Journal Entry #5

NORFOLK, Conn., July 23—I’ve been moved more than once over the past couple of years to return to a book that, indeed, moved me greatly when I first read it some years ago. I have a very fine first of Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason. Oxford published it in 1947, and the thing seems only to gain in relevance.

Horkheimer was a leading member of what’s known as the Frankfurt School, a gathering of intellectuals associated with the Institute of Social Research in said city, active before and after the war but dispersed during it. Other members—Adorno, Marcuse—were better known for their writings. Horkheimer published less but with comparable distinction, and he was as important as an administrator, a superintendant of intellectual environments, let’s say, as he was as a social critic. He directed the institute from 1930 until he retired in 1953; during the war years he relocated it at Columbia University.

The argument Horkheimer advanced in Eclipse of Reason has to do with the way we think and the validity we assign to this way of thinking. Reason and what we mean by it is the question, and it’s not so simple a matter as one may assume.

Reason as philosophers as far back as the ancient Greeks understood it was an objective matter. It existed outside any of our minds and so had nothing to do with interests, as we would say today. Something was “reasonable” if it conformed to objective reality. “The degree of reasonableness of a man’s life could be determined according to its harmony with this totality,” Horkheimer explained. One’s thoughts and what one did were correct thoughts and deeds if they matched up with the world one could discern outside of oneself.

Against this, notably from the time of Locke in the 17th century onward, arose subjective reason. This was something different. In this schema, reason derived from function, the use of a thing or a thought, an institution, a law, or a policy. Something was reasonable if it served a good purpose—if it came out well.

That’s a very reasonable [or un-] way to go about it.” If we understand “reasonable” or “unreasonable” in this sentence we understand subjective reason. To a “reasonable” man or woman, reasonable things serve good purpose, and good purpose is taken to be more or less self-evident. Good purpose, to finish the thought, is by definition a subjective matter. If I think something is good I think that somewhere along the line it’ll be good for me: It’ll serve my interest.

Reason as “inherent in reality,” as Horkheimer wrote, reason as “a subjective faculty of the mind.” I may offend professional philosophers with this kind of telescoping, but I think the summary I’ve attempted holds. Risking more of the same, I’ve long thought the distinction Horkheimer describes comes down to Descartes upside right and Descartes upside down. “I think, therefore I am” would reflect the notion of objective reason. “I am, therefore I think”—I am a hedge-fund manager and I think regulating financial markets is bad; I am a State Department policy planner and I think President Putin is to be a demonized—is an expression of subjective reason.

Subjective reason has had a long, successful time of it. In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarians advanced the cause in great strides and in pure form: All the things of life—languages, customs, mass education, the shooting match—were to be judged solely according to their usefulness, the Benthamites claimed: Does it work? The prevailing idea of progress as it arose along with modern industry later in the same century reflected the triumph of subjective reason. Closer to our time, I see a straight line between subjective reason and such theories as rational choice.

What does it come to now? Well, one phrase I like to use is the irrationality of hyperrationality. It is entirely rational to maintain thousands of nuclear warheads and claim no one else should want or have them, and it is perfectly insane at the same time. Horkheimer is more to the point: We live amid the eclipse of reason.

I think of two things the columns have been take up with over the past year or so in this context. One is the confrontation with Russia, which was—important distinction—worsened by but not caused by the crisis in Ukraine. The other is on Page 1 as we speak: the Obama administration has signed an agreement governing Iran’s nuclear programs, and we’re now in for 60 days of debate as to its wisdom.

In both cases, we’re faced with a riot of subjective reasoning. Krugman, in a column on the American economic debate a year or two ago, used the phrase “motivated logic,” meaning, “I’m going to argue this through on the basis of what I want to happen, never mind the objective facts.” Krugman’s term does the job.

In the Russian case, Washington wants to re-exert the influence over Russia that it achieved, after decades of Cold War tension, during the very unfortunate Yeltsin years. His successor resists this, insisting on Russia’s sovereignty and parity, and his successor is therefore a most unreasonable man. The facts tell us otherwise time and time and time again, but there is no arguing subjective reasoning—even as one must.

In the Iran debate, the Obama-Kerry deal is a bad, unreasonable deal, at bottom for the same reasons: It recognizes Iran’s sovereignty and equality under international law and, ultimately, in the community of nations. This is not how the Obama administration’s opponents—or the Israeli government—wants this to come out. We’re in for vigorously argued exchanges over the next two months, but be advised: We’re listening to subjective reasoning as the American right consistently deploys it.

The triumph of subjective reason debilitates our nation at this point. It poisons our discourse, and I see no good to come of this (objective) reality. So many of us come to find debate nearly impossible now, and for a simple reason: It is, reason having been eclipsed. It is why friends say things like, “We live in a post-fact society.” What they mean is that subjective reason is now accepted as a prevalent substitute for objective reason.

We Americans have to overcome our very pronounced preference for this kind of thinking if we are to advance as we urgently need to do. Subjective reason serves the cause of exceptionalism well, and those who insist on preserving American primacy into a new century, but it doesn’t, in the end, serve us very well at all.