smith and Jin, Tocqueville insists that political freedom requires virtue, and virtue requires reason, but reason is best developed when human beings are given the freedom to meet their greatest potential. Politics dominated by uncritical veneration of reason, especially an Enlightenment conception of reason that is simultaneously excessive and deficient, undermines virtue and freedom alike.
While Tocqueville focused on the political and social consequences of the spread of Enlightenment ideas, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), often considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, turned his attention primarily to the theological and ethical conflicts following in their wake. Nevertheless, he addressed political matters as well, as noted by Robert Wyllie in his essay on the Dane: “Kierkegaard is a famous critic of rationalism, though less well known as a critic of political rationalism”. Kierkegaard condemned what he saw as his era’s tendency to replace decisive action with political “talkativeness, chatter, or chit-chat”: such a trend betrayed a lack of passion on the part of citizens. The age, he believed, “lets everything remain, but subtly drains the meaning out of it”. Wyllie draws a connection between the object of Kierkegaard’s critique and the concept of the rationality of the public sphere in the work of Habermas. As Wylie portrays it, Kierkegaard could be viewed as offering a century-in-advance takedown of Habermas. For Kierkegaard, politics, at least as practiced in his age, was a distraction from fixing one’s own character. The rationalism he criticizes consists in the belief that endless palaver about the “reasons” such-and-such should occur can take the place of true, ethical commitment to an ideal of life.
Justin Garrison offers an account of Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) critique of Enlightenment rationalism which is unique in this volume in that, according to Garrison, Nietzsche rejects not only Enlightenment rationalism, but even the idea of rational discourse itself. Garrison offers us Thomas Jefferson, rather than the French philosophes, as his primary foil. Of course, Jefferson was a great admirer of the philosophes specifically and the Enlightenment generally. As Garrison notes, Jefferson consistently proclaimed the innate goodness and rationality of human beings, and believed that governments propped up by irrational claims of authority, particularly the “monkish ignorance” of religious authority, had subverted these qualities too often. For Jefferson, a new science of politics, one grounded in reason rather than superstition, offered hope because it allowed for the discovery of a rational foundation for government worthy of the people it would serve.
Per Garrison, Nietzsche would find Jefferson’s political thought naïve and unphilosophical. Nietzsche argued instead that Enlightenment rationalism did not inaugurate a break from the religious past so much as it re-packaged pre-existing ethical and political beliefs in verbiage stripped of many pre-existing theological and metaphysical associations. Thus, modern rationalism was not a new thing under the sun, but was instead an example of a serious problem Nietzsche believed he had already identified in Christianity: nihilism. Garrison explores Nietzsche’s understanding of reason, morality, equality, Christianity, and democracy, and applies Nietzsche’s analysis to those elements in Jefferson’s political thought. By borrowing Nietzsche’s hammer to “sound out” Jefferson’s mind, Garrison suggests that Jefferson’s oft-celebrated democracy of reason is tinged with misanthropy and world hatred. In other words, such a vision is a manifestation of the ascetic ideal and thus is ultimately nihilistic. Because many see Jefferson as a paradigmatic figure in the American Founding, even as...