The myth of reason

By Christopher Wink | Feb 27, 2007 | Existentialism

In philosophical discourse, discussions of reason are not without precedence. It seems that all of the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries had thoughts on rationality and its role in history, society and individual decision.

German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) is known for his unshakable resolve towards his truth and ethics, so, it is understandable that he held a strong belief in the meaning of reason, as derived from an interpretation of moral action (Kirkbright, 85).

Conversely, a great many other philosophers are more famously tied to the topic in discussions of the ‘myth of reason.’ Prussian-born Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) criticized rationality for its idealism, its ability to be understood and evaluated by the actor. As an example, tying the system of reason to Socrates, Nietzsche suggested that rationality eroded Greek tragedy because it forced the art to follow the forms of its idealism (Stewart, 307).

Michel Foucault (1926–1984), a French philosopher, has devoted his time to deriding reason for its role in created power relationships, particularly those that are unevenly distributed. Foucault asserted that the pragmatism of rationality is used to create contemporary forms of relations in which means are misused by powerful parties, injuring their lesser, all in the name of reason. There is then, he would suggest, a ‘myth of reason’ (Stewart, 315).

While some have purported that Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831) defended the bland reality of reason, others have questioned this and pointed out his own criticism of rationality. In his 1996 book The Hegel Myths and Legends, philosophical author and coincidentally-named Jon Stewart asserts that Hegel more appropriately belongs in the “irrationalist tradition” that came after him because he, too, writes of reason being too time-orientated, lacking any absolute (Stewart, 306).

At the core, this might be the truest form of the ‘myth of reason.’ Perhaps the most important role of rationality is to evaluate action, judging what should, could, or would be done in a particular situation. However, it often becomes difficult to demonstrate rationality in history, so there is no normative basis of reason that can pass under a historical lens. Using reason, one should be able to gain insight about the world around us, historically and today, and the rationality of actions as time passes. Using reason, we reconcile ourselves to this world, yet, the atrocities of the past (colonialism, the international slave trade, the Holocaust, Russian purges, etc.) and particularly those of the present (civil war in Iraq, AIDS crisis in the African continent, etc.) question truth in that reconciliation.

Reason would suggest that genocide wouldn’t be a brutal reality in the 1940s and certainly not in the twenty-first century. While the world produces enough food stuffs, has enough technology, and consumes enough wealth to solve almost all of the great crises that plague our contemporary global environment, ignoring rationality, these answers are ignored, and so unneeded suffering persists. Nietzsche questioned the practicality of reason’s idealism, Foucault worried that reason is misused by the powerful, and Hegel suggested that reason is inextricably linked to environment. In these and other ways, there is no rationality in the form we like to see, but rather, only a ‘myth of reason.’

Kirkbright, Suzanne. Karl Jaspers: A Biography–Navigations in Truth. Yale University Press. May 2004.

Stewart, Jon. “Hegel and the Myth of Reason.” t. 306–318. The Hegel Myths and Legends. 1996. North-Western University Press.

Prepared for a class on Existentialism taught at Temple University by Lewis Gordon.