Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I also appreciate Richard Reinsch’s introduction to Ralph Hancock’s excellent book The Responsibility of Reason , which Peter links below, but it seemed a little odd to me to use Rawls’s concept of “public reason” as the key example of the sort of reason-reliance that Ralph wants us to see the insufficiency of.  A better way into Ralph’s thought on this is to note that he was the translator of a neglected classic of contemporary French political philosophy, Philippe Bénéton’s Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement (2004, ISI; 1997 publication in France).

beneton book

Bénéton presented two key pillars of contemporary modernity: the modern democratic creed and the modern conception of science. The latter of these he characterized as “scientism.” What follows are a few pieces of a review I wrote of the book (for PPS):

. . . “scientism” holds that science is the only true form of reason, so that “whatever lies outside the scientific method lies outside reason.” Research that is scientific must have the qualities of “exteriority, neutrality, technicity, and generality”; intellectual activities and investigations that cannot meet these criteria . . . cannot provide us with real knowledge.

. . . Bénéton shows that scientism, even though it is not relativistic itself, functions as an “accomplice” to the dogmatic relativism fostered by the modern conception of equality. When a relativistic man hears someone say that an action of his is wrong, he responds by saying: To me it is good, and I determine what is true for me . Whereas the scientistic expert refuses to endorse his second statement, he backs him up on the key point by insisting that no one can know anything about values.

Another societal consequence of scientism is its impact on language. Words and phrases like “self-expression,” “group,” “deviance,” and “structure” migrate . . . into our common usage, becoming a mental filter through which we perceive the world. We become progressively unable to think thoughts that accurately perceive the interior, the contingent, the cultural, the unquantifiable, and—in a word—the substantial.

A central claim of the book is that as “substantive reason withdraws,” it is replaced by “practical reason cut off from being, a reason reduced to a procedural or instrumental function.” An “irrational rationalization of the world” is taking place, in which two forms of rationalization, the procedural and the instrumental , tendentiously order everything.

Procedural rationalization consists of the procedures that autonomous individuals must agree on if they are to “live together in disagreement”; it preserves their autonomy while allowing pressing collective decisions to be made. [This is where Rawls’s concept of “public reason” would come in.] But, practically speaking, it requires an expanding judicial regime to manage conflicts between the increasing number of rights, and it tends to “legally neutralize” natural and substantial differences, such as those between the sexes and, most alarmingly, those between adults and children. . . . contractual relations tend to replace customary ones. Outside of one’s immediate family, responsibilities for others that were once taken for granted are abandoned, unless they are narrowly defined as part of a job and legally insulated from onerous rights claims. Institutions become soulless, ruled not by persons but by procedures, and collective life becomes more and more careerist and commercialized.

Instrumental rationalization works from the assumption that rationality is purely instrumental—without substantive knowledge, all we can really know is that certain techniques obtain certain ends, although we have no way of judging the ends. This brings us under the sway of what is economically valued as a “good.” . . . Armed with the excuse that another researcher, firm, or nation will pursue whatever leads they do not, specialists wash their hands of responsibility. Knowledge of technique, quite deliberately agnostic about the ends, winds up running the world.


Incidentally, I prefer that manner of attacking market-worship, which gives you all the “good stuff from Marx” as Peter did a few posts back, without suggesting that Marxism deserves less contempt than it does, and without using the problematic (because really socialist-invented) word “capitalism.”

We might note the obvious influence of Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History upon Bénéton’s framing of modernity, but he works out the implications of historicist relativism and Weberian social science in ways that are more attuned to both the contemporary academy and to our day-to-day lives. Moreover, the overall feel of the book is more of a French Catholic one—Charles Péguy’s spirit inhabits it throughout. In any case, it remains to my mind one of the more lucid articulations of the contemporary situation. Of modernity.


How to escape such confinement-by-truncated-reason?  Well, one of the key thinkers to look to would be our Ralph Hancock.  It goes without saying that the best introduction to Ralphism remains his own book, especially its accessible enough introductory chapter. And I should quickly mention that its chapter on Strauss is a must.

hancock book image

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles