Mark Stahlman (via RadioMail) on Thu, 12 Jun 1997 01:59:25 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Three Faces of "Studied Irrationality"

    Three Faces of "Studied Irrationality"

When I use the phrase "studied irrationality", I refer to a
thought-system which holds to the notion that regardless of
how hard we study the matter, human life is ultimately
without rational meaning.  This thought-system can be
approached through many of its inter-related appearances,
of which I have selected three of the more prominent, the
phylogenetic, the psychological and the philosophical (or
more specifically epistemological) -- but certainly not the
only -- faces of the same underlying phenomenon.  

Perversely ironic and thoroughly pervasive, "studied
irrationality" is the principle feature of current intellectual
life in the West (and increasingly in the ex-East).  "Studied
irrationality" is the underlying justification for hedonistic
consumption of Leviathan-eroticized propaganda and, in
turn, the despair which supports the utopian drive for eco-
illogical cyber-nation.  And, without exaggerating, from a
rational standpoint, it is abundantly clear that irrational
people bent on satisfying their desires are as easy to control
as the domesticated animals which they so closely resemble.

By phylogenetic I specifically mean all those offshoots,
grafting and seedpod which trace their post-modern roots to
various utopian/occultist circles (particularly to Martin
Heidegger in "philosophy" and more broadly to the Frankfurt
School in social science).  By psychologically, I mean all
those attempts to use apparently rational discourse to
rationalize personal desires -- usually by falsely crediting
them with "revolutionary potential."  And, by philosophically, 
I mean all those efforts to deny the creativity of human
understanding by asserting that fundamental notions arise
mysteriously in an ultimately mysterious (rationally
meaningless) universe.

Phylogenetics --

While I am mindful of false associations (pretending to further
the aims of a "great" person to absorb some of that
"greatness") and of guilt-by-association (accusing someone
of adhering to views that are, for them, merely an useful
topic of inquiry), nonetheless, sometimes a follower is just
what they say they are -- a follower.

Tracing one's intellectual parentage has become an
increasingly serious business as intellectual spheres rigidity 
in their orthodoxy and (usually phony) factional conflicts
substitute for once thoughtful scholarship.  Tribes and teams
form and lines of demarcation which become battle lines in
mis-guided cultural wars are traced across the floors of
lecture halls.  Outside of the professionally committed,
students find themselves forced to declare allegiances even
though they are largely unaware of what is at stake and, in
the process, whatever opportunity for real inquiry and
thoughtful testing of ideas is largely destroyed.

More and more, your ancestors *are* your identity in our
global/tribal milieu.  So, it is with "studied irrationality."
If your "parents" were committed to irrationality, then it is 
likely that you will be as well.

While there are many sources of "studied irrationality" in our
times, Martin Heidegger ranks among the foremost.  Clearly
"studied" in every sense of the term, Heidegger's brand of
irrationality came to the fore in the post-WW II West partly as
a reaction against the cool, often hyper-logical character of
Anglo-American Analytical philosophy and partly due to the
instrumental role of irrationality in the larger utopian project
of dismantling Western civilization for the purpose of the final
solution to social instability through the re-engineering of

Heidegger's story is now widely known.  Officially and
aggressively a Nazi, he was re-habilitated by, among others,
his one-time mistress and student Hannah Arendt in the
course of her effort to characterize totalitarianism as
commonplace and even banal.  As was widely held in the
crucial formative decade following the end of WW II, any
human could become a Fascist under the right conditions --
so we forgive Heidegger since he happened to fall into those
conditions.  In fact, as the foundational text of Social
Psychology, "The Authoritarian Personality" by T. Adorno of
the Frankfurt School and others and published in 1950,
portrays the matter, authoritarianism is the incipient
psychological condition of anyone who finds rational
meaning in life.  If you believe in intellectual "authority" 
(in the old sense of truth), you are a proto-Nazi "authoritarian" 
(in the newly devised sense) by definition.

Heidegger (falsely) characterized himself and his work as
outside the entirety of Western Philosophy.  Certainly there
was no problem with "authority" there.   As John Caputo
details in his fascinating volume, "The Mystical Element in
Heidegger's Thought" (1978), by the 1950's Heidegger was
forcefully attacking the basis of Western philosophy and, in
particular, Western metaphysics.  In his Frieburg lectures of
1955-56 ("The Principle of the Ground"), Heidegger built up to
an exhaustive critique of Leibniz's notion that "nothing is
without reason."   As Caputo puts it:

"Heidegger's critique of the Principle of Ground is for him not
merely a critique of Leibniz.  Rather, Leibniz's principle is the
touchstone of the entire Western meta-physical tradition, i.e.,
the history of philosophy and reason in the West. . . What
comes to a head in Leibniz's thought has been there from the
beginning in Western philosophy and is with us still today, viz.,
the demand that a rationale or a ground be brought forth for
whatever is held to be 'true'." (page 47)

And, what does Heidegger suggest that we substitute for
reason?  Again, according to Caputo's analysis:

"There are, according to Heidegger,  two kinds of thought,
meditative and calculative. . . Meditative thought deals with
Being itself. . . Calculative thinking, on the other hand, is
directed at beings.  It employs representations and makes
use of the laws of logic, both inductive and deductive. . . If
one is interested in philosophy one must make a decision
and find where one's heart lies.  If one is truly interested in
philosophy, in philosophy's deepest concern, then one must
be prepared to overcome philosophy and take up the task
of thought.  Or if this task seems to be so much mysticism or
mythology to the philosopher, then his only alternative is to
become rational with a vengeance and to give oneself over
to physical and social sciences." (pages 265-266) 

Yes, mysticism and meditation.  Exquisitely irrational and, oh
so much to study.

Or, as Heidegger supporter T. Adorno finally put it in his
"Jargon of Authenticity", "irrationality in the midst of the
rational is the working atmosphere of the authentic." (page

Hmmm, social sciences.  And, what might that mean?  The
Frankfurt School?

According to Michel Foucault, the Frankfurt School's program
was "rational critique of rationalism."  And, the School's own
Adorno referred to the task of philosophy as "a sort of rational
appeal hearing against rationality."  Or, as Karl Popper
(George Soros' "mentor") stated in his recapitulation of what
he regarded as his ambush by Adorno and others in the
"positivism debate" of the 1960's regarding the influence of
the School, "I would not hesitate to describe this influence by
such terms as 'irrationalist' and 'intelligence-destroying'."

Indeed, in the Frankfurt School's leading theoreticians
(Horkheimer and Adorno) first major joint work, the 1947 "The
Dialectics of Enlightenment", they present the view that myth
necessarily consumes rationality:

"Mythology itself set off the unending process of
enlightenment in which ever and again, with the inevitability
of necessity, every specific theoretic view succumbs to the
destructive criticism that it is only a belief -- until even the
very notions of spirit, of truth and, indeed, enlightenment
itself, have become animistic magic." (page 11)

Also in 1947, a group of Horkheimer's lectures (conceived in
collaboration with Adorno) were published under the title
"The Eclipse of Reason" in which two types of reason,
subjective and objective, make their appearance and what
is viewed as the inevitable triumph of the subjective over the
objective is chronicled.  In this book, Horkheimer details the
task of philosophy in these terms:

"Distorted though the great ideals of civilization -- justice,
equality, freedom -- may be, they are nature's protestations
against her plight, the only formulated testimonies we
possess.  Toward them philosophy should take a dual
attitude. (1) It should deny their claims to being regarded as
the ultimate and infinite truth.  Wherever a metaphysical
system presents these testimonies as absolute or eternal
principles, it exposes their historical relativity. . . (2) It 
should be admitted that the basic cultural ideas have truth 
values, and philosophy should measure them against the social
background from which they emanate." (page 182)

And in the central lecture, "The Revolt of Nature", Horkheimer
says that in the process in which meditation "is superseded
by pragmatic knowledge","nature has lost its awesomeness,
its 'qualitates occultae', but, completely deprived of the
chance to speak through the minds of men even in the
distorted language of those privileged groups [of speculative
thinkers], nature seems to be taking its revenge."  (page 103) 
Yes, meditate and attend too the occult but watch out for
that revenge.  Good, solid irrationalism and, oh so much to

Further examples abound in the work of Heidegger and
Horkheimer/Adorno as well as their epigoni of this
overwhelming rejection of rationality as expressed
throughout the history of Western philosophy and the favoring
of utopian/occult irrationality as the only available option. 
Resorting to such views and using them as the basis for one's
work and thoughts (often obliquely) is what I describe as the
phylogenetic face of "studied irrationalism."

Psychology --

What is at work here?  Why would these German (and later
their French counterpart) "philosophers" reject philosophy in
favor of "instinct" and "meditation"?  Was it to "fight fascism"? 
Was it simply despair over the failure of their youthful
radicalism?  No, as we have seen, some were, in fact, Nazis
and/or professional collaborators of various brutalizing
regimes themselves.   And as any competent analysis would
show, the central effect of these maneuvers has been to
increase -- not decrease -- the pervasiveness of social
control and, indeed, oppression throughout society.

So, what was it that so infuriated them about the
"bourgeoisie"?  Why did they hate city-dwellers?  Why did
they hate civilization?  What was it about progress and the
ideas which sustained Western development which so wildly,
madly compelled them to reject, refuse and criticize 2000+
years of human history?

Could it be the notions of morality which accompany this
progress?  There can be little doubt that it was one of the
major factors at work in these men's lives.

Throughout these authors work and in thousands of ways in
others who came after them, the alternative which is
counter-posed to civilization is various forms of appeals to
"instinct."  "Authenticity" and overcoming the "alienation"
imposed by civilization is a constant and rarely questioned
theme.  At the same time, morality is never present except
as an object of ridicule (having been replaced, of course, by
relativistic "situation ethics").

Indeed, "studied irrationalism" is plausibly little more than
elaborate rationalization of whatever behaviors animated the
lives of its practitioners.  By and large, it appears that we 
are dealing with people who wanted to have a good time and
then decided to make a career out of rationalizing the
license they craved to that end.  This should be a familiar
phenomenon by now.

Yes, I know how dangerous it is to attribute motives to
anyone with whom you have no acquaintance.  I don't know
these people.  It is always possible that other motives are
involved.  However, human psychology being what it is and
the details such as they are known about the private lives of
many of the contributors to the broad sweep of "studied
irrationality" and the incessant claims about "liberation" from
repressive restrictions put forward by the popular movements
which base themselves on these authors, I have my

Take for example the fascinating study of the use of the
psychedelic drug mescaline by the Frankfurt School's Walter
Benjamin, among others.  Maybe this is just another
academic exercise, but I doubt it.  Lately we have once
again been treated to the theme that consumption of such
drugs is potentially rebellious.  Perhaps even revolutionary. 
Furthermore, any effort to discourage taking such drugs is not
only repressive but actually brutally totalitarian -- by once
again (incorrectly) drawing connections to events in Nazi
Germany.  Why, by this formidable illogic dropping acid must
be another example of "fighting fascism", it would appear. 

Since virtually every 6th grader in the U.S. knows where to
find LSD and pot if they want it and "rebellion" is hardly the
reality of their lives (unless delivering your baby at the high-
school prom and then throwing it in the trashbin qualifies as
"rebellion" or even "revenge"), the widespread availability
and use of psychedelic and other drugs (including the
electronic versions) is demonstrably pointing society in
another direction than "revolution."  Narcosis would be a
better term.  And in a period when keeping busy (or stoned)
is increasingly replacing productive work -- unlike the Nazi
era when squeezing out every drop of blood was a wartime
imperative -- drug advocacy itself becomes the modern
oppressive option.

So, why would someone spend their time studying the details
of one of their dead heroes drug "experiments"?  Perhaps
they wish to take drugs themselves.  Perhaps what is at work
here is simply rationalization masquerading as "criticism."

It can be argued with great plausibility that many of the
foundational precepts of both modernity and, yes, post-
modernity, are largely based on the desire to be able to do
whatever you want with and to whomever you want without
any social restraint.  This so-called "liberation" is more-and-
more evidently a total fraud as millions of participants in one
or another "liberationist" movements over the past few
decades can readily testify (unless, of course, your goal is
social control).  For a more detailed treatment of "essential
affinity between the utopian impulse and the perverse
impulse" as well as the way in which this perverse-utopian
impulse is exhibited in "forms of Freudo-Marxism, post-
modernism, and psychoanalytic feminism that advocate its
direct and full expression in the name of emaciation", the
reader might wish to review Joel Whitebrook's thoughtful
"Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and
Critical Theory." (1995)

It is no coincidence that Adorno was intensely engaged in
studying the Marquis de Sade as he prepared to write "The
Dialectics of Enlightenment."  Just as it is no coincidence 
that libertarians throughout the ages have cited vice-master
Bernard de Mandeville as their own phylogenetic root.  Once
again we have the two sides of the same coin.  Based on the
two most "honest" Enlightenment "liberation" writers, the
apparent left (Adorno et al) and the apparent right (Hayek et
al) dissolve into each others arms as bedmates swapping
irrationalist doggerel and bodily fluids.

Philosophy --

Smash philosophy.  Go native.  How romantic.  Does such an
irrational program deserve to be dignified by a rational
critique?  Perhaps not, but as easy as it may be to see the
face of "studied irrationalism" in these current and
degenerate forms, there is a far more intellectually
substantial and far-wider reaching underpinning to this now
epidemic thought-disease.  Why does it appear to these
characters that rationality must of necessity fail?  What are
they missing?

The most straightforward means to describe their problem in
philosophical terms is to return to the beginning.  The
problem of how one ultimately knows anything at all and,
crucially, how one employs that knowledge creatively in our
lives is hardly a novel 20th century concern.  It is obviously
quite ancient.

Perhaps the most profoundly condensed effort to address this
basic issue is contained at the end of Book VI of Plato's
"Republic."  It is known as the Simile of the Divided Line.  
In his exposition, Plato suggests (in dialogue form between
Socrates and Glaucon) that we divide knowledge into the
visible and the intellectual (or intelligible) and that we
consider this division to be like a line divided into two
unequal sections which we then divide again in the same
proportions yielding four parts overall.  He continues by
asking us to think of the divisions of the visible as the 
images of reality and the "originals of these images."  
Likewise, we are to think of the divisions of the intelligible 
as the hypothetical and, ultimately, the final division as an
understanding of what Plato calls the "unhypothetical first
principle of everything" or, in another translation, "the first
principle of the whole."  

Translated in various ways, the four divisions referred to in the
Simile are, in Greek, "eikasia" (Imagination), "pistis" (Belief or
Opinion), "dianoia" (Thought or Logic) and "noesis"
(Understanding or Intellect).  

It is the apparent inability to grasp the integral character of
these four elements and, in fact, the apparent need to insist
on a sharp division between thought and understanding
which lies at the heart of the "irrationalists" problem -- also 
an ancient problem.  For, as described regarding Heidegger
above, the division between "calculative" and "meditative"
thought lies precisely at this boundary.  And, as Horkheimer
and Adorno states, ". . . every specific theoretic view
succumbs to the destructive criticism that it is only a belief",
which is clearly correct if there is no ability to proceed
beyond mere hypothesis and logical operations on
hypotheses to an understanding of first principles.

As I noted, this problem is hardly a new one.  Aristotle, Plato's
student, failed to make the leap to understanding, either. 
The school generally known as the Neo-Platonists mystified
this ability and, through a syncretism that is more Aristotle
than Plato, frequently fulfilled the injunction of Horkheimer
and Adorno and descending sharply into "animisitic magic." 
Throughout the earlier years of Christianity, Plato was clearly
considered to be forcefully helpful in the association of God
with the "unhypothetical first principle of everything." 
Augustine, the principle theologian of the early institutional
church, is often considered to be one of the last true
Platonists -- despite the fact that he did not read Greek and
depended on many undependable translations and
commentaries from the often unreliable Neo-Platonists.

However, following the collapse of the Roman Empire,
virtually all of this Greek philosophical material was lost to
the West.  First Aristotle's work re-appeared, informing
Thomas Aquinas, and then in the 1400's Plato's dialogues
were recovered and translated in Florence stimulating what
we now refer to as the Florentine Renaissance.  

Throughout this and later periods, the same question of
whether it was possible to rationally comprehend "first
principles" was often a life and death issue.  In Christian
terms, the adequacy of revelation and even the desirability
of attempting to rationally grasp God formed the basis of
significant historical strife.  For Platonists such as Cusa, 
Ficino, Erasmus and ultimately Leibniz, the Simile of the 
Divided Line and the cohesion of "understanding" with the three 
remaining aspects of knowledge was central to their work.  All too
often, for their opponents, it was not.  Ultimately, the question
of harmonizing faith with reason -- the Platonic and rational
position -- was made moot by the crushing triumph of the
Enlightenment over Renaissance humanism.  In due course,
rational proof of the existence of God and, indeed, the need
for God itself was completely dispensed with.

So, the position taken by those like Heidegger, Horkheimer
and Adorno (our modern "irrationalist" rootstock) is therefore
neither new nor unexpected.  If one abandons the rational
effort to unite faith with reason, then you are inevitably drawn
into the position of a de Sade and his modern epigoni (or in
more ancient terms, the Aristotelian position).  Likewise, the
social problems which arise from this violent disconnect
between thought and understanding have powerful ancient
expression in Plato.

For what follows just after the Simile of The Divided Line is 
the Allegory of the Cave (in the opening of Book VII of the
"Republic").  In the Allegory, prisoners are imagined to be
chained so tightly beneath the surface that can only see
shadows of puppets throw on the wall.  These shadows are,
of course, the images which Plato referred to in the Simile. 
The prisoners, naturally, believe that these shadows (images)
are the entirety of the truth.  This phenomenon is increasingly
identical to the effects of advertising in our day.  Plato then
proceeds to first unchain, turn towards the fire and then to
drag some prisoners out  of the cave to the surface.  This
process is described as moving from the visible realm in the
cave to the intelligible (intellectual) realm outside.  What
ensues is a discussion of the remarkable degree which the
prisoners will resist this movement, their doubting of those
who return from the surface and of the true meaning of
education in the Republic.  Not at all unlike the problems we
all face daily.

The Allegory ends with the following passage (from the
Jowett translation):

"But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of
knowledge the idea of the good appears last of all, and is
seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to
be the universal author of all things beautiful and right,
parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, 
and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual;
and that this is the power upon which he who act rationally
either in public or private life must have his eye fixed."

Heidegger, Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin and the thousands
like them have failed to see the "good" and therefore can
only comprehend the life of the prisoners in the cave. 
"Studied irrationalism" is ultimately just the froth on this 
failure.  And, its practice can only deepen the isolation of 
those prisoners and forge stronger chains to bind them to the
images on their computer screens.  Far from "liberating", the
phenomenon of "studied irrationalism" is, in our times, the
essence and instrument of continued human oppression.
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