Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook
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About the Author
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Yuval Levin, an ascendant conservative intellectual, correctly identifies one of the most insidious dogmas of our time: the idea that the social world is knowable by the scientific method, just as the natural world is.
Sometimes Levin seems to be saying the thesis is positively false. Other times, he seems to be making the weaker claim that it hasn't been positively established. Despite this ambiguity, Levin is quite consistent in articulating why blind faith in this idea is dangerous. It gives us false hopes that deliberative politics can be overcome, that decisions can be made for us by impartial experts. This is the great hope of Comte's positivism, and the progressive movement of the early 20th century. It was a necessary component of the Bolshevik doctrine that lead to the suffering of so many.
Levin does a remarkable job summarizing the broad sweep of Western philosophy. Granted, some nuances are passed over in the process, but Levin is best at showing us the big picture. Sometimes we need microscopes, other times we need areal surveillance. This book is definitely an example of the latter. Yet some of it seems quite distant from the thesis. We don't really need separate chapters on the rise of monotheism, the ancient Greek philosophers, and the Christian synthesis. One summarizing chapter would have sufficed. More of the book should have been devoted to the problem of the Tyranny of Reason itself. The book seemed to end right when things were really getting interesting.
Levin thinks that human decisions are not bound by law in the way that inanimate matter is bound by law. He locates values in the realm of human creativity. At times, he sounds like he's endorsing some form of subjectivism, relativism, or existentialism about values, but I doubt that reflects his actual position. His philosophical alternative to scientism is painted in broad strokes only, and is not entirely clear. It's also unclear whether Levin thinks that the reason the tyranny of this sort is to be resisted has only to do with epistemic concerns (the people implementing it as "neutral experts" would not actually know what they think they know) or whether he thinks there is something inherently wrong with implementing scientistic social plans -- even if the experts really do know what they are talking about.
Levin's critique of the tyranny of reason is sort of scattershot throughout the book. He never really puts all the pieces together in one chapter to explain why the tyranny of reason should be rejected, and what it's rejection commits us to philosophically.
In short, Levin points to a dangerous assumption and deftly explains its role in philosophy and in politics, but he fails to deliver on developing a systematic criticism. Nor does he do a particularly good job at presenting an alternative worldview.
Readers interested in going beyond this book should have a look at Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge.