A memorable all-time invention described in the books of C. P. Snow and Carl Rogers, rationalism takes its name from the French word for “the rational attitude,” which in its reduced form is exactly the same thing as the rational action. The idea is that logical thinkers from Plato to Copernicus to Smith, from Marx to Darwin all had the same ideal: to reason more intelligently, to dream more deeply, to find objects of beauty, character, and meaning. They all thought that (1) the human mind is the deepest and richest realm of observation in the universe, and (2) human beings would not discover anything new or useful there unless they embraced a logic that was embedded in an ancient spirituality. This might be a heaven of learning and imagination, but it was not necessarily paradise — at least not for the people of the world as they had come to know themselves. Humankind at large had been conditioned, in fact, to expect some chaos and plurality in the world.
This was not what modern science was teaching, and it was not what the intelligentsia of the great Western societies was presenting to the citizens. No systematic attempts were made to make sense of the new evidence for the existence of God and the supernatural, and no organized movement that sought to make sense of a world that was not theirs was ever allowed to grow into much-needed intellectual and moral confidence. Modern science and modern intelligentsia were a solitary bundle, conjoined by consensus on their system of intellectual rationalism. Rationalism was, in fact, the classic form of explicit, controlled materialism, with all its implications: rationales based on material evidence and confirmation.
Today we still believe in the existence of God. We still turn to sacred texts, scripture, documents, and creeds in our search for meaning. The modern mind is still designed to seek happiness by adjusting to the needs of nature and the forces of our environment, whatever (and whomever) that might be. We still believe that the ideal of self-knowledge will be realized when all the self-interested privileges of modern society are extinguished. We still love authenticity and experience, desire a deeper connection with the divine, and long for a society free of cruelty, greed, cronyism, and all the other scourges of our time. Rationalism, it seems, has proven incapable of understanding the full extent to which the wealth and power of Western society had been made possible by the conflict of interest between capital and nature that it insisted on. But rationalism could hardly have done much to disentangle that conflict and anticipated it.
And it is not just the specific issues of science that distort rationalism’s vision of the world. We have a great deal of experience of irrationality and inconsistency, of religious fanaticism and divine indifference, of orthodox religious commitments that aren’t good for us, and of normal philosophical and moral commitments that, like rationality itself, fail to make the slightest sense of our human condition. Rationalism, properly understood, needs and deserves no changes of idea. It is a good faith effort to figure out which lines of causal argument hold up to scrutiny and which don’t. It is a frame of reference for all that we need to understand and explore.
What is needed is not a new design for rationalism but for a design for a different world. And what we need is a new kind of intelligence, based not on material processes but on long-term wisdom, on moral perspective, on the capacity to taste the many layers of the unfolding mystery of life. That’s the level of genius that we all need to overcome.