Liberalism, the Enlightenment and rationality
There is a common thread that runs through lay discussions. It goes something like this: the Enlightenment taught man to think for himself by championing rationality. Our society is the beneficiary of such an intellectual hinterland and as such we are all free to think as we please. This is what distinguishes us from others, less modern and less civilised. The assumption is that the lay person is a rational being. Instead, I would wish to suggest that rationality cannot be assumed, instead it remains a possibility for most.
About the Enlightenment itself, there is a discussion about the constitution of the Enlightenment and I would like to refer readers to two downloads available from the internet. The first is a recent discussion between two philosophers about the Enlightenment and the second is a lengthy but brilliant lecture on the same topic.
Now, post-religion, the social sciences took on the mantle of explaining and prescribing for human thought and behaviour. Consequently, the social sciences have developed from their earlier theorising through experimentation and discipline expansion towards what they have become today: a great monolith of academic application and study from anthropology through sociology to psychology and all that lies between and across.
Can a century’s worth or more of the social sciences add anything to the lay understanding of rationality as described above. Let us return to the basic postulate: ‘I am free to think’ (this has implications for freedom as freedom understood today is dependent upon rationality). I would suggest that there are three ways at least in which such understandings of rationality are circumscribed.
First of all, let us consider psychoanalysis. It may have been the case that Freud was incorrect in certain aspects of his theory – but his suggestion of the interplay between the id, ego and superego through defence mechanisms and the role of the unconscious in general are profound limitations on rationality (for more information read the collected works of Sigmund Freud, all 23 volumes – just joking, Anna Freud’s ‘The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense’ should suffice). Rationality here can be rationalisation – what one person considers to be a free thought may in fact be a consequence of some tension between his id, ego and superego. The role of the emotions, their origins and the unconscious all exert some influence upon our freedom ‘to think independently’.
Secondly, as studies in the psychology of reasoning have found, common forms of reasoning in everyday life are flawed (see ‘Psychology of Reasoning’ by Wason and Johnson-Laird and ‘Judgement under Uncertainty’ by Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky). A web log is not really the place to begin a lesson on such topics but by way of example judgements under uncertainty consider heuristics as a form of psychological reasoning – a shorthand for logic. In the case of risk, exaggerated risks such as travelling by airplane cause more fear and anxiety than walking near a river – this is the heuristic of availability – people reason according to the information that is available to them. Johnson-Laird and Wason examine more structural aspects of the psychology of reasoning and they suggest that our manner of everyday reasoning is in many ways illogical.
Thirdly, the sociology of knowledge which continues on from the psychology of reasoning considers the structure of meaning that is available to lay persons, their context within the intellectual landscape and their relevance. Here, one could consider the work of Serge Moscovici, Karl Mannheim (who considered power as well) and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. Essentially, terms have meaning within their cultural histories – progress means something within the context of modernity or identity means something within the context of postmodernity. As such, key terms that become part of everyday language and through which we make sense of our lives and relations to each other are heavily laden with weight of the history of culture (hence Raymond Williams’ ‘Keywords’). Our reasoning is therefore heavily circumscribed by the languages that are available to us and if the standard of education is poor, then the capacity for personal freedom is limited further.
For all these three reasons, lay rationality is limited. This does not mean that it is not possible. Rationality can become possible if one is trained to deal with one’s ego (recognise its games for example), understand the different forms of logic and reasoning and understand etymology and cultural history. If one can succeed in learning these three knowledges and skills, then one can begin to walk the path to freedom.