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.

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