1656. Provocation # 16. The meaning of “rational’

Provocation #16 Rationality

The place of rationality in economic thinking gives a strange sense of what rationalism is all about. It seems to be a portrait of the smart consumer (or owner of capital) who uses information to maximize consumption satisfaction. (Confused by the word “utility” because of the cross connection with “utility companies”. ) The problem is that consumption at the expense f the rest of life, the consumer society, is irrational. A machine can be made rational in the sense of efficient, effective and affordable, while being irrational in its effects (destructive of community and quality of life and distraction from relationships and leisure. Building cluster bombs for example shows a very limited sense of what is meant by “rational”.

For the Greeks ” rational” meant, more or less, the use of mind in the service of life. Rationality, instead of being fixed, moves with history. Effective rationality in the service of life differs as humans move from slavery to serfdom to citizen to consumer and whatever comes next. Only by seeing this imbeddedness in history can we hope to move humanity toward a deeper kind of rationality, The idea of efficient is often treated as obvious. But the efficiency of say a factory can be measured (discussed) in efficiency of land use, capital use, production of things, or effect on people and community. What is to be maximized is usually left implicit.

Truer rationality is not separate from feelings. Most economists tend to be comfortable with or even identify with Darwin and evolution. But if things like anger, aggression, sleepiness, dreaming and falling in love are products of evolution – surviving because they increaase the viability of the species. To call these irrational is – irrational. It is saying that evolution is irrational.

The image of the rational consumer can be compared to that of the rational artist.The artists are always comparing the symbols given by society with their experience, how life feels. The artist strives for consistency between the experienced and its symbolization. Most people tolerate a certain amount on incongruity but the artists can’t leave it alone and struggles for new symbolization, in music, graphics, film literature, till the result feels more congruent.. This integration of the felt and experience with thought is the truly rational process, whereas the mechanical model – the design is rational – leaves out the judgement about the impact of the machine on quality of life.

Part of the underlying drive to keep “rational” on the mechanical side is to maintain the possibility of computability. As Mirowski has shown, the tndency in economics is to make the entire economy into a single computable model, a single machine. The idea that thought is intimately expressive of and interactive with the body and its circumstances pushes that goal much farther off onto the realm beyond logic to judgement and aesthetics.

responses encouraged


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