Enlightenment, the Rediscovery of Rationality?

A common way of describing the Enlightenment period centers around the discourse of “rationalization”. It is assumed that it is by abolishing the orders of the Church that the individuals empowered themselves via exercising their reason and purging the bigotry that was accumulated throughout the Dark Ages of Europe. For such reasons, when one speaks of Enlightenment thinkers, one also speaks of a certain “rationality” which naturally forms a religion/tradition—rationality dichotomy, as the latter is supposed to have risen with the diminishing of the former (or visa versa). However, such a narrative poses numerous dire problems which limit our understanding of “rationality” and presents a euro-centric view of history.

In his book Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Talal Asad states:

“Many historians apparently fail to see that it is changes in the practices of defining the truth which lead to the apparent recognition of superstition, not the other way round. In other words, the reforming Church did not rediscover rationality, it redefined it. The new rules of rational practice entailed a re-cognition of previous practices as superstition—that is, as practices that had survived beyond their time.” (p.87)

Although his argument above was written in a context in which he analyzes the Protestant reformations, I believe the way he refutes the idea that rationalization occurs with the rediscovery of rationality is crucial. Because the belief that rationality can be rediscovered assumes that the acts prior to the “rediscovery of rationality” were indeed irrational. And this is rather problematic as this induces only one certain understanding of rationality and dismisses others—which may have arisen in different sociocultural contexts.

To further elaborate on this point, we can analyze the following argument. The German sociologist Max Weber proposed a distinction between two polar types of religions in world history: the “traditional” and the “rationalized”. Traditional religions, according to Weber, consist of very concretely defined and loosely ordered sacred entities, untidy collection of fussy ritual acts, vivid animistic images, which approaches fundamental spiritual in a discrete and irregular way. On the other hand, Weber characterizes rationalized religions as more abstract, more logically coherent, containing narrower and concrete questions, and depends on systematic doctrines. However, when the famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz did a fieldwork in Bali, Indonesia, where the locals’ religious practices would have fallen in Weber’s category of traditional religions, we see that the picture is more complex. When Geertz observed the everyday lives of the Balinese, he came to realize that they never considered what they did as “irrational” and that they constantly engaged in philosophical debates concerning spiritual problems. Hence, if you are to approach a person following a “traditional religion” and ask him/her whether what s/he does is irrational, the person would surely oppose.

I believe the same case holds for pre-Enlightenment period as the members of the Church would not have considered what they did as “irrational” but would have had a different understanding of rationality—as a product of the sociocultural context that they were in. Hence, claiming that it is through the period of Enlightenment that many people became more “rational” and leaned more towards “rationality” is to misunderstand the very concept itself by limiting it to a very specific definition that is a product of a certain human context in a certain part of the world. Thus, attempts of universalizing one understanding of rationality is to surely create an invitation for disorder, as is evident in the many problems modernity have brought to many other parts of the world.

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