Book review – Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

6-minute read

2020. A time of Trump. Written during a period of pandemic, it is a chronicle of conspiracies embellished with the flowers of falsehoods. In other words, it is tempting to think of the current moment as one of irrationality run rampant. If you have been entertaining similar thoughts, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason provides a poignant note and a fascinating reflection. Because, when you take some distance, you might ask if it has ever been different. How many people past have wondered the same from their unique vantage point? Have we really made any progress towards enlightenment, or is our history merely the back-and-forth sloshing of the tides of reason and unreason?


Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason, written by Justin E.H. Smith, published by Princeton University Press in April 2019 (hardback, 348 pages)

Justin E.H. Smith, a professor of the history and philosophy of science, ranges far and wide in this book. Nine chapters reveal the persistence and pervasiveness of irrationality by spanning such diverse topics as logic, reason, dreams, art, (pseudo)science, the Enlightenment, the internet, jokes and lies, and death. From Ancient Greece to today, he gives voice to philosophers, writers, poets, scientists, and other intellectuals. Lest this “abundance of illustrations and […] instructive ornamentation” (p. 6) gives you the idea that the book is a hodgepodge, there is a clearly formulated and thought-provoking argument at the heart of Irrationality, cleverly illustrated by the dust jacket of the hardback. Rather than two points at opposite ends of a line, the rational and irrational birth each other in an endless cycle. And any attempt to permanently quell the irrational, is, ultimately, an exercise in irrationality itself.

Logic, for instance, can be twisted into fallacious arguments known as sophisms. Smith calls them “the soured, curdled form of arguments […] great fun, and highly seductive” (p. 33). The loaded question “when did you stop beating your wife?” is likely to be answered with “I never beat my wife”, inviting the follow-up “therefore you never stopped beating your wife”. Closely related to jokes, they “function as little explosions, smoke bombs we set off to confuse or to stun as we advance our own interests” (p. 35). Similarly, an Enlightenment ideal such as free speech “has been transformed into a cudgel by which to intimidate and antagonize other groups” (p. 188). One only has to think of recent cases of white supremacists marching under that slogan.

Perhaps the most significant area where rationality and irrationality can seamlessly bleed into each other is mortality. Self-destructive behaviours, whether smoking or speeding when driving a car, are impulsive, reckless, and, yes, irrational. But, argued Socrates already, so is pretending that you are going to live forever. Between these two forms of irrationality lies a vast grey area where one man’s rational is another man’s irrational.

“[…] an Enlightenment ideal such as free speech “has been transformed into a cudgel by which to intimidate and antagonize other groups“”

Other chapters highlight how irrationality is part and parcel of being human. Take dreams, which have been dealt with differently at different times. Is our current approach of shutting the significance of dreams out of our waking lives the most rational? Or did dream-interpreting cultures, such as the Native American Iroquois tribe that Smith mentions here, deal with them better? Similarly, artistic creation can be considered irrational for indulging the imagination our minds are naturally prone to. At the same time, argues Smith, it offers an effective release valve for transgressions that we are better off not acting out, providing a healthy compromise.

Two chapters that were particularly close to my heart were those on pseudoscience and the internet. Sure, Smith touches on the demarcation problem (in layman’s terms, the surprisingly difficult challenge of telling science from bunk), but it was his other observations that really struck a chord with me. Why do these groups go down the irrational route of trying to beat science at its own game? Why assume the trappings of scientific enquiry, complete with the propping up of faulty arguments with empirical data and, in the case of creationism, even a Creation Museum? When discussing flat-earthers, Smith observes that “the commitment to the actual content of the theory—that the world is flat—is rather minimal, and that the true nature of the movement is that it is a protest, against elite authorities telling us what we must believe” (p. 149). This is about trust, specifically the breakdown of public trust in expertise. Smith argues that claims that knowledge is being hidden from us, hushed up by grand conspiracies, is the bigger danger from these movements than their misrepresentation of the facts.

“This is about […] the breakdown of public trust […] claims that knowledge is being hidden from us, hushed up by grand conspiracies, is the bigger danger from these movements than their misrepresentation of the facts.”

The other thing we agree on is the influence of the internet which has made an undeniable difference between irrationality then and now, and truly makes our age different. It has failed spectacularly at being the great leveller that people envisioned it would be. Smith singles out the rise of social media giants in particular. It should come as no surprise that companies driven by a profit motive, whose proprietary algorithms seek to divide rather than unite, are utterly unsuitable to be the gatekeepers of democracy and civil society. And yet here we are. Unending online arguments about trivialities are not democracy, but they do take our time, energy, and attention away from more pressing problems.

There are many other examples and histories that I have not touched upon here, and not all of them necessarily tie neatly into the book’s core argument. Smith often writes in long sentences that encompass many subclauses, but there is an elegance to his penmanship that avoids it from being impenetrable or verbose. He also ably compensates for my lack of knowledge of the many intellectuals and philosophers discussed here, introducing them briefly. I was pleased by how accessible and readable Irrationality turned out to be.

Has the world gone crazy? Undoubtedly. But also: unsurprisingly. Smith has written a timely reflection on our ingrained irrationality. Equally timely is the release date of the paperback, currently due in December. With the hardback having been published before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the American presidential election mere weeks away as I write this, it will be interesting to see if Smith will update the book to touch on some of the irrational excesses we have witnessed since.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.


Other recommended books mentioned in this review:


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