Reason in Human Affairs

Reason in Human Affairs

Reason in Human Affairs

Reason in Human Affairs


What can reason (or more broadly, thinking) do for us and what can't it do? This is the question examined by Herbert A. Simon, who received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences "for his pioneering work on decision-making processes in economic organizations."

The ability to apply reason to the choice of actions is supposed to be one of the defining characteristics of our species. In the first two chapters, the author explores the nature and limits of human reason, comparing and evaluating the major theoretical frameworks that have been erected to explain reasoning processes. He also discusses the interaction of thinking and emotion in the choice of our actions. In the third and final chapter, the author applies the theory of bounded rationality to social institutions and human behavior, and points out the problems created by limited attention span human inability to deal with more than one difficult problem at a time. He concludes that we must recognize the limitations on our capabilities for rational choice and pursue goals that, in their tentativeness and flexibility, are compatible with those limits.


The nature of human reason -- its mechanisms, its effects, and its consequences for the human condition -- has been my central preoccupation for nearly fifty years. When the invitation came to deliver the Harry Camp Lectures at Stanford University, I wondered if I had anything left to say on the subject. And if there were some such topic, had it not already been thoroughly investigated by such friends on the Stanford campus as Kenneth Arrow, James March, and Amos Tversky -- to mention just a few who work in one part or another of this domain? Putting aside this concern, real though it is, I decided to use the occasion of the lectures to explore some byways that seemed to me interesting and important, but that had until now been off the main paths of my own explorations.

Three topics, especially, were the objects of my inquiry: the relation of reason to intuition and emotion, the analogy between rational adaptation and evolution, and the implications of bounded rationality for the operation of social and political institutions. In the chapters that follow, I report on these topics within the framework provided by the general viewpoint of bounded rationality.

I am indebted to Stanford University for the occasion . . .

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