A crisis of “Western” reason?

The usual hand-wringing – including the hand-wringing of this blog – about the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump on a ticket with disturbing echoes of the 1920s and 1930s only goes so far. I’ve been thinking in recent days and weeks that we need, or at least I need, to go further into this, to see it as not just a political crisis, a crisis of democracy, but as a philosophical crisis, a crisis of reason.

Let me sketch out roughly what I mean. Both the EU as currently constituted and interpreted and the Democrat programme in the US as exemplified by Hillary Clinton are essentially technocratic, managerial projects with diminished ethical or transformative substance. True, and this is important to me even if not to some critics of this blog, both enshrine certain principles, and enforce certain norms, with regard to lack of discrimination, minority rights, worker protection, environmental protection, adherence to international law and international treaties, and so on. Actually those seem very important indeed, and were good reasons, even while holding your nose, to vote Remain or to vote for Hillary Clinton. The “social Europe” espoused by Jacques Delors has been in decline for two decades now – partly as a result of the widening of the EU – and was always opposed by probably the majority of British politicians; all the same European structural and social funds still play quite an important role in helping poorer regions and improving skills (will they be matched by UK government funding post-Brexit? Will pigs fly?)

But they are not enough. This is clearly not just my view but the view of millions of voters who rejected these projects, which they probably saw as distant and irrelevant to their lives, of benefit to the few (the “liberal elite”, on which more in another post), not the many. And they certainly had a point, as this excellent blog by Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato explains better than I could http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-brexit-trump-syndrome/. A shorthand way of saying it is that both the EU and the US Democrats were conscripted by neo-liberalism, a “market knows best, government is the problem” approach which ended up allowing nearly the vast majority of the proceeds of growth to go to a tiny sliver of the very rich.

While getting to know a little bit about the workings of the EU in the area of environmental protection, I lamented the fact that the EU was not better able to orient and conscript the imagination of European citizens towards its truly remarkable achievements in this field. I am thinking in particular about satellite Earth Observation, the ability to monitor the most minute changes in the state of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land surface using satellites, as exemplified by the Copernicus programme of Earth Observation jointly run by the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA).  I wrote a book about the history and cultural and ethical implications of Earth Observation while working as a part-time Senior Fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna. Here is the link to the book, just published by Springer – http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319406022.

Why is this fantastic project, now operational, not better known to European citizens?  I suppose there are a number of reasons, some institutional, but, as I argued in the book, one of the most important may be that those in charge of the project see it as essentially technocratic rather than ethical and transformative. Certainly satellite Earth Observation can help us manage our lives better – for example in precision agriculture, or flood planning. But its uses go far beyond that.  Satellite Earth Observation is extremely important in the area of monitoring climate change, the biggest ethical challenge facing humanity now and in the future. 26 out of 50 climate variables are only observable from space. For some reason, though, maybe because climate change is seen as a contentious political issue, those in charge seem disinclined to blow the trumpet for this.

All this is part of something bigger. Reason has been narrowed down to technocratic, scientific-instrumental reason. This leaves reason, rationality, bloodless and without passion. Everything is a means to end, with the end lost somewhere along the line. It leaves out what Pascal called “the reasons of the heart, which reason knows nothing of.” It leaves out what Habermas calls aesthetic-emotional reason – the whole realm of art. Art is seen as an essentially meaningless varnish to ugly reality. It also leaves a gap, into which more malign forces can move and which they can occupy.  These are the forces of nihilism, ultimately, of “we’ve had enough of experts”, of anything goes, of hatred and prejudice and fear, of let might prevail.Here’s just one current example of where that is leading. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/22/nasa-earth-donald-trump-eliminate-climate-change-research?CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco

P.S. I put “western” in inverted commas in deference to the recent BBC Reith Lectures by Kwame Anthony Appiah, in which he argued that there is “no such thing as western civilisation”. I agree with him that the transmission of Greek texts through Arab scholars in 11th and 12th century Córdoba and other places makes a nonsense of a notion of western civilisation that excludes the Arab world. But I do tend to think, for better or worse, that there is a distinctively “western” tradition of what constitutes reason and rationality.

P.P.S. It may be this analysis is not new – some of it was made in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment


5 thoughts on “A crisis of “Western” reason?

  1. Dear Harry, Do you think you might be more generous to the EU, for all its manifold deficiencies? There is surely a case that it deserves better than to be told it has little ethical or transformative substance. The fundamental principle of the freedom of movement of EU peoples is ultimately an ethical one (whose force sadly seems to be far beyond the grasp of the Brexiters). And is the immense achievement of that principle – which has brought work and hope to millions of former eastern Europeans – not truly transformative? I think the ambitions for self-serving power in Brussels are a tragedy but the actual achievement of the principle of freedom of movement is hugely impressive.

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  2. Dear Harry, I read your article with great interest. To be honest though, in the end I still don’t see very clearly the philosophical dimension of such issues like Brexit and Trump’s election. I wish, I could because I think it is a thrilling point. Or did I miss something? I don’t understand either the relationship between these crises and the satellites for Earth observation. I’m not sure that even if European citizens knew anything more about it, this would make things go better – or do I am mistaken? Finally, I must tell you, that I understand Pascal’s quotation the other way round:)-; it does mean (for me) that reason cannot explain or understand the heart. It’s seems logical because reason per se is the opposite of emotion and passion. That’s why in life, for instance, we always have to consider these two opposites (before taking decisions, for instance). What Habermas calls “aesthetic-emotional reason”, seems to be simply the “meeting” of these two opposites, because they always co-exist in each of us.
    Would you be so kind to clearly explain your thought on the philosophical meaning of the crises? That would be great. Thank you so much in advance!


  3. Harry,

    It was so good to discuss these things (and many others) over dinner last night even before I knew enough to read your blog:)

    “Reason has been narrowed down to technocratic, scientific-instrumental reason. This leaves reason, rationality, bloodless and without passion.”

    And as you say of the “EU as currently constituted” and the US Democratic programme (and as I was saying last night about the rhetoric of the Left in general), they are now proposed with “diminished ethical or transformative substance.” Or as I put it, the Left (generally) doesn’t (or can’t or doesn’t know how to) claim higher moral ground.

    But this “philosophical crisis,” this “crisis of reason” is also not unexpectedly a crisis of reading, too. People in general are still very slow on the uptake about this business of “false news.” It’s as if we think that “false news” can be sorted out as neatly as wheat from chaff. Whereas what has happened (and what continues happening) is that a whole web (literally a whole web) of lies and pseudo-truths and approximate factual truths are projected in one ongoing stream whose outcome is “to make everything seem relative. It’s kind of an appeal to cynicism,” as Michael McFaul, now the director of Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies, says specifically of the Russian propaganda apparati.

    Easy to glibly repeat McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” mantra now. But not only is reason being narrowed and attenuated into this technocratic envelope, but the technology itself, the envelope, the vehicle (by its nature) parrots and polemicizes and narrows into simplistic either/or emotional knee-jerk reactivities.

    No coincidence that clear, rigorous ethical thinking should seem so faint in a media age of click-bait trolling. Algorithms are much more important to media streams than anything as quaintly antique and romantic as “truth.”


  4. Belated responses to some of the comments made – thank you all. First, Nick: I suppose freedom of movement may not feel like an unalloyed good if you believe your job or wages are being threatened or undermined by immigrants who are prepared to work for less, with less protection. The free movement of people in the EU was welcomed partly by business leaders who saw a way of getting cheap(er) labour. There must be ways around that e.g. a higher minimum wage. The UK was one of the only countries – perhaps the only one – which put no restrictions on immigration from the A-8 countries post EU enlargement in 2004. Germany and Austria only removed restrictions on immigrants from A-8 countries in 2011. And Chris, on fake news etc.. This is a huge subject on great topical concern, especially in the context of Trump, who apparently gets most of his news from sites like Breitbart, with no commitment to veracity, and who himself constantly tells and tweets whoppers. No surprise that Trump is defending the Russians against the CIA (who have probably been known to be economical with the truth themselves). In the media context, this is partly to do with the absence of editing – non-existent in much web “news” and increasingly hollowed out even in “proper” newsapapers etc. But I’m afraid politicians being economical with the truth is not new. I was shocked at the way Cameron, Osborne and co. got away with their big lie that the 2008 credit crunch and resulting Great Recession were caused by Labour overspending, when they originated in the financial sector. Brigitte – I will try to return to this theme. I think we need to develop something like emotional reason, akin to emotional intelligence, or even poetic reason.


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