Rationalism and Freethinking – Some Basics

Rationalism as a philosophy is defined as using reason and logic as the reliable basis for testing any claims of truth, seeking objective knowledge about reality, making judgments and drawing conclusions about it. Although rationalism must ultimately rely on sense perceptions, but it must also couple sense perceptions with logic and evidence. To be consistent with logic, the thought process of a rationalist must be free from logical fallacies, catalogued in many introductory books on logic or critical thinking. There is no place for personal bias or emotion in rationalism, although emotion and rationalism are not mutually exclusive, each has its place. More on this later.

Freethinking, which is sometimes confused with rationalism, is defined as the free forming of views about reality independent of authority or dogma, be it from a divine or human source. If we stick to the strict definitions, then freethinking is not synonymous with rationalism. One need not be strictly rational to be a freethinker. One is allowed the leeway to believe or form any opinion, not necessarily rational (essentially “think as you like”), as long as it is not influenced by existing religious, cultural or traditional dogma or authority. A postmodernist (Read intellectual anarchist) may claim to be a freethinker according to this non-restrictive definition. But rationalism is much more restrictive. It enforces logic and evidence as the guiding principle in thinking and forming opinions and cognition.

So although rationalism invariably leads to freethinking, but freethinking does not necessarily imply rationalism, since freethinking may include irrational views, beliefs and personal bias. I have attempted to provide my own definitions in a precise way in a recent post (Faith Philosophy and Dogma) to help set the criteria for freethinkers/freethinking.

I must point out that I have tried to define and explain rationalism in the sense it is commonly understood today. I have not tried to approach the concept of rationalism from the perspective of the history of philosophy. In philosophical literature rationalism have been historically used to mean a certain epistemological school. The epistemic rationalism of Des Cartes, Spinozza, Wolff, Leibnitz et alia postulated that human knowledge is attainable apriori through intellect alone, independent of senses. To them the true source of knowledge were innate ideas. Sense perception to them was a poor or incomplete source of knowledge. Rationalism was in contrast with empiricism, whose principal proponents were Locke, Hume, Berkeley et alia. But my definition of rationalism is, in my view more meaningful, pragmatic and consistent with contemporary scientific thinking.

Rationalism as a philosophy demands some strict mental discipline that many find hard to implement in their thoughts and actions. Many may not even be aware that they are not being strictly rational. The reason for this is that some mistakenly associate rationalism with certain ideals and outlook that do not necessarily follow from rationalism. Rationalism as a philosophy inevitably leads to scientific method through logic and critical thinking. Therefore a rationalist cannot subscribe a priori to any ideology, political or ideological, nor can a rationalist make statement of truth that is not a strict proposition.

So a rationalist cannot claim to be a strict atheist, i.e cannot assert that “God does not exist”, since God is not a logically well-defined and meaningful concept, all definitions of God in any religious context runs into contradictions and logical inconsistency. So the existence or non-existence of God are both logically meaningless to a rationalist. A rationalist can only take a noncognitivist position in the God context. For more details on this issue please carefully review the following two articles at :

1. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/definition.html
2. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/incompatible.html

Does it mean a rationalist cannot have any opinion at all about anything? Of course not. If an opinion does not contradict logic, evidence or observation, rationalism does not prevent one from forming a tentative opinion. For example it is not against rationalism to hypothesize about all the POSSIBLE causes of a crime, when definite evidence is missing to point to the actual cause. Same can be said about theories to explain certain facts of reality. That’s what science is about. Scientific speculation is just that. Theories are just possible explanation about facts and observations. Before theories can become laws they are just scientific opinions. But the important point to realize is that rationalist opinions, although not yet proven, should nevertheless be consistent with logic or observations (i.e does not contradict logic or observations) and should not use ill-defined terms.

Rationalism cannot be a basis for subscribing to a political party based on any dogma, or to express an a priori affiliation or support for a non-dogma based political party.. One can certainly do so as a human out of emotional need or bias, but not DUE TO rationalism. For a rationalist who chooses to be guided by pure rationalism, not emotion, support for a non-dogma based political party should be based on policies, performance, efficiencies and other objective criterion, thus need not be a static one, but changeable based on an ongoing assessment of the fulfillment of those criteria. There is no such concept as party loyalty in a rationalist vocabulary. Some intellectuals believe that certain political stand in an ideological, social or political controversy is required by rationalism, e.g leftist ideology, pro-choice stand in abortion, nurturist stand in nature-nurture debate, etc to name a few. Many of them commit the fallacy of appeal to emotion (invoking patriotism/nationalism) to justify an uncritical adoption of one side of a political issue.

To a rationalist, an apriori biased stand is not consistent with rationalism. They should be prepared to accept whichever viewpoint that scientific and logical reasoning may lead to, even if that goes against the popular trend of thinking. Rationalism is ruthless, it does not need to pamper to one’s emotional need or wishes, or care about political correctness..

In personal life, that means a rationalist has to acknowledge and be critical of the unpleasant facts, if necessary, about one’s near and dear ones, if evidence so suggests. Being able to separate facts from personal biases is an essential hallmark of rationalism. By the same token, a rationalist has to acknowledge, and criticize , if need be, the shortcomings of the race, religion or language he/she belongs to, in a detached way, free from personal bias, as well as acknowledge the superiority of another race, religion in a certain aspect, if objective evidence suggests so. Rationalism also does not imply making an a priori assumption that all bad or wrongs are equal, just because political correctness says so. Rationalism demands doing the required homework to quantify and recognize shades in right and wrong in morality and shades of good and bad in attributes by some objective criteria when applicable. This requires intellectual courage and integrity, as it can be potentially incur one the scorn of the majority, for whom the priority is loyalty, pride, patriotism etc. But rationalism does not recognize such mental constructs or sets such priority. It only cares for logic and evidence.

Rationalism does not allow taking a stand just because it is politically correct or popular. Many intellectuals associate the terms liberal, progressive etc with rationalism/freethinking. But liberal, progressive etc are usually understood and judged in the context of which stand one takes vis a vis certain issues, e.g pro-choice in abortion, leftist ideology ij politics, nurturist stand in the nature/nurture debate, a puritanic belief that all bads are equal (i.e cultural and moral relativism) etc. But rationalism does not require one to adopt such positions, and in fact in certain issues,\ may lead to the opposite stand by scientific evidence and logic. I will not dwell at length on the specifics of those scientific evidences in all such cases as it is a topic on its own and I am only interested on the general aspects of rationalism in this essay. A small example may help to illustrate rationalistic approach to an issue. IF we adopt the axiom that ending a “life” is morally wrong, THEN the act of abortion by definition will be morally wrong, since biology tells us that a fetus has life of its own. There is no value judgement involved, that was a conclusion derived from purely logical inference. (Notice the IF.. THEN.. construct). Whether we should adopt “ending life is morally wrong” as an axiom of course is not dictated by rationalism. But in fact we can derive that axiom from rationalism if we adopt another axiom as more fundamental, for example the axiom that we should do whatever is needed to increases the odds for the survival of human species. In that case rational thinking using evolutionary biology tells us that IF we adopt the precept “ending life is morally wrong”, THEN it increases the odds for the survival of human species (Again notice the IF.. THEN.. contruct). Whether we should consider “increasing the odds of the survival of human species” as a moral imperative is of course beyond rationalism. This is an intuitive moral axiom. This example clearly shows that rationalism does have a role in formulating moral precpets, barring the mosr primitive moral axioms. Even humanism, is not strictly derived from rationalism. Humanism follows from rationalism if the postulate “we should put priority on the welfare of maximum number of humans irrespective of race, color, creed, ethnicity etc.” is added to rationalism. It must be noted that all religions and dogmas claim human welfare as their goal as well. But what differentiates their view of humanism from rational humanism is that for them, that goal is claimed to be achievable only through the implementation of their dogma. So dogma comes first for them. Not only that, the priority for welfare in most religions and dogmas is reserved for their followers. But rational humanism does not make that distinction. Once humanism is arrived through rationalism, the notions of democracy and secularism follows as corollary.

Rationalism+Human good–> Humanism–> Democracy–>Secularism

Another point that many may have already wondered is that how can we decide who is rationalist or not? After all, followers of all religion or dogma claim they believe in logic and reason. Doesn’t every one have their own logic and every religion their own logic? So how can one not be rational? This is a tricky question that can lead to a slippery slope if not clarified beforehand. Cultural and moral relativists, postmodernists exploit such slippery slope to argue that all are equal, nothing is more valid than another etc. The logic and evidence referred to in rationalism, is shared by humanity with an overwhelming consensus crossing race, religion and affiliation etc. In other words they are universal. Modern logic finds much in common with the logic of early Greek, Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, as well as the early Muslim rationalists (Mutazillites) during the time of the House of Wisdom in Bagdad. This logic has been perfected and improved by later philosophers, like Locke, Hume, Kant and many Mathematicians and logicians of the twentieth century. This is the logic that is taught with tax payer’s funding in public schools in most nations of the world as well as secular private schools. This is also the logic that has WORKED. This logic has been the basis of the scientific method that has been so successful, has changed the world, made predictions about nature that was tested and verified to be true. It is also leading humanity towards continued advancement. It is no surprise that this is the logic that people have staked their money in teaching and learning. There are a set of unambiguous rules for valid logical reasoning, both informal and formal taught in elementary logic class that can act as guide to resolve dilemmas, ambiguities, paradox. contradictions, disputes etc. Also it is important to note that claims must be backed up by not just logic, but evidence and objectivity as well, both of are lacking in claims of religious or other dogmas. Contrast that with the “logic” that person “A” uses to rationalize his own belief, or the “logic” of religion “X” to rationalize that religion. Such “logic” is not shared universally, nor has it demonstrated its utility by coming up with any predictions, inventions or innovations, nor to the discovery of any fundamental truth about nature or reality. A “logic” that has been invented as a dedicated ploy to justify one dogma or belief is no logic at all. Besides such logic does not have universal appeal.

It should suffice to note that a dogma by definition is not based on logic and evidence, so to try to justify a dogma by logic is a fallacy to begin with and thus contrary to rationalism. It is quite intriguing to see vocal champions of religious dogmas even among some PhD’s of reputed universities, who are not ashamed to claim that their belief is supported by logic and evidence!

Rationalism also implies skepticism. Skepticism requires one to doubt any claim to truth, unless proven by evidence and logic, and to suspend belief or judgment in absence thereof, which clearly follows from rationalism. In personal life, such skepticism forces one to refrain from forming judgement or drawing hasty conclusions or opinion about a person or any claim of truth. In the absence of any evidence or logic a skeptic should stay in a “do nothing” i.e neutral mode. This “do nothing” neutral mode is a level most minds cannot recognize and needs some effort to become at ease with it. Most feel tempted to ruch to an opinion one way or the other, even in the absence of any supporting data. If and when the evidence or logic is available only then a skeptic can form an opinion, that is dictated by the evidence and logic, not by their wishful desires or biases.

A rationalist has to have the intellectual courage to acknowledge unpleasant truths. A rationalist never gained/gains materially or otherwise by being rational. It is just a philosophy that they find intuitively appealing.

Let me now turn to some mistaken notions about rationalism that is quite common among many. Many think that rationalism means an arrogant claim to infallibility, that rationalism never admits of ever being wrong, that it denies the possibility that logic itself may be wrong! All these are due to a lack of careful reflection. First that one could be wrong is a trivial and self-evident fact. It is like saying that one cannot be sure that he/she will make it to the destination as the flight may crash. ACKNOWLEDGING that fact of the limits and uncertainties in one’s knowledge is a matter of humility. Humility is a personality trait.  

Rationalism is a philosophy, not a trait. Rationalism does not prevent one, nor does it mandate one to possess certain personality trait. Second to say that “logic” itself may be wrong is to commit a fallacy. Because to judge something as “wrong” needs a logic of its own. One cannot use logic to judge the same logic as wrong! We have assumed that there exists only one system of logic that works best. Until we find a better system of logic, it is a fallacy to judge that logic as wrong. But saying that the “logic” is not wrong does not mean saying that one cannot make mistakes. Mistakes are due to an individual’s limit or flaw in applying logic, not due to logic itself. But there is no better way to overcome that limit than logic itself. Anyway, that humility of admitting the self-evident fact of fallibility is built in the scientific method.  

Scientific method, which is derived from rationalism is based on the premise that there is no absolute or final truth, and that any conclusion about reality is always tentative, subject to continual revision in light of further evidence. But one must not conclude that just because in certain instance one could predict the truth correctly by non-rational (intuition, guess) means that means intuition is superior to rationalism as a means for seeking truth. For example if a coin is tossed, an intuitionist may intuitively guess that the coin will come heads up. A rationalist cannot predict the outcome on the basis of logic and science (It is incredibly complex calculation) If the coin does fall heads up, does it prove that intuition is superior to rationalism? Of course not. Let me now clarify what rationalism is not or cannot It is a mistaken to believe that rationalism can solve all problems in life, or prevent them. It cannot. The fact it cannot is because the truth in many situation in life is not always known in advance for one to make the right decision. Rationalism is limited by the knowledge or truth that is needed in making an informed decision to solve or prevent a problem. In an indeterminstic situation intuitive guesses and judgement is inevitable. And the intuition of rational person is not guaranteed to be right. So in those situations in life where there are unknowns and uncertainties, intuitive guesswork cannot be avoided. Rationalism may offer some guidelines in making the best guesses, but it cannot offer a guarantee for success. For example, rationalism cannot guarantee one will make the right choice in marriage or relationship. Rationalism cannot prevent one from making mistakes in life. Gamble in life cannot be totally averted through rationalism. Risk cannot be either. More generally speaking, from an utilitarian point of view, rationalism is no guarantee to material success in individual life. Rationalism is a principle based on logic and evidence. In an imperfect world, that is not always the sure route to material success. Just like honesty is not. But the value of rationalism goes beyond personal gains or interests. It’s value lies in the collective imnprovement of the quality of human life by following rationalistic approach. COnsider the cost human society has paid and is paying in terms of dollars and man hours for believing in dogmas and faiths that have no logic or evodence as its basis. How much time and resources are being spent towards relgiouis rituals, how much suffering and persecution has enforcement of some cruelst relgious dogmas brought to many decent humans? If majority of a society adopt rationalism as their personal philosophy, then such wastage and social evils could be abolished or minimized. Society would prosper faster then. A common thinking is that morality is beyond rationalism. I think that is a mistaken view. Although the moral axioms at the bottom of a moral system may have to be assumed arbitrarily based on intuition, once the axioms are accepted, further moral precepts based on those axioms can certainly be rationally analyzed or developed. Rationalism is the product of human mind. So is morality. There is no apriori cause for them to be not connected. In the ultimate analysis since it is the laws of nature that has created human brain and thus rationalism, so it should be in principle possible to formulate a moral system based on the same laws of nature via rationalism. It may have to be an evolutionary process.

It must also be emphasized that not all human brains are equally capabale of rationalism or programmed for rational thinking. There is no guaranatee that rationalism can be inculcated by preaching or training. Human brain, being inherently complex, have varying degrees of potential for each type of thinking. It is possible certain brains are more susceptible to certain cues that triggers rational thinking, while others are impervious to any cues. There are some PhD’s of renouned universties, even after being exposed to some of the finest rationalistic arguments, writings and philosophical essays, continue to defend religious dogmas, sometimes even using the very same rationalistic arguments and languages they read about! They are impervious to any rational cues at all. Majority of humans are easily susceptible to cues of dogmatist preaching or rationalist thinking. They are up for grabs, so to speak. These are the fence-sitters, swing voters in the rationalism vs. dogmatism election, metaphorically speaking. It does not make much sense to say “thou shalt be rational”. The best that those who value and cherish rationalism can do is to target this majority, present to them examples of rational arguments to refute or critique issues, debunk the claims of mystics, godmen and other charlartans by logical means and evidence. This can be through electronic and print media, or preferably if possible through practical workshops as has been done in many rural outbacks of India. I also strongly suggest that rationalism be included in high school curricula. While it may be unrealistic to expect this to happen in the current environment in many countries where religious sentiments run high, specially if rationalism is pitted against the popular religion, it may be acceptable including rationalism as a general philosophy to emphasize reason and evidence over blind faith and superstition. Leading educators and academicians need to take the lead in lobbying with the relevant authorites for such curricular changes.

Next, to many, rationalism means robbing one of the sense of beauty, romanticism, love, compassion , i.e leaves one heartless and devoid of emotions. This is a big myth. Rationalism stresses separating the head from the heart, not REPLACING heart with head. Certain things are intrinsically rooted in instinct, and thus beyond rationalism. Love, fear, altruism, conscience (sense of right and wrong), these are biologically rooted instincts. Instincts are not controllable or influenced by rationalism. Instincts are more or less hardwired in our genes and manifested through the workings of the limbic system of our brain. Whereas rationalism results from the thought process determined by the evolution of cerebral cortex. Humans posses both these brain components. So a rational person can feel an instinctive fear in certain environment, or can feel passionate love for certain person. What differentiates a rational person from a less or rational or emotional person is the synaptic connectivities in their cerebral cortex, not in their limbic system. So when it comes to primal instincts controlled by limbic systems, for example self-preservation, the difference disappears. In a life threatening situation, control is automatically taken over by the limbic system from the cerebral cortex, biological instinct of aggression may kick in, and at that point whatever one does is not subject to rationalism anymore. Taste is also instinctive. Rationalism has nothing to do with it.

Although rationalism does not decide or control our tastes and emotions, it can however EXPLAIN (or at least try to through scientific method) the basis of such emotions and likes or dislikes. Rationalism cannot affect or control love. But rationalism can certainly help explain the biological (in both evolutionary and biochemical terms) origin of love, morality and other human values and attributes. The same can be said about all other instincts and emotions. A good example of that would be the book “Why we feel : The Science of Emotions” by Victor Johnston. So being rational does not by any means deprive of those instincts, tastes and emotions, because they are an integral part of being human, rational or not. Rationalism enables humans to understand and explain the underlyinmg basis of emotions, it does not rob us of the emotions. A neurologist does not lose his mind(brain) in trying to understand the workings of the brain, nor does an evolutionary biologist ceases to be a loving mate or parent in trying to explain and understand the biological roots of love, simply because we have no control on our biological instincts, whether we are rational or not. Rationalism however can however help to control the impulses that emotions may lead to. In biological language, although the generation of emotions in the limbic system itself cannot be controlled, the impulsive ACTS (e.g aggression) that those emotions often lead to can be controlled by the feedback mechanism of the cerebral cortex over the limbic system.
Another “reason” for viewing rationalism with cynical eyes by many is because it is believed by them that humanitarian acts should come from an emotional impulse, not from a rationalization process, which does not take the compassion factor in the decision of such acts. On first look, it may look like a noble view, putting heart before head. But as I pointed out, compassion, humanitarian acts all are derived from altruism, a biologically rooted instinct, so rationalism cannot affect it. Although rationalism can certainly manage altruistic instinct in a way that ensures optimum utilization of it. Impulsive altruistic acts do not always lead to the best results. Rationalism can help to channelize our altruistic instincts in the most optimal manner. At a very personal level, of course even a rationalist can (and often does) act out of an impulse and do an act of humanitarianism or compassion, since doing so is not contradicted by logic. Compassion should not REPLACE rationalism, but must be accompanied by it. A good example would be the case of a judge granting leniency to convicted on compassionate grounds. But the compassion follows only after a thorough rational analysis of the crimes committed by the convicted. Rationalism is truly applicable in forming opinions, judgments, learning the truth and solving problems, but not to instincts, or impulses that are non-judgmental, non-intrusive and innocuous

Another “reason” for viewing rationalism with cynical eyes by many is because it is believed by them that humanitarian acts should come from an emotional impulse, not from a rationalization process, which does not take the compassion factor in the decision of such acts. On first look, it may look like a noble view, putting heart before head. But as I pointed out, compassion, humanitarian acts all are derived from altruism, a biologically rooted instinct, so rationalism cannot affect it. Although rationalism can certainly manage altruistic instinct in a way that ensures optimum utilization of it. Impulsive altruistic acts do not always lead to the best results. Rationalism can help to channelize our altruistic instincts in the most optimal manner. At a very personal level, of course even a rationalist can (and often does) act out of an impulse and do an act of humanitarianism or compassion, since doing so is not contradicted by logic. Compassion should not REPLACE rationalism, but must be accompanied by it. A good example would be the case of a judge granting leniency to convicted on compassionate grounds. But the compassion follows only after a thorough rational analysis of the crimes committed by the convicted. Rationalism is truly applicable in forming opinions, judgments, learning the truth and solving problems, but not to instincts, or impulses that are non-judgmental, non-intrusive and innocuousLastly I will be remiss if I do not point out the challenge that rationalism is facing from the postmodernist thinking that seems to be gaining ground in recent years. Postmodernists are challenging that very golden product of rationalism, namely scientific method by insisting that scientific method is just one among many EQUALLY valid route to truth and deserves no special privileged status. This is nothing but intellectual anarchism. Postmodernists are nothing but armchair social scientists that have fallen much behind modern scientific paradigms and are threatened by the scientific approach that the social sciences are adopting (rather being forced to adopt). They are watching with frustration one after another social discipline is losing ground to the exact sciences. Not being able to face upto the challenge of the sciences some of them have chosen the treacherous art of deconstruction and misapplying it to scientific method. So rationalism now faces challenges from two fronts, religious dogma (which Europeans successfully faced during the renaissance), and postmodernism, which is a new challenge that needs to be faced. So the need to emphasize rationalism is more now than ever. Hopefully my fellow Mukto-Monas will share my passion for rationalism.

Aparthib Zaman, aparthib@yahoo.com

Dynamics of Liberalism

The purpose of this essay is to critically examine the historical dynamics of liberalism and its impact on contemporary Western polities. This essay will argue a) that liberalism today provides a comfortable ideological “retreat” for members of the intellectual elite and decision makers tired of the theological and ideological disputes that rocked Western politics for centuries; b) that liberalism can make compromises with various brands of socialism on practically all issues except the freedom of the market place; c) that liberalism thrives by expanding the economic arena into all aspects of life and all corners of the world, thereby gradually erasing the sense of national and historical community which had formerly provided the individual with a basic sense of identity and psychological security. This essay will also question whether liberalism, despite its remarkable success in the realm of the economy, provides an adequate bulwark against non-democratic ideologies, or whether under some conditions it may actually stimulate their growth.

In the aftermath of the second world war, liberalism and Marxism emerged as the two unquestionably dominant ideologies following their military success over their common rival, fascism. This brought them into direct conflict with each other, since each contended, from their own viewpoint, that the only valid political model was their own, denying the validity of their opponent’s thesis. Beaud writes that when the liberal and socialist ideas began to emerge, the former quickly cloaked itself in science (“the law of supply and demand,” “the iron law of wages”), while the latter had the tendency to degenerate into mysticism and sectarianism.[1]

Some critics of liberalism, such as the French economist Francois Perroux, pointed out that according to some extreme liberal assumptions, “everything (that) has been happening since the beginning of time (can be attributed to capitalism) as if the modern world was constructed by industrialists and merchants consulting their account books and wishing to reap profits.”[2] Similar subjective attitudes, albeit from a different ideological angle, can often be heard among Marxist theorists, who in the analysis of liberal capitalism resort to value judgements colored by Marxian dialectics and accompanied by the rejection of the liberal interpretation of the concept of equality and liberty. “The fact that the dialectical method can be used for each purpose,” remarks the Austrian philosopher Alexander Topitsch, “explains its extraordinary attraction and its world-wide dissemination, that can only be compared to the success of the natural rights doctrine of the eighteenth century.”[3] Nevertheless, despite their real ideological discord, liberals, neo-liberals, socialists, and “socio-neoliberals,” agree, at least in principle, in claiming a common heritage of rationalism, and on the rejection of all non-democratic ideologies, especially racialism. Earlier in this century, Georges Sorel, the French theorist of anarcho-syndicalism, remarked with irony that “to attempt to protest against the illusion of rationalism means to be immediately branded as the enemy of democracy.”[4]

The practical conflict between the respective virtues of liberalism and socialism is today seemingly coming to a close, as some of the major Marxist regimes move in the direction of a liberalization of their economies, even though the ideological debate is by no means settled amongst intellectuals. Undoubtedly, the popularity of Marxist socialism is today in global decline amongst those who have to face the problem of making it work. In consequence, despite the fact that support for Marxism amongst Western intellectuals was at its height when repression in Marxist countries was at its peak, liberalism today seems have been accepted as a place of “refuge” by many intellectuals who, disillusioned with the failure of repression in the Marxist countries, nevertheless continue to hold to the socialist principles of universalism and egalitarianism.

As Francois B. Huyghe comments, welfare state policies accepted by liberals have implemented many of the socialist programs which patently failed in communist countries.[5] Thus, economic liberalism is not only popular among many former left-wing intellectuals (including numbers of East European intellectuals) because it has scored tangible economic results in the Western countries, but also due to the fact that its socialist counterpart has failed in practice, leaving the liberal model as the only uncontested alternative. “The main reason for the victories of economic liberalism,” writes Kolm, “are due to the fact that all defective functioning of the non-liberal model of social realization warrants the consideration of the alternative liberal social realization. The examples of such cases abound in the West as in the East; in the North as in the South.”[6] In the absence of other successful models, and in the epoch of a pronounced “de-ideologization” process all over Europe and America, modern liberalism has turned out to be a modus vivendi for the formerly embattled foes. But are we therefore to conclude that the eclipse of other models and ideologies must spell the end of politics and inaugurate the beginning of the Age of Liberalism?

Long before the miracle of modern liberalism became obvious, a number of writers had observed that liberalism would continue to face a crisis of legitimacy even if its socialist and fascist foes were miraculously to disappear.[7] More recently, Serge-Christophe Kolm has remarked that liberalism and socialism must not be viewed in dialectical opposition, but rather as a fulfilment of each other. Kolm writes that the ideals of liberalism and Marxism “are almost identical given that they are founded on the values of liberty, and coinciding in the applications of almost everything, except on a subject which is logically punctual, yet factually enormous in this world: wage-earning, location of individuals and self.”[8] Some have even advanced the hypothesis that liberalism and socialism are the face and the counter-face of the same phenomenon, since contemporary liberalism has managed to achieve, in the long run and in an unrepressive fashion, many of those same goals which Marxian socialism in the short run, employing repressive means, has failed to achieve. Yet differences exist.

Not only do socialist ideologues currently fear that the introduction of free market measures could spell the end of socialism, but socialism and liberalism disagree fundamentally on the definition of equality. Theoretically, both subscribe to constitutional, legal, political and social equality; yet their main difference lies in their opposing views regarding the distribution of economic benefits/rewards, and accordingly, as to their corresponding definition of economic equality. Unlike liberalism, socialism is not satisfied with demanding political and social equality, but insists on equal distribution of economic goods. Marx repeatedly criticized the liberal definition of equal rights, for which he once said that “this equal right is unequal right for unequal labor. This right does not acknowledge class difference because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual talents, and consequently it holds individual skills for natural privileges.”[9] Only in a higher stage of communism, after the present subordination of individuals to capital, that is, after the differences in the rewards of labor have disappeared, will bourgeois rights disappear, and society will write on its banner: “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.”[10]

Despite these differences, it may be said that, in general, socialist ideas have always surfaced as unavoidable satellites and pendants of liberalism. As soon as liberal ideas made their inroads into the European feudal scene, the stage for socialist appetites was set – appetites which subsequently proved too large to fulfil. As soon as the early bourgeoisie had secured its position, liquidating guilds and feudal corporations along with the landed aristocracy, it had to face up to critics who accused it of stifling political liberties and economic equality, and of turning the newly enfranchised peasant into a factory slave. In the seventeenth century, remarks Lakoff, the bourgeois ideas of equality and liberty immediately provided the fourth estate with ideological ammunition, which was quickly expressed by numerous proto-socialist revolutionary movements.[11] Under such circumstances of flawed equality, it must not come as a surprise that the heaviest burden for peasants was the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, which had hailed the rights of equality as long as it struggled to dislodge the aristocracy from power; yet the minute it acceded to power, prudently refrained from making any further claims about equality in affluence. David Thomson remarked with irony that “many of those who would defend with their dying breath the rights of liberty and equality (such as many English and American liberals) shrink back in horror from the notion of economic egalitarianism.”[12] Also, Sorel pointed out that in general, the abuse of power by an hereditary aristocracy is less harmful to the juridical sentiment of a people than the abuses committed by a plutocratic regime,[13] adding that “nothing would ruin so much the respect for laws as the spectacle of injustices committed by adventurers who, with the complicity of tribunals, have become so rich that they can purchase politicians.”[14]

The dynamics of liberal and socialist revolutions gathered steam in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, notably an epoch of great revolutionary ferment in Europe. The liberal 1789 revolution in France rapidly gave way to the socialist Jacobin revolution in 1792; “the liberal” Condorcet was supplanted by the “communist” Babeuf, and the relatively bloodless Girondin coup was followed by the avalanche of bloodshed under the Jacobin terror and the revolt of the “sans-culottes.”[15] Similarly, a hundred years later, the February Revolution in Russia was followed by the accelerated October revolution, replacing the social democrat, Kerensky, by the communist Lenin. Liberalism gobbled up the ancient aristocracy, liquidated the medieval trade corporations, alienated the workers, and then in its turn was frequently supplanted by socialism. It is therefore interesting to observe that after its century-long competition with socialism, liberalism is today showing better results in both the economic and ethical domains, whereas the Marxist credo seems to be on the decline. But has liberalism become the only acceptable model for all peoples on earth? How is it that liberalism, as an incarnation of the humanitarian ideal and the democratic spirit, has always created enemies on both the left and the right, albeit for different reasons?

Free Market: The “Religion” of Liberalism
Liberalism can make many ideological “deals” with other ideologies, but one sphere where its remains intransigent is the advocacy of the free market and free exchange of goods and commodities. Undoubtedly, liberalism is not an ideology like other ideologies, and in addition, it has no desire to impose an absolute and exclusive vision of the world rooted in a dualistic cleavage between good and evil, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the “chosen and the unchosen ones.” Moreover, the liberal ideal lacks that distinctive telos so typical of socialist and fascist ideologies. Contrary to other ideologies, liberalism is in general rather sceptical of any concentration of political power, because in the “inflation” of politics, and in ideological fervor, it claims to see signs of authoritarianism and even, as some authors have argued, totalitarianism.[16] Liberalism seems to be best fitted for a secularized polity, which Carl Schmitt alternatively called the “minimal state” (Minimalstaat), and stato neutrale.[17] It follows that in a society where production has been rationalized and human interaction is subject to constant reification (Vergegenstandlichung), liberalism cannot (or does not wish to) adopt the same “will to power” which so often characterizes other ideologies. In addition, it is somewhat difficult to envision how such a society can request its citizens to sacrifice their goods and their lives in the interests of some political or religious ideal.[18] The free market is viewed as a “neutral filed” (Neutralgebiet), allowing only the minimum of ideological conflict, that aims at erasing all political conflicts, positing that all people are rational beings whose quest for happiness is best secured by the peaceful pursuit of economic goals. In a liberal, individualistic society, every political belief is sooner or later reduced to a “private thing” whose ultimate arbiter is the individual himself. The Marxist theoretician Habermas comes to a somewhat similar conclusion, when he argues that modern liberal systems have acquired a negative character: “Politics is oriented to the removal of dysfunctionalities and of risks dangerous to the system; in other words politics is not oriented to the implementation of practical goals, but to the solution of technological issues.”[19] The market may thus be viewed as an ideal social construct whose main purpose is to limit the political arena. Consequently, every imaginable flaw in the market is generally explained by assertions that “there is still too much politics” hampering the free exchange of goods and commodities.[20]

Probably one of the most cynical remarks about liberalism and the liberal “money fetichism,” came not from Marx, but from the Fascist ideologue Julius Evola, who once wrote: “Before the classical dilemma, your money or your life, the bourgeois will paradoxically be the one to answer: ‘Take my life, but spare my money.'”[21] But in spite of its purportedly agnostic and apolitical character, it would be wrong to assert that liberalism does not have “religious roots.” In fact, many authors have remarked that the implementation of liberalism has been the most successful in precisely those countries which are known for strong adherence to biblical monotheism. Earlier in this century, the German sociologist Werner Sombart asserted that the liberal postulates of economics and ethics stem from Judeo-Christian legalism, and that liberals conceive of commerce, money and the “holy economicalness” (“heilige Wirtschaftlichkeit”) as the ideal avenue to spiritual salvation.[22] More recently, the French anthropologist Louis Dumont, wrote that liberal individualism and economism are the secular transposition of Judeo-Christian beliefs, noting that “just as religion gave birth to politics, politics in turn will be shown to give birth to economics.”[23]

Henceforth, writes Dumont in his book From Mandeville to Marx, according to the liberal doctrine, man’s pursuit of happiness has increasingly come to be associated with the unimpeded pursuit of economic activities. In modern polities, he opines, the substitution of man as an individual for the idea of man as a social being was made possible by Judeo- Christianity: “the transition was thus made possible, from a holistic social order to a political system raised by consent as a superstructure on an ontological given economic basis.”[24] In other words, the idea of individual accountability before God, gave birth, over a long period of time, to the individual and to the idea that economic accountability constitutes the linchpin of the liberal social contract – a notion totally absent from organic and traditional nationalistically-organized societies.[25] Thus Emanuel Rackman argues that Judeo-Christianity played an important role in the development of ethical liberalism in the USA: “This was the only source on which Thomas Paine could rely in his “Rights of Man” to support the dogma of the American Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. And this dogma was basic in Judaism.”[26] Similar claims are made by Konvitz in Judaism and the American Idea, wherein he argues that modern America owes much to the Jewish holy scriptures.[27] Feurbach, Sombart, Weber, Troeltsch, and others have similarly argued that Judeo-Christianity had a considerable influence on the historical development of liberal capitalism. On the other hand, when one considers the recent economic success of various Asian countries on the Pacific Rim, whose expansionary impetus often overshadows the economic achievements of the countries marked by the Judeo-Christian legacy, one must take care not to equate economic success solely with the Judeo-Christian forms of liberal society.

Equal Economic Opportunity or the Opportunity to Be Unequal?
The strength of liberalism and of free-market economics lies in the fact that the liberal ideal enables all people to develop their talents as they best see fit. The free market ignores all hierarchy and social differentiation, except those differences which result from the completion of economic transactions. Liberals argue that all people have the same economic opportunity, and that consequently, each individual, by making best use of his or her talents and entrepreneurship, will alone determine his or her social status. But critics of liberalism often contend that this formula is in itself dependent upon the terms and conditions under which the principles of “economic opportunity” can take place. John Schaar asserts that liberalism has substantially transformed the social arena into the economic field track, and that the formula should read: “equality of opportunity for all to develop those talents which are highly valued by a given people at a given time.”[28] According to Schaar’s logic, when the whims of the market determine which specific items, commodities or human talents are most in demand, or are more marketable than some others, it will follow that individuals lacking these talents or commodities will experience an acute sense of injustice. “Every society, Schaar continues, “encourages some talents and discourages others. Under the equal opportunity doctrine, the only men who can fulfil themselves and develop their abilities to the fullest are those who are able and eager to do what society demands they do.”[29] This means that liberal societies will likely be most content when their members share a homogeneous background and a common culture. Yet modern liberalism seeks to break-down national barriers and promote the conversion of hitherto homogeneous nation-states into multi-ethnic and highly heterogeneous political states. Thus, the potential for disputation and dissatisfaction is enhanced by the successful implementation of its economic policies.

It is further arguable that the success of liberalism engenders its own problems. Thus, as Karl Marx was quick to note, in a society where everything becomes an expendable commodity, man gradually comes to see himself as an expendable commodity too. An average individual will be less and less prone to abide by his own internal criteria, values or interests, and instead, he will tenaciously focus on not being left out of the economic battle, always on his guard that his interests are in line with the market. According to Schaar, such an attitude, in the long run, can have catastrophic consequences for the winner as well as the loser: “The winners easily come to think of themselves as being superior to common humanity, while the losers are almost forced to think of themselves as something less than human.”[30] Under psychological pressure caused by incessant economic competition, and seized by fear that they may fall out of the game, a considerable number of people, whose interests and sensibilities are not compatible with current demands of the market, may develop feelings of bitterness, jealousness and inferiority. A great many among them will accept the economic game, but many will, little by little, come to the conclusion that the liberal formula “all people are equal,” in reality only applies to those who are economically the most successful. Murray Milner, whose analyses parallel Schaar’s, observes that under such circumstances, the doctrine of equal opportunity creates psychological insecurity, irrespective of the material affluence of society. “Stressing equality of opportunity necessarily makes the status structure fluid and the position of the individual within it ambiguous and insecure.”[31] The endless struggle for riches and security, which seemingly has no limits, can produce negative results, particularly when society is in the throes of sudden economic changes. Antony Flew, in a similar fashion, writes that “a ‘competition’ in which the success of all contestants is equally probable is a game of chance or lottery, not a genuine competition.”[32] For Milner such an economic game is tiring and unpredictable, and if “extended indefinitely, it could lead to exhaustion and collapse.”[33]

Many other contemporary authors also argue that the greatest threat to liberalism comes from the constant improvement in general welfare generated by its own economic successes. Recently, two French scholars, Julien Freund and Claude Polin, wrote that the awesome expansion of liberalism, resulting in ever increasing general affluence, inevitably generates new economic and material needs, which constantly cry out for yet another material fulfilment. Consequently, after society has reached an enviable level of material growth, even the slightest economic crisis, resulting in a perceptible drop in living standards, will cause social discord and possibly political upheavals.

Taking a slightly different stance, Polin remarks that liberalism, in accordance with the much vaunted doctrine of “natural rights,” tends, very often, to define man as a final and complete species who no longer needs to evolve, and whose needs can be rationally predicted and finalized. Led by an unquenchable desire that he must exclusively act on his physical environment in order to improve his earthly lot, he is accordingly led by the liberal ideology to think that the only possible way to realize happiness is to place material welfare and individualism above all other goals.[34] In fact, given that the “ideology of needs” has become a tacit criterion of progress in liberalism, it is arguable that the material needs of modern anomic masses must always be “postponed,” since they can never be fully satisfied.[35] Moreover, each society which places excessive hopes in a salutary economy, will gradually come to view freedom as purely economic freedom and good as purely economic good. Thus, the “merchant civilization” (civilization marchande), as Polin calls it, must eventually become a hedonistic civilization in search of pleasure, and self-love. These points are similar to the views held by Julien Freund, who also sees in liberalism a society of impossible needs and insatiable desire. He remarks that “it appears that satiety and overabundance are not the same things as satisfaction, because they provoke new dissatisfaction.”[36] Instead of rationally solving all human needs, liberal society always triggers new ones, which in turn constantly create further needs. Everything happens, Freund continues, as if the well-fed needed more than those who live in indigence. In other words, abundance creates a different form of scarcity, as if man needs privation and indigence, “as if he needed some needs.”[37] One has almost the impression that liberal society purposely aims at provoking new needs, generally unpredictable, often bizarre. Freund concludes that “the more the rationalization of the means of production brings about an increase in the volume of accessible goods, the more the needs extend to the point of becoming irrational.”[38]

Such an argument implies that the dynamics of liberalism, continually begetting new and unpredictable needs, continually threatens the philosophical premises of that same rationalism on which liberal society has built its legitimacy. In this respect socialist theorists often sound convincing when they in effect argue that if liberalism has not been able to provide equality in affluence, communism does at least offer equality in frugality!

Conclusion: From Atomistic Society to Totalitarian System
The British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, once exclaimed: “if I could I would annex the planets!” A very Promethean idea, indeed, and quite worthy of Jack London’s rugged individuals or Balzac’s entrepreneurs – but can it really work in a world in which the old capitalist guard, as Schumpeter once pointed out, is becoming a vanishing species?[39]

It remains to be seen how liberalism will pursue its odyssey in a society in which those who are successful in the economic arena live side by side with those who lag behind in economic achievement, when its egalitarian principles prohibit the development of any moral system that would justify such hierarchical differences, such as sustained medieval European society. Aside from prophecies about the decline of the West, the truism remains that it is easier to create equality in economic frugality than equality in affluence. Socialist societies can point to a higher degree of equality in frugality. But liberal societies, especially in the last ten years, have constantly been bedevilled by an uneasy choice; on the one hand, their effort to expand the market, in order to create a more competitive economy, has almost invariably caused the marginalization of some social strata. On the other hand, their efforts to create more egalitarian conditions by means of the welfare state brings about, as a rule, sluggish economic performance and a menacing increase in governmental bureaucratic controls. As demonstrated earlier, liberal democracy sets out from the principles that the “neutral state” and free market are the best pillars against radical political ideologies, and that commerce, as Montesqieu once said, “softens up the mores.” Further, as a result of the liberal drive to extend markets on a world-wide basis, and consequently, to reduce or eliminate all forms of national protectionism, whether to the flow of merchandise, or of capital, or even of labor, the individual worker finds himself in an incomprehensible, rapidly changing international environment, quite different from the secure local society familiar to him since childhood.

This paradox of liberalism was very well described by a keen German observer, the philosopher Max Scheler, who had an opportunity to observe the liberal erratic development, first in Wilhelmian and then in Weimar Germany. He noted that liberalism is bound to create enemies, both on the right and the left side of the political spectrum: On the left it makes enemies of those who see in liberalism a travesty of the natural rights dogma, and on the right, of those who discern in it the menace to organic and traditional society. “Consequently,” writes Scheler, “a huge load of resentment appears in a society, such as ours, in which equal political and other rights, that is, the publicly acknowledged social equality, go hand in hand with large differences in real power, real property and real education. A society in which each has the “right” to compare himself to everybody, yet in which, in reality, he can compare himself to nobody.”[40] In traditional societies as Dumont has written, such types of reasoning could never develop to the same extent because the majority of people were solidly attached to their communal roots and the social status which their community bestowed upon them. India, for example, provides a case study of a country that has significantly preserved a measure of traditional civic community, at least in the smaller towns and villages, despite the adverse impact of its population explosion and the ongoing conflict there between socialism in government and liberalism in the growing industrial sector of the economy. By contrast, in the more highly industrialized West, one could almost argue that the survival of modern liberalism depends on its constant ability to “run ahead of itself” economically.

The need for constant and rapid economic expansion carries in itself the seeds of social and cultural dislocation, and it is this loss of “roots” that provides the seedbed for tempting radical ideologies. In fact how can unchecked growth ever appease the radical proponents of natural rights, whose standard response is that it is inadmissible for somebody to be a loser and somebody a winner? Faced with a constant expansion of the market, the alienated and uprooted individual in a society in which the chief standard of value has become material wealth, may be tempted to sacrifice freedom for economic security. It does not always appear convincing that liberal societies will always be able to sustain the “social contract” on which they depend for their survival by thrusting people into material interdependence. Economic gain may be a strong bond, but it does not have the affective emotional power for inducing willing self-sacrifice in times of adversity on which the old family-based nation-state could generally rely.

More likely, by placing individuals in purely economic interdependence on each other, and by destroying the more traditional bonds of kinship and national loyalty, modern liberalism may have succeeded in creating a stage where, in times of adversity, the economic individual will seek to outbid, outsmart, and outmaneuver all others, thereby preparing the way for the “terror of all against all,” and preparing the ground, once again, for the rise of new totalitarianisms. In other words, the spirit of totalitarianism is born when economic activity obscures all other realms of social existence, and when the “individual has ceased to be a father, a sportsman, a religious man, a friend, a reader, a righteous man – only to become an economic actor.”[41] By shrinking the spiritual arena and elevating the status of economic activities, liberalism in fact challenges its own principles of liberty, thus enormously facilitating the rise of totalitarian temptations. One could conclude that as long as economic values remained subordinate to non-economic ideals, the individual had at least some sense of security irrespective of the fact his life was often, economically speaking, more miserable. With the subsequent emergence of the anonymous market, governed by the equally anonymous invisible hand, in the anonymous society, as Hannah Arendt once put it, man has acquired a feeling of uprootedness and existential futility.[42] As pre-industrial and traditional societies demonstrate, poverty is not necessarily the motor behind revolutions. Revolution comes most readily to those in whom poverty is combined with a consciousness of lost identity and a feeling of existential insecurity. For this reason, the modern liberal economies of the West must constantly work to ensure that the economic miracle shall continue. As economic success has been made the ultimate moral value, and national loyalties have been spurned as out of date, economic problems automatically generate deep dissatisfaction amongst those confronted with poverty, who are then likely to fall prone to the sense of “alienation” on which all past Marxist socialist success has been based.

One must therefore not exclude the likelihood that modern liberal society may at some time in the future face serious difficulties should it fail to secure permanent economic growth, especially if, in addition, it relentlessly continues to atomize the family (discouraging marriage, for example, by means of tax systems which favors extreme individualism) and destroys all national units in favor of the emergence of a single world-wide international market, along with its inevitable concomitant, the “international man.” While any faltering of the world economy, already under pressure from the Third World population explosion, might conceivably lead to a resurgence of right wing totalitarianisms in some areas, it is much more likely that in an internationalized society the new totalitarianism of the future will come from the left, in the form of a resurgence of the “socialist experiment,” promising economic gain to a population that has been taught that economic values are the only values that matter. Precisely because the “workers of the world” will have come to see themselves as an alienated international proletariat, they will tend to lean toward international socialist totalitarianism, rather than other forms of extreme political ideology.



  1. Michael Beaud, A History of Capitalism 1500-1980 (Paris: New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), p. 80. 
  2. Francois Perroux, Le capitalisme (Paris: PUF, 1960), p. 31. 
  3. Ernst Topitsch “Dialektik – politische Wunderwaffe?,” Die Grundlage des Spatmarxismus, edited by E. Topitsch, Rudiger Proske, Hans Eysenck et al., (Stuttgart: Verlag Bonn Aktuell GMBH), p. 74. 
  4. Georges Sorel, Les illusions du progres (Paris: Marcel Riviere, 1947), p. 50. 
  5. Francois-Bernard Huyghe, La Soft-ideologie (Paris: Laffont, 1988). See also, Jean Baudrillard, La Gauche divine (Paris: Laffont, 1985). For an interesting polemics concerning the “treason of former socialists clerics who converted to liberalism,” see Guy Hocquenghem, Lettre ouverte a ceux qui sont passes du col Mao au Rotary (Paris: Albin Michel, 1986). 
  6. Serge-Christophe Kolm. Le liberalisme moderne (Paris: PUF, 1984), p. 11. 
  7. Carl Schmitt, Die geistegeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlametatarismus (Munchen and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1926), p. 23. 
  8. Kolm, op. cit., p. 96. 
  9. Karl Marx, Kritik des Gothaer Programms (Zurich: Ring Verlag A.G., 1934), p. 10. 
  10. Ibid. , p. 11. 
  11. Sanford Lakoff, “Christianity and Equality,” Equality, edited by J. Roland Pennock and J. W. Chapmann, (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), pp. 128-130. 
  12. David Thomson, Equality (Cambridge: University Press, 1949), p. 79. 13. Sorel, op. cit., p. 297. 
    Sorel, op. cit., p. 297. 
  13. Loc. cit. 
  14. Theodore von Sosnosky, Die rote Dreifaltikeit (Einsiedeln: Verlaganstalt Benziger and Co., 1931). 
  15. cf. Raymond Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1969), p. 194 and passim. 
  16. Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen (Munchen and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1932), p. 76 and passim. 
  17. Ibid. , p. 36. 
  18. Jurgen Habermas Technik and Wissenschaft als Ideologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968), p. 77. 
  19. Alain de Benoist, Die entscheidenden Jahre, “In der kaufmannisch-merkantilen Gesellschaftsform geht das Politische ein,”(Tubingen: Grabert Verlag, 1982), p. 34. 
  20. Julius Evola, “Proces de la bourgeoisie,” Essais politiques (Paris: edition Pardes, 1988), p. 212. First published in La vita italiana, “Processo alla borghesia,” XXV1II, nr. 324 (March 1940): 259-268. 
  21. Werner Sombart, Der Bourgeois, cf. “Die heilige Wirtschaftlichkeit”; (Munchen and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1923), pp. 137-160. 
  22. Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx, The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), p.16. 
  23. Ibid., p. 59. 
  24. cf. L. Dumont, Essays on Individualism (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1986). 
  25. Emanuel Rackman, “Judaism and Equality;’ Equality, edited by J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), p. 155. 
  26. Milton Konvitz, Judaism and the American Idea (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978). Also German jurist Georg Jellinek argues in Die Erklarung der Menschen-and Burgerrechte (Leipzig: Duncker and
  27. Humbolt, 1904), p. 46, that “the idea to establish legally the unalienable, inherent, and sacred rights of individuals, is not of political but religious origin.” 
  28. John Schaar, “Equality of Opportunity and Beyond,” in Equality, op. cit. , 230. 
  29. Ibid., p. 236. 
  30. Ibid., p. 235. 
  31. Murray Milner, The Illusion of Equality (Washington and London: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 1972), p. 10. 
  32. Antony Flew, The Politics of Procrustes (New York: Promethean Books, 1981), p. 111. 
  33. Milner, op. cit., p. 11. 
  34. Claude Polin, Le liberalisme, espoir ou peril (Paris: Table ronde, 1984), p. 211. 
  35. Ibid. p. 213. 
  36. Julien Freund, Politique, Impolitique (Paris: ed. Sirey, 1987), p. 336. Also in its entirety, “Theorie des besoins,” pp. 319-353. 
  37. Loc. cit. 
  38. Ibid., p. 336-337. 
  39. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 165 and passim. 
  40. Max Scheler, Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen (Abhandlungen and Aufsazte) (Leipzig: Verlag der weissen Bucher, 1915), p. 58. 
  41. Claude Polin, Le totalitarisme (Paris: PUF, 1982), p.123. See also Guillaume Faye, Contre l’economisme (Paris: ed. le Labyrinthe, 1982). 
  42. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Book, 1958), p. 478. 

Historical Dynamics of Liberalism, From Total Market to Total State, Tomislav Sunic, University of California, Santa Barbara



Political Ideologies – Introduction

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at political systems and ideologies. This should enable the reader to better understand the democracies we live. We’ll start off with the basics and then move on to special interest groups and the sensitive issues surrounding corruption of various political systems, including our own.  

What is Politics?

Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions. It is the authoritative allocation of values. Although the term is generally applied to behavior within governments, politics is observed in all human group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.

In its most basic form, politics consists of “social relations involving authority or power”. In practice, the term refers to the regulation and government of a nation-state or other political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply government policy.

In a broader sense, any situation involving power, or any maneouvring in order to enhance one’s power or status within a group, may be described as politics (e.g. office politics). This form of politics “is most associated with a struggle for ascendancy among groups having different priorities and power relations.”

Political science (also political studies) is the study of political behavior and examines the acquisition and application of power. Related areas of study include political philosophy, which seeks a rationale for politics and an ethic of public behavior, and public administration, which examines the practices of governance.

Why Study Political Ideologies?

The answer to this question is quite simple. Students of politics are concerned about and interested in the various principles of that intellectual discipline. It may never be known conclusively whether humans alone are capable of formulating and then utilizing abstract ideas to govern their behavior. None can dispute however that ideas about politics constitute a most important element in that realm.

Nelson Mandella, imprisoned for twenty years for his advocacy of racial equality in South Africa, was possessed of an idea about politics. The leader of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, planned for years during his exile near Paris, to return to his homeland with a plan of purification and change to a pure Islamic state. College students joining together in a march to protest college policies regarding ROTC programs have some motivating idea behind their actions.

While ideas are not in and of themselves ideologies, they are part of the raw material needed to produce a full fledged ideology. As will be seen below ideologies have special qualities that set them apart from other political entities. When combined with other factors such as effective leadership, persuasive rationale’, timely development, and popular appeal political ideology goes a considerable distance in the direction of comprehending things political. Nature of Political Ideologies Ideas have been called “immaculate perceptions” of an imperfect reality. This may also be applicable to the concept of political ideologies.

At least from the time of Classical Greece to the present thoughtful individuals have attempted to devise concepts regarding the nature of politics. These ideas have concerned political reality as it is perceived (descriptive observations), as it ought to be (normative observations), and some have gone so far as to suggest methods for altering reality in order to achieve the desired goal (prescriptive observations). Aristotle attempted to describe the political structures that existed in his era by constructing a trichotomy of types with two variations of each:

  1. Rule by the Few – aristocracy /oligarchy
  2. Rule by the Many – polity/democracy
  3. Rule by One – monarchy/tyranny.

This rudimentary but astute design constitutes a set of concepts regarding politics but falls short of what is termed “ideology.”

Whereas ideas about politics may range from the simple to the extraordinarily complex, ideologies occupy a special niche of these “immaculate perceptions.” At their very core ideologies offer a means to understand, explain and to change political reality. There are, in other words, descriptive, prescriptive, and normative elements in political ideologies.

Sometimes hidden within these elements are assumptions about the fundamental nature of human beings, their proper relationship to one another, the ultimate destiny and purpose of life itself, man kind’s place in the grand scheme of things, the existence of principles of justice beyond those created by man, and in general stated or unstated presumptions of a most basic nature. Discovering, analyzing and challenging these elements of ideologies will enable the thoughtful student an opportunity to discover within him/her self values and beliefs that were theretofore only dimly realized.

Of equal importance is the developed ability to thoughtfully critique ideologies that otherwise might go by the wayside without being understood correctly. Characteristics of Political Ideologies Political ideologies have a number of characteristics that distinguish them from other related concepts. At the outset they constitute a rather comprehensive set of interrelated views on the nature of politics both as it is and as it should be.

As with most, if not all, human concepts, ideologies are derived from perceptions about reality and quite often from opinions about perceived problems in the human condition. It is perhaps in the nature of a significant number of human beings to be continuously dissatisfied with existent conditions. For some the answers to noted injustices lie in the relationship of mankind to God or to some other entity larger than ourselves. For others the faults are found not in the stars but in ourselves. These are the ones who may then devise political ideologies.

Frequently an ideology is initially the product of a single individual working in splendid isolation. Perhaps the best known if not a perfect example of this would be Karl Marx working for years in the archives of the London Museum. His observations led him to the conclusion that great injustices (and ultimately historical imbalances) existed that were inevitably doomed to destruction by the inexorable forces present in human society, particularly found in the process called dialectic materialism and economic determinism. Seldom, it seems, are ideologies initially produced as a consequence of group effort. It must be recognized however that the product of one person’s thoughtful reflections on the political dimensions of the human condition necessarily encompass and build on the work of preceding commentators.

Marx’s debt to the Hegelian dialectic is widely recognized. Hegel’s own intellectual advancements were based in considerable measure on traditions of Aristotelianism present in German intellectual traditions for centuries.

The second characteristic of political ideologies has already been suggested: they are produced by intellectual elites. Only those individuals with the necessary interests and skills (intellectual and communicative) are capable of devising comprehensive analyses of politics. Although any particular ideology may be modified and more completely developed with the involvement of many people over considerable periods of time, there is more often than not a single individual who may be correctly viewed as the founder if not the ultimate creator of that ideology.

Invariably the ideas of this creative individual are published in some form and disseminated among other potentially sympathetic individuals. On occasion, such as in the development of Nazism, rhetorical development may precede written elaboration. Adolph Hitler did not put on paper his hate filled views until some four years after the Nazi party had commenced its campaign to achieve power in post-World War I Germany. Dissemination and propagation of the ideology among the mass population constitutes a most important third element in political ideologies, at least of those that become forces in the world.

As long as an ideology remains only of interest to a very few intellectuals, it is unlikely to become an agent of great change in society. At this point an ideology becomes attached to what may be called a “movement.” Movements in politics by definition involve large numbers of people. These numbers seldom constitute a majority of the adult population but may involve millions of people at one time or another.

Feminism, as an example, is viewed by some as an ideology and by others as a movement. It may also be seen as an amalgam of each. It should be noted however that there have been instances when a social theory that had political implications became accepted by both political and intellectual elites but had no wide spread public following nevertheless produced important governmental policies For example, what was termed “Social Darwinism” did in the United States have very significant policy implications for the United States Supreme Court in a variety of its decisions in the latter part of the 19th Century. Despite the fact that “Social Darwinism” was never propagated widely among any large numbers of people and certainly did not become a “movement” it did provide intellectual justification for a “hands off” or laissez faire array of policies of United States governments.

Contrary to popular belief political ideologies are not fixed or static but are subject to changes, sometimes of a fundamental nature. “Revisionism” may be viewed as a curse by purists or as necessary refinements by those recognizing the imperfections in the original idea. Changes may be resultant from reasoned critiques of the initial set of concepts or they may flow from the clash of the initial concepts with a reality that simply cannot be reconciled with the ideology.

Lenin, for example, was forced by the reality of the continuation of the capitalistic states to devise the theory of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism. This “modification” of Marx was an attempt to explain why the initial predictions of continuing accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and increasingly intolerable poverty for the workers did not come about in the manner that Marx indicated. Similarly Mao Zedong found it imperative to adapt Marx to the special conditions in China in order to utilize communist ideology in that setting. A fifth trait of ideologies concerns their susceptibility to oversimplification and distortion.

Political concepts often times are quite complex and require, if they are to be understood thoroughly, extensive study, thoughtful qualifications, limited application, time frame containment and a host of other delimiters. For those who wish to use the ideology as a vehicle to obtain change in politics and society these “fine points” may be impediments to obtaining popular support. In the name of political expediency slogans may replace concepts, rallying cries may drown out qualifications, and what emerges is far from the essence of the original set of ideas.

This distortion of the original ideology brings forth the final characteristic needing elaboration. This concerns the relationship of ideology to the political movement that frequently develops as a consequence of the ideology itself. This extension of an ideology into the realm of political action gives a whole new dimension to the original set of concepts. At this point the ideology becomes a powerful motivator of individual and group behavior. The oversimplifications and distortions mentioned above enable movement leaders to develop emotional appeal for the goals of the ideology. This emotional commitment on the part of members of the movement is a powerful force of change in the world of politics.

Eric Hoffer, in his eminently readable and insightful book THE TRUE BELIEVER spot lighted how belief in a cause may produce one of the most formidable and elemental powers in human affairs: the fanatic. Such “true believers” in the cause, in the movement, in the ideas have no reason whatsoever to leave undone anything that would produce the desired end. Their property, their very lives (and those of anyone else) are all of secondary importance to the CAUSE.

The role of leadership is critical in this phase of the transformation of an ideology into a movement. Often the individual or individuals who were responsible for the ideology find themselves supplanted by firebrands, organizers, and spellbinding speakers who pay lip service to the founders but care little for the ratio decidendi in the concepts so dear to those who made the initial intellectual contributions. Lenin is reported to have once asserted that what communism meant for the Soviet Union was a means to rapid industrialization and its attending political/military/economic power. It has been noted with probable accuracy that Marx would have been surprised and possibly appalled at the manner in which his concepts of Communism had been implemented by Lenin, Stalin, the Khimer Rouge and other individuals and groups claiming the mantle of Communist.

The characteristics of political ideologies may be summarized by noting their following traits. They are:

  1. a coherent set of views on politics
  2. produced by intellectual elites 
  3. dissemination among the mass population
  4. subject to alteration 
  5. susceptible to distortion and oversimplification
  6. powerful motivators of human behavior
  7. manipulated by political movement leaders

Having now examined some of the more important aspects of political ideologies in general, a review of selected examples is in order. Those chosen here represent the primary ideological developments in the political realm but by no means constitute the whole of the spectrum. First there will be considered what have traditionally been referred to as “moderate” ideologies. Following this will be the more “extreme” varieties and then an overview of unfolding political viewpoints that may evolve into full blown ideologies.


Social Neuroscince

Continuing with the theme of basic science, here’s another article that should be in the basic armoury of the rationalist.

What is social neuroscience?

Social neuroscience may be broadly defined as the exploration of the neurological underpinnings of the processes traditionally examined by, but not limited to, social psychology. This broad description provides a starting point from which we may examine the neuroscience of social behavior and cognition.

However, we see this definition as a guide, rather than as a rule and, as such, we see this field as inclusive, rather than exclusive. The behaviors and cognitions studied under the umbrella “social” are diverse. From complex human interactions to the most basic animal relationship, social research is an expansive, diverse, and complex domain. Likewise, exploring the neurological underpinnings allows for equally assorted and varied lines of research. The combination of the areas reflects such diversity, in which research is performed in domains as wide reaching as the maternal behavior of knockout mice and endocast examinations of early Australopithecus.

Guiding social neuroscience research, whatever one chooses as the definition, should be our desire to understand the complex and dynamic relationship between the brain (and its related systems) and social interaction. Historically, these fields (i.e., neuroscience and social psychology) would weakly interact, with few formal ties between the two. However, and not unnoticed by ourselves or our suspected readership, when the fields do combine, the resulting research is inevitably exciting and meaningful, not just to academics, but to the general public as well.

These underlying concepts are difficult to research. For instance, many social psychologists emphasize situationism (based on the belief in the significance of the situation) as opposed to personalities, although many recognize the combination of situation and personality as the best predictor of social behavior (Fiske, 2004). While the former aspect need not to be underestimated, it is not so easy to set ecological valid situations in the lab. Theoretically, assessing personality traits and correlating them with task performance and biological markers should pose no great challenge. These constructs, however, are rarely stable and they are dependent on so many mitigating variables that designing experiments remains a challenging process. It is often these mitigating variables that open up the field to other disciplines. Therefore, defining the “social” aspect of social neuroscience as including only the field of social psychology limits the true definition. From the ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophers to modern day mathematical and computational modelers, studying social behavior and cognition is an inclusive endeavor. This point is made clear when one casually surveys the educational background of a social neuroscientist. Further, the collaborative efforts in this field exist between biochemists and philosophers, anthropologists and neurologists, physicists and sociologists. While clichéd, it is true that social neuroscience succeeds because ideas exchange so freely.

One main challenge of social neuroscience is that social psychology and its related disciplines involve psychological constructs, such as moral dilemma, empathy, or self-regulation, that are difficult to map directly onto neural processes. These constructs often need to be deconstructed (Cacioppo, Berntson, Lorig, Norris, Rickett, & Nusbaum, 2003). Further, given the complexity of social interaction in humans, social neuroscience research needs to combine and integrate multiple-level analysis across different domains (Ochsner & Lieberman, 2001). Social neuroscience requires a system approach rather than a single level of analysis. We strongly believe that social and biological approaches when they are bridged can achieve a more accurate understanding of human behavior.

Ralph Adolphs has written an authoritative introduction about the foundational issues of social neuroscience (2003) that can serve as guidelines for state of the art research in this new field.

What are the tools of social neuroscience research?

The tools of the social neuroscientist are seemingly limited only by the imagination of the researcher. From WADA tests and split-brain studies to performing MRIs on chimpanzees and examining the hippocampal volumes of voles, social neuroscience encourages and invites creative uses of traditional methodologies and the development of new techniques. Those who perform research in our field become inventive, either by choice, necessity, or a combination of both. Such manipulations are not only our future, but our historic past as well. The saying, “It is a poor craftsman that blames his tools” is particularly relevant here. As our tools advance, we need not lose sight of the creativity of experimental design or how theoretical considerations can guide our next advance.

The development of functional neuroimaging, including positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), event-related potential (ERP), and magnetoencephalography (MEG) hold tremendous promise for the understanding of social cognition (Raichle, 2003). The task of functional brain imaging is to identify multiple regions and their temporal relationships associated with the performance of well-designed tasks. However, the real question is whether the function of these areas can be associated with computation (i.e., elementary operations) that is useful in the analysis of mental functions (see Posner, 2003). For instance, the right inferior parietal cortex, at the junction with the posterior temporal cortex (TPJ) seems to be not only involved in theory of mind (Saxe & Wexler, 2005) but also in distinguishing the perspectives of the self from those of others, an ability that is relevant to knowing the contents of other people’s minds can be different from our own (Decety & Grèzes, in press). Thus the basic computation performed by this region may be related to lower level processing of social relevant signals, and may be not specific to mental state attribution per se.

One drawback of neuroimaging research is that it can be perceived as the new phrenology (see Uttal, 2003) and it may give an over-simplistic account of the neuroscience of social cognition and behavior. With neuroimaging, there are gimmicks and trends, claims that extend beyond the research, and debates that can reach fever pitch levels over seemingly mundane differences. While hardly unique to our field, we encounter the danger of labeling parts of the brain as the “love center” or the area responsible for psychopathological behavior. In this sense, we are certainly flirting with a new phrenology. Therefore, we agree with our sensible colleagues who remind us to replicate and rely on all of the tools at our disposal.

Ironically, fMRI has been particularly plagued by these problems (and in some cases continues to be) because so many researchers realized its amazing potential. Early fMRI studies often took on the form of, “let’s throw the subjects in the scanner and see what happens”. Criticisms were harsh, and often justified. Yet, over the last decade, we have seen this technique mature and without those early studies, which often involved social questions, there would have been little interest in investing the technique. As unimaginable as it may have been 10 years ago, there are now countless fMRI scanners in the basements of psychology buildings. The maturing of fMRI has been exciting and wonderful to observe, and as social neuroscientists, it has helped address many questions previously unanswerable.

Functional MRI has become very popular with both the scientific communities and the general public. However it would be misleading to think it is the only neuroimaging tool. Certainly other neuroimaging techniques provide their own advantages. The spatial resolution in multiple dimensions puts fMRI in its own class. Yet, ERP research continues to be valuable because it too has its own advantages including temporal resolution and flexibility. PET and MEG carry their own advantages as well and, like fMRI, each has advanced social neuroscience. Anatomical MRI also plays a role in social neuroscience as does computerized tomography (CT).

The appeal of neuroimaging is clear. Humans can be non-invasively tested in various situations including on-line interaction with another partner, experiments can be designed, variables can be manipulated, studies can be replicated, etc. Yet, the disadvantages are significant. No technique has high spatial and temporal resolution (single-cell methods, which are invasive and limited in testing populations, require extensive a priori knowledge of where to look within the nervous system). In addition, most neuroimaging data are correlational and on their own they generally do not describe the causal role of the regions in a more general network.

Lesion studies in non-humans can fill the gap in establishing causal relationships. Thus animal studies are important and, in many senses, they remain the core of the field. Because of the variability of neuroimaging studies and methods, we deem this technique more important today than ever before. However, many of the social behaviors we are interested in, such as language and sexual behaviors, differ so significantly across species that these studies also limit our understanding.

Human case studies, as well as psychiatric, neurological, and psychological conditions can be additional methods for advancing our understanding of social neuroscience. These patient studies allow us to observe the relationship between social behavior and neurological systems. These studies often serve to spur neuroimaging research, or confirm the correlational findings of such research. While these studies are difficult (and many times impossible) to design with precisely manipulated variables, they too add to the tools of investigation for the social neuroscientist. Transcranial magnetic stimulation constitutes another approach to investigate the causal role of a region, and in many cases it can help to establish or confirm behaviors observed in patients. By employing a “virtual lesion” or creating a “virtual patient”, this technique can provide valuable information. Limited by penetration depth and spatial resolution, this technique should also be seen as one of many tools for understanding the complexities of brain–behavior relationships.

People and sexually reproducing animals need each other in order to survive, almost assuredly from the individual perspective, and as a certainty at the species level. It is clear that an assortment of social mechanisms are adaptive and that such mechanisms lend differential reproductive benefits. The individual that successfully passes on to future generations adaptive social neural mechanisms may secure a reproductive advantage. Yet, the variability of such abilities and capabilities and the proximate and ultimate origins of such abilities remain somewhat mysterious. In our species, the environment changes so rapidly that these relationships remain difficult to map. Yet, gaining an evolutionary perspective allows for a broader understanding of our current state. What may have been adaptive in one environment may not be so in another.

The gene encodes information that is usually (but not always) beneficial for the survival of the organism. DNA gives rise to brains, and brains give rise to behavior. Certainly the field of social neuroscience owes its past, but more importantly its future, to this field. Genetics continues to expand into our field in inventive and meaningful ways. The future will bring us inventive twin studies, correlational genome examinations in humans, and more exciting knockout studies. We, like many in the field, are particularly excited by the role that genetics will play in our future.

The impact of social neuroscience

Beyond the clear impact of social neuroscience in various academic domains, including education, for which we are all excited, we must carefully consider how society uses research findings from social neuroscience. There is a tendency in public journals to report over simplistic interpretations of complex issues. As Wolpe put it, “history has shown us again and again that society tends to use science to reinforce the moral assumptions and biases of the cultural moment. There is clearly a role for a thoughtful social neuroscience, where findings become part of considered policymaking around controversial issues. For example, research into addiction has provided new perspectives and tools for policymakers willing to use them. But if scientists are not clear about the scope and nature of their work, eager policymakers can seize preliminary and speculative findings and implement programs unsupported by the science itself” (Wolpe, 2004, p. 1032).

Importantly, Farah (2002) has raised a number of neuroethical issues for the future of neuroscience that should be of concern to all of us. Social neuroscience is already starting to track the neural signatures of sophisticated mental states such as truth versus lie, veridical versus false memory, style of moral reasoning or the likelihood of aggressive behavior. As social neuroscience develops, it will certainly challenge our ways of thinking about responsibility and blame, and have an impact on social policies. However, we must truly be responsible in this domain as well. While we should never have our research guided by politics, or other external pressures, we should apply the same standards to ourselves. Again, these issues are not unique to social neuroscience, but they are concerns certainly worthy of consideration as this field expands.

It is a pleasure and an honor to serve as members of this great community. The field has housed some of the most brilliant and dynamic academics, and it continues to attract the brightest scholars and thinkers. We look forward to where this field is headed, attracted to its future by the richness of its past. We also look forward to the growth of Social Neuroscience and, as such, we look forward to each reader’s contribution, be it through reporting of research, debate, or passing on a copy endlessly that eventually winds up in the hands of a student, inspiring him or her to enter the field. We thank all of you and we wish you continued success.


[1] Adolphs, R. (2003) Investigating the cognitive neuroscience of social behavior, Neuropsychologia, 41, pp. 119–126.
[2] Cacioppo, J. T and Berntson, G. G. (2005) Social neuroscience, Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
[3] Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., Lorig, T. S., Norris, C. J., Rickett, E. and Nusbaum, H. (2003) Just because you’re imaging the brain doesn’t mean you can stop using your head: A primer and set of first principles, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, pp. 650–661.
[4] Decety, J. and, & Grèzes, J. The power of simulation: Imagining one’s own and other’s behavior. Brain Research.
[5] Farah, M. J. (2002) Emerging ethical issues in neuroscience, Nature Neuroscience, 5, pp. 1123–1129.
[6] Fiske, S. T. (2004) Social beings, Danvers, MA: Wiley.
[7] Frith, C. D. and, & Wolpert, D. (2004 ). The neuroscience of social interaction: Decoding, imitating and influencing the actions of others. New York: Oxford University Press.
[8] Ochsner, K. N. and Lieberman, M. D. (2001) The emergence of social cognitive neuroscience, American Psychologist, 56, pp. 717–734.
[9] Posner, M. I. (2003) Imaging a science of mind, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, pp. 450–453.
[10] Raichle, M. E. (2003) Social neuroscience: A role for brain imaging, Political Psychology, 24, pp. 759–764.
[11] Saxe, R. and Wexler, A. (2005) Making sense of another mind: The role of the right temporo-parietal junction, Neuropsychologia, 43, pp. 1391–1399.
[12] Uttal, W. R. (2003) The new phrenology: The limits of localizing cognitive processes in the brain, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[13] Wolpe, P. R. (2004) Ethics and social policy in research on the neuroscience of human sexuality, Nature Neuroscience, 7, pp. 1031–1033.

from Social Neuroscience, Jean Decety (Editor) and Julian Paul Keenan (Deputy Editor).© 2006 Psychology Press.

Cognitive Neuroscience..3

The Birth of Cognitive Neuroscience

It was largely advances in imaging technology that provided the driving force for modern-day cognitive neuroscience.

Raichle (1998) describes how brain imaging was in a “state of indifference and obscurity in the neuroscience community in the 1970s” and might never have reached prominence if it were not for the involvement of cognitive psychologists in the 1980s.

Cognitive psychologists had already established experimental designs and information-processing models that could potentially fit well with these emerging methods. It is important to note that the technological advances in imaging not only led to the development of functional imaging, but also enabled brain lesions to be described precisely in ways that were never possible before (except at post mortem).

Present-day cognitive neuroscience is composed of a broad diversity of methods. These will be discussed in detail in subsequent chapters.

At this juncture, it is useful to compare and contrast some of the most prominent methods. The distinction between recording methods and stimulation methods is crucial in cognitive neuroscience. Electrical stimulation of the brain in humans is now rarely carried out.

The modern-day equivalent of these studies uses magnetic, not electric, fields and is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). These can be applied across the skull rather than directly to the brain. This method will be considered in Chapter 5, alongside the effect of organic brain lesions.

Electrophysiological methods (EEG/ERP and single-cell recordings) and magnetophysiological methods (MEG) record the electrical/ magnetic properties of neurons themselves. These methods are considered in Chapter 3.

In contrast, functional imaging methods (PET and fMRI) record physiological changes associated with blood supply to the brain which evolve more slowly over time. These are called haemodynamic methods and are considered in Chapter 4. The methods of cognitive neuroscience can be placed on a number of dimensions:

Temporal resolution: The accuracy with which one can measure when an event (e.g. a physiological change) occurs.

Spatial resolution: The accuracy with which one can measure where an event (e.g. a physiological change) is occurring.

The temporal resolution refers to the accuracy with which one can measure when an event is occurring. The effects of brain damage are permanent and so this has no temporal resolution as such. Methods such as EEG, MEG, TMS and single-cell recording have millisecond resolution. PET and fMRI have temporal resolutions of minutes and seconds, respectively, that reflect the slower haemodynamic response.
The spatial resolution refers to the accuracy with which one can measure where an event is occurring. Lesion and functional imaging methods have comparable resolution at the millimetre level, whereas single-cell recordings have spatial resolution at the level of the neuron.
The invasiveness of a method refers to whether or not the equipment is located internally or externally. PET is invasive because it requires an injection of a radio-labelled isotope. Single-cell recordings are performed on the brain itself and are normally only carried out in non-human animals.

The different methods used in cognitive neuroscience.

Method    Method type  Invasiveness  Brain property used
EEG/ERP    Recording  Non-invasive  Electrical
Single-cell (and multi-unit)  recordings  Recording Invasive Electrical
TMS    Stimulation  Non-invasive  Electromagnetic
MEG    Recording  Non-invasive  Magnetic
PET    Recording  Invasive   Haemodynamic
fMRI    Recording  Non-invasive  Haemodynamic




The methods of cognitive neuroscience can be categorized according to their spatial and temporal resolution. Adapted from Churchland and Sejnowski, 1988.

Does Cognitive Psychology Need the Brain?

As already noted, cognitive psychology developed substantially from the 1950s, using information-processing models that do not make direct reference to the brain. If this way of doing things remains successful, then why change?

Of course, there is no reason why it should change. The claim is not that cognitive neuroscience is replacing cognitive psychology (although some might endorse this view) but merely that cognitive psychological theories can inform theories and experiments in the neurosciences and vice versa.

However, others have argued that this is not possible by virtue of the fact that informationprocessing models do not make claims about the brain (Coltheart, 2004b; Harley, 2004).




One could take many different measures in a forced-choice response task: behavioural (reaction time [RT], errors) or biological (electromyographic [EMG], lateralized readiness potential [LRP], lateralized BOLD response [LBR]). All measures could potentially be used to inform cognitive theory. Adapted from the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58A (2), 193-233, What can functional neuroimaging tell the experimental psychologist?, 2005, by kind permission of the Experimental Psychology Society.

Coltheart (2004b) poses the question: “Has cognitive neuroscience, or if not might it ever (in principle, or even in practice) successfully use data from cognitive neuroimaging to make theoretical decisions entirely at the cognitive level (e.g. to adjudicate between competing information-processing models of some cognitive system)?” (p. 21).

Henson (2005) argues that it can in principle and that it does in practice. He argues that data from functional imaging (blood flow, blood oxygen) comprise just another dependent variable that one can measure. For example, there are a number of things that one could measure in a standard forced-choice reaction-time task: reaction time, error rates, sweating (skin conductance response), muscle contraction (electromyograph), scalp electrical recordings (EEG) or haemodynamic changes in the brain (PET, fMRI). Each measure will relate to the task in some way and can be used to inform theories about the task.

To illustrate this point, consider one example. One could ask a simple question such as: “does visual recognition of words and letters involve computing a representation that is independent of case?” For example, does the reading system treat “E” and “e” as equivalent at an early stage in processing or are “E” and “e” treated as different letters until some later stage (e.g. saying them aloud)?

A way of investigating this using a reaction-time measure is to present the same word twice in the same or different case (e.g. radio-RADIO, RADIO-RADIO) and compare this with situations in which the word differs (e.g. mouse-RADIO, MOUSE-RADIO).

One general finding in reaction-time studies is that it is faster to process a stimulus if the same stimulus has recently been presented. For example, if asked to make a speeded decision about RADIO (e.g. is it animate or inanimate) then performance will be faster if it has been previously encountered. Dehaene et al. (2001) investigated this mechanism by comparing reaction-time measures with functional imaging (fMRI) measures.

In his task, the first word in each pair was presented very briefly and was followed by visual noise. This prevents the participants from consciously perceiving it and, hence, one can be sure that they are not saying the word. The second word is consciously seen and requires a response.

Dehaene et al. found that reaction times are faster to the second word when it follows the same word, irrespective of case. Importantly, there is a region in the left fusiform cortex that shows the same effect (although in terms of “activation” rather than response time). In this concrete example, it is meaningless to argue that one type of measure is “better” for informing cognitive theory (to return to Coltheart’s question) given that both are measuring different aspects of the same thing.

One could explore the nature of this effect further by, for instance, presenting the same word in different languages (in bilingual speakers), presenting the words in different locations on the screen and so on. This would provide further insights into the nature of this mechanism (e.g. what aspects of vision does it entail, does it depend on word meaning). However, both reaction-time measures and brain-based measures could be potentially informative. It is not the case that functional imaging is merely telling us where cognition is happening and not how it is happening.



Both reaction times and fMRI activation in the left fusiform region demonstrate more efficient processing of words if they are preceded by subliminal presentation of the same word, irrespective of case. Adapted from Dehaene et al., 2001.

Another distinction that has been used to contrast cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience is that between software and hardware, respectively (Coltheart, 2004b; Harley, 2004). This derives from the familiar computer analogy in which one can, supposedly, learn about information processing (software) without knowing about the brain (hardware).

As has been shown, to some extent this is true. But the computer analogy is a little misleading. Computer software is written by computer programmers (who, incidentally, have human brains). However, information processing is not written by some third person and then inscribed into the brain. Rather, the brain provides causal constraints on the nature of information processing. This is not analogous to the computer domain in which the link between software and hardware is arbitrarily determined by a computer programmer.

To give a simple example, one model of word recognition suggests that words are recognized by searching words in a mental dictionary one by one until a match is found (Forster, 1976). The weight of evidence from cognitive psychology argues against this serial search, and in favour of words being searched in parallel (i.e. all candidate words are considered at the same time). But why should this be so? Computer programs can be made to recognize words adequately with both serial search and parallel search.

The reason why human information processing uses a parallel search and not a serial search probably lies in the relatively slow neural response time (acting against serial search). This constraint does not apply to the fast processing of computers.

Thus, cognitive psychology may be sufficient to tell us the structure of information processing but it may not answer deeper questions about why information processing should be configured in that particular way.


The media loves to simplify the findings of cognitive neuroscience. Many newspaper stories appear to regard it as counterintuitive that sex, pain and mood would be products of the brain. Sunday Times 21 November 1999; Metro 5 January 2001; The Observer 12 March 2000; The Independent 27 May 1999.

Does Neuroscience Need Cognitive Psychology?

It would be no exaggeration to say that the advent of techniques such as functional imaging have revolutionized the brain sciences.

For example, consider some of the newspaper headlines above that have appeared in recent years. Of course, it has been well known since the nineteenth century that pain, mood, intelligence and sexual desire would be largely a product of processes in the brain.

The reason why headlines such as these are extraordinary is because now the technology exists to be able to study these processes in vivo. Of course, when one looks inside the brain one does not “see” memories, thoughts, perceptions and so on (i.e. the stuff of cognitive psychology). Instead, what one sees is grey matter, white matter, blood vessels and so on (i.e. the stuff of neuroscience).

It is the latter, not the former, that one observes when conducting a functional imaging experiment. Developing a framework for linking the two will necessarily entail dealing with the mind–body problem either tacitly or explicitly. This is a daunting challenge.

Is functional imaging going to lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the mind and brain than was achieved by the phrenologists? Some of the newspaper reports in the figure suggest it might not.

One reason why phrenology failed is because the method had no real scientific grounding; the same cannot be said of functional imaging. Another reason why phrenology failed was that the psychological concepts used were naïve. It is for this reason that functional imaging and other advances in neuroscience do require the insights from cognitive psychology to frame appropriate research questions and avoid becoming a new phrenology (Uttal, 2001).

The question of whether cognitive, mind-based concepts will eventually become redundant (under a reductionist account) or coexist with neural-based accounts (e.g. as in dual-aspect theory) is for the future to decide. But for now, cognitive, mind-based concepts have an essential role to play in cognitive neuroscience.

Modularity: The notion that certain cognitive processes (or regions of the brain) are restricted in the type of information they process.
Domain-specificity: The idea that a cognitive process (or brain region) is dedicated solely to one particular type of information (e.g. colour, faces, words).

Is the Brain Modular?

The notion that the brain contains different regions of functional specialization has been around in various guises for 200 years. However, one particular variation on this theme has attracted particular attention and controversy – namely Fodor’s (1983, 1998) theory of modularity.

First, Fodor makes a distinction between two different classes of cognitive process: central systems versus modules. The key difference between them relates to the types of information they can process. Modules are held to be domain specific in that they process only one particular type of information (e.g. colour, shape, words, faces), whereas central systems are held to be domain independent in that the type of information processed is non-specific (candidates would be memory, attention, executive functions). According to Fodor, one advantage of modular systems is that, by processing only a limited type of information, they can operate rapidly, efficiently and in isolation from other cognitive systems. An additional claim is that modules may be innately specified in the genetic code.

Many of these ideas have been criticized on empirical and theoretical grounds. For example, it has been suggested that domain specificity is not innate although the means of acquiring it could be (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992). Moreover, systems like reading appear modular in some respects but cannot be innate because they are recent in evolution. Others have argued that evidence for interactivity suggests that modules are not isolated from other cognitive processes (Farah, 1994).

On balance, the empirical evidence does not strongly favour this version of modularity. However, the extent to which the brain contains regions of functional specialization and domain specificity is still an active area of debate.

Cognitive Neuroscience..2

continued from yesterday…

Our understanding of the brain emerged historically late, largely in the nineteenth century, although some important insights were gained during classical times.

Aristotle (384–322 BC) noted that the ratio of brain size to body size was greatest in more intellectually advanced species, such as humans.

Unfortunately, he made the error of claiming that cognition was a product of the heart rather than the brain. He believed that the brain acted as a coolant system: the higher the intellect, the larger the cooling system needed.

In the Roman age, Galen (circa AD 129–199) observed brain injury in gladiators and noted that nerves project to and from the brain. Nonetheless, he believed that mental experiences themselves resided in the ventricles of the brain.

This idea went essentially unchallenged for well over 1500 years. For example, when Vesalius (1514–1564), the father of modern anatomy, published his plates of dissected brains, the ventricles were drawn in exacting detail whereas the cortex was drawn crudely and schematically. Others followed in this tradition, often drawing the surface of the brain like the intestines. This situation probably reflected a lack of interest in the cortex rather than a lack of penmanship.

It is not until one looks at the drawings of Gall and Spurzheim (1810) that the features of the brain become recognizable to modern eyes.

Gall (1758–1828) and Spurzheim (1776–1832) received a bad press, historically speaking, because of their invention and advocacy of phrenology.

Phrenology had two key assumptions. First, that different regions of the brain perform different functions and are associated with different behaviours. Second, that the size of these regions produces distortions of the skull and correlates with individual differences in cognition and personality.

Taking these two ideas in turn, the notion of functional specialization within the brain has effectively endured into modern cognitive neuroscience, having seen off a number of challenges over the years (Flourens, 1824; Lashley, 1929). The observations of Penfield and co-workers on the electrically stimulated brain provide some striking examples of this principle.

However, the functional specializations of phrenology were not empirically derived and were not constrained by theories of cognition. For example, Fowler’s famous phrenologist’s head had regions dedicated to “parental love”, “destructiveness” and “firmness”. Moreover, skull shape has nothing to do with cognitive function.


Some drawing of the brain


Different drawings of the brain from Vesalius (1543) (top), de Viessens (1685) (bottom left), and Gall and Spurzheim (1810) (bottom right). Note how the earlier two drawings emphasized the ventricles and/or misrepresented the cortical surface.

Aside from inventing phrenology, Gall and Spurzheim made a number of important anatomical observations, such as delineating between the functions of white and grey matter, and the realization that the brain is folded to conserve space (see Gross, 1998).

Their empirical observations and theoretical insights paved the way for future developments in the nineteenth century, the most notable of which are Broca’s reports of two brain-damaged patients (Broca, 1861).

Broca documented two cases in which acquired brain damage had impaired the ability to speak but left other aspects of cognition relatively intact. He concluded that language could be localized to a particular region of the brain. Subsequent studies argued that language itself was not a single entity but could be further subdivided into speech recognition, speech production and conceptual knowledge (Lichtheim, 1885; Wernicke, 1874).

This was motivated by the observation that brain damage can lead either to poor speech comprehension and good production, or good speech comprehension and poor production (see Chapter 10 for full details). This suggests that there are at least two speech faculties in the brain and that each can be independently impaired by brain damage.

This body of work was a huge step forward in terms of thinking about mind and brain. First, empirical observations were being used to determine what the building blocks of cognition are (is language a single faculty?) rather than listing them from first principles. Second and related, they were developing models of cognition that did not make direct reference to the brain. That is, one could infer that speech recognition and production were separable without necessarily knowing where in the brain they were located, or how the underlying neurons brought these processes about.

Cognitive neuropsychology:  The study of brain-damaged patients to inform theories of normal cognition.

Information processing: An approach in which behaviour is described in terms of a sequence of cognitive stages.

Interactivity: Later stages of processing can begin before earlier stages are complete.

Top-down processing: The influence of later stages on the processing of earlier ones (e.g. memory influences on perception).

The approach of using patients with acquired brain damage to inform theories of normal cognition is called cognitive neuropsychology and remains highly influential today (Chapter 5 discusses the logic of this method in detail).

Cognitive neuropsychology is now effectively subsumed within the term “cognitive neuroscience”, where the latter phrase is seen as being less restrictive in terms of methodology.

Whereas discoveries in the neurosciences continued apace throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the formation of psychology as a discipline at the end of the nineteenth century took the study of the mind away from its biological underpinnings. This did not reflect a belief in dualism. It was due, in part, to some pragmatic constraints. Early pioneers of psychology, such as William James and Sigmund Freud, were interested in topics like consciousness, attention, and personality. Neuroscience has had virtually nothing to say about these issues until quite recently.

Another reason for the schism between psychology and biology lies in the notion that one can develop coherent and testable theories of cognition that do not make claims about the brain. The modern foundations of cognitive psychology lie in the computer metaphor of the brain and the information processing approach, popular from the 1950s onwards.

For example, Broadbent (1958) argued that much of cognition consists of a sequence of processing stages. In his simple model, perceptual processes occur, followed by attentional processes that transfer information to short-term memory and thence to long-term memory (see also Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). These were often drawn as a series of box-and-arrow diagrams.

The implication was that one could understand the cognitive system in the same way as one could understand the series of steps performed by a computer program, and without reference to the brain. The idea of the mind as a computer program has advanced over the years along with advances in computational science.

For example, many cognitive models contain some element of interactivity and parallel processing. Interactivity refers to the fact that stages in processing may not be strictly separate and that later stages can begin before earlier stages are complete. Moreover, later stages can influence the outcome of early ones (top-down processing).


Connectionist models of cognition


Examples of box-and-arrow and connectionist models of cognition. Both represent ways of describing cognitive processes that need not make direct reference to the brain.

Parallel processing refers to the fact that lots of different information can be processed simultaneously (serial computers process each piece of information one at a time). Although these computationally explicit models are more sophisticated than earlier box-and-arrow diagrams they, like their predecessors, do not always make contact with the neuroscience literature (Ellis & Humphreys, 1999).

Parallel processing: Different information is processed at the same time (i.e. in parallel).

Neural network models: Computational models in which information processing occurs using many interconnected nodes.

Nodes: The basic units of neural network models that are activated in response to activity in other parts of the network. Computational and Conenctionist Models of Cognition

In the 1980s, powerful computers became widely accessible as never before. This enabled cognitive psychologists to develop computationally explicit models of cognition (that literally calculate a set of outputs given a set of inputs) rather than the computationally inspired, but underspecified, box-and-arrow approach.

One particular way of implementing computational models has been very influential; namely the neural network, connectionist or parallel distributed processing (PDP) approach (McClelland, Rumelhart, & Group, 1986). These models are considered in a number of places throughout this book, notably in the chapters dealing with memory, speaking, and literacy.

Connectionist models have a number of architectural features. First, they are composed of arrays of simple information-carrying units called nodes. Nodes are information-carrying in the sense that they respond to a particular set of inputs (e.g. certain letters, certain sounds) and produce a restricted set of outputs. The responsiveness of a node depends on how strongly it is connected to other nodes in the network (the “weight” of the connection) and how active the other nodes are. It is possible to calculate, mathematically, what the output of any node would be, given a set of input activations and a set of weights. There are a number of advantages to this type of model.

For example, by adjusting the weights over time as a result of experience, the model can develop and learn. The parallel processing enables large amounts of data to be processed simultaneously. A more controversial claim is that they have “neural plausibility”. Nodes, activation and weights are in many ways analogous to neurons, firing rates and neural connectivity, respectively.

However, these models have been criticized for being too powerful in that they can learn many things that real brains cannot (e.g. Pinker & Prince, 1988). A more moderate view is that connectionist models provide examples of ways in which the brain might implement a given cognitive function. Whether or not the brain actually does implement cognition in that particular way will ultimately be a question for empirical research in cognitive neuroscience.

Cognitive Neuroscience..1

Continuing with the theme of basic science, here’s another article that should be in the basic armoury of the rationalist. 

Between 1928 and 1947, Wilder Penfield and colleagues carried out a series of remarkable experiments on over 400 living human brains (e.g. Penfield & Rasmussen, 1950). The patients in question were undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy.

To identify and spare regions of the brain involved in movement and sensation, Penfield electrically stimulated regions of the cortex while the patient was still conscious. The procedure was not painful (the surface of the brain does not contain pain receptors) but the patients did report some fascinating experiences.

When stimulating the occipital lobe one patient reported “a star came down towards my nose”. Upon stimulating a region near the central sulcus, another patient commented “those fingers and my thumb gave a jump”. After temporal lobe stimulation, another patient claimed “I heard the music again; it is like the radio”. She was later able to recall the tune she heard and was absolutely convinced that there must have been a radio in the operating theatre.

Of course, the patients had no idea when the electrical stimulation was being applied – they couldn’t physically feel it or see it. As far as they were concerned, an electrical stimulation applied to the brain felt pretty much like a mental/cognitive event.

Cognition: A variety of higher mental processes such as thinking, perceiving, imagining, speaking, acting and planning.

Cognitive Neuroscience: Aims to explain cognitive processes in terms of brain-based mechanisms.

The term cognition collectively refers to a variety of higher mental processes such as thinking, perceiving, imagining, speaking, acting and planning.

Cognitive neuroscience is a bridging discipline between cognitive science and cognitive psychology, on the one hand, and biology and neuroscience, on the other. It has emerged as a distinct enterprise only recently and has been driven by methodological advances that enable the study of the human brain safely in the laboratory.

It is perhaps not too surprising that earlier methods, such as direct electrical stimulation of the brain, failed to enter into the mainstream of research. 


Cognitive Neuroscience Timeline


A timeline for the development of methods and findings relevant to cognitive neuroscience, from phrenology to present day.

Philosophers as well as scientists have long been interested in how the brain could create our mental world. How is it that a physical substance can give rise to our feelings, thoughts and emotions? This has been termed the mind–body problem, although it should more properly be called the mind–brain problem because it is now agreed that the brain is the key part of the body for cognition.

One position is that the mind and brain are made up of different kinds of substance, even though they may interact. This is known as dualism, and the most famous proponent of this idea was René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes believed that the mind was non-physical and immortal whereas the body was physical and mortal. He suggested that they interact in the pineal gland, which lies at the centre of the brain and is now considered part of the endocrine system.

According to Descartes, stimulation of the sense organs would cause vibrations in the body/brain that would be picked up in the pineal gland, and this would create a non-physical sense of awareness.

There is little hope for cognitive neuroscience if dualism is true because the methods of physical and biological sciences cannot tap into the non-physical domain (if such a thing were to exist).

Mind–body problem: The problem of how a physical substance (the brain) can give rise to our feelings, thoughts and emotions (our mind).

Dualism: The belief that mind and brain are made up of different kinds of substance.

Dual-aspect theory: The belief that mind and brain are two levels of description of the same thing.

Even in Descartes’ time, there were critics of his position. One can identify a number of broad approaches to the mind–body problem that still have a contemporary resonance. Spinoza (1632–1677) argued that mind and brain were two different levels of explanation for the same thing, but not two different kinds of thing.

This has been termed dual-aspect theory and it remains popular with some current researchers in the field (e.g. Velmans, 2000). An analogy can be drawn to wave-particle duality in physics in which the same entity (e.g. an electron) can be described both as a wave and as a particle.

Reductionism:  The belief that mind-based concepts will eventually be replaced by neuroscientific concepts.

Phrenology: The failed idea that indivdual differences in cognition can be mapped on to differences in skull shape.

Functional specialization: Different regions of the brain are specialised for different functions.

An alternative approach to the mind–body problem that is endorsed by many contemporary thinkers is reductionism (e.g. Churchland, 1995; Crick, 1994). This position states that although cognitive, mind-based concepts (e.g. emotions, memories, attention) are currently useful for scientific exploration, they will eventually be replaced by purely biological constructs (e.g. patterns of neuronal firings, neurotransmitter release). As such, psychology will eventually reduce to biology as we learn more and more about the brain.

Advocates of this approach note that there are many historical precedents in which scientific constructs are abandoned when a better explanation is found.

In the seventeenth century, scientists believed that flammable materials contained a substance, called phlogiston, which was released when burned. This is similar to classical notions that fire was a basic element along with water, air and earth.

Eventually, this construct was replaced by an understanding of how chemicals combine with oxygen. The process of burning became just one example (along with rusting) of this particular chemical reaction.

Reductionists believe that mind-based concepts, and conscious experiences in particular, will have the same status as phlogiston in a future theory of the brain.

Those who favour dual-aspect theory over reductionism point out that an emotion will still feel like an emotion even if we were to fully understand its neural basis and, as such, the usefulness of cognitive, mind-based concepts will never be fully replaced.

…continued tomorrow

The above is reproduced from The Student’s Guide to Cognitive Neuroscience by Jamie Ward, (© 2006 Psychology Press).

Rationality & Education

There is currently a consensus among the educational theorists that one of the main aims of education is to develop the student’s critical thinking, and that, by exercising their rationality, they gradually become autonomous, responsible and caring citizens. This same aim is also proposed by the programmatic statements that precede the laws in which the educational regulation is ruled in many countries. It could be argued then, that the educative communities – recalling that education is a relational process in which the “educator” is educated as well – should be more like a rationality lab.

On the other hand, frequently any kind of educative practice or model presumes in an implicit way, a specific conception of rationality. If one aims to educate reasonable human beings, there must be awareness of what this “reason” , which its development is to be helped, consists of. In order to educate people to develop their critical thinking, this same dominant concept for rationality must be examined, since this concept could be understood as knowledge, beliefs and action system due to reproduce a specific social organization that responds to the interests of a minor group and that forbids people’s utter development.

In the West, Reason has been traditionally understood as a superstructure with an universal and utter legality, that intends to impose itself as a force, ruling our way of thinking, appreciating and acting. This latter strength has been frequently presented as independent of our body and of our sentimental and passional dimensions (bodiless reason), and sometimes opposite to it. This Reason rules the order that exists in the universe and at the same time, inhabits the human beings, in other words, the rational part of the human’s soul (Plato), having as its very function the rational knowledge and the control and dominance of the human’s irrational “horses”.

It is the possession of rationality that differs men from all kinds of animals, and allows the first ones to be similar to the Gods, since rationality will be considered divine nature, God’s wills expression, therefore demanding rational beings obedience.

This latter Reason has been presented as universal and absolute, in other words, built up independently of others historical and local contingencies (reason out of context), and has to impose itself as force – “the strength of reason” –on all men from all times and cultures. Several times, the interests of oppression, as well as the domain of groups, nations and cultures, has been ideologically justified under the veil of rationality. Even so, it’s also true that there is a belief, that culminates in the Enlightenment, that considers the cultivation of reason – common to all men and one of the fundamentals for their universal equality, dignity and freedom – as the responsible for the individual’s and nation’s progress and emancipation.

After this introduction, the question we ask ourselves is: What concept of rationality should be used by an education, -that intends to transform both the reality and the conditions that hinder men and women from releasing themselves from the chains that forbid their utter realization as human beings ? What kind of rationality should be cultivated, that when practiced allows the emancipation of those powers which holds back the possibility of men being autonomous and owners of their own history? How can we articulate a criticism of a worldwide dominant reason, that generates and reproduces excluded ones, and what kind of rationality should be stimulated that permits the victims’ liberation? (E.DUSSEL).

The reason that intends to be an instrument for manipulation and domination of nature and social relation, should be rejected. (M. HORKHEIMER AND T. ADORNO). This reason, related to the bourgeois’ interests, reduces reality into number and measure, besides considering itself as the only possible world view, of a world that is in front of the subjects – owner of the means of production – to be transformed, manufactured and sold. From this kind of reason, arises a language that intends to be the only possibly valid objectively adjusted to reality. It’s a monological language or discourse that, disguising and perpetuating the dominant groups’ interests, presents itself as the universaly valid language, in other words, valid to dominate all over the whole world.

This rationality concept (instrumental reason) doesn’t consider the fact that our reason has a dialogical nature. Thinking consists of creating, interpreting and processing meanings. Nevertheless, these meanings are given in the language we receive, or in the various languages, discourses and stories we receive, and that in some way, constitute ourselves. We aren’t isolated consciousness facing the world in a direct and unidirectional relation- the subject and the world. When each of us look inside ourselves we find out that we see with somebody else’s eyes and that we are connected to a world that has been previously defined by language, or better said, by the different languages that constitute ourselves, even though one of them intends to be the only valid one. After all, men find themselves and establish relations with the world not as an isolated conscience, but from a speaking community. All knowledge is therefore, a go-through-languages, in other words, a dialogue. Thinking consists of dialogue: with our own cultural tradition, with different traditions, with our contemporaries and with ourselves. If the subject of knowledge is the community that dialogues, the educative communities, in general, and the school in particular, must be more like a community of enquiry, where cooperative thinking is learnt through the practice of dialogue, and where the other one is seen not as a threaten to one’s personal success, but as a condition for the exercising of one’s own reasonableness. I’m not using “Rationality” in order to avoid the strong monological and excluding meaning under which this concept has been sometimes presented. For a reasonable person I understand, at present, as one who is aware of the reality’s complexity, hence practices complex thinking (M.LIPMAN), not dogmatic, provisional, that’s learnt to be fallible, being open minded, hence listening to other’s criticism and allowing to be questioned by the different voices and discourses which is capable of listening to. The complex thinking is at the same time critical and creative, aware of its own assumption and implication, as well as of the reasons and evidences in which its conclusions are based on, and capable of imagining new ways of seeing and connecting the experience’s elements. If our rationality consists of a narrative nature, the education thinking about complexity must focus on the development of an imaginative rationality, capable of creating new narrative frames that make up new meaning’s connection in order to help men and women in their freeing practice.

If the school or any other educative institution aim to be a critical thinking lab., they have to be configured as a dialogue community, in which the different opinions and beliefs of each community member are plausible of being questioned by the others and oneself. People that participate in a dialogue process usually start from some prejudices – previous judgements – and from some assumptions, not always explicit, that determine the interpretation of the linguistic emission. This kind of knowledge has been inculcated by the human being since childhood, along with the conceptions, beliefs, values, aims and purposes of the social group they belong to. The critical thinking in a strong meaning (R. PAUL) is the one that is opened to listening to other words and other people’s words, who can question the validity of these assumptions, of these valuecritera and of those objectives that we usually accept in an acritical way, and which probably, are the ones that some groups want to have in order to satisfy their own proposes. The educative community must bring the others voices present, the outsider’s voices, the excluded voices, the ones that are voiceless because no one has ever listened to them, the victim’s voices… , the children’s voices, because only these voices or this silence can help to question and to find out the untruth of the very prejudice and point out who is the real beneficiary of them.

The present production system and the dominant international interchange, based on relative liberation and on market globalization, that generates decision and imposition centers which scape the citizen’s democratic control, and even of governments, is presented as the only possible rational (unique thinking), capable of resolving the humanity’s problems. Communication tends to have a global character once the market presents a world dimension. The dominant groups control broad sectors of the communication net, through which the market’s products are valorized and distributed. Consequently there is an unitarian, compact, monological communication (A.PONZIO), one that silences others perspectives that criticizes present production system for being the cause of the exploitation and indignity in which a large number of people live in; poverty, illiteracy, illness and violence.

If the educative community really wants to be a liberator, it must turn into a resistance nucleus against the pretensions of the unique discourse. It must allow the heteroglossia (M. BAJTIN), making the discourse of other social classes, other ethnic groups, the opposite gender present, voices that don’t silence themselves mutually, but as in the polyphone, they keep themselves intercrossed in the dialogue. In this dialogue the agreements are pursued only by the strength of the reasons presented. Nevertheless it’s a dialogue that doesn’t cancel out the conflict, a dialogue where the dissident voice isn’t canceled out or diminished. The educative community must stimulate the development of a dialogical rationality, opposed to a monological rationality, that imposes rules, authority, the discourse of power. The dialogical reason permits the polyglossia , in other words, it’s the reason that challenges the single authoritarian language that silences the others and appreciates only one point of view.

Nevertheless it’s impossible that there could be such a privileged point of view that could be constituted as the only point of view possible, as the dominant perspective, as ” the divine eye”.

Reality is complex and polymorphic and, because of that, each perspective corroborates, complements or denies the one revealed by a different perspective. Most of the problems humans deal with, can’t be, therefore, resolved by an algorithmic reason, that like a computer, deduces conclusions just by applying some syntactic rules. That’s why the formal logic, being abstract, is insufficient to attend the exercising of the dialogical reason. This logic seems to be more familiar to writing, where reason has the pretension to be demonstrative. The informal logic emerges from the interest in the pragmatic issues of the language, issues that relate to the oral expression, to the conversation. This logic, will pursue the rules to be followed by concrete arguments, performed in a concrete context of dialogue, in order to be considered reasonable. (T.MIRANDA). The dialogue will be the center of attention in this logic, since only through dialogue the main human’s problems can be solved, problems that present a multilogical (R. PAUL) or multidirectional nature.

Descartes’ error was to conceive the human mind as a different reality from the body and that the previous one could work without the latter. However , recent neurologist studies have demonstrated that the mind emerges from the neuronal circuit activity, circuits which contain the organism’s basic representation, essential for any cognitive activity (A.DAMASIO). So, the idea of a cold reason, that thinks and reasons without considering the subject’s feelings and passions, that is independent of one’s body, of one’s gender, of one’s society, of one’s culture…, cannot be sustained nowadays. Our mental activity is produced by a body – embodied reason – (G.LAKOFF & M. JOHNSON), that we can’t relinquish if we want to understand it. Our body, on the other hand, is an organism that is related to an environment , that has an experience, but one which is mediated by culture. Pure reason, cold, algorithmic and bodiless has to be replaced by sentimental, passionate reason, one that doesn’t relinquish emotion, a reason made of flesh and flesh, a reason with body. It refers to a reason, that due to language, makes it possible for human beings to be bodies that transcend themselves. It allows us to open ourselves to other human beings and we to make up meanings and search for the reasons of events and offer reasons for our elections.

Due to all that, the school and the educative communities in general, must give up an objectivist conception of knowledge and meaning, which postulates that reality has a rational structure, independent of the cognizant subject, presenting language as the one that describes reality as it is. The discourse that justifies a rationality that generates victims shouldn’t be accepted as the owner of the objective truth, common to all men. The objectivist theories of knowledge and language focus their attention on the “literal meaning”, differing it from the non- literal or figurative meaning. Nevertheless these theories do not consider that we understand the world through our corporal frames, which permit us to project the knowledge from one part of the reality to understand others -metaphoric projections. If our utter corporeality, configured by its biological constitution and by the experience that accumulates in its relation with the world, is the source of meanings that human beings construct to explain reality to himself, so it could be said that the idea of an objective knowledge, independently of the subject, has a clear ideological function, in the pejorative sense, since things are according to the pain that inhabits the body of who watches them. It can’t be useful for the slaves the same metaphors that masters make to explain and justify the reality (“their” reality).

Most part of our daily, scientific and literary reasoning, is based on the use of metaphoric systems; so it doesn’t make any sense the objectivist differentiation between literal meaning and figurative meaning (M JOHNSON). All language is figuration, all appreciation is interpretation, and all experience, a perspective, making no sense at all the idea of literalness as a direct correspondence between the world of names and the world of things (E.LYNCH). If education should favor the development of a complex thinking in the dialogical communities, we find out that this reasoning besides being critical, has to be creative, as the two tails of the same coin. The educative communities have to generate critical and creative people, that open themselves to dialogue, searching for beauty, truths – not “the” truth – and justice. I don’t mean truth neither in the objectivism sense nor in the subjectivism sense, but as intersubjective agreements contrasted by the creative action itself, that is a reality transformer, agreement achieved from different points of views, based on an integration that doesn’t eliminate the conflict and that is ceaselessly revised



There is no single and definitive answer for the question what kind of rationality is to be developed by an education that aims to be a transformer and liberator. But I do think that an educative community that presents such a vocation – and if it does not have it I wonder how it can be called “educative”- must be committed to the cultivation of reasonableness. It has to be the place where the dialogical, polyphonic reason is possible, where a critical thinking emerges, that questions the pretensions of universality and unicity truth of the monological discourses. It must be a community where the participants, through dialogue, construct interpretations of reality and experiment them creating places where there is room for plurality and the justice is possible.

In a time when “rationality” is abused from different places, we defend an education that makes it possible, since we still believe on its liberating potentiality. But we are talking about a reason which processes and products are always provisional, as it has to do with the vagueness, with the feelings, with the communicative contexts, that have an historical character, and are mediated by biographic and cultural circumstances. We’re talking about an experimenting reasonableness that pads blinded, which achievements can always be revised. However this revision can only be performed from the dialogue by the same shared reason.

I am who I am once I establish dialogues with the others, as I recognize the others and at the same time I am recognized by the other one as someone worth, independently of any circumstances which makes us different, considering the differences not as a threat but as an opportunity to enrich and complement.

The school should be a laboratory of a respectful rationality, one that enables an integral human development and, at the same time, respectful of ecological equilibrium. One that does not consider itself as the absolut owner of nature, but part of it.




BAJTIN, M: Estética de la creación verbal. Siglo XXI, México, 1995 (6ª ed.).

DAMASIO, A: Descartes´ Error. G. P. Putnams Sons. New Yiork. 1994.

DUSSEL, E.: Ética de la liberación. Trotta, Madrid, 1998.

HORKHEIMER, M. & ADORNO, T.: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente. S. Fischer Verlag GmbH. Frankfurt am Main, 1969.

JOHNSON, M.: The body in the mind. The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

LAKOFF, G. & JOHNSON, M.: Philosophy in the Flesh. Basic Books, New York,1999.

LIPMAN, M.: Thinking in Education. Cambridhe Univ. Press. 1991.

LYNCH, E.: Dionisio dormido sobre un tigre. Destino, Barcelona, 1993.

MIRANDA, T.: El juego de la argumentación. Ed. De la Torre. Madrid, 1995.

PAUL, R.: Critical Thinking. Sonoma State Univ. California, 1990.

PONZIO, A.: El juego del comunicar. Ed. Episteme, Valencia, 1995.

ZAVALA, I.: La posmodernidad y Mijail Bajtin. Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1991.

Rationality and Critical Education, Tomás Miranda, Univ. Castilla-La Mancha (Spain), Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Education, June 2000

Rationality, Cognition, Intelligence

Setting the empirical stakes

I believe that many of the academic disputes related to rationalism and relativism arose from the multiple meanings that are given to the words ‘rational’ and ‘rationalism’. Lately, the word ‘cognitive’ has known the same fate. Both ‘rational’ and ‘cognitive’ are either used to qualify the production of the human mind and the innate, biological organisation of the mind/brain or to qualify a restricted portion of this production: that which answers some specific criteria – the one set by Rationality. In the second case, normativity is coming in. When one argues against empiricism, ‘rationality` is taken in the first sense. One insists on the fact that the mind has got its own material and processes that allow us to think.  But often, when one takes part to the relativism/rationalism devate, the two above meanings of rational are undistinguished. This lead to deadlocks both in philosophy and in scientific investigations of human behaviour, such as anthropology and science studies. In the later, the activity of scientists is studied independently from a cognitive and from a sociological point of view. But the ideologies that members of these two approaches often hold – being relativists and rationalists respectively – has greatly impeded interdisciplinary work. Yet, if one wants to study rational behaviour, I will argue, one needs to study both the cognitive and the social phenomena at work.

I propose that ‘cognition’ refers to all mental processes and that ‘cognitive’ qualifies any production of representations. ‘Rationality’, on the other hand, should refer to the set of norms that are set by a community in order to part good thinking from erroneous one. This leads to a third definition: ‘intelligence’ is the cognitive processes and abilities that allow one to answer the criteria of rationality, i.e. to anchor oneself in the intellectual norms of his community.
Rationality is normative in the sense that it is constituted of social norms; whether a thought or a thought process is rational or not depends on whether the community approves it as valid. Indeed, while rational behaviour obviously implies cognitive processes, the adjective ‘rational’ is attributed to those cognitive processes whose output conforms to a social norm. This is why there can be errors: not all outputs conform to the norm. These social phenomena of approval or disapproval of thought processes are the only natural and directly observable facts that allow us to circumscribe what is rational thinking. Thus rationality is first and foremost a social construct and depends on the community where the social norms apply.

The setting straightforwardly leads to relativism since it has for consequence that what is rational in a community is not necessarily so in another community. The relativist position thus described is an a priori relativism since it can be derived from the definition of ‘rationality’. It is also a methodological relativism (Sokal thus described the strong program of the school of Edinburgh), since it motivates a thorough analysis of the relations between cognition, intelligence and rationality, between mental phenomena and cultural norms (In the next sections, I will give some hints about what this analysis consist in). In any case, it must not be conflated with the assertion that ways to think differ from culture to culture. This relativist position does not lead to the position that the mind is a tabula rasa, which, after being framed by enculturation and socialisation, ends up to mirror or mimic the social norms. The impact of culture on ways to think is an empirical question that obviously requires a detailed and complex answer making the par of what is learned and what is innate. My own position is on the side of strong cognitivism, which asserts that the mind is constituted of many innate abilities, or modules, which account for most of our behaviour. For instance, the ability to anchor oneself in the norms of a community essentially involves the ability to represent the thoughts and desires of the others, i.e. the ability studied under the name of ‘theory of mind’ or ‘folk psychology’.

The distinction between Rationality, seen as a social object, and intelligence, seen as a cognitive object, raises the following question: What are the causal relationships between cognitive abilities and the social norms that constitute Rationality? Is there any morphism between the two objects? These are well-studied empirical questions involving, for instance, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or cultural universals, which may lead to an a posteriori kind of moderate rationalism, or (I would rather say) universalism: It is probable that the human cognitive apparatus constrains culture production in such a way that it leaves little place for variations in the social norms ruling on the validity of justifications. In other words, rationalities, which are by definition indexed to communities in space and time, may happen to be essentially similar. But even so, the explanation of this similarity may not be as straightforward as often assumed by the one who call themselves rationalists, as I will now attempt to show. The claim of this first section, however, is that the above distinctions and definitions allow clarifying the empirical investigation whose purpose is to disentangle the cognitive processes and the social norms at work in rational behaviour.

Relating intelligence and rationality

Two causal relations between cognition and rationality deserve investigation: first, how do individuals produce, together, criteria of rationality, second, how do individuals manage to adapt to their cultural settings and answer the intellectual norms of rationality.

The path from the biology of the brain to intellectual norms

Cognitive scientists have shown that the mind/brain is endowed with an innate highly complex organisation. Information processes are studied at the level of neuro-biology and brain imaging, where the biology of the brain is investigated for providing cues on how we think; and at the level of thought, where the management and transformation of representations are studied by cognitive psychologists. The theories developed all agree on the fact that the mind has a highly complex structure involving memory management and specialised abilities. Our own problem is to understand the impact of the cognitive processes, thus described by cognitive scientists, onto the social norms that constitute ‘rationalities’. As I said above, there cannot be a straightforward identification of some cognitive abilities to rationality, since rationality is defined as a set of social phenomena: the approvals and disapprovals of thought processes. Yet although proponent of rationalism recognise the normative nature of rationality, they often identify rational behaviour with the proper functioning of some cognitive abilities (e.g. Macnamara, 1986). This identification raises two problems: (1) who can assert what is the proper functioning of a cognitive ability? Can it be the psychologist? The positive answer to this latter question – psychologism – has been strongly criticised: what is rational cannot be determined by empirical psychological investigations (for a review, see Kusch, 1995). We therefore need to go back to our first observation that rationality is made out of the normative behaviours of members of a community on ‘ways to think’; (2) Reducing social norms to cognitive abilities cannot be done without a thorough description of the causal chain that allow cognitive abilities to be ‘reflected’ or ‘implemented’ in social norms.
It is this second problem, which in fact is a challenge, that needs to be addressed. The relation is one that is well known to some cognitive anthropologists: from cognitive processes to cultural production (see: Sperber, 1996).
Graph 1 represents a possible analysis of the relation from cognition to rationalities.

 1 Graph 1

According to the graph, categorisations of what is and what is not rational (what I have called rationalities) depend only on our cognitive abilities and the situation to which these abilities are confronted. Thus, apparently irrational beliefs can be seen as perfectly rational when one provides a sufficient analysis of the context in which these beliefs have been formed. It is just a question of input. This analysis, known as the intellectualist position, has been defended by some philosophers and social scientists, such as Horton and Lukes. The intellectualists presented themselves as rationalists, and indeed, as shown in the graph, the reduction from social normativity (categorisation of rational behaviour) to cognitive abilities is pretty straightforward. As a consequence, the difference between the rationalist and the relativist position that I defined in this paper, is just a terminological question. But in fact, graph 1 (and the intellectualist position) oversimplifies the causal chain that produces the norms of rationality. To see this, one just need to return to the social phenomena that motivated the notion of rationality: people judge, negotiate and reward ways to think – eventually, a thought process will be qualified as rational or irrational by the community. All these social interactions – submitting a paper to a journal, arguing over political questions, attempting to demonstrate that one product is better than an other, in brief, trying to convince others with one’s reasoning – have a direct causal effect on the constitution of the norms of rationality. They are the micro-phenomena out of which representations and behaviour stabilise and thus constitute norms. Graph 2 represents these causal relations in the oval labelled ‘social interactions’.

Graph 2

Graph 2.

Taking the primary normative aspect of rationality into account leads us to consider the social interactions at work in the making of these norms. The reduction – from cultural norms to cognitive abilities – is no more straightforward. On the contrary, anthropologists, sociologists and historians of science have pointed out many socio-historical processes at the origin of judgements of rationality.
My bet is that a partial reduction is possible: cognition constrain cultural production in such a way that norms of rationality do not vary drastically across time and space. While there are some works attempting to discover universal cultural traits and the cognitive origin of the trait (e.g. Berlin and Kay, 1967, on colour), the same method of work is needed with norms of rationaliy.

How individuals can be rational

If rationality is simply described as the essence of human nature, then the fact that people do act in accordance with norms of rationality is certainly not surprising. What needs to be explained, on the contrary, is the existence of error. Against this long philosophical tradition, the framework henceforth described requires empirical investigation of the facts that allow people to be rational. For the relativist of the old tradition in cognitive anthropology, the explanation is given by the impact of the social norms on cognitive processes. People conform to the norms because they have been enculturated, i.e. their ways to think have been framed by their culture such that they conform its norms.
But since the mind is not a tabula rasa the above explanation cannot be the whole story. Here are some suggestions about the rest of it:


Naïve psychology, the cognitive ability to attribute beliefs, intentions and desires to others, is an important means individuals employ for anchoring themselves in a specific culture. Because individuals know how the others want them to think, they will conform to it in order to achieve their own goals.

It is not surprising that people can conform to the norm they produce for themselves. But then one must advance the hypothesis that there exist a kind of morphism between cognititive processes and social norms …, which is the hypothesis to which I arrived in the previous section.

Scientific knowledge production as a rational activity

My aim, in this section, is to point out the relevance of the above questions for the study of scientific knowledge production. While there are numerous studies in the sociology of science and some theories about scientific cognition, there are little, if any, studies that account for both cognitive and social factors of scientific knowledge production. Apart from the fact that genuine interdisciplinary studies are difficult, a reason why there are so few integrated studies can be found in the opposition between relativists and rationalists. Sociologists of science are usually relativists and those studying scientific cognition largely rationalists… and they won’t talk to each other. Latour and Woolgar called for a 10 years moratorium of cognitive studies of science, which is somewhat equivalent to the assertion: “cognitivists, please, keep quite for a while, and you’ll see that we’ll solve all the problems”. On the other side of the camp, one can read Carruthers, Stich and Siegal who provide a ‘very short recent history’ of the philosophy of science in those terms: “Our story so far [up to Kuhn] has mostly been one of good news – with philosophy of science in the last century, like science itself, arguably progressing and/or getting somewhat closer to the truth. But one out-growth of the historical turn in philosophy of science was a form of social constructivism and relativism about science” (my emphasis).

Beyond these disputes, it seems pretty obvious that the scientific enterprise involve both scientists’ brains and a great amount of social interactions. But this obvious fact is occulted when one gets to qualify scientific practice as a rational practice. As such, this qualification is tautological: scientific and mathematical practices have always been used as exemplars of rational behaviour. But because of the sacrosanct term ‘rational’, its multiple connotations and its associated disputes, the tautology unduly divides science studies.

I think on the contrary that one should aim at understanding the causal interactions between cognitive abilities and social interactions at work in scientific practice. Science is a highly normative practice that obviously strongly draws upon cognitive abilities. On the one hand doing science requires obeying the rules set by the community of scientists. What counts as science is the fruit of the collective decision of scientists. On the other hand, doing science thoroughly involves our intellectual competencies, our feeling of certainty, our intuitions, and thus our individual capacities. Scientific production is thus conjointly constrained by social norms and cognitive competencies…. as any rational behaviour.

Berlin, B. & P.Kay (1969) Basic Color Terms: their universality and growth, Berkeley: California University Press.
Bloor, D. (1991 [1976]), Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Boudon, R (1995). Le Juste et le Vrai : Étude sur l’Objectivité des Valeurs et de la Connaissance. Paris : Fayard.
Boudon, R. Bouvier, A & Chazel, F. (eds) (1997). Cognition et Sciences Sociales : La dimension Cognitive de l’Analyse Sociologique. Paris : PUF
Davidson, D. (1984 [1974]), ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, in D. Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford: Clarendon, 183-98.
Davidson, D. (2001). Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford: Claredon Press.
Dehaene, Stanislas (1196). La Bosse des Maths. Paris : Odile Jacob.
Dupuy, J.-P., et Livet, P. (eds), (1997), Les Limites de la rationalité. Tome 1 : Rationalité, éthique et cognition, La Découverte.
Dupuy, J.-P., (1994), Sciences sociales et sciences cognitives. Limites de la rationalité et nature du lien social, Cours de l’Ecole Polytechnique, Edition du Bicentenaire.
Hollis, M. and S. Lukes (eds.) (1982), Rationality and Relativism, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kusch, M. (1995) Psychologism. London: Routledge.
Laudan, L. (1987), ‘Relativism, Naturalism and Reticulation’, Synthese 71: 221-34.
Laudan, L. (1990), Science and Relativism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Macnamara, J. (1986) A Border Dispute, the Place of Logic in Psychology.Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press.
Niiniluoto, I. (1991), ‘Realism, Relativism, and Constructivism’, Synthese 89: 135-62.
Nola, R. (1990), ‘The Strong Programme for the Sociology of Science, Reflexivity and Relativism’, Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 33, 1990: 273-96.
Nola, R. (1992), ‘Ordinary Human Inference as Refutation of the Strong Programme’, Social Studies of Science 22: 107-29.
Siegel, H. (1987), Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological Relativism, Dordrecht: Reidel.
Sperber, D. (1996) La contagion des idées, Paris, Odile Jacob.
Wilson, B. (1970). Rationality, Oxford: Blackwell.

Cognition and Rationality: Prolegomenon to socio-cognitive studies of Science, Christophe Heintz, Institut Jean Nicod, http://christophe.heintz.free.fr

Pancritical Rationalism

My discovery of pancritical rationalism (PCR) reminds me of how I felt in November 1981 when I came across libertarian writings for the first time. Until then I had tasted a range of political viewpoints but had found none of them terribly appealing. Particular elements of some seemed right, but none of the intellectual packages as a whole made sense to me. A similar frustrating uneasiness resulted from my studies of the range of epistemologies, past and present. I had found certain rationalists, such as Karl Popper, appealing but reading Bartley’s The Retreat To Commitment stirred the same excitement and feeling of fit in me as had reading Rothbard’s For A New Liberty 12 years before. But Bartley’s PCR offered something new. PCR’s supremely anti-authoritarian perspective on rationalism seems to me to harmonize with the values and concerns embodied in what we call Extropianism. I want to show how this is so, first by detailing just what it is that PCR expounds, and then by directly relating it to the values expressed by the Extropian Principles.  

Pancritical rationalism, uniquely among epistemologies8, requires no authorities. Look at the questions posed by the various epistemological schools. As Bartley notes, they ask “Questions like: How do you know? How do you justify your beliefs? With what do you guarantee your opinions? all beg authoritarian answers whether those answers be: the Bible, the leader, the social class, the nation, the fortuneteller, the Word of God, the intellect, or sense experience.” [110] Bartley makes an interesting parallel with political philosophy in which the traditional question has been: “Who should rule?” Or: “What is the supreme political authority?” Despite many political philosophers having been motivated by a desire to overcome authorities, the form of the traditional question has molded thinking so that one authority (such as a monarch) is merely replaced with another (such as elected representatives). Similarly, supposedly anti-authoritarian revolutions in epistemology have succeeded only in replacing old authorities (such as intellectual intuition) with new authorities (such as incorrigible sense data).9

PCR shares the comprehensive aims of panrationalism, seeing the scope of reason as unlimited and, with critical rationalism, rejects the demand for rational proofs of our rational standards. Pancritical rationalism goes further in that it also abandons “the demand that everything else except the standards be proved or justified by appealing to the authority of the standards, or by some other means. Nothing gets justified…everything get criticized.” [Bartley, 112] Instead of replacing philosophical justification with mere description of existing rational standards, PCR urges the philosophical criticism of standards as the proper task of the rationalist philosopher. Instead of proposing infallible intellectual authorities, we can “build a philosophical program for counteracting intellectual error.” [112-13] A little later I’ll examine what such a program might involve.

When PCR replaces authoritarian justification with unbounded criticism, holding all positions to be criticizable, it means (in Bartley’s words): “(1) it is not necessary, in criticism, in order to avoid infinite regress, to declare a dogma that could not be criticized (since it was unjustifiable); (2) it is not necessary to mark off a special class of statements, the justifiers, which did the justifying and criticizing but was not open to criticism; (3) there is not a point in all argument, the terms, which is exempted from criticism; (4) the criticizers the statements in terms of which criticism is conducted are themselves open to review.”

Crucial to grasping the essence of pancritical rationalism is the realization that, in the past, the concept of criticism has always been fused with the concept of justification. The inevitable result was that criticism was made in an authoritarian manner: “You belief is irrational because it cannot be justified in terms of my absolute standard of justification.” Or, in a weaker strategy, the criticism is that a belief conflicts with the rational authority (rather than that it cannot be derived from it). This fusion of criticism with justification caused every supposedly critical philosophy to slam into the dilemma of ultimate commitment. PCR replaces these approaches with what Bartley calls a nonjustificational philosophy of criticism. So, how are we to conceive of a rationalist according to pancritical rationalism? Bartley again:

“The new framework permits a rationalist to be characterized as one who is willing to entertain any position and holds all his positions, including his most fundamental standards, goals, and decisions, and his basic philosophical position itself, open to criticism; one who protects nothing from criticism by justifying it irrationally; one who never cuts off an argument by resorting to faith or irrational commitment to justify some belief that has been under severe critical fire; one who is committed, attached, addicted, to no position.” [118]

Pancritical rationalism is able to maintain its integrity, unlike other forms of rationalism. PCR satisifies its own requirements since it can hold itself open to criticism. Earlier forms of rationalism, being unjustifiable, were internally inconsistent, but PCR is consistent because the practice of holding everything open to criticism can itself be held open to criticism. Perhaps someone could produce an argument demonstrating that some of the critical standards necessarily used by a pancritical rationalist were not only unjustified but uncriticizable, that even the pancritical rationalist must accept something as uncriticizable if circular argument and infinite regress are to be avoided. I doubt that such an argument is possible, and it is up to the critic to make the argument. Until such an argument is forthcoming, pancritical rationalism can be held to be a consistent and coherent conception of rationalism.

In saying that I, as a pancritical rationalist, hold everything open to criticism, I do not mean that in practice I hold no views beyond question. For instance, it would seem rather silly for me to declare that I might revise the belief that I am over two years old (to use Bartley’s example). I may practically hold that belief beyond criticism in the sense that I do not take seriously the possibility of revision of this belief but I am not logically committed to doing so. I do not have to be dogmatically committed to the belief. Just possibly, a vast expanse of my fundamental worldview is radically mistaken. Perhaps the world is a simulation that was initiated just a month ago and all apparently older memories are implanted. While I do not take this possibility seriously, PCR suggests that I not rule out, in principle, the possibility that future events might give me cause to reevaluate the mutually-supporting set of beliefs that convince me that I cannot be less than two years old. As Bartley notes, “[T]he claim that a rationalist need not commit himself even to argument is no claim that he will not or should not have strong convictions on which he is prepared to act. We can assume or be convinced of the truth of something without being committed to its truth.” (p.121) Although Bartley himself never discusses the word “certainty”, I think a pancritical rationalist can, with consistency, be certain of some of her beliefs, if by this she means that, given her current understanding of the world, she cannot imagine how a particular belief could ever turn out to be false. Such a contextual certainty involves being thoroughly convinced of a belief, but does not imply that the belief is held dogmatically held to be beyond criticism, beyond revision in principle.

It should also be obvious that being rational, according to the PCR model, does not mean that you have no unexamined beliefs, presuppositions, or assumptions, many of which may be false. Rationality has nothing to do with omniscience, infallibility, or total awareness of your beliefs, implicit and explicit. The rational person is one who is genuinely willing to subject their assumptions and presuppositions to criticism once those assumptions come to light. Such an attitude has been felicitously expressed by the world-shaking biologist Charles Darwin:

“I had, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.” [Charles Darwin, Autobiography, p.123]

Finally, holding everything open to criticism does not means you hold that there are no true statements or valid arguments, or that for every proposition there exists a successful criticism of it. Such a relativistic view would be precisely what pancritical rationalism is intended to avoid. Relativism and the problem of ultimate commitments are closely tied to one another, and PCR provides an effective response to both.

The preeminent logician and philosopher of language, W.V. Quine, in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” has argued that we can always maintain a belief, no matter how bizarre, so long as we are willing to make changes at other points in our web of belief. As practicing rationalists, what guides do we have to help ensure that our belief-web evolves towards greater truth rather than towards deepening delusion? I do not have the space here to develop any suggestions in depth; I recommend a study of Robert Nozick’s suggested Rules of Rationality from his recent book The Nature of Rationality, and I will briefly mention four methods offered by Bartley of reducing error by criticizing our conjectures:

(1) The check of logic: Is the theory in question consistent?

(2) The check of sense observation: Is the theory empirically refutable by some sense observation? And if it is, do we know of any refutation of it?

(3) The check of scientific theory: Is the theory, whether or not it is in conflict with sense observation, in conflict with any scientific hypotheses?

(4) The check of the problem: What problem is the theory intended to solve? Does it do so successfully?

The check of the problem is especially useful for theories or conjectures that are not clearly empirically falsifiable, such as ethical and metaphysical ideas, or interpretations of physical data (such as interpretations of the equations of the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics). Even when the nature of a conjecture doesn’t admit of empirical checking, we may make headway by determining whether a view truly gets to grips with a problem, or whether it merely displaces the problem. We can ask whether a particular theory solves a problem better than any competing theory, and decide whether it simply multiplies problems. We might also see if it is incompatible with other philosophical theories that appear necessary for solving other problems. Other things being equal, we will favor a theory with high fecundity, i.e., one that raises genuine new problems that had not occurred to us before.

Extropian Principles & Pancritical Rationalism:

How should we think of the relation between pancritical rationalism assuming we find it both attractive and able to withstand criticism and the Extropian perspective? This question can be broken down into two parts: First, should we think of PCR as one element of the Extropian philosophy an idea subsumed under one of the Principles, or as part of a cognitive environment within which extropic thinking and living can flourish? Second, how might adopting PCR further the values and goals codified in the Principles? Having shown why PCR is attractive and powerful in its own right, I can now relate it to the Principles without being vulnerable to the charge that I am treating the Principles as authoritative standards by which to choose epistemological views. It should go without saying that the Principles act as a coherent codification and expression of the shared values and goals of Extropians, and not as foundational statements against which all beliefs and practices must be tested for acceptance or rejection.

To answer the first question: I recommend that pancritical rationalism be viewed, strictly speaking, not as an element subsumed under the title of “the Extropian philosophy” but as an attitude and sensibility that will help Extropian thought and practice flourish to the extent that such thought and practice can withstand criticism or evolve under its impact. In other words, let us not bestow the status of “official Extropian epistemology” on PCR. A person can be a perfectly fine Extropian without being convinced of PCR, and someone can be a principled adherent of PCR without necessarily being Extropian. Naturally I think the two sets of ideas fit well together, such that an Extropian is likely to find PCR appealing, and a pancritical rationalist has a good chance of adopting Extropian ideas if she comes across them in an appropriate context.

Rather than seeing PCR as a component of Extropian philosophy, I suggest we regard it as (in Bartley’s terms) a metacontext for the Extropian context. Ideas, memes, and ways of thinking can be classified as positions (such as “women have a right to abortion”), or as contexts for positions. A context is a belief system, ideology, institution, or tradition (libertarianism, Marxism, Sufism, the traditional conception of sportsmanlike behavior). Any position or context may be the object of criticisms, which themselves might be either positions or contexts. A metacontext is a context of contexts, and have to do with how and why contexts are held. Given this scheme of Bartley’s, we can understand the Extropian philosophy as a context, and pancritical rationalism as a metacontext especially conducive to the worldview.10 Before going on to examine what general conditions are conducive to sustaining the metacontext of fallibilism or nonjustificationism, I will look specifically at how living in accordance with the Extropian Principles meshes in a mutually supportive way with PCR.

Boundless Expansion:

By replacing justificationism with fallibilism, and by encouraging the practice of opening to, welcoming, and respecting criticism, pancritical rationalism maximizes the pursuit of truth, accelerating the death of poorly-supported views and ineffective practices. It immunizes against dogmatization, fostering critical thought and an anti-fideistic culture and so opens every area of thought and practice to unlimited, perpetual improvement. Its critical procedures are precisely those embodied in science and, we hope, in practicing scientists. PCR’s effects are radical, expansive, and progressive.


PCR obviously engenders self-criticism and openness to criticism by others, thereby helping us to leave behind ineffective beliefs and habits, flexibly exchanging them for new ones. By encouraging us to welcome criticism and to look forward to finding our errors rather than focusing on proving our beliefs to be beyond question and our personal characteristics, habits, and goals to be perfect, PCR assists us in releasing psychological blocks to the admission of error (and the improvement made possible by the discovery of error). In my formulations of Extropian cognitive habits, I have always stressed that we should tie our feelings of pride and self-esteem not to how often we can convince ourselves that we are right, but to how open we are to reevaluating our positions and to revising them when we cannot rebut criticism. The confluence of self-transformation and PCR shows itself in this principle’s recommendation of rationality, critical thinking, and personal growth, and opposition to faith, adherence to sacred texts, uncritical acceptance of authorities, and blind conformity.

Dynamic Optimism:

Dynamic optimism expresses the attitude that we are capable of improving matters if only we exert ourselves in looking for a better method, a more effective practice, a larger information base, and a truer model of the world. This optimism is dynamic since it rejects any form of passive faith. It reframes difficulties so they are seen as challenges rather than as problems, directing the mind towards the range of possibilities and resources for overcoming the difficulty. Contrary to faith, dynamic optimism recommends experimentation to uncover the truth fitting well with PCR’s fallibilist emphasis on being open to new perspectives. (Evolutionary epistemology which has close ties to PCR and may be held conjointly also resonates with this aspect of dynamic optimism.) Dynamic optimism acts as a potent psycho-epistemological vaccine, not only against pessimism and defeatism, but against dogmatization and stagnation, and so encourages the openness to new information and approaches exemplifed by the pancritical rationalist.

Intelligent Technology:

If we rarely change our beliefs regarding the most effective way to accomplish a task, clinging to familiar means, we will avoid adopting new, superior technology, furthermore acting as a drag on technology’s largely demand-driven advance. PCR probably accelerates technological advancement by stimulating the search for superior means of solving problems, and will certainly stimulate the individual rationalist’s discovery and adoption of innovative technologies. For present purposes I mean to construe “technology” broadly enough to include the design of intellectual and cultural institutions. Widespread adoption of PCR should incentivize the development of technologies facilitating criticism and information gathering and intelligent filtering, for instance true hypertext systems such as the proposed Xanadu11, and knowbots to roam the Net for information relevant to criticism and answering criticism.

Spontaneous Order:

A centrally directed culture or intellectual community will generate fewer perspectives, a more tightly restricted range of criticisms, and slower flow of innovations than a diverse, spontaneously ordering culture. PCR requires not only relentless criticism of ideas, but also generation of numerous innova tive approaches. Spontaneous social orders both embody the liberty to develop divergent ideas, and provide an effective framework for the dissemination of those ideas. Spontaneous orders only arise in the presence of appropriate regularities (property rights and price signals in markets, variation and selection in evolution); therefore, we need to choose the rules of our interactions leading to such orders so that they form an “ecological niche”12 for rationality.

This last point the need to establish and maintain conditions conducive to a ecological niche for rationality deserves some attention here, so I wil conclude by briefly raising the issue of how to achieve this, especially in our activities, fora, and institutions as Extropians. Bartley presents the issue in the following question:

How can our intellectual life and institutions, our traditions, and even our etiquette, sensibility, manners and customs, and behavior patterns, be arranged so as to expose our beliefs, conjectures, ideologies, policies, positions, programs, sources of ideas, traditions, and the like, to optimum criticism, so as at once to counteract and eliminate as much intellectual error as possible, and also so as to contribute to and insure the fertility of the intellectual econiche: to create an environment in which not only negative criticism but also the positive creation of ideas, and the development of rationality, are truly inspired. [207]

In seeking more effective arrangements of our intellectual life and institutions we want to balance carefully the goal of increasing lethality to incorrect memes with the goal of encouraging the proliferation of new attempts at describing the world. We will need a mix of fora and institutions. In some of them, while we will want criticism to be thorough and accessible, we may not want it to be instant. Intellectual spaces are often needed where embryonic ideas can be developed without being strangled at birth.13 Applying this to electronic fora, we see the need both for a “safe haven” such as the main Extropians e-mail list14, and for unrestricted spaces (such as alt.extropians or a new critical-essay list) where the basics can be debated. Perhaps a critical essay list modeled on the current Exi-Essay list would be an ideal critical forum, the required essay format eliminating personal disputes, insults, and ad hominem digs that infest regular lists, and promoting detailed, thoughtful responses.

I leave aside many other areas of our intellectual lives in which we should consider how to optimally balance vigorous criticism with the flowering of new memetic creations. I will conclude with a few suggested cognitive strategies for promoting openness to criticism and revision in ourselves and in others. When we are corrected by others, or realize for ourselves that we erred, many of us exclaim, or think implicitly or explicitly things like: “Oh shit!” “What an idiot I am!” “Now I’ll look stupid.” Such responses not only make us feel bad, they discourage us from openness to criticism by making a negative assessment of its results. Instead, let’s apply a dose of dynamically optimistic thinking, substituting responses along the lines of “Great! I’m a little bit wiser!” or “Thank you! Now I understand the world better than before” or “I did well to listen and learn to that criticism of a belief I hold dear.” Be lavish in your praise of yourself for willingness to seriously entertain criticisms of cherished beliefs, especially when the critic has an obnoxious style. As suggested by the Principle of Dynamic Optimism, tie your self-esteem to your determination to advance and reevaluate, not to having to be right.

These cognitive strategies can be applied to other people to encourage their openness to criticism. Be generous with your praise when participants admit error or simply exhibit genuine respect for criticism, especially when the discussion takes place in a public forum. Not only will this reinforce that person’s rationality, it will foster the same attitude in observers, and elicit a tit-for-tat response to your own benefit. Avoid attacks on the person rather than on their arguments ad hominem attacks annoy people and close them to criticism. Try giving respect to discussants even if you doubt that they deserve it. Finally, embed your criticisms within appreciative recognition of shared assumptions, areas of commonality, and boldness of conjecture even if the conjecture doesn’t stand up.


In this paper I have sought to convey the essence of the pancritical conception of what it is to be a rationalist, and to show why this conception should be especially appealing to we who profess extropic values, practices, and goals in our lives. The applications of PCR suggested here are meant merely to be a preliminary sketch, an overture to a continuing development that I hope to see unfold at future EXTRO sessions, in the pages of Extropy and Exponent, on the various ExI e-mail fora, in local Extropian meetings, in each Nexus establishment, and in every aspect of our lives. Let us, as Extropians, continue to lead the way in seeking to hone our rationality, deepen our wisdom, and augment our intellects. If — as the Biblical story suggests — it is evil to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to attain rationality and critical thought, let us gorge ourselves. If religion brands rationality as sinful then, in Nietzsche’s words, let us become better and more evil!


Alfred Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (Penguin Books, 1983; Originally published by Victor Gollancz, 1936, revised 1946).

William Warren Bartley, III, The Retreat To Commitment (Open Court, 2nd Edition, 1984).

Donald T. Campbell, “Unjustified Variation and Selective Variation in Scientific Discovery”, in F. J. Ayala and T. Dobzhansky, eds., Studies in the Philosophy of Biology (Macmillan, 1974).

Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

Kai Hahlweg & C.A. Hooker, eds. (1989). Issues in Evolutionary Epistemology. (State Univ. of N.Y. Press, 1989). Includes “Self-Organization: A New Approach to Evolutionary Epistemology” by Wolfgang Krohn & Gunter Kuppers.

Friedrich A. Hayek, “Kinds of Rationalism”, ch.5 of Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (University of Chicago Press, 1967).

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

David Miller, The Possibility of Empirical Science (Open Court, forthcoming 1994).

Mark Miller, Dean Tribble, Marc Steigler, and Ravi Pandya “The Open Society and Its Media”, in Extropy #12 (Vol.l.6 No.1): First Quarter 1994 (Extropy Institute).

Max More, “The Extropian Principles v.2.5” in Extropy #11 (Vol.5, No.1): Second Half 1993 (Extropy Institute).

Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality (Princeton University Press, 1993).

Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934, Hutchinson Group 1959, revised 1980).

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, 4th edition 1972).

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol.2: Hegel and Marx, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1945

John L. Pollock, Contemporary Theories of Knowledge (Rowman and Littlefield, 1986).

W. V. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in From a Logical Point of View (Harvard University Press, 1953).

Gerard Radnitsky & W.W. Bartley, III, eds. (1987). Evolutionary Epistemology, Theory of Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge. (Open Court.)

Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New American Library, 1961).

Morton White, Religion, Politics and the Higher Learning (Harvard University Press, 1959).


1 William Warren Bartley, III, The Retreat to Commitment (Open Court, 1984).

2 I borrow this phrase from Robert Anton Wilson.

3 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New American Library, 1961), section 6.

4 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol.2, p.225 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1945).

5 For a clear overview of the various kinds of coherence theories, see John L. Pollock, Contemporary Theories of Knowledge (Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, New Jersey, 1986).

6 White, Religion, Politics and the Higher Learning (Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard University Press,1959), p.48.

7 Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic.

8 Pancritical rationalism does not actually contend to be a full epistemology, saying nothing about the means of acquiring information and leaving open questions about precisely how to effectively criticize ideas. PCR is intended as a conception of rationality, or of what it is to be a rationalist.

9 Bartley may have conceived this parallel due to his enormous familiarity with Friedrich Hayek’s work on spontaneous orders and types of rationalism.

10 According to Bartley there are only three metacontexts:

(1) The metacontext of true belief or justification philosophy. This metacontext seeks to justify or defend positions and contexts.

(2) The oriental metacontext of nonattachment. This aims to detach from positions and contexts.

(3) The metacontext of fallibilism, or of pancritical rationalism. This aims to create and to improve positions and contexts.

11 See “The Open Society and Its Media” by Miller, Tribble, Steigler, and Pandya in Extropy Vo.l.6 No.1 (First Quarter 1994). True hypertext provides features such as hyperlinks, transclusion, and detectors.

12 Bartley’s term.

13 Paul Feyerabend (in Against Method) overemphasizes variation, claims Bartley, while Popper overemphasizes selection.