Criticism of Rationalism and the Embodiment of Criticism in Notes from Underground, a Novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Criticism of Rationalism in Notes from Underground The spokesperson from this short story, the underground man, is a deeply conflicting character. This is not only because he seems torn throughout the story, but he is also a critic of reason while simultaneously being a parody of rationalism. This essay describes both his criticism of rationalism and how he himself embodies a criticism of how own rationalism. In a phrase, both his opponents and himself, are guilty of the type of rationalism which prefers the observable truth over the personal perspective.

His opponents, which may be referred to as “utopian socialists,” have two positions which this essay will consider. First, there is the argument rested on the study of man via the natural sciences. They have a confidence in the natural sciences to teach man about the human condition. He characterizes this view as “[y]ou are confident that man will then voluntarily cease making mistakes… science itself will teach and… that in fact he has neither will nor caprice, and never had any and that he himself is nothing but a sort of piano key or a sprig in an organ” (24).

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The effects of understanding the natural sciences is that not only will humans reinterpret themselves, but what it means to be human in the first place. All of humanity, then, can be explained through the laws of nature.

Secondly, there is the argument rested chiefly on a progressive view of history or humanity. He introduces them in scene seven, part one with the question: “who was the first to proclaim that man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests…?” (20).

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To be brief, the human condition dictates that there are certain immutable profits and humans need only to be oriented towards them via education. In the end, there can be a city that trains all of its citizens in a way that shows them their true profits, and these profits are undeniable to any reasonable person. One thought they hold, according to the narrator is “man gets softer from civilization and, consequently, becomes less bloodthirsty and less capable of war” (23). The end of this vein of thought is, conceivably, perpetual peace and prosperity. In sum both perspective are progressive by nature, but the former emphasizes the role of the natural sciences whereas the latter emphasizes prosperity in society.

His refutation of their arguments is chiefly guided by the existence of a certain faculty of human nature, which he claims, their views overlook. The faculty of humanity, in short, is “Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and whatever it may lead” (26). This independence can drive a person to act completely contrary to what the latter utopian socialists consider undeniable human profits. While they would maintain that a person need only to be educated further, the underground man thinks this faculty of humanity is sure to fester in society. He thinks that someone is bound to long for a time where there exists independence and will even engage in chaos to leave that reasonable utopia. He predicts that people will suggest “reduc[ing]… all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick” (25). A serious concern of the underground man is that people may invite chaos into their own lives, even at their own expense. He writes, “The bad thing is… that, for all I know, they may be glad of the golden pins then,” the pins refer to how Cleopatra, out of sheer boredom, would prick her slaves’ breasts with golden pins just to hear them scream (23, 25). In sum, because they overlook this faculty they are inviting the exact kind of destruction they are avoiding.

His refutation of the former position reveals that where their views come up short, not only includes the failure to address this certain human faculty but their preference for observable, impersonal truth over multivalent, personal perspective. He writes, “[I]f it should indeed turn out that he is a piano key, if it were even provided to him mathematically and by natural science, he would still not come to reason, but would do something contrary on purpose, … essentially to have his own way” (31, emphasis my own). First of all, this reveals that the underground man does not completely discount the view that there could be a type of person. More importantly, the narrator shows us that independent thinking needs not to be true independent thinking, but instead, people need only to think they have independence. Perspective trumps the observable truth in this regard, and his opponents’ failure to recognize this is their deepest error. It is the deepest error for it calls into question not just the rational view of history or of nature, but of rational thought itself.

Moving on to the underground man’s rationalism. This essay will evaluate some of his key terms and how they relate to his earlier reflection on apologies in order to show case how he, too, commits the same error as the utopian socialists: forfeiting perspective for the truth.

The narrator describes the essence of consciousness when he says, “Where are the primary causes on which I can rest, where are my bases? … I exercise thinking, and consequently, for me every primary cause immediately drags with it yet another, still more primary one, and so on ad infinitum” (17). Therefore, what is fundamental about consciousness is not that it is the discovery of a primary cause but that it is the search for one. What is striking about the underground man in these terms, is that he never discovers the base and thus, insofar he is engaging in consciousness, he is searching for a more primary cause. The trouble comes when one considers that he states as a condition for action one needs a firm base, or as he says “an indisputable basis for their doings.” In light of this need, consciousness alone is not the path to action.

Hence, the underground man will reject his consciousness in order to act. As a point of contrast, he presents the man who takes revenge in scene five. To be brief, the man who takes revenge is capable of doing so for he is narrow-minded and needs not to search ad infinitum for a primary cause like the underground man. Given the above paragraph, if the narrator consciously pursued revenge, he would never achieve it for he cannot help but search ad infinitum for a primary cause and cannot act. To this he comments, “If I set about taking revenge, it will be solely out of wickedness. Wickedness could… overcome everything…” and continues “[it] could serve… in place of a primary cause, precisely in that it is not a cause” (18, emphasis my own). In other words, wickedness can somehow allow the underground man to act, while consciousness alone can not.

To define wickedness, it is worthwhile to compare it with sickness. The first line of the book reads, “I am a sick man… I am a wicked man” (1). Not only does it highlight how the narrator is indeed torn but it presents the reader with a comparison between wickedness and sickness. First of all, it suggests that wickedness is not a sickness, for this opening sentence would be redundant. Hence, one can assume that sickness and wickedness mean two distinct things. Bearing in mind the search for primary causes, one difference between the two is how one would blame a sick man versus a wicked man. It makes sense for there to be a difference in the treatment of a sick person and a wicked one, for on the one hand, it is hard to fully blame a sick person, because, to state the obvious, they are sick, and thus, the person’s offense in part derives from a primary cause not localized to the person. For the underground man, this view then leaves open the possibility of searching ad infinitum for the even more primary cause. On the other hand, a wicked person’s ailment is the person him or herself, there is simply no primary cause beyond them to blame, and therefore, they are to blame. In the case of wickedness, the underground man can finally act if he is wicked since the firm ground humans require to act lies precisely in himself. This is because wickedness is not a sickness, it is a state of being with no primary cause beneath it. Otherwise, how could it be wickedness and not a sickness if it derives from an external source? What is striking about this transformation is that it showcases a criticism of thought itself.

First, becoming ostensibly wicked is clearly irrational. This is because, if rationalism is connected to the search for the true and immutable things, for natural laws and orders; it hardly makes sense to think that becoming stubbornly wicked is “true.” Wickedness is, in this context, a front or disguise, which are by nature untrue. However, it is irrational for the rational man to search ad infinitum for a primary cause. If the need for reasoning through the cause of things is to find a base on which to spring into action, then it is irrational to be rational. Searching ad infinitum does not suit this end: to take action. Therefore, in order to achieve the end of action it becomes necessary to discontinue reasoning through things and to justify to oneself their own cause and hence, wickedness is the answer. In order words, it is the narrator’s own rationalism which dictates that he reject his own reason for wickedness.

The issue is that, while he does become wicked, he somehow still holds on to reason and commits the same mistake as his opponents. Early in the story he interprets his past, in particular his past apologies. The significance of this account is in part that his conclusion that his apologies must be lies reveals his personal preference for the truth over the perspective.

In scene five he recalls how he hated saying “‘Forgive me, papa, I won’t do it again”” (16). What he calls the “nastiest thing” is how he would “[a]s if on purpose … used to bumble into it on occasions when [he’d] … never thought or dreamed of doing anything wrong” (16). In other words, he apologizes and repents with full sincerity for doing wrong, yet he knows that without fail he will do wrong again in the future. Later he adds, “For a minute or so later I’d be reasoning spitefully that it was all a lie” (16). In light of this, there is a clear transformation. Initially he apologizes with full sincerity, but through reasoning it out he concludes that those apologies must have been lies.

It is profitable to consider how his apologies might be lies given his own terms. To start, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the most widely accepted definition of lying [as] … a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it.” Clearly, in light of what the narrator calls the “nastiest thing,” what seems the most false about his apologies are his repentances, “papa, I won’t do it again.” This is because, subsequently he mentions that he continued to do wrong. In other words, he apologizes and repents with full sincerity for doing wrong, yet he knows that without fail he will do wrong again in the future. Therefore, to state a repentance in light of this knowledge is a lie, for he knows it to be false and conveys that it is true anyway. With this established, it is not hard to image how to formulate the entire apology as a lie as well. There is one catch though: he sincerely apologizes and believes it.

The conflict is between what he thinks is true and what is true. In other words, the collision is between his personal perspective and the truth that stands outside of his being, impersonal and unattached. His apology could have just been wrong or ill-founded, but instead they are called lies. To interpret the past apologies as lies implies that they had some wicked intent, but this is not the case according to the underground man’s own terms. (What makes them so nasty is how he believed in them.) He is, in a way, lying about his past in order to bring him in accordance with the truth. In sum, the observable truth trumps the perspective.

This is the very same spirit of which he characterizes his opponents’ arguments. Just as he claims they mull over the fundamental will to independent thinking, he somehow overlooks his own perspective. Indeed, he does offer a critique of reason in his characterization of consciousness and wickedness. But when he applies this to his own life he rearranges the details which offend the truth—a sincere apology becomes a lie. A hypothetical person could say “the sincere man is now wicked and because of that no further explanation is needed. He is wicked because he is wicked.” If one adopts this view one would miss the flash of an even more primary cause: the reason he reinterprets his past self as wicked is to bring him in accordance with the truth, to seem reasonable.


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Criticism of Rationalism and the Embodiment of Criticism in Notes from Underground, a Novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (2022, Apr 18). Retrieved from

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