What the Rationalistic World Forgot. the stupor of rationality • stories, building intuition • alchemy, building process • religion, building wonder
I loved this article. Thank you for writing it. I think it makes a bold stance against the ubiquitous rationalism in our world.
Yet, I think it is based on a misconception about what rationality is for. After all, if it goes against our very being, why do we have it in the first place? My proposal: rationality and rational thinking is a response to the challenges of large-scale human societies. After all, the needs of a tribe are different from the needs of a city. They require different approaches. And while the tribe may do just fine with hand-crafted architecture and a more mystical approach to life, this would have dire consequences if you involve more people.
I would like to use your very own examples. Architecture: The same architecture that removes the beauty from a place also provides living space for a much larger number of people. Stories: If we start overemphasizing the role of fables and stories in our education, we don't help our children develop a critical mind, which leaves them exposed to charlatans and populists of all kinds (which you can find plenty in contemporary media). Alchemy: Metaphors and allegories play a role in science, too -- but only in the mind of the individual scientist. Just like Paracelsus has arrived at a new treatment by coming up with a new metaphor, an individual modern scientist may arrive at a new approach through non-rational means. But before his findings are integrated into the collective knowledge base, they must first meet rational criteria.
I understand that an ode to the gods is necessarily lopsided. And I understand that mysticism, tradition and irrationality play a role on the level of individual experience. But if there are 7 billion of us, this stops working.
I genuinely appreciate this article because it has opened my mind (at least a bit) to aspects of human experience I have left woefully unexplored. For me, the message is: Don't let the rationality that we require to organize humans on a large-scale seep into and dominate your local, personal, individual experience of life. Is this a fair point to make :) ?
So on point. We are limiting ourselves by believing the only thing that makes us human is our rationality. There is virtue and there is wisdom in our history, in our religion, in the past that we have let by and we have forgot to consider, there is also a hint to the many layers that we as humans possess and that we have dismissed. Rationality is just one of those layers, a most important one in the times we are living, but one that will only restrain us from reaching our full potential if we take it as the only one. By respecting only this one ability, by defining ourselves solely by it, we are closing our eyes to the bigger spectrum that nature wants us –dare I say even needs us– to perceive, we are just throwing an anchor to the sea.
Thank you for the article, I loved it.
A beautiful and inspirational read!
You said that "a book of fables or a good history book will teach volumes more about psychology than any psychology textbook printed today." Do you have any personal recommendations? What are your favorite fables and history books?
You lost me right off the bat wih the weird link between Rationality and Disembodiment. I must be an idiot because to me those concepts seem fairly orthogonal. And then the fully euro-centric references... feel like you"re hankering for monarchy more than gods or "le merveilleux". And the tunnel vision about exteriors... there's a very ugly Corbusier building down my street... inside, it's a beautiful living space, no shitting behind curtains like in Versailles, which I'm sure you prefer, 'coz it makes for beautiful paintings.
Let's lose ourselves in the aesthetics of things, especially through rose-tinted backwards-looking glasses. Corbusier's towers rightful equivalent are the unsanitazited hovels that circled Paris even a century ago. Full of gods, I'm sure.
It is a wonderful essay, evocative of much that is good about society. However, I want to point out where I differ. Rationality really came into its own quite a bit earlier than you say. The Age of Reason was around 1680-1790. Many of the buildings you admire in Paris were constructed during and after this period, including much in the second half of the 19th Century. These were rationally inspired architecture.
I agree that much of the 20th Century architecture is ugly. I think this has a lot to do with the advent of the automobile. the other huge factor was reduction in income inequality. Instead of luxurious city courthouses and city halls and opera houses, built for wealthy people, the 20th Century was built for the middle-class, on much smaller budgets.
our ancestors (the ancients) lived in a state of simplicity and innocence unknown and almost unimaginable today for some 300,000 years / they lived in the garden of eden if you would like to use that allegory / when you consider that it's only the last 70,000 years that we have been dividing and defining the world and only the last 8,000 years that we have come up with something like civilization and only the last few hundred years that we have raised rationality onto the sacred altar and replaced religion with science - then it seems to me that maybe myth and 'irrationality' are not gone from our psyche but sublimated and still active / we just don't recognize it and give it proper due / it still is powerful and is the repository of our great human wisdom
A few quick comments. I love your writing when it is on safe grounds such as your piece on brevity illustrated by stunning b & w photos. But this piece…
As a trained city planner I take issue with your Paris example. Those gorgeous buildings and boulevards that we all admire are not all they seem to be. Haussmann designed them with an ulterior motive to quell riots. Citizens can defend themselves far more easily in tiny, crooked streets than out there on the wide boulevards where the term cannon fodder might have been coined. Ironically therefore, the central Paris area you and I admire so much is the exact result of the “authoritative modernism” you are deriding.
More concerning, however, is your take on science. To be sure, science is not above criticism. But the point you have missed completely is that when science has been shown to be incomplete, fabricated or just plain wrong, as in the case of the once celebrated method of lobotomy, it has always been more science - and never religion - that has proven it lacking and provided improvement. I fear that you, like most believers, approach this topic with a conclusion (god is real) and then seek evidence to support your claim. That’s not an honest approach to truth seeking. The religious dislike and often despise science because it keeps disproving religious texts. The problem should not be laid at the feet of science but at the erroneous holy tomes. It was rational science that got us through Covid. It certainly was not irrationality, prayer or belief.
I just want to point out that the Paris we find "traditional" these days was an explicitly rational and brutal exercise in demolishing the previous more traditional and medieval Paris. Hence, we come to the idea of Progress as continuous destruction and disenchantment and how, most answers to modernity are about stopping the clock at some arbitrary time which will, by their nature, fail because most past moments were also imbued in radical destruction by modernity (aka progress).
The solution is not to stop time but for tradition to OWN progress, OWN technology and dictate its direction. I want to use the principles of medieval Paris to bulldoze modernity with poetry, fibre optic cable and a hard ban on advertising.
Such an enjoyable read, I always admire anybody who attempts to defend alchemy, religion, literature, fables, etc. in today's world. Have you read any Carl Jung? I'm guessing you have - I see a lot of Jung, and Jung's inspirations, in your thinking. If not (I'd be majorly surprised), his essay "Archaic Man" makes a lot of similar points as you do, from a more psychoanalytical side. Recommending this newsletter to my feed and anyone who wants good insights on literature on art on Substack. Excited to dive more into your work. Cheers, Paul.
Isn’t it crazy to think those iconic Paris apartment blocks were once just as controversial: a grand authoritarian project to modernize the city. Razing through historic medieval sections to create unified buildings... https://mymodernmet.com/haussmann-paris-architecture/
We hate change. Then time passes; the newfangled thing becomes historic. We resist the next.
Fun read, lot of ideas to unpack. Don't see long-form like this anymore. Will ruminate on this again and again for sure. But, there's a risk of hankering back to a vague, unsituated, and ever-shifting pre-rational 'past' that we may be free to idealize because it's not grounded in a time or place that can be examined tooo closely.
Art, myth, science, math have different goals and aren't mutually exclusive. Think we agree on that opinion. I'd just add that sprituality doesn't have to be godly/mythical. Maybe you know that already. There's some beautiful, deep, psychological, expressive work out there. So it's a big claim to say 'art is dead' or died with reason. If that's what's being said. I guess abstract expressionism and all the fresh liberating ideas brought to the stuffy art world in more recent times don't count. It's ok, a matter of taste, not everyone has to love modern or contemporary art. It's all too easy to come off a tad elitist when declaring what qualifies as 'art.' It's intriguing which paintings were picked for display on the article. I for one don't miss the old-guard institutional aesthetic of l'Academie: been there, done that. Just my preference. Not sure your background in art, but interested if you've dialogued with working artists about your piece.
Do not waste your mind writing and ruminating all the time. Try speaking to God actually and scientifically and you will be a true prodigal son of god , not just an author constantly waiting for feedback and never -finding joy within and seeking it outside
Huh? You’re praising alchemy? For a scientist, of course science is about the “process“ of iterative discovery. But the point of the process is to arrive gradually at truths. And yes, there are tons of open questions for which we don’t yet have an answer, and areas where future discoveries may correct what we think we know. That’s okay. For the rest of us laymen however, “scientific consensus” is still a useful concept, practically, to refer to the current state of our collective knowledge. Old folk remedies and traditions that have passed clinical trial are called “medicine.“ Maybe your point is that we’ve begun to lose sight of the process itself—but there’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater or hold up alchemy as the paragon of scientific process. On another note, rationality isn’t the same as empiricism. This appears erudite and beautifully written, but the reasoning (pardon) is shaky. On the topic of wonder and aesthetics, I’ll leave you with Feynman’s Ode to a Flower https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/01/ode-to-a-flower-richard-feynman/
> Penthouse decorations are a poverty compared to a peasant walking daily under the stone arcades to the marketplace, or children witnessing daily the blacksmith work magic with iron and flame.
Ah yes, the good old days, where peasants had so much art available around them. Signature furniture, sculptures, collector items of nowadays don't compare to his walk from the boonies to an unsanitary marketplace... The irony of opening up with a critique of rationalism and then proceeding to rationalize the "golden past" for art. Art! The immense abundance, quality, diversity and knowledge of art and its democratization that we have in modern times!
Thanks for writing, an enjoyable read.
My oversimplified rule for the dividing line between rationalism (aka Scientism), philosophy and mysticism (aka religion):
Is your question/hypothesis falsifiable? -> YES -> use the scientific method (e.g. "Gold is a better conductor than Copper")
Is your question well 'defined'? -> YES -> use philosophical methods (E.g. "All moral systems are equally valid")
Use mystical / religious methods (E.g. "What is the reason for existence")
 A question is 'undefined' when it does not have a valid answer. In this case, the question implies that existence needs a reason. If existence does not have a reason, the question becomes unanswerable via philosophy and thus requires a mystical approach. If we try to use a rationalist approach to answer this question, we will likely never find an answer. If we use mystical approaches, we may realize that the question has no valid answer and we can then use (This is my understanding of the approach of Koans in Zen Buddhism, or in some branches of Christian Mysticism)
"Science is what you know. Philosophy is what you don't know." - Bertrand Russell
I would add to this "Religion is what you can't know"
Reading this I am reminded of Kathmandu. Not only the temple areas but the whole city, seemingly every nook and cranny, is full of art. Hindu statues and temples are everywhere and people still interact with them by placing garlands of flowers or a bindi on the forehead. Being in a place like that I can see that maybe something similar to that was true in the western world of the past.