Issues in Critical Thinking: Bertrand Russell on Human Irrationality

The following sentences begin Bertrand Russell’s essay, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, which was first published in 1943:

Man is a rational animal—so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents. On the contrary, I have seen the world plunging continually further into madness. I have seen great nations, formerly leaders of civilization, led astray by preachers of bombastic nonsense. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogy regrettably surviving from a bygone age.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Issues in Critical Thinking: Bertrand Russell on Human Irrationality

  1. Paradigm says:

    I think Russell is what Jung calls the introverted thinking type personality. They are the more normal cousin of Aspergers syndrome. This type fails to understand the nature of irrational processes – especially in society – and just dismiss it as “nonsense” and associate it with decay. They don’t see the highly irrational inventors and artist in a blooming culture.

    One could easily paint a similar picture of rationalism as applied science is destroying the planet, as scientists do all sorts of cruelties towards animals. Or the girl in China who was run over by a truck and no one helped her since they feared prosecution. That’s also rational.

    It’s what you in your Greek terminology call Apollonian and Dionysian. Is one better than the other?

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      I’m not clear what you’re defending here. Russell wrote this in 1943, in the midst of WWII. He’d lived through the irrationality of WWI as well. A good deal of what drove the first half of the 20th century was Herderian nationalism. Hitler led a “blooming” militarist culture, for example. It “bloomed” into Poland, as you’ll recall.

      And I’m sorry, but the art that came out of Nazi culture was not that good; it didn’t expose an underlying rationality beneath the surface irrationality, even as it was very, very Apollonian.

      You don’t need Asperger’s to think that Hitler’s art preferences were inane. And you don’t need Asperger’s to dismiss the rationality claimed by contemporary Islamist parties (even though they think of themselves as beautiful manifestations of the highest sort of rationality). It’s not culturally imperialist to call Islamist parties irrational.

      —Santi

      • Paradigm says:

        I’m defending irrationality in the form of Wagner, van Gogh, Kafka and many others. And I am saying that rationality in the form of applied science have been devastating for the environment. In short: there is a flip- and flopside to this dichotomy. Whenever someone smart fails to see that, it can only be a matter of an extreme personality. And Russell has a very clear introverted thinking type (not exactly the same as Aspergers, I only mentioned it because most people know of it).

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  3. andrewalexmo says:

    Irrationality and mental disorders are different and we ought not to confuse them. Applied science has given you the keyboard through which you share your opinions, the electricity that runs through your home and keeps your foods fresh in the fridge, the opportunity to listen to 19th century music, to take a plane to view 19th century art, and to walk into a store and pick up some existential literature. I fear that, when you indict science with crimes, you forget that it’s not the method’s fault but the user’s. Take a hammer: it can be used to build a house or to whack someone over the head. What’s done with it depends, crucially, on how the user employs it. These elementary considerations, and they are very elementary, cast doubt on the validity of the opinion you expressed above; and more importantly, on your ability to confidently offer a psychiatric diagnosis on a Nobel laureate.
    I once read that the fundamental cause of the trouble in our modern world is the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Guess who said it.

  4. Vincent says:

    Bertrand Russell

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