View Full Version : So what's this rationalism thing all about then?

16-12-2004, 03:29 PM
In quite a few lines of discussion around these parts - many of which have bounced off k-punk, natürlich - the question has been posed: What is understood by the term, 'rational'? Among other points and comments made in the discussion, Mark k-p has invoked Spinoza to coin 'Cold Rationalism' (I think it was his coinage) and write the 'rational / emotional' binary off as a Romanticism that may as well be scrapped. Blissblog, on the other hand, has responded to this: "I suppose ultimately I don’t really get what he’s talking about when he uses the word “rationality”, now that’s supposed to include emotion and the body?"

With all this taken into account, I would like to pose the question: What is rationality, anyway? What is your understanding of the word? Do you know of writers/philosophers/theorists who explore or dispute this category and its employment? Is the world rational? Is 'rational' a word that describes the laws by which it works? Or is rationality just a human construct? Is it, perhaps, a criteria by which to judge human behaviour ("acting irrationally")? Or is it just the adjective which describes the verb 'to reason'?

Rather a wide-ranging topic, I know ;) But it's a term that's been bandied about rather a lot, and which has tended to be understood very differently by the respective parties involved, so it's well worth opening a specific vein of discussion about it.

So, what do you think? (And, furthermore, how do you think? 'Rationally'? ;) )

grimly fiendish
16-12-2004, 04:11 PM
ok, i'll bite ;)

a dictionary definition of rational: "of the reason; endowed with reason ... sane, intelligent, judicious".

which doesn't tell us much.

rationalism is described as "a disposition to apply to religious doctrines the same critical methods as to science and history, and to attribute all phenomena to natural rather than miraculous causes"; the most interesting definition, however, is for "rationalise", which includes "to substitute conscious reasoning for unconscious motivation in explaining" - which i guess best describes my own usage of "rational", on this forum at least.

i suppose what i've been meaning when i've used the term "rational" here is a method of thinking that tries to bypass one's subjectivity - one's human-ness, if you like - to look at the subject from a completely unemotional viewpoint. in normal discourse, though, it's defined by its opposite: ie i'd accuse a colleague of acting irrationally, rather than at any point saying, yes, well done, good rational thinking there.

do i think rationally? of course not. even when i'm forcing myself to attempt to do so, i can't overcome my ego. but i can strive to be rational. which i think is a worthy thing to do. from a humanist standpoint, rationality would be a route to selflessness; overcoming the self to develop a better understanding of/sympathy with the group.

i'm now beginning to consider that the majority of critical theories are irrational because of their inherent subjectivity, but ... i'll come back to this one when i have more time to think about it. right now i should get back to work. posting to dissensus when i should be working is deeply, deeply irrational behaviour because in the long run it only makes my life more difficult :o

16-12-2004, 04:28 PM
i suppose what i've been meaning when i've used the term "rational" here is a method of thinking that tries to bypass one's subjectivity - one's human-ness, if you like - to look at the subject from a completely unemotional viewpoint.
Doesn't this use of the word, however, rely on an opposition between 'rational' and 'emotional'? So that the rational is the objective, and the emotional the subjective and therefore the irrational? (You may answer that it doesn't - the question isn't rhetorical :p ) With regard to this, there is a nice summary of arguments against the 'rational is the opposite of emotional' position over at Hyperstition (http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/004552.html).

17-12-2004, 06:03 AM
So far as the K-Punk/Reynolds debate goes, I think that K-Punk has the better understanding of "rationalism," but that Reynolds is correct in arguing that the cultural elements of fascism, as elements, are not fascist in themselves, that the elements are fascist only when instantiated and combined as fascism proper. Certainly fascism owed much of its allure to elements that, in other contexts and constellations, continue to allure us . . . .

As for the nature of the rational, I would argue that any schematization of the mind's processes and capabilities is fictitious . . . . Thought shapes emotions, and emotions contain thought . . . . And in terms of books, the distinction in Kant between understanding, judging, and reasoning is a kind of fiction, and so too the distinction in Aristotle between theoretical reason and practical reason . . . .Which is not to say that such fictions are not useful or damn near satisfactory . . . . And Plato of course presents the division of the soul into reason, spiritedness, and desire as a poem told by Socrates to a certain kind of person under a certain set of circumstances. Plato's rationalism is not the same as other people's rationalism . . . .

Somewhat less pedantically, I think that for an argument to be "rational" it must build upon articulate reasons and avoid outright contradiction (i.e., tension among different points is not necessarily contradictory), but that all kinds of things can be made into an articulate reason. Hobbes makes of pusillanimity (the weak nerves and small minds of most men) a very strong argument for authoritarian government . . . .

[Note: "Articulate reasons" can be produced both by induction and deduction]

What I'm ultimately trying to say, however, is that the best arguments, the most rational arguments, take into account all the variations of human nature and human being. (Therefore, Hobbes' argument is ultimately unsatisfactory.) Arguments that advertise themselves as "rational" are in fact often REDUCTIONIST or OVERLY ABSTRACTED, and I think that Romanticism, while a reaction against the Enlightenment, implicitly understood that much of what passed for "rationalism" in Enlightenment thought was in fact impoverished reasoning . . . . At the same time, lines of thought that pay too much heed to the phenomena tend to go nowhere, become embroiled in contradiction, or result in such empty slogans as the "mixed regime"

22-12-2004, 12:41 AM
The dichotomy of reason and emotion is understood as if reason had the power to control the emotions; this power might be over-used by a neurotic, abandoned by a libertine, but used correctly by the wise. This understanding is analogous to the conception of mind/body dichotomy where the mind is treated as if it were a mini-body that is in the driving seat (so to speak) of its host body. The "mind" could be the brain, or just the neocortex, or an invisible ghost-body lurking in the pineal gland; it doesn't make much odds. But in Spinoza, mind and body are not two things with powers to act on each other. They are one thing considered in two different ways: as extension and as thought. So, there can be no struggle between rational and irrational forces. There can be conflicts among the emotions, but the division between adequately and inadequately understood emotions is poorly thought as a battle line. Rather, the job in hand is to remedy the inadequecies of understanding.

I think the conflict SR is really talking about is one of sensory modalities, namely the schematically visual vs the sonic/visceral/kinetic complex that is music. There has been a tendency in European thought to treat the visual arrangement of information into fixed forms as an ideal for thought. I recall that a common criticism of serialism is that its procedures work at the level of notation, rather than at that of sound and motion. But, as SR might say, an abstract scheme still takes the form of a sensual object (and its appeal can be understood on that basis), and, as KP might say, thought can elaborate itself sonically as well as through other means.

If you wanted connect things through to what KP calls "intrumental utilitarianism" then the obvious form to consider first would be that of the spreadsheet. In Birth of the Clinic, Foucault linked the "cadaverizing gaze" of modern medicine to a tabulating spirit, and it is a commonplace comment to say that capitalism "only sees the world through a balance sheet."