Rationality and Irrationality in History

Written by Mark Farnham

On May 24, 2010

Have you ever read history and wonder, “What in the world were these people thinking?” Have you ever been tempted to question the sanity and rationality of an historical figure? In his essay, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth” (in Visions of Politics, vol. 1; Cambridge University Press, 2002), Quentin Skinner makes a compelling case for the granting of the rationality of beliefs held in the past, unless strong evidence exists to the contrary. He warns against the common practice of the historian accusing historical figures of irrationality when those historical figures held beliefs that contradict his own. By doing this, says Skinner, the historian sets himself up as the authority on rationality.

This is a significant mistake by the historian. As a fallible human being, the historian is in no significantly better position than any other person to determine what is rational, since he is finite and prone to error himself. It is a sign of hubris to think that a historian is in some privileged epistemological position that grants him a transcendent view of rationality. That is not to say that no historical belief can be judged irrational. But if a historian is to judge a particular belief irrational, it ought to be because it was “not an appropriate belief for that particular agent to have espoused in that particular society at that particular time” (p. 38). The standard for rationality moves away from the historian’s judgment, which is anachronistic, to the time, place and culture of the subjects under consideration.

Skinner gives as an example Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic study, The Peasants of Languedoc, in which Ladurie attributes the belief in witchcraft to “mass delirium.” According to Ladurie, belief in witches could never be rationally held. He proceeds to infer, therefore, that the peasants were slipping savagely into irrationalism and pathological beliefs. He speculates that the peasants were reacting to the loss of traditional spiritual assistance as the Reformation progressed, and so gave in to their anxieties and primordial fears. They felt a deep sense of frustration at the social upheaval and failure of social reform, and so their desire to improve their lot took on a mythical dress with demonic forms of escape.

Skinner disapproves of so much speculation, noting that Laduries’ presupposition of the peasants’ irrationality precludes a number of possible explanations. Skinner suggests one alternative theory that is certainly more plausible in the historical context of the events. He suggests that the peasants also held to the belief that the Bible constituted the directly inspired Word of God, a belief that was widely accepted as rational and indeed indubitable in sixteenth-century Europe. Since the Bible affirms the existence of witches and proscribes that they not be allowed to live. Within this historical context, therefore, it would have been the height of irrationality to disbelieve the existence of witches. To do so would have also been tantamount to denying the credibility of God’s Word, something very dangerous (and therefore irrational) in that day.

From this, Skinner derives a principle of judging the rationality of historical beliefs.

We need to begin by recreating as sympathetically as possible a sense of what was held to connect with what, and what was held to count as a reason for what, among the people we are studying as historians. Otherwise we are sure to commit the characteristic sin of ‘whig’ intellectual history: that of imputing incoherence or irrationality where we have merely failed to identify some local canon of rational acceptability.

It seems that this principle can be applied to at least one twentieth-century belief system that seems to commit this same fallacy of anachronistic judgment of irrationality. The evangelical and liberal retelling of the history of American fundamentalism in the twentieth-century often evidences this unjustified accusation of irrationality. Not that there were no irrational beliefs held by fundamentalists. There were plenty, and the historical evidence bears this out. But the number and severity of these accusations is grossly and inexcusably exaggerated. Only recently have we seen more sympathetic readings of fundamentalist history that have extended this assumption of rationality. Some may also see the postconservative revision of evangelical theology’s so-called reliance on Greek philosophical metaphysics regarding the nature of God as another example, but this is technically wrong, because the postconservative accusation is more often that evangelicals through the ages were simply dead wrong, not that they were irrational.

On the other hand, some fundamentalist histories violate this same principle in their accusation of irrationality on the part of their antagonists. It may very well be that a fair reading will reveal that on some points, some of the opponents of fundamentalists through the years were the rational ones. One need only review the proceedings of the Scopes Trial of 1925 to see that, at a few select points, Clarence Darrow’s beliefs about the need to engage the cultural challenges of that day seemed more rational than William Jennings Bryan’s desire to pretend they didn’t exist.

The point is simply this: ascribing rationality and irrationality to a belief held in the past needs to be done carefully, taking into consideration the cultural and intellectual climate of the time, the place and the individuals under consideration. Only then will we achieve a more objective evaluation of the past and avoid such gross anachronisms.

As Christian historians, we believe that man is made in the image of God, but was ruined spiritually and intellectually at the Fall. We believe that man is essentially the same throughout history (contra evolutionists), and therefore we can assume that our ancestors shared at least some of our beliefs about the importance of coherence and consistency. We can assume, then, that our ancestor’s utterances are a guide to the identification of their beliefs, and that generally, they sought to have coherent and consistent belief systems (p. 54). When we encounter a people for whom it is no problem to affirm and deny the same proposition, we must ascribe irrationality, and admit that there is no prospect of reporting what they believed.

While these historiographical principles may prevent us from understanding the histories of a few self-consciously irrational objects of study, they will also guard us from a speculative hagiography of our historical heroes and a demonization of those whose beliefs we find distasteful.

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