William Davies reviews “Irrationality” by Justin E. H. Smith

William Davies in the London Review of Books:

Justin Smith’s Irrationality is one of many books provoked by the political eruptions of 2016. Trump is a recurring preoccupation, but so is the internet and the carnival of quickfire nonsense it hosts. Taking these two themes together – the absurd liar in the White House, and the sarcastic meme culture that helped put him there – suggests that something distinctly new and dangerous has arisen. Trump, it seems, outstrips any previous conspiracy theorist or demagogue. His election means ‘the near-total disappearance of a shared space of common presuppositions from which we might argue through our differences’. In 2016, we saw ‘the definitive transformation of the internet, from vehicle of light to vehicle of darkness’. Trump’s pre-eminence forces us to defend principles and institutions we shouldn’t have to defend. We find ourselves having to assert that good reasons are better than bad reasons, that rational government policies are better than irrational ones. Distinctions between scientific fact and conspiracy theory now have to be explained and justified. These are tasks that many rationalists, in the ‘new atheist’ tradition of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, have been happy to pursue. Arguing as much with (what they perceive as) the relativism of the left as with the dogmatism of the right, these bombastic defenders of Western reason exhibit a spirit of hostility towards anyone daring to question the benefits and rectitude of the natural sciences. Dawkins in particular has converted a defence of scientific method into a defence of cultural hierarchy, with ‘the West’ at the top. Pinker clings to a form of Benthamism, in which statistical data prove that modernity is still on the right track, regardless of what political or cultural anguish might be at large.

Faced with a choice between a world governed by brute Pinker-esque reason and the Dadaist nightmare of fantasy and propaganda emanating from the White House, Smith seems in no doubt where he stands. Yet Irrationality is unique among recent paeans to Enlightenment and liberalism in marrying a resolute defence of reason with a recognition of how futile such defences tend to be. What troubles Smith is that ‘rationality’ means nothing without some ‘irrationality’ from which to distinguish itself, yet the precise nature of this distinction is impossible to establish.

More here.