Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reason, Progress, and the Frankfurt School

Is reason progressive? Is the use of reason to understand the world ultimately beneficial? Does it promote peace and happiness? The conviction of early modernists from Descartes to Kant was that it was, that Europeans in the Middle Ages had neglected their potential for cultural and technological advances, because their social structures were oppressive and fatalistic rather than open to new ideas. Let each individual observe and think without having to defer to an authority, and reason would enable us to discover the real, liberating truth. While religious faith makes a society complacent, reason is supposed to be progressive because it empowers us to predict and to control natural processes and because rational autonomy provides the basis for human rights and thus for a more egalitarian society in which the masses don’t have to languish to pay for the luxuries of a few theocrats.

Nietzsche famously challenged these Enlightenment assumptions, charging that so-called rationality is only a cover for power struggles. But in the 1940s, the Frankfurt School of social critics went in a different direction, extending the Marxist criticisms of capitalism to formulate a comprehensive critique of Western society that included a broadside against the Enlightenment covenant that reason is progressive. In 1944, Horkheimer and Adorno published The Dialectic of Enlightenment (DE), which argued, “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” This calamity of 20th century totalitarianism is due to the surprising fact that “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” Instead of progress from an ancient or medieval state of ignorance and superstition to one of liberty and wisdom, so-called modernity is structurally continuous with the past, according to those social critics. Only the styles of delusion and domination have changed.

Adorno and Horkheimer on the Enlightenment

The essence of their criticism of the Enlightenment is Hegelian and it’s that Enlightenment thinkers mistook the ease of applying certain methods, such as the abstractions of formal logic and mathematics, for the discovery of absolute truth, and that by doing so those thinkers mislead us into presuming that knowledge isn’t always humanized, that is, situated in a historical, social or psychological context. The reason secular rationality took this turn was to fulfill “Reason’s old ambition to be purely an instrument of purposes…The exclusivity of logical laws stems from this obdurate adherence to function and ultimately from the compulsive character of self-preservation” (23). In short, the promise of instrumental reason is that calculation, quantification, and abstract categorization are means of efficiently achieving our goals, especially our primary goal of surviving by dominating anything that opposes us, including the whole of the natural environment as well as other people. Horkheimer would go on in Eclipse of Reason to distinguish between subjective and objective reason: the former interprets everything as means to a presupposed end, and so projects onto the world our preoccupation with utility. This pragmatic kind of reasoning is anthropocentric and thus subjective, and the way this occurs in science is through formalization, through the use of mathematical equations and abstract categories which render the world calculable. This conceptual machinery is a tool for picking out the useful aspects of things, namely their causal relations which can be predicted and exploited. By contrast, objective reason deals with ends rather than means, by understanding how things fit into a much larger whole that isn’t necessarily defined by its relation to the ego’s urge to survive.

But in DE, the pair contrasts the Enlightenment’s instrumental reason with quasi-Hegelian “dialectic” and “determinate negation.” Their point is that reason needn’t be mistaken for an absolute source of knowledge, but can be employed more humbly if we attend to how our models “negate” what they’re about by inevitably leaving much out of the referent. In that case, our models can’t so easily be used to delude or to oppress us. As DE says, “dialectic discloses each image as script. [Dialectic] teaches us to read from [the image’s] features the admission of falseness which cancels [the image’s] power and hands [the image] over to truth” (18, my clarifications between the square brackets). This criticism of secular reason is foreshadowed by Kant, since “Philosophical judgment, according to Kant, aims at the new yet recognizes nothing new, since [that judgment] always merely repeats what reason has placed into objects beforehand” (19-20). Kant’s point, too, was that reason allows us to understand only phenomena as they’re conditioned by our categories and cognitive processes, never things in themselves which are inevitably left out of the human attempt to fathom them. (Weird fiction under H.P. Lovecraft would later present the existential significance of this cognitive humility, which is that the self-aware, non-deluded knower typically suffers from bouts of horror or angst.) But Kant pretended that things in themselves are irrelevant and he celebrated our sovereignty over the humanized world of experience that we construct in our attempt to understand things. Kant’s philosophy was thus another step towards secular totalitarianism.

Here, then, is a key passage from DE which explains how secular reason reverts to myth:
The equation of mind and world is finally resolved [in the Enlightenment], but only in the sense that both sides cancel out. The reduction of thought to a mathematical apparatus condemns the world to be its own measure. What appears as the triumph of subjectivity, the subjection of all existing things to logical formalism, is bought with the obedient subordination of reason to what is immediately at hand. To grasp existing things as such, not merely to note their abstract spatial-temporal relationships, by which they can then be seized, but, on the contrary, to think of them as surface, as mediated conceptual moments which are only fulfilled by revealing their social, historical, and human meaning—this whole aspiration of knowledge is abandoned. Knowledge does not consist in mere perception, classification, and calculation but precisely in the determining negation of whatever is directly at hand. Instead of such negation, mathematical formalism, whose medium, number, is the most abstract form of the immediate, arrests thought at mere immediacy. The actual is validated, knowledge confines itself to repeating it, thought makes itself mere tautology. The more completely the machinery of thought subjugates existence, the more blindly it is satisfied with reproducing it. Enlightenment thereby regresses to the mythology it has never been able to escape. For mythology had reflected in its forms the essence of the existing order—cyclical motion, fate, domination of the world as truth—and had renounced hope. In the terseness of the mythical image, as in the clarity of the scientific formula, the eternity of the actual is confirmed and mere existence is pronounced as the meaning it obstructs. The world as a gigantic analytical judgment, the only surviving dream of science, is of the same kind as the cosmic myth which linked the alternation of spring and autumn to the abduction of Persephone. (20, my emphasis)
The paradigm of this rampant but superficial and misleading kind of secular reason is quantum mechanics, since that theory includes only the calculative machinery of equations and other operable terms, which generate highly precise predictions and zero understanding of quantum phenomena. No one knows what quantum mechanics is talking about, but physicists nevertheless dominate the quantum world with their mathematical weaponry. Positivist and radical empiricist philosophers picked up on how physics was fulfilling the Baconian mission, and so Hume, Comte, Mach, Ayer and the rest banished metaphysics, ethics, theology, and art to a noncognitive domain. Knowledge requires truth, truth is found only in facts, and facts are what rigorous application of reason “discovers.” Adorno and Horkheimer’s point is that there’s never any such raw discovery, but only an assimilation of the world to certain animal purposes that have been stripped of their mythical justifications so that the resulting human empowerment is allowed to speak for itself. A natural fact is a pragmatic way of ignoring human context, including meaning and value, and of repeating natural patterns in conceptual forms. Secular thought becomes a “tautology,” then, in that under the rhetorical cover of objectivity or neutrality, formal methods of inquiry lay bare the useful aspects of nature, reducing things to abstract types which can be fed into the mathematical machinery and calculated in an anthropocentric project of survival by domination.

On the contrary, conventional wisdom has it that the Enlightenment did away with myth-laden anthropocentrism, by eliminating public, authoritative talk of gods and of other such occult notions. Scientists are supposed to be paragons of neutrality since they dispassionately put their (possibly biased) hypotheses to the test. However, this neutrality means only that scientists aren’t typically self-serving (unless they’re the exceptions who violate scientific standards and falsify evidence or steal others’ work). Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers aren’t functionally self-serving; instead, they serve the species. They are therefore still anthropocentric, whereas the theists of the Age of Myth were both anthropocentric and self-serving, since religions ensured both societal unity and individual sanity and dignity in the absence of much technological control over natural circumstances, since that lack of control would otherwise have been horrific and debilitating. Religions were themselves mechanisms for safeguarding the species, by binding groups together and insulating them in a shared sense of the sacred; moreover, religions comforted each individual by allowing her to interpret events favourably, no matter the required stretch of imagination. The utility of theological concepts lay in their flexibility and poetic aura, since the theist need never have been mentally overwhelmed by circumstances and could look forward to being dazzled by the magic of myths and rituals, which reassured her that reality isn’t as indifferent and inhuman as it often seems.

As I understand Adorno and Horkheimer, they’re saying that modern secularists set aside their interest in personal gain but take up the imperative of furthering the good of our species, in so far as they serve in their social roles as scientists, mathematicians, or engineers (but also as doctors, lawyers, politicians, soldiers, or any other profession that applies these cognitive methods to dominate either nature or other people). When we abstract from the human context, subsume something under an abstract concept, and then reify the concept by assuming that the real world includes the essence of that concept as a natural type, we think somewhat in terms of a tautology: natural forms are repeated in human abstractions, causal relations in symbols bound by logical or mathematical rules. We even speculate that fundamental reality is itself mathematical or informational, that the apparent universe is a simulation in a divine computer. This “structural realism” or simulation theory would serve as a modern myth to celebrate the rational methods that could only ever see the calculable aspect of reality in any case—much as the proverbial man with a hammer sees everywhere a nail.

Enlightenment reverts to myth, in that both are fatalistic and oppressive. Myths posit eternal, supernatural realms to which we must submit, and scientists do likewise except that they divest those realms of their anthropomorphic qualities. Instead of gods and other spirits, there are useful causal patterns among quantifiable types. The gods, who were once identified with particular trees, animals, or statues, were rendered more abstract and pushed into the stars and planets, and then in the Age of Reason they were expelled further into outer or inner space, into the natural essence or platonic Form of each type which conforms to predictions made by a formal theory. Instead of personal spirits with whom we can negotiate, there’s nature’s “actuality” or “immediacy,” the data in what we observe which are then rationally tested and dissected to find the hidden order; instead of praying to gods, we overpower nature with technology. The spirits were fickle and unreliable since of course they never existed, but physical regularities are likewise at best incomplete in a depiction of reality, if only because a vision of where everything fits into the whole universe would blast apart even the secular anthropocentric conceit rather than fitting into any abstract scheme. Horkheimer’s “objective reason” would stand for an attempt to simplify that comprehensive vision with a worldview that isn’t preoccupied with utility or domination.

The positivist Auguste Comte inadvertently shows how, despite his alleged stages of historical development, from the theological to the metaphysical to the “positive” ages, the necessity of the natural order only stands in for the supernatural order of divine decree. The positive stage of scientific knowledge occurs when exact knowledge is made possible by the realization that the universe is a natural system fixed by impersonal laws which can be decoded. The “positive” aspect of science, then, is akin to the monotheist’s tranquility she feels as a child of God: in the Age of Reason we’re obliged to surrender to the natural order, since science reveals more and more of it, leaving us with no god of the gaps or other mystery in which to hide or to pretend we’re free to escape our natural fate. We can change our circumstances with technology, but the technology works only because it flows from natural processes. And so what’s supposed to be “positive” about reason is that finally we know that to which we must surrender, which brings us peace.

The Atrocities of Hyperrationality

The Frankfurt School social critics sometimes hide behind jargon and obscurity, but while I’d express some of their convictions differently, their main points against instrumental reason and its social effects, as I understand them, are valid as well as timely. DE means to turn science’s unparalleled utility from an asset into a liability. The fact that science has so many technological applications would seem to confirm scientific theories; indeed, it would be foolish to suggest that science’s continuity with myth entails that scientific theories are false or empty. Still, science’s versatility is evidence also of science’s underlying purpose and anthropocentric bias. The question this raises, then, is whether religious myths or even pseudoscientific scams such as feel-good New Age fantasies compare unfavourably to science by being false or empty. Is it possible for any grammatical statement that arises not randomly or arbitrarily but from some social enterprise to be entirely worthless?

To be sure, theistic myths and pseudoscientific scams are literally false as they stand, but to read them literally is to misread them. All socially important statements bear informational content; if they don’t indicate how physical processes work, they may instead teach us about ourselves. Moreover, scientific statements undeniably have rigorous applications, but myths and pseudosciences likewise have such systematic effects and thus they have some utility. As I said, religions perform societal functions, and pseudoscientific hokum (such as Scientology) is instrumental in enriching scoundrels at the expense of gullible folks or in serving as a half-way house between obsolete traditional religions and nihilistic modernity. So even though scientific statements are literally true or factual and are technologically fruitful, whereas mythic or pseudoscientific ones aren’t so and aren’t helpful in our collective endeavour to conquer nature, this doesn’t yet establish much of an asymmetry between Enlightenment and myth. There is some discontinuity here, but it matters only if you’re partial to scientific standards of utility. The nonrational discourses have their uses too, and it goes without saying that scientists are in no position to pass a value judgment on which discourses are best. Science only presupposes the supremacy of its impetuses, namely the paranoia and estrangement from nature that Horkheimer and Adorno condemn.

DE links modern reason, the faith that only that which is quantifiable and thus controllable is real, to Marquis de Sade’s explorations of this hyperrationality, and to the fascist regimes of the 20th century. I would suggest, though, that this issue is complicated by the different shades of antisocial personality disorder that affect theocratic rulers and contemporary models of hyperrationality. Indeed, comparing the two provides a way of testing DE’s continuity thesis. I’ve written elsewhere on how the mythical exploits of gods justified earthly theocracies by (1) spellbinding the peasants, making the rulers famous because of their association with the gods who allegedly granted them their power, and (2) by providing excuses for the psychopathy that typically characterizes those corrupted by the temptations generated by an obscene concentration of power. The idea is that in theistic myths, the gods brooked no opposition and often seemed childish and replete with petty jealousies because these stories were partly works of political propaganda that explained away the shocking behaviour of earthly rulers.

That ancient mechanism of theocracy differs slightly from the phenomenon of Hollywood celebrity, but some of the results are the same. Movies ensure the actor’s fame, because the actor seems larger than life on film. Likewise, religious myths were primary forms of ancient entertainment and cultural expression, and they made rock stars out of the gods and by extension out of anyone who was especially godlike, namely the rulers of kingdoms or empires. And yet there’s a clear difference, since actors only pretend to be superhuman. Often, actors are disappointments in real life; for example, an action star can seem imposing on screen, but be short and unheroic in his personal life. By contrast, the rulers of theocracies really were godlike at least in the psychological and social respects: they really tended to be tyrannical, since they dwelled in heavenly palaces, could kill with impunity, and enjoyed vast political power.  

At first glance, there doesn’t seem an obvious hyperrational analogue of the ancient theocrat, since the scientist, mathematician, and engineer aren’t socially powerful enough to be especially corrupted and thus won’t be personally tyrannical on average. Certainly there are literary models of the inhuman hyperrationalist who lacks the capacity for empathy and thinks only in cold and calculating terms. Some influential examples include de Sade’s sadistic and all-too liberated anti-heroes who amorally use people as means to pleasure themselves; the social Darwinian misreading of Nietzsche’s overman, which influenced the Nazis; and O’Brien, the Party official and remorseless torturer from George Orwell’s 1984. The best real-life analogues, though, would be the modern dictators themselves, such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein, as well as cult leaders such as Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, or L. Ron Hubbard. But while those men were sadistic and calculating, they weren’t especially scientific. So there seems to be a division between the modern tyrants and the hyperrationalists, and yet given DE’s historical continuity thesis, the latter should at least be tied to the former, if not identical with them.

This problem begins to resolve itself when we recall that modern hyperrationality puts the good of the species ahead of the individual members. Thus, while the theocrat’s religion catered to both public and private interests, modern hyperrationality suppresses private ones. Scientific methods are meant to detach the scientist from her character, intuitions, biases, and personal goals so that she can identify with reason in general. In her professional capacity, she’s logos incarnate. Thus, the modern hyperrationalist shouldn’t be expected to be self-aggrandizing. If theocracy and hyperrationality warp the psyche, they needn’t do so in exactly the same ways. For insight, then, we can turn to psychiatric classifications of personality disorders. In addition to psychopathy, Cluster B disorders, having to do with dramatic, emotional, and unpredictable antisocial tendencies, including narcissism and a disregard for the law and the rights of others, would seem to characterize the Age of Myth’s tyrants who often thought of themselves as divine incarnations. These personality disorders would also afflict most modern dictators, cult leaders, and CEOs who end up with godlike power. There is, then, the archetype of the warped mindset of deities, as evidenced by tales of such bloodthirsty gods as Yahweh, Moloch, Kali, and Tlaloc. Anyone who acquires vast political or industrial power which insulates the magnate from the negative consequences of his or her actions can be expected to revert to a childlike mentality. The religious myths of volatile gods are only echoes of the abuses that peoples throughout history have endured by their almighty rulers (and by their anthropomorphic impressions of natural cycles that can likewise seem monstrous). Donald Trump is currently a famous example of someone who’s clearly fallen into this trap.

As for the hyperrational professionals, they’re obligated to behave in public as though they’d succumbed more to Cluster A disorders, especially to the schizoid disorder but also to some paranoid tendencies. Schizoid personality disorder is “characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary or sheltered lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, detachment, and apathy.” Paranoid personality disorder is “characterized by paranoia and a pervasive, long-standing suspiciousness and generalized mistrust of others. Individuals with this personality disorder may be hypersensitive, easily insulted, and habitually relate to the world by vigilant scanning of the environment for clues or suggestions that may validate their fears or biases. Paranoid individuals are eager observers. They think they are in danger and look for signs and threats of that danger, potentially not appreciating other evidence…They tend to be guarded and suspicious and have quite constricted emotional lives. Their reduced capacity for meaningful emotional involvement and the general pattern of isolated withdrawal often lend a quality of schizoid isolation to their life experience” (my emphases).

My point isn’t that scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and other modern professionals personally and generally suffer from Cluster A disorders. Unless their jobs are all-consuming, their public habits won’t take over their private life. But these hyperrationalists will live a double life, because hyperrationality itself is antisocial in the Cluster A respects. Serving Reason on behalf of the species requires emotional coldness, detachment, and even apathy, since the hyperrationalist must, for example, leave the experiment’s outcome up to facts that are out of her control. Science and engineering also shelter the hyperrationalist from the rest of society, since that sort of work is often too important to fall into the wrong hands. Although scientists publish their research and engineers’ products may be sold on the open market, those working for the military or for private industry will have to sequester themselves and protect their work from corporate espionage. The empiricist side of science, too, will invite paranoid tendencies, since the empirical focus is on detailed observations, and the instrumental motivation of modern science will add mistrust to the process. That is, the hyperrationalist needs her scientific methods because she can’t trust her intuitions; as part of devious nature, emotions lead her astray and only unwavering reason can trick nature into revealing its secrets, to paraphrase the early modern instrumentalist Francis Bacon. Without hyperrationality, we’re all in danger of sliding back into a more primitive way of life. The fuller range of paranoid personality traits show up in the proverbial mad scientist, whose obsession with impersonal reason indeed overtakes his private life.

Thus, in her professional dealings, the modern hyperrationalist sacrifices her personality and behaves as though she were inherently antisocial. In short, the hyperrationalist is at war not just with the outer world but with the fullness of human nature, since it’s our emotions, intuitive judgments, and animal instincts which she assumes prevented progress in the Middle Ages. The European Renaissance celebrated human potential, but the Scientific Revolution showed that reaching that potential would require the sacrifice of our lower self for the good of the species. To survive by dominating everything that opposes our will, we must take up a collective (but not neutral) perspective; we must think in the most general terms, using only logic, mathematics, and abstract concepts, including the impersonal jargon common in bureaucracies—as though by pretending that we’re divinities who designed the natural order, we can draw out the facts and the natural laws. To think like a scientist or like any other professional hyperrationalist is to become as impersonal as the universe whose workings we’re attempting to decode.

How, then, might the Enlightenment be responsible for the atrocity of the modern dictatorship, to establish the continuity between the Ages of Myth and Reason? DE stresses the instrumental perspective which science popularized, but there’s another connection, following from the above points about the antisocial personality disorders. The secular dictator may not have been generally hyperrational, but he couldn’t commit his atrocities all by himself. Instead of relying on religious myths and pseudoscience to prop up his authority and to convince the masses to follow him, the modern dictator or corporate executive appeals to the zeitgeist of hyperrationality. The modern magnate surrounds himself with machine-like bureaucrats whose job is to behave as though they personally suffer from a Cluster B disorder, and who behave that way on behalf not of the species (as in science proper), but of the State, the Leader, or the Company. As Lewis Mumford might put it, the modern megamachine is fuelled not by stale theistic myths or pseudoscientific frauds, but by updated metanarratives that support the dehumanized, instrumental stance. (By contrast, the cult leader is anachronistic in using theistic myths and pseudoscience to manage his smaller group of followers.) Thus, the supreme faith since the Scientific Revolution is that real progress depends on a special kind of self-sacrifice: we must be hyperrational at least in our occupation, renouncing our individuality for the sake of a large collective. To paraphrase the positivist Comte, whose view is similar to Leo Strauss’s, the duped masses should be distracted with lowbrow forms of entertainment while their society is run by technocrats, by hyperrational experts in technical matters.  

The dictatorial apparatus used by the modern magnate begins with antisocial logic which reduces tens of thousands or millions of individuals to cogs in a giant machine. If the dictator or the transnational executive is the organism’s DNA or virus, the hyperrational underling is the protein that carries out the instructions however evil they might be, because this underling is trained to pretend she’s no human person at all but just a vehicle for Logos, a utilitarian functionary acting for the greater good. The corrupt mentality of a (typically more or less psychopathic) dictator or corporate executive, then, is like an ancient virus that’s been unearthed which adapts itself to a new, “advanced” environment. The virus takes over the sophisticated levers of power which include the instruments of hyperrationality, suppressing the rest of the human mind. When obeyed as absolutes, the methods of reason program us in inhuman ways, and the result is the modern form of dictatorship, whether that be in government, business, the military or some other large scale “progressive” endeavour that's outgrown the theocratic form of management.

So does Enlightenment reason revert to myth, as DE would have it? As I’ve attempted to show, the relation between the two is complicated. Science works because its models engage with natural facts more reliably than do those produced by other cognitive approaches. The atrocities wrought by blind obedience to religious myths and to the alleged representatives of gods have a universal source: the psychopathy of the charismatic leader who is corrupted by his power and who thus abuses that power. (The leaders are typically male, and so are psychopaths.) Whether that leader rules in the Age of Myth or in the Age of Reason, his godlike domination of the masses and of the environment will force him to develop a monstrous personality befitting his elevated position. But while religious narratives and protoscientific schemes sufficed to manage the ancient social systems, our era is run by a more impersonal logic, because our world has been disenchanted. Science does play a role in the atrocities committed by the modern megamachines, such as by dictatorships and by large corporations that destroy the ecosystems on behalf of the cold, parasitic logic of capitalistic economies. Besides the obvious fact that scientific investigations led to advances in weaponry that enable more dystopian levels of political control, the scientific way of thinking is potentially the ideal form of dehumanizing thought control, which the Frankfurt school calls "instrumental reason."

Ancient kings and priests likewise exploited their populations for a supposed greater good, but theocratic thought control was anthropomorphic as well as anthropocentric: nature for the ancients was an enchanted place, and thus even the exploited masses were considered dignified, highly spiritual beings. Therefore, the ancient metanarratives featured larger-than-life characters such as gods and those honoured to worship them. Our historical dichotomy between premodernity and modernity testifies to our conviction that several centuries ago the theocratic form of thought control broke down for rationally “enlightened” people. That “humanist” revolution in self-consciousness threatened the existence of megamachines, that is, of large social organizations such as empires and corporations. Rational thought came to the rescue, not just by empowering us with the technological benefits of empirical discoveries, but by a certain social application: as the paradigm of hyperrationality, science provides for the standard of civilized obedience in megamachines, after the demise of the gods. The modern masses obey the professionals (including the bureaucrats and politicians), and the professionals obey the dictators or corporate executives, not because we trust that any god tells us to, but because Reason demands it. And it’s not just any reason, but instrumental reason that rules us all now, a hyperrationality that leaves out any consideration of ultimate ends or values as a matter of arbitrary opinion (as in positivism)—which makes modern reason compatible with the atrocities of dictatorship, world war, and the rape of the planet. This obedience to impersonal, purportedly neutral and progressive reason dehumanizes us, which can make the mass atrocities easier to occur. This is because in disenchanted nature, reason can only be so much programming of human machines, of functionaries that dutifully carry out the whims of the top one percent of psychopaths that still rule, but in the name of no other gods.

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