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Sunday, December 17, 2017

What is the value of rationality, and why does it matter? | OUPblog

Photo: Ralph Wedgwood
"In the past, most philosophers assumed that the central notion of rationality is a normative or evaluative concept: to think rationally is to think properly or well—in other words, to think as one should think. Rational thinking is in a sense good thinking, while irrational thinking is bad. Recently, however, philosophers have raised several objections to that assumption" argues Ralph Wedgwood, Professor of Philosophy at University of Southern California.
 
Photograph of a boy in front of a chess landscape by Positive Images.
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Rationality is a widely discussed term. Economists and other social scientists routinely talk about rational agents making rational choices in light of their rational expectations. It’s also common in philosophy, especially in those areas that are concerned with understanding and evaluating human thinking, actions, and institutions. But what exactly is rationality? In the past, most philosophers assumed that the central notion of rationality is a normative or evaluative concept: to think rationally is to think ‘properly’ or ‘well’—in other words, to think as one ‘should’ think. Rational thinking is in a sense good thinking, while irrational thinking is bad. Recently, however, philosophers have raised several objections to that assumption.

First of all, how can it be true that you should never think irrationally, if you sometimes can’t help it?

Secondly, picture a scenario where you would be punished for thinking rationally—wouldn’t it be good to think irrationally in this case and bad to keep on thinking rationally?

And finally, rationality requires that our mental states (in other words, our beliefs, choices, and attitudes in general) are consistent and coherent. But why is that important, and what is so good about it?

Having considered these three arguments, we can now debate which side is right. Does thinking ‘rationally’ mean thinking ‘well and ‘properly’, or not? However, looking at both sides of the issue, it becomes evident that we still need considerable philosophical arguments and analysis before we can arrive at any conclusion. The reason why is because the problem itself is not clearly defined, since we don’t know the meaning of some of the key terms. Therefore, as a next step in the analysis, we will review some recent work in linguistics, specifically semantics.

Most linguists believe that the key terms—’should’, ‘can’, ‘good’, ‘well’, and so on—are context-sensitive: the meaning of the word depends on the context. For example, ‘can’ sometimes expresses the concept of what a particular person has an ability to do (as when the optician asks, “Can you read the letters on the screen?”). At other times, it expresses the concept of what is possible in a more general sense (as when we say, “Accidents can happen”).
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Supplementary Information

The Value of Rationality,
The Nature of Normativity

Ralph Wedgwood, author of The Value of Rationality, The Nature of Normativity. 

Source: OUPblog (blog)


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