Can there be a universal and objective notion of rationality?
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.
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`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, like English or German, that is universal and necessary for communication.
`The Winchian viewpoint is context-dependent, which many have dubbed relativist. He is careful to avoid this by insisting that we are aiming not for a viewpoint that is identical with the Azande, but one which takes account of this different belief system and perhaps expands our own understanding in the process. Yet it still appears unable to help us to distinguish between our mode of belief and that of the Zande.
`The hermeneutic Gadamer (1975) similarly argued against a universal and neutral framework by which to assess different cultures. For him, "understanding" is the basic mode of being, underpinning every action that is performed and interpreted. However, understanding is never entirely free from "prejudices" - so my Western presumptions colour my interpretation of everything, including Zande beliefs. We can aim for, and sometimes achieve, much greater awareness of our own "situation" by exploring the Azande situation, but ultimately we are moulded by inescapable presumptions from the "horizon" in which we find ourselves.
`This is not to say that we occupy the "closed circles" of Nietzsche. Our horizons are undergoing constant dialectical expansion and revision in relation to each other - my Western horizon is actually essential to my coming to terms with the Azande culture.
`This appears to be a better approach for rationality than a strict adherence to universal logical truths. So, although Hollis was quite right to insist upon universal rational assumptions that underpin communication - Evans-Pritchard's learning of the Zande language can now be seen as a mere translation into terms relating to his own framework. To truly learn the Zande tongue would require that he literally became, as Francis Bacon said, as a child - a child of the Azande, free from Western prejudices. That, according to Gadamer, cannot be done.
`Another point can be found in Taylor (1982), who related how the Azande believed that "witchcraft" was an actual physical substance, which was inherited. According to our logical rules, we would have a test to prove that all members of a suspect's clan did not contain this substance. Since the Azande refused all such claims by Evans-Pritchard, the temptation is to catch them in a logical contradiction, and thus dub them irrational.
`So we can point to interparadigmatic truths appealing to the law of non-contradiction. These two opposite beliefs can be tied under a basic interparadigmatic truth that at least one of them is incorrect. It does not follow, of course, that its opposite is necessarily correct, and I will later demostrate the problematic nature of empirical 'truth'. If it could be shown that science is "true" then we would escape. But I do not think this is possible - only that it explains things better.
`Relativists who reject such notions of truth and falsity can be dismissed as logically absurd. For the assertion that no statement is either true or false, can be put into a proposition which must either be taken as true or false itself. However, Gadamer insisted that no assertion is absolutely true - even a logical one depends on its relation to other aspects of the context in which it exists. Perhaps we can argue that the context in which this "interparadigmatic" truth exists, is itself one of Gadamer's horizons. So even this statement is true not by an appeal to logical rules abstracted from the context, but by being judged in relation to that very context. If rationality is indeed tied to some notion of truth, then it does not seem to be objective by this reasoning.
`How, then, am I to rationally decide whether to worship the sun as a god, or treat it as a fading star around which our planet orbits? Following Winch I do not think that I can. Gadamerian appeals to understanding do not seem to be able to help me decide in such cases, where apparent 'fact' clashes with apparent magical 'fiction'. Yet appeals to pure logic do not seem to demonstrate that it is logically more rational to believe the latter, because here I appear to be dealing with empirical evidence, not propositional truth. The logical formulation is perfectly correct if all we seek is abstract, logical truth. But I feel we need more for a fuller account of rationality. It is by no means logically self-evident that the sun is indeed a fading star - for this is the very belief that I am trying to substantiate.
`One could assert, like Taylor, that some beliefs are "more rational" than others, given certain information. Western science thus differs from Azande magic in only one crucial respect - that it gives a more comprehensive account of the physical world. Science, for all its downfalls and revisions, gives us complex notions like that of physical motion and scientific repeatability, which gives our claims more weight than Azande assertions.
`We can even dismiss the relativist charge that science often undergoes revisions, often quite radical, such as Einstein's refutation of Newtonian physics, which removes the certainty from science. For Taylor wants to say that, even though it is not necessarily true, it is more rational to believe in it. Thus it is less rational to worship the sun as a god, because the overwhelming force of scientific claims about the sun, that can be shown to correspond with the physical world, are sufficient to make the Azande take notice.
`Hollis showed, importantly, that there are interparadigmatic "truths" which we appeal to in communication. This could itself perhaps be placed into Gadamer's horizons, but even if not, I think Hollis' account is lacking for rationality. I earlier mentioned the connection between rationality and truth. If we follow Gadamer and Taylor we move the stress away from strict adherence to logical "truth", and onto empirical evidence. I think we need to do this for a conception of rationality that means something to us and allows us to distinguish between horizons.
`According to Taylor, even if the Azande are not engaged in building a theoretical understanding of the world, there is clearly a contradiction in identifying a witch, and they must recognise this. This assertion moves away from the quasi-relativism of Winch. Now, the Azande could have answered this charge on theoretical grounds, perhaps saying that witch-power is mysterious and therefore operates outside the laws of normal physical universe. But they did not have this answer. Taylor reasons that this is because there are two types of understanding in operation - the Westernised one which is theoretical, and "disengaged", and the atheoretical Zande one. Of course, Winch said that we should not judge atheoretical cultures by theoretical standards. Taylor returns that there are fundamental differences - that Zande beliefs are symbolic as well as practical. They reflect "an attitude to contingencies" (p.93) and are believed to serve practical functions (such as making crops grow). As science purged this symbolic element from its explanations long ago, a sharp dichotomy was created between the scientific study of reality, and symbolic search for meaning. Few westernised belief systems encompass this nowadays - the symbolic element being served by religion, or even dancing and singing. But Azande ritual consists in both symbolic attunement and practical issues, and is a conceptually different notion, which means the two paradigms are incommensurable in principle.
`It can be argued that one could reject material or technological advance as being more rational, by placing a different value on things. This would involve determining what one's aims and values are, and seeing if a given belief system can serve them. For example, a monk living a life of solitude would reject the rationality of technology, preferring to seek wisdom in attunement with the world. We might view him as a rather strange individual, but not as irrational. I can, then, argue that it is not necessarily 'more' rational to hold with scientific principles, if I truly want to live my life as a monk, in attunement. Taylor works around this by saying that, granted, we could hold this belief, but that science better explains physical events. In a physical sense, science is more rational than magic. This is evident because of their incommensurability - if they were just different, we would be caught in the relativism of being unable to choose between the two; but because they are incommensurable, we can see one as a superior means of explaining the physical world around us. Even if this is not in the horizon of the Zande, they must still recognise it or be called irrational. Note that this is only "once a spectacular degree of technological control is achieved."(p.103.) Unfortunately the problem then involves determining what level of technological control warrants the Azande's rational attention, which is by no means clear.
`It is ironic that only by asserting the incommensurability of these belief systems, can we point to a rationality which transcends them and in that sense is universal - scientific explanations of the physical world. I would hesitatingly agree with this, adding again that it depends on what the true aims of the Azande are. We can assume that they are similar to ours - attempting to understand and interact with the environment around them in a coherent and satisfactory manner. Here, I think we can follow Taylor. But people, and peoples, could have different aims - aims that have nothing to do with control over the physical universe. I may have a strong belief in life after death, and thus quite happily and with full rational powers commit suicide so that I may experience eternal glory. Now, within this belief system, my behaviour seems to me perfectly rational, if somewhat extreme. As far as logic is concerned, my means (committing suicide) and ends (entering an 'other' world) are entirely consistent. In logical terms, we can only call such an individual irrational if we can establish what his/her aims are - and then find that the means to do achieve these aims are not being pursued. So my deperate desire to save myself from death, would not be consistent with my previously stated desire to enter an after-life. But if it is unclear what those aims are, or if they differ widely with ours, one can only prove me irrational by proving them irrational - ie, by establishing the irrationality of my belief in life after death.
`We have to be careful when examining rationality, then. We must identify the ends and the means to achieve these ends before we use terms willy-nilly. Winch made strong points as to the context-dependency of many beliefs, and Hollis stressed the universal logical element that underpins communication. This clearly can serve for questions of propositions, but it cannot help me decide whether to worship the sun or study it. Taylor achieved this by urging the superiority of science in explaining physical phenomena, the overall force of which means that I, and the Azande, should adopt a scientific explanation. This is, assuming their aims are to explain the physical world as comprehensively as possible, as workable a notion of rationality as we can achieve. Is is not a supreme irony that we eventually come to a concept of rationality that is universal, but is far from objective?
`E.E.Evans-Pritchard - Witchcraft, Oracles and
`Magic among the Azande (1937), Oxford.
`H.G.Gadamer - Truth and Method (1975), London.
`M.Hollis - The Limits of Irrationality (1967),
`Archives Europeenes de Sociologie.
`C.Taylor - "Rationality" in M.Hollis and
`S.Lukes (eds) - Rationality and Relativism
`T.Kuhn - The Structure of Scientific
`Revolutions(1970), University of Chicago Press.
`B.Wilson (ed) - Rationality (1970), Blackwell.
`P.Winch - Understanding a Primitive Society
`(1964), American Philosophical Quarterly.