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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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For a bird's-eye view of the history of the idea of
irrationalism in philosophy, two preliminary method-
ological observations are in order. First, irrationalism
is a retrospective concept, that is to say, its meaning
is established only through contrasting it with a ration-


alism which has already been established. That is why
the critique of rationalism could not be completely
accomplished in Kant's philosophy until after the
Cartesian philosophy had been formed. Nevertheless,
nothing prevents us from talking about the irra-
tionalism in Heraclitus' thoughts; it is implicit, how-
ever, and we can freely admit its positive presence in
his philosophy, but only insofar as the positive element
is itself implicit.

Secondly, we submit that properly speaking there
is no tradition of irrationalism as there is a rationalistic
tradition. What we observe are irruptions, or even, we
may wish to say, eruptions of irrationalism. For irra-
tionalism is a revolt.

In addition, we shall have the occasion to see that
irrationalism perhaps comes often from too narrow a
conception of rationalism. We shall have to judge to
what extent rationalists are right in saying to irra-
tionalists that they rise up against reason because they
have created a false conception of reason. (See, for
example, Léon Brunschwicg's criticism of Wahl's Vers
le concret.

From mythology to post-Nietzschean philosophy
there is a long and curious road. Myths used to reveal
superhuman powers ruling over the destinies of men.
Destiny itself implies a certain type of irrational force;
the wars of men and the genealogies of the gods are
manifestations of this extraordinary and harsh force.

When a sage like Xenophanes raises his voice, he
takes account of the irrationality of the gods and rejects
them. But soon among the sages there appears another
who proclaims that the logos which rules the universe
and is independent of all things, is much more vast
than human reason: it unites contradictory elements,
day and night, silence and noise, peace and war. At
times this logos appears like a child playing with dice,
as in the thought of Heraclitus, who is great enough
to be classed as both the greatest of the irrationalists
and one of the greatest of rationalists. It all depends
on how wide a berth is given to reason. Like Nietzsche,
Heraclitus is the bard of a greater reason than man's
and also the bard of the Eternal Return.

In the great classical philosophies of Plato and Aris-
totle reason is triumphant, but matter, as Plato repre-
sents it in the Timaeus, is something irrational. Else-
where, above the Ideas and shining with the blinding
resplendence of the intelligible sun, there is the Good
which is inaccessible to pure reasoning. Reason is thus
only an intermediary faculty between two realms of
the irrational.

Aristotle's God, being Thought reflecting on itself,
cannot be presented as impervious to reason; we no
longer have here that higher limit of the supra-rational
such as we find in Plato's Good. However, at the lower
limit of being, we find prime matter which cannot be
known by our reason any more than Plato's matter.

Despite all this, classical philosophy, such as Plato's
and Aristotle's, appears as a triumph of reason, and
emerges from the ideas and forms on which reason

The Neo-Platonism of a Plotinus, a Damascius, or
a Proclus offers a scheme of the world in which starting
from the One, situated above reason, emanations
radiate and gradually become embodied in things. If
we take Hegel as our inspiration, we may say that
ancient philosophy ends in skepticism, and we can see
in skepticism a form of irrationalism.

However, rationalism does not assume its decisive
forms until the seventeenth century with Descartes and
the influence of science. But is it proper to confine
thought to clear and distinct ideas? Descartes admitted
clear ideas that are not distinct, for example, pain and
color and everything arising from the union of the soul
and body; soul and body may each be experienced
distinctly but not their union which belongs to the
domain of the indistinct, the indistinct being what we
do not know scientifically. This also is what Malebranche
meant when he regarded the human soul as an obscure
domain. We cannot, however, make Malebranche an
irrationalist. On the other hand, one of his contem-
poraries may be justifiably considered a principal rep-
resentative of irrationalism, namely, Pascal. Pascal talks
of the heart's reasons. He says that the heart feels that
space has three dimensions. Furthermore, religious
truth is not grasped by our understanding; such truth
is revealed by the Incarnation and by miracles. Pascal
contrasts the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with
the God of the philosophers, and it is not by rational
demonstrations that God's existence can be proved.

A short time before Pascal, another great writer, and
like Pascal probably a reader of Montaigne, namely,
Shakespeare, had said (or more exactly, had one of his
characters, Hamlet, say), “There are more things in
heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your

At the end of the eighteenth century, the age of
enlightenment or, as the Italian historians of philosophy
call it, the age of illuminismo, irrationalism was
formulated in the writings of J. G. Hamann and F. H.
Jacobi. Hamann, in his Sokratische Denkwürdigkeiten
(“Socratic Memorabilia”), inspired, he thought, by
Socrates, derides human reason and seeks in numbers
the symbols that will enable us to perceive the hidden
Deity. Jacobi insists on the inadequacies of reason in

Their great contemporary Kant writes: “I have
shown the limits of knowledge in order to make room
for faith.” But obviously this statement scarcely covers


the whole of Kant's thought. What he showed is that
the mind cannot grasp things in themselves; the mind
can grasp only phenomena, and only because it shapes
them, that is to say, because it imposes its forms and
categories on the sensory manifold. Kant seeks to de-
termine the conditions necessary for scientific knowl-
edge to be possible. By studying these conditions we
come to see clearly why a knowledge of things in
themselves is impossible. There is, nevertheless, one
thing in itself to a knowledge of which we can to a
certain extent penetrate, namely, the self; when we
have respect for others we are confronted by what is
morally autonomous, and we can lay down a moral
law for ourselves. Hamann and Jacobi were not mis-
taken in treating Kant as an enemy.

Still it is from Kant that two influential irrationalist
theories were developed: F. W. J. Schelling's and
Arthur Schopenhauer's. Schelling from the very first
of his works stressed the role of intellectual intuition
which he claimed was both a creation and an insight;
that is, through intellectual intuition's creative and
visionary role we can in art, as in metaphysics, come
to know reality by overcoming the duality of subject
and object. In Schelling's reflections there are several
stages; first his thought is presented as philosophy of
nature, then as philosophy of identity, and finally, the
last phase, more antirationalistic than the preceding
ones, as philosophy of revelation. As for Schopenhauer,
the world appears to him under two aspects: as Will
and as Representation. He contrasts the inescapable
misfortune of the activity of our will, on the one hand,
with freedom through art, on the other. We are here
confronted with a double-edged irrationalism; for the
will is irrational, and art, thanks to which we can
escape from the irrational, surpasses reason.

From Schopenhauer we may go on to the thought
of Eduard von Hartmann who presents a blind and
creative unconscious, profoundly independent of all
conditions (the “Unconditioned”).

We cannot here go into the question of the possible
influences of von Hartmann and Sigmund Freud. Going
back to Schopenhauer, we can best understand him
as having started from Kant. It is also to Kant's influ-
ence that we should attach the work of Hans Vaihinger.
This profound commentator of Kant's philosophy
established a whole theory according to which we
move in a world of pure fiction (fictionalism) which
can be compared to certain characteristics of Anglo-
Saxon pragmatism.

While German academic philosophy was dominated
by neo-Kantianism, certain philosophies of life were
being developed along lines that were irrationalistic
in character. However, it is rather in the writings of
Georg Simmel, a penetrating thinker and remarkable
writer, that we find the expression of both vitalism and
relativism. He also began to develop his ideas after
reflecting on the philosophy of Kant. But the influence
first of Schopenhauer and then of Friedrich Nietzsche
gave a special tinge to Simmel's philosophy.

Among these thinkers Wilhelm Dilthey went farthest
in expounding philosophically the difference, as he
viewed it, between explanation and understanding
(Verständnis): in the human sciences, the scientist ex-
plains more than he understands. On the basis of this
assumption, we might envisage a widening of the idea
of reason and a kind of compromise, necessarily provi-
sional as all compromises are, between rationalism and

We must provide a special place, apart from all these
groups of thinkers, for G. T. Fechner, the founder of
psychophysics. He posited an earth-spirit above the
souls of individuals; the earth-spirit includes individual
souls and is in turn included in and absorbed by the
soul of the universe. In another side of his world view,
he contrasts the light of day with the nocturnal light
of mechanical science. In this transmundane vision he
anticipates Gaston Bachelard's views.

Is it correct to say that Bergson is an irrationalist?
In a sense, yes; specifically because duration (la durée)
for him is not something which can be understood by
the intellect. la durée is the cumulative development
of events, each moment of time unrolling from the
preceding one. Of durée we can have what Henri
Bergson later called an “intuition,” and not a concept.
The same is true of the élan vital (“life thrust”). This
aspect of Bergson's thought is especially prominent in
his Introduction to Metaphysics (Introduction à la
1903) and in the preface of his La
pensée et le mouvant
(1934). This aspect appears also
in the criticism of the sciences as Edouard Le Roy
conceived it. Also worthy of mention is the irra-
tionalism of Charles Péguy and of Georges Sorel.

Clearly most of the themes of irrationalism are pres-
ent in Bergsonism in which they are compressed: vital-
ism, criticism of science insofar as it consists of hy-
potheses, and general distrust of the abstract intellect.
No doubt, Bergson was glad to emphasize often enough
that intellect was sovereign in the realm of inert things,
but that very fact shows the limitations of intelligence.

Bergson's theories were welcomed as liberating ideas
by William James because they gave freedom to man
and enabled the future to have an open character.

For a certain period of time Bergson's theories were
overshadowed by the prevalence of existentialist ideas
associated with Søren Kierkegaard, and by the phe-
nomenological views associated with Edmund Husserl.
It was only towards the end of his philosophical devel-
opment that Maurice Merleau-Ponty returned to a
more incisive knowledge of Bergsonian thought.

There is a Kierkegaardian irrationalism in the sense


that Kierkegaard was more effective than Kant, and
in a sense as effective as Pascal, in destroying science
in order to make room for faith. Kant had sought the
conditions of objective knowledge, but Kierkegaard
asks, of what value to us is objectivity? What matters,
for him as for Pascal, is one's welfare and one's subjec-
tivity or inner state of being insofar as it exists in an
intense relation to the Absolute.

Similar ideas occur in Gabriel Marcel, who devel-
oped his theories independently of any influence by
Kierkegaard. Marcel insists on the difference between
being and having, between what I am, on the one hand,
and the instruments or objective things in my posses-
sion, on the other hand. It is on that basis that he
envisages the problem of my body which is absolutely
not comparable to an instrument that I should perhaps
possess: I am my body.

However, I am not isolated in my body, I am in
it and through it I exist in a profound relation to others.
And my soul, going towards its “invocation” (to use
Gabriel Marcel's term), is constantly a call to others
and finally to Thou. At this point, Marcel's thought
converges on Kierkegaard's. On certain other points,
for example, on the affirmation of essences, not intel-
lectual or intelligible essence but hidden, veiled, and
lived-through (voilée-vécue), Marcel comes close to

By taking into account the influence of both
Kierkegaard and Husserl, we can best understand the
development of Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy as well
as Martin Heidegger's. These philosophies are what
might be called the penultimate forms of irrationalism.
Sartre gave his book Being and Nothingness (L'être et
le néant,
1943), the subtitle Essay on Phenomenological
It is a strange view of reality which divides
it into a static “thing in itself,” suddenly appearing
in sensation, and something “for itself” which is con-
stantly what it is not, and is not what it is. The belief
in a God or even in Platonic Ideas assumes that there
can be a union of reality in itself with reality for itself.
Sartre's atheism is based on the denial of such a possi-
bility, and insists on the impossibility of such a union.
Our world is henceforth mere contingency.

Nevertheless, in Sartre's thought there are mingled
influences, beginning with Husserl and Heidegger, of
Karl Marx, on the one hand, and of Freud, on the other.
That brings us to the question of knowing in what sense
it may be said that psychoanalysis and Marxism are
irrationalistic. In one sense they may be said to be
rationalistic and even ultra-rationalistic, but a philoso-
pher like George Lukacs in vain entitles one of his
books, the one precisely directed against irrationalism,
The Destruction of Reason (1954). It is nonetheless true
that in Freudianism, reason is relativized and conse-
quently destroyed for the benefit of the Id and com
plexes; in Marxism, reason is relativized and destroyed
for the benefit of the class struggle and more generally
on account of economic conditions.

Heidegger places himself on quite a different plane.
The fundamental question for him is the question of
being, the same being of which it was said in his Being
and Time
(Sein und Zeit, 1927), that it could be per-
ceived only against the horizon of time, revealing itself
and hiding itself at the same time, somewhat like the
hidden God of Pascal and Kierkegaard, also somewhat
like Kant's “thing-in-itself”; being is revealed and is
hidden in beings. Quoting a chorus in Sophocles'
Antigone, Heidegger depicts man as the strangest and
most terrible of beings. No less than man, perhaps, the
things against which man's power is broken are strange
and terrible. Undoubtedly man's power increases under
the profound influence of technology. But who can say
whether remote things, rather than what is close to
us, will best reveal the presence of sky and water, of
mortal and perhaps immortal things? We live in a
twilight zone from which, according to J. C. F.
Hölderlin, the ancient Gods have fled and into which
future deities have not yet come. In this state of our
existence we have to preserve the thought of being
which is beyond all intelligible thought, like the Good
of Plato, except that it shines in an obscure way in
sensory things.

Though Plato has just been mentioned, Heidegger
in fact is closer to Nietzsche. We perceive, beyond
classical concepts, an essence not yet known, an eter-
nity not belonging to concepts. We have to return, past
the evolution of philosophy, which is lost in repre-
sentation, to the presence of that Being which is re-
vealed at times, but only partly in philosophical sys-
tems; but this Being came open to Nietzsche's thought
as it did to Hölderlin's. A foundation for the principle
of reason must hence be sought, and for Heidegger,
this principle can be discovered only in the abyss of
nonreason. Thus we see in Heidegger a resurgence of

In the contemporary world, reason is attacked on
all sides. In the work, for example, of Michel Foucault,
though it appears in a structured form, it is still the
voice of irrationalism that speaks. Foucault thinks he
can pass beyond both rationalism and humanism at the
same time. What we witness in his works is an irra-
tionalistic relativism.

It is one of the characteristics of thought in the
1960's to see beyond existence and beyond essences
something that our discourse cannot reach but to which
it can only point.

But just as reason has its limits, according to ration-
alism, irrationalism also has its own limitations which
can be discerned from two viewpoints, that of science
and that of common sense. In the first place, the world


in which we live is one in which we perceive regular-
ity. Secondly, the relations established by mathematical
physics appear to our intellect as something certain;
even the so-called uncertainty relations are valid only
to a certain degree. Philosophy has always been both
reflection on itself and reflection on things other than
itself, in particular, reflection on science.

Meditation on science has been pursued ever since
the time of the Pythagoreans and the atomists, and has
continued in the great Platonic, Cartesian, and Kantian
traditions. Science has grown in so complex a manner
that a synthesis like that of Descartes or Leibniz is
no longer conceived to be possible today. It is conse-
quently fitting to make room in our minds for the
admission of both the inexpressible and the need of
knowledge. There is no contradiction between them;
quite to the contrary, one calls for the other.

A study of irrationalism would not be complete if
it did not turn towards the poets and towards certain
romantic philosophers. William Blake, in the poem
entitled “The Gates of Paradise” asks man to distrust
logical truths. Later, he represents (in the guise of
Urizen) the intellect insofar as it defines, describes, and
encompasses the real. In the same sense, Keats can be
cited for bringing a sort of curse on the legacy of

Poets, like the romantic Novalis or Hölderlin, see
reality as made of contradiction. In Novalis the idea
of a marriage of the seasons recalls Heraclitus as well
as prefiguring the Eternal Return. From another quar-
ter, a Max Stirner comes on the scene in pursuit of
extreme individualism and is able to conceive of ex-
pressing himself in no other way than by a cry.

In the literary sphere, the surrealists form the last
expression of eternal irrationalism. However, the sur-
realism of André Breton is not the only form of the
revolt against reason or of hatred of the rational. Henri
Michaux, Antoine Artaud, and Georges Battaille have
each pursued from their respective standpoints this war
against logical evidence. This surrealistic attitude raises
the final question of knowing to what irrationalism
leads us.

Glancing over the metamorphoses of irrationalism
we can see that it is sometimes a revolt and sometimes
a revelation. We can even distinguish the possibility
of a double revelation. On the one hand, it reveals the
elements below reason in which we can in turn distin-
guish the insights of M. Merleau-Ponty and elsewhere
the disorder and chance asserted by Battaille, and, on
the other hand, the revelations of a Pascal, of a
Fénelon, and everything touching on that “numinous”
element about which Rudolf Otto has written. Among
certain thinkers irrationalism is an end in itself, and
among others it is a road to religious ways; such is
the case for thinkers as different as Pascal, Blake,
Novalis, and Hölderlin.

The question still remains whether above the
“subrational” (meaning by that term what Merleau-
Ponty and thinkers as different from him as Georges
Battaille) and above the rational and “super-rational”
(to take G. Bachelard's term), there is a reason broader
than reason, that is, a higher reason, as Nietzsche at
times thought, and as Rimbaud put it, “the rational
song of the angels” (le chant raisonnable des anges).
But at this point the philosopher can only question
himself and think back on that series of transformations
which goes from revolt to revelation, and who, becom-
ing aware of the end result, returns at the same time
towards Heraclitus, towards the origins.


A. J. Ayer, “Some Aspects of Existentialism,” Rationalist
(1948). William Barrett, Irrational Man (New York,
1958). Henri Bergson, Essai sur les données... (1887), trans.
P. L. Pogson as Time and Free Will (London, 1910); idem,
“Introduction à la métaphysique” (1903), trans. T. E. Hulme
as Introduction to Metaphysics (New York, 1913; 1954);
idem, Les deux sources... (1932), trans. R. A. Audra and
C. Brereton as The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
(London 1935; New York, 1954). Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog
and the Fox
(London, 1953). Albert Camus, le Mythe de
(Paris, 1942). F. Dostoevsky, Notes From Under-
(1864), trans. Constance Garnett in Works, 12 vols.
(New York, 1912-20). Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit
(1927), trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson as Being and
(New York, 1962). S. Kierkegaard, Concluding Un-
scientific Postscript
(1846), trans. D. F. Swenson and W.
Lowrie (Princeton, 1941); idem, Philosophical Fragments...
(1844), trans. D. F. Swenson (1936); 2nd ed. with Introduc-
tion and Commentary by Niels Tholstrup, rev. trans. H. V.
Hong (Princeton, 1962). Joseph de Maistre, Les Soirées de
6th ed. (Paris, 1850). Richard Müller-
Freienfels, Metaphysik des Irrationalen (Leipzig, 1927).
Jean-Paul Sartre, la Nausée (Paris, 1938); idem, L'Etre et
le néant
(1943), trans. Hazel Barnes as Being and Nothing-
(New York, 1956). L. H. de Wolf, The Religious Revolt
Against Reason
(New York, 1949).


[See also Counter-Enlightenment; Existentialism; Meta-
physical Imagination; Romanticism.