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Popper on the revolt against reason

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Taking up the point that I made to Kodjo on the question – what did Bartley add to Popper’s account of reason and rationality? This is a summary of chapter 24 of The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) where Popper pursued his point that “The conflict between rationalism and irrationalism has become the most important intellectual, and perhaps even moral, issue of our time.”

This is a big chapter, 26 pages, as befits a topic that has generated such a mountain of literature, much of it confused and confusing due to (a) the numerous meanings of “reason’ and ‘rationality’ and (b) the many and varied arguments and objections that are raised against the idea of using evidence and discussion to improve our plans and practices. 

Section I spells out the kind of rationalism and rationality that Popper is prepared to defend, “an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions”.  In case people get the idea that Popper had no time for the emotions it is helpful to note his comment (in this chapter) that a life without emotions such as love would hardly be worth living. Further, he suggested that a deal of passion is required to make an impact in any field of human endeavour, including science.

Section II scans the long history of the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism. Section III explains why Popper considered that the choice is not just an intellectual matter, or a matter of taste, but a moral decision, and section IV is his moral counter-attack on irrationalism. Section V is a critique of some modern thinkers who Popper regarded as major and influential promoters of irrationalism.

For some people this is the best chapter in the book, especially those with a practical turn of mind and a desire to solve problems, without much interest in the debates that go on about Popper’s interpretation of Plato and Marx.

Rationalism and irrationalism

Since the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are vague, it will be necessary to explain roughly the way in which they are used here. First, they are used in a wide sense; they are used to cover not only intellectual activity but also observation and experiment. It is necessary to keep this remark in mind, since ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are often used in a different and more narrow sense, in opposition not to ‘irrationalism’ but to ‘empiricism’…when I speak here of ‘rationalism’, I use the word always in a sense which includes ‘empiricism’ as well as ‘intellectualism’; just as science makes use of experiments as well as of thought. Secondly, I use the word ‘rationalism’ in order to indicate, roughly, an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to reason, i.e. to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions.

It may be better to explain rationalism in terms of practical attitudes or behaviour.

We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.’ It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach—perhaps by arbitration—a compromise which, because of its equity, is acceptable. to most, if not to all…

The decision to consider the argument rather than the person arguing has many significant consequences. For example it means that we need to accept that anyone we communicate with can be a source of information and ideas, regardless of the level of agreement between us.  It establishes what Popper called the ‘rational unity of mankind’. It is a highly egalitarian stance, quite unlike the elitest Platonic idea that reason is a kind of ‘faculty’ that people can have and develop in different degrees.

Admittedly, intellectual gifts may be different in this way, and they may contribute to reasonableness; but they need not. Clever men may be very unreasonable; they may cling to their prejudices and may not expect to hear anything worth while from others. According to our view, however, we not only owe our reason to others, but we can never excel others in our reasonableness in a way that would establish a claim to authority. Authoritarianism and rationalism in our sense cannot be reconciled, since argument, which includes criticism, and the art of listening to criticism, is the basis of reasonableness…

The irrationalist attitude may be developed along the following lines. Though perhaps recognizing reason and scientific argument as tools that may do well enough if we wish to scratch the surface of things, or as means to serve some irrational end, the irrationalist will insist that ‘human nature’ is in the main, not rational. Man, he holds, is more than a rational animal, and also less. In order to see that he is less, we need only consider how small is the number of men who are capable of argument; this is why, according to the irrationalist, the majority of men will always have to be tackled by an appeal to their emotions and passions rather than by an appeal to their reason…Leaving aside the lower aspects of human nature, we may look to one of its highest, to the fact that man can be creative. It is the small creative minority of men who really matter; the men who create works of art or of thought, the founders of religions, and the great statesmen. These few exceptional individuals allow us to glimpse the real greatness of man. But although these leaders of mankind know how to make use of reason for their purposes, they are never men of reason. Their roots lie deeper—deep in their instincts and impulses, and in those of the society of which they are parts. Creativeness is an entirely irrational, a mystical faculty …

The moral dimension

The choice before us is not simply an intellectual affair, or a matter of taste. It is a moral decision. For the question whether we adopt some more or less radical form of irrationalism, or whether we adopt that minimum concession to irrationalism which I have termed ‘critical rationalism’, will deeply affect our whole attitude towards other men, and towards the problems of social life. It has already been said that rationalism is closely connected with the belief in the unity of mankind. Irrationalism, which is not bound by any rules of consistency, may be combined with any kind of belief…

Popper described in chapter 5 that evidence and arguments cannot determine fundamental moral decisions but choices need to be informed by arguments and often enough by some conception of the alternative outcomes.

Whenever we are faced with a moral decision of a more abstract kind, it is most helpful to analyse carefully the consequences which are likely to result from the alternatives between which we have to choose. For only if we can visualize these consequences in a concrete and practical way, do we really know what our decision is about; otherwise we decide blindly. In order to illustrate this point, I may quote a passage from Shaw’s Saint Joan. The speaker is the Chaplain; he has stubbornly demanded Joan’s death; but when he sees her at the stake, he breaks down : ‘I meant no harm. I did not know what it would be like .. I did not know what I was doing .. If I had known, I would have torn her from their hands. You don’t know. You haven’t seen : it is so easy to talk when you don’t know. You madden yourself with words .. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then—then—O God, take away this sight from me!’ There were, of course, other figures in Shaw’s play who knew exactly what they were doing, and yet decided to do it; and who did not regret it afterwards. Some people dislike seeing their fellow men burning at the stake and others do not. This point (which was neglected by many Victorian optimists) is important…an analysis of the concrete consequences, and their clear realization in what we call our ‘imagination’, makes the difference between a blind decision and a decision made with open eyes; and since we use our imagination very little, we only too often decide blindly.

Popper pursued some of the consequences of irrationalism. The irrationalist who insists that emotions and passions rather than reason are the mainsprings of human actions is likely to refer to the weakness of ‘human nature’, the limited intelligence of most people, their unwillingness to learn more about complex problems and their obvious dependence upon emotions and passions.

It is my firm conviction that this irrational emphasis upon emotion and passion leads ultimately to what I can only describe as crime. One reason for this opinion is that this attitude, which is at best one of resignation towards the irrational nature of human beings, at worst one of scorn for human reason, must lead to an appeal to violence and brutal force as the ultimate arbiter in any dispute. For if a dispute arises, then this means that those more constructive emotions and passions which might in principle help to get over it, reverence, love, devotion to a common cause, etc., have shown themselves incapable of solving the problem. But if that is so, then what is left to the irrationalist except the appeal to other and less constructive emotions and passions, to fear, hatred, envy, and ultimately, to violence?

He has some thought-provoking things to say about love and imagination. Flower children of the sixties and seventies may recall the vogue of saving the world by love – a la Beatles, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving etc.

I do not overlook the fact that there are irrationalists who love mankind, and that not all forms of irrationalism engender criminality. But I hold that he who teaches that not reason but love should rule opens the way for those who rule by hate. Those who do not see this connection at once, who believe in a direct rule of emotional love, should consider that love as such certainly does not promote impartiality. And it cannot do away with conflict either. That love as such may be unable to settle a conflict can be shown by considering a harmless test case, which may pass as representative of more serious ones. Tom likes the theatre and Dick likes dancing. Tom lovingly insists on going to a dance while Dick wants for Tom’s sake to go to the theatre. This conflict cannot be settled by love; rather, the greater the love, the stronger will be the conflict. There are only two solutions; one is the use of emotion, and ultimately of violence, and the other is the use of reason, of impartiality, of reasonable compromise. All this is not intended to indicate that I do not appreciate the difference between love and hate, or that I think that life would be worth living without love. (And I am quite prepared to admit that the Christian idea of love is not meant in a purely emotional way.) But I insist that no emotion, not even love, can replace the rule of institutions controlled by reason.

There are other argument against the idea of a rule of love. For example loving a person means wishing to make him happy, but, as Popper pointed out, the idea of trying to make people happy by means of political reforms is a road to ruin.

It leads invariably to the attempt to impose our scale of ‘higher’ values upon others in order to make them realize what seems to us of greatest importance for their happiness; in order, as it were, to save their souls. It leads to Utopianism and Romanticism. We all feel certain that everybody would be happy in the beautiful, the perfect community of our dreams. And no doubt, there would be heaven on earth if we could all love one another. But, as I have said before (in chapter 9), the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. It leads to intolerance. It leads to religious wars, and to the saving of souls through the inquisition. And it is, I believe, based on a complete misunderstanding of our moral duties. It is our duty to help those who need our help; but it cannot be our duty to make others happy, since this does not depend on us, and since it would only too often mean intruding on the privacy of those towards whom we have such amiable intentions. The political demand for piecemeal (as opposed to Utopian) methods corresponds to the decision that the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends. In their case, we may perhaps have a certain right to try to impose our scale of values—our preferences regarding music, for example. (And we may even feel it our duty to open to them a world of values which, we trust, can so much contribute to their happiness.) This right of ours exists only if, and because, they can get rid of us; because friendships can be ended. But the use of political means for imposing our scale of values upon others is a very different matter. Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the ‘agenda’ of public policy (as Bentham would have said). The ‘higher’ values should very largely be considered as ‘non-agenda’, and should be left to the realm of laissez faire. Thus we might say: help your enemies; assist those in distress, even if they hate you; but love only your friends.

He then proceeded to another shibboleth that is put about by enemies of reason, namely that there is some kind of affinity between imagination and emotion, so that rationalism tends to promote unimaginative dry scholasticism.

I do not know whether such a view may have some psychological basis, and I rather doubt it. But my interests are institutional rather than psychological, and from an institutional point of view (as well as from that of method) it appears that rationalism must encourage the use of imagination because it needs it, while irrationalism must tend to discourage it. The very fact that rationalism is critical, whilst irrationalism must tend towards dogmatism (where there is no argument, nothing is left but full acceptance or fiat denial), leads in this direction. Criticism always demands a certain degree of imagination, whilst dogmatism suppresses it. Similarly, scientific research and technical construction and invention are inconceivable without a very considerable use of imagination; one must offer something new in these fields (as opposed to the field of oracular philosophy where an endless repetition of impressive words seems to do the trick). At least as important is the part played by imagination in the practical application of equalitarianism and of impartiality. The basic attitude of the rationalist, ‘I may be wrong and you may be right’, demands, when put into practice, and especially when human conflicts are involved, a real effort of our imagination. I admit that the emotions of love and compassion may sometimes lead to a similar effort. But I hold that it is humanly impossible for us to love, or to suffer with, a great number of people; nor does it appear to me very desirable that we should, since it would ultimately destroy either our ability to help or the intensity of these very emotions. But reason, supported by imagination, enables us to understand that men who are far away, whom we shall never see, are like ourselves, and that their relations to one another are like our relations to those we love. A direct emotional attitude towards the abstract whole of mankind seems to me hardly possible. We can love mankind only in certain concrete individuals. But by the use of thought and imagination, we may become ready to help all who need our help.

In the last section of the chapter Popper selected A J Toynbee as an example of a brilliant scholar who was capable of exemplary research in his chosen field but lapsed into irrationalism on larger topics beyond his area of special expertise.

I wish to make it clear that I consider Toynbee’s A Study of History a most remarkable and interesting book…I do not accuse him of irrationalism in his own field of historical research. For where it is a question of comparing evidence in favour of or against a certain historical interpretation, he uses unhesitatingly a fundamentally rational method of argument. I have in mind, for instance, his comparative study of the authenticity of the Gospels as historical records, with its negative results; although I am not able to judge his evidence, the rationality of the method is beyond question, and this is the more admirable as Toynbee’s general sympathies with Christian orthodoxy might have made it hard for him to defend a view which, to say the least, is unorthodox. I also agree with many of the political tendencies expressed in his work, and most emphatically with his attack upon modern nationalism, and the tribalist and ‘archaist’, i.e. culturally reactionary tendencies, which are connected with it.

Toynbee’s irrationalism is demonstrated by his cavalier attitude towards arguments and his tendency to identify, instead of arguments, deep and irrational motives, a process which Popper called “socio-analysis”.

As an example of the refusal to take serious arguments seriously, I select Toynbee’s treatment of Marx. My reasons for this selection are the following. First, it is a topic which is familiar to myself as well as to the reader of this book. Secondly, it is a topic on which I agree with Toynbee in most of its practical aspects. His main judgements on Marx’s political and historical influence are very similar to results at which I have arrived by more pedestrian methods; and it is indeed one of the topics whose treatment shows his great historical intuition. Thus I shall hardly be suspected of being an apologist for Marx if I defend Marx’s rationality against Toynbee. For this is the point on which I disagree : Toynbee treats Marx (as he treats everybody) not as a rational being, a man who offers arguments for what he teaches…

Regarding the points of similarity between Toynbee’s and my general views of Marx, I may remind the reader of my allusions, in chapter 1, to the analogy between the chosen people and the chosen class; and in various other places, I have commented critically upon Marx’s doctrines of historical necessity, and especially of the inevitability of the social revolution. These ideas are linked together by Toynbee with his usual brilliance.

Toynbee wrote:

The distinctively Jewish .. inspiration of Marxism, is the apocalyptic vision of a violent revolution which is inevitable because it is the decree .. of God himself, and which is to invert the present roles of Proletariat and Dominant Minority in .. a reversal of roles which is to carry the Chosen People, at one bound, from the lowest to the highest place in the Kingdom of This World. Marx has taken the Goddess “Historical Necessity” in place of Yahweh for his omnipotent deity, and the internal proletariat of the modern Western World in place of Jewry; and his Messianic Kingdom is conceived as a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. But the salient features of the traditional Jewish apocalypse protrude through this threadbare disguise, and it is actually the pre-Rabbinical Maccabaean Judaism that our philosopher-impresario is presenting in modern Western costume ..

Popper’s reply:

Now there is certainly much in this brilliantly phrased passage with which I agree, as long as it is intended as nothing more than an interesting analogy. But if it is intended as a serious analysis (or part of it) of Marxism, then I must protest; Marx, after all, wrote Capital, studied laissez faire capitalism, and made serious and most important contributions to social science, even if much of them has been superseded. And, indeed, Toynbee’s passage is intended as a serious analysis; he believes that his analogies and allegories contribute to a serious appreciation of Marx; for in an Annex to this passage (from which I have quoted only an important part) he treats, under the title ‘Marxism, Socialism, and Christianity’, what he considers to be likely objections of a Marxist to this ‘account of the Marxian Philosophy’. This Annex itself is also undoubtedly intended as a serious discussion of Marxism, as can be seen by the fact that its first paragraph commences with the words ‘The advocates of Marxism will perhaps protest that ..’ and the second with the words : ‘In attempting to reply to a Marxian protest on such lines as these ..’ But if we look more closely into this discussion, then we find that none of the rational arguments or claims of Marxism is even mentioned, let alone examined. Of Marx’s theories and of the question whether they are true or false we do not hear a word.

Toynbee’s anti-rationalism is prominent in many other places. For instance, in an attack upon the rationalistic conception of tolerance he uses categories like ‘nobleness’ as opposed to ‘lowness’ instead of arguments. The passage deals with the opposition between the merely ‘negative’ avoidance of violence, on rational grounds, and the true non-violence of other-worldliness, hinting that these two are instances of ‘meanings .. which are .. positively antithetical to one another’…

I do not wish to be misunderstood. I feel no hostility towards religious mysticism (only towards a militant anti-rationalist intellectualism) and I should be the first to fight any attempt to oppress it. It is not I who advocate religious intolerance. But I claim that faith in reason, or rationalism, or humanitarianism, or humanism, has the same right as any other creed to contribute to an improvement of human affairs, and especially to the control of international crime and the establishment of peace. ‘The humanist’, Toynbee writes, ‘purposely concentrates all his attention and effort upon .. bringing human affairs under human control. Yet the unity of mankind can never be established in fact except within a framework of the unity of the superhuman whole of which Humanity is a part ..; and our Modern Western school of humanists have been peculiar, as well as perverse, in planning to reach Heaven by raising a titanic Tower of Babel on terrestrial foundations ..’ Toynbee’s contention, if I understand him rightly, is that there is no chance for the humanist to bring international affairs under the control of human reason. Appealing to the authority of Bergson, he claims that only allegiance to a superhuman whole can save us, and that there is no way for human reason, no ‘terrestrial road’, as he puts it, by which tribal nationalism can be superseded. Now I do not mind the characterization of the humanist’s faith in reason as ‘terrestrial’, since I believe that it is indeed a principle of rationalist politics that we cannot make heaven on earth. But humanism is, after all, a faith which has proved itself in deeds, and which has proved itself as well, perhaps, as any other creed. And although I think, with most humanists, that Christianity, by teaching the fatherhood of God, may make a great contribution to establishing the brotherhood of man, I also think that those who undermine man’s faith in reason are unlikely to contribute much to this end.

 

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Written by Admin

November 21, 2006 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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