The Power of Reason
The European New Right (ENR) agrees with Pareto, Spengler and Schmitt that the West took a wrong turn in the eighteenth century by advocating a program for the enlightenment of the human mind away from the prejudices and superstitions inherited from the past on the assumption that one could rely on reason alone to build a good society.
Spengler described this rationalism as “the arrogance of the urban intellect, which, detached from its roots and no longer guided by strong instincts, looks down in contempt on the full-blooded thinking of the past.” The thinking of the past was “full-blooded” in that reason came without the disparagement of strong instincts, extra-rational ideals based on faith, and traditional norms about the divine right of monarchs and the naturally granted privileges of noble birth. By contrast, the battle cry of the Enlightenment was: “Do not rely on anything but reason.” The Enlightenment generation thus directed its pure reason against any and every form of custom, belief and institution that was founded without rational adjudication. Yet Spengler leaves unexplained why would pure rationalism be an expression of senility and lack of confidence given Europe’s immense expansionary dynamic and sequence of innovations after the rise of modern science and the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment should not be faulted for its confidence in the power of reason to conquer nature and the ability of reason to take on all other contenders of truth, that is, myth, faith, authority, tradition, since the application of reason to nature and to society brought one outstanding success after another, both in the creation of technologies and in the creation of modern living, and we can no longer exist without science. It seems off to describe the United States as an expression of a “late” and “senile” Western civilization, the one culture that would truly rationalized the work process, each movement, the manner of its performance, through the new field of scientific management initiated by Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), combined with the continuous production line, mechanical conveyance from one production step to another, which was started in the eighteenth century in Europe but which was made typical in American industry.
This rationalized America, responsible for the full mechanization of agriculture, the making of tools of every trade with greater precision in standardized form, the inventor of mechanized harvesters and reapers, mechanized baking, meat production and the packing industry, the inventor of the dishwashing machine, vacuum cleaner, home refrigeration, and much more, was not a dull, mouse size, self-adulating “late culture”, but a highly energetic nation. The mechanization of the bathroom was one of the greatest benefits afforded to the European working classes.
European Reason Knows the Irrational
But Europeans were also realizing that there is a lot in reality and in human behaviour that is recalcitrant to reason. Hegel formulated one of the most persuasive critiques of the Enlightenment’s arrogance in its powers by showing that reason’s activities cannot be accounted for in terms of individuals disembodied from a particular community but presuppose a set of institutions for the flourishing of rational individuals. Only at a certain point in time did humans learn to distance themselves from all determinations, natural, traditional, religious, in order to rely on the dictates of reason, self-determining reason. But having done so, they also came to the realization, in the philosophy of Hegel and other communitarian philosophers, that this self-determining capacity presupposed a unique set of institutions created by Europeans, from the family to the modern state. We can fault Hegel for speaking in terms of “human” reason, since it is clear, from his own philosophy, that reason’s ability to rely on itself is a peculiar attribute of a mind that emerged in a particular European setting and which cannot be transported outside Europe without fundamental alterations in its functioning.
There is much to the ENR observation that humans in Western cultures are no less driven by irrational desires and self-serving interests as in traditional cultures, and that, in this sense, the image of Westerners as uniquely rational has come to obscure the way Western politicians employ all sorts of techniques not to persuade the public rationally but to manipulate their emotions using the language of impartial arguments as a smokescreen to hide their personal interests and true intentions. In general, it can be said that humans, as Pareto observed,
follow their sentiments and their self-interest, but it pleases them to imagine that they follow reason. And so they look for, and always find, some theory which, a posteriori, makes their actions appear to be logical. If that theory could be demolished scientifically, the only result would be that another theory would be substituted for the first one, and for the same purpose.
But the ENR, in its support of this argument, is attributing to all cultures an equal relationship between reason and sentiments, which is false since modern Europeans did employ reason to a far greater extent in the conduct of their social affairs than non-Europeans. Even their sentiments were differently expressed with the coming of the eighteenth century, though that is another topic. I believe that Hegel is correct that with modernity Europeans expected to be given reasons for what they were told. This state of mind is nevertheless consistent with the acknowledgement that irrational drives, myths, and interests continue to play a powerful role in humans generally.
Hegel’s point was not that somehow irrational drives and interests had been extirpated from human [European] nature. He tried to think through the historical development by which Europeans had come to the view that the traditional ways of justifying ourselves politically were no longer satisfying to them unless those ways had been freely deliberated upon. Modern European bourgeois institutions — representative bodies, constitutional monarchies, rule of law — were better at providing the institutional setting for the justification of our political ways than traditional settings in which a peasant, for example, was expected to accept being a serf “because he was born a serf,” or a women was expected to dedicate her life to child rearing “because she was a women”. But humans remain no less impulsive, sexually driven, and egoistical as they had always been. Hegel’s point is that modern Europeans had reached a level of cultural cultivation in which they found it intolerable to be ruled without their consent and in which the educated members of society were excluded from any participation in their government.
Hegel believed that the European culture of his time was rational and that the investigation of the non-rational would henceforth be in terms of the rational. Pareto’s intellect was highly scientific; by training an engineer, “he retained the technician’s cast of mind throughout his subsequent evolution to mathematical economic, the critique of socialism, and, finally, systematic sociology” (Henry Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, p. 259). His investigations of “sentiments and instincts” were thoroughly based on scientific research. Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson noted:
His books look more like modern economics than most other texts of that day: tables of statistics from across the world and ages, rows of integral signs and equations, intricate charts and graphs.
Most of the men who broke with the Enlightenment, Sorel, Durkheim, Mosca, Weber, all thought of themselves as men of science. They wrote about the importance of religion, myths, symbols, charisma, the “artificial world” of reason, by using social science methods of inquiry. The ENR has a bad habit of identifying the West with pure rationalism, elevating a very particular current within the West, a positivist cast of mind, the idea that what is true is derived from sensory experience interpreted through reason, as the dominant Western trait. But Pareto and Spengler were Westerners. The generation to which Pareto and Spengler belonged, 1890-1930, was one of the most creative in Western history. Key presuppositions of the Enlightenment, naive faith in the ability of humans to behave as pure reasoning creatures, were challenged by insights into the unconscious, the importance of the non-logical, the role of intuition in knowledge. There were critics during the Enlightenment — Rousseau, Herder, Schopenhauer, Schelling —, but the years of 1890-1930 produced a high number of original thinkers. Some of these names included both men who dwell within irrational forms of expression not amenable to reason and men who studied the irrational rationally: Benedetto Croce, William Dilthey, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, William James, Heidegger, Carl Jung, even positivists like Henri Poincare and Ernst Mach who abandoned the physical determinism of their predecessors.
There is no reason to rely on traditional cultures to counter the excessive rationalism of the Enlightenment, or to go back to a pagan European past, resurrect the poetic flights of fancy of Eastern mystics; the West has already provided far more profound reflections on the limitations of reason and the role of the irrational. The way to challenge those who claim that ethnocentrism, for example, is an irrational disposition is to rely on what the science has said about ethnocentrism as a rationally selected strategy essential to the survival of cultural groups. The way to question those who say that race is a construct is not to agree that there is no objective criteria by which to contrast different human populations. The problem is that rationalism has been redefined in a way that goes against the interests of Europeans.
The Frankfurt School and the Inversion of the Rational and the Irrational
What needs examination is how did Westerners come to identify irrational positions in politics as “rational,” and rational positions as “irrational”? Why is it that the Western educational establishment identifies any advocacy in favour of the ethnic interests of Europeans as irrational even though the concept of ethnic interests has a rationally-based foundation? Why is it that the encouragement of the ethnic identities of non-whites is seen as a natural phenomenon consistent with deeply seated human dispositions, while any scientifically-based position about racial differences, about the ethnic origins of nation states, or about the failures of racial integration in the United States, is outside the rational sphere of discourse? Why is it that multiculturalism holds that the enactment of laws encouraging the group rights of non-whites is consistent with the liberal principles of the Enlightenment but any affirmation of the groups of Europeans in their own homelands is irrationally fascistic?
I believe that the roots of this inversion are to be sought in the Critical Theory developed by the Frankfurt School. Much has been said about the way this School formulated a new type of Marxism dedicated to the destruction of the culture of the West away from the earlier preoccupation of classical Marxism with the abolition of capitalism. But no one has addressed directly this incredible inversion. I can only skim through the surface. We can start with a programmatic essay from 1937 by Max Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory. By “traditional theory” Horkheimer meant the empirical and the hypothetical-deductive model of research employed in the sciences and increasingly in the social sciences in the early twentieth century. Therefore this definition of traditional theory is not to be confused with the ENR definition, which is the opposite. By “critical theory”, Horkheimer meant a theory that is committed (critically engaged) to the creation of a society in which all forms of domination, class inequalities, and forms of thinking that accept the Western status quo, are abolished and replaced by a truly “emancipated” society.
Reading Horkheimer further and the works of Herbert Marcuse, we can sum up this distinction between traditional and critical theory as follows. Traditional theory was deemed to be irrational in
- its support or quietude towards the oppressive conditions in Western society;
- its specialized character and, therefore, its inability to comprehend the way the parts are affected by the totality of social relations, how science is not value-free but is connected to the imperatives of the capitalist economy, for example;
- its commitment to increased efficiency, and control over both the external environment and internal human nature, in tandem with capitalist accumulation and socialist bureaucratic regulation, which was leading to a society in which humans were being made to perform specialized tasks, dominated by capital and thus not free to express their total talents, their rational capacities in a comprehensive way.
Traditional theory was categorized in a number of ways, as an “instrumental” form of rationality, as “positivistic” in its separation of fact and value and its transposition of the methods of the natural sciences into the study of human affairs; all in all, a type of rationality that was not really rational in that it was offering an abstract view of reality as well as partaking in the manipulation and control of nature and human behaviour. Hence, critical theorists concluded that scientific reason and social science research in modern bourgeois society were not truly rational but involved an irrational form of domination limiting the full development of humans. The task of critical theory was to unmask this new form of rationalized oppression, which the older Marxists had failed to comprehend in full, but was in fact responsible in their preoccupation with the development of the productive forces and a more efficient form of socialist scientific order.
Critical theory, in contrast, would take society as a whole, make this totality the object of its thinking, critique this society, which was “inhuman” and “irrational”, with the aim of making society truly rational. In other words, Critical Theory would denounce what was called reason in bourgeois society in the service of true, emancipatory reason. Critical theory would engaged politically against the domination of the existing order and bringing about a truly liberated society. This total form of reasoning, combining politics with research and science, unmasking the way science was serving the interest of domination, was to be categorized as Reason. Critical Theory = Reason.
In the same year of 1937, Herbert Marcuse published a short essay Philosophy and Critical Theory, making the argument that “the rational organization of society” could only be brought about when philosophy’s inherent commitment to a life without domination and without classes was actualized. Neither he nor Horkheimer cared to defined the crucial terms in their arguments, what is “emancipation”? why is critical theory truly rational in seeking to explain the whole rather than the parts? Basically, Marx’s argument about a future liberated society without classes and alienation was taken to be true. Readers were simply expected to take it as a given that Critical Theory was the only theory that would bring out the emancipatory telos implicit in philosophy, which had been “eclipsed” by the instrumental view of reason. The goal of reason, implicit in its beginnings in ancient Greece, but obscured and ultimately turned into its opposite by instrumental reason, was the creation of a society “in the interest of liberated humanity”.
Critical theory’s interest in the liberation of mankind binds it to a certain ancient truths. It is at one with philosophy in maintaining that man can be no more than a manipulable subject in the production process of class society. To the extent that philosophy has nevertheless made its peace with man’s determination by economic conditions, it has allied itself with repression (“Philosophy and Critical Theory” in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, 1969, p. 153).
Bourgeois philosophy had allied itself with the existing order, was not critical of it, therefore it was not truly a rational form of philosophy. This in essence was the argument; millions of students were indoctrinated with. Today, all the Arts faculties across the West have as their central objective the creation of students who engage in “critical thinking”. Jurgen Habermas, the most influential pupil of the Frankfurt School in Germany, would go on to argue that knowledge that was committed to “mere self-preservation” was inconsistent with the “emancipatory project” of the Enlightenment. While Habermas was less critical of the Enlightenment, believing that it contained an emancipatory intention despite the instrumentalist impulse of some of its advocates, he interpreted the Enlightenment as a “project” that was actually pointing in the direction of Critical Theory, envisioning a society that was not about the control of nature and instrumental efficiency but about determining the conditions of liberation from all forms of domination and the creation of a cosmopolitan culture in Western nations against any form of ethnic identity. But the project of the Enlightenment needed further conceptualization, and so Habermas set out to develop a new form of rationality, communicative rationality, dedicated to the integration of cultures and races by way of reaching a rational consensus free from the coercive division of nation-states with separate identities and classes.
The ENR argument that Western rationalism is the main enemy was influenced by the Frankfurt School. The ENR, however, unlike the critical theorists, opted for a truly traditional view of things. It seems to me that the way to challenge those who claim that ethnocentrism, for example, is an irrational disposition is not to resurrect traditionalism, but to rely on what the sciences have said about ethnocentrism as a rationally selected strategy essential to the survival of cultural groups. The way to question those who say that race is a construct is not to agree that there is no objective criteria by which to contrast different human populations. The problem is not that Europeans are ruled by rationalism but that they are ruled by hostile elites who have appropriated in deceptive ways the rationalist language of Europeans to promote ideas that are both irrational and inconsistent with the interests of Europeans, but nevertheless rationally consistent with the group evolutionary strategies of the hostile elites.