Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why Its Not Rational

Since August 2007 when the credit crisis became national news there have been many calls for “rational” action as the crisis worsened and spread globally, and, there were many questions about the supposedly "irrational" behavior that led up to it.  My purpose here is to describe and explain these behaviors and the world view, ethos, behind them.  This is cultural analysis; so I’ll look at values and ideology, and their associated reasoning and behaviors.  It is also American centric with ties to a larger Western Civilization.  I know the crisis is global, but I can only help by clarifying the American response to it.  In this piece I summarize my argument; the details will be fleshed out in later installments.

The simple answer is:  America is currently a hot blooded culture wherein the dominant mode of decision making is intuitive reasoning.  Other forms of reasoning are secondary and generally supportive of intuition.  This intuition is operating within a fully formed world view, dominant ethos, often known as Post Modernism but best called by its older name,Romanticism.  This depiction contrasts with the image that many older Americans have of our culture.  If you are over age 50 you likely remember an era when everyday life was quieter, pop culture was less vulgar and more intellectual, and our leaders seemed to take a more reflective and deliberative approach to setting policy.  Today, the opposite of these items is true.  As a driving force in our society, twentieth century modernism is nearly gone.

 Several writers have complained about this situation and have tried to understand and/or correct it.  David Brooks, in his Bobos in Paradise (2000) compared the 1950s to the 1990s.  To him the simple bourgeois middle class culture of his youth has become infused with a strong bohemian essence; “Bobos” is short for bourgeois bohemian.  Susan Jacoby complained in her The Age of American Unreason (2008) that America had lost its knowledge of history and its roots in the Enlightenment; she is unhappy with what she considers junk thought within a distracted culture.  Likewise, in his book The Assault on Reason (2007), Al Gore argued that politicians were ignoring facts and analysis when making policy decisions; he argued that more science is needed and that we get back to making decisions based on sound judgment [1].  These writers will continue to be frustrated because they are assuming that the rational modernism that once characterized American culture still directs it when actually American culture is now led by a world view that is intuitive.

Romanticism is not just about flowery poetry and appreciating awesome sunsets.  In its broadest sense, it is the patterned manifestation of ideas and behaviors that emanate from and satisfy the right side of the brain.  It is a world view, an outlook and approach to life that celebrates the metaphorical, creative, and visceral side of life.  As is generally known, the human brain has two sides and each directs thought into different outcomes.  The right side is intuitive, random, synthesizing, subjective, and holistic.  The left side is logical, sequential, analytical, objective, and looks at parts, what we typically consider “rational”.  Everyone uses both sides in their day to day activities but one side typically dominates, similar to handedness.  Therefore, on the other hand, Rationalism as a world view is the patterned manifestation of ideas and behaviors that emanate from and satisfy the left side of the brain, and it celebrates concepts, abstractions, cause and effect relations, and the analysis of parts of wholes.

Culture is an aggregate extension of human thinking, and, cultures tend to lean right or left brain, giving us two general types.  Using Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued that cultures can be classed as Dionysian and Apollonian.  Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, pleasure, wholeness of existence, and intuition.  Apollo was the Greek god of self control, perfection, order and what we call rationality.   Apollonian cultures tend to be orderly, calm, and reflective; the fine arts, science, and rationalist religions flourish; and, cultural extremes are narrow with emphasis on homogeneity within social categories.  Dionysian cultures are eclectic and volatile, loud and calm; the arts, science and religion can blend together because the boundaries between venues and genres are blurred into a wholeness of meaning.  A paradox of oneness and heterogeneity pervades a Dionysian culture. 

Dionysian and Apollonian cultures also have different communication styles, typically known as high-context and low-context styles.  High-context cultures are relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative; that is, Dionysian.  People in these cultures emphasize interpersonal relationships, group harmony, and consensus rather than, say, individual achievement.  Additionally, words are not as important as context, which might include the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, posture, and maybe even the person’s family history and status.  Low-context cultures are logical, linear, individualistic, and action-oriented; that is Apollonian.  People from low-context cultures value logic, facts, and directness.  Solving a problem means lining up the facts and evaluating one after another.  Decisions are based on facts rather than intuition and context [2]. 

The Anthropologists who made these arguments where working during the years of American modernism.  They were classifying cultures and traits of cultures, and they typically considered cultural classifications as fixed.  American culture was viewed as an Apollonian low context culture that has some internal, regional variation (the South is viewed as more high-context than New England, that is very low-context).  While high and low context cultures represented the extremes of a continuum and cultures were placed along somewhere in that continuum, no one speculated that culture change can be described as movement along the spectrum, which is the idea proposed here.

Cultural patterns are created, manipulated and passed on by humans.  They are accepted or rejected by the aggregate.  As everyone uses both sides of their brains every day, by extension, cultures are a mix of patterns, values, institutions, language, and legacy items that, in aggregate, will manifest the drive of one side of the brain or the other.  And, this mix changes over time.  If sixty percent of a population has left brain tendencies then that society will be fairly orderly and driven toward reflective and orderly pursuits; it also risks devolving into authoritarian status as the left brain is the seat of control and manipulation.  Slipping into chaos is also possible but less likely.  Conversely, populations that have a majority of right brain tendencies will be creative, wild, excessive, and at risk of slipping into chaos or reversing into authoritarian status.  In a yin and yang perspective, balance is necessary, and one condition should bring about the other over time.  Apollonian cultures are dominated by ideas about orderliness while tempered by messy reality; Dionysian cultures put lose harnesses on entropy.  Just as cultures can slip into chaos or authoritarian statuses, they can also switch Apollonian for Dionysian and vice versa over long periods of time, as shown in Table 1 for American culture. 

Table 1: The alternation between Rationalism and Romanticism in American history.

Cultural Era
Age of Intuition/
Post Modernism

Fourth Awakening


Era of Scientism/ Modernism

Third Awakening/ Progressive Era


National Romanticism


Second Awakening


The Enlightenment/
Age of Reason

The Great Awakening


Age of Faith


Puritan  Awakening



Nietzche recognized the alternation too for early Greek culture:
the Dionysian and the Apollonian ruled the Hellenic world in a constantly new sequence of births, one after the other, mutually intensifying each other; how, out of the “first” age, with its battles against the Titans and its austere popular philosophy, the Homeric world developed under the rule of the Apollonian drive for beauty; how this “naive” magnificence was swallowed up once more by the breaking out of the Dionysian torrent; and how, in opposition to this new power, the Apollonian erected the rigid majesty of Doric art and the Doric world view. [3]

While the order/disorder and left brain/right brain issues may be universal it was the Puritans that gave American culture the dualities of reason and intuition, head and heart, and realism and idealism.  Historian William G. McLaughlin [4] wrote:

If the seventeenth century was the Age of Faith, the eighteenth was the Age of Reason; if the nineteenth century was the Era of Romanticism, the twentieth became the Era of Scientism

 Table 1 is a visual that shows this pattern.  America has had two eras of Rationalism, three of Romanticism, and five transitions called Awakenings or revitalizations.  The rationalist eras are the two Enlightenments, the first in the eighteenth century and the second, Modernism, which spanned most of the twentieth century.  Prior to the Puritan Awakening there was an earlier Apollonian era but rationalism hadn’t been developed yet.  The Romantic eras are the Age of Faith, the National Romanticism of the nineteenth century, and our current era that is often called Post Modernism that I prefer to call the Age of Intuition.

The Awakenings are truly important eras in American history.  McLaughlin was one of the first to identify the pattern of five Awakenings, each lasting approximately 30 years.  Many people had previously noticed these events as heightened religious eras but McLaughlin called them “revitalizations of culture” [5] and discussed their secular aspects as well.  While McLaughlin recognized the rational/intuitive alternation he didn’t dwell on it, possibly because he was a modernist and viewed history as linear time.  From a nonlinear cyclical perspective an American Awakening is when American culture switches from one world view to the other.  It’s like turning over a two headed coin; it’s the same piece but looks and feels different. 

The last Awakening, called the Fourth because the Puritan Awakening isn’t numbered, is also known as “the sixties and seventies.”  We all know those decades as the radical years when so much social change was initiated.  Also true, but overlooked, was that they were the years that Modernism climaxed.  These were the years when science was revered, IQ tests were popular, and the fine arts were very snobbish.  America had its social rankings (high brow, middle brow, and low brow, with several distinctions within each) and most people tried their hand at “climbing the social ladder” that was a blend of wealth and meritocracy.  As Romanticism emerged from the Fourth Awakening it carried with it a strong egalitarian ethic similar to the Jacksonian movement of the 1830s that replaced the Enlightenment establishment (Federalists and Jeffersonians).  Through the 1980s the romantic egalitarian ethos de-sacralised science and the fine arts, and flattened the social ladder.  American culture became comparatively vulgar, crude, and materialistic.  Today, we have a No Brow culture in which there is one useful social distinction, the Haves and the Have Nots.

Those who hope for the return of Rationalism will have to wait.  The pattern shown in Table 1 suggests that America will continue to be Romantic for a few more decades.  Sometime in the future, say 25 years out, another awakening may begin, the culture may churn as it turns itself over, and Rationalism may emerge as the dominant perspective near the end of the awakening, forty to fifty years from now.  But, there is no guarantee the pattern will continue. 

We are in an Age of Intuition.  While we still suffer the hangover of Modernism--a few serious rationalists are still trying to direct our lives--most of us look beyond it to embrace creativity and imagination.  Our new Romantic pattern has yet to climax, and it is building strongly.  For most this means that fun and pleasure generally override self control.  We also want our computers to be user friendly and intuitive.  The Rule of Law will continue as a pawn in the bigger game called the Rule of Man.  Our leaders will continue to be capricious and arbitrary.  Excessive crass materialism will persist.  The Greater Depression will likely come, allowing the rich to get richer.  A minority of rationalists will continue to complain.  Hopefully, common sense will keep the culture from jumping off a cliff on the speculation that such a jump might be fun. 


1.  David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise (2000).  Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008).  Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (2007).

2.  One classic statement of culture as an extension of human thought is Edward T.  Hall, Beyond Culture, 1976.  Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, 1934.  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 1872; ebook at   
High and low context cultures are described in Beyond Culture.  These concepts are used frequently in cross cultural business communication training.  I have paraphrased a little from Brian G.  Wilson, College of Marin, Business Communication online, Chapter 1 Lecture: High-context and Low-context Culture Styles,, accessed 11 Sept.  2010.

3. Nietzsche,  p.5.

4.  William G.  McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Social Change in America, 1607-1977, 1978.  Puritan dualism and the quote are on pgs.  41-42.

5.  McLoughlin, ch. 1.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! For some years now I think we have many elements of Romanticism present in our culture (though I am not from North America, I am Brazilian), but I haven´t being able to find good readings on it.
    Hope I will find them here, it seems it´s going to be a very enjoyable ride! =]