Don't Be So Irrational

What's rationality for you?

Posted May 11, 2018

​So, I’m close to burn-out.

How do I know?

A few days ago, in class, I was about to snap at a student when he said: ”Pascal is an idiot. He’s so irrational.”

I felt shivers of rage (if this is possible) running through my spine. I waited before saying anything. Then, while feigning tranquillity, I asked him what he meant by rationality.

Same thing in my office. A client was complaining about how irrational her mother was, but in response to the question of what rationality was for her, there was no clear response.

Rationality and habits

severin sigg used with permission
Source: Severin sigg used with permission

The more I confront people about the meaning of this word, the more I discover that on average, most people refer to rationality as a system of intersubjectively validated habits, which means that someone is considered to be rational when he or she behaves in a way that is usually accepted by a group.

For example, if you are hungry, it is rational to go to the supermarket while it would not be rational to go hunting; if you want to be successful in your job, it is rational to invest your energy in your education, while it would not be rational to invest it in having children.

What governs what is rational?  What was rational before because we were used to achieving our goals through a certain means is no longer rational. Dewey would say that the consecutiveness with which we assemble together our habits is what gives us the impression that something is rational, yet the way in which we assemble them varies over time.

So, it would be rational to go hunting if we wanted food and we had no idea what a supermarket was; similarly, it would be rational to invest in children and a family if we were ambitious women during the Victorian age. What is rational today was not rational before.

Rationality is a floating concept that needs to be conquered every day with, one hopes, some humility, patience, and open-mindedness.

Simone De Beauvoir once wrote: “Meaning is never fixed. It must be constantly won.”

So let’s see how much meaning space we can conquer from rationality.

A Safety Net of Power

What I have observed, both in my practice and my classes, is that rationality is a need more than a quality. Rationality seems to be a safety net that we need to build around our lives in order to control the damage that others can provoke. Rationality soothes our nervous system because it limits the number of expectations we might hold in relation to the organization of our daily life; it seems to be the container of what has been approved by society for ages, while reinforcing the habitual chain of consequences we can expect in a day. For this reason, philosophers like Hume or Dewey would not hesitate to compare rationality to experience or habits.

Yet, in his beautiful History of Madness Foucault elegantly shows how rationality is power. Deciding what is rational means to decide what is good, what is right, and even what is normal. The organizational power of this habitual net is such that it can dictate how every single step of our social life should look.

For example, Marx tried to point out how irrational it is when we despair if we do not have a job. For him, it was almost insane for someone to feel bad because nobody wanted to exploit him or her, yet this is not how we would normally perceive the issue. It is irrational from this perspective to be happy when we get fired.

Political refugees, mistreated women and children, minorities of any kind fighting for their rights are all steeped in the category of irrationality and madness because they do not behave according to the expectations of their country; their behavior—and sometimes simply their existence—is perceived as a threat to the safety net of the society; they have to be confined and their requests marked as irrational.

Competing Rationalities

susi ferrarello used with permission
Source: susi ferrarello used with permission

Fortunately, the net has changed over time. Some hole was made and a new shape was created or to use Montale’s better words:

“Look for a flaw rotted in the net that fetters

You now. Break free! Jump out and burst

Forth! I prayed for this for you. The thirst

Will now go easier, the rust less bitter”

The thirst is, in fact, easier today. Fortunately, now it is rational to expect that women can attend school, people of color can sit anywhere on a bus, people with disabilities can be employed, and so forth. What was irrational to expect yesterday is part of our normal life today.

This teaches us that maybe being irrational is as good as being rational, because what really counts is the conquest of meaning. We need to make an effort to be humble and accept competing rationalities if we really want to live a safe and fulfilling life.

Weber identifies at least four forms of competing rationalities: substantive, theoretical, practical, and instrumental. For him, rationality varies according to whether the system of expectations is based on emotions, habits, values, and means-end. Reasoning in terms of competing rationalities has the advantage of opening our minds to a dimension that we are not considering yet and this attitude might prompt in us questions about what rational really means for us.

susi ferrarello used with permission
Source: susi ferrarello used with permission

So, let’s just be multi-rational!

Next time we attend to something that seems irrational, we might take it as an opportunity to expand our universe. This does not mean that we have to accept what we experience, but we might just decide to entertain its meaning and see if that points to a space of bigger freedom for us.