Nicholas C. Burbules

University of Illinois


Published in Critical Conversations in Education, Wendy Kohli, ed. (1995)


Some postmodern criticisms of rationality

These are difficult times for the philosophical language of rationality, objectivity, and truth. From a variety of directions, these traditional notions have been challenged and criticized, and in many circles of philosophical discussion it is simply taken for granted that they are no longer tenable. Many of these criticisms have come from thinkers labelled as "postmodern," and some of these challenges seem to me convincing; yet the question remains whether it is possible to abandon any talk of "rationality" altogether without replacing that category with something similar or, as Harvey Siegel among others has suggested, whether the very effort to argue against rationality commits one implicitly to the very standards being purportedly rejected (Siegel, ---).

In this essay I want to review some of the more compelling arguments against rationality, show that some versions of these are more persuasive and others much less so, and suggest that the substance of these criticisms can be addressed through a reconceptualization of rationality, for which I will suggest the alternative term "reasonableness" (Burbules, ----- ). This different way of thinking about rationality provides the guidance and structure we need for coherent thought in epistemic, practical, and moral matters, without proclaiming the existence of transcendental and universalistic standards that are problematic from the postmodern point of view. I will begin with four of the more commonly-cited arguments against rationality (many of which, in the literature, are combined or overlapping).

First, from the tradition termed "poststructural," is the rejection of metanarratives (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard). According to this criticism, all modes of thought and argument occupy the same discursive space: a poem, a television commercial, a political speech, or a geometric proof are all simply narratives designed to engage, persuade, and move the reader. Each works towards its effect by characteristic devices, devices that can be analyzed and which, by being analyzed, lose their capacity to beguile -- this is the service that deconstruction provides. From this vantage point, then, Rationality, Truth, Science, Morality, and so on, are simply legacies of a particular vocabulary and manner of speaking that has captivated Western philosophy at least since the Enlightenment. They should not be seen as "meta-narratives," standing above and beyond the story-telling process, adjudicating what is or isn’t permissible to say within it; but as simply narratives themselves. Rationality is the primary focal point of these criticisms, for an obvious reason: it has been proclaimed by modern Western philosophy as providing the inescapable ground rules by which all legitimate philosophical thought must proceed. Poststructuralists not only deny this particular sort of grounding; they deny the need for, or possibility of, any sort of "grounding" in this sense at all.

Second, from many feminist perspectives, the traditional conception of rationality is biased, distorted toward a masculinist point of view (Belenkey et al. ---; Gilligan, ---; others ). Rationality is the way men think, and it excludes or denigrates processes, including intuition, affect, and situational apperception, that are more salient for how women come to know, come to understand, or come to judge alternative courses of action. Discursively, this has presented many women with the impossible choice between reconstituting their beliefs and values in a language that is fundamentally resistant to their modes of thought and feeling; or of remaining silent. As a political matter, where the privileges granted to this rationalist, masculinist discourse are wrapped up with other power relations (such as in institutions of higher learning or law courts), rationality is viewed as an artefact of patriarchy, one more way that the rules of the game are stacked against women’s participation and opportunity.

Third, increasingly vigorous criticisms of the industrialized West from previously colonial, now often called Third World, societies, have stressed the imperialistic presumptions of rationality when it is presented as a necessary and universal feature of human thought (CITES). Buttressed by strong assertions of cultural relativity and incommensurability, these criticisms -- like the feminist criticisms just discussed -- regard the imposition of rationalism as a privileged mode of thought or speech through an ideological lens, arguing that it serves as a buttress to relations of domination and oppression, and indeed as a mode of domination and oppression itself, since it discourages and demoralizes any point of view or claim that cannot be legitimated within its purview. In cultures that have been exploited and victimized by previous impositions of religious, economic, or political systems, the proclamation of rationality as a neutral, universal arbiter of legitimate thought and action is perceived as one more system of control being imposed from without.

Fourth, writers such as Richard Rorty, who argue for some form of relativism on philosophical grounds, want to assert the historical, contextual, and purposive specificity of all systems of thought and value, and reject on principle the possibility of neutral and universal criteria by which to compare or judge alternative systems. As Rorty puts it, "Rationality, when viewed as the formation of syllogisms based on discovery of ‘the facts’ and the application of...principles... is a myth" (Rorty, 1979, pp. 190-191) or, more recently:

Once we realize that progress, for the community as for the individual, is a matter of using new words as well as of arguing from premises phrased in old words, we realize that a critical vocabulary which revolves around notions like "rational," "criteria," "argument," and "foundation" and "absolute" is badly suited to describe the relation between the old and the new (Rorty, 1989, pp. 48-49).

For Rorty, and similar historicist authors, the worst thing than can be said about a concept such as "rationality" is that it is anachronistic -- and this is taken as the most profound of philosophical refutations.

As noted before, for many postmodern writers several of these lines of challenge are pursued simultaneously -- indeed, they can be mutually supporting. For various reasons beyond the scope of this essay, these views have become extremely widespread within the modern academy. Together, they have reinforced a sentiment that any defense of reason is inherently suspect; a sentiment that has been asserted with increasing force and certitude. The climate is described well by Richard J. Bernstein as a "rage against reason":

Why is there a rage against Reason? What precisely is being attacked, criticized, and damned? Why is it when "Reason" and "Rationality" are mentioned, they evoke images of domination, oppression, repression, patriarchy, sterility, violence, totality, totalitarianism, and even terror? These questions are especially poignant and perplexing when we realize that not long ago the call to "reason" elicited associations with autonomy, freedom, justice, equality, happiness, and peace (Bernstein 1991, pp. 32-33).

In this essay I am less interested in asking why this situation has arisen, and more with assessing what is valid in the postmodern critiques of rationality. In light of these criticisms, is there a defensible conception of reason that can respond to them by revising certain modernist assumptions on less absolutistic or intolerant grounds, or is the only alternative what I have elsewhere called an "antimodern" rejection of the entire enterprise of seeking an objective, stable, and generalizable basis for resolving competing claims about truth, value, or proper courses of action (Burbules and Rice, ----)?

Rethinking rationality: toward a substantive conception of reason

What then, are the compelling elements in the postmodern critique, and what are the points at which it runs the risk of going too far? First, I think it is true that there is something inherently discursive about any ordering system for thought. We invent or create the rules we choose to live by, through the ways that we speak and interact with one another. We do not discover them waiting, pristine and fully-formed, to be uncovered through the contemplations of pure reason. Over the course of our collective cultural history we make them up. This is true even of the conventions of argumentation themselves; and we should acknowledge that although we now speak, think, and act in ways that have become second nature to us, this is not the same thing as evidence that they are universal or necessary for all legitimate speech, thought, and action. At the same time, the validity of this criticism does not yield the conclusion that all alternative forms of speech, thought, and action are equally good or in principle beyond comparison. When a particular way of adjudicating competing claims about truth, value, or proper course of action has been retained, developed, and refined over a long period of time, there is something to recommend it beyond the preferences of a particular group that advocates it; it must be fulfilling a complex set of purposes, and its very persistence over time suggests a flexibility and efficacy that not all alternatives can match. And here is the lesson: This is an important form of verification in itself.

Second, I think the criticism that traditional conceptions of rationality have excluded or denigrated considerations of affect, and related noncognitive elements of thought and feeling, has merit. It is certainly true, at the level of social interaction, that an exaggerated bias toward one particular way or expressing or justifying ideas has in fact excluded or disadvantaged potential participants to the discussion that is (or should be) a democratic society. Beyond this, it can be argued persuasively that the actual substance of our beliefs and values has been distorted as a result; the clearest case for this, I think, has been in the area of moral discourse, where feminist authors have pointed out that modes of understanding and judgment more typical of women have been neglected by traditional accounts of moral reasoning, to the disadvantage of our appreciation of the range of moral understandings and sentiments (Gilligan ---; Noddings ---). I think an equally telling argument can be framed for the inclusion of affective and noncognitive elements in the dynamics of reasoning itself; for if reason has a discursive or communicative grounding, as I will suggest momentarily, then part of the process of creating and maintaining effective communicative relations will entail matters of feeling, empathy, and concern (Arnstine, ----).

Third, I think there is a valid core to the concern that the presumed neutrality and universality of a particular style of rational thought and speech typical of modern, Western cultures has been taken as the essential node toward which all other cultures must converge. Particularly given the highly dubious motives with which certain other forms of missionary proselytizing have entered the Third World, and the surreptitious ways in which they served the intrusion of more material forms of invasion and exploitation, it is fair to ponder whether in fact contemporary systems of rationality may not simply be a secular version of the same process at work. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that the very capacity of Third World critics to identify, comprehend, question, and reject certain forms of Western thought has itself been facilitated by some features of that very mode of thought. This is not to argue that these elements of reasoning are therefore entirely unproblematic, but it clearly does suggest that they are, if not necessary and unavoidable, at least difficult to avoid; and it certainly should give pause to the assertion that they are entirely pernicious.

Fourth, I think that Rorty and other neopragmatists are correct that considerations of context and purpose are intrinsic to the determination of what it is reasonable to do, and that a significant shortcoming of the traditional conception of rationality has been the presumption that one can deduce, a priori, conclusions that will be compelling or true across all circumstances. This false universalism underestimates the extent to which reasoning is a situated human achievement, undertaken within communities of inquiry and moral debate. At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that this requires that what any such communities might happen to conclude are equally valid, that there is no way to compare them, or that in practice certain conclusions may not come to be shared or established by most or all. It is simply to say that when this happens, it is not because they have arrived at the same ineluctable "truths." It is not surprising that human groups, confronted with similar questions or problems, will often arrive at similar or comparable conclusions; nor is it surprising that some can accept or learn from those of others. In my view, this tendency supports the hope that reasonable conclusions can be generalized across contexts and purposes; but this possibility does not make those conclusions universal -- it simply encourages us that some overlap and agreement are possible.

Where do these criticisms, if we accept them in their limited form, leave us? What is left if we abandon the idea of rationality as a neutral arbiter of the rules of clear thinking; as a dispassioned means for reaching indubitable conclusions; as a universal guide to human thought and conduct; and as a timeless story line, playing itself out across the history of human evolution as we approach nearer and nearer the capacity for pure and untainted ratiocination. What if, instead, we regard reason as a human invention and achievement -- one that is hardly arbitrary, since it has arisen in similar forms under many different circumstances and constraints, but one that is neither necessary nor universal? What if we regard reason as a practice growing out of communicative interactions in which the full play of human thought, feeling, and motivation operate? What if we accept that the only basis for generalizing the merits of reason is a concrete, specific, educative process in which we can engage others in this way of thinking: if we are successful, this shows that it is generalizable, and if we fail it shows that it is not. Finally, what if we ground the benefits of reason in nothing more or less than that it allows us to answer certain kinds of questions, solve certain kinds of problems, adjudicate certain kinds of disagreements, and so on, not because it is the essential or necessary guide to all human thought and action.

What we are left with, I believe, is a good deal of the architecture of what we actually do when reasoning (logical deduction is a useful way to think through certain arguments, for example), but with a much more narrow and specific set of claims about its range of utility or its generalizability to persons and groups who have evolved different ways of answering questions, solving problems, adjudicating disagreements, and so on. In its place are some very general dispositions that more broadly guide reflective thought and action. In short, I think we are left with what I have called a "substantive" conception of reason -- reasonableness -- which I will suggest can be maintained in the face of these postmodern criticisms without falling entirely into relativism. What is this substantive conception?


The central insight of the view I am proposing here is that it relates reasoning to the dispositions and capacities of a certain kind of person, not to formal rules and procedures of thought. A common trend, for example, in much current writing on critical thinking is to suggest the limitations of "logicality" as an educational approximation of what a critical thinker is and does (Ennis, Paul, Siegel); rather, we need to supplement the skills of logical reasoning with dispositions to apply them in contexts of practice. In some cases, unfortunately, the characterization of these dispositions is rather thin: the difference between the logical rule "always test a syllogism for valid structure" and the "disposition to test syllogisms for valid structure" is hardly worth talking about. Similarly, the "rational passions" discussed by Scheffler and others (---), such as a passion for rigor and clarity, are sometimes little more than the rephrasing of formal criteria in an emotive language.

A stronger characterization of reasonableness as a human characteristic and achievement requires, first of all, a much deeper conception of these dispositions: they are not simply the activating sentiments that motivate us to apply the formal rules we have learned, but the aspects of character that bring us to care about learning or paying attention to such criteria in the first place. A person who is reasonable wants to make sense, wants to be fair to alternative points of view, wants to be careful and prudent in the adoption of important positions in life, is willing to admit when he or she has made a mistake, and so on; and these qualities are not exhibited simply by following certain formal rules of reasoning. They are enormously more complex than that, because they are manifested in a broad range of situations that are not governed by such formal rules, Because they are more basic and extensive than any set of rules, these dispositions may be manifested in specific situations by ignoring some of these rules (as when someone violates the norm of strict precision and accuracy in an effort to express a simple idea to child). In this view, it is because persons are reasonable, or want to be, that they concern themselves with "logicality" as a useful heuristic for ordered thought.

The second and related dimension of reasonableness concerns the capacity to enter into the types of communicative relations in which persons together inquire, disagree, adjudicate, explain, or argue their views in the pursuit of a reasonable outcome (i.e., an outcome that reasonable people are satisfied with). The dispositions of reasonableness described above are manifested in the ways that persons speak with and listen to one another (or, in internal contemplation, the ways that we represent competing voices internally as we reflect upon a problem). This communicative aspect is what makes the pursuit and attainment of reasoned positions a practical and contextual endeavor. The apparent circularity of saying that reasonable people pursue understandings in a particular way, and that a reasonable conclusion to such deliberations is simply what the persons involved settle upon, is less a circle than a back-and-forth feedback process. We judge the adequacy of our reasoning and conversation by the efficacy and social acceptability of the conclusions they derive; and we judge in turn the reliability of our conclusions by the thoroughness and care of the processes by which we reached them.

What makes this a substantive conception, then, is that the outcome of a given line of inquiry cannot be settled conclusively in advance or inferred by tracing out a particular logical argument; rather, the process of reasoned inquiry is manifested in the thoughts, conversations, and choices that the persons involved pursue toward some conclusion -- and if they are reasonable people, this conclusion is as reliable as any can be. Of course, it might be mistaken, or need to be corrected, but it can be recognized as such and rectified only through a further extension of the same process. The epistemic dimension of reasonableness is thereby inverted: the question is no longer, "What procedures of inquiry or argument are most likely to yield the Truth?" but rather "When people have sought to understand the truth of their situation, what are the general patterns of investigation that they have settled upon over time?"

Among these patterns of investigation, the rules of logic or or scientific inquiry play a limited part, because they are effective as such only in social contexts of communication, practice, and judgment. The difficult question, then, concerns the nature of these contexts, and in a short essay I can only sketch them here. My strategy is to select four elements that seem central to reasoning, and to show how they can be translated from a formal, decontextualized language to one concerned with personal character, practical contexts, and communicative relations.

Objectivity. What, in fact, is necessary in order for a person to adopt an objective standpoint? Two conditions appear crucial. The first is an attitude of tolerance, the capacity to regard alternative positions without a "rush to judgment." An objective person, first of all, is one who can withhold his or her own opinions in an engagement with other points of view. This capacity is fostered, not primarily by the exercise of certain intellectual skills, but by the exercise of a demeanor and disposition toward restraint. There are many other aspects of tolerance as well: being able to recognize what one’s own biases might be, acknowledging the limits of one’s capacity to appreciate fully the viewpoints of others, or caring enough about others to exert the effort necessary to hear and comprehend what they are saying. My point here is that lacking such characteristics, a person cannot enact that component of reasonableness that we call "objectivity." The acquisition and exercise of these characteristics is clearly not a purely cognitive/rational endeavor. Developing tolerance in this sense depends upon the kinds of communicative and other social interactions one has had with others throughout the course of one’s life. Moreover, viewing these capacities in the context of real human interactions also helps make it clear when tolerance might not be a reasonable response: when one has reached the limits of one’s capacities to be detached, or when certain points of view are so repugnant that it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect one’s self not to judge them.

Similarly, objectivity also requires a fundamentally pluralistic sentiment. Objectivity is supported, not by the position of holding no view, but by the position of having regarded enough other views thoughtfully and sympathetically to realize that each has something to be said for it, so that one is distanced somewhat from the attitude that there is or can be one "best" way of all. This pluralism is fostered, of course, partly by having been exposed to a sufficient range of differences; but also by engaging them in some process of give-and-take that has enabled one to consider seriously the merits of each. This, it seems to me, is a chief talent of persons we consider to be "objective" -- and it is, I think, a fundamentally different analysis of that disposition than those normally found in the literature.

What this line of argument suggests is that in the pursuit of objectivity, qualities such as tolerance and pluralism are methodological as well as moral edicts. Our thinking will be richer, more balanced, and more fair when we are able to consider a variety of alternatives. Being able to do so requires not only some intellectual capacities, but also aspects of character, personal relations, and social contexts that encourage and support the development of this virtue. In our lives, we all understand that persons who have great intellect but who cannot detach their critical capacities sufficiently to hear and consider alternative points of view lack objectivity; similarly, persons who can listen to anything and not react critically to it, seem to lack a kind of discernment. At both extremes, I would suggest, these people fail to be reasonable.

Fallibilism. In my mind, one of the great aphorisms of modern philosophy is Karl Popper’s ( ---) edict not to be afraid of making mistakes, because it is only through the discovery of error, through some process of falsification, that we are driven to change. Indeed, Popper’s recommendation seems to extend far beyond the confines of scientific hypothesis testing, where it is typically applied, to a broader vision and attitude toward life. In a variety of contexts, personal and professional, intellectual and emotional, we all have experience with failure, error, and disappointment. If we can live with these, as we must, it is usually with the understanding that they have formed us, taught us something, strengthened our capacity to endure change. In this broader sense, then, I think that fallibilism is a component of a reasonable character.

What is involved in this disposition? First of all, it requires a capacity to recognize that one is wrong; second, it requires a capacity to admit (to one’s self, and possibly to others) that one was wrong. Once again, we know individuals who have all the intellectual skills one could admire, but who find it difficult to acknowledge error; this is a defect, then, from the standpoint of a reasonable character. However, it would be a mistake to regard this entirely as a shortcoming of the individual, and not as a breakdown in a broader developmental context that implicitly and often explicitly rewards unreasonable conduct. In the university context, for example, the rise of an "adversary method" as the primary model of academic engagement clearly rewards those who are most vigorous in defending their own point of view and attacking those of others (Moulton, ---).

Notice, please, that I am not suggesting that the give-and-take of criticism within communities of inquiry is necessarily illegitimate; on the contrary, it is a crucial process in a culture that recognizes fallibilism as the pivot point of change. But when this process takes place in a system of "high stakes" rewards and punishments; when certain aggressive aspects of personality and verbal style are falsely taken to be proxies for a healthy critical process; when the pressures and power relations of such contexts are such that certain prospective participants are intimidated from entering the conversation, then we mistake the forms of debate and critical interaction for the substance of carefully and sympathetically comparing the merits of a range of points of view and subjecting them to some process of thoughtful scrutiny and revision. We should not be surprised in these contexts when people have developed a razor-sharp capacity to dissect the ideas of others, but a stultified capacity to alter or abandon their own presuppositions.

Reasonableness, on this view, expresses a capacity for change, a change prompted by one’s own recognition and acknowledgment of error, but also supported by a social environment in which this process is regarded with favor, not disdain. "Falsifiability" is normally taken in the literature to be a description of the characteristics and history of a theory or research program (Lakatos, Popper); but it includes more than this, since theories are held by persons and because research programs comprise individuals with various personal, institutional, and (often) financial interests in maintaining and perpetuating their positions. Hence "falsifiability," and conceptual change as a result, are achievable, not only because of the features of a particular intellectual framework, but because of the dispositions and capacities for facing up to and responding to error on the part of those who hold it.

Pragmatism. In using this term, I am not trying to invoke a specific school of thought: the "pragmatism" of Dewey, James, or Peirce. Rather, I am referring to a deeper underlying attitude which characterizes, I think, that general world view: a belief in the importance of practical problems in driving the process of intellectual, moral, and political development. Such an outlook is sensitive to the particulars of given contexts and the variety of human needs and purposes. Most important, to my purposes here, it reflects a tolerance for uncertainty, imperfection, and incompleteness as the existential conditions of human thought, value, or action. Yet the pragmatic attitude recognizes the need for persistence and flexibility in the face of such difficulties.

The central lesson of fallibilism in philosophy, from Socrates to Popper, is that we proceed, not towards truth, but away from error. It is much easier to know when we are wrong than when we are right; and the philosophical consequence of this insight, I believe, is a distrust of teleological conceptions of rationality. We rely on certain approaches to inquiry, including the conversational ones noted earlier, not because we have any reason to be sure that they will yield a convergence around truth or agreement, but because experience has shown them to be reliable ways of avoiding certain egregious kinds of mistakes. There is no guarantee built into them to produce what we seek; we merely know that whatever they yield is more likely to be dependable than what we might garner from any other approach. Such a commitment to a process of inquiry or negotiation, without certainty of its results, is what defines the pragmatic attitude; and it is a primary feature of reasonableness.

I say this because a reasonable person is frequently in situations where insufficient information is available; where problems appear intractable; where outcomes are unpredictable. Here, most of all, we see their capacities tested. We expect people to be reasonable in contexts and activities with which they are familiar, and where they are confident; the threats to reasonableness are when conventional responses fail, when doubts prevail. In such difficulties, what makes the responses of a person reasoned and reliable is whether he or she can approach the present problems with an open mind, a willingness and capacity to adapt, and persistence in the face of initial failure or confusion.

In this case, as in the others I have discussed, these dispositions operate at a much deeper and more pervasive level than any particular set of skills or strategies -- although certainly having some appropriate skills, having experience with similar situations, and having some track record of success in coping with them, are also relevant to whether a person will respond constructively to a new challenge. Also supportive of such dispositions are social contexts in which an emphasis on success is not exaggerated; in which failure or frustration are accepted as inevitable conditions of growth; and in which offering cooperative assistance and constructive suggestions -- or asking for them -- are socially and personally acceptable options. Once again, this provides a quite different characterization of the person who is reasonable, and of the type of context that fosters and supports reasonable conduct.

Judgment. As I have already suggested, one of the reasons that a dispositional account of reasonableness is prior to, and not just a supplement for, an emphasis on "logicality" is that one of the chief characteristics of a reasonable person is the ability to judge, to distinguish situations in which a rational calculation in the narrow sense might be called for, and when it is not. Harvey Siegel (----), in his analysis of critical thinking, acknowledges that there are contexts in which the force of reasons per se will not be sufficient to guide our conduct (his examples include lovemaking and playing a musical instrument). In these situations, he says, it is rational to ignore or override the consideration of reasons; but, he says, it is for the sake of "meta-reasons," so that in fact it does not seem that we are ignoring the force of reasons after all.

I think we need a very different analysis of the problem. What overrides reasons in such contexts, it seems to me, is often not other reasons; the phenomenon of reasons being in conflict, or some carrying more weight than others, is hardly the deep sort of dilemma that we actually need help in understanding. What is difficult about the sorts of cases Siegel describes is that they do not seem to have much to do with reasons in his sense at all; and if we are rational creatures of the sort described, it is not clear what the part of us is which recognizes and appreciates these other considerations. Instead, I think we need to build into the concept of reasonableness an awareness of its own limitations; that a reasonable person is one who knows when not to try to figure certain things out in a particular rational way, who regards the skills of rationality and the assessment of reasons as simply heuristics in the much more complex process of trying to decide what to believe and what to do -- heuristics that can help guide our choices, but not govern them. It is not reasonable to try to apply the analysis of logic, or the strict rules of evidence, or the critique of informal fallacies, to each and every situation; we would react very peculiarly to someone who did (this is the perennial joke about Mr. Spock on Star Trek, of course).

Here, as in the other elements of reasonableness as I have described them, the key virtues are a capacity to hold competing considerations in balance, to accept tensions and uncertainties as the conditions of serious reflection. Those whom we respect as reasonable are judicious about when and how they follow the dictates of argument in the strict sense of the term, and they are receptive to the influence of other kinds of persuasion as well. In the actual practice of human communication, strict argumentation, even in an elliptical sense, is very rare; alongside that is an enormous range of interlocutory styles, including questions, allusions, unsubstantiated suggestions, metaphors, and other tropes, as well as an even broader range of expressions, gestures, touches, musical sounds, and other kinds of communication. The capacity of all these sorts of utterances to move us is "extra-rational" only in a very narrow sense of that term. When we endeavor to be reasonable in social contexts of interaction, this entails remaining open to the influences of other avenues of mutual exploration, negotiation, and the pursuit of understanding; in this endeavor, a respect for the force of reasons is crucial, as is the attempt to be clear, coherent, and accurate in what one says. But it is not everything.

Reasonableness as an educational aim

In my discussion of these four features of reasonableness, as well as my discussion of reasonableness generally, I have tried to emphasize the interdependence of personally

developing certain capacities with contexts in which certain other people possess and exhibit these virtues in their actions and interactions with one another, and with us. Concretely, we attain the degree of reasonableness that we do because of the reasonableness of those around us; the process of exploring and adjudicating different positions catches up all of the participants in an edifying dynamic. In other words, the educational question of fostering and encouraging the dispositions of reasonableness is intrinsic to the question of their nature and worth; we might say we pursue and value certain kinds of interactions because they yield reasonable outcomes, but it is just as true to say that we respect and trust those outcomes because of the processes that gave rise to them.

But a fair question at this point is "Who is the ‘we’ being talked of here?" Is what I am discussing here simply an artefact of modern Western patriarchal culture; is it a middle-class conception of polite conduct, elevated peremptorily to the status of a set of universal virtues? What is so great about being "reasonable" in this sense? I think it is not just an accident if the sorts of virtues I have described here strike us as reasonable; we do see them replicated, in one guise or another, in various cultures and in different historical contexts. At the level of generality I have tried to give them, I believe that the dispositions of reasonableness are not culturally imperialistic or biased toward masculinist conceptions of rationality. They are features of reflective thought and practice that we see continually invoked by disparate groups, with otherwise quite different systems of belief, value, and action; this fact suggests that they are far from arbitrary.

However, I would not term them "universals," or claim that their adoption is mandatory for those who might not share them. I would argue, however, that their benefits could be made apparent to others through a process of communicative interchange that is itself consistent with the values it advocates (i.e., it would not depend upon coercion or other indirect means of manipulation). In one sense, this is what I am trying to do in this paper today. What I am claiming is that they are generalizable, in the sense that others might be persuasively brought to share them; and this claim is a performative one, in the sense that its credibility depends ultimately on being able to fulfill it in practice. This is a very different claim than one of universality, which asserts that these qualities are incumbent upon persons whether they personally recognize and value them or not.

As a result, this conception of reasoning has an essential educational element, not only because of the general problem of how to foster and encourage these characteristics in new learners, but because the conception I am proposing requires an educational process at the level of its very definition and justification. In each of the four elements I have discussed -- objectivity, fallibilism, pragmatism, and judgment -- the process by which we exercise and cultivate these dispositions involves us in a set of communicative interactions (i.e., educative interactions) with others. They are neither acquired nor exercised in isolation. Reasonableness is an educational aim because it is bound to and illuminates fundamental aspects of how the process of education itself occurs: through encountering new, challenging, and often conflicting ideas; through making mistakes and trying to learn from them; through persisting through levels of difficulty and discouragement to something new and worthwhile; and through learning to judge in practice both the applicability and the limits of the general principles and skills one acquires. Each of these, in turn, depends upon a range of communicative and other relations the learner forms with other people; objectivity, fallibilism, pragmatism, and judgment ought to be conceived as social, not individual attainments.

I believe that this conception of reason is not subject to some of the same criticisms that postmodern theorists have levelled against the traditional conception of rationality. Conceiving of reasonableness as a set of dispositions does not commit us to a belief in a master narrative or a pure meta-discourse; on the contrary, characterizing reason as a concrete, imperfect, human attainment responds sympathetically to the criticism that rationality has been abstracted from the field of human interrelationships and politics. The elements of objectivity, fallibilism, pragmatism, and judgment each can be explored in ways that do justice to the diversity of human thoughts, values, and forms of life, without falling into a relativism that is unable to recommend or criticize any manner of thinking about the complexities and ambiguities of human existence. While being flexible enough to accommodate a broad range of human process of communication, investigation, or negotiation, these four elements also provide a basis for excluding others that can be shown to be counterproductive to intelligent, committed, and caring thought and action. In a postmodern framework, these are the sorts of criteria we need: not determinative in the sense of presuming to pick out the one best manner of approaching a problem, but not levelling of all possible alternative either. It is the hallmark of a reasonable person to be able to consider a range of worthy possibilities, and to acknowledge the potential benefits inherent in each, without becoming incapable of choosing or judging between them (while acknowledging at the same time that others might legitimately choose from among that range differently). And this, I would suggest, is a credible educational ideal.