Two Concepts of Rationality

By Frederick, Danny | Libertarian Papers, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Two Concepts of Rationality


Frederick, Danny, Libertarian Papers


1. Introduction

no Person can disobey Reason, without giving up his Claim to be a rational Creature

--Swift (1726, 261)

RATIONALITY IS ESSENTIALLY connected with norms. In Western philosophy, while there has been much disagreement over what the norms of rationality are, there seems to have been substantial agreement that these norms are narrowly prescriptive; in fact there is a pronounced tendency to see rationality as leaving the agent no scope for choice in matters of thought, belief, inference and behaviour. On this pervasive view, rationality dictates: either one accepts, believes, infers or does what rationality says one should, or one is irrational. I will argue that this authoritarian concept of rationality is absurd. I contrast it with a libertarian concept of rationality, derived from the critical rationalism of Karl Popper. I argue that, while this approach avoids the absurdities of the authoritarian one, it requires some further development. To keep the discussion within a reasonable compass, after outlining the two concepts with regard to both theoretical and practical rationality, I discuss them critically with respect to theoretical rationality only; the comparison with respect to practical rationality is left for another occasion. However, as the distinction between theoretical and practical rationality is somewhat artificial, parts of the following discussion will inevitably cross over into some matters of practical rationality.

It would be impossible, as well as tiresome, to consider here every species within the authoritarian genus, so I will outline the full-blown authoritarian approach and illustrate it with a few examples from contemporary philosophy. I am challenging the underlying principles of that approach, so the application of my critique to other examples should be reasonably straightforward, though it is not the case that every part of the critique will apply to every species of authoritarian rationalism. Further, as my purpose here is an overview, I do not pursue the arguments against authoritarian rationalism in great detail, considering all the possible responses and counter-responses; but I think I say enough to impugn the coherence of that view.

In section 2, I set out the main tenets of the authoritarian approach, with quotations from a few of the multitude of its contemporary philosophical exponents. In section 3, I suggest that, given what we know about human knowledge, the authoritarian concept of theoretical rationality generates a number of absurdities. In section 4, I expound the libertarian approach which derives from Popper. In section 5, I argue that, while Popper's approach to theoretical rationality avoids the absurdities of the authoritarian one, it requires three significant modifications to be made fully consistent. I conclude the discussion in section 6.

2. The Authoritarian Approach

Responsible believers and desirers are orthonomous subjects, in the sense that they recognize certain yardsticks of right belief and right desire and can respond to the demands of the right in their own case

--Pettit and Smith (1996, 442)

Since ancient times, Western philosophers have propounded views according to which reason leads a person to beliefs that he must have or to actions that he must perform, if he is rational (Popper 1972b; 1983, 11-34; Bartley 1984, 169-83 and passim). In contemporary analytic philosophy the dominant views are still that, in matters of knowledge, rationality dictates what to believe and what to infer, and that, in practical matters, it dictates what action to perform or intend or desire; but some of the dictates may be relativised to other beliefs, values, desires or intentions of the person concerned.

Thus, it is said, for some simple propositions of logic and mathematics, to understand them is to know that they are true, or for some simple rules of inference, to understand them is to be disposed to infer in accord with them, perhaps because they are 'implicit definitions' of the logical or mathematical constants they contain. …

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