Can there be a universal and objective notion of rationality?

Authors Avatar

Can there be a universal and objective notion of rationality?

This essay will explore the notion that there exists an 'objective' and universal conception of rationality. It will find the purely logical formulation somewhat lacking, and argue that, despite incommensurable horizons, we can apply the concept cross-culturally.

`Rationality is often seen in terms of logical consistency - so that affirming both p and not-p can be described as irrational. Or, an agent who has a clear objective (say, buying a car), and the means to do so, yet knowingly frustrates this goal, could be deemed to be irrational. I want to argue that our search for a universal notion of rationality requires more than this, so let us begin with Winch (1964).

`He examined Evans-Pritchard (1937), who highlighted practices of witchcraft and magic amongst the Azande - practices considered bizarre and irrational by most Westerners. This belief system shaped their whole outlook and values, so that if a man was killed by a falling tree, it was explained via witchcraft - as opposed to a Western explanation which might attribute the cause to strong winds and weak roots. Winch asserted that anthropologists wishing to examine these beliefs, must not use their own logical rules and values - rather try to understand these different principles of rationality from the Azande perspective. Although we need some independent reality check in order to escape relativism, Winch said it is not through insisting what is "real". For conceptions of "real" or "coherent" or "rational" operate only within a certain paradigm. Found in Kuhn (1970), this idea stresses that a paradigm contains the beliefs, values, and practices which bind the society within its own particular rational rules. In the way that science shapes the beliefs of industrialised Western citizens, so magic and witchcraft shape the perspectives of the Azande.

`Winch reasoned that the two paradigms in question could not be reconciled - that they possessed incommensurable rules, and threatened the central foundations of each other. An anthropologist would be unable to prove, or even discuss on a scientific level, his/her paradigm to the Zande, because the Zande have no conception of scientific theory - the principles have no meaning to them. So the scientific paradigm, for all its empirical evidence, is unable to prove that the magical paradigm is objectively false, and the concepts of rationality and reality are dependant upon which paradigm they are operating in.

`Presumably this could occur at a micro level, say between two individuals. Aside from cases where people are demonstrably insane, I find this problematic. One could argue that Winch confuses truth with meaning. If I hold a belief that differs fundamentally with the belief of another person, we seem to be forced into saying that neither belief can fully resolved. Can we not appeal to some universal rationality to help us determine that, say, the sun is a fading star, as opposed to a god to be worshipped?

`The need for logical consistency is paramount. Hollis (1967) stresses the logical element when arguing that such belief systems, though different in many ways, are nevertheless bound by an all-embracing rationality - that we are implicitly embedded with notions of rationality which include logic, truth, coherence and the rational interdependence of beliefs.

Join now!

`Evans-Pritchard went to great lengths to learn the Azande language comprehensively, and Hollis notes that this very process involves a universal conception of rationality. For example, gesticulating towards a tree, an anthropologist would assume that the native sees the tree and eventually says the word that the anthropologist requires. Thus the only way to understand the speech of the Azande, is to presume that they link their words together in a logically coherent manner, creating a bridgehead of communication. The semantics may be peculiar, but the language is not a jumbled random mass of sound - it has a rationality, ...

This is a preview of the whole essay