Against Rationalism, Idealism, and Abstraction

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Enlightenment Garden

Part II in an ongoing series, Localism and the Universal ChurchRead Part I here.

Where the traditionalist position I have sketched appears weakest is precisely where it speaks most explicitly in response to the cavaliers of unattached gallivanting.  The traditionalist wishes to defend the reverence and deference due to inherited folk ways in spite of their appearances of irrationality, and often does so by taking a stand in defense of the irrational per se.  Such is political romanticism.  And the traditionalist presumes, understandably, that securing allegiance to a tradition will in turn keep in place the essential elements of a localized and intergenerational community.  If one toes the line of spiritual tradition, the body of natural community will be sustained.  If one demands fidelity and solidarity to one’s own as the highest if inexplicable good, one can secure the perseverance of an entire way of life.  Modernity is consequently decried as rationalist, idealist, and abstracting—claims I take to be true, but perhaps not for the reasons the traditionalist critique would recognize.

Surely, modernity is beholden to this triad of fetishes.  I would argue that insofar as modernity is “rationalistic,” it has ceased to believe in reason; insofar as it is idealist, it neglects not simply the body but the idea of reality; and insofar as it tends toward abstraction, it has failed rather than succeeded in being adequately critical of the concrete conditions of human knowledge.

The dream of rationalism is to find methods, measures, and conceptions of what counts as real knowledge that are so simple as to be irrefutable—they must be distinct, clear, and certain, in Descartes’s famous terms.  If something cannot be known by everyone, it is not knowledge; only that which can be controlled and summoned on demand for everyone’s empirical inspection can be so known.  Since the phenomena of historical experience do not lend themselves to this sort of universal inspection, only those empirical realities that can be disseminated in quantitative terms can fit within this criterion.  It is not difficult to find elements of creation that meet it, of course, but the vast bulk of individual and communal experience does not.

While most rationalist persons will hedge or confide that there is more to life than we can know on this standard, all such surplus is deemed to be pre-rational, irrational, or emotional units not subject to public reason or worthy of escaping the “private realm,” whatever that happens to be.  This hedge swiftly robs everything that cannot be quantified of rational weight and moral force; as Iredell Jenkins marvelously argued decades ago in “The Postulate of an Impoverished Reality,” a rationalistic society is one that resigns itself to reality’s being substantially less than human experience makes it appear.  Jenkins continues that this leads human beings eventually to conform to the “Principle of Experiential Fraudulence,” wherein human beings come to doubt or disregard anything in experience that cannot readily be demonstrated by quantified experiment.  We disregard ourselves whenever we cannot test a hypothesis, or whenever some aspect of ourselves does not fit into an experimental data set.

Rationalism thus appears quite irrational, for it either assumes that the vast majority of reality is unintelligible and of no concern to us, or that reality is very small and its appearance of vastness may be explained away according to a few simple principles (our most popular such rationalizations are those of positivist materialism, historical materialism, or the will to power).  A true belief in reason affirms much more: the general intelligibility of things; the capacity of human reason to participate in, even though it may surely not exhaust, that intelligibility; and the grounding of the intelligibility of things in an intellect causally prior to them.

So impressed do moderns become by the powers of quantity that they tend toward a kind of idealism that has often been denounced—here and elsewhere—as a species of “gnosticism.”  In brief, modern idealists tend to dismiss the importance of matter, of bodies, and other determinate features of reality, because the intelligibility and control fostered by numerical analysis is so powerful as to render the material a mere patient of its will.  We thus tend to think of that as most real which most readily is submitted to our domination.

Anything that limits our control comes to appear as a kind of injustice, an imposition of nature upon the rightly free human spirit.  Since idealism results from rationalism, as idealists, we at once think that what little of reality can be known with certainty gives us immense power and what lies beyond our knowledge—what, in effect, lies beyond our domination—is, not so much evil as, “wrong” (for most modern persons are sufficiently alienated from nature as to have no concept of natural evil).  We then shun all the “wrong” that haunts our reality and deem it rightly subject to our will.  Just as the ancient Manichees thought the body evil and inconsequential, and so left all but their saints to do with the body whatever they pleased, so our modern gnostics seek to render the body superfluous precisely in order to make it available for use by the free spirit.  Thus, the modern idealist simultaneously advocates the abuse of the body for the purposes of a free sexuality and denounces the consequences of such activities for the body—such as the fostering of new life or the spread of incurable or terminal diseases (to wit, life and death)—as a merely technological problem, worthy of solution only to the extent it does not impinge upon the “spirit’s” freedom.  For this reason, the modern age has long been lamented as a city of angels completely given over the pleasures of the senses.

The linkage between modern rationalism and idealism is, of course, the modern belief in abstraction—the tendency traditionalists most lament.  “Let us go in fear of abstractions,” traditionalists say with Ezra Pound, and attend only to the concrete thing: this community here and now with all of its contingent elements is reality; abstraction is deformation.  As Wordsworth said, so they say, “We murder to dissect.”  Sometimes we really do murder to dissect, but I think this clever figure is guilty of some distortion in its own right.  If modern life has become irrational precisely to the extent that it has become rationalistic, and if the proper response to such irrationalism is a more satisfactory conception of reason, then, I suggest, what we must lament above all is not the use of abstract reasoning but the widespread misunderstanding about what abstraction really is.

Those who have read Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man, or who at least have read critical glosses on it, will recall that this great Enlightenment verse letter is deeply informed by an epic of an earlier age, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Where Milton deployed myth and character, the concrete stuff of story, to justify God’s ways to man, Pope would slough off such “incidental details” and reduce the long history of man’s struggle to know himself and his God to the terms of elegant aphorisms, abstractions that live lightly along the lines, unencumbered by this or that historical glut of particulars.  Whatever were the most universal ethical maxims concealed within the Christian deposit of revelation, Pope would reformulate for an age no longer inclined to believe what are called the super-analogies of faith and the economic parables of divine condescension.

However Christian Pope’s poem obviously remains (and I think it is unmistakably a great Christian poem), it expresses not simply a Western but a distinctly modern discomfort with the historical and the concrete.  Hence, what we may now call the Unitarian-Universalist impulse that has gripped almost all modern persons, including most Christians.  The ecumenist looks anxiously for those fundamental ethical affirmations to which all persons may subscribe, regardless of their contingent “faith tradition.”  The secularist, too, looks for abstract universal principles that may bind everyone.  If he is more constrained than the modern Christian, it is only because he usually stops searching for such principles as soon as he has subjectively secured for himself a sense of entitlement to his own individual “rights,” or the basis to demand the state do something in his perceived interest.

The modern belief in abstraction is thus one that opposes itself to the concrete and assumes that anything that does not survive the process of sifting details to establish universal abstract principles must be false.  The early theorists of natural religion, such as Pope, may thus have inclined to believe that only historical revelation must be sifted to discover the universal grain of wheat.  “We cannot believe that Jesus was born to a Chosen People in a backward part of the Roman Empire; that He suffered, died, and was buried; that on the third day He rose from the Dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father . . . but we can believe in the golden rule that Christ mentioned now and again, and, better still, we can give ourselves untrammeled to the universal love such things rather awkwardly if ever so movingly express.”  But the thoroughly modern person has come to find all modes of the particular suspect: the love of country is “philosophically indefensible,” writes Martha Nussbaum; the differences between men and women are rooted in contingent, bodily shapes and not in anything that transcends the flesh, such as its essence or form; communal loyalty and shared traditions are suspect precisely because they are actually shared by actual people rather than being the sort of abstract universalizable propositions that may be implicitly—though not actually—shared by everyone.

As one would expect, the modern person does not merely undervalue the concrete; he positively opposes it as an obstruction to his knowledge of the universal.  One must transcend one’s citizenship to become a “citizen” of the world.  One must get over one’s body and knowledge to recognize the equality-in-identity of all persons.  One must cut through the brush of one’s traditions to reach the promised land of universal, abstract moral maxims readily intelligible to and indubitably binding on everyone.

I perhaps have not painted the modern love of abstraction as vividly as I should have; for I cannot imagine anyone seeing himself personally indicted by this sketch, and yet it is meant to give an image of just what most modern persons actually believe.  Many of my students, for instance, cannot imagine that one’s political community could have serious claims on one’s conscience.  When they read Dante, they cannot understand why he put traitors to country deeper (ever so slightly) into Hell than he did traitors of kin.  After all, a country is just where one “happens” to be born.  Unconscious Lockeans, I am not sure they would judge betrayal to kin very harshly, either, if it were a question between individual satisfaction or familial loyalty.  The modern family, as Tocqueville observed, is a place one goes for emotional comfort but is too weak to serve as a foundation for true moral obligations.  So it is with most moderns.  We may elect as consumer or individual choices our concrete affections so long as they are so inconsequential as not to require a “philosophical defense” before the stuffed throne of Martha Nussbaum.

If men were born disembodied immortal spirits completely immune to the imprint of history, matter, or even the actual individuation those things make evident, then perhaps the abstract universal propositions the modern world claims to find alone compelling might be slightly less inadequate than they are.  But modernity not only misjudges man when it tries to make of him a rather sensual angel, it misjudges its own means of judgment: to wit, it does not understand the nature of abstract reasoning.

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