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German Rationality and the Collapse of Hegemony of Reason

By S. M. Faizan Ahmed

If the German tradition is not without its sunny optimisms and days of bright white light, it is, however, better remembered for the way in which it has coped with an imponderable intensity of night to bring back from it that inner light by which any gloom can be borne or even overcome. Where on the one hand it has elaborated that rationality by which even the irrational can be explained, understood and even overcome, it has on the other mapped out the limits, destroyed its own edifices and indicated the fundamental irrationalities by which Reason lives. It has founded in a significant way our awareness of the modern and modernity, indicated the directions in which it is to be found, the directions in which it may develop, the ways in which it may be grasped and mastered. And German thought has, equally, founded our awareness of post-modernity, excavated that ground where modernity ends, explored the gloom that descends once the heady tocsin of progress has ceased its din.

Specifically German intellectual history begins rather late – no earlier, perhaps, than Martin Luther and the translation of Bible into German. In the brief space between then and now, is compressed a development that gathers to itself the heritage of Christian and classical thought, while projecting itself on a trajectory to grasp the uniqueness of its own predicament. Without a history in classical sense, it creates a historiography in which its own history can be explored and comprehended. Without a nurtured culture of civilizational scope, it creates a culture of universalizable dimensions growing out of its encounter with its own immediacies. Without authoritative sources for the elucidation of its concerns and predicament, it creates the substance of a discourse on which such authority can be validly founded. Throughout the whole is the straining of a people to the grandeur and mastery of which they are aware, but not a part. From its very beginnings, the German intellectual adventure grounds itself in the spirit and treats of Reason, when it must, only in the context of the appropriation of such Reason to the logic and purposes of its original and originating faith.

It is not as if Reason does not have a place, even in the extremest romantic rejections, but bounded by, founded in, permeated by Unreason, even in the most Rationalist of formulations. German philosophy, particularly, which is not only the pride of Germany, but constitutes the possibility of a European or Occidental identity and destiny, is cast in a transcendental mould which can unveil the irrational and irrationalist foundations of Reason itself and with it the European or Occidental destiny to which it is fundamental. I do not, here, have in mind that eruption of irrationalist and specifically anti-rationalist doctrines that characterise the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, that lead to the specific collapse of the hegemony that I am talking about. But, before that, in the very rationalist enlightenment itself, the contribution of German philosophy is the exploration of the unreason of Reason, and the attempt at reconciling such reason, if only as a modified and considerably curtailed rationalism. Obviously, qualifications need to be made, for such a generalization cannot hope to exhaust the wealth and variety of individual German thinkers, who, at one time or another, have been fashionable or influential.

But the main direction of German thought and inquiry has tended in a direction that has espoused the cause of Reason in a way in which the meaning(fulness) of such Reason has been fundamentally transformed by awareness of its unrational foundations and its implications in a non-rational and even anti-rational human quest. Consider, for example, the use to which the word ‘Science’ is put in German philosophy of the Enlightenment and following. Where the very use of the word resonates with a commitment to rational thought and science as its incontrovertible form, the materials and treatment grouped under the rubric of science fundamentally alter the sense that that word has in a more direct and positively oriented discourse. The sense in which Hegel’s treatise on logic can be called a science is considerably different from the way in which Newton thought of the laws he had postulated as science.

To highlight this characteristically German ambivalence it would help to examine the Hegelian credo, ‘what is real is rational; what is rational is real’ that seems at first sight to be a statement celebrating rationalism from the height of its achievement. How are we to understand this statement? – as a celebration of the conquest of Reason? – or as a celebration of the conquest of the Rational (by the existent)? What does it say? If something exists, reasons for this existence also exist. In this sense, the proposition affirms the positivity of the given, and founds the possibility of a discourse aimed at the recovery of its rationality, however much at odds it may be with our notions of what ought to exist. A great deal of German thought has indeed devoted itself to the development of this possibility, and among such thinkers, Weber himself. But negative dimension of this positivity is brute existence of the fact. What exists may posses the certitude that only if it is truly real will it confirm to reason. The simple overt sense of ‘the rational is real’ asserts the reality of the pure domain of reason that can be taken as affirmation and validation of the project(s) of logic and pure science. In this sense the proposition upholds the dualism of mind and matter, reason and being, pure reason and practical reason. This ambivalence expresses itself at the heart of Weber’s concern with modernity, capitalism and the future of Western society. Comparing the protestant ethic of its emergence with its later more rational and rationalised forms, he finds the former heroic in the inner-worldly asceticism through which it affects the obscure purposes of history. Commenting upon the bureaucratic rationality that he sees as the future of an ever more perfectly rationalised organization that the development of capitalism seems to demand, he mourns, the loss of the heroic spirit that has made such organisation possible, that has founded the historic fortune of capitalism. Reason as base in the face of value through which such reason effects itself and comes into being, concealed in this is also the notion of a superior logic and rationality to the emergence of this founding values akin to the mysterious hand of providence that meticulously arrange the affairs of laissez-faire apologists of an earlier generation, to perfection. Notion of the charisma in the constitution of authority, that seems to prefigure in such an uncanny way, the events in Germany that immediately follow Weber’s own life and work. Weber offers us a clear and unequivocal tripartite taxonomy composed of (1) the traditional (2) the rational-legal, and (3) the charismatic. What is peculiar and distinctive about charismatic authority is that it is not accommodated to specific historical _expression in the way in which traditional authority characterises pre-capitalist political formations, and rational-legal authority the specifically democratic capitalist, but is equally possible at any period of time. It is in this sense a residual, ahistoric category in Weber’s otherwise much more rigorously historically ordered taxonomies. Weber seems to be convinced that charisma, or the greatness, in its very essence irrational, non-rational, transrational.

But these are only the more obvious, superficial ambivalences. There is a deeper ambivalence in Weber’s treatment of rationality, such as, in the attempt to distinguish a pre-modern, perhaps feudal, Wertrationalitat and a modern individualistic, Zweckrationalitat. Weber argues for the distinctiveness of the rationality of the modern type. Durkheim and Toennies are seriously taken up with the distinctiveness of European modernity, but their emphasis falls elsewhere – on the nature of solidarity, division of labour, and the character of the will. Both the character of the will and the character of the Reason pose obstacles to a discourse aimed at discriminating between types of will and Reason. The co-existence of these three types of rationality, in Weber’s own work is cause to wonder at the logic of such work itself. Distinguishing as it does between types of rationality, the transcendent standpoint cannot grasp either or each of those it distinguishes except by an imminence, an entering into the very substance of the form of rationality between which it distinguishes if the logic of its own position is to be preserved as transcendent. This is the paradox of Weber’s own rationality. Weberian exploration of rationality is impossible except as an oscillation between poles, with neither of which the thinker identifies.

When it is a matter of exploring the actual dynamics of the change, all we are left with is the mystery of the protestant ethic. There is no paucity of categories, of type of ordering characteristic of earlier times, characteristic of modern times, of analyses of religion, of religious archetypes, of religious institution and their economic content of a whole variety of social artefacts known to a very learned and experienced man. But crucial mystery, the transformation to modernity and capitalism, profounder than any other evolution or change, set out in these categories, remains a mystery. Despite his discomfort with Reason and his ambivalence to the notion of rationality he would perhaps still claim to be a rationalist. But this historical rationality only presents itself as this more or less rational, more or less irrational human exigent – existentially delimited awareness of the role of Reason.

If the mainstream of German rationalist thought and achievement is characterised by an ambivalence to the reason it enshrines, its alter-ego and constant companion, the radical rejection of this reason and rationalism strive to its own reason, a Reason existentially grounded and oriented to the logic of the human predicament, transcending its rationality. Both have their characteristic irrationalities recognised within their doctrines. The course of the hegemony of the Enlightenment, with divergent influences and followings, has considerably different scales of engagement with the public mind. The collapse when it comes collapses the one into other each into itself and the whole in chaos from which developments in science itself are not exempt. Indeed the beginnings of the reconstitution precede and themselves precipitate the critical chaos through which they emerge as the possibility of a new present and future. This of course, as regards their influence in the intellectual life and ambience of post-war Europe, without entering into the connections with and implications for the everyday life of its people.

Its ease and self- assurance seem to be untouched by the growing weight of irrationalism, ever more and more significantly claiming rational legitimisation. But this is not altogether so. There are significant and important ways in which the weight of irrationalism and unreason invade and pervade the whole atmosphere in which rationalism pursues its self-designated projects, particularly in the dimension in which such irrationalism is actually grounded on a substantial reason, Weber’s own work is thoroughly permeated by his pessimism, this pessimism is a pessimism about the future, concerning and drawing from very Reason and rationalism that it is his aim to defend.

Weber’s attitude resolves itself into that heroic blend of rationalism with irrationality extolled later by the imprisoned Italian revolutionary, Gramsci, as pessimism of the intellect combined with an optimism of the will. It gathers up the Enlightenment’s concern with rationality as a principle of dominance over circumstance and its commitment to specifically human, rational history, into an engagement with the fundamental irrationality of the human predicament and its engagement with history itself. In this sense, German intellectual tradition preserves a fundamental ambivalence towards its meaning (fulness) is admirably oriented to the expression of the Irrationalism, that in a historical view, is the specific culmination of the progress of Reason. Collapse of the rationalist adventure into the disintegration of the premises and the fabric of Reason is the special intensity of the German intellectual achievement with regard to the modernity that has been recurrent and especial theme. Weber as both commentator on and actor in, this historical collapse and reconstitution, in his scholarly work and political activity, expresses in no uncertain way, the discomfort and straining of Reason with its own awareness of its untenability.


The author is President, Society for Social Research, Delhi. He is currently also associated with Zentrum Moderner Orient (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin, with regard to his research on ‘Modernization of Madrasas in India’.