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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