George Walford: Is Rationalism Rational?

The reformist and revolutionary movements have a strong tendency to think of themselves as rationalistic, and rationalism works on the belief that if only people will divest themselves of prejudice, attend to the evidence and think clearly, they will arrive at the correct solutions to social problems; it implies that for each problem there can be only one rational solution.

Yet somehow it doesn’t work out like that. One variety of rationalist quarrels with another; humanists do not agree with communists nor socialists with secularists. What is even worse, the best-intentioned rationalist-reformist-revolutionary efforts never quite produce the intended effects. The efforts of SHELTER to provide tenants with legal security resulted in the virtual disappearance of rented accommodation. The journalist who writes an article protesting against the disappearance of the forests finds that thousands of trees have to be cut down to print his work. The outcome of the October Revolution has been a society approximating ever more closely to the model of Western capitalism.

There seems to be a self-contradiction built in to the rationalist position, and one way of bringing it to light is to ask what is the reason for being rational. If the answer is a rational one then the same question recurs; every rational answer can be – and by the fully consistent rationalist has to be – met with ‘Why?’ An endless regression arises, and the only way out of it is to give a non-rational answer, to say that the reason for being rational is to achieve some object established by non-rational processes, such as the satisfaction of wants deriving from biological needs – or, come to that, the greater glory of God. Being non-rational these are not susceptible to ‘Why?’

But to accept this is to deprive the rationalists of their proud superiority, reducing their movement to something like a specialised organ of the non-rationalist majority, a tool to help them achieve their ends. Rationalism, like patriotism, is not enough.

from Ideological Commentary 12, August 1984.