Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Review of The Oxford Handbook of Rationality

Christian Perring has been very forgiving of the fact that I am a year late in writing a review for Metapsychology Online (I agreed before my job changed). Whilst I’ve much less time for reviewing (whether completed books or submitted papers for journals), still to delay a whole year on a simple collection (and reviews of such collections largely write themselves: see below) seems odd. Here I think is the reason.

I’m interested in rationality because of its central and idealised role in Davidson, a role put under threat by psychopathology (for earlier worries see here and here). I’m also interested in whether there can be reasons (whether for belief or action) which are, in one of the many senses of the word, ‘external’. In particular: what sense can we make of the idea that the world contains intrinsically normative features without subscribing to a mad view of logic taking one by the throat? That second issue is one that concerns rationality because it concerns the nature of the source or grounding of a rational move.

And then there’s a third area: the extent to which rational actions or rational behaviour can be captured in context-independent codifications and, if not, what this means for the notion of rationality.

I rather hoped that a ‘handbook’ of rationality would do some work in bringing debates like these (if not necessarily exactly these debates which reflect my local interests) together. But it doesn’t.

Quite quickly, the initial investigation of rationality in general turns into discussions of reason-internalism, or proceduralism, which become detailed moves within moral philosophy. In so doing, the initial connection between reasons, reasoning and rationality seems to fall away leaving instead questions of whether (moral) ends can be (morally) criticised. So what is promised as some framework discussions about rationality are themselves merely technical discussions in just one – roughly Humean versus Kantian moral philosophical – area and the hope that rationality itself would be displayed as a complex genus is dashed. Thus the book is hard to review because, independently of the quality of the chapters (they are good!), the work as a whole disappointed my perhaps misplaced expectations.

Review of Mele, A.R. and Rawling, P. (eds) (2004) The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, Oxford: Oxford University Press

The Oxford Handbook of Rationality is a substantial work assembling 22 newly written chapters (although some contain quite familiar material from their authors’ previous work). Its primary role is to offer an overview of philosophical work exploring the nature of rationality. But it could, at a pinch, also serve as an introduction to that subject. The introductory first chapter explicitly aims to introduce readers to the cross cutting debates and many – though by no means all – of the chapters are forgiving of an ill-prepared reader. But, unlike an introductory textbook (by contrast with an edited collection), much is left to the reader using the book in this way to work out what remain largely implicit connections between the different chapters.

The Handbook divides into two main sections. The first examines ‘the nature of rationality broadly understood’ whilst the second ‘explores rationality’s role in and relation to other domains of inquiry’ [ibid: 3]. The first then proceeds, as is often the way in analytic philosophy, to consider a series of binary oppositions or at least important contrasts. Most fundamentally rationality is divided between theoretical and practical: what it is rational to believe is contrasted with what it is rational to do. In fact, however, most of the section concerns the latter.

Only three essays take theoretical rationality as their focus. Robert Audi considers what serves as the ‘sources’ of such rationality, a source being something in the life of a person that characteristically yields rational beliefs: perception, memory, consciousness, reason or reasoning, and testimony. James M Joyce examines how Bayesianism can be used to model theoretical rationality. Gilbert Harman’s chapter also concerns the distinction between theoretical and practical rationality but examines how practical considerations affect theoretical reasoning.

The remaining ten chapters of the first part reflect the more common focus of recent philosophical discussion in reflecting on practical rationality. In fact the focus is not simply or uniformly on the notion of rationality here but the overlap with practical reasoning, practical reasons (including their ontology: what sort of states are practical reasons?) and even duty. Whilst not exclusively, most of the chapters are thickly laden with moral philosophical concerns.

Thus the distinctions in play in these chapters include: procedural versus substantive practical rationality, internal versus external reasons and Humeanism versus Kantianism. Other issues concerned include whether rules (such as governing promises) introduce fresh practical reasons; the role of emotion and the application of game theory to morally charged practical reasoning. In many of these chapters the explicit primary focus is on reasons, or reasoning and the broader connections to rationality are more implicit.

The second part of the book – eight further chapters – concern the role of rationality in other domains of philosophy: Richard Samuels and Stephen Stich on rationality and psychology, Karen Jones on gender and rationality, Carol Rovane on the person, Paul Thagard on science, Paul Weirich on economics, Claire Finkelstein on legal theory and Peter Danielson on evolution. Whilst these chapters do not aim at a synoptic overview of every aspect of the role of rationality within the philosophical or other academic discipline concerned they generally pick out a central and important aspect.

The one chapter which seems more niche specific from the outset is Kirk Ludwig’s chapter ‘Rationality, language, and the principle of charity’. From the outset, it is clear that this chapter concerns a very specific approach to philosophy of language and of thought: Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language of the field linguist. Ludwig carefully reconstructs Davidsonian arguments for central role of rationality for thought and agency and hence, from that, for language. Together with Rovane’s chapter (which is similar in spirit if broader of focus) and that of Samuals and Stich (which considers empirical evidence concerning failures of rationality) it provides an overview of why rationality is an important though contested player within analytic philosophy of language and mind.

But this trio of chapters, along with others in the second part of the book, suggests the following worry. The Handbook starts by examining supposedly more general issues for thinking about rationality, broadly understood. But, in fact, it is not clear that the conception of rationality highlighted there has very much in common with the conception of rationality that drives the Davidsonian project in the philosophy of thought. (One clue to this is the different meaning of the word 'reason' in the two debates.) Nor, for that matter, does it seem close to the search for models of scientific rationality that have driven much of the philosophy of science since the earlier twentieth century. (Sadly I cannot comment on whether this also holds for legal theory or gender studies.) But if so, whilst this is a fine volume of good quality research-driven essays, it is less clear that there is a single subject matter – rationality – that it can take as its focus.