Rationality (Anthropology)

Rationality and its cognates (rational, reason, reasonableness), are, in anthropology, usually ascribed to ideas or thought (‘magic is irrational, science is rational’), to action (‘cloud-seeding is rational, rain dance is irrational’), or to social arrangements (‘feud is an irrational feature of social organization, bureaucracy a rational feature’). Some history will help explain this proliferation, while more recent debates show how to make some simplification.

To begin with ideas or thought, how can we recognize rational ideas? Intuitively, only true ideas are rational, erroneous ideas are not. The ancient Greeks were well aware that diverse societies had diverse ideas. They also made the shattering proto-anthropological discovery that all societies are symmetrical in taking it for granted that only their ideas are true, throwing into question the truth and rationality of the ideas of all societies, including the anthropologist’s own (and hence anthropological ideas). Most important, it vacates the intuitive standard, only true ideas are rational.

As a solution, Greek thinkers distinguished between two kinds of truth, truths by nature and truths by convention. The former are true, regardless of the history of local convention, because they accurately capture the world and hold for all times and places; they transcend history, geography and convention. Truths by convention are true by virtue of the historical fact that they enjoy local endorsement; elsewhere, they may not be endorsed. Truths by nature are always rational, truths by convention are at best locally rational.

A marked preference for universal truths of nature over limited truths by convention is the root of all versions of the problem of rationality: everyone thinks it is most rational to prefer universal truth. The Greek distinction raises the question: which view is true? Or, which views should I endorse as true? Even the relativists, who say universal truth is inaccessible to mortals, and the sceptics, who deny its very possibility, were compelled by the very distinction between two kinds of truth to face this problem of choice. Both sceptics and relativists insist that rationality is local, so they commend some limited local orthodoxy, usually a truth by convention if not always current convention. By contrast, Western natural science and technology assume that truths by nature are accessible, that only they can be rationally endorsed, and with the aid of logic and method. What logic and method? Variously: the logic of proof, of probability, of plausibility, of justification, of giving good reasons. A large and inconclusive literature discusses the precise meanings of these competing suggestions and their combinations. Anthropologists need a theory of rationality that escapes this quagmire.

It seems easy: descriptive reports on truths by convention can be true by nature, so ethnography is rational even if its subjects are not.

Instead, anthropology is wracked by disputes over the rationality of other societies (and over its own practice). How are such disputes to be adjudicated? The simplest answer is, some anthropologists say one thing and other anthropologists say another. "Thomas S. Kuhn (1962) gained great influence by labelling competing views "’paradigms’ and legitimizing them all as truths by convention; especially those from different historical periods. He accepted the philosopher "Michael Polanyi’s (1958) picture of scientists as tribes centred around workshops. There is something to this but, as intellectual tribes trade in ideas, it gives no solution to the problem: which idea is it rational to endorse?

Primitivity as lack of rationality

Anthropology traditionally specialized in displaying the rationality of societies supposedly innocent, even in their technology, of the distinction between nature and convention. Yet anthropological discussions of the theory of rationality get lost in the conceptual mazes left by generations of debate over primitive society and thought. Each refuted theory left behind conceptual dead-ends.

All anthropology, Greek, Renaissance and modern, begins with the wish to understand differences between societies. Each period considered itself better than its ancestors and neighbours. Greek thinkers wondered about barbarians; Renaissance thinkers wondered about the newly encountered North American Indians; modern anthropology wondered about ‘our contemporary ancestors’. Why did none of these anthropological ‘others’ possess universal truths as we do? Perhaps, one theory went, they were not properly human; alternatively, perhaps they were deficient in the power to reason their way to universal truths. The influence of Plato and Aristotle on posterity ensured this latter theory a hearing, and left definite traces on current concepts of rationality. The theory that primitivity is a deficiency in the rational faculty is refuted by many kinds of evidence: such as the anthropological others’ ability to assimilate quickly and quite successfully into any society, and to excel at any endeavour; such as the successful transplantation of universalist science to other societies and cultures; such as the offspring of mixed couples, predicted by this theory to be feeble in body and mind (even Darwin endorsed this view), shown to be nothing of the sort (enriching gene pools being deemed advantageous nowadays).

A more recent theory had it that the limited, conventional ideas of anthropological others reveal a subtle difference of rationality, perhaps a more practical and less theoretical orientation, or a greater proneness to emotion, or a less-than logical or primitive mentality (Levy-Bruhl 1923 [1922]). This theory is refuted by the same evidence. Michel Foucault (1972) revived it under the name epistemes, which is no more testable, or plausible, than other theories of collective mentality such as the discredited ‘spirit of the nation’, ‘zeitgeist’, etc. (Lloyd 1990). The Piagetian Hallpike attempted another revival (1979).

A variant of the false theory that other societies harbour rationally inferior mentalities is still surprisingly popular: anthropological others are guided by types of thinking that have atrophied among us, such as magical or allegorical or metaphorical or poetic or symbolic thinking. Myths, Malinowski held, are a way of thinking, a kind of knowledge of the world. Myths think for us, added Claude Levi-Strauss. Refusing to assess myths as universal scientific theories, because their holders make no universal claim, symbolist anthropologists still view them as compelling because they charter the society in which they thrive; myths maintain social cohesion and the collective economic pulse. This theory is functionalist; it confuses effect with cause, error with fault, and alternative with contradiction; it is anti-historical in accord with Malinowski’s dictum that there are no survivals: institutions are explained by their function, not their past. Yet myths both explain and charter, exist as poetry and transform into scientific theory. Survivals do exist (men’s evening dress tails, English spelling, the monarchy).

Another variant, worldview or framework theory, allows that anthropological others possess both the faculty and the mentality for rationality, yet pictures them as trapped within worldviews flexible enough to explain and assimilate any information save their own limitations. Thus the universal assimilates the conventional (Evans-Pritchard 1937); in particular, social regularities are treated as laws of nature.

This is natural monism. Though refuted by the ability to shed myths that is regularly observed in modernizing and secularizing societies, and by some of the cross-cultural evidence mentioned above, it retains some explanatory power.

This is captured in Popper’s social theory of rationality, according to which sophisticated techniques distinguish the pursuit of truth by nature: logic and methodology, and social institutions to incorporate and mandate them (Popper 1945). The result is to foster cooperative self-checking. Thus, the difference between us and the anthropological others is social: it is certain kinds of action in search of truth that are rational, neither mental capacities nor types of thought.

This final theory can help simplify the opening triad of rational ideas, rational action and rational social arrangements. We present this against the background of twentieth-century debates over rationality.

A single conception of rationality for anthropology

The rationalist theory that some ideas are more rational than others was advanced in order to explain the scientific and technological superiority (what Gellner [1964] calls the ‘cognitive power’) of European societies over the societies they subjected to anthropological research. The difference seems to be qualitative. The various attempts to pin down that quality can be expressed in a series of contrasts:

















Admittedly, modern science and technology eschew all equivalents to the notion of the ritual states of actors affecting the technology they employ; the cloud-seeding pilot neglects the rain dance with impunity. Yet it is difficult to explain how humanity got from there to here — an inescapable problem in the Darwinian intellectual atmosphere within which modern anthropology emerged. The story of the unity of the human race demands a coherent account of intellectual progress. The notoriously Darwinian functionalist anthropologists tried to evade this problem by the observation that any social form that has survived to the present has thereby demonstrated its functionality. This exciting move bridged the gulf between the universalism of the rationalist tradition and the historical approach that seemed equally desirable. The same move also bridges between the universalism demanded by the unity of humanity and the diversity disclosed by social and cultural anthropology.

Between the wars, influential rationalists, the logical "fpositivists, claimed to have found a clear, purely natural demarcation between scientific ideas and all other ideas, especially those counterfeits in which anthropologists specialized such as pseudoscience, primitive science, folk science, old wives tales and such. This claim was doomed by the obvious fact that scientific method could hardly have come fully fledged from nowhere, and could not, therefore, put stamps of approval on particular ideas without begging the question of the approval of its own stamp. Logical positivism dismissed most of past science, particularly the speculations which populate ethnography and the history of science alike. To dismiss the speculative atomism of Democritus is awkward, as it was an ancestor of modern scientific notions.

The collapse of logical positivism spread a sense of calamity: if scientific method did not demarcate scientific ideas, what would? Popper developed his answer: shift the focus to stance or attitude towards ideas – any ideas, including myths, pseudo-science, etc.

This is a forceful proposal, and it suggests a general strategy: characterizing scientific method, as a rational treatment of ideas, makes science a special case of rational action (Agassi and Jarvie 1987). If rational action is assessed as a matter of degree, rationality is thereby relativized and non-invidiously graded. Now earlier anthropological theories make sense as they pass through the mangle to have incoherencies and condescension squeezed out, the disingenuous pretence rejected that recognizing moral equality compels one to admit the equality of the cognitive powers of all societies. Not magic, but the uncritical attitude to ideas embedded in the social institutions of magic-oriented groups is what inhibits the jump to universalist science: members are doing their top rational best as long as they have no science.

Rational thinking becomes a version of internalized rational action. As an interesting consequence, rational thought, namely, orderly, systematic, mental concentration, is a clearly universal human disposition, manifest in the ability to plan a hunt, lay up stores for winter, compute, and design a scientific experiment. Construed as a form of rational action, rational thought is a universal competence. If rationality is identified with rational action in the prosaic sense of goal-directed, and rational thinking is taken as a type of rational action, especially planning, then it is ultra-rational to create institutions that promote and improve efficiency, including intellectual efficiency. The social arrangements that produce science are more rational in this sense than those which produce magic: they foster correction and improvement of ideas, improvement charted in the history of ideas.

The error of traditional rationalism goes deeper: dividing all endorsed ideas into truths either by nature or by convention makes thought ahistorical. Not only are truths by nature abstracted from history; all falsehoods can be summarily dismissed. The only intellectual progress allowed then is from truth by convention to truth by nature in one rationally inexplicable step. To disallow this step on grounds that truth by nature is inaccessible deprives the history of ideas of its rationality. In a desperate effort to retrieve the lost rationality, the traditional equation (rationality = truth-by-nature) has been replaced by the equation, rationality = truth-by-convention. This reverts to a pre-philosophical view, under the label ‘relativism’. Relativism of truth recently decayed into the textualist view that anthropology and all sciences simply tell stories, and all intellectual activity is reduced to a generalized anthropology of story-telling. Stories can be assessed by aesthetic or psychological criteria, but these are local and conventional.

An extreme form of relativism inspired by "Kuhn (1962) and the ‘Strong Programme in the Sociology of Knowledge’ (Bloor 1976) emerged in the 1970s. It views anthropological story-telling as a Western ritual activity. If anthropology is to be declared rational, then, on the principle of ‘study the ritual not the belief (Jarvie 1964), it requires functional rather than historical or intellectual explanation. Anthropological ritual consists in the production of texts that construct the societies and cultures of ‘others’ in service to the powers that be (Clifford and Marcus 1986). This relativism of truth makes all doctrine true by convention, promotes conservatism and stagnation, and gladly denies the rational superiority of science over magic. (It also evades the awkward question of whether the relativism is true by nature or by convention.)

These recent moves are excessive. It suffices to relativize rationality: denying its traditional identification with truth permits the recognition of truth by nature as superior — even though seldom accessible: it suffices to maintain the concept of truth by nature as the ideal, and for the refusal to bow to local teachings as superior just because they are ours.

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