Reason versus emotion? It’s a false dichotomy

With its elevation of intuition over reason and the unconscious mind over rational thought, David Brooks’ new book is an explicit attack on Enlightenment values. It’s time we defended rationalism and passion.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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David Brooks is the most high-profile political commentator in America today. Of the writers on the prestigious New York Times op-ed page, Brooks stands out as a must-read. It helps that he has a sense of humour – his Bobos in Paradise, a skewering of the Sixties generation’s melding of the bourgeois and the bohemian, is often hilarious. He is also a perceptive observer of politics. Amid all the hoopla over Republican gains in last November’s mid-term elections, Brooks was spot-on when he wrote: ‘American politics are volatile because nobody has an answer for [working-class families]. They will remain volatile until somebody finds one.’

Brooks has now published a book that has immediately shot to number one on the NYT bestseller list. The Social Animal is about the role of the unconscious in our lives – the ‘realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms’. Brooks says a ‘cognitive revolution’ has occurred over the past 30 years, but we haven’t properly noticed: ‘The people studying the mind and the brain are producing amazing insights about who we are, and yet these insights aren’t having a significant impact on the wider culture.’ His book aims to rectify that, by attempting ‘to integrate science and psychology with sociology, politics, cultural commentary, and the literature of success’. This is an ambitious task.

As a narrative device, Brooks creates a fictional couple, Harold and Erica. He tells their life stories – from infancy, school years, falling in love, careers, retirement, on to their final days – and digresses to explain their behaviour through the latest findings from the worlds of the natural and social sciences. Brooks says he modelled his approach on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, which used a boy’s life to discuss his philosophy of education.

The longstanding view of emotions as negative, Brooks argues, is wrong. For Plato, happiness was achieved if ‘reason subdued the primitive passions’. Robert Louis Stevenson depicted the unconscious as ‘the barbaric Mr Hyde’. But, according to Brooks, the recent research shows that ‘the unconscious parts of the mind are not primitive vestiges that need to be conquered in order to make wise decisions. They are not dark caverns of repressed sexual urges.’ Instead, the unconscious is where ‘most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place’.

Brooks readily admits that the unconscious mind ‘has some serious shortcomings when it comes to making decisions’. The trendy Nudge theorists, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, are entirely negative about the unconscious – they say that we all have an inner Homer Simpson, ‘an impulsive, immature goofball’. There’s a truth to that view, says Brooks, but there’s a positive side, too: the unconscious mind is sensitive to context, interprets and organises data via perception, can solve complex problems and helps us learn how to behave.

But Brooks doesn’t stop at trying to provide a more balanced view of the unconscious realm. He directly contrasts it to logic and reason, referring to ‘Level 1’, which is the unconscious mind, and ‘Level 2’, which is the conscious mind. ‘The intellectual revolution removes the conscious mind from its privileged place at the centre of human behaviour’, writes Brooks.

Brooks says, ‘Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed’, but he is clear which calls the shots: ‘Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent on it.’ Elsewhere he writes that the research ‘reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason’. While Brooks aims to provide a detailed and nuanced description of the unconscious, reason is at best paid lip service and at worst is presented as the root of our social problems. The conscious mind is arrogant and self-deluding: it thinks it is the ‘general’, but in fact is subservient to the unconscious, according to Brooks.

Brooks’ discussion of social policies illustrates his outlook. ‘Over the past generations we’ve seen big policies yield disappointing results’ – in education, inequality, single-parent homes, politics, economics. The policies actually made things worse: liberal welfare policies in the Seventies undermined families; conservative-led economic deregulation unleashed Wal-Mart and global financial markets that destroyed communities. ‘The failures have been marked by a single feature: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature.’ Both sides of the political spectrum focused too much on Level 2 logical arguments and material incentives, and ignored Level 1 factors like culture and character. Brooks is right to state that these policy initiatives had reached an impasse, but instead of trying to find a logical explanation – such as, maybe there are limits to how far state policies can transform material conditions in a capitalist economy – he lays all the blame on reason.

Later in the book, Erica and Harold become advisers to a rising presidential candidate who bears a strong resemblance to Barack Obama. Harold criticises those who think that politics is about ‘delivering goods to voters’, and sides with those who think that campaigns are about ‘arousing emotions’. He is fascinated by ‘deep tribal cultural currents’ that mean people gravitate to the party made up of people like themselves. Here Brooks is celebrating what is a backward trend: how the lack of compelling political ideas has meant that American politics has degenerated into identity affiliations. And he treats what is a relatively recent phenomenon as a timeless and natural facet of political life.

Brooks’ argument against reason culminates in an attack on the Enlightenment. Following Gertrude Himmelfarb (The Roads to Modernity), he writes of a ‘French Enlightenment’ that is overly rationalist and violent and a ‘British Enlightenment’ that emphasises sentiments and is moderate. Three hundred years later, the research finds, ‘the British Enlightenment wins’.

But this is a thoroughly flawed understanding: Enlightenment thinkers on both sides of the English Channel were defenders of reason, from science to politics. Brooks quotes Edmund Burke approvingly, and cites him as a leading member of the British Enlightenment – even though Burke became the leading opponent of the Enlightenment. The concept of reason was central to the American and French revolutions: it provided the basis for widespread social cooperation and was inherently democratic, because it was considered that everyone had the capacity to act rationally and play a role as a citizen.

The implications of Brooks’ anti-rationalist views are drawn out in his recommendations for social policy. He believes that the state can mould emotions and culture for positive ends. What this means in practice is the state intruding into the most personal aspects of people’s lives. Schools need to take over from families that don’t instil the right values to learn; state policies need to inculcate ‘the habits, knowledge and mental traits’ for success. He wants to take the latest findings about the brain and use them to control people’s behaviour.

But, all this said, the problem with The Social Animal is not just that Brooks simply elevates emotions and denigrates reason. It is that (despite protests to the contrary) he sets up a false dualism between the two. There are others who take the opposite approach, one-sidedly promoting a (pseudo-) rationalism and attacking the realm of emotions and morals. There are the so-called ‘new atheists’, who are deeply suspicious of beliefs and faiths; there are also environmentalists who uphold ‘The Science’ as a rationale for their preferred policy of personal behaviour modification.

In fact, what’s striking is how both reason and emotion are simultaneously attacked today. Take the financial crisis. On one side, there are those who blame reason: all that blind faith in mathematical models of finance – what hubris! On the other, there are those (often the same people) who blame emotion for running riot: all those greedy bankers, all those overly optimistic people taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford.

The reality is that reason and emotion are integrated; while distinct, they interact constantly. In Brooks’ dichotomy, all the crap gets put in the Level 2 bucket, while all the ennobling things are shining examples of the wonders of Level 1. But it isn’t clearly divided in reality. Towards the end of his story, Erica develops a new appreciation for art in retirement. Because this is a good thing, Brooks emphasises how it is an emotional (Level 1) activity – at the expense of recognising that she would be just as likely to find it an intellectually stimulating experience as well.

The Enlightenment thinkers – including the French! – did not make such a sharp distinction between reason and emotion. They were interested in all aspects of life, producing great works of science and literature. And as Alan Wolfe has pointed out, America’s founding fathers – leading Enlightenment thinkers themselves – combined democratic ideals (Level 2) with bold, intemperate action (Level 1).

For all my criticisms of Brooks, I do welcome the publication of his book, and would recommend that others read it. For one thing, it is good to have these arguments brought together in one place, and presented in such an accessible way. Brooks is right that they have been largely under-currents of many discussions, rather than being openly debated. And I also think defenders of reason should embrace, rather than shy away from, discussions of emotions. For a start, we could do with more passion in our public discourse. Fighting for more freedom and autonomy, especially from those who seek to study our brains in order to colonise our emotional lives – now that sounds like something to get worked up about.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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