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The Iron Cage of Reason

We hold reason up as the highest virtue. But is it just another form of oppression?

Mottier 2 New

The history of Western culture is the history of the rise of the authority of ‘Reason-with-a-big-R’. Since the Enlightenment, we have come to believe that modes of knowledge that are guided by rationality are intrinsically more valuable, more ‘true’ than others. This is reflected in the power of scientific discourses in modern society: today, science occupies the throne which religion occupied in earlier times, as the key source of knowledge and truth. We have gained a lot of things in this process, including the many benefits that medical discoveries using rationalist scientific methods have brought us. But it is also important to ask ourselves: what have we lost? What has been pushed out by this historical march of Reason, what are we not seeing when we assume that rational thought automatically brings ‘progress’, and what areas of our human experience have come to be devalued?

Nietzsche pictured the history of Western culture as a struggle between Apollo, the Greek god of orderly rationality and science, and Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy, poetry, love, and sex, ruled by irrational excess of feelings. Nietzsche drily observed that Apollo seemed to have won. As a result, modern life has become what the sociologist Max Weber called an ‘iron cage’: whether we want it or not, we live in a world where rational principles guide our everyday lives. We’re encouraged to be efficient in all areas of our everyday lives, ranging from continual evaluation practices of workers’ productivity to our relationship with our own bodies, which we constantly scrutinise, measure, and are expected to keep within scientifically responsible norms. The endless rounds of examinations and evaluations that we are subjected to from the cradle to the grave – and subject ourselves to (now with the aid of iphones and fitbits) – help make society as a whole more ‘productive’, but they also imprison us within complex webs of relations of power from which we can never completely break free.

My point is not to flip this cultural hierarchy between Reason and emotions around, and to claim that the latter are in reality ‘superior’ to the former. Instead, I want to ask: what are the political consequences of the assumption that Reason is superior to other modes of knowledge? What are the power effects of this hierarchy of reason and emotions? Historically, Western culture has portrayed the capacity for rational thought as a particularly male attribute, whereas women are usually depicted as ‘naturally’ more emotional creatures. There have been many variations of this type of argument. In the 19th century, evolutionary theorists claimed that women have an inferior capacity for rational thought compared to men, because their evolution has stopped at an earlier stage than that of male bodies and brains. In the 20th century, following the discovery of sex hormones, scientists have argued that these imbalances make women more emotional and therefore less rational than men. Donald Trump was merely echoing this old argument when he rebuffed criticism from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly on the grounds that she had ‘blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever’ during his election campaign.

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"The idea that reason is no more than a neutral path to truth has been a pillar of male domination over women"
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This argument that ‘male rationality’ is superior to ‘female emotionality’ has been used politically to exclude women from the right to vote or from the workplace, precisely in the same time period that women started to contest such exclusions. In the same vein, colonised populations in Africa and Asia were for a long time portrayed as less capable of rational thought than white Europeans. Western scientists classified them as more childlike, closer to nature, more sexual (more Dionysian), and driven by irrational beliefs – therefore, they were seen to be in need of ‘guidance’ and administration (like white women). Against this historical backdrop, we need to be wary of the assumption that Reason is nothing more than a neutral path to objective truth: that claim has served as a key pillar of male domination over women, and of Western imperialism over non-Western cultures.

What does this mean for politics? After all, most political projects are based on the claim that we need more Reason, not less – that we need to impose social and political order based on rationality (or at the very least on rational forms of decision-making, as thinkers like Jürgen Habermas would argue). In this value universe, ‘irrational emotions’ have no place in political debate. Even populist leaders such as Trump, who prosper through whipping up crowd emotions, adopt a rhetoric of common-sense rationality against emotive liberal ‘snowflakes’ who melt under the rising sun of Reason. How can we recognise the value of emotions politically, and build them into our political practices, without falling into the trap of assuming that ‘all’ emotions are equally ‘good’, including those that rage against the scapegoats du jour (whether migrants and refugees, or feminists and ‘left-wing liberals’)?

Feminist theory offers an alternative answer to this question. Since the 1980s, feminist theorists such as Joan Tronto and Carol Gilligan have called for introducing an ‘ethics of care’ into politics. What is meant by this is that we should strive for a more relational political ethics, where our emotional ‘solicitude’ for the pain, suffering and well-being of others is explicitly taken into account within the political decision-making process. In other words, the notion of ‘ethics of care’ makes a plea for bringing empathy towards human suffering into the political arena, with the aim of guiding us into a more peaceful world (an aim which looks at least as pressing in 2017 as it did in the 1980s). Today’s social media offer new opportunities for bringing emotions into the political domain, in ways which feminists who were writing over 25 years ago could never have anticipated: whether we’re watching cute kittens, or a toddler being handed over to rescuers from a sinking raft of refugees in the Mediterranean.

Feminist ethics of care theorists argued that women are taught to think in more emotive and more relational terms than men, and tend to scrutinise the potential impact of political decisions not just on themselves but also on their families, for example. That does not mean that men are not capable of adopting an ethics of care, however, and nor does it mean that all women are particularly likely to do so (after all, the British M.P. who recently told other members of parliament in a parliamentary debate over the fate of Syrian child refugees to ‘stop being so sentimental’ was a woman). [1] But ultimately, in order to get emotions into the political arena in a productive way, we need to mobilise these (and ourselves) as building blocks within rational debate. Because despite its shortcomings, we cannot break free from the iron cage of Reason.

Read more from this issue of IAI news here: The Limits of Reason.


[1] Pauline Latham, a Derby MP, later retracted her comments, which were initially made in a parliamentary debate on this topic on 24 February 2017.

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sven235 on 04/03/2017 12:52am

In order to make a convincing argument for the 'ethics of care' proposal you will need to use reason. You cannot escape from it.

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