When reason and wisdom part ways

Published 26.06.2019 01:06
Updated 26.06.2019 14:03

We may claim to live in an enlightened age but the forces of unreason continue to attack us. World wars, mass killings, genocides, Nazism and fascism, nihilism, dogmatism, violent extremism, the growing interest in fantasies and occult sciences are nothing but reflections of unreason and the irrational lurking behind the facade of the modern era.

The German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer had a point when they described the adventures of modern reason as the "dialectic of Enlightenment" whereby the more we push for a rational take on reality, the more irrational, cold and alienated we become. The main reason for this is that rationality is reduced to instrumental thinking, i.e., a mere means-to-an-end procedure. What justifies an action is its ability to lead us to our end(s) in terms of cost-benefit analysis. If our action pays off "rationally" and profitably, then it is justified. This turns everything into a means of profit and gain but says nothing about the end – the end which is supposed to define the ultimate meaning and purpose of every action. For the proponents of instrumental reason, dwelling on meaning and purpose is a distraction and even a danger because it takes us from the world of brute facts, figures and numbers into the realm of values, principles and measured ideas. Among the other incarnations of modernity, capitalism became the perfect embodiment of instrumental reason where everything is reduced to being a means for profit, consumption, pleasure and entertainment. This, in turn, creates a system of total and constant manipulation.

This is what happens when reason is separated from wisdom and moral purpose. Rationality as social engineering unleashes the forces of unreason. Calculative thinking empties everything of its intrinsic meaning and value. We have had enough absurdities, atrocities and calamities to understand the disastrous consequences of profit-driven instrumental rationality. While reason is what distinguishes us humans from beasts, we have shown our capacity for violence and barbarity while claiming to be rational. Left unto itself, reason can be destructive and costly.

It is wisdom that can give us direction again and protect reason against its own self-made enemies. When reason and wisdom take different paths, there remains no path to walk on.

So, what is wisdom? Among the numerous definitions that have been offered over the centuries, let's have a look at what the 13th century Muslim philosopher Shahrazuri has to say about it. His definition links wisdom with the purpose of creation: "The reason for our existence and the purpose of our being created is the quest and attainment of perfection, and this is (possible only) within the confines of the two parts/divisions of wisdom, I mean theoretical and practical (wisdom)."

We can achieve wisdom not just by thinking but also by acting. This entails contemplation, spiritual wayfaring, ethical conduct and doing good deeds. There is no sound thinking without proper action and no noble action without correct thinking. The truth of this world can reveal itself only when we overcome it. Wisdom combines reason and ethics, thinking and doing, contemplation and charity, analysis and kindness, logic and propriety. It is to "cleanse oneself with the Divine water."

Shahrazuri continues: "Know that wisdom is a theoretical art/science (sina'ah) acquired through the sight of reason (nazar al-'aql) and its attainment. It is through it that we come to know the nature of existence in itself and the nature of what is necessary in itself, i.e., what needs to be done as (good) deeds and actions as well as what is required to do to the extent possible within human capacity. The soul of man becomes perfect by acquiring this (wisdom)."

This dense paragraph contains the key elements of the unity of being, thinking and acting. Wisdom is acquired through the proper use of reason and other faculties of understanding, feeling and loving. Wisdom embraces reason and enriches it with other powers of understanding. The primary duty of reason is to enable us to understand existence in its multiple modalities. This is followed by a deep understanding of our duties in this world. Once we reach this state of understanding, we begin to grasp the fundamental principles of what it means to exist as a fully human being. This, in turn, leads us to the ultimate goal of philosophy – happiness. We attain happiness by being rational and ethical at the same time.

This is also a good example of the unity of the true, the good and the beautiful. How this unity is achieved is explained by the word Shahrazuri uses to describe the intellection: sina'ah. Meaning both art and science, the word has the same connotations of the Greek word techne, which means the way of doing something properly and according to its nature. The way we look at things through reason is expected to reflect the way things are. It is supposed to be a reflection of the order of being of which we humans are a part. What we study with our reason is not something alien to us. We are exploring a reality whose essence is similar to ours: Ordered, intelligible, open to understanding and reflection. The isomorphism between the human mind and the world of existence points to an intimate relationship between the knower and the known and overcomes any radical dualities. Reason is alienated from reality when it succumbs to its own excesses and vices such as inconsistency, overstretching and reductionism.

Wisdom teaches us to look at things rationally and intuitively all at the same time. Looking at a beautiful oak tree, I can analyze it scientifically but also sense its place in the larger scheme of things through an intuitive perception: It is a tree with such and such material properties but also a living being, a symbol, a shade, a meeting place, a place of memories, a sign, and so on. The rational-scientific and intuitive points of view complement each other and give us the tree as a being which we are expected to analyze, understand, respect and protect.

We need this wisdom more for our own sanity and survival than just for the beautiful oak tree.

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