Irrationalism refers to any movement of thought that emphasizes the non-rational or irrational element of reality over and above the rational. More than a school of thought, irrationalism is a multi-faceted reaction against the dominance of rationalism. As such, it played a significant role in western culture towards the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century. Irrationalism need not be opposed to reason. It can consist of a simple awareness that the rational aspect of things tends to be overemphasized and that this needs to be compensated by an emphasis on intuition, feeling, emotions, and the subconscious. But it can also take a more extreme form. Such is the view that the rational element is something contrary to life and altogether negative. Though few have taken the stand that reason plays no part at all in human mental life, some irrationalists have thus reduced it to a secondary function that merely represents the surface of things and hampers the development of what really matters.
There are at least two main sources of irrationalism.
First, even the most consistently rationalist approach of the world will yield, in the end, some ultimate notions that can no longer be grasped or expressed through rational language (questions of truth, goodness, beauty, and so on). This clearly appears in ancient Greek philosophy. In the eighteenth century Enlightenment, a somewhat superficial confidence in reason was often maintained, and the question about ultimates was thus avoided. Still, Voltaire, a typical representative of the “Lumières,” was very skeptical about the natural lights of human reason and the ability to find definitive answers. Nineteenth century Positivism, finally, appeared as the culmination of human confidence in reason based on scientific advances. The positivist belief that scientific reason would make all other approaches obsolete, however, was soon largely rejected as a naïve illusion. Irrationalism has therefore acted as a recurrent challenge to the belief that analytical or deductive reasoning was the alpha and omega of human mental activity. This is well summarized by the statement of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince: “What is essential remains hidden to the eye.”
A second challenge to the preponderance of reason has come from the religious side. All the world’s religious traditions, based on immediate experience as much as revelation, have an acute awareness that the human predicament is at odds with the very ideal of perfection and happiness. In Christian thought, there is the dual notion of God’s judgment and his grace, a position best expressed by the apostle Paul and revived most famously by the Reformers Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. The very notion of sin in a world created by an omnipotent and good God seems contradictory. This dissonance has led to such paradoxical formulations as the biblical “those who want to live will die and those who want to die will live” and “the first shall be the last.”
In the religious context, thus, irrationalism takes on the nature of paradox and mystery. It is not possible for unaided human reason to fully grasp the meaning of the human condition. It has to be accepted that two basic facts (God and evil) coexists in a way that cannot be rationally explained. Only faith or spiritual intuition can somehow comprehend what is meaningless for reason alone. This position maintains a strong presence, even where attempts at offering rational explanations abound.
In various different contexts, other world religions have approached the same basic issue and offered a response that invariably amounted to a rejection of rationalism. In the religious world of the Far East (notably India and China), the response has often been sought in higher wisdom involving spiritual perception and allowing the believer to see how seemingly contradictory notions can harmonize on a higher plane. There is also a general insistence on the need to find the right attitude in approaching everyday life and its ultimate questions. Finally, in Zen Buddhism, enlightenment through direct experience, by which one is jolted out of one’s habitual condition, is seen as the answer. Thus, religion’s response to the limits of reason tends to have a strong emotional, experiential, and voluntary component.
The history of western philosophy has been overwhelmingly dominated by the notion that reason and intellect determine the value of thought, culminating in eighteenth century rationalism, nineteenth century positivism, and twentieth century logical positivism. Irrationalism has thus mostly been a secondary reaction defended by a few minor figures, an element embedded in the thought of otherwise rational thinkers, or an underlying and largely hidden element. A closer look, however, reveals the importance of non-rational issues and the emotional factor, notably in fields like ethics, aesthetics, education, axiology, and even such a bulwark of rationalism as epistemology. Irrationalism became a major force in western culture for the first time in the nineteenth century. Its impact reached far beyond philosophy and academia and was felt in the whole of society, including the political sphere, from the Romantic, period to World War II, and beyond.
Ancient Greek philosophy is generally recognized as the paragon of rational thinking. Its giants, Plato and Aristotle, viewed the rational mind as the essence of human identity. For Plato, in particular, the realm of emotions linked to physical existence represented the lower counterpart to the eternal beauty and goodness of immaterial, rational souls. But his philosophy in fact culminates in a strongly mystical form of idealism. The immortality of the soul, eternal truth and beauty in particular, are introduced as the result of a higher insight, not of deductive or analytical thought. Such a trend continued in Neo-Platonism.
Plato and his mentor Socrates are also related to the Mystery religions of ancient Greece which are often referred to in mythical form in the Platonic dialogues. The Eleusian Mysteries and the Delphic Sibyl are two examples of what Nietzsche would later call the Dionysian element of exuberance and spiritual drunkenness in Greek culture—an element that would combine with the plastic and formal element of light, the Apollonian element, to produce the masterpieces of Greek culture.
In earlier Greek philosophy, that element could already be found in the works of Empedocles and Pythagoras. It was very influent in Greek tragedy and poetry. The cryptic aphorisms of Heraclitus, another pre-Socratic philosopher, also stand in stark contrast to the smooth flow of rational discourse, though his dialectic does not directly advocate irrationalism.
In medieval thought, irrationalism appears in the form of mysticism and voluntarism. Even Thomas Aquinas, probably the most rationally oriented of the middle age theologians, had a mystical experience towards the end of his life in which it appeared to him that all he had written was like “straw.” Mystically oriented writers like Meister Eckhart and Jakob Böhme saw knowledge of God as limited to negative theology. For the via negativa, the only positive statements that could be made about God were those negating possible limitations of his Being (God is not finite, etc.). The whole history of medieval thought—Christian, but also Jewish and Muslim—was about defining the boundaries of the rational philosophical approach in its confrontation with faith, the approach that transcends human reason.
Among the great metaphysicians of the seventeenth century such as (Descartes, Leibniz), French Catholic thinker Blaise Pascal represents an illustrious exception. The highly intellectually gifted mathematician came as an early precursor of Christian existentialism and famously stated that “heart has its reasons that are unknown to reason.” Pascal also made the equally famous distinction between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the “God of the philosophers,” i.e., understanding through revelation and understanding through reason.
The real breakthrough of irrationalism came with the backlash against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the subsequent wave of Positivism. At the end of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant had concluded that reason cannot give certain and ultimate knowledge about reality, especially not about God and the transcendent. In this, he wanted to make place for faith, which he also saw as a form of reason.
The question over what counts as reason and what does not would become an important one. For many, anything not related to scientific knowledge of the empirically known universe does not qualify as reason. For others, especially in the era of Romanticism, the mind’s innate ability to recognize the reality of the Ultimate represents the highest peak of reason. At this point, one has a convergence between rationalism and irrationalism, with mostly a difference of terminology. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Jakob Friedrich Fries, and Johann Georg Hamann are noted representatives of that period.
The German Idealists are another example of thought systems developed with great emphasis on rational thought, but culminating in often highly irrational speculation. This is true even of Hegel, and his panlogism, and much more so Schelling, especially in his later, mystical phase.
With Arthur Schopenhauer, irrationalism is embraced fully in the form of voluntarism. A blind will is presented as the foundation of existence, while the world of rational representations only forms the deceptive surface of things (in ways similar to Indian thought). Friedrich Nietzsche was equally skeptical of the west’s rational tradition and its shallow ethical codes, stressing such notions as the will to power and the playfulness of a child. In the Christian tradition, Søren Kierkegaard was strongly critical of the rational constructions of Hegel and proposed the leap of faith of the existentialist attitude as an alternative. His overall orientation, usually without the Christian connotation, would be maintained in the thought of twentieth century existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. For Henri Bergson, whose intuitivism was based on the notion of élan vital (vital thrust), rational thought was equally ill-equipped to grasp the essence of things. Finally, even a strongly intellectual philosophy like Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology is based on intuition as an element that comes prior to rational analysis in the perception of reality.
The above list of names, to which many others could be added, exemplifies what Paul Tillich had in mind when he referred to the strong irrational undercurrent in western thought. Philosophical irrationalism would expand into many other areas of culture, including history (Wilhelm Dilthey, Oswald Spengler) and, most famously, psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud, Carl-Gustav Jung). The latter’s implication is that irrational, unconscious forces are really shaping human life. William James would espouse another form of non-rational emphasis in explaining the workings of the mind: Pragmatism, which argues that positions are essentially justified when they work.
The clash between rationalism and irrationalism would continue throughout the twentieth century, with rationalism being reinforced by the stunning development of science and irrationalism being bolstered by the obvious senselessness of many world events. A possible point of convergence has been contemporary science’s recognition of the inadequacy of the traditional mechanistic worldview and its advocacy of a much greater sophistication in attempts to grasp the nuances of its key notions. This has led many to abandon scientific reductionism and its denial of the unfathomable realm of the spirit. In the philosophical world, postmodernism has seen a wholesale rejection of all hitherto accepted certainties.
Thus, there is paradox of a contemporary world where humankind has a firmer grasp and control over natural phenomena than ever, but one in which, at the same time, the rational nature of that world has been increasingly challenged in ontology and epistemology (Jacques Derrida and Deconstructivism, Analytical philosophy), as well as in ethics (Nietzsche and more recently Michel Foucault and their refusal to accept given norms).
Part of the irrationalist movement involved claims that science was inferior to intuition. In this hierarchy, art was given an especially high place, as it was considered the gateway to Kant’s unknowable thing in itself. Some of the followers of this idea were Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henri Bergson, and Georges Sorel.
By its very nature, art appeals to intuition and the senses, rather than to reason and logic, though achievement in the arts always requires the mastery rational elements. In antiquity and the classic period of the contemporary Era, the non-rational element that constitutes the substance of artistic production has usually been what could be called a trans-rational element—the achievement, through systematic techniques and inspiration of an expressive harmony among constitutive elements. The resulting formal perfection can be found from the temples of ancient Greece to the music of Mozart and the twentieth century paintings of Piet Mondrian.
On the other hand, in the nineteenth century, based upon the development of Romanticism, there was a strong movement of emphasis on the aspects of life that were alien to reason, at least in the narrow sense. Emotions, intuition, and feelings were strongly emphasized. The subconscious dimension was gradually discovered. As a result, there was a shift away from formal balance towards a more free form of art. In music, this tendency culminated with composers like Richard Wagner in Germany, Hector Berlioz in France, and many of their successors in twentieth century Europe. In painting and the other arts, numerous schools around the same period put the emphasis on the non-rational element (symbolism, aestheticism, surrealism) and even on the perceived absurdity of life (dadaism).
This movement in the arts and cultural life in general developed hand in hand with a philosophical orientation that espoused similar views. The world-level tragedies that would scar human minds in the twentieth century contributed to this development. A meaningful and rationally consistent worldview had become unthinkable for many, and this perspective was reflected in all areas of human activity.
Thus, it is clear that much of what passes for irrationalism in fact does not challenge the validity of reason, but rather opens the possibilities of other realms of investigation that had been previously ignored by the rationalist tradition. This comes together with a rebellion against the rationalization of a reality that is perceived as absurd, or ethical rules that are perceived to be abusive in their pretension to be rationally grounded.
The difference between non-rational and irrational is not as easy to define as it may appear. German authors, like the philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto, often use the equivalent of the English "irrational," but translators of their writings prefer to use "non-rational" to avoid giving the impression of an anti-rational bias. Indeed, in a context such as Otto’s, irrational is meant to convey the meaning of something that eludes the grasp of reason, a depth dimension of the human psyche that cannot be appropriately expressed in rational language. It does not mean that the author rejects the rational discourse altogether. In the case of Otto, the contrary is the case. This author strongly stresses the need for academic discourse to proceed according to strict rational rules and to avoid the excesses of romantic enthusiasm. Otto merely wants to show that reason is not alone and that, once it has spoken, something remains that can only be grasped intuitively and expressed in symbols.
Similarly, today’s sociology of religion generally understands myths as a genuine and irreplaceable component of the human discourse, one that can express certain realities better than straight scientific talk, and even reach where that talk cannot go. There is no negative connotation attached to myth under these circumstances.
In the end, the understanding of irrationalism in the sense of non-rational or irrational is a matter of worldview. For those who consider that the universe and, if applicable, the Supreme Being, form a whole that is non-contradictory and where intellect, emotion, and will coexist harmoniously as different aspects of that reality, non-rational will have to be chosen as the proper expression. In that perspective, irrational will have to be reserved for the cases of opinions or behavior that fails to abide by the accepted rules of reason—not to describe that which transcends the realm of reason.
Few will defend a strong version of the opposite position that contradiction lies at the heart of everything. Such a position would make any discourse impossible, including that of those who hold this position. But various thinkers have emphasized the paradoxical nature of reality. In such a view, reality may not be fully contradictory, but it presents essential features that will always stand in paradoxical position to each other. Such is, in general, the position of dialectical philosophy. Other strong forms of irrationalism are those which argue a fundamentally absurd nature of the world or the complete irrelevance of the rational discourse.
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