Friday, November 12, 2010

Beyond Rationality

Having dwelt yesterday on the possible incompatibility of “wisdom” (or at least rationality) and emotion, I figured it might be useful to pursue further the question of just what rationality is and how we can live with it.  In doing this I think I am making a transition from my current reading of papers by social theorist Alfred Schutz into the domain of the impact of those papers on Jürgen Habermas.  To put the game on a philological playing filed (perhaps in the spirit of Friederich Nietzsche with at bit of Jacques Derrida thrown in for good measure), the question is not whether all human behavior is rational but whether, through observation and analysis, we can identify a rationale for any such behavior that we observe.  It seems that one of Habermas’ primary objectives in his Theory of Communicative Action is to provide guidelines for identifying such rationales and strategies for how we act once those rationales have been identified.

This may be the primary motivation behind his “decomposition” of behavioral actions according to whether their respective “scenes” (in the terminology of Kenneth Burke) are in the objective world, the subjective world, or the social world.  The important point is that each of these worlds has its own set of rationales, and difficulties arise when those rationales are inconsistent.  The inconsistency, however, is not a logical one but a social one, meaning that it cannot be resolved through objective reasoning.  Ultimately, the rationales differ because they arise from different motives:
  1. The motives in the objective world are teleological, concerned with achieving well-defined goals.
  2. The motives in the subjective world are concerned with identity and Goffman’s concept of the “presentation of self.”
  3. The motives in the social world are concerned with how actions fit into socially-defined norms.

Since these motives are incompatible, it should be no surprise that the associated rationales are inconsistent.

For Habermas this was all concerned with how we can ultimately understand each other through our communicative actions.  However, the story goes beyond how we communicate to the more general domain of how we act.  One might say that those who evangelize technology cannot see beyond the teleological actions of the objective world;  and this locks out two-thirds of the motives behind how we act.  This is not myopia.  It is flat-out ignorance based on denial;  and no “wisdom” can possibly come from it.

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