Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

by Justin E. H. Smith


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A fascinating history that reveals the ways in which the pursuit of rationality often leads to an explosion of irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

Rich and ambitious, Irrationality ranges across philosophy, politics, and current events. Challenging conventional thinking about logic, natural reason, dreams, art and science, pseudoscience, the Enlightenment, the internet, jokes and lies, and death, the book shows how history reveals that any triumph of reason is temporary and reversible, and that rational schemes, notably including many from Silicon Valley, often result in their polar opposite. The problem is that the rational gives birth to the irrational and vice versa in an endless cycle, and any effort to permanently set things in order sooner or later ends in an explosion of unreason. Because of this, it is irrational to try to eliminate irrationality. For better or worse, it is an ineradicable feature of life.

Illuminating unreason at a moment when the world appears to have gone mad again, Irrationality is fascinating, provocative, and timely.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691178677
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 143,077
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications. Twitter @jehsmith

Table of Contents

Preamble. A Mathematician's Murder 1

Introduction 5

Reason's Twin 5

Enlightenment into Myth 6

The Present Moment 12

Irrationality: A Road Map 19

Chapter 1 The Self-Devouring Octopus; or, Logic 27

The Operation of Falsity 27

Explosions 32

Kaspar Hauser and the Limits of Rational Choice 35

Carrying On about the Ineffable 40

Chapter 2 "No-Brainers"; or, Reason in Nature 51

An Ordered Whole 51

Brute Beasts 57

An Imperfect Superpower 64

Small Pain Points 69

Chapter 3 The Sleep of Reason; or, Dreams 73

Upon Awakening 73

Breaking the Law 80

Spirits, Vapors, Winds 84

Hearing Voices 88

Bitter Little Embryos 94

Postscriptum Fabulosum 98

Chapter 4 Dreams into Things; or, Art 99

Many Worlds 99

Bleeding Out 101

Genies, Genius, and Ingenium 108

What Is Art? 115

The Two Magisteria 122

Chapter 5 "I believe because it is absurd"; or, Pseudoscience 131

The Stars Down to Earth 131

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom 138

Alternative Facts, and Alternatives to Facts 145

The Paranoid Style in the Twenty-First Century 158

Chapter 6 Enlightenment; Or, Myth 166

Better the Light 166

The World-Soul on Horseback 172

Poetic History 177

Enlightenment into Myth, Again 185

Why Democracy? 195

Chapter 7 The Human Beast; Or, The Internet 200

An Escargotic Commotion 200

The Modern Shiva 204

Nothing Human Is Alien 212

More Gender Trouble 216

An Age of Extremes 226

Chapter 8 Explosions: Or, Jokes And Lies 229

Into Nothing 229

Charlie Hebdo and After 230

Pseudologia Generalis 237

Croaking 247

Chapter 9 The Impossible Syllogism; Or, Death 252

"In the long run we are all dead" 252

Radical Choices 256

Youth and Risk 259

The Impossible Syllogism 265

Tie Me Up 273

Cargo Cults 276

In Loving Repetition 284

Conclusion 287

Acknowledgments 291

Notes 293

Bibliography 313

Index 325

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