What did Warren Weaver mean when he spoke of “the rational life”?

In 1947 Air Force Project RAND—then a branch of Douglas Aircraft, but soon to become the independent RAND Corporation—decided that it needed to recruit social scientists to aid it in its studies of prospective military technologies. As a step forward it held a conference of social scientists that September. The director of natural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, mathematician Warren Waver, delivered the conference’s opening remarks.

The beginning of Warren Weaver's speech to open the RAND conference on social science

The characteristically jokey opening to Warren Weaver’s opening remarks to the RAND Corporation’s 1947 conference on social science. People from technical fields moonlighting in the social sciences are prominently mentioned. The president of the New Jersey Telephone Company was Chester Barnard, who would soon become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Document source: Papers of Edward L. Bowles, Box 44, Folder 4, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Asking the rhetorical question of why they had assembled there, Weaver began by explaining: “I take it that every person in this room is fundamentally interested and devoted to what you can just broadly call the rational life.”

As I note in a parallel post at Ether Wave Propaganda, the remark was first quoted in journalist Fred Kaplan’s 1983 book The Wizards of Armageddon, where it is truncated and explained in such a way that it appears to augur an attempt to marshall social scientists into an attempt “impose” a rational order on military strategy and national policy. The “rational life” quote has been used by a number of other authors since Kaplan’s book appeared, and the meaning of the term has always been taken for granted. This post explores what Weaver had in mind.

I argue that, for Weaver, the “rational life” was inextricably linked to 1) the existence of practical problems, with which one was forced to contend, and 2) the fact that those problems did not fall under the purview of a particular intellectual field of study, and therefore demanded a flexibility of reasoning, and, ideally, consultation with a variety of experts.

Warren Weaver (1894-1978)

Warren Weaver (1894-1978)

Because the rational life was problem-oriented, it was less concerned with the discovery of abstract principles, and more with the pursuit of goals. Weaver went on to note that he presumed his audience, with World War II in very recent memory, was generally, and indeed “desperately,” interested in two goals that were more articles of faith than anything else: the preservation of peace, and the furtherance of the “ideals of democracy.”1

Because, Weaver acknowledged later in his speech, the distinction between peace and war had been eroded, he took the creation of a robust American military to be commensurate with those goals. He pointed to political adviser Bernard Baruch’s phrase, “cold war,” introduced only several months earlier, as an accurate description of the state of affairs.

Weaver’s belief that his audience was interested in the augmentation of American military power was part of the main thrust of his speech, which was to dispel the apparent oddity—which, he noted, some might even consider “a little grotesque”—of holding a social science conference under the auspices of the Douglas Aircraft Company. He observed that the work of RAND was only one particular way of addressing the problems of the time. He remarked, “I happen to believe very firmly in variety as a typical element of American strength,” and therefore, he argued, it was proper that “there should be a lot of organizations working a lot of ways” on pursuing the goals with which the people at the conference were, in his view, concerned.

Within this context, the rational life involved a fundamental reality that there existed certain problems that demanded choices be made; and it involved a commitment to making those choices on the basis of as complete a consideration of all relevant factors as was possible.

Problem solving at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s. Source: LIFE photo archive hosted by Google.

Mapping out a military problem at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s. Photograph by Leonard McCombe. Source: LIFE photo archive hosted by Google.

For the analyst, there would always be a temptation to analyze only those problems that could be fitted into a convenient, quantitative framework of analysis. Here the distinction, noted in the parallel post, between the “rational life” and the “logical life” (for which Weaver was “not as exclusively strong”) came into play. Although Weaver did not elaborate directly on the distinction, his comments later in his speech on the applicability of mathematics in the social sciences offers some illumination:

I am not one of those who happen to think that all you need to do to solve the problem of social science is to get a few sufficiently smart engineers, or a few sufficiently smart mathematicians, or, indeed, a few sufficiently smart anything. Indeed, I am not overly optimistic about the contribution that, let’s say mathematical analytical thinking can make in solving the problems of social science. I think it can make a big contribution–far more than it has. But I am perfectly prepared to have mathematical techniques face whole areas in the social sciences before which they would stand baffled.

To Weaver, the rational life represented a refusal to forgo any analysis because a problem was ill-defined, as well as a refusal to ignore difficult-to-quantify elements of the problem. This is what Weaver meant, when he contrasted the rational life with “living in a state of ignorance, superstition, and drifting-into-whatever-may-come.”

To illustrate the point, Weaver referred back to the problem of planning convoys—already a classic example of World War II operations research:

This problem has a thousand factors in it, some of which are quantitative, but most of the important ones are not quantitative, and it depends on all sorts of emotional factors. How tired is the man on watch? What’s he thinking about? Is he thinking about his girl or is he thinking about submarines?2 It depends on all sorts of things you can’t weigh and measure. It is a big problem of organized complexity, but it is terribly important, and one thing about war is you have to get the answers, you see. It isn’t like some problems which are academic in the pejorative sense. You have to get the answer. You have got to do something. You have got to act, wisely or foolishly.

RAND had decided to move into the social sciences not because it sought to develop them into sciences that were in some way fitted to a pre-existing, purportedly authoritative RAND style of analysis. Rather, the idea was that the social sciences would help move RAND toward a more complete appreciation of the particular problems it was confronting.

I would like to discuss the nature of these problems, as well as the question of how the social sciences integrated into RAND in future posts.

  1. Weaver added “…not by imposing (those ideals) on other individuals … but … by so running our own business and so cleaning our own house and so improving our relations with the rest of the world, that the value of those ideals in which we believe becomes thereby evident.” That American ideals were imposed would later become an important point of critique of American-style “liberalism”; Weaver’s remark speak to an awareness of that tension at an early point in the postwar era
  2. The classic analysis of the convoy problem by physicist Patrick Blackett’s OR group at the British Admiralty did not actually go into such factors; Weaver appears to have invented them for the purpose of making his point. However, Weaver, as director of the wartime Applied Mathematics Panel, did have personal experience with multi-faceted decision making problems involving fields such as applied psychology.

2 thoughts on “What did Warren Weaver mean when he spoke of “the rational life”?

  1. James Schmidt

    Another fascinating couple of posts, both here and on Ether Wave. What lept out to me (and this is unforgivably idiosyncratic) was the date of Weaver’s talk: 1947. It may not be accidental that this was also the date of when Oxford University Press published Eclipse of Reason, Max Horkheimer’s attempt to convey the general gist of Dialektik der Aufklärung to an Anglophone audience. Clearly, there was a lot of handwringing about the implications of “reason” going on and I’m sure that what was going on will become much clearer once I can get my hands on Rational Action!

    1. Will Thomas Post author

      Hi James, I think it’s correct to draw a link here, both in the vague sense that inappropriate applications of “rational” methods—as a methodological problem and as a broader civilizational problem—was “in the air.” My interest in Weber’s multi-pronged thinking on the subject is part of an attempt to start a catalogue of these questions. One of my big arguments is that most of the people working in allegedly “rationalistic” areas were fully aware of this critique, and had a good sense of the pitfalls involved in their work. This is not to say they always avoided those pitfalls, but it does mean we have to take their strategies for avoiding them seriously.

      However, there are more specific links to Frankfurt and Continental criticism, too. First, following this conference, RAND recruited Hans Speier, a student of Karl Mannheim, to head its social science department. Daniel Bessner has been doing some work on Speier (pdf). It is generally understood that this department never got along with the more formalistic theorists at RAND, who did all the stuff on game theory later on the ’50s. I plan to post on Bessner’s recent articles soon.

      Also, once RAND became heavily identified with things like game theory and nuclear strategy studies in the late ’50s, a lot of criticism of RAND came from World War II operations researchers, notably physicist Patrick Blackett (who was also a nuclear pundit in his own right). I go into this line of critique in some detail in my book. However, what I don’t go into is that there was also criticism coming from people like Erich Fromm, too.


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