The crisis of means without ends: two forms of rationality in the foundations of Europe

Patočka calls for a renewed effort in Europe today to reestablish some kind of equilibrium between “the rationality of means” and “the rationality of ends”.

Martin Cajthaml
25 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

The Ford assembly line, 1913. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

The Ford assembly line, 1913. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.In this reflection I would like to start from the inspiring distinction made by the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka in one of his late essays.[1] It is the distinction between two forms of rationality: “the rationality of means” and “the rationality of ends”. Patočka was convinced that the fruitful tension between the two, as long as there was equilibrium between them, was the defining feature of the European form of spiritual life from classical Antiquity till the end of the Middle Ages.

The equilibrium between these two forms of rationality was, in his opinion, the ultimate source of inner spiritual strength and the outward success of the European civilization. The loss of equilibrium caused the spiritual crisis of Modern Europe and, ultimately, the “physical self-destruction of Europe” in the two “great wars of the 20th century”. 

I will first try to explain this idea by using Patočka’s own difficult language. Patočka´s language is abstract, sometimes highly metaphorical, and full of expressions and terms borrowed from various German philosophers. Therefore, I will return after a while to an easier language, using examples to make the exposition less abstract. I hope that this will allow the reader to access Patočka’s remarkable insights into the spiritual roots of Europe.   

It is characteristic of Patočka´s style of philosophizing that he is anxious to develop his own philosophical ideas by interpreting the ideas of other philosophers. In this text, he starts from the famous idea of the late German philosopher Edmund Husserl. It is the idea that rationality is the “entelechial idea” of “European humanity”, i.e., that Europeans had and have a unique vocation to develop the idea of rationality. He contends that already in Husserl’s interpretation of the European principle in terms of rationality there is an anticipation of the thought that, in European history, rational reflection acquired two major tasks: “to make understandable the given and to form our very self”.

After crediting Husserl with hinting at these two basic forms of rationality, he goes on to describe their mutual relationship in the course of European spiritual history. He sees this relationship as a constant tension that threatens to break the unity of the European principle through the uncontrolled reinforcement of its one aspect at the expense of the other. There are, therefore, two imminent dangers lurking in the very foundations of European spiritual life: “the knowledge of the given without self-dominion”, and “striving for unity, universality, and eternity, at the expense of the knowledge of the given”. 

Patočka contends that both the spiritual greatness and the crisis of Europe lie in the historical dynamism determined by this tension. Europe dominated the rest of the world because it was able to develop both sides of the European principle in a manner unmatched by other civilizations. It retained supremacy as long as it was able to keep both these sides of rational reflection in balance, i.e. as long as it was able to keep an equilibrium between the rationality-based dominion of humans over the world and over themselves. When this fragile balance was lost, Europe started to move towards the crisis, which, in its ultimate consequences, deprived it of its privileged status in world history.

On Patočka´s account, the equilibrium was lost at the beginning of Modernity, i.e. in the period when modern science, which focused almost exclusively on the rational penetration and domination of the world, asserted itself as the sole and unique model of rationality. This shift gave European humanity a (ratio-based) dominion over the world, but it deprived it of dominion over itself. The very cause of the European spiritual crisis is to be sought in this loss of balance. Political and economic crisis followed, resulting in the ultimate self-destruction of Europe in the two world wars of the twentieth century.

The remedy of the crisis corresponding to this diagnosis is the restitution of the ‘practical’ side of European rationality. Patočka expresses this point in the following passage using highly metaphorical language:

Europe has shown two paths leading to the opening of the earth: the exterior path of the conquest and subjugation of the world which brought about the extinction of Europe as a historical and unified formation; and the interior path of the opening of the earth in the sense of unlocking the world, the path of the transformation of the natural world as such. And it seems that this path, after all exterior catastrophes and inner confusions and mistakes, must be found again and walked to its end.

The passage shows how difficult Patočka’s language is. For this reason I will try from now on to put Patočka´s ideas in a simpler and more straightforward language.

Automobiles and profit

I will start with an example. Take the development of the automotive industry today. Imagine how much intellectual work is invested into the development of just one new car model, say, the new Skoda Octavia. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of engineers, developers, designers, i.e. technical experts, working for years day in and day out at the development of just this one new model. Now multiply the number of people and work by the number of all new models developed these days in the car industry all over the world. Consider now that this technical intelligentsia is just a “platoon” of the “army” of all those working in the industry today. Perhaps now you will be able to sense the immense intellectual work invested in the development of yet newer cars, mobile phones, TVs, medicines, etc.

What is the purpose of this immense intellectual labor? To start with the already mentioned example, we may ask: “For what purpose is a new car model developed?” “What is the raison d´être for making it?” The answer would go something like this: The new car model is developed in order to make a safer, more reliable, more comfortable, more fun-to-drive, more elegant, more spacious, in one word, “better” car. And what is the purpose of this improvement? It is to remain competitive with other companies in the automotive industry. And why that? You want to keep your share in the market. So the ultimate purpose of all this immense intellectual labor is profit.

This conclusion is in no way intended to condemn this intellectual labor, nor to praise it. My only purpose here is to put on display the basic pattern characteristic of this type of rationality. Scientific discoveries are driven by the need for technological innovation and these are demanded by commercial interests. It is this type of rationality that Patočka called “the rationality of means”. Why? Because it trains human intellect to work on the improvement of what, ultimately, are means of human existence. New cars, mobile phones, TVs, medicines – all of them are just means of transportation, communication, amusement, gaining health etc.

Although there is, obviously, a legitimate need for those means in our societies today, it is useful to remind ourselves of the fundamental distinction made in the first pages of Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics. It is the distinction between those goods that we desire because we desire something else first and those that we desire for their own sake. He calls the former “means” and the latter “ends”. He observes that ends are more important, than means. For the goodness of a mean depends on the goodness of its end. Thus the knife in the hand of a murderer is an evil because it serves a murder, while the same knife in the hand of a surgeon is a good because it serves the restoration of health.

In the light of this classical philosophical distinction it is easy to see that “the rationality of means” must be complemented by “the rationality of ends”, i.e. a rationality which trains human intellect to distinguish and to investigate the ends of human life. For it is only in the light of such rationality that good means can be distinguished from bad ones. “The rationality of means” allows you only to sort out which means are more efficient, not which are better. Even if you use the term “better” you mean “more efficient” as long as you evaluate things only from the perspective of “the rationality of means”.

But is someone trained in “the rationality of ends” in a similar way to that in which a scientist, technician, or marketing specialist is trained in “the rationality of means”? Without trying to answer this difficult question, I would like at least to point out that “the rationality of ends” was the “core business” of Greek classical philosophy, i.e. the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. For each of them was convinced that the most important task for the human intellect is to investigate and to come to know the Good.

In fact, this conviction is the source of the fundamental anthropological claim made by these philosophers, namely that the rational part of humans (the human soul) is the highest, closest to the divine. And this claim, in its turn, is the source of the “intellectualist” interpretation of “happiness” (eudaimonia) as the central notion of their ethics. For eudaimonia did not mean for these philosophers an emotional state, a feeling of “bliss” or “blessedness”. Rather, it meant the best possible state in which the best part of a human finds her or himself. Therefore you cannot be eudaimón unless you are “wise”, i.e. unless you have fully actualized your rational capacities.

The disagreement among Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle regarding this issue concerned only a relatively minor point, namely the question whether to be wise is just a necessary or also the sufficient condition for being eudaimón, i.e., whether a virtuous man needs also some other “external” goods to be truly happy. The fundamental agreement of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that the most important and sublime task for human intellect is to search for the good, is also not compromised by the considerable disagreement between the three concerning the nature of the good.

Patočka was fully aware of the fact that “the rationality of ends” was the “core business” of Greek classical philosophy.  Therefore, in some of his late works, he sought for the origin of the spiritual history of Europe in Greek classical philosophy, in particular in the Socratic and Platonic ideal of “the care for the soul”. In these writings, he pleaded repeatedly for the need to “return” to the care for the soul, or to “repeat it”, in our present situation. This pleading, I believe, remains a true challenge and inspiration, although it is difficult to see what exact form the care for the soul could or should take today.  

But if we read Patočka´s pleading for the “repetition” of the care for the soul in the light of the distinction between the two forms of rationality discussed here, we could interpret it thus: Patočka calls for a renewed effort in Europe today to reestablish some kind of equilibrium between “the rationality of means” and “the rationality of ends”. True, we do not need as many moral philosophers or theologians as we need representatives of the technical intelligentsia. But perhaps we need in our society today more clarity about the ends we pursue. Perhaps we need to reconsider the order in which we put our societal or personal priorities. Or perhaps there are some ends we should pursue which, as a matter of fact, we do not pursue yet.

It seems that in order to investigate these and other issues we must take seriously the effort to cultivate “the rationality of ends”.  In this sense, then, we might understand Patočka´s pleading for a “repetition” of the care for the soul in our situation today.

[1] Evropa a doba poevropská [Europe and the Post-European Period], in: Péče o duši II. Soubor statí a přednášek o postavení člověka ve světě a v dějinách [Care of the Soul II. Collected Writings Concerning the Human Condition and History], 1st ed. Chvatík – P. Kouba, Prague: Oikoymenh, 1999 (Sebrané spisy Jana Patočky, 2), p. 80-148.


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