On Irrationality (a work in progress)

Wittgenstein tried to rationally reorder our vocabulary in an attempt to create a philosophical lexicon which would completely eliminate confusion, thus allowing us to formulate the exact question we desired to know the answer to. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was held up as a masterpiece by Wittgenstein’s mentor, Bertrand Russel, and would be later used to secure a professorship for Wittgenstein at Cambridge. Believing that he had solved the problems existent in philosophical discourses, Wittgenstein left England and, eventually, fell into despair. After returning to teach at Cambridge, Wittgenstein set about systematically revising or abandoning his previous writings.

This example is not used to demonstrate rationality’s failures, but to exemplify one of the many dualities present in our lives: the rational and irrational sides of our nature. Quite often, the irrational is seen to be the more dangerous and reckless of the two sides, and, in some ways, this may be true, but to ignore our irrationality is to ignore a large portion of what it means to be human. There is a comfort in the safety rationality allows us, though it can be a sterile form of comfort, often achieved by suppressing much of our irrationality. Nothing suppressed stays suppressed for long, and one doesn’t have to reach for a copy of Freud’s work to find support for this argument, one only has to look at the turbulent 1960s or recall just a few of one’s own bouts of teenage rebellion.

Socrates posited at his trial for heresy that “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a). If the forces that affect us, from without and within, are both rational and irrational, it would be difficult to imagine Socrates ignoring the irrational aspects of life. Examination doesn’t necessarily mean attempting to rationalize the irrational, but recognizing and observing its presence. Sometimes there may be patterns of rationality present in irrationality, just as there is irrationality present in many rational ideas, thoughts, and actions, but this is beside the point — we are rational and irrational beings, and, as such, to ignore irrationality is to deny part of ourselves.

You rarely hear anyone speak out against reason and rationality, nor should they for the most part, but irrationality is often besmirched and avoided. There is a good cause for this trepidation; it takes only a cursory glance at Dostoevsky’s Underground Man to see a dark, sickly exemplar of irrationality’s influence. Nevertheless, it is hard to not find some kernel of truth in Dostoevsky’s belief that the irrational may be humankind’s essential element and that rationality is a construct (a rather meager one in Dostoevsky’s opinion) built upon this essential irrationality. In Dostoevsky’s and the Underground Man’s opinions, humans are irrational creatures, capable not only of reason (and of championing the benefits of reason), but of both the noblest and most base of actions.

Notes from Underground is sometimes seen as one of the first existentialist texts (even if the term “existentialism” is not only hotly contested, but difficult to define — see Walter Kaufmann’s introduction to Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre), with Jean-Paul Sartre finding within the text a strong acknowledgement of our essentially irrational nature. While existentialism is fraught with many of its own problems, the philosophical movement has prompted some of the finest studies of human nature — namely Albert Camus’ The Rebel and The Plague, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity — and treats us as individuals: similar to those around us in many important ways, but very different in others.

The failure of many other lines of philosophical thought is their generality. For example, the concept of “The Greater Good.” A convincing case can be made to sacrifice one nameless, faceless individual for the good of a hundred other nameless, faceless individuals. But, as many primetime television shows and popular movies have asked before, what if the individual to be sacrificed is a child, a neighbor, your mother, your wife or husband? What if the hundred individuals to be saved by this sacrifice are all children, or your mother, significant other, or closest friend is among this number? If it is a loved one that is going to be sacrificed, the decision becomes almost insurmountable: can we weigh the idea of a life without a loved one against the deaths of a hundred people we don’t know? If the loved one if amongst those to be saved, are we able to accept the death of one to save the life of someone we love? And what of the others to be saved? Are our minds truly concerned with them, or only with the person we love, the only person in that group that affects our life?

The rational choice is to sacrifice the one for the good of the many. It is the “smart choice,” but even admitting that leaves a sickening taste in the mouth.¬†Rationality’s strengths and failings exist in the realm of generalizations; irrationality’s strengths and failings exist in the realm of particulars, of individuals and their individual choices. As individuals within a social species, we have to accept both sides of this coin. Therefore, we must not only live rationally, but also live irrationally.


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