Adrian Williams: Rationality?

On March 11th 1984 the writer and philosopher Stephen Houseman gave a lecture to South Place Ethical Society (SPES) at Conway Hall. It was published, in two parts, in the Ethical Record (ER), monthly journal of SPES, in June and July 1984, under the title “Why Must Man be Rational?”

Houseman spoke of two approaches to problem-solving, one by increasing rationality and the other by reducing it. He said the call for more rationality arises from the assumption that there is “a dark, animal nature” which has to be held in check. According to this view, however greatly rationality may be increased it can never be complete, for there exists a hierarchy of goals such that each one established by rationality can be seen as merely a means to the achievement of a higher one set by non-rational processes. This conception he termed a headless hierarchy. The second view accepts that our personal ends can be achieved rationally but sets the whole procedure in the context of what he called a supernatural order which provides the final aim. This he termed the blind-headed hierarchy.

Houseman did not like either approach, and suggested that the danger of nuclear war requires a better formulation of human aims. He rejected the view that rationality is merely an instrument but found contradictions arising when the attempt is made to present it as anything more. After working through examples provided by the behaviour of beavers and primitive tribes he came to the conclusion that ” questioning for its own sake” is the only possible supreme goal and maintained that this saved rationality from contradiction. He went on to give some prescriptions which depend upon analogy with the communal nature of questioning. They amount to the substitution of co-operation for competition and acceptance of the view that “understanding,” once achieved, spreads indefinitely.

I felt this called for comment and sent the following letter to the Editor of ER; it appeared in January 1985:

Stephen Houseman’s survey (ER June and July, 1984) of our uses of rationality is useful but goes wrong when he says the self-contradictoriness is “apparent” and that this is unacceptable. He says that many of our notions are self-contradictory if pressed too far. Houseman is worried that our aims have to be rational and match the rationality of our day-to-day activities.

The problem of self-contradictions has been with us for a long time, from Plato onward. Bertrand Russell made a determined attempt to solve it in his early work on mathematics and derived his Theory of Types to rule out of order the problems of self-reference that produced self-contradictions. The trouble then became that the statement of his theory was itself a self-contradictory self-referential statement. After this was pointed out to him he spent the rest of his life trying to solve the problem and failed. Other philosophers have taken a more blase approach. The obvious example is Popper who convinced himself that self-contradictions were unavoidable but of no significance (see Chapter 14 of Conjectures and Refutations). Also see Chapter 24 of The Open Society and its Enemies, where Popper accords “a certain priority to irrationalism” and is not concerned about that. But Houseman is! To point out the fault in Houseman’s reasoning one simply imposes a problem of self-reference on it.  That is, find his final statement of his solution and apply it to itself.

In ER July 1984, p. 11, Houseman says: “This is possible only if our highest goal is the seeking for order or the ‘questioning’ itself,” and later: “and that a fully open questioning approach must necessarily arrive at this conclusion.” Now, I ask, is Houseman going to question this goal; is he going to question that the questioning approach is the goal? No, he is not. He insists “that only the questioning itself can possibly – and therefore must necessarily – be its supreme goal.” Houseman’s formulation of the supreme aim fails the test of self-reference, i.e. it is self-contradictory.

The sad fact is that all formulations of human motivation and understanding the world are self-contradictory. Some people can live with that knowledge and not be bothered (e.g. Popper) but some one in Houseman’s position gets two choices: either keep trying the same old reformulations and fail like Russell or try a different formulation of the problem using dialectical logic instead of only formal logic. The latter approach can give you a self-contradictory formulation of human understanding of the world which accounts for itself and other formulations.

Houseman’s last paragraph of prognosis for society consists of useless generalisation which leads nowhere. Understanding does not, once achieved, spread indefinitely. The first part of his lecture negates that idea. Different formulations of understanding the world are in conflict and always have been. It takes time for a person to build up any understanding. Once achieved it is unlikely to change in that person. A minority of people can be convinced by the location of incoherence (pace Houseman) to change to another formulation but that also is incoherent (i.e. self-contradictory), remember. Where does it end? It doesn’t. Human society runs in a permanent state of conflict, with different formulations being used to solve particular problems, e.g. Houseman’s rationality is good for solving scientific or technological problems. Likewise, different people select themselves into different occupations to match their understanding of the world. Houseman’s idea that “competitiveness has no meaning” takes no account of biological evolution, making of existential choices, Freudian psychology, or mundane problems in dealing with shortages of natural resources. Since Houseman’s formulation of human aims is seen to be self-contradictory and thus does not meet his own requirements for rationality I hope his naive ethical prescriptions in the final paragraph will be disregarded by members of SPES.

from Ideological Commentary 18, June 1985.