rationality and advancement

ScottH9999 at SPAMaol.com ScottH9999 at SPAMaol.com
Sat Feb 17 18:00:55 MST 2001

Hmmm, it seems I have helped open a can of worms.

It is true that the term 'rationality' is used in quite bizarre ways at
times, including (evidently) by some of those in this email group. But I try
to use most words in the ordinary way. So what I mean by 'rationality' is
just what the dictionary says [in this case Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, 10th ed.]:

RATIONALITY, n. 1: the quality or state of being rational  2: the quality or
state of being agreeable to reason : REASONABLENESS  3: a rational opinion,
belief, or practice

And 'rational' (in the relevant sense), is defined:

RATIONAL, adj. 1a: having reason or understanding  b: relating to, based on,
or agreeable to reason : REASONABLE

Thus, these are not very tough concepts. Implicit, however, in the concept of
rationality or reasonableness, is that a person is knowledgeable. You must
have knowledge of a subject before you can discuss it rationally. Another way
to say this is: To be rational or reasonable, you must use sound arguments.
Sound arguments are ones which are free of error, both logically, and in
their premises. That is, their premises must be true--which is only possible
if you have some actual knowledge.

In the modern world, a large part of actual knowledge is encompassed within
science. (The parts of knowledge which are not generally considered to be
encompassed by science are the more everyday, or trivial examples, such as
that my name is Scott.) So, in other words, to be rational, or to be
reasonable, often amounts to the same as being scientific--especially when it
comes to theoretical issues. And to be scientific is, most essentially, to
use the scientific method in investigating things. (I hope I am not opening
another can of worms here!)

In my first message I tried to say specifically what I meant by one culture
being "more rational" than another:

>>  It is a fact of history that at various times some cultures are more
>> technologically, scientifically, and socially advanced than others.
>>  And if we are going to talk about the "rationality" of cultures at all,
>>  it would seem quite reasonable to say that some cultures are
>>  therefore more rational than others. Doing so should only mean
>>  that the prevailing world views, understanding of the world, and
>>  such, which typify a culture, are more rational than those which
>>  typify another culture.

American culture (i.e., American mass culture) is supremely ignorant of not
only most scientific findings, but also of the scientific method. A random
survey of 2000 adults conducted by Northern Illinois University in 1997
showed that 21 percent believed the sun revolved around the earth, while
another 7 percent said they did not know which revolved around which. This is
just one example of the mass ignorance of the most basic scientific
knowledge. (I could also mention widespread belief in ghosts, angels, the
devil and God.) Because so many people are so ignorant of so much, they
cannot possibly be fully rational when they discuss topics which depend on
such knowledge. Since this sort of ignorance characterizes our society, it
seems quite appropriate to say that American culture as a whole is
pathetically ignorant and backward. And when compared to other contemporary
cultures (such as Europe and Japan), it is clear that the general level of
knowledge and the rationality of public discourse is at a much lower level in
the United States. In short, American culture is simply less rational. That's
really the only sort of thing I was trying to get at.

It is also true, as George says below, that capitalism has many elements of
irrationality that socialism does not have. (Irrational from the point of
view of meeting the needs and interests of the people, at least.) So you can
compare the rationality of societies on those sorts of grounds too.

As for what Max Weber called "traditional rationality", I would just call
that irrationality--insofar as it is not in accord with science. Praying to
God for the recovery of your sick child was never rational. Perhaps that
wasn't known in the past, but it is known now (at least to genuine science).

As far as what 'rational' meant to Marx, I see no reason to suppose it would
have meant anything different than what it does to me. Marx tried to be (and
was) pretty damned scientific in his approach.

I agree, however, that there is normally little point in talking about
capitalist society being "more rational" than feudal society. There are ways
in which it is true, though. Not only the example that George gives, but also
the average person's understanding of how the world and society work in
capitalist society is probably a little greater than the average serf's

--Scott Harrison

In a message dated 2/17/01 11:57:13 AM Pacific Standard Time,
snedeker at concentric.net writes:

> Andrew and Scott have made reference to "rationality" in recent posts. we,
>  on the Left, often say that capitalism is irrational because it creates
>  wealth and poverty at the same time. however, I am not sure what we mean
>  when we say that some cultures are more rational than others. do we mean
>  that we succeed to dominate nature better through the use of science and
>  mathematical reason? is it that we feed more people and provide more
>  shelter? I am simply asking for the criteria for the notion of rationality.
>  Max Weber made the distinction between traditional and purposive
>  rationality. traditional rationality means that if you believe in the
>  Christian God and your child is sick, you will pray for her recovery.
>  praying is a rational act if one believes. purposive rationality refers to
>  means and ends actions. if I want to get to Florida quickly, I can take a
>  plane. or to use the sick child example, I will take her to the doctor. a
>  rational civilization for Weber was one which is based on rational
>  calculation as a way of life.
>  what would "rational" mean to Marx? is it only defined by an improvement in
>  the productive forces? I think not. in some ways, capitalism is more
>  rational than feudalism. it develops more  productive forces and makes
>  better use of science and technology.
>  in his post, Scott uses the term "rational" several times as if we were
>  what this term refers to. Andrew uses "rational" as the negation of
>  creativity. this seems more than a little romantic.

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