Frank Antosen and George Walford: Reason, Friend or Enemy?

Part One: REASON AS ENEMY, by Frank Antosen. (Reprinted from Freedom, 6 April).

When asked to imagine the perfect society thinkers come up with many different models, one thing seems to be common though: The perfect society is governed by reason.

Even anarchists tend to subscribe to this belief. But what is reason and why have such faith in it? The answer to the latter is probably given by history: it is a reaction to centuries of oppression by the clergy. Reason is considered as an antidote for religion. Only what can be proven is to be believed. And in fact, reason is a very sharp knife, or rather a double-edged sword. True, reason cuts away superstition based on ignorance, but it also tends to sterilise everything. Rationalist utopias are very, very dull places.

I think our present faith in the powers of the intellect, in reason, has its roots in a misunderstanding, or rather an over-simplification. This illegal simplification is based on a dualistic conception; reason, logic, is considered as the antithesis of (religious) belief. Thus, since religion is wrong / false, reason must be good / true. I am not religious, I believe in no gods, that is why I refuse to sacrifice my life and mind to a new god reason. Reason is necessarily dualistic, it is analytical, it dissects things, whereas I am more interested in a synthetic approach, considering opposites as complementary and not contradictory.

We tend to identify reason with thinking, thinking with intellectual processes as if the mind was only capable of thinking and believing and nothing else. Our mind, our psyche, is a very powerful ‘object.’ It is capable of many things between logical thinking: we also have perceptions, emotions, intuitions… all ‘irrational’ since a-logical. Dogmatic religious belief is dangerous precisely because it suppresses our other faculties, precisely because it is a ‘sacrifice of the intellect,’ and not because it teaches men to believe in something they cannot see. Reason too has a tendency to become dogmatic (witness the many ‘schools of thought’), to become a tyrant, in short to become a new religion.

We can think in at least two different ways: analytic or synthetic. The first is based on a division of the world into a set of opposites, these opposites are considered as logically contradictory, i.e. as mutually exclusive. Synthetic thinking is based on analogy, it connects what analysis has separated, it points out relationships. It is the ‘logic’ of dream and poetry, whereas analytic logic is what we are used to calling ‘logic’, scientific ‘logic.’ These methods are not contradictory; both are needed. This can be seen, for instance, if we look at the history of science. First we have a period of purely analytic activity: classification, etc. In each class further analytic work is carried out, this leads to the discovery of certain ‘laws’ or ‘rules.’ The next step is synthetic: now we try to unify the laws, to find relations between the various classes, etc. This is the state many sciences find themselves in these days. Synthesis without analysis is futile, analysis without synthesis is sterile.

What I claim is that: We must not worship our ‘rational’ sides and scorn our ‘irrational’ ones, but we must strive to unite the two complementary modes of thought.

Society as it now is makes exactly this mistake (as well as countless others) of scorning irrationality. This dualism between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ is a basic component of our culture, from Aristotle via Aquinas, Descartes, Voltaire and Hegel to Marx and Hitler. If we want to make a profound change in society it is to the irrational forces we must turn also. We must constantly question the feeble castles in the clouds built by reason. We must question logic.

Actually logic is a weak god: any meaningful sentence is either a tautology (i.e. empty) or a contradiction. Furthermore, we can never give a complete, logical account of the world; a logical description presupposes the choice of some axioms, what can be accounted for is thus limited by which axioms one chooses. If you choose one axiom, you immediately exclude its opposite and everything that would have followed. Since logical descriptions are never complete, any rational thought must end in either an empty sentence, a tautology (like ‘red is red’), or a paradox.

Let us try to develop the other sides of our psyche, and let us remove the tyrant reason.

… But the irrational (‘dark’) impulses are primitive, animal, filthy… dangerous I hear you say? Yes! Yes, they are primitive and dangerous, but that is only so because they have not been allowed to develop into something ‘higher.’ Our culture treats irrationality as the most powerful evil (‘the doings of the devil’ in religious parlance, ‘childish, anti-social egotistical tendencies’ in the common rationalistic vocabulary). This force is opposed to reason, it threatens to destroy the hierarchical world of the (rational) intellect, i.e. it is a threat to the very existence of rational society, hence it must be fought, persecuted, killed. The result is well known: the ‘unwanted’ forces retreat to the ‘underground,’ the unconscious, and since they are not allowed to develop freely they regress. Instead of becoming a creative force they turn into a destructive (and self-destructive) impulse. Also the ‘victorious’ reason is changed; the hidden impulses are in reality only un-acknowledged aspects of itself. By its very act of repression of instincts it itself becomes tainted by destructiveness, and in the fight it absorbs some of the hidden forces in itself. In short, it becomes similar to what it set out to fight. There is, however, a way out.

We must try to lift the hidden potentials into consciousness, and we must begin to develop our other sides (our feelings, our intuition, etc.). What we must under no circumstances do is to let the enthusiasm sparked by our new discoveries turn us into idolisers of yet another god.

It is common for revolutionaries (as well as for the bourgeoisie) to neglect the imagination and only concentrate on the rational aspects of our minds: imagination is not very ‘practical’ or ‘reasonable.’ Similarly, artists too often ignore their (rational) intellect and proclaim ‘art for art’s sake.’ We must combine both aspects of our culture, art and politics.

What I want is not imbecile ‘socialist realism’ – that is hypocritical and empty; it doesn’t challenge our conception of the world or our position in it. Art must be truly revolutionary, it must revolutionise our way of thinking and feeling. Art must be a perpetual challenge to our rational intellect. What I want is a visionary political philosophy, not unimaginative, dead pragmatism or materialism and not silly utopias – all these are insults to the imagination and just expose the prejudices of the people who support them. What I want is the ‘marriage of opposites’ imagination and reason, not the tyranny of the one over the other!

Part Two: FRIENDLY REASON, by George Walford. (Reprinted from Freedom 4 May).

NOTE: Comments sent to journals have to be prepared hurriedly, while the topic remains alive. Re-reading Frank Antosen’s article at leisure the remark, below, that it shows no awareness of any more flexible logic, comes to seem unjustified; in several passages he may be hinting at this.

In “Reason as Enemy” Frank Antosen says that as an anarchist he wants a way of thinking more flexible than logic or reason (he uses these terms interchangeably), and proposes to find it by a ‘marriage of opposites,’ joining reason and imagination. By thinking in this way he transcends the limitations of the type of logic mentioned earlier in his article, the formal logic that rigidly separates opposites, but if he realises that in doing this he is using another another system of logic, one which has already been formulated, this does not appear from the article.

Formal or Aristotelian logic, having at its centre the Law of Contradiction (nothing can be both X and non-X), cannot be discarded. It gives the “either / or” principle, that everything must be either this or that, and in many connections this makes for clear thinking and successful action. Every time we find it useful to treat something as this and not that, every time we choose one or the other of two alternatives (as of course we are constantly doing) we use this rule and the Aristotelian formulation sets it out precisely, giving a dependable standard for reference. The trouble comes from the claim that this is not merely a general but a universal law (nothing can be both X and non-X).

It does not in fact exhaust reality, for many things are both X and non-X. Is a doorway a material object? If yes, then the (immaterial) space it surrounds forms no part of it and the doorway will serve its function equally well if blocked up. If no, then the (material) timber framing and the wall can form no part of it and the doorway will remain if they are removed. Universal experience contradicts each of these alternatives; we have to accept that a doorway is both material and not material, both X and non-X.

But it is mainly where change, motion and development enter the question that formal logic breaks down. As the Greeks found long ago, to assert that a moving body must be either in or not in a given place at each instant leads to the conclusion that motion does not take place, which is absurd. Lumps of matter, however, can often be treated as stationary, and even when they move we rarely need to analyse the logical implications of their motion, so these failures of formal logic appear merely as oddities; the law stands. Living creatures, especially in their evolution, and even more so social affairs, particularly those which concern anarchists, are a different matter. Here change, motion and development are the norm, static conditions exceptional. And in social affairs change comes about mainly as the result of purposeful human actions (even though the outcome is seldom what anybody intended) so we do need to know the rules involved. If we are to think about things that are constantly being made other than they are, and to do so in a way likely to produce useful results, then we have to use rules of thinking that can cope not merely with being but with becoming. The Law of Contradiction states that nothing can be both X and non-X. The required supplement (we can perhaps christen it the Law of Transition) states that every X is becoming non-X.

This overcomes the sterilising effect which Frank Antosen rightly ascribes to formal logic; it offers scope for the exercise of imagination. Anarchists have no need to regard this type of reasoning as an enemy.

from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.