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Why There’s Really No Such Thing as Irrationality

Illuminating unreason at a moment when the world appears to have gone mad again, this book is fascinating, provocative, and timely.

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Why There’s Really No Such Thing as Irrationality

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (2020) by Justin E. H. Smith.

You can also download or read a .pdf of the complete text of this essay HERE.


Why There’s Really No Such Thing as Irrationality

Irrationality, supposedly, is the contrary of human rationality, and human rationality is assumed to be an inherently good thing; hence—if irrationality really exists—then it’s the same as the fact or phenomenon of human unreason or human anti-reason, and it’s also an inherently bad thing that should always be criticized.

Indeed, there’s even a much-touted recent book by Justin E.H. Smith, called Irrationality, as per the following book blurb:

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

Rich and ambitious, Irrationality ranges across philosophy, politics, and current events. Challenging conventional thinking about logic, natural reason, dreams, art and science, pseudoscience, the Enlightenment, the internet, jokes and lies, and death, the book shows how history reveals that any triumph of reason is temporary and reversible, and that rational schemes, notably including many from Silicon Valley, often result in their polar opposite. The problem is that the rational gives birth to the irrational and vice versa in an endless cycle, and any effort to permanently set things in order sooner or later ends in an explosion of unreason. Because of this, it is irrational to try to eliminate irrationality. For better or worse, it is an ineradicable feature of life.

Illuminating unreason at a moment when the world appears to have gone mad again, Irrationality is fascinating, provocative, and timely.[i]

But, sadly, this is nothing but conceptual confusion and bullshit.

For there’s a fundamental conceptual confusion in orthodox, standard thinking about rationality and so-called irrationality, between

(i) human possession of the basic cognitive, emotive, and action-oriented capacities for logical and practical thinking (call that low-bar rationality), and

(ii) using those capacities successfully and well, all the way up to some ideally perfect standard (call that high-bar rationality).[ii]

Elsewhere, I’ve called this the fact of two-dimensional rational normativity.[iii]

Now when human animals fall below the requirements for low-bar rationality, because, owing to some natural defect or other accident, either they simply lack all or some of the basic capacities, or else those capacities have been permanently damaged, then those human animals are not irrational, they’re non-rational, and there’s nothing that can be cogently criticized.

Moreover, simply because all human animals are, from the biological and existential get-go, “human, all-too-human,” no human animal is even in principle capable of achieving ideally perfect high-bar rationality: hence the fact that human animals always fall short of that impossibly high standard isn’t irrationality, it’s just being human, and again there’s nothing that can be cogently criticized.

Then, all that’s left over beyond the domain of the humanly non-rational is an unrestrictedly large domain of acts of thinking, judging, inferring, desiring, evaluating, choosing, and acting, all of which are carried out by human animals who are rational in the low-bar sense, in that they do indeed possess the basic capacities constitutive of low-bar rationality, and also they are doing any or all these things, in context, more-or-less successfully or well, across an infinitely wide range of degrees; and of course not only can people be legitimately criticized for doing any or all of these things less successfully or well than they were capable of doing them, but also—leaving aside contextual and contingent accidents or constraints over which they have no control—they are themselves, and can also be held, responsible for falling more or less short of what they’re capable of doing.

But none of that is irrationality: it’s simply an infinitely wide range of degrees of lesser or greater human accomplishment, in context.

So, to borrow Smith’s book-blurb’s supposedly obvious examples of the irrationality of “the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump,”

either (i) these Twitter-mobbing and Trump-electing human animals fall below the level of low-bar rationality, in which case they cannot be cogently criticized, because they’re non-rational,

or else (ii) they can be cogently criticized, but only for using their basic capacities for human rationality more or less unsuccessfully or badly, for which they not only are themselves, but also can be held, responsible.

Nevertheless, the Twitter-mobs and the Trump-electors are not irrational: again,

either (i) they’re non-rational,

or else (ii) they’re low-bar rational, and of course falling short of ideally perfect rationality, just like all of us, and they’re also more or less unsuccessfully and badly using their basic capacities for human rationality, just like many or most of us, most of the time, and correspondingly they’re cogently criticizable to that extent, just like many or most of us, most of the time.

Clearly, in the cases of the Twitter mobs and the Trump-electors, it’s (ii); but calling all those folks irrational is nothing but sanctimoniously abusive rhetoric.

In this connection, there’s also another crucial distinction that’s often overlooked or avoided in orthodox, standard treatments of rationality and so-called irrationality,  between

(i) instrumental rationality, i.e., consequentialist reasoning, aka hypothetically imperative reasoning (of the form: “if you desire/want X as an end, then you ought to choose and do Y, as the means to X”), governed by either (ia) egoistically consequentialist and decision-theoretic, or (ib) publicly consequentialist and Utilitarian, hypothetically universal normative principles or rules, and

(ii) non-instrumental rationality, i.e., non-consequentialist reasoning, aka categorically imperative reasoning (of the form: “since it’s primitively given that X is the highest good for rational humanity, then everyone ought always to choose and act according to and for the sake of X, whatever the consequences”), governed by a set of absolutely universal normative principles or rules.[iv]

Now, instrumental rationality and its instrumental values are perfectly acceptable and unproblematic if and only if they’re restricted to an appropriately narrow domain of applications—for example, building bridges, or everyday small-scale economic transactions.

But if instrumental rationality and instrumental value are valorized, universalized, and held to be the fundamental kinds of rationality and value, such that every other kind of rationality and value is reducible to them—let’s call that the attempted totalization of instrumental rationality and instrumental value—then theoretical paradoxes, practical disasters, and sociopolitical catastrophes inevitably follow.

More specifically, here are four sound arguments against the attempted totalization of instrumental rationality and instrumental value.

First, the attempt to reduce categorical obligation (the absolute “ought”) to contingent, natural facts about instrumental obligation (the conditional “is”) is self-refuting—that’s one formulation of what’s known as the naturalistic fallacy.[v]

Second, on the legitimate assumption that every actual and possible instrumental value is expressible as a rational number quantity (whether finite or denumerably infinite), then it can be shown by Georg Cantor’s diagonalization method for demonstrating the existence of transfinite (aka “transcendental”) numbers,[vi] that there has to be at least one non-instrumental, nondenumerably infinite, intrinsic, objective value that transcends every actual and possible instrumental value—let’s call any such transfinite value a transcendental value, and let’s call the unified system of all such transcendental values the highest good[vii]—and therefore the attempted totalization of instrumental rationality and instrumental value is again self-refuting.

Third, since instrumental rationality and instrumental value presuppose the existence of rational human animals, i.e., human persons, who at least sometimes act according to this specific kind of human rationality and this specific kind of human value, but (i) all human persons have dignity, and (ii) every person’s dignity has a transcendental value that belongs to the highest good, and (iii) as a consequence no one, not even the most egoistic human person, can rationally consent to themselves being arbitrarily treated like a mere means or mere thing—i.e., like something with a merely instrumental value—then (iv) the attempted totalization of instrumental rationality and instrumental value is yet again self-refuting.[viii]

Fourth and finally, as various members of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of critical theory (for example, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and so-on) have brilliantly argued—for example, in Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, and Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man—the worldwide attempt, since at least the 17th century, to bring about a real-world totalization of instrumental rationality and instrumental value via the modern State (whether liberal or totalitarian), via modern science (especially via its mechanistic worldview and its technocracy), and via capitalism (especially advanced capitalism and neoliberalism), universally adversely affects and indeed disastrously frustrates basic human needs, and also systematically undermines and violates human dignity.

Therefore, the attempted totalization of instrumental rationality and instrumental value is not only theoretically paradoxical, but also practically disastrous and sociopolitically catastrophic: but that’s not irrationality, that’s merely the self-refuting and malign consequences of the attempted totalization of instrumental rationality and instrumental value.

Therefore, there’s really no such thing as irrationality, and all that conventionally-wise talk about the so-called irrationality of other people by famous or not-so-famous people who ought to know better, is nothing but conceptual confusion and bullshit.

Moreover and finally, as a consequence, what’s even worse, it thereby turns out that the much-used term “irrational” is nothing but a sanctimoniously abusive rhetorical stick to beat other people with, if you don’t like them personally, or if you dislike their skin pigmentation, their gender, their sexual preferences, their economic or social class, their ethnicity, their culture, their social institutions, their morality, or their politics.

And that’s itself a cogently criticizable misuse of your own basic capacities for human rationality.

NOTES

[i] J.E.H. Smith, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2019), book blurb available online at URL = <https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691178677/irrationality>.

[ii] For a general theory of low-bar rationality vs. high-bar rationality in logic, cognitive semantics, and epistemology, see R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), also available online in preview HERE; and also R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), also available online in preview  HERE.

[iii] See, e.g., Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5), pp. 19-21.

[iv] For a general theory of non-instrumental rationality in free agency and morality, against the backdrop of two-dimensional rational normativity, see R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) New York: Nova Science, 2018), esp. ch. 2;, also available online in preview HERE; and R. Hanna, Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview HERE.

[v] See, e.g., Hanna, Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3), section 1.5.

[vi] See G. Cantor, “Ueber eine elementare Frage der Mannigfaltigkeitslehre.” Jahresbericht der Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung 1 (1891): 75–78, also available online in English translation, as “On an Elementary Question of the Theory of Manifolds,” at URL = <https://cs.maryvillecollege.edu/wiki/images/c/cb/Cantor_UeberEineElementare_Trans_v1.pdf>.

[vii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “A Theory of Human Dignity” (Unpublished MS, 2021), section III, available online HERE.

[viii] See, e.g., Hanna, “A Theory of Human Dignity,” section II.

[ix] I’m grateful to Mark Pittenger for drawing my attention to Smith’s book, and for thought-provoking correspondence about the topics of this essay.


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Robert A. Hanna, PhD

Published 15 days ago