The Rationalist Revolution

I should clarify my cryptic remarks in the previous post about rationalists, weak and strong, pro- and anti-.

We have had, and are having, a rationalist revolution (or a cognitive revolution): a vast growth of knowledge in modern times. It begins around 1700 and accelerates since then, encompassing the scientific revolution, the enlightenment, and the rationalization trend. Its causes (which we need not go into here) derive from the peculiarities of the West.

Has it been a good thing? Naturally, there are rival opinions.

Those who think it overall a bad thing can be called “anti-rationalists.” They come in several stripes:

  • Left-wing postmodernism says that the rationalist revolution is oppressive. Foucault equated modern knowledge with power and surveillance. Multiculturalism tends to view it as oppressive too. It is helpmate and handmaiden of Orientalism, Eurocentrism, and the like. In short, they say that the cognitive revolution has aided and abetted (and indeed constituted) new oppressors, such as the liberal political elite and Western civ. But this depends on the flimsy presupposition that the West or liberal elites are intrinsically oppressive.
  • Right-wing postmodernism (e.g. Straussians) says that the rationalist revolution has brought a crisis of civilization. Darwinism (for instance) is corrosive and it would have been prudent to keep it decently veiled from the public.

Let us call those who think it a good thing “pro-rationalists.”

  • Strong rationalists appreciate the rationalist revolution and want it to continue, to spread, to broaden and eventually to reign supreme. (This is sometimes called the Enlightenment project.)
  • Modest rationalists (like Ernest Gellner) think the rationalist revolution was certainly a good thing (it underpins prosperity) but is somewhat weak. It cannot legislate in morals and politics. It cannot provide meaning in life.

I broadly agree with the latter. The basic reason is that people have an evolved, natural desire for religion, also an evolved moral sense. The rationalist revolution cannot and should not try to sweep these things away. Any revolution taken too far can be destructive.


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