Modern versus Western Thought: Feelings or Reason?

William H. Young

Ironically, from the 1960s, the historical role of the university to train the mind to make rational decisions—to ingrain thought based on knowledge and reason—would be turned upside down. A new determinism to overthrow the Western scientific worldview and replace it with subjectivism or feeling as the general basis for Modern thought would capture the academy and then society. 

The Academy and Reason 

In The Making of a Counterculture (1969), Theodore Roszak described the aspects of American life that led to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the new kinds of thinking that became the basis for the counterculture and would eventually displace objectivity and reason in the academy. Roszak and the counterculture blamed the “technocracy,” experts of science and technology, for enabling a sinister industrial state that created glaring material inequalities, despoiled nature, and enriched itself through frequent wars for which it provided the weapons. 

Of more direct relevance to the academy, Roszak identified the way by which the counterculture would change American life by altering man’s consciousness. Roszak saw life as ruled by what he called the “myth of objective consciousness,” the objectivity of the scientist, the scientific method and cold reason. He argued that such consciousness enabled the subordination of nature to man’s command, alienating him from nature. The answer was to replace scientific and intellectual consciousness with visionary or sacramental experience, human communion, or other forms of alternative consciousness—to supersede reason with feeling.[1]

Modern academic thought (in other than the technical professions) turned away from rationality and Western thought—rejecting the scientific approach and knowledge—and towards other modes of thinking emanating from the unconscious mind and based on subjectivism. Individual feeling supplanted intuition, common sense, and reason.

Radical feminism then taught us that the underlying malignancy deforming human enterprise is the masculine trait of “rationality.” Christopher Lasch argued in The Minimal Self (1984) that Promethean man’s destructiveness is seen to stem from reason itself, and from the failure of the rational ego to contain man’s technological solipsism and Faustian will-to-power. Therefore, social change has to “take the form…of a cultural revolution” in America. The necessary replacement of masculine rationality is a long-overdue “feminization of American society,” an ascent to dominance of the female Dionysian personality, not only more inclined towards “feeling” and “cooperation,” but with a sense of “self” more connected to or in oneness with the world, or nature.[2]

Radical environmentalism and utopian sustainability have similarly replaced reason and the scientific method with subjective nature worship. I have illustrated the replacement of reason with feeling in general academic thought about science in previous articles such as Postmodern Mesmerists and Western Civilization, Postmodern Science and Western Civilization, Academic Social Science and Scientific Literacy and Academic Social Science and Postmodernism.  

Emotional Reasoning 

Over the past fifty plus years, feeling has come to dominate virtually every aspect of life on American college campuses. A September 2015 article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” exposed some of the situation to the public. That article discussed the concept of “emotional reasoning,” which may be defined as letting your negative emotions or feelings guide your interpretations of reality. But, of course, the authors say, “subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong”: 

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong….Claims of a right not to be offended have continued to rise…and universities have continued to privilege them….Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “banning the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity…. 

In 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.[3]

The veneration of emotional reasoning by the academy does a disservice to students and advances feeling and subjectivism rather than reason as the basis for behavior in society. 

The Age of Feelings 

In his essay in The State of the American Mind, Dennis Prager discusses the extent to which feelings have replaced reason in society as well as the academy since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s:

The Age of Feelings as we now know it really began in the 1960s and 1970s, when for the first time in Western history, feelings were exalted above everything, from reason to law to facts, and most importantly, to standards—especially in morality and the arts. Those years marked a genuine cultural revolution, and the triumph of sensitivities, preferences, dispositions, experiences, and personal choices over objective norms and traditional authorities fueled the more overt political and cultural changes that the revolution wrought. We witnessed the rising power of feelings whenever someone stood up in a public forum to declare, “You don’t know how it feels to be…,” and the audience responded with deference, not debate. It happened in cases of special pleading and double standards, when bad behaviors were rationalized by appealing to the feelings motivating them, asking others not to judge, but “to understand.”… 

When feelings are supreme…individuals consult their own responses before they heed objective customs, rules, and traditions. The moral order comes second to the fluctuating emotional state of each person…. 

The ascent of feelings has penetrated so far into our culture that it is expressed in the most basic and decisive terms. Instead of asking, “is it right?” a generation of Americans has been raised to ask, “How do you feel about it?” Indeed, while the advent of the Age of Feelings fifty years ago may have started as an injunction to respect others’ feelings—allowing people to make judgments, yes, but keeping them quiet, or at least positioning them within a context of sensitivity—young Americans sometimes seem to lack the very equipment to decide a moral question in their heads…. 

Call it emotional relativism, the idea that the best foundation for judgment is emotive response and the best one for choice is emotive preference. And because each individual has a distinct emotional makeup, as many moral yardsticks and cultural tastes exist as there are individuals. To apply any broader criterion that is based upon nonemotive, impersonal reality or truth is not only mistaken, it’s oppressive…Political correctness is as coercive as any right-wing dogma, of course, but it escapes the tyranny charge because it locates its demands precisely upon feelings.[4]

Psychology and Reason 

In The Atlantic in March 2014, (“The War on Reason”) Yale psychologist Paul Bloom comments on the recent support for feeling versus reason in his discipline: 

Aristotle’s definition of man as a rational animal has recently taken quite a beating….To some scholars, the neural basis of mental life suggests that rational deliberation and free choice are illusions. Because our thoughts and actions are the products of our brains, and because what our brains do is determined by the physical states of the world and the laws of physics—perhaps with a dash of quantum randomness in the mix—there seems to be no room for choice…. 

In a contemporary, and often unacknowledged, rebooting of Freud, many [social] psychologists have concluded…that unconscious associations and attitudes hold powerful sway over our lives—and that conscious choice is largely superfluous. “It is not clear…how much the conscious you—as opposed to the genetic and neural you—gets to do any deciding at all.”…Jonathan Haidt suggests we should reject the notion that we are in control of our decisions and instead think of the conscious self as a lawyer who, when called upon to defend the actions of a client, mainly provides after-the-fact justifications for decisions that have already been made…. 

I do worry…that many of my colleagues have radically overstated the implications of their findings. The genetic you and the neural you aren’t alternatives to the conscious you. They are its foundations…. 

Our capacity for rational thought emerges in the most-fundamental aspects of life….If you doubt the power of reason, consider the lives of those who have less of it….Certain core capacities, like wisdom and self-control, take time to mature…. 

Then there’s self-control. This can be seen in the purest embodiment of rationality, in that it reflects the working of a brain system (embedded in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that lies behind the forehead) that restrains our impulsive, irrational, or emotive desires…. 

We don’t become better merely through good intentions and force of will, just as we don’t usually lose weight or give up smoking merely by wanting to. We use our intelligence. We establish laws, create social institutions, write constitutions, and evolve customs. We manage information and constrain options, allowing our better selves to overcome those gut feelings and appetites that we believe we would be better off without.

Yes, we are physical beings, and yes, we are continually swayed by factors beyond our control. But as Aristotle recognized long ago, what’s so interesting about us is our capacity for reason, which reigns over all. If you miss this, you miss almost everything that matters.[5]

Through modern cognitive science, we can now better understand that some individual behavior in earlier America, initially seen as based on “reason,” may really have been rationalism, or based on unconscious motivation. At the same time, as Bloom points out, there are still many aspects of individual behavior that demand the use of reason for successful decision-making, which is exactly the point our founding generation emphasized. 

Most importantly, reason is a critical individual capability for making societal policy decisions, which must often consider complex facts and evidence; science, mathematics, and quantitative risk; and the objective realities of other people, for which the unconscious is unequipped and reason and logic—abstract thinking—are required. And as William James advised long ago, intuition and logic must operate in partnership; the challenge of the rational mind is to sort and organize the interchange between the two. Moreover, the mind must use broad information and methods stored in memory as well as the innate moral sense to properly develop and apply both reason and intuition. This is one reason why America long educated college students in the Liberal Arts, to enable graduates to make better decisions as leaders of society. 

Unfortunately, American colleges and universities now generally continue to refuse to inculcate reason rather than feeling in the Modern thought that students leave the academy with. Feeling and subjectivism, and relativism and political correctness, have replaced reason and the Liberal Arts in undergraduate education, and will inevitably shape our future societal decision-making. 

Modern Thought 

With the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Modern Thought was further degraded by ideologies in the academy dedicated to radical subjectivism and feeling rather than reason. Anti-Western determinism eliminated many forms of Western knowledge and reason from such thought. Those trends continued and accelerated and transformed not only the academy but society.

The next article will examine the influence of cultural Marxism and gender feminism in precipitating the sexual revolution and the emasculation of marriage and the future of children. 

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.


The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002). 


[1] Theodore Roszak,The Making of a Counter Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 205-38.

[2] Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self: (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984), 18–9, 241, 244, 247–48.

[3] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015.

[4] Dennis Prager, “We Live in the Age of Feelings,” in Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, eds., The State of the American Mind (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2015), 189-203.

[5] Paul Bloom, “The War on Reason,” The Atlantic, March 2014.

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