International interdisciplinary symposium on rationality


Outlining the “classical” conception of rationality

Rationality is often defined in terms of the match between means and ends, regardless of the quality of the ends proposed. It is then presented as the capacity to choose the better option – the “reasonable” one – between various options. In this way we weigh reasons for and against options, which makes us realize that we have preferences, ends, and criteria for selecting one option over the others. These choices however can be morally condemnable, without there being any “better” choice; being rational therefore does not entail being reasonable (in the sense of what is generally preferable in a community). An entrenched characteristic of rationality thus emerges: rationality tends to be defined by abstracting from personal or shared preferences, it is considered as the organ of reason separated from any bodily considerations, from emotions, preferences, or imagination; rationality is seen as the capacity for abstract and objective calculation of means towards any arbitrary end. This capacity has even long been considered something naturally and exclusively human, as the many arguments from authority that appeal to Aristotle show. Such arguments have been used to create what can be called the “classical” conception of rationality based on universality, objectivity, and abstraction. But if rationality so understood were indeed an identifying feature of humanity, how are we to explain that people or groups of people have felt excluded from rationality, despite sharing all the characteristics that have normally been considered human? This problem reveals a more fundamental choice, a choice between various conceptions of rationality.

Against the “classical” conception, is relativism an option?

  One way of solving the problem would be to reject the universality of rationality, thus adopting a relativistic stance towards rationality itself. However, by solving it this way, we may simply be trying to preserve the classical characterization of rationality by insulating it from all critique. What is more, the main critiques of classical rationality, coming from feminist theory, post-colonial theory, or non-ideal theory, to name just a few, actually seem to be using the very tools of the conception they are critiquing. For example, in her critique of “modern western rationality” Linda Martín Alcoff highlights this problem and searches for a way to both remain open to legitimate critiques against the classical form of rationality and to defend what is essential about the use of reason (Alcoff, Visible Identities, 2006). Deborah Heikes presents another form of this problem. Arguing that despite feminists’ grievance with rationality they cannot forego it entirely, she asks “How can we expect to successfully argue against our opponents when we have dismissed that which lies at the heart of any good argument, namely, reason?” (Rationality and Feminist Philosophy, 124). Thus, when opposing the classical and dominant conception of rationality, it is not enough to simply propose a different conception, for this would actually reinforce the classical view by allowing its advocates to avoid questioning it. And this would open the door to relativism. One must instead propose a different conception and communicate with those adopting opposing views. But by rejecting relativism, are we obliged to favor a single form of rationality over others?

“Engaging Rationality Today” aims for an integrated conception of rationality

  In order to avoid such a binary choice, this project proposes to investigate rationality as part of a dynamic process. In order to do so, we wish to confront various conceptions of rationality, hopefully progressing in this way towards a more integrated conception, one that encompasses the many ways this concept is understood and applied today.

The dialogical background of the proposal

This project stems from the organizers’ fundamental dialogical commitment. According to this approach, rationality is opposed to violence. This is because rationality is seen to emerge from a common will to think together by communicative means. This in no way means that interlocutors have to be of the same mind, to have the same goals, or to agree to everything others say or believe: they may disagree, and this possibility may even be a necessary component of rationality. However, thinking together still requires minimal duties, namely, the duty to be committed to what one says and to provide reasons for it when asked, thus being accountable for what is publicly said. From the other’s perspective, these duties are rights, namely, a duty is understood as the right to ask others for their reasons for saying what they do.

Consequences of the dialogical approach

Such a dynamic and dialogical conception of rationality enters different interlocutors into shared practices, which themselves are regulated by the public presentation of reasons that make people accountable for what they say. According to this dialogical perspective, rationality may be nothing more than the mutual agreement to participate in these practices and the shared effort to keep them going. Following this hypothesis, rationality is more a goal that people strive to reach together than any pre-existing status, faculty, or metaphysical substrate. Rationality is then broken when people refuse to give reasons, or when they refuse to be accountable for what they have said (for instance by denying that they have said something they did, or by denying that they need to follow up on these statements). Again, this rupture with rationality can be conceptualized as violence, generally construed: forcing one’s opinions on others without any giveable reason is a form of violence. This is why we are opposing rationality to violence: ruling out violence entails working together. Such a conception of rationality, one that is rooted in the world and based on communication, calls for a pragmatist approach to language, meaning, logic, science, and society.

The aim of the project “Engaging Rationality Today”

The organizer’s dynamic and dialogical conception of rationality makes it open to other perspectives, which may be based on different principles, be opposed to the present one, or simply stress different aspects of rationality. The aim of the present project is to provide a comprehensive view of how rationality is currently understood, which, following our pragmatist and dialogical commitments, will help forge a more accurate conception of rationality.

Guidelines for contributions

To help make each conception of rationality clearer and to facilitate the comparison between conceptions, we ask that each contribution spells out what rationality is taken to be, what it is taken not to be, and what lays still under-determined. In addition, contributions can (but do not have to) address one of the following pairs of guiding questions, or challenge the validity implied by one these oppositions:

• What does rationality involve? What does it rule out?

• How do we recognize it? What could also be taken to be rationality?

• What are its applications and uses? What are its misapplications and misuses?

Does it affect us? Can we resist it?

• What does it allow us to do? What does it keep us from doing?

• Does it have diverse articulations? Or, for it to be rationality, must it always be exactly the same?

Contribution Guidelines