Tuesday, November 3, 2015

An abridged history of Western Dominant Reason

For some time now I’ve been sharing with readers of this blog the concept of a “dominant reason” that determines how we think, how we reason and thus what kind of solutions to our society’s problems we can arrive at. I will have more to say in future posts how such reason is transmitted to kids (and adults) to ensure it is constantly reproduced, and strengthened through each individual’s lifecycle, but I would like to dwell in this post on how such reason came to be in the first place. It is a dense, complicated history, which starts at least 2,300 years ago in Greece, and which has been enriched by many traditions originated outside Europe (Judaism, Middle Eastern wisdom literature, a handful of Chinese inventions, Mongol military tactics, and a long etcetera), so I will focus just in the latest four hundred years, the period I have studied more in detail and about which I feel more confident talking about. It helps to conceive such reason as the answer that a society gives itself to some historical discontinuity, normally catalyzed by a significant (seismic?) change in the technology it uses to adapt itself to its environment, an environment marked both by its natural surroundings (the climate it experiences, the fertility of the soils it occupies, the stocks of plants and cattle it has access to) and the separate societies that it has to interact with. I maintain that we can find the following main discontinuities in the period under consideration of Western history, and differentiate the following types of dominant reason in response to each of them:
Now let’s review what are the rules that each type of reason presented to the members of society reared in it (under its dominion):

·         Baroque reason (1650-1750): The Westphalian treaties that gave birth to the modern state system (necessarily in balance, threatening with annihilation any nation small enough or unproductive enough not to enter in an alliance with others) had just finished the wars of Religion in Europe and marked the end of the hegemony of the Spanish empire (soon to be compounded by the accession to the throne of the feeble Charles II in 1665, whose catastrophic reign serves up to this day as a warning of the perils of monarchic rule). Religion was still important enough to fight and die for, as a result of the gains in agricultural productivity population had already recovered from the last bout of the Black Death and socially the hereditary aristocracy, although still strong (specially in the countries in the periphery of the forming World-System, which pivoted to an economy based on a few staple commodities produced for such market) was ceding its place of preeminence to a new ascending class: the bourgeoisie. If we had to summarize under just three headings what made people tick, it would be:

1.       The goal of life is to save oneself (in the afterlife)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined by birth (so there is no point in trying to improve one’s place in it)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (first and foremost to survive, having enough food, shelter and health; afterwards things like belonging to a group, and even acquiring some mastery in a recognized pursuit, from humanistic disciplines to crafts as prescribed within the guild structure –what MacIntyre called “a practice”- were welcomed)

It is easy to see that producing material goods was not the most immediate concern for the vast majority of the population, and that societies following those 3 rules were abysmally worse than ours in growing their GDP. They had other, more pressing concerns, and just didn’t devote that much effort to it (and why would they? Since they were kids they were taught that there are more important things in life than working and selling things or selling their time to earn more money)

·         Economic reason (1750-1800): The longest period of peace in the history of Europe in many, many centuries (I once told a classroom of young kids in Mexico that they shouldn’t be fooled by our recent economic successes, what Europeans had showed the rest of the world how to do during 99% of our shared history, what we are distinctly good about, what we really excel at is killing and maiming and invading and destroying each other). So it comes as no surprise that the economy takes off, technology really comes into its own, we inadvertently stumble upon the most generic procedure for problem resolution that man has ever known (aka “scientific method”), we launch the Industrial Revolution, we define a way of governing a polity that for all practical purposes is the best we have ever had (parliamentarianism, with England’s “Glorious Revolution” and the American war of independence), we fall in love with the somewhat contradictory concept of universal reason (aka the Enlightenment) and we top it off with the discovery of a new form of totalitarianism in the name of majority rule and a new round of continent wide slaughter (aka French Revolution and Napoleonic wars).  In the meantime of such a meaty half century, our friend David Hume (leaning on the teaching of Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli –which I’m not sure he even read, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Samuel Butler and Francis Hutcheson) formulates a moral system entirely independent of religious teaching, and thus enables the enthronement of a slightly different set of principles for conducting everyday’s life:

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires (as only emotions, or in his words, “passions”, can move us, and those passions can only be explained as the impulse towards feeling pleasure and avoiding pain, which is what desires consist in)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined mostly by birth, but it can be slightly improved by “moral worth” (as defined by social consensus)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (survival in a peaceful time is more of a given, so things like recognition, justified by an innate “sympathy” can play a greater role)

It may seem like the production of material goods is still of no great concern for the majority, but we see that one of the obstacles to devote most of one’s energies to this worldly pursuits has been removed, by redefining the goal of a life well lived (something that happened first in the protestant countries, as described superbly by Max Weber, but also Werner Sombart, as I mentioned in this old post Luxury and Capitalism, so it comes as no surprise that those countries surge to the position of world hegemony vacated by the Spaniards and their Genoese financiers).

·         Sentimental reason (1800-1900): The bourgeois upheavals of the preceding period (English and American) were relatively mild and bloodless affairs compared with the one that closes it with a cataclysmic bang (the French Revolution). Even when performed in the name of Reason and weaving into its banner nice slogans like “Freedom, Equality and Fraternity”, “the Universal rights of Man” and all the rest, it soon backfires through the Terror and triggers a conservative backlash in the rest of Europe (until the revolutionary embers were rekindled by the middle of the XIX century) that turned a significant amount of the intelligentsia against reason and autonomy and towards authority and tradition. All the arts were rocked by the romantic turn, and the majority’s idea of what was a reasonable way of living could be no exception, so for those times the big directions about how life should be conducted looked something like this:

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires (indeed, the more outrageous the desire, the better)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined mostly by genius (the cult of the artist), although genius is sooner or later recognized by the majority (the solitary artist, true only to his calling, is but a temporary stage), which can also ennoble themselves by recognizing it

3.       There is only one desire worthy of being pursued, to “be oneself”, to “become who you are”

It has to be noted that for such a seismic shift in what the dominant reason accepts as a valid object of desire the “subsistence problem” had to be mostly solved first. It’s OK to have a bunch of young people full of angst and ennui demanding a “revolution of taste” and a “transvaluation of all values” as long as you can feed and clothe them, and they are not going to distract the vast majority of people toiling in unwholesome factories and mills more than the time strictly necessary for them to forget about the hopelessness of their condition (so they are really agents of their alienation by making it more bearable, rather than the revolutionaries they considered themselves to be).

Mostly old history (and very schematic one at that), but it sets the stage for what I’ll have to say about the last two iterations of the dominant reason whose evolution I’m documenting, which I’ll do in a soon to come post. 

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