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The Existential Classic Behind Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man”


Irrational Man, the 45th film from the prolific Woody Allen, starts Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor in a small town undergoing an “existential crisis.” You suffer from despair,” Emma Stone (who plays one of his students) tells him – and it appears she’s right. The professor has a drinking problem, suffers from “dizziness and anxiety,” and is tormented by a quest to commit a “meaningful act.”

Early reviews suggest that Irrational Man will go the way of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point: Lucas’ meaningful act will be the perfect murder. The trailer’s lighthearted tone notwithstanding, a crazed Phoenix wandering through a park portends the kind of downward spiral we saw in Blue Jasmine.

All of this is familiar territory for Woody Allen fans – not only because of the murder plot, but also because of the emphasis on “the question of the meaning of being” that runs throughout his films. There was the neurotic character Mickey (Hannah and Her Sisters) who becomes convinced that he has a brain tumor, only to find out that he has something much worse: meaninglessness. Then there was that scene (one of my personal favorites) in Play It Again Sam, which – with sophisticated New Yorkers, an art museum, romantic attraction, and talk of suicide punctuated with a joke – is as good a minute-long summation of Allen’s movies as you could ever hope to find. In a word, Woody Allen has always been an existentialist.

In fact, Irrational Man takes its title verbatim from a 1958 book by existential philosopher William Barrett. As the Guardian notes, Barrett’s book – which was responsible for introducing existentialism to the English speaking world – “no doubt formed part of Allen’s self-taught intellectual life in the late 50s and early 60s.”

Barrett (following Matthew Arnold) argues that the West is divided into two competing impulses: Hebraism and Hellenism. The first, which we receive from the Jewish religious tradition, is a philosophy of action, moral law, and ontological finitude – in a word, the vital. The second, which we receive from the Greek philosophical tradition, is a philosophy of knowledge, theoretical science, and epistemological certitude – in a word, the rational. The first is earthy: it looks “down” on the concrete and particular, focusing on individual people and what they stake their lives on. The second is ethereal: it looks “up” to the abstract and timeless, focusing on universal ideas and what they demonstrate. The first gives us saints, mystics, and artists; the second gives us philosophers, scientists, and industrialists.

Barrett links the second impulse, Hellenism, with the modern philosophical tradition inaugurated by Descartes in the seventeenth century. With its removal of the spirit from nature, its method of detached observation, and its quest for mathematical certainty and industrial conquest, Cartesianism embedded a new Platonism in the heart of the West, one which severed its last connections to the vital by sloughing off the religious and ethical precepts that structured man’s intellectual life. (Barrett would wrestle with the history of modern philosophy right up until his last book, Death of the Soul.)

On the other hand, Barrett links the first impulse, Hebraism, with existentialism. “The features of Hebraic man,” he writes, “are those which existential philosophy has attempted to exhume and bring to the reflective consciousness of our time.” The philosophical figures that have haunted all of Woody Allen’s works – e.g., Nietzsche in Hannah and Her Sisters and Dostoevsky in Love and Death – are presented as exemplars of the concrete. Though widely divergent in their religious and moral outlooks, the existentialists countered the Enlightenment ideal of reason and science with matters that struck to the core of “the whole man” – matters like alienation, anxiety,freedom, suffering, finitude, and death.

This analysis is striking for three reasons. First, it presents itself as a comprehensive account of the history of ideas. Barrett obliterates the notion that existentialism was a mid-century French fashion or literary movement, and instead situates it at the heart of the West’s struggle to understand itself.

Second, unlike “subtraction” histories that divide the West “laterally” into a bygone age of faith and the present age of unbelief, Barrett’s “vertical” division accounts for the variety of religious beliefs across the philosophical spectrum. It’s true that he sees both Judaism and Christianity (especially the bloodline of Paul, Augustine, and Pascal) as basically existential. “Though strongly colored by Greek and Neo-Platonic influences,” Barrett writes, “Christianity belongs to the Hebraist rather than to the Hellenist side of man’s nature because Christianity bases itself above all on faith and sets the man of faith above the man of reason.” Still, Hellenists and Hebraists each have their figures of faith (Kant v. Kierkegaard) and unbelief (Hume v. Nietzsche), which is still very much the case today.

Third, Barrett doesn’t frame this division as inevitable. From the beginning, he admits that there is an innate disposition in Hebraism toward the rational:

“We have to insist on a noetic content in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek. It is not the kind of knowledge that man can heave through reason alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never intellectually know.”

He also sees an innate disposition in Hellenism toward the vital:

“While existential philosophy is a radical effort to break with this Platonic tradition, yet paradoxically there is an existential aspect to Plato’s thought…we have to see Plato’s rationalism, not as a cool scientific project such as a later century of the European Enlightenment might set for itself, but as a kind of passionately religious doctrine – a theory that promised man salvation from the things he had feared most from the earliest days, from death and time.”

The Hellenistic and Hebraic impulses then forged an “uneasy alliance” in Augustine, later cultivated by the “unbounded rationalism” of medieval thinkers for whom faith was “beyond reason, but never against, or in spite of it.” In short, Christendom gave us peacetime in the great battle of the vital and rational:

“St. Augustine saw faith and reason – the vital and the rational – as coming together in eventual harmony; and in this too he set the pattern of Christian thought for the thousand years of the Middle Ages that were to follow…dogmas were experienced as the vital psychic fluid in which reason itself moved and operated and were thus its secret wellspring and support…The moment of synthesis, when it came in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, produced a civilization perhaps as beautiful as any man has ever forged, but like all mortal beauty a creature of time and insecurity…”

For Barrett, the medieval synthesis was shattered by a battle between intellectualism (the entrenchment of the rational) and voluntarism (a resurgence of the vital), part of a broader disagreement between Thomists and Scotists that helped launch both Protestantism and Rationalism. Protestantism “placed all the weight of its emphasis upon the irrational datum of faith, as against the imposing rational structures of medieval theology”. Rationalism, on the other hand, removed reason from the “psychic fluid” of the vital, leading us to the “bitter end of the century of Enlightenment” where “the limits of human reason had very radically shrunk”.

In the end, Barrett would take the fideism of a Kierkegaard over the rationalism of a Hume any day, and to understand Barrett’s rallying cry is to understand Woody Allen: “We have to establish a working pact between that segment [reason] and the whole of us; but a pact requires compromise, in which both sides concede something, and in this case particularly the rationalism of the Enlightenment will have to recognize that at the very heart of its light there is also a darkness.”

Still, if Barret is right – and I think he is – it goes both ways: a vitalism without reason is as blind as a rationalism without vitality is volatile. The existentialists are right that there’s more to life than rationality; but if pure reason leaves us cold, pure vitality burns us up. Both sides of our being long not just for a compromise but an integration. We long to be both fully vital and fully rational. For that reason I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Catholicism haunts so many of Woody Allen’s films. Following the logic of the Incarnation, Catholic Christianity has always striven to achieve a “both/and” with regard to the rational and suprarational, a kind of hypostatic union of the mind that – so long as we’re committed to defending it – will make us whole again.
(Image credit: Konbini)

Matthew Becklo

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Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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  • Interesting. Reminds of something George Weigel wrote in the begining of "Benedict XVI: Light of the World".

    "Faith devoid of reason becomes blind superstition. Reason devoid of faith becomes self-absorption with a detachment from reality." Catholicism uses both Faith & Reason to explain & defend reality.

    • Perhaps this was originally phrased by Kant: The concept without the precept is empty. The precept (intuition, etc.) without the concept is blind. (A more 'general format, granted.) The way I was taught your quote as a child, was that we had reason in order to avoid superstition, yes, but that we had religion in order to combat emphasis on the material world, i.e. various forms of 'idolatry'. or absorption in a particular enterprise.
      Kant was the last, or perhaps only, philosopher, who attempted in his critique of the limitations of 'pure reason', to provide a context which could combine both 'traditions'.. (I expect some disagreement here.). But, I will continue to maintain that his philosophical trilogy could be interpreted as a representation of the Trinity: will, intellect, and ????? That said, I still believe the emphasis on both sites, EN and SN, tend towards the 'intellectual'!!!!!

      • "Trinity: will, intellect, and ?????"
        ? = Love?
        Will - Father
        Intellect - Son, the word God (or thoughts of God) made flesh
        The love between the two - Holy Spirit

        • Thanks Ben, for the effort. I have been struggling with these concepts in an attempt to find 'coherence' within their relationship one with another for many, many, years. I am aware, for instance, of the work of Derrida on language, which demonstrates how our concepts are intricately woven one into another (he calls it trace), so that it is difficult, and perhaps impossible to avoid equivocity, category errors, and other such phenomena.
          Kant places, (truth, pure reason; will; practical reason, ethics and morality) beauty with teleology, as the subject of the last volume in his series. This of course, I associate with the Holy Spirit, who within Catholicism is considered some sort of unifying element, perhaps within the upward ascent, however, rather than the procession, from Will, Son to Spirit. So perhaps there is a good 'reason', why the Holy Spirit remains 'undefined' within Catholic literature.
          It's also interesting however, to relate this to the vision of neoplatonism: the one, (outward sphere of stars) the nous, the sun et all, and the soul, our little selves within the sphere of the moon!!!! They say, that since the Copernican revolution, (including Kantianism) that we are no longer geo-centric. That's true perhaps to the degree that we could instead consider ourselves, with our vast intellects- the source of all knowledge of the cosmos, to be pretty 'ego-centric'!!!! But you know, of course, I 'jest'!!!

      • Kraker Jak

        I still believe the emphasis on both sites, EN and SN, tend towards the 'intellectual'!!!!!

        May I say amen :-)

        • Love your cartoon. A complete truthful representation of the true meaning of 'agnosticism'!! With respect to the intellectualism, and my previous comments regarding for example, 'argument', I read yesterday that 'proofs' were originally thought to be the method to consolidate 'knowledge', rather than the means to establish same. (Just a thought). But in keeping with Ben's remarks below, with respect to intellectualism, there is perhaps some 'evidence' that there is little 'love' lost between EN and SN. But of course, I have no 'proof'; or rather: I would certainly not like to argue the case one way or another!

          • Kraker Jak

            there is perhaps some 'evidence' that there is little 'love' lost between EN and SN.

            I agree....but does that matter? I think not. Especially not if love is interpreted as agreement on theological issues such as the existence of god.

          • In that case, could the issue perhaps boil down to the usual: 'Who's g/God'? !!!!! (And of course, within the paradoxes of language, that question itself could be interpreted in many different ways!!!!) I guess I'm really asking' for trouble here! Thanks again for the cartoon, KJ. Of course, my 'agnosticism' could be interpreted charitably as my having an open, (but perhaps not too intelligent) mind!!!! If only I could be a goddess, but perhaps that would put mono-theism out of the question!!!! (Cartoon on this one, please.!)

          • Kraker Jak


      • Loren - You should check out Barrett's last book "Death of the Soul" (link in the article). I read both books back to back this past year, and it surprised me how much Barrett evolved on Kant between writing them. He's very complimentary of him in the later work, and writes that he was the last philosopher to attempt an all-encompassing "unification" of both impulses. I would quote it for you but the book is on loan!

        • Thanks very much, Matthew Becklo. It's nice to be assured that you, (meaning me) are not alone in your interpretation of a master philosopher. After Kant I believe, philosophy turned from the intellect to the will. The pragmatists, and later literary theory, took the pragmatic in contrast to the moral interpretation of the categorical imperative as their foundation for instance. And I read this month about the Cassirer-Heidegger debate, which place4s analytic philosophy as but one interpretation of Kant's exclusion of dogmatics from the purvue ot 'rational thought'. And then of course, there is Hegel and Marx whose philosophy I believe can be derived from the Category of Quality. And with the help of newly discovered Eastern traditions we have
          Schopenhauer and his 'adversary' - Nietzsche, both in opposition to
          Hegel. I find the most interesting category in Kant, that of Relationship, which I believe is a summary of what? the Principles of Aristotle? Different ways of approaching the law of contradiction, etc. in any case. with the synthesis being the either/or both/and or either or and both and, and and.... :) You see I must confess that I don't 'believe' in the law of contradiction. I think it is a most 'convenient fallacy'!!!!!! As far as reading long books, I think it's beyond me now. I keep wanting to 'leave this site', but doing any more than Googling and putting bits and pieces together is 'beyond me'. Thanks. Will check out 'death of the soul', but it sounds to much like 'death of god', and I assume it would have to be but one moment in a dialectic :)

        • Just checked- it IS you Matthew. Seems like I'm about the only one commenting here. So, in more ways than one, I'm perhaps saying too much. Don't worry about my current perspective on 'contradictions' et al. I'm just taking 'words' a bit more 'seriously' , or perhaps more 'personally' than usual!!!! Like what you said about Ecclesiastics. Why can't I be a stoic, and still have faith!! For every thing, turn turn, There is a season, turn turn, They are all perhaps just alternative interpretations. Does there really have to be a 'correct way to think'????? Trust your thesis is coming along just great!

  • This was a very interesting read. Thank you. I love Woody Allen movies, and find the discussion on Allen's philosophy and existentialism interesting. I wonder if this is reflected in the Jewish philosophers through history (either as embracing this vital philosophy, or reacting against it). Especially for the philosophers Philo, Rambam, Spinoza, Marx, Husserl, Stein, Wittgenstein, Kripke and Putnam.

    Any thoughts about any or all of these philosophers, in light of William Barrett's division between Hebraic and Hellenistic thought?

    • Thanks Paul Rimmer. I have spent the morning Googling, and going through my
      'library'. realizing 'again', how little I know, and how limited my understanding was when I originally read some of these authors. I do believe however, that the traditions are 'interwoven', to various degrees, with 'shifting emphasis'. The names especially change, (as per even Wittgenstein's language-games, referring to the difficulty of finding definition regarding even the word 'game', and thus more evidence of the equivocity within language), so we have religion - science, faith, reason, reason, understanding (Kant). the 'internal' - 'external', and so it goes... Thanks for the list, - I have now 'discovered' Chabad!!! and know for sure Kripke and Putnam are 'way beyond me', but that there's also Von Frassen!!! I'm too 'old'. I'll be happy to just get a 'hint' a 'day'. Take care.

    • Thanks Paul! I really can't recommend the source material enough. It's thorough, fair-minded, and accessible, and not only the best book on existentialism I've ever read, but one of the best books I've ever read, period.

      As to your question, I would say Spinoza, Marx (who reified Hegel's "the real is the rational"), Kripke, and Putnam fall squarely in the tradition of Hellenistic rationalism. The others strike a more interesting balance in different ways. As Barrett points out, Husserl was "a passionate exponent of classical rationalism" - he was deeply rooted in logic and mathematics - but he "flung wide the doors of philosophy to the rich existential content that his more radical followers [e.g. Heidegger, Sartre] were to quarry." Stein too (his student) was deeply rationalistic, but was to later synthesize her teacher's thought with that of Aquinas. (In "Christian Sources" Barrett agrees that Aquinas was, in a sense, an existentialist.) Then there's Wittgenstein, who was enamored with monasticism, mysticism, and Father Zosima. (On the existential side you'll find Buber, Levinas, Jonas, etc. - not to mention Qoheleth, who if I remember right was a favorite of yours!)

      • Thanks for the reply. I'll definitely read the source material. Your response was helpful, especially as regards Stein, Wittgenstein and Husserl. I'm still curious about Spinoza, Marx, Kripke and Putnam. Are there indications of hebraic thought in their philosophy, do you think? Maybe they are reacting against this mindset?

        Does Barrett talk about Kripke or Putnam (or any of the analytical philosophers, Jewish or not, or early positivists?)

        • Those two rose to prominence a few decades after "Irrational Man" was published, so no mention of them specifically, but he does have quite a lot to say about positivism and analytic philosophy.

          • Just followed up on the meaning of reified thought etc. etc.and wondered if I might be doing this. I do 'love' to play with various possible relationships between concepts. Rarely, occasionally, I do feel I get a good insight as a result. Maybe even a couple of weeks after I have 'played my little game'. Pay me no mind. I will attempt to understand 'fallacies' a bit better. I guess I can avoid being thought 'incoherent' if I 'tow the line'. But I also wonder sometimes whether one can draw too tight a line regarding what is real and rational. I do believe there can be 'great value' in associative thought. Anyway, am going to ask after 'Irrational Man' at the bookstore. Back to the 60's. Sartre, etc. etc. etc. For the rest, just ignore me. Thank you.

  • Kraker Jak


  • William Davis

    Probably the oldest conception of this type of dualist struggle comes from the ancient Chinese:


    Trying to split rationality from the rest of the mind always ends up being problematic. Probably the most common western split is between reason and emotion, but a deep study of human emotion shows this doesn't work. Unless there is something deeply wrong with us, there is always a reason for any emotion, and emotion is needed to have the motivation to reason about anything (pure reason is more of a tool than anything else). Better emotional conditions go hand in hand with better reason. For example it is irrational to get angry over something that cannot be prevented (even though rational people can get angry at first if surprise is involved, but that is primarily due to their failure to accurately predict what is possible in a situation).

    • Yeah! I remember reading a long time ago a book on Hindu-Buddhist logic. So this Confucianism thing is perhaps spread over the Asian world. Don't know. But the book, as I understand with Buddhism, was not particularly concerned with what Aristotelean logic discerns to be the negative aspects of 'contradiction', for instance. If I remember correctly, they seem to disregard the importance of contradiction and emphasize the particular more than perhaps we in the west do. I wish I had kept the book. (I'm referring to the link of I-Ching Yin-Yang, yes?) Do you think Western Civilization would not have come as far as it has without Aristotelean logic? Just wondering? Hope your computers are also learning set-theory, propositional logic, and modal logic. Of course, we could all use a little bit better 'judgment' (of particularly) too! and more attention to what is meant. Logic is after all basically 'empty "form"' I often find very often, that something someone says, that might be taken as a fallacy in these articles I'm reading, upon further, and yes, deeper reflection can be seen in a different light, and make sense within this new context/interpretation. (I've never seen so many fallacies being put forth. This indicates to me that 'something's UP')

      • William Davis

        Do you think Western Civilization would not have come as far as it has without Aristotelean logic?

        Who knows what the consequences of the non-existence of Aristotle would be, but there is good reason to think they would be major. In addition to his prominence in the world of philosophy, he was also Alexander the Great's tutor. Without Aristotle it's entirely possible that Alexander's conquests would not have been nearly as successful and we could have a radically different history altogether (Hellenization paved the way for Rome). In general it can be fairly difficult to compare eastern and western philosophy and I think there are positives to both. Having a mixture in my head seems helpful as long as I'm not overly concerned about contradictions (having a completely contradiction free worldview seems largely impossible to me, though perhaps some future philosopher could clear things up).

        • Hi. Firstly on Alexander the Great, my understanding is that he was a tutor only for a short while, a couple of years if I am correct, not much input on his career.. Yes, Aristotle is The Philosopher! The Nicomachean Ethics et al. I think Rome and Greece were somewhat co-existent- another thing for me to check up. But basically, Plato and Aristotle, (and a few others) are our Western philosophy!!! But it's not his non-existence per se I was wondering about, but his logic. All those diagrams. etc.

          I think I remember now, the particulars I spoke about in the Eastern logic book were I believe various conceptions of cause and effect, which fits in well with Karma, etc. etc. But for living with contradictions, this is what perhaps the Buddhists refer to as living with equanimity, I think you can train yourself to handle paradox, as per even Kierkegaard. That after all is what Faith is supposed to be - or refer to.

          I'm with Heraclitus, to Hegel to the Yin-Yang,to the Kaballah. I think 'opposites' are fundamental. Derrida says I believe that the polarity is avoided by accenting one over the other, as men over women, and thus the contradiction, (really potential 'opposition') is eliminated. It is this element of implied 'power' within the use of logic, that I am specifically interested in. Would such obtain within logical contradiction, per se, or only within 'rhetoric'? Derrida seems to imply they are implicit within language? Would it be possible to be 'scientific' in one's approach to logic, for instance?

          P.S. Really, am I correct/coherent here, - I don't believe that too many of the arguments on this site follow a 'strict Aristotelean logic' for instance. . I also think most people just 'by nature' think 'logically'. I know of one woman, though, (who like myself?) is definitely not logical. (A logic of grammar- Derrida's Grammatology?) Do I have work to do if I am going to be more logical, if evidenced by this comment, I wonder. There are 'scads' of mental 'disorders' for instance. But when it comes to the law of contradiction couldn't it really be related to the principle of perception in Leibniz's identity of indiscernibles!!!!! for instance. What is a contradiction? Something verbal? Some thing real? Something not -rational? But- then what of Hegel's saying: the real is rational and the rational is real? Could the law of excluded middle just boil down to 'picking favorites'????' Couldn't I 'volunteer'???? And thinking more than one thought at a time? What about analogy? (See I guess I really need 'help'!! Thanks for the 'conversation'!!!!) (I've gone on again - I'm off to Google this!)

        • Doug Shaver

          Who knows what the consequences of the non-existence of Aristotle would be, but there is good reason to think they would be major.

          I'm not so sure. Aristotle didn't invent logic. He was just the first to codify it in a document that survived into modern times. If he hadn't written what he did when he did, somebody else would have written something similar, and probably around the same time.

          • Hi Doug. I really want to be your friend, a conclusion I have come to through following many of our shared 'posts'. No. I agree. Aristotle didn't 'invent logic'. But he systematized it. I am currently involved in a study on Aristotle- I will not under emphasize my difficulties!! I am finding more and more evidence of Kant's relationship to Aristotle, (and his borrowing form him) in the development of a systematic philosophy. Aristotle has indeed been 'tampered with', throughout the ages. I am coming to the conclusion that Aquinas did indeed 'rewrite' Aristotle according to a need to conform its teaching with Plato., etc. etc. It is such a difficult task to seek things 'as they are', but I will keep to the Catholicism, as I believe it is imperative to deal with this, if it is indeed one's intention to co

          • Doug Shaver

            Loreen, I have had many friends with whom I have disagreed strenuously about some very important things. My wife is one of them. We're both atheists, but our political views are quite divergent.

          • Hi Doug. May I once again reiterate how pleased I am to be in dialogue with you. Yes, I agree that there was logic within the time of Aristotle. But he did 'systematize' that knowledge, similar to the way Kant systematized the conflict between empiricism and rationalism. I believe it is true that 'genus' develops within the context of 'community', (if I am misusing these words, I'm sure you 'get what I mean'). But only Descartes wrote the 'Meditations' - a break with scholasticism that ironically went back to the Medieval interest in personal contemplation- the Meditations!! And only Leibniz applied his mathematical knowledge to come up with the Monads, (I interpret as a mathematical interpretation of 'dynamic qualitative 'essences' - or something). The point being - that the individual context is indeed important, and thus I recognize that the world would certainly be 'different' without its' Aristotle's, its' Descartes, and its' Einsteins...

          • Doug Shaver

            I recognize that the world would certainly be 'different' without its' Aristotle's, its' Descartes, and its' Einsteins...

            It would certainly be different if there were no people like them. Without their kind, humanity would never have evolved socially beyond the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But their kind have always been with us. Their genius cannot be manifested until certain preliminary work has been done. Newton was not just being modest when he said he could see a bit farther than others only because he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

          • Hi. (And I appreciate your comment regarding your wife!) But your above comment directed me through Schopenhauer to reading about Hinduism and Buddhism. So, within that context, I guess, it's alright, - just haven't 'developed' to the point of having right speech, etc. yet!! Yeah! I've been contesting logic, and argument, etc. etc. too. And in my 'explorations' have found that Aristotle's treatment of his 'principles' could perhaps be regarded as being 'epistemic', whereas the third Category of Kant's treats these principles as 'ontological'???? So I guess tht is really the 'Great Divide' Knowledge-Being!!!???? (I don't mind being a dwarf, a reference that perhaps was 'intentionally' left out of Newton's quote, but then I read Nietzsche's and find he only wants to deal with the 'giants'. Philosophy for me has always been a way to 'get to know - people -' !!!!

          • William Davis

            I agree with this, but I think individuals can alter the direction of the current paradigm, making the work of future individuals end up in a somewhat different place. Am I certain it works this way? Absolutely not.

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm not trying to endorse any kind of fatalism. If Isaac Newton, in 1665, had stayed in Cambridge and then died of the plague, the subsequent history of science would almost certainly have differed in ways beyond our imagination. Even so, in that alternative history, the scientific community in 2015 would probably still have known everything that it knows in our own history.

          • William Davis

            A convergence as opposed to fatalism? That makes sense, we clearly see that in evolution.

          • Kraker Jak

            The Trickster roaring with laughter.

          • William Davis

            Maybe he likes puzzles. Reality is definitely a big one ;)

          • Doug Shaver

            Sure. It's a part of our social evolution.

          • William Davis

            I agree we can't be sure, but there are all kinds of flavors of logic (since you have a degree in philosophy I don't have to go further) and Aristotle's contributions to philosophy were more than just logic. I'm looking at this from a designer's perspective so that surely affects my opinion. Articles like this one are relevant to engineering...


            Why the west turned out so different from the east and other cultures is an interesting question (the east had logic but it was different in many way), one that we can't answer with much certainty, but it's fun to think about.

          • Doug Shaver

            There are all kinds of flavors of mathematics, too, but when you buy two six-packs of something from an honest merchant, you still get twelve of whatever it is.

  • This is an engaging subject and I thank Matthew for raising it.

    For me this dichotomy is best described as the distinction between intuition and reason. I think this is related to heuristics often described as system 1 and system 2 thinking, thinking fast and slow.

    I think the best way to understand this is, groan, in evolutionary terms. It is a pretty uncontroversial claim that some animals act more on instinct, others seem to be able to apply some form of abstract contemplation or calculation. This is the reptile brain vs the mammal or human brain.

    Humans seem to be further distinct by the ability to not only abstract, but reflect on these abstractions. For example, shark smell blood, shark attack, but dolphins, identify a school of fish, cooperate and communicate to corral the school into a group and systematically eat them all. Humans look at all of this and build complex tools and social organization to create fishing industries and economies.

    Yet dolphins and humans still have our reptile brains, which do not operate independently of our more complex brains. What we get is a confusing mishmash of intuition, abstract thought and reflection on our experiences and history. We have an intuition to eat greasy and fatty foods as much as possible, which evolved because such things were rare or difficult to acquire, get it while you can, and your minimal fat reserves may save you in a time of calorie scarcity. System one just wants this and unhindered will keep consuming unhealthy amounts. System 2 understands that, in fact, eating this unhindered will result in poor health, that there really will not likely be a time of significant scarcity and that we should not eat pouting every meal.

    It is plausible and I think reasonable to theorize that system one instincts result in all kinds of values and culture. Food urges, result in tastes with respect to cuisine. Sex and procreation urges, particularly instincts with respect to fertile body type significantly inform our intuitions of human beauty. Instincts over favourable environments inform our views of natural beauty, open landscapes, to see predators at a distance, with cover or shelter nearby, fruit nearing trees, clean clear water. We seem to have something like a natural or at least endemic xenophobia, of other cultures, dare I say races. An affinity for likes and distrust of the other. This would further social cohesion, at great cost in blood in treasure over the millennia. And so on. Our system 2 is often in conflict with these. Everyone has a racist relative somewhere who just cannot overcome this xenophobia, no matter how well you explain that race is largely a social construction, that skin colour just don't matter, for all intents and purposes we are one species all the same.

    But I think it also underlies this dichotomy of Hellenism and Hebraism. Values, passions, and so on just seem intuitive. Things like loyalty, loving and protecting one's family, seem well, just intuitive. Love your enemy do not, protect and respect the other do not. They require reflection. So does eat salad (for me at least!)

    My view on all of to is that we should not ignore or try to eliminate our reptile intuitions. I agree they inform our aesthetic feelings, they essentially are the seat of emotion. But we should also be very careful of the areas in which we allow them to govern our behaviour. Where the consequences are unimportant, such as art, let them not just inform but govern. The best art takes its source in this kind of passion and filters and manipulates it through our abstract and reflective thinking. But where it comes to issues that inform our health, use of violence, social policy, we need to recognize that allowing these intuitions to govern can be very dangerous and are generally myopic.

    That said, I think the most dangerous is when we think reason has overcome large social problems, and fail to recognize that we are still largely being governed by instinct. I think Nazism is a good example of this. This might have felt that through and understanding of evolution, history, and culture, certain solutions make sense. However, I think these judgments failed to account for what I think underlied the most abhorrent racism of that philosophy, which was favouring and valuing the similar group and distrusting, hating to the point of genocide, the "other". The failure to account for the strength of this instinct blinded the nazis, to the fact that the "others" they hated, were not significantly different or dangerous. The same can be said of communism, which failed to account for instincts for individualism and hierarchy, which exploited and abused the systems it instituted.

    I personally think the best way to navigate this is to subscribe to a point of view advanced by the Long Now Foundation with respect to long term thinking, and econo-philosopher Nicholas Nahim Taleb. Recognize that we have great ability to think we can figure out, through cold reason the social problems of our day, but we are not that smart and big sweeping social change, makes us fragile and vulnerable to unexpected and unpredictable surprises. Recognize that institutions and practices that have stood the test of time (including religion) have something to teach us about stability and ability to withstand challenges. Change things slowly and cautiously. Recognize our reptile brain is passionate, but stupid, but that our human intellect is smart, if cold, but not as smart as we think.

    Ok brain dump finished.

    • William Davis

      Good post and I largely agree. One fascinating area of research (using your dichotomy) is the ability of system one to influence system 2 and vice versa. Understanding this relationship better may provide deeper insights into problematic behaviors that are probably the leading preventable cause of death in the western world. There also may be insights that help improve the moral fiber of individuals (through the right training) which would be a big boon to society in general. Problems with morality can by model as system inefficiency and that equals worse outcomes for everyone.
      Mindfulness is an example of an ancient technique that can drastically alter the function of the autonomic nervous system. It's extremely effective in not only reduces stress, but also giving people the "will power" to alter bad habits like smoking and insomnia. It has also been shown to alter the way the autonomic nervous system responds to stimuli, something that was previously thought to be impossible. In a way, one can consider this to be a fairly advanced biotechnology that has been in existence for nearly 3000 years.
      Christian techniques for self discipline and edification can also be very effective but they are complex and tend to be deeply coupled with the originating belief system. Mindfulness is a stand alone technique that requires no further consideration of it's origin, making it more flexible and multi-purpose.

    • Yeah, dump! A little confusion between instincts and intuitions for one thing. Also little mention of emotion, and how this would fit into your schemata. FYI. In Kant's philosophy, the intuition is identified with the judgment, and as in the intuition of space and time, the essential distinguishing feature which makes us 'human' i.e. homo sapiens. Intuition is at the basis of induction, for instance, although philosophers will argue about this. I love my right brain, but I don't think my preference for lateral thinking makes me into a reptile. A little incoherent, possibly to some taste, but they who judge don't know my references.

      Actually, as far as formal logic is concerned, I am wondering whether there is some sort of big change or transition in progress. The over-emphasis on finding fallacy after fallacy after fallacy, suggests to me that there is perhaps even an unconscious recognition of some sort of 'inadequacy' with respect to the current system. I think there are potentially 'big changes' happening and on the way in philosophy. I was born to early. I suspect something big is happening, and I won't be able to get into it and find out what is happening. Some hints: Derrida writes a book on Grammatology, etc. There are Analytic Philosophers now more interested in semantic than syntax, like the Continental philosophers. I could go on. Like with my curiosity about possible levels in comprehending whether or not there is a contradiction. Yes, I read about Aristotle's overcoming the charge that the immovable mover, could be a contradiction, by changing the basis to some kind of what I believe would be called a modal basis. If only I was clever enough to get all of the moves. Logic alone has never convinced me of anything. When I read philosophers I want to compare what they say to my life experience. I may be an agnostic, but unlike some atheists and theists I have met, I think I qualify pretty well as being a rational - empiricist. But I'm not a liz- ard!!!!

    • Kraker Jak

      I think the most dangerous is when we think reason has
      overcome large social problems, and fail to recognize that we are still
      largely being governed by instinct.

      Most people, especially the religious, would rather forget the fact that we are animals, and would like to think that we are superior to and above those instincts and animal urges. How quickly we regress given desperate circumstances, examples of which anthropological studies and history are replete.

  • Miguel

    Iread recently that the core of Hegel's phylosohpy -and difficulty- is the reconciliation of opposites in a superior synthesis which respects the whole nature and attributes of both opposites. That, and that Hegel was a believing Christian.