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Limits of Reason
Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason
By Justin E. H. Smith
In his epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy writes, “If we concede that human life can be governed by reason, then the possibility of life is destroyed.” While one might question Tolstoy’s own rationale for the incongruous and anticlimactic postscript to his greatest work, it at least allows us to ponder yet another of his many profound insights. In Irrationality, Justin E. H. Smith might have benefited from engaging with Tolstoy’s view—instead, the author prefers to focus on another of the great Russian’s masterpieces, the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Nonetheless, Smith shares the view that “it is irrational to attempt to eradicate irrationality,” as it is an integral and unremovable factor of life. Such a pragmatic decision claimed at the outset immediately warms one toward his endeavor; yet to some extent the views he goes on to express in the book reveal an inconsistency when it comes to addressing current events, a central thrust of the volume.
Smith, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris, subtitles his book A History of the Dark Side of Reason. It is not a focused examination of how irrationality has shaped the past; rather, it is a judiciously selective analysis of philosophical attitudes to irrationality throughout history to the present day via the eyes of Socrates, Gassendi, Leibniz, Spinoza, Žižek, et al. It works well as philosophy but struggles a little as history.
The book is arranged around chapters based on logic, reason in nature, dreams (oh, how I dream of a time when no one wastes our time writing about dreams anymore), art, pseudoscience, the Enlightenment, the internet, jokes and lies, and death. If anyone suggests that such a taxonomy seems to be idiosyncratically organized, I can only concur. But Smith gamely makes sense of it all. This element of (rational?) randomness results in a book that demonstrates notable flashes of brilliance that would have had greater effect if embedded in a coherent whole. This renders its parts better than its sum. But those parts can be very good indeed.
Smith’s liberalism, while constituting a serious flaw in his arguments on populism, is for the most part measured, reflective, and judiciously applied. His natural and sensible advocacy of rationalism recognizes limits: rationalist principles can lead to utopias that are “doomed from the start”; the Enlightenment has always been mirrored by a counter one, the Gegen-Aufklärung of—but extant before—Nietzsche, and is not simply a modern manifestation of a vengeful contemporary right; and the internet encourages “generally vacuous supportiveness, sheer boosterism with no critical engagement or respectful dissent.” (How true in our world of ingratiating Facebook “likes” and indolent virtue signaling through the plethora of online petitions.)
Winningly, Smith volunteers some of his own seemingly irrational tendencies such as a fear of flying and of bats. He had only to add arachnophobia to his short list of aviophobia and chiroptophobia to have won me over completely. Of course, fear of these things is not entirely irrational, and Smith makes the relevant point of his irritation when “being scolded and lectured at” as if his views “had something to do with lack of education or awareness of the relevant scientific facts.” (Anti-Trumpers and anti-Brexiteers please take note.)
One of Smith’s strongest chapters is on art—surely a realm where rationality must subjugate itself to the spirit and emotions. Indeed, it plays a vital role in enabling us to alleviate briefly the otherwise unrelenting and onerous restrictions of logic in quotidian consciousness. Here Smith has rein to discuss genius and the sempiternal question of an ever-changing subject: What is art? It is, of course, subjective.
Smith permits some personal intervention into the text here to share his youthful Beatlemania and love of the White Album, perceptively emphasizing how repetition of playing one’s favorite music “reconfirms the aesthetic order of the world” to the listener. More discordantly he anecdotally notes that 50 percent of fans of “anarchist punk” bands such as Social Distortion and the Dead Kennedys “are now sincere, utterly unironic Trump supporters.” The only surprise is that he should be surprised: How else would the generation gap be maintained? The aging process and progress ensure a mutable experience that seeks new ways to connect emotions in the arts and aspirations in political ideas. That’s not irrational; that’s life.
Smith is most at home and at his most convincing in his chapter on the Enlightenment. Professor John Gray, arguably Britain’s foremost philosopher, recently wrote: “The Enlightenment faith in reason to which many critics of the humanities would like to return was based on the belief that, once it had discarded myth, humankind would devote itself to the pursuit of knowledge through science. This was the ‘theoretical optimism’ that Nietzsche discerned at the bottom of Europe’s bourgeois civilization.” Smith shows how this hope was countered and even corrupted, rightly taking pains to demonstrate that the Enlightenment was not without its dark side of reason: Voltaire was just one of the philosophes who advocated its compulsory advancement by the barrel of a musket. Enthusiasm for enlightened despotism was widespread and every bit as influential in the long term.
Whereas Smith’s attempts to link philosophical ideas with current political events often fail to convince (Rousseau “anticipated Trump”?), they do so in revealing French President Emmanuel Macron’s Hegelian reading of his own Napoleonic proclivities (which is why I have long called him “Macroleon”). And in the case of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik, Smith makes the always salient point of the rationality of a killer choosing the right weapon for an irrational massacre.
The chapter on pseudoscience analyzes conspiracy theories interestingly; mercifully there is nothing on Comey or Mueller, but, following the book’s unwritten rule, there just has to be something on Trump. The internet may be a fertile breeding ground for conspiracies, but I confess Smith lost me during his description of the internet as fertile breeding ground for hermaphroditic snails and his reference to “an internet of snails”; his explication by means of “escargotic force,” a “pasilalinic-sympathetic compass,” and a loopy nineteenth-century French inventor did nothing to illuminate me further. But then I still struggle with the concept of the mobile telephone.
Once again, this reviewer is much in sympathy with the author’s broad arguments on the depressingly negative impact of the internet, but is it really “destroying everything”? (Smith later mitigates this statement.) Too many things, yes, surely, but the universities and democracy are imploding quite nicely by themselves, thank you very much, from the actions of liberal educationalists and undemocratic, unresponsive politicians within the mainstream that Smith supports. The internet does not exculpate them from their disastrous actions. Some of his more sensible commentary is then marred by—yes, you’ve guessed it—bringing in that nasty Mr. Trump again: “Polarization and radicalization . . . have been exacerbated in the past few years by Trumpism.” It might seem that way to some alarmed at the recent disruption of the liberal narrative and consensus, but it was ever thus.
The Earnest Woke Folk
This review emphasizes politics because the publishers and author have chosen this emphasis to promote the book in an era of—dread be the word—populism, which is of course the greatest manifestation of irrationality for twenty-first-century liberal man. The pre-publication endorsements on the cover came from media-savvy liberal academics such as Yascha Mounk and Christy Wampole; when Wampole writes in hers that this is “an era in which many have taken leave of their senses,” don’t we just know that this is a reference to Trump and Brexit supporters? The Smith that comes through the book is a highly learned and likable academic, but the earnest wokeness, usually understated, can be overdone: “I have largely overcome ethnocentrism and xenophobia in my own life”; “just when it might have seemed that an era of true cosmopolitanism was at hand, societies around the world have retreated into crude nationalism”; and, Titania McGrath–style, “Racism is bad.”
An example of where Smith’s innate reasonableness is diluted is to be found in his discussion of Jason Brennan’s reprehensible book Against Democracy (2016). Brennan’s disgust at the mass of voters, whom he dismisses as “hobbits,” “hooligans,” and “know-nothings,” represents the apogee of the condescending epistocratic desire to bar hoi polloi from the voting booth. Smith rightly and admirably argues against Brennan’s warped dystopian vision of politics but then undermines his position by declaring that Brennan “makes a compelling case” in damning the voters.
Elsewhere he laments that “we are struggling to understand the new phenomenon of Trumpism-Putinism, which seems unprecedented in its ideological nebulousness,” not fully appreciating that ideology is not really part of its appeal in the first place. Populism does not have its origins in philosophy (populist voters are repeatedly told they are dense and uneducated, anyway) but in matters of economics, culture, democracy, and identity. It is certainly worthwhile, as Smith demonstrates, to investigate some philosophical origins of populism, but to understand the current phenomenon requires considerably more analysis. Historical philosophical musings carry us only so far. We are not “witnessing what may turn out to be a complete breakdown of American democracy” just because the voiceless have for a moment managed to shout loud enough to be heard (and usually then ignored). And as the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde succinctly and accurately defines it, populism is “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” It is not irrational.
Are we really “living through a moment of extreme irrationality, of fervency and ebullience, of destabilization and fear”? Or are we simply living through a temporary corrective phase that will serve only as a reminder to the liberal establishment that there exists a world of “ordinary” people out there just beyond its gated communities? And if this is irrationality, how do we define most of the twentieth century when, for some, Enlightenment nightmares became real as scores of millions perished in the wars of civilized Europe?
Smith finishes this stimulating and intellectually engaging book with the conclusion that “irrationality is as potentially harmful as it is humanly ineradicable”; therefore, any “efforts to eradicate it are themselves supremely irrational.” He does not claim any novelty for this idea but expounds it gracefully, with erudition and—through his sensible anti-perfectibilinarianism—charitable wisdom. If the book has flaws, that is because it is a human creation.
Sean McGlynn teaches history at the University of Plymouth at Strode College. He has written several books and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
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