How necessary is the assumption of human rationality to anthropological analysis
The main thrust of the following is that rationality is an ideological concept and has no ontological status. Second, that, given this, it is useful for anthropological analysis in the sense that it helps us to look at the way we assess 'reasons'.
How is rationality generally discussed? Most discussions usually centre over the connection between rationality and reasoning. As a philosophical system that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge, ie, intellect, it rivals any other system which may claim esoteric knowledge. Certain logical 'truths' are assimilated to reasoning - ie, reasoning on the basis of certain logical principles - and thence rationality, in this sense of the word. The logical truths are those said to be used in 'science' (a term used by Westerners to denote 'Pursuit of and principles concerning' knowledge) and argument on these principles, ie, reasoning, states certain truths about the world. Mind as intellectual faculty reasons according to these and therefore has a 'hot line' in on the Truth.
Thus the moment we hear peoples making statements which do not fit in with these principles of logic but purport to be about the world this demands explanation.
For the writer Levy-Bruhl, unlike some others, it was not a matter of questioning certain peoples' capacity to reason but stating a hypothesis which would explain individual thought without the latter. Thus for him social institutions rather than individual psychology becomes the independent variable, the "mental content of the individual ... derived from, and explained by,the collective representations of society". Causation in this scheme is attributed to mystical entities rather than the physical world (though the later scientific world would be found to be peppered with metaphors).
Another explanation was suggested by the social anthropologist Evans-Pritchard. Here, however, the 'irrationality' of primitive thought became reasonable within the confines of its context. It compartmentalised beliefs in such a way that they did not conflict with one another — it was the anthropologist only who could see this. So someone falling over a stone would logic-wise see that it was the stone which made him fall over, but his reasons or explanations for this would seem irrational in the sense that he would blame it on witchcraft, ie, personal long-distance, etc, causation. The overall rationale for this was the concept of chance or ?misfortune. Ie, it is within the rationale that the action or explanation becomes understandable.
Most people, however, seem to spend their time searching for the rational foundations of knowledge rather than looking for the rationale within the social context. For example, the anthropologist Kennedy accuses Evans-Pritchard of presenting a primitive philosophy as if it was an enduring property: at the time of Evans-Pritchard's fieldwork the Zande had been moved to concentrated settlements where they were in contact with other beliefs and medicines and he argues that witchcraft accusations had risen as a result of disruptions, and the source of inconsistencies probably stems from here.1
And it is the 'scientific' Western rationality which is the defining one. The powers of explanation lie with writers from this tradition: their own tradition needs no explanation since it is the 'as is' (self evident) and it is the others which by their discontinuity with 'our' ethic demands explanation. The Azande, after all, would not see their 'system' as part of chance or misfortune, in that sense.
There are, however, more ways in which 'rationality' is used, especially in everyday language. Four points are necessary to note here first:
- Rationality's connection with the 'real'.
- Rationality in the sense of tendency towards the virtuous state (the 'real').
- As a purposive scheme. (a) As a means, (b) as ends, (c) as most 'effective' way of getting there, as defined by the definers or the ends.
A sort of physical science analogy applies here in the sense of all physical systems tending towards least energy state.
So we have for point 'iii' such terms as justification, rationalisation (efficiency or explanation-wise), rationale.
- In the sense of the golden mean. Again, this is a sort of equilibrium (virtuous, real) state.
What then are the groups of concepts which are found in the use of rationality today?
There are four main groups around the concepts of voluntarism (liberal), capitalism, rationality and science-technology.
For capitalism we have: economic means, efficiency, rationalisation.
For Rationality we have: sanity, reasonable, civilised, responsible.
For liberal we have: choice, responsibility, self-mastery, democracy.
For science-technology we have: efficiency, etc.
Since the 17th century these concepts have developed under the auspices of 'civilisation', a state of virtue towards which man tends. Ie, the above.
These concepts are generally contrasted with: bias, magic, madness, irresponsibility, irrationality, non-rational, violence and coercion.
What is essential to note is that they are all 'subsumed' (for want of a more convenient word) under the idea of 'value-free', as truth or the real is held to be.
We can see the use of the word rationality in such contexts as the following: 'solve the problem rationally and humanely or irrationally and inhumanely'. Or, with reference to Communism and Nationalism (said referring to the time when the West or America was trying to become involved in South Asia in the early 1950s) 'the aggressive policies were to do with "mysterious, irrational and dangerous realms of ambition, prestige, lust for power ... suspicion..."' Or, here referring to 'letting' people decide to do something voluntarily: 'checked by rational measures'.
There are, of course, numerous statements we can spot in daily life: don't be irrational (ie, do what I say). Or 'be reasonable', ie, think and do like I do.
In general action is measured by in terms of reasons under the assumption of the maximisation of want-satisfactions.2 So, if the defining end is calculated from the point of view of the concepts just delineated, this is what makes an action or thought-rationale, rationale.
In effect, to sum up,3 what should be at issue in the study of rationality is how we actually explain reasons - whether there is any underlying similarity with the way those who explain certain actions explain them. ie, much sociological-political-economic writing tends towards economic reasons. Those outside of this criteria are not actually considered within the notion of a reason. Culture, nature (in the modern meanings of these terms) become impedimenta towards rational operations of the mind or action. Rationality is not an ontological state. It is, by setting itself outside coercion, etc, more a notion of power. But above all (and inclusive of the latter) it is a concept which only has meaning in distinguishing those who use it from the oppositions I have stated above.
1 One may raise the question here, however, why witchcraft? But why not? After all, we talk of 'influences', being 'taken over' - and not always in the metaphoric sense. Ie, some may believe this to be so, and it may well be - if one is to compare belief and reality here. We quite happily ascribe causal responsibility for actions we do to people who are at a distance from us, though the word 'witchcraft' might not be used.
2 R. Taylor.
3 The inexorable movement of time and the social conditions of production of essays.
ANON Various inc. Vox Populi
EVANS-PRITCHARD (193...) Levy Bruhl's theory of primitive mentality
KENNEDY, J. (1967) 'Psychological and social explanations of witchcraft, Man, Vol 2, pp.216-225.
RUSK, Dean (1958) Presidential address, Rockefeller Annual Review, p.128.
TAYLOR, R. C. (19...) Migration and motivation: a study of determinants and types