Perverse Rationality

Roots of Western Rationalism

Here is a passage from Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch:

“It was Socrates’s questioning of the half-century-old Athenian democracy which was a major cause of his trial and execution; his trial is the central event around which Plato’s dialogues are focused, making it as much a trial of Athenian society and thought as it was of Socrates. The grotesque absurdity of killing a man who was arguably Athens’s greatest citizen on charges of blasphemy and immorality impelled Plato to see a discussion of politics as one facet of discussions of justice, the nature of morality and divine purpose — in fact to see the two discussions as interchangeable. Western religion and philosophy have remained in the shadow of those exchanges: Western culture has borrowed the insistence of Socrates that priority should be given over received wisdom to logical argument and rational procession of thought, and the Western version of the Christian tradition is especially prone to this Socratic principle.”

In MacCulloch’s television series on the history of Christianity (with the same title as the book, and closely following the book in places) MacCulloch makes the same point, but in the context of contrasting Christian denominations of the east, for example, the mysticism of the Syriac Orthodox Church, where the theologians of which were artists and poets, with the rationalism of the Latin church, the theologians of which were often philosophers.

The perverse rationalism of western civilization, and of the churches that have dominated western history, was the primary reason that the scientific revolution and technological civilization grew out of western civilization. Not only did science and technology grow out of western civilization, they are often strangers viewed with suspicion by other civilizations.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Japan was not among the non-western civilizations that viewed science and technology with suspicion. The Japanese eagerly took up the challenge, and today Japanese scientists are among the most sophisticated in the world and their contributions stand in the first rank. The Japanese participate in science as though it were native to their culture. Indeed, in a counter-factual history in which western civilization either did not exist or failed early on, Japan might have had a scientific revolution and gone on to develop a technological civilization.

Today, in the early 21st century, China has taken up science and technology with alacrity, building some of the largest scientific instruments in the world (I am thinking of the FAST radio-telescope). It is difficult to tell if the embrace of science and technology by China (and, to a lesser extent, by India) is a top-down ploy for political and military power, or a bottom-up recognition that a civilization must embrace scientific and technological modernity or find itself out-competed by those that do. Perhaps only time will tell.

Any civilization that embraces science and technology to the extent that we find in Japan or China must also embrace at least some of the western philosophical presuppositions of science. I would not argue that these presuppositions cannot be naturalized within another civilization, but I would at the same time insist that these philosophical presuppositions are uniquely western and are part of that same perversely western rationalism that made western Christianity a rationalistic rather than a mystical faith.

In universalizing science and technology in contemporary planetary civilization, western philosophical presuppositions are also universalized. This is a subtle process, and easy to deny (or, I could just as well say, non-western civilizations can easily maintain plausible deniability vis-à-vis these presuppositions even as they adopt them). I doubt many historians would follow me in this, because it suggests some profoundly uncomfortable and even disturbing questions.

The Japanese and Chinese embrace of science and technology did not transform these civilizations into western civilization, nor make them offshoots of western civilization. If western civilization were to fail, and humanity’s only fully scientific and technological civilizations were to be found in Japan and China, would these civilizations be able to carry on the vision of science and technology to be found in the western imagination in its modern aspirations? Would science and technology, cut off from the root that brought them to maturity, be able to continue to develop? And if they did continue to develop, would they develop in distinctively Japanese or Chinese ways?

These are questions that we are not supposed to ask today, because it suggests that dark era of western civilization when terms like “Aryan science” and “Jewish science” were used, and we want to believe that we can leave this in the past and embrace science as a purely universalist undertaking. But is it? Is there such a thing as “Chinese science”? If not, could there be such a thing as “Chinese science”?

Now, we could maintain that science itself, in splendid isolation, is a purely universalist undertaking, while the use that a society makes of science is going to be influenced by historical and cultural traditions. This distinction would allow us to maintain the universality of science alongside the different expressions of science in different civilizations. In science itself, as in the early Christian church, there is to be, “…neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” And in so making this observation in this context, we see that universalism, too, is a western and Christian idea.

The Chinese have, since their economic reforms, used the slogan, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” to avoid a painful political reckoning occasioned by the fact that they are a one-party state run by communists, but with an economy that has little or nothing to do with socialism or communism. Are the Chinese also practicing science with Chinese characteristics? Well, not in the sense that they are practicing socialism with Chinese characteristics.

If science is practiced by an élite isolated from the bulk of society, then it could potentially exist in any society, because élites are always perceived as different by the bulk of a society. Science could be practiced like this in China, in much the same way that Confucianism was practiced by a distinct scholarly class for thousands of years in China. But élite science would not be science as we know it today, despite whatever charges of ivory tower élitism are brought against science.

Great cultural movements like the British agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution were the result of ordinary individuals applying scientific knowledge to the ordinary business of life. The model of élite science is closer to the way that science was practiced in western civilization prior to the scientific revolution — individuals or small groups of scholars working on their ideas virtually isolated from the ordinary business of life.

So in the counterfactual above, in which I speculated about the future of science if western civilization collapses, I can imagine an elite science being carried on by other civilizations, and this elite science would still have more impact on the ordinary lives of people than scholarship prior to the scientific revolution, but not at the level that we have observed over the past two hundred years. This would be a kind of quasi-scientific civilization, not what we know today, but also not what we knew before the scientific revolution.

Originally published at

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