Harris and Hirshi

No it’s not a law firm, but a piece getting some traction in last week’s NyTimes Review of Books. Hirshi Ali reviews Lee Harris’ new book “The Suicide of Reason”. [Sidenote: The entire Review is devoted to books Islamic].

A couple of things going on here.

1)Harris’ views and 2)Ali’s interpretation of them. And then my own on both.

Start with Harris.

His basic thesis, says Ali, is is that there are two kinds of fanaticism: Islamic and Western reason. [Back to the question of whether Islamic is correct in this context in a moment].

I’ll begin with the reason. The argument Harris makes (which he outlined in his previous book Civilization and its Enemies) is that those who live in a democratic, Western society with histories of parliamentary procedure, constitutional order, political compromise, civilian rule, secularism, etc. can fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else in the world approaches problems the same way, has the same outlook. As a result, reason can become enervated and weakened in the face of irrational violence.

Practically, in this case, Harris means, the Western world can too often assume terrorists groups can be integrated into a political process. e.g. al-Qaeda has a list of political grievances that it describes in all its public presentations. So the thinking might go that if these grievances were discussed (“we can reason with these guys”) solutions might be forthcoming.

In this sense, Harris is onto something (though his application of the Enemy to the entire Islamic world is fear-mongering lunacy). Harris interestingly dovetails with the early Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. In their work, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the Frankfurt theorists Horkheimer and Adorno, argued that reason had within it the seed of irrationality—the so-called Counter-Enlightenment of Fascism, militarism, soviet totalitarianism, bureaucratic unfreedoms. Harris now adds another element to the dialectic/shadow side of reason: it’s naive underbelly.

For Harris the mistake is to assume external reasoning for the existence of say an al-Qaeda: for farther leftists, it is due to American imperialism. For neoconservatives, it is lack of democracies in the Middle East.

What both mistake is refusing to see people as motivated from within their own philosophical, political, cultural, religious trajectories, rather than simply passive pawns of external events/systems.

[For integralists, a theory as to why reason is so exposed is that each worldview, prior to the integral level, only “see” their own level. They do not cognize the other levels fully. So there exists a strong tendency to mistakingly attribute the same values and motivations and cognition and worldview to the Other].

Hirshi Ali criticizes Harris on this point about reason’s intrinsic weakness (criticizes slightly). She writes:

Harris is correct, I believe, that many Western leaders are terribly confused about the Islamic world. They are woefully uninformed and often unwilling to confront the tribal nature of Islam. The problem, however, is not too much reason but too little. Harris also fails to address the enemies of reason within the West: religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt against reason.

Now what seems to me clear is there is a fairly straightforward synthesis to be made here. Namely that Harris is correct that reason can tend to assume similar thinking on the part of another AND Western knowledge of the Islamic worlds (not world) is so abysmal–i.e. not enough reason (with Ali)–precisely because it assumes the same from the Other. Why bother studying “them” if they are just like us?

Ali instead due more I think to her uber-European John Stuart Mill brand of political thinking attributes any deficiencies/critiques of reason to romanticism and religion. One piece of evidence she should consider is that John Locke’s call for toleration (in his treatise on gov’t), scholars have shown, was positively and deeply influenced by his religious views. Not to mention her now adopted country of the US which holds a tradition of religions (like old-style Baptists) pushing for non state church government.

The answer in part is certainly more rational thought of the kind described by Ali: testing, skepticism, evidentiary proof, discourse, scholarly debate, etc. But there is a kernel of truth to Harris’ point on reason–this flaw does exist. No doubt there are plenty of people who romanticize tribalism, which as Ali correctly points out is brutal to the core. Islamic or otherwise. And such thought currents are strong in mulitculturalism (something she and Harris can agree on as to its negativity). Certainly too (mythic) religious believers with dogmatic tendencies (across religions) are problematic. Though unclear that Ali should be burning bridges with American right-wing religious groups (mostly Jewish and Christian) who support her anti-Islamic viewpoint, though for different reasons presumably.

Ali’s secular rationalist quasi-fundamentalism I think is exposed at this point. While she gets a few sub-points (her criticism of Harris’ use of Hegel is sharp), I think Harris wins the basic point. There is a dialectic within reason, and it does have flaws, most notably tendency towards naive assumption of goodness for all people.

Now the flip-side of this tunnel-vision within reason, reason’s blind-spot as it were, is that Harris leans towards other forms to protect–forms that veer towards if not outright involve, coercion and propaganda.

More on that in the next post.

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Published in: on January 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. very thoughtful treatment of this topic, Chris. i haven’t read Lee Harris books so i don’t have a more detailed info on his views. but assuming that Hirsi Ali represented Harris’ views in his book “The Suicide of Reason” then for now, i think Hirsi Ali’s approach and critique of multiculturalism (ala Wilber’s Boomeritis) is more spot on.

    that said, i’ll await Harris’ response to Hirsi Ali. hopefully, they would engage in a friendly debate/dialogue to flesh out their differences.

    in the meantime, i can sympathize why Hirsi Ali is targeting multiculturalism: because she is a victim of both the tribal versions of Islam as well as the moral relativism (aka Enlightenment fundamentalism) of Europe. check out Pascal Bruckner’s defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. good stuff 😉

    ~C


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