The Ends of Rationality

This essay stretches to around 5,500 words, covering the Enlightenment; Descartes, Newton and rise of scientism; Kant and autonomy; the utility of Utilitarianism; the middle class ascendant; rejection of religion in public, but not in private; Burke and the baby with the bathwater hazard; Shelley and Verne as Enlightenment bookends; industrial society and engineered solutions; Liberalism as balancing act; Marxism as counterpoint; Freud as prophet of the self; post-war quests for paradise; Habermas, Popper and the end of certainty; limits of rationality; Western cultural dynamics; the primacy of education; the subversion of freedom of speech; the absence of a neutral press; and the ends of rationality.

The Wikipedia article on rationality opens with the following statement:

In philosophy, rationality is the characteristic of any action, belief, or desire, that makes their choice a necessity.[1]

It is an incomprehensibly tortured sentence offering a nonsensical proposition that might be better used to demonstrate irrationality. First, in ‘philosophy’ rationality has multiple and specifically contextual meanings, and many more meanings in disciplines other than philosophy. Secondly, rationality is a characteristic of human reasons for taking any action, holding any belief, or rationalising any desire, not necessarily or exclusively of the products of those reasons. Thirdly, it is always people who suggest that some choice is in fact no choice, and only one course of action, or one set of beliefs, is necessary or permissible; this is called absolutism or totalitarianism, which are systems of political organisation usually antithetical to rationality. In a contemporary context, as will be illustrated below, rationality is actually a specific acknowledgement of the plurality of ideas and possible courses of action.

If the world’s premier source of ‘information’ can start so misleadingly about the topic, are we justified in assuming that of the myriad ways the words ‘rational’ and ‘rationality’ are used as a justification for arguments, policies, and actions, many of them are in fact not rational at all? The question is a theme pursued in this survey of the ideas that have made rationality a critical concept in Western civilization.

Another theme that will emerge in pursuing the topic is that neither the ideas nor their development were capricious, frivolous, or instantly fabricated, but hard-fought moments in the evolution of Western thought and civilization. In other words, it might pay to be less than frivolous in applying said ideas, particularly since it seems apparent that their evolution has not yet run its course. Rationality is not a fixed standard, as might sometimes be claimed in rhetorical or polemical arguments, but contestable and difficult in its complexity, requiring continuous critical thought rather than reliance on some notionally fixed set of objective rules.

The folly of pursuing rational objects by cleaving to fixed, unitary conceptions of rules or theories appears nevertheless to be a dispiriting trend in the nominal, claimed uses of rationality that has seen it frequently employed not to displace superstitions, but to replace these with equally irrational secular faiths. It seems to be a confounded irony of contradiction that bedevils us to this day, with repeated attempts to suborn rationality to support projects based on rigidly fixed paradigms rooted in either an oppositional dualism, or a reductionist monism, and that are thus dependent more on believing that good intentions will miraculously produce positive outcomes than on disciplined observation, measurement, and adjustments in arguments, policies and actions. Not observing the latter disciplines seems tantamount to inviting the failure of theories and practical projects, opening the entire Enlightenment ideal of rationality to a misplaced scepticism and attack from sources as diverse as organised religions and contemporary ‘technology’ companies.


Philosophical thought about rationality might be rightly traced to the ancient Greeks, or even further back in time, but here we will start at the Enlightenment, the era in which humanists successfully challenged the centuries-old divine right to rule of monarchs, and the autocratic theologies underpinning opposition to any change in that ancient system.[2]

Descartes, Newton and rise of scientism

Seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes is thought of as the torch-bearer of the Enlightenment for solidifying and promoting ideas about the self as potentially independent of divine intervention, beginning at the famous Cartesian[3] recognition of ‘cogito ergo sum’, translated as ‘I think, therefore I am’. For Descartes, and many who came after him, rationality was an entirely deductive, intellectual exercise which separated thought, or essence, from everything physical, including the body.[4]

Detail from Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, '(A reading) In the Salon of Madame Geoffrin in 1755.
Detail from Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, ‘(A reading) In the Salon of Madame Geoffrin in 1755.

The Cartesian cogito opened the door to an increasing emphasis on the individual, not constrained by economic or social class, nor by the commandments of the church or aristocracy. This was not an instant process, nor were the authorities of state and church sidelined completely. Descartes, and many who followed in his methodology, were not atheists, still accepting God as a prime mover, but creating a clear break with the thinking of the Middle Ages by proposing that all knowledge, causes, and ends were up for rational re-examination by individual reason and inquiry.[5]

It is reasonable to suppose that Descartes’ genius, demonstrated in the development of the Cartesian coordinate system, may have heavily influenced his thinking about human rationality as being founded in, and bounded by, mathematical logic.

A rough contemporary of Descartes, Isaac Newton, perhaps the most famous scientific figure in Western civilisation next to Einstein, published work that entrenched the view of a mathematically logical universe, and, perhaps, of a perception of the capacity to comprehend and interact with that universe in a god-like manner by resort to entirely comprehensible, mechanical means.

The link between rationality and the logic to be found in self-contained mathematical systems has not yet run its course; its most recent and pervasive form is evident in software algorithms that technology companies are promoting to the world as capable of identifying human preferences, catering to them, and, perhaps even shaping them.

Descartes’ ideas on the primacy of deductive logic were later challenged by thinkers of the philosophical school of Empiricism, who argued that sensory experience or evidence of phenomena was paramount in not only knowing things, but determining what could be known.

Kant and autonomy

Prussian 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, famous for his foundational works on reason and ethics, sought to reconcile the Descartian rationalism with the later Empiricism of principally English thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.

He proposed that the exercise of reason, and therefore of rationality at all, is not possible without the existence of free, autonomous will, which implies directly that an enslaved people under a dictatorship cannot be expected to either argue or behave rationally – at least in public. A second stipulation from Kant that continues to engender heated debates is that rationality itself does not provide for the development of any ethical standards, because unethical behaviour can be entirely rational.[6]

Most important for the modern conception of rationality, however, is the Kantian theory of public and private ‘reason’. Private reason is seen as human reason employed in the service of self-interest or some other agency, like a public service (and, today, a private corporation). Kant saw the exercise of reason in such service as necessarily not autonomous, implying potential manipulative dishonesty; this idea might be seen reflected today in the common practice of rationalising selfish actions with apparently logical and ethically sound reasons. Public reason, on the other hand, was proposed by Kant as the expression of reason unrestrained by organisational or other masters,[7] and therefore also subject to public critique. It is an important distinction that is often lost in contemporary debates about specific issues, and about rationality itself: on whose behalf do we speak, and are we spoken to?

This integration of Descartian dualism, free individuality, and empirical sensory data remains a deeply influential component of Western rationalism, illustrated most clearly in general legal principles across Western societies which demand not only empirical evidence of laws being broken, but also of states of mind or thought that indicate intent or awareness and culpability in breaches of the law.

The utility of Utilitarianism

In 1739 the English philosopher David Hume posed three fundamental questions to Scottish Enlightenment figure Francis Hutcheson that neatly summarised a strand of political and ethical thought arising indirectly from the Cartesian liberation of the individual from a priori rules:

For pray, what is the End of Man? Is he created for Happiness or for Virtue? For this Life or for the next? For himself or for his Maker? Your Definition of Natural depends upon solving these Questions, which are endless, & quite wide of my Purpose. I have never call’d Justice unnatural, but only artificial.[8]

Implicit in Hume’s statement was an advocacy for some form of Epicureanism, an ancient Greek philosophy with many more recent variants, which emphasised the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain as the purpose of life. In the 18th century this implied dissent from ecclesiastical or temporal authorities demanding obedience to rules that provided neither outcome, but rested on the notionally divinely ordained and static feudal order.

The importance of this line of thinking might today be lost in taking for granted the entire basis of present Western societies with their notions of rights to pursue individual goals, and their protections from harm, which were, in the 18th century, merely a trend. A trend that led to a very gradual and incremental replacement of traditional notions about monolithic ‘natural’ justice, based on divine providence or arbitrary authorities, with an ideal of civil liberties, the concomitant free market doctrine, ‘and then to the rejection of paternalism and the cultivation of individuality, culminating in Mill’s On Liberty’,[9] an argument that emphasised individuality as worthy of being protected from even the democratically selected will of a majority.

What was truly revolutionary about this new thinking was the explicit acknowledgement that rules made by men to govern each other are arbitrary, not blessed by some divine inevitability, and therefore the proper subject for debate, change, and re-invention. Man, as rational being, rejecting rules not subject to his rationality.

The middle class ascendant

Running parallel with this progression in rationalising new ends for old societies was a particular strain of dissent from traditional authority that gave practical force to the new ideas being disseminated to the public via a flourishing pamphlet and emerging newspaper press in the 18th century, and discussed widely in taverns, coffee houses, and other meeting places for a highly politicised urban population.[10] This dissent encompassed a range of protest movements, such as repeated English bread riots, luddism (the smashing of machinery that was seen as a cause of unemployment and low wages)[11], The Spa Field Riots, the Derbyshire Rising, The Peterloo Massacre, The Cato Street Conspiracy, The Chartist movement, the Swing Riots, the Rebecca Riots (all in England)[12] and the pan-European revolutionary movement of 1848-49.[13]

While these protests may have failed to achieve their specific aims, they left behind them what might be seen today as a proto-liberalism, a philosophy of reforming societies to improve the conditions of the bulk of the population to meet the newly endorsed ideal of allowing people to pursue happiness through individual liberty. This liberalism appeared to be driven by a newly emergent class of people situated economically and socially between the poorest labourers and the richest aristocrats and industrialists – a suddenly self-confident middle class of educated, politically ambitious professionals, merchants, civil servants, and others, who saw themselves animated by the Fourth Estate mission to hold those exercising power accountable and responsible.

Rejection of religion in public, not in private

Underlying both historical and philosophical developments in the 18th and 19th centuries was a rise in secularism. That is, the idea that civil society in the nation states of Europe should not be directly ordered or influenced by religion.

However, it is a monumental mistake to suppose that secularism was ever about abandoning or marginalising religion, much less abolishing it. Secularism was about separating religion from the state to avoid the internecine character of religious disputes. Moreover, an aspect of secularism that is increasingly missing in contemporary debates is that the neutrality of secularism sought also to guarantee the legitimacy of beliefs not couched in theology. In other words, secularism ensured not only freedom of religion, but freedom from it.

In these terms, it might surprise many contemporary readers to know that some of the sharpest critics of religion as an influence in secular affairs during the Enlightenment period were nonetheless possessed of deeply religious convictions. Prominent examples of the capacity to accommodate such apparently contradictory thinking include 18th century British activist Thomas Paine, and the land-owning British middle class colonials who are today known as the ‘fathers’ of the American Revolution.

Burke and the baby with the bathwater hazard

A leading 19th century figure equally as misinterpreted today as Enlightenment secularists was Edmund Burke, commonly referred to as a founder of conservatism, and misquoted to support reactionary opposition to change, when his lifetime project was in fact pragmatic politics and the pursuit of avoiding catastrophic ruptures in the British polity, such as the American Revolution, and a potential Irish rebellion.

In practical terms Burke knew that change was inevitable, and that it ought to have been accommodated to avoid at least the American Revolution, if not also the ‘Irish troubles’, and yet he is mostly cited as the masterly rhetorician who savaged the French Revolution as a triumph of unreason for abandoning all links to the past and tradition while instituting a reign of terror to enforce radical change in every aspect of statecraft and society.[14]

It is possible to reduce the Burkean restraint on Enlightenment rationality as a caution that one should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Perhaps an early expression of an idea developed more fully by Karl Popper in the 20th century that there is no need for singular or absolute theories of the ends of rationality, and that the absolutism of such theories might in fact be as pernicious as the predecessors they seek to displace.

Shelley and Verne as Enlightenment bookends

Neither Mary Shelley nor Jules Verne are commonly regarded as Enlightenment figures proper, but they can be regarded as bracketing Enlightenment era thinking about a science-infused rationality.

Shelley as a siren announcing the calamitous consequences of man seeking to arrogate god-like powers in the name of science, with unforeseen but horrific consequences.

Verne as a prophet of a fantastical, optimistic new age of scientific marvels that pose the interdisciplinary scientist as the new hero archetype, and equal to all problems, large or small, though the application of an industrial-scientific inventiveness.

These perspectives are mentioned precisely because they persist to this day, with Shelley’s successors demanding restraint in, for example, stem cell research and cloning for the same, unresolved fears Shelley’s Frankenstein embodied – the displacement of god – and Verne’s successors hawking algorithm-driven internet technologies as cure-all salves to political, economic, and social problems via the collection, collation, and use of the most massive amounts of ‘consumer’ data ever available for such an endeavour.

A resolution to the tensions between these perceptions of scientism is an as yet extant project. Twentieth century modifications to the notion of rationality have, however, suggested some limits to the relevance of that conflict.

Industrial society and engineered solutions

The massive social and economic dislocations caused by the agrarian and industrial revolutions, proceeding alongside a period of aggressively expansionist and mercantile colonialism, facilitated by an increasingly industrialised military capability, created entirely new and unexpected applications for Enlightenment rationality.

One was the development of a callous new economism that relegated huge swathes of Europeans to the category of economic units of production – cost factors in industrial manufacturing. This occurred at least partly because industrialism was unprecedented, and there were no political precedents or models of governance to soften its impact on Europe or the rest of the world.

As a consequence, two competing strands of political thinking emerged to become the dominant paradigms of the 20th century and beyond: laissez faire capitalism and socialism.

In its purest form, free market capitalism conceived of society as little more than a vehicle for the conduct of private enterprise, its protection from brigandage and war, and its provision of services to the rich. It is a harsh vision in which the poor are neither provided for nor pitied, but rather regarded as at fault for their poverty by reasons of indolence or stupidity.

Socialism is a radical rejection of that form of capitalism, seeking a revolutionary levelling of inequality by taking control of the means of wealth generation through the state, and effectively removing the profit motive as a driver for economic activity, replacing it with other ends, such as ‘from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs’.[15]

Liberalism as balancing act

In between lay an ideology of reconciliation or synthesis between the two extremes: liberalism. A quintessentially middle class phenomenon, liberalism aimed at progressive reforms that combined elements of Judaeo Christian social ethics, British notions of noblesse oblige, and generally free market economics, but tempered by a modicum of state intervention to lift the poor out of the worst deprivations of poverty. This is not to suggest that liberalism was entirely altruistic, since one of its clearest aims was to entrench the political influence of the middle class, which embedded itself in the civil service at all levels, in legislatures, in colonial and commercial administration, in universities, and in the press.

The features of liberalism that are directly relevant to contemporary thinking about rationality include the theoretical tolerance of pluralism and the idea of ‘progressivism’, that is incremental and continuous change for the better.

Tolerance of multiple points of view is a critical underpinning of liberal democracies today that relies on the ability of individuals to seek expression of even minority points of view in contexts of free association necessary to form pressure groups and political parties, and in the idea of preventing any tyranny of the majority. This latter tyranny is of a kind still not readily understood by everyone discussing democracy: a simple populist majority rule is no longer a viable concept.

The English 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill argued explicitly that in a liberal democracy the tyranny of despots might have been abolished, but the tyranny of a society, animated by popular vote and policies, to impose and circumscribe individual liberty remained a potent threat:

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.[16]

It might be said that this pluralism in traditional liberal thought is a direct descendant of the 18th century Fourth Estate ideal that all ideas must be open to investigation and critique to prevent the abuse of power by those who wield it. That principle notionally still underlies the rôle of the news media, and certainly the ethos of public debate: airing multiple points of view so they can be examined and discussed openly and publicly.

It may also be a key component in any understanding of rationality today: that no idea or thinker is above critical analysis and criticism. It is tangentially likely that many educated people today assume, as Mill did, that political and economic power not only should be, but actually is exercised by ‘the more rational, just, and well-informed persons in the community’.[17] It is arguable whether this is a rational assumption in itself.

Marxism as counterpoint

Liberalism in its genteel, British form, and as a motivator for reform, moved far too slowly and uncertainly towards improving the lives of a large and ill-treated mass of unskilled or low-skilled labourers and their families in the 19th century, giving rise to popular reformist and utopian movements, mostly culminating in a socialist vision in which everyone shared in the communally generated wealth of an entire society.

The sheer volume of words written about Karl Marx and Marxism is so large that it probably exceeds the capacity of a single person, in a single lifetime, to absorb and internalise. That makes it equally probable that there huge numbers of misunderstandings about Marx, Marxism and post-Marxist left thought.

For that reason, it is stipulated here only that the lasting impact of the utopian Marxism the man wrote about himself is the method of dialectical materialism, which permits for the critical analysis and resolution of conflict according to a formulaic reconciliation of a thesis with its antithesis to form a new synthesis. In short, and very simplistically, conflicting ideas are combined to create a new compromise between the two.

However, another effect of the prominence given to Marx’s thinking since his death that must be mentioned is the internalisation into democratic and other political debates of his economic description of the (social) relations of production, of capital (entrepreneurs acting on things of value), the proletariat (workers), the bourgeoisie (middle class). No matter what side of the contemporary political divide commentators, politicians and policy proponents come from, they have all adopted the economism of Marx’s theories.

To be quite certain about this, economism in this context implies nothing at all about political, social, and economic ends and means, just about the centrality of economic considerations in all debates about real and proposed ends and means.

In that sense, the contemporary definition of rationality is rarely immune from implied economic literacy and logics.

Freud as prophet of the self?

Perhaps just as revolutionary as Marxism for the turn of the 20th century industrial nation states was the appearance of an entirely new school of thought that turned away from the macro view of political economy and towards the self as the prime mover in human motivations, finding almost all human troubles to be traceable to individual psycho-sexual neuroses hidden from the conscious ego in the monstrous, primordial id, and the sinister and censorious superego.

The work and impact of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is still hotly debated, even if its impact on Western social and cultural debates is beyond question. Proposed as a science, and sometimes ridiculed as a pseudoscience, the aims of Freudian psychoanalysis were to promote ‘an age of reason, in which Enlightenment, however circumscribed, will come to fruition’ and ‘intellect – the scientific spirit, reason – may in process of time establish’ a ‘dominance of reason [that] will prove to be the strongest uniting bond among men’.[18]

Psychoanalysis contained an implication that the unitary Cartesian consciousness was not quite as logical and self-contained as had been supposed,[19] and that the apparent irrationality of religion might now be revealed as a recurring neurosis that could be treated by growing confident about the more rational explanations for its unreasoning impulses.[20]

Taken together with Darwinian theories about natural selection and incremental evolution, the triumphant pinnacle of the human race, the European colonial overlords of the world, seemed suddenly much less imposing and impressive, revealed as just the latest in a long line of temporary evolutionary ascendants, and quite psychologically fragile. If this realisation was at first limited to a narrow group of educated intellectuals, it certainly gained currency with the object lessons of European failures embedded in two catastrophic world wars. Today it is an orthodox wisdom underpinning an entire neurotic Western cultural discourse about the guilt attached to a racist and exploitative colonial past.

In his own time, Freud’s apparent conviction that the ethics thought to be synonymous with religion could be adopted sans deity[21] were seen as dangerous not only by religionists, but also by a rough contemporary of Freud, the German polymath Max Weber, who feared a valueless science-centricity replacing Judaeo-Christian ethics with a calculus of means matched to ends, which he supposed would lead to a shift towards authoritarian modes of dictating what the ends of both ethics and rationality were to be.[22] A prescient prediction from Weber, who died in 1920 and did not see the realisation of his thesis in fascism and Soviet communism. One wonders what he would have made of the authoritarian trend in contemporary fundamentalist Christianity.

Beyond the psychoanalytic theoretical framework, Freud might also be credited with the legacy of the psychological/psychiatric profession that prospers from an apparent neurosis about being neurotic, and, via adaptation of his theories by practitioners like his nephew Edward Bernays,[23] to effect the contemporary practice of psychological manipulation inherent in propaganda, advertising, and public relations, all selling message that appeal to subconscious triggers.[24] And all wholesomely middle class, professional, profitable pursuits.

In between hucksters using psychoanalytic models to sell people products they might not really want or need, and a new profession striving to entrench itself and its profitability, it turns out that about a quarter of the Western population has some form of mental disorder,[25] subject of course to the method used to classify such disorders. The number, though, is sufficiently high to prompt the question whether currently identified psychological disorders aren’t really rather more normal than not, and therefore not disorders at all. It begs the further question posed by British documentary film-maker Adam Curtis whether ‘normality’ isn’t some arbitrary, contrived construct, and psychoanalysis the lever to make people aspire to that construct rather than striving to adapt their social, economic, and political practices and institutions to reflect a less delusional perspective on ‘reality’.[26]

Post-war quests for paradise

The catastrophic world wars that tore apart the dominance of European industrial colonial powers, and therefore also their colonies, created a rupture in the apparent quest for a better world created by a logical, scientific rationality, even if it demonstrated that technocracy itself could be rationally suborned to monstrous ends. That appears to be a lesson not yet entirely understood.

In the shattered post war world, the economism of Marx was given an immediate gestalt in the ‘communist bloc’, while Western thinkers turned to scientism as the means to fight the cold war, adapting the mathematics of game theory to come up with the aptly acronymed doctrine of MAD, adapting technologism to devise ever better mousetraps, and using the Bernays adaptation of psychoanalysis to sell these to Western populations as essential accoutrements of modernity and domestic contentment.[27] Rational methods to pursue irrational ends?

Perhaps the biggest dual pursuits of the post war era were and remain faith in the new secular religions of economism and technologism, which have become inextricably linked, like the orders of separate but allied evangelist acolytes. Promising to supply all needs and desires if only people agree to have faith in the various recalibrations of their methods. Tuning the economy just right will deliver a never ending ‘sustainable’ prosperity. Tweaking the algorithms just right will deliver answers to all questions, and glittering solutions to all problems.

In that post-war world of magical ‘progress’, not all the promises of the prophets have been delivered on, and inconvenient problems abound. The planet is heating up, populations exceed resources needed to maintain comfortable lifestyles, political and religious conflicts have not withered away. No unitary church of economism has delivered any kind of stability, and no amount of tweaking the software has delivered practical solutions to concrete social, economic, and political problems.

In that environment, a new impetus was given to scepticism, but also some suggestions about attaining more workable theoretical and practical paradigms.

Habermas, Popper and the end of certainty

German sociologist Jürgen Habermas solidified a notion that contemporary decision triggers for rationality might be ‘knowledge that is not necessary but hypothetical, not a priori but empirical, not certain but fallible,’[28] suggesting that a pluralist view, embracing a multitude of viewpoints or theories might be a more effective means of understanding and rationalising contemporary preoccupations, even if some of the multiple viewpoints are apparently contradictory.

In that same vein, pursuing a less absolutist, more diverse theoretical basis for critical analysis and policy formulation, Karl Popper was even more specific about the desirability of less specificity in rationality, proposing a very Spartan theory that required no more than an initial assumption that humans will behave rationally in most circumstances. He controversially excluded ‘psychologism’ and conspiracy theories, including what he called a vulgar Marxism, as plausible components of rational explanations of historical events, which he suggested were accessible only via situational analysis – the reconstruction of events confronting people with choices.[29]

If Popper’s impact on contemporary rationality can be summarised at all, it might be in the paraphrase that Popper understood and valued rationality as an openness to critique, and saw it also as the ultimate human and societal virtue.[30]

Popper shared Habermas’s tendency towards pluralism, and lends force to a perspective that emphasises specific contextual interpretations of phenomena, multiple probable causes and effects, and tendencies or trends rather than stand-alone events or absolute conclusions. Post-Marxist critics lay at Popper’s feet the rebuke that his support for the pluralism of liberal democracy, inherent in his theory, and made explicit in his writings, is tantamount to addressing social inequality by voting for the system that causes it.[31] Nevertheless, casual observation suggests that the liberal democracies of the West represent precisely this trend towards something, rather than an absolute culmination of something, and that contemporary notions of rationality are more open to pluralism, and critique, than they were, say, during the cold war, when many individual, social, economic, political and technological issues were likely to be expressed as much more polarised than today.

That is not to say that pluralism, openness to critique and compromise, or even liberal democracy can or should be regarded as givens that don’t require a continual effort to preserve and defend. There are many champions of bipolar oppositional and monist paradigms – religious, political, and economic – which threaten individual liberty, the utility of rationality, and the legitimacy of liberal democracy.

Limits of rationality

Some conclusions that can be drawn from this brief survey of rationality are that the concept itself is Western with all the strengths and weaknesses of that cultural origin, that it relies for its efficacy on a good general education illuminating the history of Western ideas, and that it has limits of scope and applicability.

Western cultural dynamics

The cultural specificity includes a parallel development of pluralist liberal democracies and universal suffrage, political economies that include a balance of private enterprise and welfare provisions, the rule of laws that are transparent and applicable to all relatively equally, and a relative freedom from state censorship. Remove or significantly curtail any of these elements, and rationality ceases to be a practically useful concept in public debate because an absolute requirement of rationality, the freedom from coercion, would be absent.

Primacy of education

Without sufficient general education to understand the strands of thought and history associated with rationality as a concept, or at least the capacity to look up credible reference sources when in doubt, rationality is not accessible. In that regard it is not good enough to be technically qualified or trained in specialist areas, which generally do not provide for a broad-based, structured overview of history or philosophy any more. The utility of rationality is strictly proportionate to the erudition of its ‘users’.

The subversion of freedom of speech

An impediment to rationality directly related to education is a belief and insistence that an implied right to freedom of speech confers also the right to insist on the validity of illogical, irrational arguments based on personal prejudice, beliefs or outright fabrications. There is a discernible trend towards public discussions based on such ‘counterknowledge’, [32] whose dissemination has been greatly assisted by the open nature of the internet, and the absence of any structured peer review processes, as they exist, for example, in traditional publishing and the Western academy. Implicit in that recognition is a strong argument against claims that technology (especially internet technology) is an ally of democracy or access to information. It is only what we make of it, which could just as easily be tyranny and disinformation.

There is no neutral press

Acceptance of counterknowledge has also been assisted by a myth that news reportage must be neutral, and can only be thus by giving equal prominence to opposing ideas. There is, in fact, no logical, rational argument for reporting as fact a blatant lie or fabrication, and there is every precedent and reason to present an analysis of public statements as credible or not.

Rationality does not provide any grounds for an arbitrary affectation of politically correct attitudes or faux bourgeois manners to allow to go unchallenged plainly disingenuous, ridiculous, illogical, irrational opinions, as if they deserved equality with reasoned positions.

To equate the freedom from censorship with an absolute freedom to spout nonsense publicly without being subject to open and rational rejection, ridicule, and heckling is actually a subversion of the principle of free speech which devalues it. There has always been an implied and explicit responsibility attached to any freedom, which in the case of speech relates explicitly to slander, libel, conspiracy by incitement, etc, and implicitly to the judgement of a public or peer group. The civility of responses to a plainly ridicuolous argument might be regarded as indications of charitable impulse, or not, but certainly not as a requirement of rationality.

The ends of rationality?

A final conclusion that this survey invites is that rationality itself is not a substitute for individual thought and assessment. It invites no recommendation or approval for a particular outcome or ends to individual, social, economic, technological or political purposes. It is only a tool for the rational debate or critique of competing arguments.

That it has been instrumental in delivering to us the ascendancy of particular conceptions of individual liberty in the framework of liberal democracy might lend weight to an argument that we, in the West, ‘have reached the end of significant ideological debate’, implying that all that is left is discussion of housekeeping arrangements. Approaching that argument from perspectives informed by Habermas and Popper, however, reveals a potential for a continuing and vigorous debate about how we might yet revise and re-organise ideas and ideologies we have previously tried to apply to our problems as mutually exclusive cures at different times, but this time in an infinite variability of pluralist combinations applied if and when it seems appropriate.

What should not escape us, even if it is not strictly the subject of this narrative, is that rationality has assisted us in escaping the recurring blight of superstitious, arbitrary, authoritarian tyranny. This has not happened quickly or without considerable pain and suffering, but nevertheless more quickly than any other changes experienced by Western civilization in the 1000 years leading up to the Enlightenment. That might imply it is a better tool for debating and resolving matters that affect our societies than any other approach or methodology. But it cannot deliver us from sinking back into tyranny if we don’t make use of it, and we don’t support its principles against its subversion by renewed demands for respect and even surrender to irrational critics.


[1], accessed 26 September 2012. The access date is particularly important for Wikipedia articles, which can be edited by anyone at will, and be transformed in a matter of minutes to completely contradict their former contents.

[2]Ancien regime’ is what the French revolutionaries rightly called the power relations that had developed in France from the 15th century, but which might be thought of more broadly as the Feudal and post-Feudal power structures developed in all of Europe in the middle of the first millennium, and lasting into the 18th century.

[3] Descartes latinised his name as Renatus Cartesius, hence ‘Cartesian’ instead of ‘Descartian’.

[4] See Sutton, John (2002), ‘The body and the brain’, in Gaukroger, Stephen; Schuster, John; and Sutton, John, eds, Descartes’ Natural Philosophy. London: Routledge, pp 697-722. Specifically pp 698-699.

[5] Some of these conclusions are borrowed from Roger Scruton’s A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein, (second edition, 1995, London: Routledge), pp 27-39.

[6] See the Kant entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 12 September 2012.

[7] O’Neill, Onora (1992). ‘Vindicating Reason’, in Guyer, Paul ed, The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp 280-308. See specifically pp 298-299.

[8] Hume, David, private correspondence, cited By Rosen, Frederick (2005). Classical Utilitarinaism from Hume to Mill. London:Routledge, pp 14-15.

[9] Rosen, as already cited, pp 1, 113, 130, 144, 185-206.

[10] See, for example, Carter, Ronald & McRae John (1998). The Routledge History of Literature in English Britain and Ireland. London: Routledge, pp 159-161.

[11] Lea, John (2006), ‘Crime and Protest in 18th Century England’., accessed 21 September 2012.

[13] See, for example,, accessed 21 September 2012.

[14] This interpretation of Burke was detailed most clearly buy Dr Frank O’Gorman in his 1973 book, Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy London: (George Allen & Unwin).

[15] There’s a cosmetic and futile debate about the precise origin of that phrase, but let’s accept here that Marx gave it a new meaning in terms of describing a technological Marxism in which manual labour was to be largely eliminated in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program,, accessed 15 September 2012.

[16] From John Start Mill, On Liberty, in Gray, John, and Smith, G W, eds (2003), J. S. Mill on Liberty in Focus. London: Routledge, p26.

[17] From Isaiah Berlin, himself a noted champion of liberalism, in a footnote to his essay ‘John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life’, in Gray and Smith (2003, p 161.

[18] My editing of a Freud quote in Jose Brunner’s Foreword to the 2003 third edition of Ernest Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, p xviii.

[19] Neu, Jerome (1992). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. New York: Cambridge University Press, p 5.

[20] Deigh, John (1992). ‘Freud’s later theory of civilization: Changes and implications’, in Neu, Jerome, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Freud, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp 287-289.

[21] Op cit, pp 291-292.

[22] Kalberg, Stephen (1980). ‘Max Weber’s Types of Rationality: Cornerstones for the Analysis of Rationalization Processes’. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol 85, No 5, March, pp 1145-1179., accessed 12 September 2012.

[23] See for a contemporary perspective on Bernays.

[24] Vance Packard’s 1967 book The Hidden Persuaders is the seminal expose of these practices.

[25] See, accessed 6 September 2012. The figures are about the same for Europe (, accessed 16 September 2012). As generalisations go, this one seems relatively harmless.

[26] Curtis, Adam (2002). The Century of Self. London: BBC 4.

[27] Op cit, and Curtis, Adam (2007) The Trap. London, BBC2.

[28] Bohman, James & Rehg, William (2011). ‘Jürgen Habermas’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 12 September 2012.

[29] Gorton, William A (2006). Karl Popper and the Social Sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp 6-22.

[30] Op cit, p 65: ‘…Popper who valued rationality, understood principally as openness to criticism, as the ultimate human and societal virtue.’

[31] Corvi, Roberta (Camillar, Patrick trans, 2005). An Introduction to the Thought of Karl Popper. London: Routledge, pp 164-166.

[32] For a more detailed explanation of counterknowledge, see, for example, Henderson, Gerard (2009). ‘Can’t see the truth for the screen’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March,, accessed 23 september 2012; and Thompson, Damian (2008). ‘Lies, damn lies and “counterknowledge”‘, The Telegraph, 12 January,, accessed 23 September 2012.

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