Rationality, Religion and Modernity Part A: A Social and Environmental Philosophy by Kenneth Wilson

This is the work of Kenneth Wilson B.Sc.(Edin.); a thesis presented in 1998 for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. It is published in sections on the Ragged University website, and this is the overview.


Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Part Two discuss three aspects of rationality. This chapter is mainly concerned with the relationship between the rationality of modernity and its medieval precursor. This topic is discussed in relation to Hans Blumenberg’s monograph The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.[1] Blumenberg seeks to defend the legitimacy of modernity against his opponent Karl Löwith.
This chapter may be seen as a defence of modern reason against those such as Löwith who would, as it were, retreat into premodern modes. Therefore, in the light of the crisis of modernity, this chapter seeks to defend it against those who would wish to look backward for the solutions to the crisis. While modern reason may be problematic, it has to be worked with or improved upon, rather than rejected. A preamble now follows which considers the status of the concept ‘rationality’.
Rationality is the concept used here to refer to processes which guide action; as such, it is a feature of consciousness. Logically one is forced to discuss action from the point of view of rationality, as its antonym cannot be meaningfully discussed. Underlying the use of this concept is the idea that human behaviour is ordered or patterned – if not completely so. In other words, human beings do things for reasons. This is of course different from the advocacy of naive rationalism. Rationality has been variously lauded and denounced by thinkers in the past. In recent philosophy the concept has been discussed from many different points of view, and indeed, has been defined in many different ways.
Here I wish to draw a distinction between absolute and relative rationality. By absolute rationality, I refer to that aspect of rationality which is constant and unchanging by virtue of its connection with inherited capacities. In this sense, if rationality changes at all, then it does so in correlation with the time spans of biological evolution. However, this chapter is primarily concerned with relative rationality. By this is indicated that sense of rationality which may be said to vary relative to cultural and historical realities.
In this context the variation which is at issue is that between the medieval period and the modern. The overall line taken in this chapter is that modern rationality has valuable properties over its medieval precursor. Thus the ultimate aim is to describe Blumenberg’s defence of modernity and modern reason and indicate some weaknesses therein. Thus, on the model used here rationality is subject to a degree of malleability, which is sufficient not only to justify the distinction between the medieval and the modern forms of rationality, but also that we may speak of the progress of reason.
One has to admit of some degree of relativity of rationality in order that one may refer to its development over time. The pitfall one has to be wary of is a form of relativity which denies development to reason in both its absolute and relative forms. In the discussion I do not wish to imply that humans always behave rationally or that they are super-rational. What I do wish to support is a broad, rich notion of rationality. As opposed to rationality looked at from a historical perspective within one cultural tradition, it is noticeable that what counts as rational between cultures may vary enormously. Indeed it may be noted that what is claimed to be a universal truth of reason from the point of view of the modern, western world-view, often does not turn out to be so when compared with another culture. There is a tendency in any world-view to see itself as embodying universal significance.
Having clarified the sense of rationality employed, a description is now given which aims to show why this is so important. No doubt the reader needs little reminding that humanity faces a number of grave problems which have already been referred to. In my view an inclusive, adequate concept of practical rationality is crucial in order to put forward solutions to these problems, though some may say that modern rationality is in fact the cause. In reply it may be pointed out that if this is true then the type of practical rationality we have used up to now is broadly deficient; yet, the baby must not be thrown out with the bath water. Rather, a constructive way forward might be to characterise the deficiencies, and suggest ways in which they might be corrected.


This puts us in the position of saying how things are or were and then proposing how they ought to be if certain outcomes are to be realised. What is meant by this is that if one, for example, characterises ‘ought’ in view of the inescapable dependency of life on Earth theon well-being of the biosphere, then what ought to pertain is denied its relativist implications. Surely, if practical rationality it is to be sustainable then it must generate types of actions which do not bring the well-being of the biosphere into jeopardy. The status of modern, western rationality, of the modern world-view, can be assessed not only against an environmental criterion, but also against world poverty. On these criteria, modern reason does not seem to stand up well. Nonetheless, the main aim of this chapter is to defend modern reason against its medieval precursor.
The western world-view is often portrayed as representing the ‘final word’ in what it means to be civilised. Backed up by science and technology it seems to invite universalism. No doubt western civilisation has thrown up developments of universal importance, though it is not the only culture to have done so. Here we move into the realms of arguments regarding the cross-cultural status of rationality. Critics of rationality frequently employ cultural relativism to undermine its significance. My position is to argue for the relativism of practical rationality as expressed in the modern world-view, but not for the relativism of knowledge. The discussion of Blumenberg’s work which follows shortly is an instance of ongoing debates regarding what counts as rationality and modernity. Löwith’s view is that secular modernity only appears as such, and is in fact a manifestation of a metamorphosed medieval Christianity.

Stephen K. White, in the context of a book on the recent work of Jürgen Habermas, has distinguished between contextual and strategic rationality.[2] By contextual rationality, White refers to actions which are rational by virtue of their agreement with a pre-existent social reality composed of norms. Such actions are rational in that they ‘fit’ with the agent’s context. Prima facie, this does not appear to be a strong criterion of rationality.[3]

However, it is nevertheless important, since to be rational in a particular cultural context often involves conforming to the set of customs and practices which constitute that culture. The paradox is that such conformity, important as it is, often has no ultimate justification. That is to say, one cannot give a reason why, say, British culture is characteristically British. Often the modus operandi has no known history – it simply is.
This view goes somewhat against the view that for some action to be rational, it must have some reason behind it, some ultimate justification. In the case of contextual rationality, the only criterion is whether actions conform to their cultural context. If during a concert of serious classical music, a member of the audience stands up and sings loudly, this would be contextually irrational, because this would go against the established practices one would expect of members of an audience. This may be said to be an instance of irrational behaviour, in an otherwise rational context.
Strategic rationality may be described as a guide to action in which “the means used are justified by the ends desired.” Strategic rationality often connotes things done on some criterion of efficiency, such as capital accumulation. The contrast between contextual and strategic rationality may be sharply made, when one considers that the latter involves a conscious deployment of some criterion of efficiency as a guide to agency. While criteria of efficiency may themselves be contextually determined, strategic rationality may nevertheless be seen as a mode of action which can erode or dramatically alter contextually sedimented norms. With this distinction in mind, Löwith would probably have denied that modern rationality, in both its strategic and contextual forms, exhibits anything novel over the medieval world-view.
Philosophers differ in their interpretations of the roles played by what White has termed strategic and contextual rationality. When taken together these interpretations represent the sides of a “triangle” of reflection on how modern culture is composed; and, given that it is pathological in some respects, its ætiology. These accounts take three forms, the optimistic, the pessimistic and the sceptical. An analogue of this description has been used by Alasdair MacIntyre.[4] The optimistic account may be characterised as arguing that modern rationality can criticise contextual rationality and thus have a world-view based on reason and justice, rather than tradition, custom or superstition. The late Sir Isaiah Berlin clearly describes this view:

The central doctrines of the progressive French thinkers, whatever their disagreements among themselves, rested on the belief, rooted in the ancient doctrine of natural law, that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; that local and historical variations were unimportant compared with the constant central core in terms of which human beings could be defined as a species, like animals, or plants, or minerals; that there were universal human goals; that a logically connected structure of laws and generalisations susceptible of demonstration and verification could be constructed and replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance, mental laziness, guess-work, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and, above all, the “interested error” maintained by the rulers of mankind and largely responsible for the blunders, vices and misfortunes of humanity.[5]


French Revolution

But the project of the Enlightenment of the optimists has suffered major set backs. Examples might be the demise of the French Revolution. A second, the chaos that reigned in the period 1914-1945, which involved two World Wars and economic collapse in the inter-War years, the outcome of which still shapes much in the latter twentieth-century. These historical landmarks can provide the evidential basis for the pessimists’ view. Strategic rationality may be interpreted in relation to Weber’s Zweckrationalität (instrumental rationality) which describes what Weber took to be the dominant mode of practical rationality in the West. This is related to the pessimists’ account in which the Holocaust, for instance, may be thought of as the inevitable consequence of instrumental rationality. Here a form of strategic rationality was applied to human beings, as opposed to physical resources. The sceptics regard any idea of the ‘progress of reason’ to be utterly ungrounded. This amounts to the view that human destiny is largely pre-determined, in spite of even the best efforts humankind may make. Underlying this is a determinism which denies humanity the possibility of shaping its future. On this model of optimists, pessimists and sceptics Blumenberg is to be found in the optimists’ camp, in that he advocates some degree of autonomy for modern reason over its medieval antecedent.
A feature of this chapter is the opposition between faith or tradition, and reason. While, with the increasingly secular nature of modern societies, some long for a return to an age in which religious faith was dominant, others are dissatisfied with the accomplishment of secular reason. Indeed, there is good reason to be dissatisfied with the modern project – to be dissatisfied with the accomplishment of reason. The Cold War could be added to the list of evidence to support this position. Nevertheless, the response is not to fall upon the sword of irrationalism.
The release and extension of what Hans Blumenberg calls “theoretical curiosity,” backed by the Renaissance and the theological schism that was the Reformation, is surely one of the earliest key defining features of modern rationality. The discovery of the Americas by Columbus, is one of the earliest major examples of this theoretical curiosity at work. Reason had been freed from the constraints of the medieval period – it was no longer considered impious to investigate God’s putative creation.

The modern era is marked by the importance of theoretical curiosity, especially when contrasted with the medieval era in which faith was held as paramount. Perhaps one of the great paradoxes of the modern era is the distance between what we have achieved in knowledge of nature as opposed to knowledge of ourselves. Historically, this is one of the great issues in epistemology. There have been those across the ages who have eschewed knowledge of nature, while faith appears to have been sufficient for many thinkers in the medieval era.

The release of theoretical curiosity at the beginning of the modern age also released a dialectic between reason and tradition. The tradition of the Church became increasingly challenged by an allegedly purer reason. The question arises: how independent of the past and tradition can reason be, in its operation in the present and possible futures? It is this question which is at the heart of the following discussion of Blumenberg. As Blumenberg seeks to defend the legitimacy of the modern age, so also he has to defend its autonomy from its medieval precursor. In turn, in order to defend such autonomy, Blumenberg has to show a role for the discontinuities between one period and another. As will become clear in the discussion, it is to be doubted whether Blumenberg succeeds in this.

modern world-view

At issue here for reason and the modern world-view is the question as to whether it is subject to development over time. The position taken here is something of a balancing act. The fulcrum, as it were, concerns the degree of relativity one is prepared to permit. On the one hand, if one allows of too large a degree of relativity – which would justify the epochal transition between medieval and modern eras – there is nevertheless the problem that this might be so great as to render the function of reason in the medieval world-view unintelligible; in that the epochs would be, in the late T. S. Kuhn’s terminology, incommensurable.[6] Against this there is overwhelming evidence that medieval thought is intelligible – if with difficulty.
On the other hand, if one allows of too small a degree of relativity, then it is not possible to defend the distinction between medieval and modern eras. Therefore, the position defended here is one in which the degree of relativity permitted is large enough to make the distinction between medieval and modern valid, but not so large as to render the medieval world-view unintelligible. On the view taken here, there was a historical transformation, marked by the Renaissance and Reformation, which ushered in the modern age. That early modern science was born shortly afterwards is unlikely to be a coincidence, and, it may be suggested, stands as evidence that reason had found new, unexplored territory to map.

To reiterate, the difficulty with making a claim to an epochal transition, and an attendant transition in the function of reason, is that one may leave oneself open to accusations of relativism. In answer to this problem, it would seem to be appropriate to point out that while one may point to historical changes (discontinuities), one is not logically forced, therefore, to deny continuity. Human history is surely about both change and constancy, or, discontinuity and continuity respectively. If there were no change, then historiography would be empty. Equally, if there were no continuity, then the criterion of intelligibility of previous periods could not be sustained.

It is interesting to note that a view which allows for both historical continuities and discontinuities is much easier to defend than the simpler alternatives that there is only continuity or discontinuity. In chapter 4 such phenomena were discussed. The discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta Stone allowed the recreation of links with the world of ancient Egypt. In this case an important continuity was re-established. While, in the case of standing stones, there remains a good deal of doubt regarding their historical role; and it is not clear whether it will ever be possible to make their existence fully intelligible. In this instance, there appears to be an insurmountable discontinuity.

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