The Age of Unreason
The Knowledge-Practice Relation and its Political Significance
In many contemporary societies, there is a typical distrust of knowledge claims that are backed by reason and evidence. Correspondingly, there is a popular penchant for knowledge claims that have no basis in reason or evidence. It is as if post-modernism is being put into practice in popular circles.
Beginning with some empirical evidence from India concerning the existence of knowledge claims emanating from conservative forces that make no sense, and subjecting them to a critique on the basis of a series of counter-questions, I discuss the internal relation between knowledge (theoretical and empirical) and practice (political and epistemological). In part by building on Lenin and Plato, I argue for the production of knowledge claims that are based in reason, and assert that valid knowledge must be practically adequate, and that it is in the interest of the majority. As unreason becomes more and more important relative to reason, fascistic tendencies get a chance to get stronger. There is a combined need to defend both reason and to defend the class interests of the masses as a part of the same process.
Many countries have not only been under neoliberalism; they have also been under the influence of right-wing, hyper-nationalist forces that display a large degree of resistance against reason. One might take India as an example, a country that is considered the largest democracy in the world.
It is not uncommon nowadays to hear statements like the following in India:
“India will prosper on the basis of ‘Make in India’ policy.”
“Development is the main impetus behind most of the things a government does.”
“The nation is more important than anything else. The nationalist policy/thinking is paramount and is above anything else.”
“The pursuit of free-market economic policy will make everyone prosperous.“
“Building a temple here or destroying a mosque makes Hindus proud and is good for their sentiments which have been hurt in the past.”
One may ask a series of questions in response to such statements made by politicians, lay people and intellectuals, even if they have not had formal training in post-modern thought that generally encourages knowledge claims without any backing in reason and evidence.1 Note that these statements, in slightly altered forms, could be from other countries where right-wing political forces are gaining popularity:
When things are made in a country, how do the makers of the things make a living, how do they indeed live, work, and how do they benefit? Is it necessary at all that they will benefit?
When development happens, what kind of development is it, for whom is it?
What kind of development is said to happen if millions of young people remain unemployed, if they are paid extremely low wages, if small-scale producers including those in villages and indigenous communities lack economic security, if inequality is rising, and if the physical environment gets destroyed, and so on?
Under what sorts of social relationship does development happen? Who controls the very process development? Who controls the resources needed for development? Who decides what the purpose of development is: is it about money-making or about meeting people’s needs in ecologically sustainable ways?
One might also ask:
Who and what constitutes the nation, when things are done and said in the name of the nation, when people are asked to make sacrifices at the altar of the nation, and when people’s freedom is curtailed in the nation’s interest?
Under what conditions might the interests of ordinary people be different from what is seen as the interests of the nation? Who decides what, when and how sentiments of a community get hurt?
Who is it that defines what the national economic interest is? Interests of which classes and class-fractions are served by development, which is informed by free-market economic theory/policy so popular today among certain groups?
In what ways are the top 1-10% and the politicians and state officials (including those in coercive institutions) who serve the interests of the top 1-10%, as opposed to the interests of the majority (the toiling masses) of the nation, different from all those who basically benefitted during and/or from colonial rule or who supported and maintained the colonial rule?
What does being a nationalist really mean now?
Could it be that the ideology of nationalism that seems to be everywhere including on TV channels is being deployed to justify and defend the interests of a small sub-set of the nation (the economic elite) and some politically-culturally backward, confused, demoralized and chauvinistic elements of society?
Can anyone be called a nationalist if he/she is for collaboration with imperialist governments, if he/she works in the interests of the business class as a whole (domestic and foreign) and especially, for some friendly segments within that class, and therefore is against the economic interests of the majority who are exploited by that class, and if he/she divides the nation along lines of arbitrarily-chosen historical time-line, religion, etc.?
Knowledge (types) and Practice (types)
All these questions point to the fact that there is indeed a close relation between knowledge and practice. What is knowledge and what is practice?
Knowledge, in the sense of theoretical knowledge, refers to ideas that reveal mechanisms underlying empirical/observable events/processes. Theory tells us how to connect the different bits of information to produce the bigger picture about reality.2 It tells us how an apparently isolated thing or process represents wider processes. It provides knowledge that is explanatory (as well as critical).3
Practice is political (reality-creating/transforming): the practice involved in making changes in the world, and making changes is, usually, a political act because interests of different groups and classes are mutually antagonistic. Other things being constant, in the kind of society we live in, one tiny group basically basks in wealth at the expense of the majority. Practice is also epistemological (knowledge-creating/transforming). Let me turn first to political practice.
The theory of what exists in the world (ontology), the theory of how to know it or of nature of knowing (epistemology) and practice are internally connected. The world (the reality) appears at multiple levels. There are deeper levels and there are levels on the surface where we can, more or less, easily observe things.
Correspondingly, knowledge is more theoretical, when it concerns itself with deeper levels of reality. This is the realm of necessity. A theoretical claim takes the form of the following: under such and such conditions, x will cause y. Or, slightly more accurately: under such and such conditions, x (made up of many relations) will cause/produce (or set limit on) y (which is also made up of many relations).
Knowledge is more empirical when it is about the surface appearances (things that are easy to observe and are of more concrete and contingent character). It is about what is happening in specific times and specific places. What is happening in specific times and specific places does not have to happen. There is no necessity here. The latter is dealt with at the level of theoretical knowledge.
Knowledge informs practice which could include such things as: making social, economic and environmental policy, fighting for justice on the street or through an organization, and engaging in activities to change a state that serves a narrow elite to one that serves, and is controlled by, the toiling majority.
The practice that is informed by knowledge that is more empirical can only inform more reform-oriented changes (immediate and small-scale changes, including policy-changes of a given government). The practice that is informed by knowledge of a more theoretical nature (such as mechanisms of class-exploitation, etc.), when combined with more empirical knowledge (including historical facts) conducted in the light of a defensible theory, tends to be about more radical, thorough-going changes, which might be based on the struggle for immediate changes or reforms. The more radical changes, ultimately, address the fundamental needs of the majority. So, true, scientifically-arrived-at knowledge that unpacks fundamental mechanisms in society is, generally, in the interest of the majority.
Now, let’s turn to empirical practice. Empirical knowledge comes from empirical practice (e.g. conducting experiments in laboratories; speaking to people; joining a workers’ or women’s or dalit movement; reading archival materials). Theoretical knowledge is informed by, and contributes to, empirical practice. It tells us what is important to study and what to look for when one collects empirical information.
We acquire knowledge about the social and natural world by a combination of reasoned, coherent argument and evidence obtained by sensations produced by empirical practice. An important question is: how do we know that our statements are true, that they reflect, more or less, what is outside of our mind? How do we know that:
truth ≠ myth,
truth ≠ falsehood, and
word ≠ world?
Practical Adequacy of Knowledge
How do we know that whatever we might think in our head, whatever might satisfy our sentiments or subjective desire, whatever is written by the speech writer of a politician, who appears to the public as one with great intellect, is not true? In fact, what is true exists independently of our mind, at a given point in time. And reason combined with evidence will produce truth-claims, as mentioned before.
To be true is to be practically adequate. Practice is the criterion of truth. In one of his philosophical texts (Materialism and Empirio-criticism), Lenin, the bet noire of the forces of unreason, says:
“Knowledge can be … useful in human practice, useful for the preservation of life, for the preservation of the species, only when it reflects objective truth, truth which is independent of man. For the materialist the ‘success’ of human practice proves the correspondence between our ideas and the objective nature of the things we perceive. … If we include the criterion of practice in the foundation of the theory of knowledge we inevitably arrive at materialism…”
All this means is that if a theory proves to be wrong, we must consider revising/rejecting it, unless there is reason to believe that the conditions under which the mechanism posited by theory is expected to work fail to exist.4 The idea that I can walk on water because some god or some baba (godman) has given me that power or that many centuries ago plastic surgery allowed someone to have an elephant face, or the idea that armed with the ammunition of anti-essentialist/post-modernist philosophy, one can fight capitalism and create socialism by building community kitchens or by producing vegetables in a backyard – all this thinking is palpably not practically adequate. It simply generates unrealizable expectations. It is not true. So it is also not ‘useful’. One can similarly be critical of the statements with which I began this article.
When knowledge reflects objective reality, only then is it useful. When what we say/write/think is based on the absence of reason and lack of evidence, then a culture is created where we antagonize our fellow citizens avoidably. In this culture, the following happens: if Y does not agree with the myth and the ideas that X believes to be true without reason and evidence, then X considers Y to be X’s enemy, even if they share the same exploitative working conditions and inadequate living standards.
Armed with reason and evidence about the world they live in, common people should be united against those who oppress and exploit them in that world. Ideas and practices (including action of communal political parties) based on unreason and falsehood divide people. This division, which weakens the masses, is good for the oppressors and the exploiters and their political backers.
As unreason becomes more and more important relative to reason, fascistic tendencies that feed on myth and irrationalism, get a chance to get stronger. And that is a big danger.
Here are some relevant insights from Plato which have much contemporary relevance:
“[There] is a certain experience we must be careful to avoid…That we must not become misologues, as people become misanthropes. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse. Misology [hatred of reason] and misanthropy arise in the same way. Misanthropy comes when a man without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound and trustworthy; then, a short time afterwards he finds him to be wicked and unreliable, and then this happens in another case; when one has frequently had that experience, especially with those whom one believed to be one’s closest friends, then, in the end, after many blows, one comes to hate all men and to believe that no one is sound [reasonable] in any way at all…This is a shameful state of affairs…” (Plato’s Phaedo in Steven Cahn’s Classics of Western Philosophy, 2012, p. 65; 1154.)
When one believes in things and in statements without subjecting them to reason and evidence-based assessment, that is, when one engages in misology (hatred of reason), then it follows that one will place “great trust in someone and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound and trustworthy” (Plato) when in fact there is no reason to believe that. There is absolutely no reason to believe in the kind of statements that are at the beginning of this article but people believe in those in this age of unreason and misology.
There is indeed a deep connection between theory/knowledge, and what we do in life (our practice). Consider the definition of science/knowledge by Mendeleyev, the Russian scientist, who established the Periodic Table: to know so that we may foresee and act. But then why act?
There is a need for action – for engaging in practice – because there are natural and/or socially-created obstacles to us becoming or doing what we can become or do. They are the obstacles to the satisfaction of our interests (e.g. interests in access to food and shelter, and in a good environment). A practice that truly satisfies our economic, political, cultural and environmental needs requires ideas that are based in reason and evidence.
As mentioned earlier, a given statement, ultimately, reflects/supports certain interests and not other interests. That is why one could say: “if geometrical axioms affected human interests attempts would certainly be made to refute them” (Lenin, 1908). The statement that global warming is human-induced reflects the interests of the people in living in a less polluted world,5 while the statement that global warming is not human-induced reflects the interests of oil companies in profit-making and the interests of politicians, officials and scientists who stand to benefit from oil companies.
One cannot, of course, decide the truth status of a statement merely on the basis of whose interests it reflects. Yet, in producing knowledge about society and its transformation of the environment, we must raise the question of the relation between knowledge and practice. We must ask: what/whose interests does our knowledge represent/reflect/serve? This is very important especially in the age of unreason, which Plato might call the age of misology and misanthropy, that we are living in. This is an age where the political elite, including the Trumps and the Modis, are deeply ‘anti-intellectual’, at least, in relation to intellectuals who might question them. The right to know and to question must be defended, and this right must be exercised in close connection with the social, economic, political and ecological rights and interests of the toiling masses. Such a close connection can have a dual effect: it can enrich knowledge and empower the masses.
Unfortunately, as Bertell Ollman (2013), the philosopher from New York, says in his Dance of the Dialectic: “The age-old link between knowledge and action has been severed, so that [most] scholars can deny all responsibility for their wares while taking pride in knowing more and more about less and less” (p. 12; parenthesis added). •
This article first published on the Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal website.
- See Ellen Wood. Ed. 1997. In Defense of History, New York: Monthly Review Press. Also: Alex Callinicos. 1990. Against Postmodernism, New York: St. Martin’s Press; Sokal, A. and Bricmont. 1999. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, New York: Picador.
- On how to theorize, see Raju J Das. 2012. ‘Thinking/writing theoretically’, Radical Notes, https://radicalnotes.org. For an elaboration of ideas concerning theorizing, see Raju J Das. 2017. Marxist class theory for a skeptical world. Leiden: Brill (chapter 5 on ‘Philosophical foundations of class theory’, pp. 175-211).
- It is critical in part because it assumes that what appears to be true (what is on the surface) is not indeed true (for more details on the nature of critique, see Raju J Das, 2014. A contribution to the critique of contemporary capitalism: Theoretical and International Perspectives, New York: Nova Science Publishers.
- The empirical evidence that airplanes fly does not necessitate negating the theory of gravity.
- The fact that it may also coincide with the interest of the companies that specialize in eco-friendly technologies and products (electricity-cars), etc. is a different matter.