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What does it mean to be “Rational”?

Common sense. “Practical.” “She has a good head on her shoulders.” “You’re being irrational!” Sayings uttered with frequency—but are they said with understanding? What do we mean by “being rational”? We contrast reason with feeling or emotion. We contrast reason or the rational, also, with the “irrational”. Does this mean that feelings or emotions are irrational? Is the world divided into rational and irrational phenomena or experiences—objects that possess or lack a rational core or rational being?

Rationality and Control

Often, “rationality”, today, is situated in the context of critical and pragmatic control: something is rational, in other words, if subject to the conscious control of human volition. This conscious control, it seems, must be intersubjective—or capable of being successfully communicated—as well. Consider, for instance, the “preliminary specification” for the meaning of rationality provided by Jürgen Habermas:

An expression satisfies the precondition for rationality if and insofar as it embodies fallible knowledge and therewith has a relation to the objective world (that is, a relation to the facts) and is open to objective judgment. A judgment can be objective if it is undertaken on the basis of a transsubjective validity claim that has the same meaning for observers and nonparticipants as it has for the acting subject himself. Truth and efficiency are claims of this kind. Thus assertions and goal-directed actions are the more rational the better the claim (to propositional truth or to efficiency) that is connected with them can be defended against criticism. Correspondingly, we use the expression “rational” as a disposition predicate for persons from whom such expressions can be expected, especially in difficult situations.

Habermas 1981: The Theory of Communicative Action, vol.1, 9-10

To give some concrete examples of what Habermas means, let us consider both a claim to truth and to efficiency. If I say that 5+5=10, this claim has the same meaning for anyone who understands the terms (leaving aside the sophists who would deny such). What I signify in making the claim is the same as what you, the observer, recognize in it. Likewise if I say that 10 of one thing is more than 6 of the same. I can then claim that getting the same results from doing something six times as doing it ten times is more efficient, which will likewise be “transsubjectively observable”.

Reason and Rationality

But is that it? Charles Peirce writes that “…‘rational’ means essentially self-criticizing, self-controlling and self-controlled, and therefore open to incessant question.” He uses the term, as we all typically do (conscious of it or not), to designate an attribute of persons and their actions. Of reason, however, he writes: “The very being of the General, of Reason, consists in its governing individual events. So, then, the essence of Reason is such that its being never can have been completely perfected. It always must be in a state of incipiency, of growth.” Is there, then, a difference between “reason” and “the rational”? A connection? In what would that difference, that connection, consist?

As William Barret writes in his Irrational Man:

To be rational is not the same as to be reasonable. In my time I have heard the most hair-raising and crazy things from very rational men, advanced in a perfectly rational way; no insight or feelings had been used to check the reasoning at any point. Nowadays, we accept in our public and political life the most humanly unreasonable behavior, provided it wears a rational mask and speaks in officialese, which is the rhetoric of rationality itself. Witness the recent announcement that science had been able to perfect a “clean” hydrogen bomb—to be sure, not perfectly “clean” yet, but “95 per cent clean” or even “96 per cent clean.” Of course the quantitative measurement makes the matter sound so scientific and rational that people no longer bother to ask themselves the human meaning of the whole thing. No doubt, they tell themselves, there must be a perfectly rational chain of arguments which, starting from the premise that there must be hydrogen bombs, leads to the conclusion that there must be “clean” hydrogen bombs—otherwise war itself would become impossible!

Barret 1958: Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, 270.

Here we see again the contrast: the rational opposed to the emotive. What then, does “the rational” mean? Join us this evening for a robust discussion at our Philosophical Happy Hour!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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The Virtues (and Dangers) of Listening – Part I

What are the virtues of a good listener? What are the dangers of listening? Dr. Mark McCullough answers these questions.

What are the virtues of a good listener?  In the weeks that follow, I will answer this question in four installments: in the first three installments I concentrate on four different virtues important for good listening: generosity, curiosity, compassion, and courage.  In the fourth and final installment, I discuss dangers for the listener, each one corresponding with its companion virtue by looking closely at the role of listening in the poem The Divine Comedy written by the thirteenth-century Italian poet Dante. I conclude by offering advice on how to avoid being pulled into the self-destructive narratives that we hear others tell themselves as well as those fictions we tell ourselves.

I. Generosity

Generosity is the first virtue of a good listener because, without it, we cannot practice the other virtues important for listening.  Like prudence, which Thomas Aquinas called the “mother” of other cardinal virtues, generosity gives birth to curiosity, compassion, and courage.  These are the gifts of generosity, and this virtue is characterized by abundance.

When we listen, we give our time and our attention.  Time and attention are no small gifts. Neither is patience which is a capacity for and an offering of our time and attention. This offering is characterized by calm confidence.  Listening starts when we patiently give our time and attention and wait.  We do not simply tolerate waiting while listening for something to emerge.  We accept waiting as a condition of emergence, either in the form of words or silence.

Originally, the word “generosity” characterized a person of “excellence or noble birth.”  Though no longer the meaning we associate with it, there is a lesson to be found in this word’s origin.  Anyone can be a generous listener but to practice listening well is to present oneself habitually as having the capacity to give with minimal diminishment.  Such a capacity suggests potential as when we say for example that a particular animal breed is “good stock.”  In other words, the breed promises great things based on prior success.  Listening, too, has a history and this is why we often return to others we consider “good listeners” when we feel we need to be heard (more on this “need” later).

Notice above how I wrote “to practice listening well is to present oneself…”.  Listening, like most relational acts, has an element of presentation. When we listen, we present ourselves to the one to whom we will listen.  We indicate our availability with eye contact or sitting closer.  Technology, the shift from face-to-face to the virtual realm, has made presenting ourselves as good listeners more difficult.  To present ourselves as available to hear someone when we are on a phone or video call is challenging.  Even more challenging might be how to be generous with these forms of media.  “Is it a good time to talk?” is a question I often hear from a friend who calls after a long absence to catch up.  A simple “yes” might confirm my availability, but it doesn’t always confirm my capacity for listening.  For that, I rely on further confirmation, the “mmm” and “huhs” that holds my presence for them, as my eyes are either hidden from view or flattened by a screen.

Which brings me to an important, personal rule about good listening.  Never pretend.  Never present what you cannot minimally commit to.  It is better to tell a loved one that another time is better for listening and choose the time than it is to commit now and give your attention by half.  Such a halving (or quartering, or worse) reveals an impoverished listener and is ungenerous, even if it seems generous relative to what the listener who is beset by many other responsibilities believes she can offer.  One experience of being listened to is far more precious than a thousand instances of competing for someone’s hard sought-after or over-promised attention.

The feeling of having been listened to is often commensurate with the perception of the listener’s generosity.  When we present the gift of ourselves as available to receive something important, we reflect the capacity necessary to recognize whatever might emerge, especially feelings of pain, anger, and loneliness.  Good listening does not present a vacuum or echo chambers like the ones created deliberately in the offices of poorly trained therapists.  Good listening bespeaks of a plentitude where every emergent articulation of one’s experience has its proper place.  Disappointment?  There’s a space for that.  Anger?  There’s a space for that too.  Before we can understand exactly what the disappointment or anger is, a space is created by the presented capacity of the listener.  Before understanding, we have the grounds for understanding in a shared space.  Those grounds must be ample, providing more space than might be imagined by the one who needs listening to.

In my next post, I will concentrate on two more virtues of good listening: curiosity and courage.