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21 March 2015

On being rational

KalnIn his famous work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, published in 1936, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl stated that “if man is a rational being, it is only insofar as his whole civilization is a rational civilization.” Husserl was referring to the fact that his own attempt to create a rational basis for the modern world was undermined by its irrational tendencies. Colonialism, racism, cultural imperialism, materialism, positivism, the World War I (he did not live to see World War II), and mass killings in the name of civilization and national interest all turned the Enlightenment’s claim to reason, rationality and freedom into a mirage for conscientious Europeans and a nightmare for non-Europeans. In a world in which reason has lost its meaning and relevance, one man’s struggle to remain rational is honorable but also tragic. Ever since the European Enlightenment announced its ‘baptism of reason’ against the alleged irrationality of the pre-modern world, reason has declared its independence and developed a view of itself as the ultimate basis of reality. Rationality is now measured by quantifiable properties and computerized decisions. Its ontological foundations have been reduced to instrumental rationality. It is defined as the most efficient way of using any means to reach any goal regardless of the meaning and legitimodern world, macy of that goal. But our most unique human quality, which is called reason, and which distinguishes us from other beings, functions primarily in a qualitative and axiological context. Being rational is not only about following rules logically to reach an end, but also about setting the right goal and reaching it with the proper means.

Modernity via the Enlightenment has claimed superiority over other traditions and non-Western cultures because of its claim to ground things in reason and rationality. In contrast to the supposedly “fideistic” claims of Christianity, the Enlightenment philosophes sought to justify everything on the basis of what Descartes called “clear and distinct ideas.” The question to which Immanuel Kant responded with his famous essay in 1784 summed up the relevance of reason and rationality for how we were to live in the post-medieval world: “Do we live in an enlightened age?” Kant believed his generation lived in an “age of enlightenment” rather than in an “enlightened age.”

Kant defined enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” He defined “tutelage” as “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.” Kant characterizes the essence of the Enlightenment as the “courage to think” for oneself freely. “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason! That’s the motto of enlightenment.”

Since the 18th century, reason has been declared to be the exclusive property of the Enlightenment. But this is nothing but a big claim with a tinge of arrogance. Traditional societies have accorded reason a central place in theology, law, politics, science, ethics and art. The Islamic intellectual tradition has produced an immense literature on reason, rationality, logic, thinking, contemplation, meditation and scientific inquiry. From theology and philosophy to legal reasoning and scientific investigation, the classical Islamic works speak of the nobility of reason, virtues of knowledge and the spiritual blessings of using one’s reason properly.

They view reason as part of a greater reality and place it within the wider context of existence and meaning. To function properly, reason has to accept its place within an order of things that is greater than the knowing subject. This notion of reason and being rational is based on the ancient wisdom that reality is always more than our epistemic constructions of it.

The Arabic word for reason is “aql”and it is derived from the verb”a-q-l,” which means to hold, to protect and to guard. Reason is thus that by which we protect ourselves from falsehood, error and evildoing. Protecting oneself from intellectual error and moral vice is a sine qua non of being rational.

This basic meaning of reason underlies the essential component of thinking and contemplation as the proper human response to the call of reality. In contrast to attempts, which reduce rationality to logical competency and procedural ratiocination, reason implies an encounter with the reality of things. Thinking is not simply to enumerate the physical properties of things or to show the logical relations between concepts. It takes place in a context of encounter with reality and puts us in a relationship with something larger than ourselves. It means seeing, observing, listening, hearing, reflecting, contemplating, and drawing the appropriate practical and moral conclusions. It means responding to what we encounter. It involves rational analysis, but also moral commitment. In its deepest sense, thinking prevents us from seeing things as a means to an end. It challenges instrumental rationality on both ontological and spiritual grounds.

The 10th-century Muslim philosopher, Abu al-Hasan al-Amiri, began his great work, “Kitab al-amad ‘ala al-abad,” by making a bold statement about why being rational means searching for the meaning of life and thinking about the larger reality of which we humans are only a part. Like Aristotle, Amiri holds that the desire to know is inherent to our human nature. But he also notes that one needs to seek knowledge of things based on reason, wisdom and virtue.

This is a much-needed reminder in a world in which instrumental rationality has taken over, and where everything has been reduced to its “use-value.

This commentary is originally published on Daily Sabah on Mar 14, 2015.

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