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Rebecca and Reason

Mark Richardson makes an interesting point in his discussion of the British writer Rebecca West: she may have been a feminist socialist, but she had a much more civilized mind than you’re likely to find today. In particular, she was able to enter into, and take seriously on their own terms, the several types of thought—scientific, religious, and humanistic—that have entered into the making of the Western mind.

Today, as Richardson points out, scientific thought is absolutely dominant, while religious thought is cordoned off in its ghetto and humanistic thought—concern with aesthetic, moral and spiritual values as something to be taken seriously in their own right—hardly exists at all. (Look at what’s happened to academic literary and cultural studies.) The result is a great deal of Philistine stupidity, fanaticism and freakishness, with no better standard even conceivable.

I thought of Richardson’s point when I went looking on the web for a definition of reason and found a page that assembled a bunch of them. They’re oddly archaic: “ratio,” “proportion,” “a just ground,” “due exercise of the reasoning faculty,” “the higher as distinguished from the lower cognitive faculties,” “accordance with, or that which is accordant with and ratified by, the mind rightly exercised,” “that which is dictated or supported by the common sense of mankind,” “the faculty or capacity of the human mind by which it is distinguished from the intelligence of the inferior animals.”

What makes them archaic is that they assume that we can cultivate a faculty of reason that takes qualitative considerations into account and enables us to render an independent judgement of the good, beautiful and true. Neither commercialism, scientific fundamentalism, nor bureaucratic rationality can make sense of such a notion. From their point of view everything is either totally public, objective and demonstrable or a matter of pure individual taste. It follows that reason in the traditional sense of something that can serve as an overall guide to life has no place in present-day public discussion. In the highest things, and therefore eventually in all things, our society has become clueless on principle.