Rationality is an ancient and notoriously difficult concept. Philosophers have debated at great length not only how actions can be deemed rational, but what we might even mean by the concept. Many commentators have worried that a preoccupation with the seemingly rational can lead to actions, policies, and styles of life that are not truly rational, or that are at odds with a well-rounded, humane existence.
At the same time, rationality is a real, practical problem. Through reflection and theorization, through improvements in technique and reforms to institutions, people have strived to act more rationally in science and engineering, in commerce and industry, in administration, and in everyday life.
My object with Rational Action is not to resolve these questions philosophically, but to explore them historically. Contentious debates surrounding rationality have often led to mutual characterization of antagonists’ positions as resting on profoundly different and incompatible ideas concerning what is rational and what is not. Unable to engage on specifics, they try to pull the intellectual rug out from under their opponents’ feet.
Careful historical analysis often reveals that such characterizations tend to speak more to a difference of emphasis, wedded to opposed interests, than to a profound intellectual rupture. This is certainly not to say that everyone has held identical views about rationality, or that all disputes could in principle be resolved through a “rational” discussion of particulars. The advantage of comparative analysis, and of the analysis of ideas and actions as part of historical traditions, is that it brings true intellectual differences into sharper relief. This makes it possible to ask more productive questions about ideas and their histories.
My own experience with these issues extends from the view of them afforded to me in researching and writing my book, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960, which concentrates on the fields of operations research, management science, systems analysis, and decision theory. These fields, I argue, confronted an astonishing array of methodological questions, and handled them reasonably well.
However, I am fully conscious that these fields far from exhaust the historical list of fields that might lay claim to the descriptor, “sciences of policy.” Moreover, the issues they confronted only begin to encompass the array of questions surrounding the broad “problem” of “rational action.” I want to use this web site both to go into more depth on things I discuss in my book, and to extend the discussion to a broader swath of history. This extension will make no pretensions to being systematic: the flow of posts will take advantage of my pre-existing knowledge, and the resources available to me, and proceed from there into areas that others no doubt know better than me.
My hope is that the discussion will be accessible and interesting to people coming from different professional backgrounds. So long as this site’s spirit of respectful inquiry is respected, commenters are very much welcome to add to and help direct the discussion.