Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

The Many Kinds of Rationality!

The nature of rationality and its relationship to action features significantly in pretty much all social science theory and is an essential component of virtually all moral philosophy as well. In my main subfield, international relations, the orthodox view has been and still is that states or other forms of corporate international-level actors behave as ‘rational agents’, and that this rationality consists in attempts to maximise benefits, minimise costs, and otherwise select efficient means to ends. Nevertheless, there are other views, notably those coming from the constructivist tradition, which typically focus on reasoning oriented not around a ‘logic of consequences’ but a ‘logic of appropriateness’ – ie., a focus on moral or deontic rationality.

The thing is, there are actually quite a few ways to think about rationality besides these two approaches, and while they have featured in a few important pieces of scholarship in my field, they are nevertheless not frequently discussed. One of the reasons for this might be that these alternative views of rationality stem largely from traditions in social theory and philosophy that most practicing political scientists do not normally engage with. While it is fair to allow research traditions to focus on some questions over others, and to prefer certain social ontologies (and their views of the subject) over others, I think it’s valuable to develop a broad literacy on such a central thing as rationality and action.

Besides, even non-academics would benefit from a wider view of what rationality is.

To this end, I list here in numbered form a brief overview of different facets, varieties, or conceptions of rationality as it has been theorised in sociology and philosophy.


  1. Instrumental rationality is what we students of politics are most used to. Also called teleological, goal-oriented, or strategic rationality, this is the form of reasoning in which actors conceive of a desired outcome, represent it to themselves (cf. Searle on intentionality), and attempt to make the world conform with that representation. Reason is thus a matter of efficiently selecting amongst means. Consequentialist ethics and game theory both rest upon an instrumental view of rationality.
  1. Value rationality is where reasoning is about aligning actions to rules. When actors engage their capacity for value rationality, they are reflecting upon how their conduct relates to their underlying moral principles. While it is possible to derive preferences based upon these principles on a situational basis, and indeed this is sort of what practical ethics is about, doing so runs the risk of missing the point. As Searle amusingly points out somewhere, if we were beings of pure instrumental rationality, then there would be some odds at which I’d bet my [hypothetical] child’s life for a quarter. And yet we see people willing to sacrifice everything for their principles. Reason is thus about rule-following and value commitments. Deontological ethics and the scholarship in my field on taboos against slavery or the use of chemical weapons rest upon value rationality.
  2. Practical rationality is what many in the recent ‘practice turn’ in the social sciences want to talk about. It is where reasoning is largely sub-intentional; action does not stem from deliberation upon means or upon norms, but is the engaging of skills or habits that the actor need not even think about. The stereotype here would be the craftsperson who works the loom or the lathe with such alacrity and precision that can only be the result of thousands of hours of practice, or the judo fighter who just knows when the time is right for a seioi nage. Reason is thus about performances, rather than about conscious reflection. Aristotle’s phronesis and Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field are examples of theories that rest upon practical rationality.
  3. Affective rationality is the means by which the actor seeks authentic expression of their feelings. This is the kind of thinking that the artist uses to determine which colours or brush-strokes to use. It’s the kind of rationality that led Michelangelo to claim that David already existed, and it was simply a matter of chiselling the stone away to reveal him. And the kind of rationality that makes such an utterance sensical. Reason is thus a matter of self-expression.
  4. Theoretical rationality is, if I recall, what Weber refers to as the kind of rationality that the scientist deploys when studying the world. Theoretical rationality concerns the formation of concepts and cognitive representations. Abductive reasoning would be a great example, in that the actor is attempting to develop knowledge of the world rather than to simply follow rules of inference or spot patterns. Bayesian reasoning might also fall into this category.
  5. Communicative rationality is Habermas’s banner, and he develops it in a fascinating synthesis and discussion of basically all of the above. Communicative rationality is what the actor deploys in argumentation, where the goal is not principled action, not strategic action, but truth-seeking and justificatory validity. It (according to Habermas) presupposes such things as the recognition of one’s interlocutors as rational fellow agents and a good-faith commitment to following the methods of logic; one cannot participate in discourse simply out of obligation or to manipulate others through rhetoric. Reason is thus the capacity to engage in authentic discursive interchange.
  6. Creative rationality is my favourite, and it is the view of reason that one finds in the American pragmatists and more recently in, inter alia, the superb book by Hans Joas, The Creativity of Action. The general idea is that there is a sort of spontaneity and innovation that underlies all action – and bearing in mind that thought is, on the pragmatist account, itself a form of action. So rather than creativity being something that people have in measure, with the artist having more than the accountant, creativity is a quality in everyone’s life. Creative rationality is not so much a kind of rationality, therefore, but a way of viewing what rationality is. One example of creative rationality would be the pragmatist view of ends and means. As John Dewey noted, ends and means interact with one-another. As we pursue our ‘ends in view’, we become aware of new capacities hitherto unrecognised. Thus new ends become achievable and old ones begin to change. Instrumentality still persists, but it becomes one part of a complex interchange of other kinds of rationality, ultimately revolving around an inherent human creativity – a capacity for re-orientation and reflection or meta-cognition that makes our struggles in the world ultimately stochastic. In other words, thinking is doing, and doing always involves some unpredictable spontaneity and novelty. Joas’s creative rationality is developed in a meticulous, and if I may be honest, rather difficult (for me, anyway) critical journey through a over hundred years of social theory, and takes into account all of the above forms of rationality.
  7. Other stuff like maybe functional rationality would be the reasoning that impels action in theories such as those of Talcott Parsons and perhaps Niklas Luhmann and to some degree Marx, where the actor isn’t so much treated as a reflecting agent whose behaviour stems from considered desires, values, or communicative relationships, but is understood in terms of its role in social system maintenance. In the same way as we explain the action of the heart and lungs in terms of their role in maintaining the life of the body, functionalists explain actors and their reasons in terms of their role in maintaining some kind of broader social whole. This is a curious view of rationality, in that it ultimately seems to deny the agency of actor, reducing agents to what Giddens famously referred to as ‘structural dopes’ of ‘stunning mediocrity’.

One response to “The Many Kinds of Rationality!

  1. Michael P January 6, 2015 at 1:43 am

    I would also add fearful rationality as another kind

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