Blinded by the Enlightenment

Why hyper-rationalism leads to political failure

The Enlightenment brought exceptional knowledge and prosperity to the human race but counter-enlightenment thinkers have stressed the limits of reason for centuries. The lack of communication between these two strains of thought has caused some of humanity’s greatest political failures. It is time to unite them, argues Spencer Critchley.


With the Enlightenment triumph of reason, humanity escaped millennia of ignorance, superstition, and needless suffering, into a new era of unprecedented progress in knowledge, prosperity, health, and freedom.

Who could object? Plenty of people, it turned out. A Counter-Enlightenment resistance movement arose and has persisted to this day.

The Enlightenment set the course for the modern world. But its split with the Counter-Enlightenment (so-named later, notably in a 1973 essay by Isaiah Berlin) has been a cause of many of modernity’s failures.

The schism has been all the more destructive because it has largely gone unrecognized. The Enlightenment’s very success has led to rationality defining — and limiting — our worldview. Ironically, an epoch named for light made us partially blind. As a result, a series of threats, crises, and catastrophes have taken us by surprise, while opportunities have passed us by.

Some of the resistance to the Enlightenment was just a reaction against the threat to the Old Order. But the Counter-Enlightenment was not simply reactionary: its leading figures were thoughtful philosophers, theologians, and writers who understood the power of reason, but who believed it was nowhere near enough. These included Giambattista Vico, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder, the Romantics, and Edmund Burke, among many others.

The Enlightenment’s very success has led to rationality defining — and limiting — our worldview.

Vico was a Counter-Enlightenment prophet, largely unknown in his time, but influential ever after. He argued (in 1725’s The New Science), that while science could describe what was scientific, it missed everything else: meaning, morality, art, culture, identity.

“Whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things,” he wrote, “They judge them by what is familiar and at hand.” In other words, when all you have is reason, everything looks like data.

Hamann argued that any rational assertion about the world was reductionist: useful as far as it went, but that was only to the edges of a walled garden. Not logic, but poetry was “the mother tongue of the human race.”

Neither could the human spirit be captured by reason. Herder maintained that universal principles, like those of mathematics, would never apply to people, who were as different as their cultures, each of which could only have grown from a particular homeland. The Germans were essentially German, the French essentially French. 

But then Enlightenment concepts gave birth to the world’s first civic nations, the United States of America and the French Republic. These were based not on ethnicity but on universal principles such as the “natural rights” propounded by Locke. Nationality would no longer be based on tribe, but on rational agreement to a “social contract.”

To Counter-Enlightenment minds, this was not nationality at all, but mere commerce. As Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), “The state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern.”

Others strongly agreed. The French Republic was replaced by another empire in 1804. The Kingdom of Italy and the German Empire were created as ethnic nations in 1861 and 1871. From 1861-65, the United States was sundered by the Civil War, which was fought primarily over the brutal economics of slavery, but which was also a revolt of the Counter-Enlightenment South against the Enlightenment North.

As we see in the persistence of Lost Cause mythology, that war never really ended. Neither did ethnonationalist, Counter-Enlightenment movements across the globe, as seen recently in post-Soviet Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the UK, and elsewhere. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were such movements gone mad.

Most modern governments, and global organizations such as the UN, have attempted to run almost entirely on Enlightenment principles and the civic model. This has been mostly to the good: in historic terms, and especially since World War II, the developed world has been uniquely free, fair, and successful.

But the rationalism that defines the Enlightenment enterprise can produce its own catastrophes, as in Jacobin France, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. These were the Enlightenment gone mad. In each, the deluded commitment to a “science” of history yielded atrocities driven not by malignant passion but by the coldest logic.

And it doesn’t take madness for over-reliance on reason to go very wrong. Obviously, it’s a good idea to base policy on facts and logic more than faith and instinct. A plague is beaten by public health, not the commands of a modern Canute. But while reason must guide governors, the governed will always demand more: what is beyond reason’s bounds.

The deluded commitment to a “science” of history has yielded atrocities driven not by malignant passion but by the coldest logic.

Over-reliance on reason is a leading source of unintentional failure. Evil can be done in the absence of a discernible evil-doer — the absence turns out to be the essence of the evil. We were warned of this by, among others, Yeats (“The Second Coming”), Kafka (The Trial), and Conrad (Heart of Darkness). Responsibility is diffused across a bureaucratic system, a logical network with no center.

That is what we saw in the American war in Vietnam. Managing the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ war effort was the brilliant technocrat Robert McNamara, a former president of the Ford Motor Corporation and, during World War II, a pioneer in using data to plan bombing missions. After witnessing too many failures, and horrors, to count, McNamara, and America, learned that data was no match for ethnic identity, in all its illogic. As David Halberstam wrote in The Best and the Brightest:

Finally, when the mathematical version of sanity did not work out, when it turned out that the computer had not fed back the right answers and had underestimated those funny little far-off men in their raggedy pajamas, he would be stricken with a profound sense of failure, and he would be, at least briefly, a shattered man. But that would come later.

The same terrible error of calculation — and of relying on calculation too much — was made in Iraq by the administration of George W. Bush. Neo-conservative war planners assumed they could remake an explosively unstable nation simply by replacing a dictatorship with a democracy, as if swapping out a machine’s sub-assembly, though we should note that in this case the neo-conservatives’ naive hyper-rationalism was abetted by the equally naive faith of the born-again president. The planned master stroke of a short, targeted war ignored the Counter-Enlightenment history of the Middle East — whose chaos was born in yet another act of rationalistic hubris, the drawing of its artificial map by the victors of World War I, who blithely papered over ancient tribal boundaries.

Similar obliviousness prepared the way for Donald Trump, for Brexit, and for the other recent shocks to the global, liberal order.

Over-reliance on reason is a leading source of unintentional failure. Evil can be done in the absence of a discernible evil-doer — the absence turns out to be the essence of the evil.

George Orwell wouldn’t have been surprised by Brexit. In his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” he identified a British tribal identity that would resist any effort to subsume it:

It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children's holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.

Neither should any of us have been surprised by the ascendance of Trump. The 2016 election pitted the Enlightenment technocrat Hillary Clinton against a Counter-Enlightenment “chosen one” — a legalistic leader against a charismatic one, as Max Weber would say. In large part, Trump succeeded because his demagogic appeal to national destiny filled the empty space left by Enlightenment rationalism: the space where people hunger for belonging and meaning. The far more qualified Clinton seemed to offer only bullet points.

This is a failing of liberals in general, and explains much of the disaffection of their traditional working- and middle-class base — and not only just the white part, as we saw in the election just completed. Consider where the arrow of technocracy currently points: the Singularity predicted by Ray Kurzweil and others, when we upload ourselves into the cloud as AIs. Perhaps that will be the final schism, forcing the question of whether souls can be captured, and encoded, by reason.

Trump’s appeal to his followers can be obscured by the looming ugliness of his racism and general moral corruption. It’s not that all his followers were attracted to his worst characteristics, although obviously some were. It’s that so many people will choose something when the alternative appears to be nothing. Enlightenment liberalism is good at economics, but ignores culture, or attempts to rationalize it. Either leaves a void.

There is another way forward for the Enlightenment — and the Counter-Enlightenment. The Biden presidency offers some hope that America may find it. An experienced leader of the technocracy who is also a religious, patriotic “regular Joe,” Biden unites the two world views within himself. 

He leads with his heart as well as his head. Here’s hoping the new president can help reunite the nation he will now lead and begin similar healing, and new progress, with the rest of the world.

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