Rationalism as limiting and distorting

06.04.2016 |

by Ralph Pettman


In this lesson, you’ll learn how modernist rationalism not only marginalizes but also limits and distorts. You’ll also learn what is being done to compensate for these effects.

Rationalism is over 300 years old now. The limits and distortions built into it are now becoming clearer. So is the need to compensate for them. Why make such a point of saying so? Every account of world affairs today (except for the radically religious ones) articulates modernist rationalism. The limits built into modernist rationalism distort all the (non-spiritual) accounts of world affairs, and any attempt to compensate for these effects is thus directly relevant to current accounts of how world affairs work.

Post-modernists, for example, turn reason back on itself to ask what the reason is for prioritizing reason. This is deeply subversive. It questions the certainty of modernist rationalism. As a result, realists, who talk of global anarchy and realpolitik and state self-help, can’t do so with the same degree of analytic authority they once claimed, since the modernist rationalism they articulate is radically compromised. Economic liberalists, who talk of free trade and investment, are also rationalists. Any doubt cast on the latter falls on them too.

Post-structuralists draw attention to how any account of world affairs uses a language, and every language has its own in-built biases. English is a subject-verb-object language. Wintu is a process language. English says “that tree is green.” Wintu says (in the English equivalent) “that-ing tree-ing is-ing green-ing.” This indicates a very different understanding of the world. It also denotes a very different identity. In English, “I” is in the moment, namely, “me.” In Wintu “I-ing” is ongoing, namely, “me-ing.” Imagine world affairs described in terms like this!

Psychopathologists point out how reason is only part of what the mind does. Reasoning is in part the result of drives and needs, like the drive to have and use power, find meaning, survive, and reproduce. It’s psychological processes like these that explain world affairsnot just rationalistic analyses. Emotivists prefer to find truths about how world affairs work in art, film, literature, or dance. They compare a novel like All Quiet on the Western Front with an analysis like The Scientific Study of Peace and War, and they find the novel much more efficient and effective. Intuitivists ask, for example, what the primal categories of the mind might be. They then ask how these categories create the reality that people think – incorrectly – they’re observing. Sacralists meditate or pray. If they succeed, they become saints or sages. Thus, their accounts of world affairs are very different.

In the next lesson, you’ll learn how to play “spot the doctrine.” It’s fun!


Recommended book

“The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John J. Mearsheimer


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