Friday, August 01, 2008


Newton by William Blake

The Enlightenment movement advocated rationality as a means to establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. The intellectual leaders of this movement regarded themselves as a courageous elite, and regarded their purpose as leading the world toward progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, full of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny (which they believed began during a historical period they called the 'Dark Ages')
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Enlightenment philosophers was the idea that one should have the courage to find out things for oneself, rather than blindly accepting received knowledge; "Dare to know", declared Kant. This attitude has freed humanity from a lot of suffering caused by superstition, intolerance and misplaced faith. But many artists and poets, such as William Blake, recognised that the increasing emphasis on rationality has a darker, unenlightened, side. Rationality is often the rationalisation used by the ego to justify and disguise its self-interest. Neuroscientists, such as Chris Frith, point out that very few mental processes are conscious. Most decisions are arrived at unconsciously and are justified afterwards (rationalised) by the conscious mind. This is largely a good thing - if we had to think about every little part of our lives, life would be impossible. But it means that a lot of what it considered rational thought is illusory.

Many apparently irrational decisions humans make on a day to day basis, turn out to be sensible when seen in a broader social context, for example. The rationalism of the ego is often irrational in the bigger picture. The equation: rational = good, depends on whose rationality we are talking about: the individual, society or the natural world. Einstein said that without religion, science is lame; and without science, religion is blind. But also science is blind without religion in it's true sense of joining (Latin religare) the individual with the universal Self. Without Self-knowledge, science is blind to the prejudices of the ego. But Self-knowledge is a frightening prospect to the ego, for it is the prospect of discovering it's own fictionality.

"In the 21st century, we are discovering more and more about the brain and the role of emotion, and challenging old ideas about how we learn, make decisions, act and remember. This is already beginning to make us revise our notions of what constitutes reason - and that, in turn, is bound to have consequences for our attitudes to reason and to the endeavours of scientists." -Chris Frith

In their book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote a penetrating critique of what they perceived as the contradictions of Enlightenment thought: Enlightenment was seen as being at once liberatory and, through the domination of instrumental rationality tending towards totalitarianism.

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