From Citizenship Papers, by Wendell Berry (2003)
Wendell Berry (born 1934) is an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be ushered into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
Berry is, in my view, the preeminent philosopher and social critic of our time. I shook his large, rough farmer’s hand in Louisville KY in 1979.
This essay reinforces my own, published here, Science & Secular Humanism
It is often proposed, nowadays, that if we would only get rid of religion and other leftovers from our primitive past and become enlightened by scientific rationalism, we could invent the new values and ethics that are needed to preserve the natural world. This proposal is perfectly reasonable, and perfectly doubtful. It supposes that we can empirically know and rationally understand everything involved, which is exactly the supposition that has underwritten our transgressions against the natural word in the first place.
Obviously we need to use our intelligence. But how much intelligence have we got? And what sort of intelligence is it that we have? And how, at its best, does human intelligence work? In order to try to answer these questions I am going to suppose for a while that there are two different kinds of human mind: the Rational Mind and another, which, for want of a better term, I will call the Sympathetic Mind. I will say now, and try to keep myself reminded, that these terms are going to appear to be allegorical, too neat and too separate – though I need to say also that their separation was not invented by me.
The Rational Mind, without being anywhere perfectly embodied, is the mind all of us are supposed to be trying to have. It is the mind that the most powerful and influential people think they have. Our schools exist mainly to educate and propagate and authorize the Rational Mind. The Rational Mind is objective, analytical, and empirical; it makes itself up only by considering facts; it pursues truth by experimentation; it is uncorrupted by preconception, received authority, religious belief, or feeling. Its ideal products are the proven fact, the accurate prediction, and the “informed decision”. It is, you might say, the official mind of science, industry, and government.
The Sympathetic Mind differs from the Rational Mind, not by being unreasonable, but by refusing to limit knowledge or reality to the scope of reason or factuality or experimentation, and by making reason the servant of things it considers precedent and higher.
The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven to be a fact.
The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out.
The Rational Mind is exclusive; the Sympathetic Mind, however failingly, wishes to be inclusive.
These two types certainly don’t exhaust the taxonomy of minds. They are merely the two that the intellectual fashions of our age have most deliberately separated and thrown into opposition.
My purpose here is to argue in defense of the Sympathetic Mind. But my objection is not to the use of reason or to reasonability. I am objecting to the exclusiveness of the Rational Mind, which has limited itself to a selection of mental functions such as the empirical methodologies of analysis and experimentation and the attitudes of objectivity and realism. In order to go into business of its own, it has in effect withdrawn from all of human life that involves feeling, affection, familiarity, reverence, faith, and loyalty. The separability of the Rational Mind is not only the dominant fiction but also the master superstition of the modern age.
The Sympathetic Mind is under the influence of certain inborn or at least fundamental likes and dislikes. Its impulse is toward wholeness. It is moved by affection for its home place, the local topography, the local memories, and the local creatures. It hates estrangement, dismemberment, and disfigurement. The Rational Mind tolerates these things “in pursuit of truth” or in pursuit of money – which, in modern practice, have become nearly the same pursuit.
I am objecting to the failure of the rationalist enterprise of “objective science” or “pure science” of “the disinterested pursuit of truth” to prevent massive damage both to nature and to human economy. The Rational Mind does not confess its complicity in the equation: knowledge = power = money = damage. Even so, the alliance of academic science, government, and the corporate economy, and their unifying pattern of sanctions and rewards, is obvious enough. We have resisted, so far, a state religion, but we are in danger of having both a corporate state and a state science, which some people, in both the sciences and the arts, would like to establish as a state religion.
The Rational Mind is the lowest common denominator of the government-corporation-university axis. It is the fiction that makes high intellectual ability the unquestioning servant of bad work and bad law.
Under the reign of the Rational Mind, there is no firewall between contemporary science and contemporary industry or economic development. It is entirely imaginable, for instance, that a young person might go into biology because of a love of plants and animals. But such a young person had better be careful, for there is nothing to prevent knowledge gained for love of the creatures from being used to destroy them for the love of money.
Now some biologists, who have striven all their lives to embody perfectly the Rational Mind, have become concerned, even passionately concerned, about the loss of “biological diversity”, and they are determined to do something about it. This is usually presented as a mere logical development from ignorance to realization to action. But so far it is only comedy. The Rational Mind, which has been destroying biological diversity by “figuring out” some things, now proposes to save what is left of biological diversity by “figuring out” some more things. It does what it has always done before: It defines the problem as a big problem calling for a big solution; it calls in the world-class experts; it invokes science, technology, and large grants of money; it propagandizes and organizes and “gears up for a major effort”. The comedy here is in the failure of these rationalists to see that as soon as they have become passionately concerned they have stepped outside the dry, objective, geometrical territory claimed by the Rational Mind, and have entered the still mysterious homeland of the Sympathetic Mind, watered by unpredictable rains and by real sweat and tears.
The Sympathetic Mind would not forget that so-called environmental problems have causes that are in part political and therefore have remedies that are in part political. But it would not try to solve these problems merely by large-scale political protections of the “environment”. It knows that they must be solved ultimately by correcting the way people use their home places and local landscapes. Politically, but also by local economic improvements, it would stop colonialism in all its forms, domestic and foreign, corporate and governmental. Its first political principle is that landscapes should not be used by people who do not live in them and share their fate. If that principle were strictly applied, we would have far less need for the principle of “environmental protection”.
They Sympathetic Mind understands the vital importance of the cultural landscape. The Rational Mind, by contrast, honors no cultural landscape, and therefore has no protective loyalty or affection for any actual landscape.
The definitive practical aim of the Sympathetic Mind is to adapt local economies to local landscapes. This is necessarily the work of local cultures. It cannot be done as a world-scale feat of science, industry, and government. This will seem a bitter bite to the optimists of scientific rationalism, which is scornful of limits and proud of its usurpations. But the science of the Sympathetic Mind is occupied precisely with the study of limits, both natural and human.
The Rational Mind does not work from any sense of geographical whereabouts or social connection or from any basis in cultural tradition or principle of character. It does not see itself as existing or working within a context. The Rational Mind doesn’t think there is a context until it gets there. It principle is to be “objective” – which is to say, unremembering and disloyal. It works within narrow mental boundaries that it draws for itself, as directed by the requirements of its profession or academic specialty or its ambition or its desire for power or profit, thus allowing the “trade-off” and the “externalization” of costs and effects. Even when working outdoors, it is an indoor mind.
The Sympathetic Mind, even when working indoors, is an outdoor mind. It lives within an abounding and unbounded reality, always partly mysterious, in which everything matters, in which we humans are therefore returned to our ancient need for thanksgiving, prayer, and propitiation, in which we meet again and again the ancient question: How does one become worthy to use what must be used?
Whereas the Rational Mind is the mind of analysis, explanation, and manipulation, the Sympathetic Mind is the mind of creatureliness.
Creatureliness denotes what Wallace Stevens called “the instinctive integrations which are the reasons for living”. In our creatureliness we forget the little or much that we know about the optic nerve and the light-sensitive cell, and we see; we forget whatever we know about the philosophy of the brain, and we think; we forget what we know of anatomy, the nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract, and we work, eat and sleep. We forget the theories and therapies of “human relationships” and we merely love the people we love, and even try to love the others. If we have any sense, we forget the fashionable determinisms, and we tell our children, “Be good. Be careful. Mind your manners. Be kind.”
The Sympathetic Mind leaves the world whole, or it attempts always to do so. It looks upon people and other creatures as whole beings. It does not parcel them out into functions and uses.
The Rational Mind, by contrast, has rested its work for a long time on the proposition that all creatures are machines. This works as a sort of strainer to eliminate impurities such as affection, familiarity, and loyalty from the pursuit of knowledge, power and profit. The machine-system assures objectivity of the Rational Mind, which is itself understood as a machine, but it fails to account for a number of things, including the Rational Mind’s own worries and enthusiasms. Why should a machine be bothered by the extinction of other machines? Would even an “intelligent” computer grieve over the disappearance of the Carolina parakeet?
The Rational Mind is preoccupied with the search for a sure way to avoid risk, loss, and suffering. For the Rational Mind, experience is likely to consist of a sequence of bad surprises and therefore must be booked as a “loss”. That is why, to rationalists, the past and the present are so readily expendable or destructible in favor of the future, the era of no loss.
But the Sympathetic Mind accepts loss and suffering as the price, willingly paid, of its sympathy and affection – its wholeness.
The Rational Mind attempts endlessly to inform itself against its ruin by facts, experiments, projections, scoutings of “alternatives”, hedgings against the unknown.
The Sympathetic Mind is informed by experience, by tradition-borne stories of the experiences of others, by familiarity, by compassion, by commitment, by faith.
The Sympathetic Mind is preeminently a faithful mind, taking knowingly and willingly the risks required by faith. The Rational Mind, ever in need of certainty, is always in doubt, always looking for a better way, asking, testing, disbelieving in everything but its own sufficiency to its own needs, which its experience and its own methods continuously disprove. It is a skeptical, fearful, suspicious mind, and always a disappointed one, awaiting the supreme truth or discovery it expects of itself, which of itself it cannot provide.
“Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?” – Leo Tolstoy
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page