My Most Important Reads of 2021:
#2- Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin E. H. Smith
Without a doubt the book I have recommended and cited the most in 2021. The brilliance of its central thesis is the way it operates as a foundation through which to engage all else in this complicated world. With a demonstrable understanding of history and an ongoing engagement with philosophy Smith suggests that one of the grand failures of the age of reason is its hard headed resistance to irrationality. By ignoring the fact that we all rely on irrational premises in order to reason well we actually end up becoming more irrational in our thinking and our actions. Not to mention inevitably divided and resistant to reason. This simple truth underlays our biggest problems, our biggest disputes, our adherence to binaries and polarities, and our ignorance.
I might be overplaying just how accessible this book is in my enthusiastic endorsement of it. I suppose that happens when a book you love happened to be transformative. You want to get it’s ideas into the hands of others regardless of how well it sells. Its not the easiest read and it does demand your attention, but for me it remains profoundly simple in its application. We need not fear irrationality. It is part of how we make sense of and find meaning in this world. Irrational beliefs don’t make us less reasoned people. That is the lie of the enlightenment project. It in fact helps make us more reasoned people togther. To ignore this is to play into the destructiveness of our appeals to reason that we find leaving it’s mark throughout modern history, where reason becomes associated with power, status and exclusivity, hallmarks of the kind of subtle and deceptive anti- intellectualism that has gradually creeped its way into modern secular society, and by nature of its assimilation and association, religious society.
There is another word that aptly sums this up- humility. A lost virtue in what might be the least reasoned society in all of history. As a sidenote, just look at the recent release of Don’t Look Up for a perfect example of this cultural force in play. A film that encourages the dark side of reason by empowering us with a sense that we are the only ones in the room who know the truth and everyone else is the ignorant fool. It’s no surprise that, in the American landscape anyways, you will find Trumpists and Leftists equally claiming the other is the butt of this films satire and that they are the ones with exclusive access to the truth. That’s precisely how the dark side of reason works, leaving us as divided and immune to rationalism as ever.