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Theories of Rationality, and the ideology of the right wing.

Updated on December 2, 2010

Just what exactly is a theory of rationality? Essentially, it’s the way that we think and through it we construct an identity. Theories of rationality have always served a strong utilitarian purpose. The various schools of modern philosophy arose in an attempt to adjudicate among competing views by providing rational authorities to substitute for unwanted forms of traditional and hereditary authority. Authority being the key word here.

Epictetus, who wrote in his Discourses (Chapter II) that “To be a reasonable creature, that alone is insupportable which is unreasonable; but everything reasonable may be supported.” Such conceptions combine two main requirements for rationalist identity.

1.In the first place, a rationalist accepts any position that can be justified or established or supported by appeal to the rational criteria or authorities.

2. In the second place, a rationalist accepts only those positions that can be justified in this way.

In their own way, histories of modern philosophy usually say nothing about theories of rationality taken as a whole, but instead focus their attention on several basically subordinate questions which arise only when comprehensive rationalism is assumed as correct. Of these subordinate questions, the most important has probably been:

“What is the nature of the rational authority or criterion to which a rationalist appeals to justify all his opinions?“ The well-known modern theories of knowledge are usually functions of the answers philosophers have given to the question, and fall into two main categories:

1. According to the intellectualists (or Rationalists in the seventeenth century sense), the rational authority is to be found in the intellect or Reason. A rationalist justifies his beliefs by appealing to intellectual intuition.

2. According to empiricists, the rational authority lies in sense experience. An empiricist justifies his beliefs by appealing to sense observation.

Both of these approaches fail. To use Karl Popper’s phrase, they were “too narrow and too wide.” Both intellectualism and empiricism endorsed as rational some obviously irrational theories (they were too wide), and excluded as irrational some theories that seemed highlyrational (they were too narrow). Kant, with his antinomies ( mutual incompatibility of two laws) showed that intellectualism was too narrow; and Hume and others brought to light the narrowness of sense experience, which could not even provide a rational endorsement for so great an achievement as Newton’s dynamics.

The most basic problem with theories of rationality is that they require justification by some authority. And here is where we get to what this book is actually about. Conservatism is a theory of rationality, which cannot justify itself as true.

According to the philosopher William Bartley, the protégé of Karl Popper, if rationality lay in justification, ( conservatives are in fact, justificationists ) such eventual irrational justification or commitment might seem inescapable. However, if rationality lies in criticism, and if we can subject everything to criticism and continuing test, including the rationalist way of life itself, then rationality is in this important sense unlimited. This should be the philosophical underpinning of contemporary liberal thought. Conservatism as a theory of rationality cannot withstand criticism. This is why they are always on the attack. They don’t want to be put on the defense at all. It would force them to justify their positions which they can’t do.

If all justification—rational as well as irrational— is truly abandoned, there is no need to justify irrationally a position that is rationally unjustifiable. The position may be held rationally regardless of justification, provided it can be, and is, held open to criticism and survives severe testing. That should be no problem for the person who doesn’t hold dogmatically to a belief system. If he recognizes his own fallibility, then he knows that he could be wrong and that he’s in fact, prone to error. His commitment is to the truth, not to some irrationally held belief system or ideology.The question of how well a position is justified is quite different from the question of how well a position is criticized. Remember the saying that the conservative knows that he’s right. The liberal knows that he could be wrong. Earlier I pointed to Bartley who said:

Beliefs must be justified by an appeal to an authority of some kind (usually the source of the belief in question) and this justification by an appropriate authority makes the belief either rational, or if not rational, at least valid for the person who holds it. However this is a requirement that can never be adequetly met due to the problem of validation or the dilemma of infinite regress vs. dogmatism.

As long as the conservative holds onto his position dogmatically he will be subject to continued appeals to authority to justify his position. This can be taken into what is called “infinite regress”. There is no escape other than through the use of circular reasoning which is a logical fallacy and no escape at all. It amounts to hiding ones head in the sand, and thinking that nobody can see him. So, ultimately there is no escape. Check Mate.

The general separation of justification and criticism can, of course, be extended to the examination of the rationalist position itself. Whereas under traditional conceptions of rationalism the rationalist position was itself not rational and thus perpetuated crises of integrity, under the new conception the crisis disappears. The new rationalist identity satisfies its own requirements; without any contradiction or other difficulty the practice of critical argument can be criticized. Just as it is possible for a democracy, during the democratic process of voting, to commit suicide, so a comprehensively critical rationalist, who is not committed to the view that his position is the correct one, could be argued out of rationalism by himself or someone else.

Fideistic irrationalists have, by contrast, argued that, even without actually abandoning allegiance to the object of commitment, merely subjecting the allegiance to criticism is to forsake the allegiance. For a comprehensively critical rationalist, continued subjection to criticism of his allegiance to rationality is explicitly part of his rationalism. In short, a liberal must be able to hold his own views up to criticism. In Bartley’s formulation of Comprehensively Critical Rationalism, otherwise known as Pancritical Rationalism: “The new framework permits a rationalist to be characterized as one who is willing to entertain any position and holds all his positions, including his most fundamental standards, goals, and decisions, and his basic philosophical position itself, open to criticism; one who never cuts off an argument by resorting to faith, or irrational commitment to justify some belief that has been under severe critical fire; one who is committed, attached, addicted, to no position.”

Ultimately what we are looking for is truth. We aren’t going to find that within the fallibility of man-made systems presented to us by some authority which is itself subject to error. No one has a monopoly on truth. It can’t be possessed. But it can be acquired. We can’t prove a theory through inductive reasoning. But we can disprove one through deductive reasoning. By removing those things that we can determine as false, we are left with a clearer vision of what is truth. Truth is revealed when you eliminate what is false. Finding truth is a stripping away process, not one of adding things that support a theory or a belief.

A traditional rationalist will hold a theory of rationality. He uses that theory to justify every aspect of his life; his religious beliefs, his political beliefs, his views on race…everything. And that theory is provided for him by an authority which may be the church or his religion. His political views are provided for him by an authority which does the heavy lifting of thinking. It gives him his talking points, and assures him that he is correct in adopting them. He becomes a “ditto head”, and accepts positions without any critical thinking. A traditional rationalist need only apply his theory of rationality to whatever assertion is in question. As such, he need never distinguish between truth and falsity. His theory does that for him.

A Critical Rationalist needs to distinguish between the truth and falsity in every case, at least when such a case comes up for questioning. He takes the burden of critical thought and applies it to every situation. That’s because the Truth matters to him. He’s not a relativist.

An important thing to recognize here is that traditional rationalism leads to irrationalism. Imagine that you have a theory on things, then ask yourself how you decided about this theory? This becomes your meta-theory and as such, it cannot judge itself in terms of rationality. Any “positive “argument in regards to rationality cannot judge itself without creating a circular argument. And here we see the death spiral of the conservative ideology. It’s a theory of rationality that cannot justify itself without facing the dilemma of infinite regress vs its own dogma. It eventually relies on circular reasoning, or else admits to its own irrationality.

A person that has a theory of rationality has to defend that theory through justification from an Appeal to Authority. Ad Verecundiam. An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:

  1. Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
  2. Person A makes claim C about subject S.
  3. Therefore, C is true.

This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the argument will be fallacious. A person that holds no theory of rationality has nothing to defend. Therefore he has no position to justify. He can be free to even criticize his own position. As a result he is never on a defensive position. His position is one of criticism. That will require his adversary to justify a position that can never adequately be addressed without falling into the dilemma of infinite regress vs. his dogma.

Arguably, one of the worlds 5 greatest logicians, Alfred Tarski, put it this way when he spoke of the deductive method. “When one tries to explain the meaning of an expression one uses, of necessity, other expressions; and in order to explain, in turn the meaning of these expressions, without entering into a vicious circle, one has to resort to further expressions again, and again, and so on. We thus have the beginning of a process which can never be brought to an end, and process which , figuratively speaking, may be characterized as an INFINITE REGRESS – a regressus in infinitum. The situation is quite analogous as far as the justification of the asserted statements of the science is concerned; for, in order to establish the validity of a statement, it is necessary to refer back to other statements, and this leads again to an infinite regress.

This is the conservative Theory of Rationality. It isn’t defeated by shouting that your way is better. A shouting match goes nowhere. The conservative theory of rationality is defeated by forcing it to justify itself into an abyss which it can never fully find a justification for. It’s forced to illustrate its own irrationality. Or…it resorts to circular reasoning in which case it becomes obvious to everyone that it has taken an irrational position.

A Pancritical Rationalist doesn’t have to defend his position. His position is already open to criticism, and by its own nature is capable of changing if it finds itself wrong. It constantly moves in the direction of truth, and it should never sacrifice truth to an ideology or belief.


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    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 7 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      Thanks Tony.


    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Great Hub - thank you.

      I will return for more reads.

      Love and peace


    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 7 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      Thanks Kathryn :)

    • kathryn1000 profile image

      kathryn1000 7 years ago from London

      I found this fascinating.Thank you for posting it.I shall read it again.