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What’s Wrong With Using Solely Reason To Undergird A Political Philosophy


Martin Luther once declared, “Reason is a whore.” Despite rumors, the Cult of Reason, a state religion established during the French Revolution, probably did not make this literally true during its “Festival of Reason.” The women crowned as Goddesses of Liberty and Reason throughout France, including in Notre Dame Cathedral, may not have been actual prostitutes.

But a debate between several fellow Federalist writers still raises the question: how do we know that what we call reason is not just a trollop servicing desire — a tarted-up mask over our will to power? Furthermore, is the Enlightenment really the standard-bearer for rationality, with irrationality and relativism the alternatives, or are there other, better options available?

The exchange began with my and John Davidson’s separate (but overlapping) critiques of the Enlightenment and Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Suicide of the West. Aaron Gleason has defended Goldberg from our criticisms, and Robert Tracinski responded to Davidson with a robust defense of the Enlightenment. I stand by my (mostly positive) review of Goldberg’s work, but would like to focus on Tracinski’s piece, which I think contains the most substantial disagreements to explore.

Tracinski credits the Enlightenment for the prosperity, freedom and peace that have developed (however fitfully) over the last few centuries. But this gives far too much credit to a movement that was deeply ungrateful for the accomplishments that came before it, and upon which its own achievements were constructed.

Tracinski’s case also overlooks necessary distinctions between different strands of the Enlightenment. For instance, although it is commonplace for intellectual historians to distinguish the Scottish Enlightenment from the broader European Enlightenment, there are no such differentiations in Tracinski’s essay. He simply ignored the continental side of the Enlightenment, which was more arrogant, and less tempered by Christianity and tradition, than that of the British Isles. The Enlightenment was complex, and there is space for debate over precisely how to delineate it, but to speak of it without discussing its continental contributors is historical malpractice.

Neglecting to untangle the different threads of the Enlightenment vitiates Tracinski’s efforts to disassociate the French Revolution from the Enlightenment. He contends that the revolutionaries were drunk on Rousseau, who was in many ways a counter-Enlightenment figure. And many of them were. But many of the same revolutionaries were also intoxicated by the Enlightenment. They liked Rousseau; they also established a literal Cult of Reason. What had happened was not a rejection of the Enlightenment; rather, its arrogance and failures had called forth an antithesis that led to a dreadful synthesis that sought the violent liberation of mankind from all that had come before.

It was different in the United States, which tempered an already moderate strain of the Enlightenment. The peace and prosperity we enjoy is not due wholly, or even primarily, to the Enlightenment, but to factors that preceded it. Our nation has prospered from a heritage that includes some Adam Smith and John Locke, but also a lot of Christianity, some classical influences, and a long history of common law and representative self-government.

We benefitted from the moderation of those such as Washington and Adams, while avoiding the excesses of, say, Thomas Paine, or the sillier ideas of even so important a figure as Jefferson. Americans rejected George III and his parliament less out of revolutionary ideology than out of a determination to preserve a heritage of ordered liberty against encroachment.

In contrast, Enlightenment thinkers saw tradition as slavery to prejudice and superstition, and placed great faith in (their) human reason to perceive the world accurately and solve problems within it. Diderot wrote that, “philosophy is advancing with gigantic strides … we are beginning to shake off the yoke of authority and tradition in order to hold fast to the laws of reason.” He added that, “the world has long awaited a reasoning age, when the rules would be sought no longer in the classical authors but in nature.” Reason would emancipate mankind from the chains of the past and improve the human lot.

Following the lead of early modernity, many Enlightenment figures were entranced by the idea of rationalizing human affairs. Natural science seemed to provide a model for all knowledge, including that of human culture, politics and morals. Many Enlightenment writers were enamored of the idea that if the natural laws that rule human affairs could be understood, then governance could be like geometry, and morality like the rules of mathematics.

This confidence that human reason could apprehend and regulate other aspects of life as it did the natural sciences was mistaken. Philosophically, it proved impossible to provide a universal, impersonal standard of rationality accessible to all persons, a failure that has led to centuries of epistemological wrangling. Successive stages of Enlightenment philosophy dethroned their predecessors, and were then discredited in turn. These progressive failures to secure a standard of rationality eventually led to the abandonment of reason in favor of subjectivism and relativism. By claiming too much for human reason, the Enlightenment paved the way for those who would dismiss it entirely.

Practically, the hubris of the Enlightenment led to many disasters, as revolutionaries presumed that destroying the status quo was righteous and liberating, and central planners presumed their ability to rationally organize society. This confidence in human reason is almost inexorably centralizing. The triumph of reason in human affairs means that the rational understanding of society will be followed by rationally organizing society.

If the means to human happiness and prosperity can be rationally known, then those who have apprehended them ought to work to implement them. Society will be rationally governed, and wrongs, such as persistent inequality, will be remedied. Thus, Condorcet enthusiastically predicted the eventual triumph of “real equality, the final end of the social art, in which even the effects of the natural differences between men will be mitigated and the only kind of inequality to persist will be that which is in the interests of all.”

This is why, despite Tracinski’s protestations, communism is fundamentally an Enlightenment project. It adheres to the Enlightenment agenda of the scientific understanding of human affairs and the prospect of human control over our destiny. Marxism, eugenics, command economics, progressivism and positivism are all premised upon the vision of a rational, scientific understanding and direction of human society. They may be failed attempts, but they are still efforts to instantiate the Enlightenment ideal of rational, scientific societies. And if they were irrational, that only directs us back to the Enlightenment’s fundamental failure to adequately define and defend rationality.

The Enlightenment’s claim, repeated by Tracinski, to represent rationality perpetuates a false dichotomy. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has observed that the tendency to present an either/or between Enlightenment rationalism on one hand, and relativism on the other, obscures other possibilities. The philosophical failure of Enlightenment rationalism need not lead us to embrace the likes of Rousseau or Nietzsche, for there are many other alternatives available, drawn from ancient, medieval and even modern sources — to say nothing of non-Western philosophical approaches.

Thus, some of my scholarship (such as a chapter in this collection) has focused on the work of MacIntyre and Hans-Georg Gadamer, both of whom rejected as illusory the Enlightenment ideal of ahistorical, universal truth. They emphasized that human rationality must operate historically, within the contingency and finitude of our existence. Yet this does not preclude the possibility of truth, but establishes the conditions under which we may apprehend it. And there are a multitude of other philosophers and scholars who have rejected much or all of the Enlightenment without rejecting reason and truth.

For example, one of the great achievements of economics has been the realization that the dream of scientifically and rationally planning an economy is impossible. The Austrian school of economics (especially Hayek), has shown the limits of rationality applied to complex economic systems. But that this does not comport with the Enlightenment goal of rational understanding and control of society does not mean that it is not rational.

Rather, it means that the (often dominant) branches of the Enlightenment that aimed at scientific understanding and control over society had a mistaken understanding of rationality. Somewhere between the grandiose schemes of Enlightenment rationality, and the grandiloquent rejection of Reason by the Romantic counter-enlightenment, there is room for genuine human reason to operate — limited, humble and imperfect, but nonetheless real and salutary.

Some strands of the Enlightenment are part of our heritage, but we should appreciate how they were integrated into older and wiser philosophical, political and religious traditions. Appealing to the Enlightenment without such nuance is folly in both philosophy and politics. Rather than uncritically embracing the Enlightenment, we must consider why it failed when deprived of the support of the older traditions it rejected. In particular, we must address the failure of its claims to rationality, which have proven disastrous outside of the natural sciences. Far from appearing self-evident, the claims of Enlightenment thinkers to provide timeless rational truths now seem provincial — thoroughgoing products of their time.

Neither Tracinski nor Jonah Goldberg, whose book provoked this discussion, is a moral relativist. But they will not be able to rebut moral relativism and postmodernism by retreating to the Enlightenment and repeating its arguments. To succeed, conservatives (and libertarians) must confront the Enlightenment’s failures, and address the philosophical triumph of its critics. For instance, it is futile to address Nietzsche and his postmodern offspring with the worn Enlightenment clichés that he so deftly dissected.

The Enlightenment undermined itself through hubris and hatred for tradition, and Nietzsche danced upon the ruins. If there is anything good to be preserved from the wreckage, it will be saved only by acknowledging the limitations of human reason and the necessity for reliance upon tradition — that is, only through the virtue most antithetical to Enlightenment thinkers: humility.