The presumption that there is one right—rational—way. The application of a universal ideology to the local particular.

There is a divide in the personality of thought, shaped in part by the difference between the urban and the rural. It is not inevitable, nor is it tidy—the thinking of towns spills over into the country—but it is powerful. Towns, with their large scale, depend, at least to some degree, on standard principles and practice. Taxes, rules, the constitution, are in essence uniform. The Enlightenment that followed the early days of science, with its universal laws, followed that example, seeming at first to suggest that the truths of science should apply to everything we do, and that dissidents should be enlightened and standardised for their own good, if necessary by force.

This is “rationalism”, and the philosopher who has made the study of it most explicit is Michael Oakeshott. The essence of rationalism consists of seeing society as a tissue of problems and anomalies calling for the application of reason. Such a task, of course, is beyond the powers of the ordinary people involved, whose access to reason (so the theory goes) is closed-off by their entanglements in local interest and detail. Rationalism aims to help, confident that there is one way of doing things, and many able people—Rationalists—have dedicated their lives to telling others what that one enlightened way is.R3

Unfortunately, the desire to put other people right has tended to crowd out local wisdom and to discourage creative invention and responsibility, so that the march of “reason” (in this rationalist sense) has caused a lot of misery and error, dismantling tradition, inherited skills and local systems, and going so far as to establish horrific dystopias, accounting in part for our present discontents and the bewilderment as to what to do about them. All this is grounded in the principles of “positivism”, which was developed notably by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) whose vision was of society understandable in terms of strict scientific principles, and evolving to a wonderful era when it would be governed by the universally-applicable laws of science.

The properties of rationalism, as described by Oakeshott, are familiar. It comes to questions with a mental clean slate—with no obligations and loyalties, no point of reference other than reason. It is optimistic about the need for the standardised and correct solutions it is proposing, and it has a mission to promote them. It is not particularly interested in observing the evidence; nor in conserving and repairing what already exists; it insists that we must look beyond such trivialities, to the perfect results that will come when the mission is accomplished—which it surely must be, because reason has to win in the end. It often has to face disappointment, because the application of universal principles and technical solutions to local practice brings trouble—and yet the trouble itself is a rich source of opportunities to fix them. The rationalist can therefore expect a job for life.

It is a distraction, of course. It is about looking away from the question in front of you and applying an ideology that comes from nowhere. It lies at the other extreme from Lean Logic and lean thinking, which bring observation and nous to the local particular.R4


David Fleming

Our place was made by long cooperation
With nature, rock, the rain, the ancient dead,
The living, by their day-by-day invention
A local ecosystem slowly bred—
All grievous error to the Enlightened head.
..But we’ll outlive the onward march of reason;
  Our science rings true with system, time and season.

The Rationalist comes with plans for demolition;
He has no time for detail and repair,
Of loyalties and doubt he has no notion,
His certainties and sameness everywhere.
No meeting-up in conversation there.
..But we’ll outlive the onward march of reason;
  Our science rings true with system, time and season.

To local detail, Gaia’s rich endowment
He comes with high IQ and empty mind;
To trust, to inspiration, to enchantment,
He brings reforming regulation—blind
To local insight, life of every kind.
..But we’ll outlive the onward march of reason;
  Our science rings true with system, time and season.


Related entries:

Second Nature, Ethics, Reformer Fallacy, Galley Skills, Objectivity, Indignation.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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