Enlightenment and its discontents

Tracing the history of human civilisation as a dialectical struggle between rational and irrational thought, this book makes a compelling case for the inevitability and value of both in our lives.

Published : Jul 27, 2020 07:00 IST

Justin E. H. Smith’s most recent book, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason , addresses beliefs about politics, gender, nature and reason by opposing the discourse of fundamental irrationality with accepted forms of rationality. Smith believes that the dialectical tension between the two is paramount owing to the inevitable rise of irrationality, which has proliferated in the face of our desire to purge it. As Yascha Mounk, the American-German political thinker, writes, the book is “an urgent warning that no grand design of perfect rationality can provide the solution to the depravity of this political moment”.

The order of human history, from the beginning up to the present perversion of rational thinking by all manners “Trump”, has a catastrophic impact on the well- being of humanity. The loss of faith in the structures of democracy points to an apocalyptic end. The effort to model society on rational principles has not fructified, going by the long and cyclic dark history of civilisation, of wars and violence, of religious fanaticism and irrationality. Our inherently dialectical history confirms the simultaneous birth of opposing forces at the outset of the assertion of any “truth”: “The thing desired contains its opposite”. Thus the trajectory of liberal democracy evolving into totalitarianism was present in the brute forces of Italian fascism or German Nazism. The dearth of ideology is reflected in the irrational outburst of our times, particularly with the birth of vulgar nationalist fervour and muscular racial superiority.

Smith offers the example of how mathematics was demonised in the 5th century BC for its dependence on numbers and decimal series that were endless and “irrational”. Anyone who believed in mathematics was drowned at sea in the Gulf of Taranto. The drowning of Hipposus, a Pythogorean philosopher, about a century before Socrates explains the upsurge of irrationality in the face of the pursuit of a science that, in later centuries, would usher in the Age of Enlightenment.

Citing the example of the discovery of a human bone at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey , Smith calls attention to the realisation by a protohuman creature of the value of a bone as a lethal weapon but also as a tool for survival. Similarly, technological breakthroughs bring along a world of comfort or misery, peace or violence, rationality or irrationality.

Something “clicks” in the mind of a person and then “nothing is the same”, especially when you attain new power and knowledge that can be used for “new occasions for violence”. All knowledge, therefore, has “brought out the best and the worst in us,” a balance of “problem solving and problem creating” in the service of the “most exalted faculties of the human mind” that become “occasions for the flexing of muscle and, when this is not enough, the raining down of blows”. This is the age-old record of human rationality, and therefore also of its irrationality, “the exaltation of reason, and a desire to eradicate its opposite.”

The irrational Internet

Take the example of the cultural frenzy of the cyber world that intensified into an “unforeseeable landscape of customs and mores, underlain by new political norms and new institutional structures” visible in the ideology of the white supremacists, Brexit fanatics or the ultra-nationalists gripped by the narrow boundaries of identity politics.

A world overwhelmed by the use of the Internet allows anyone to get on it, make a “noise” and “change the world for the worse”. Instead of the “improved access to what we had valued”, the Internet has succeeded through its “accelerationism” in destroying the world of journalism, academia, commerce and publishing industries, thereby disrupting and forever altering the nature of what we have always “valued”.

In his diatribe against the misuse of the Internet, Smith opines that although initially it was hoped that the Internet would provide some form of “collective will and deliberation”, it has drowned humanity in the quagmire of an unpredictable response to level-headed statements with the rise of “sheer abuse and often concerted and massive campaigns of abuse...from some sock puppet labouring away at a Russian troll farm, working to insinuate some new falsehood into public consciousness”. Reasoned arguments are few and far between, and the epidemic of images, allusions and jokes form the basis of a narrative deeply aimed towards the distortion of reality.

Smith considers the Internet today a far darker place “where the normal and predictable response to reasonable statements is, if it is coming from strangers, sheer abuse, and often concerted and massive campaigns of abuse; if it is coming from friends, then it is generally vacuous supportiveness, sheer boosterism with no critical engagement or respectful dissent.”

Can we finally come to the conclusion that what makes human beings unique is our “irrationality”? Apart from the damage caused by outrageous reasoning, Smith underlines the human aspect of our self-interest and existential choices based on expected outcomes.Why then does a father offer to vacate his space for his child on a lifeboat? This expression of irrationality, argues Smith, surpasses the realm of good and evil:“Life would be unlivable if they were suppressed entirely.” Smoking a cigarette or climbing a cliff without a rope seems ludicrous. Irrationality, Smith asserts, “is in itself neither left nor right, nor good nor bad”. It is a “twin” of reason and therefore “equally vital to human development”.

The rational thought propagated during the Enlightenment fails to hold up in an era of senseless pursuits coupled with our unrelenting predisposition to irrationality. The history of human civilisation is witness to the struggle between the forces of rational and irrational thought and the author has made a compelling case for the inevitability and value of the existence of both in our lives. His warning in the end is what humanity must heed: “We are, then, not so far from where Hippasus found himself millennia ago. The Greeks discovered the irrationality at the heart of geometry; we have most recently discovered the irrationality at the heart of the algorithm, or at least the impossibility of applying algorithms to human life while avoiding their weaponisation by the forces of irrationality. If we were not possessed of such a strong will to believe that our technological discoveries and our conceptual progress might have the power to chase irrationality, uncertainty, and disorder from our lives—if, that is, we could learn to be more philosophical about our human situation—then we would likely be far better positioned to avoid the violent recoil that always seems to follow upon our greatest innovations, upon bagging the great hunting trophies of our reason.”

The book is a fascinating narrative, ranging across philosophy, politics and current events.This intertexuality defies the received assumptions of philosophy, science and Enlightenment with the central focus on the transitory nature of the triumph of reason. Understandably, the Enlightenment had built into its very essence the curse of racism and the white supremacist mindset that resulted in the imperialist scheme of dominance through the manifesto of the “civilising mission”. No wonder that such a political and cultural world-view set humanity towards the irrational path of genocide, war and totalitarianism. The paradox therefore lies in the fact that along with these dark forces that the Enlightenment unleashed, there was also the birth of the liberal ideas of anti-slavery as well as the malaise of materialism overtaking the world. Humanity, indeed, has failed to draw the rational or “right” inferences from the perceived facts and has carved out for itself a dialectical history of tensions and ambiguities, of madness and sanity, of liberal thinking and totalitarianism.

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