The Sleep of Reason

The embrace of relativism by many leftist intellectuals in the United States, while it may not be politically very important, is a terrible admission of failure, and an excuse for not answering the claims of their political opponents. The subordination of the intellect to partisan loyalty is found across the political spectrum, but usually it takes the form of a blind insistence on the objective truth of certain supporting facts and refusal to consider evidence to the contrary. So what explains the shift, at least by a certain slice of the intellectual left, to this new form of obfuscation?

When I was an undergraduate I volunteered to go door to door for Zero Population Growth to promote the liberalization of abortion laws. I thought that, as a philosophy major, I was just the person for the job: I had read Locke on personal identity and could explain to people that even though fetuses were human beings, living organisms of species homo sapiens, they were not persons. I was prepared to expand on this in great detail.

I was told that this was not a good idea. At the training session for volunteers, we were cautioned not to get into “philosophical arguments.” If a contact attempted to argue we were to repeat (as many times as it took) that abortion was simply an issue of women’s rights, and that was that. If we allowed ourselves to be drawn into arguments of any kind, we were warned, we were lost.

It was the same thing whenever I tried to work for the political causes I supported–argument was out. I don’t know whether this was peculiar to leftist causes (since I never supported any others) or a feature of politics as such but the idea was that sloganeering and manipulation were sophisticated while argument was, at best, naive. But it did seem especially entrenched in the Left: it was a commonplace that you couldn’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.

When, I wondered, had rationality become a partisan issue and, in particular, when had reason, objectivity, science and all the tools of the Enlightenment come to be seen as part of the Right’s kit?

Anti-intellectualism, the religion of the heart, the exaltation of rustic simplicity and old-fashioned virtue along with scorn for arid logic-chopping and rationalism broadly construed-has always been a feature of American life. Yet “only yesterday,” when the Scopes Monkey Trial was in progress, the Left was the party of science and socially conservative Middle Americans were scandalized by the tough-minded rationalism of progressives. Since yesterday political polarities have shifted and, as with the magnetic field’s periodic flip-flops indelibly imprinted in the geological record, we know when it happened but not exactly why.

It happened during the late ’60s and ’70s when the Baby Boom generation came of age. Arguably it happened then because that was when Baby Boomers, the largest American generation, came of age and, by sheer force of numbers, dominated the social landscape. Their fashions, behavior and ideologies became iconic and forged the link between the politics of the Left and the romanticism of adolescence in the American mythos.

The sources of the youth culture of the period were manifold. First, on the political side, there was Marxism, committed to the doctrine that ideology was epiphenomenal and rational reflection was escapist. This was the theme that I heard rehearsed incessantly as I participated in the anti-war movement and the politics of the Left. Rational argument was a sham, a power play by our adversaries: to respond in their terms was to fall into their trap.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there was the revolt against cultural masculinity, sparked by resistance to the Vietnam War and centering on the refusal of young men to meet the two traditional core male obligations, work and warfare. It spilled over into a distaste for everything socially coded as male, from meat-eating to contact sports. Peace, love and gentleness, fruits, nuts, grains and little herbal teas, intuition, emotion and all the stuff of stereotypical femininity were glorified; “male” rationality was, at best, suspect.

This was not feminism, indeed the second wave of feminism was largely a reaction against it. Within the Counterculture, which liberated men from the burden of traditional male role obligations without depriving them of the benefits, women were doubly cursed: while locked more firmly than ever into femininity by the earth mother cult and expected to provide sexual services to their men with no strings attached, they could no longer get the traditional compensations for meeting their role obligations: male protection and financial support. The position of women in the Movement was prone.

Finally, the national disgrace of an immoral war followed by political scandal engendered an unprecedented level of cultural self-hatred, amplifying the perennial romantic theme that the exotic Other, especially the primitive Other, was better. Undergraduates like myself consumed Margaret Mead’s South Sea fantasies and innumerable books by lesser lights who had established through sociological research that American society was “sick,” damaged by consumerism, conformity, and shallow, calculating, soulless rationalism.

None of it was new. Ever since adolescence became an institution-when boys were no longer apprenticed to their fathers’ trades at a tender age and girls were no longer married off at puberty-adolescents have been romantics. The difference was that in 1969 there were so many of us that we were taken seriously: instead of dismissing us, middle-aged pundits hailed us as the vanguard of a new era. So theologian Harvey Cox, in his dithyramb on the resurrection of Dionysus, applauded us for ushering in a new age and celebrated the demise of the man in the gray flannel suit, “rational, Apollonian plane-catching man.”(1)

Because of the war and the draft we were caught up in politics and wedded to the Left; because we were iconic our rendition of the politics of the Left became iconic. Adlai Stevenson was dead. Bertrand Russell, for decades the symbol of Leftist politics and anti-war activism, was off the radar. Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, the most progressive politicians to occupy positions of national leadership in US history, had become the Left’s demons. Americans across the political spectrum began to identify the Left with our preoccupations, including our disdain for the rationality of Apollonian plane-catching man.

That disdain for rationality, skepticism about the possibility of objective truth and the unshakable conviction that Life is bigger than Logic is not peculiar to the French “intellectuals” Sokal and Bricmont exposed or to academic literati-it is a feature of popular culture and has persisted even after the collapse of the Left as we knew it because it is preeminently a feature of adolescent romanticism. I get it from students all the time. Every year the freshmen in my intro logic classes, where I devote the first 3 weeks to “critical thinking” and debunking, rehearse the theme. Many are superstitious and almost all buy some version of mellow relativism. Most don’t think logic broadly construed is important–in the words of one haunting course evaluation comment: “What’s the good of being logical if no one else is?”

Talking to upperclassmen, who were more articulate and reflective, I got a better idea of their views. Even though the politics of the Left had largely disappeared from the undergraduate subculture, like most Americans, students were convinced that rationality, insofar as it was important at all, was exclusively the business of business and the political right. They had learnt in their required intro econ course that rational behavior was, by definition, self-interested. Rationality was appropriate in the workplace and public life; it was irrelevant, and inappropriate, in the private sphere where relationships, “values” and beliefs were based on feelings, culture, faith and brute personal preference. The trouble with Liberals, well-meaning though they were, was that they just didn’t understand this division of labor.

Conservative ideologues in my ethics classes believed that “rationality” was coextensive with the Market, which was perfectly efficient–any objections to the free operation of the Market was ipso facto irrational. Some were convinced that not only I, but Rawls and everyone on the syllabus apart from Nozick were warm-hearted sentimentalists who didn’t know how the real world worked and that Sen just didn’t understand economics. Most of the others believed that rationality was a matter of arbitrary convention–a matter of memorizing and following arbitrary rules. To be rational was to be blinkered and constrained, conventional, obedient, rigid, simplistic and dull.

In less than a week I’ll be back to teaching after my sabbatical–I’ve got a lot of work to do. On the whole I’m not a great enthusiast about teaching. But I do get a kick out of it in intro logic classes when students have their satoris and realize that the stuff makes sense–and I can say (it usually gets a laugh) “Hey–that’s why they call it ‘logic’!”

(1)Psychology Today interview with Harvey Cox c. April 1971

H.E. Baber (PhD Johns Hopkins) is a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, specialising in metaphysics and philosophy of mind. An earlier version of this article appeared on her blog The Enlightenment Project.

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