How “rational” is “rationality”?

  • Daniël F. M. Strauss Faculty of the Humanities University of the Free State P.O. Box 339 Bloemfontein 9300)


By taking serious a remark once made by Paul Bernays, namely that an account of the nature of rationality should begin with concept-formation, this article sets out to uncover both the restrictive and the expansive boundaries of rationality. In order to do this some implications of the perennial philosophical problem of the “coherence of irreducibles” will be related to the acknowledgement of primitive terms and of their indefinability. Some critical remarks will be articulated in connection with an over-estimation of rationality – concerning the influence of Kant\'s view of human understanding as the formal law-giver of nature (the supposedly “rational structure of the world”), and the apparently innocent (subjectivist) habit to refer to experiential entities as \'objects\'. The other side of the coin will be highlighted with reference to those kinds of knowledge transcending the limits of concept-formation – culminating in formulating the four most basic idea-statements philosophy can articulate about the universe. What is found “in-between” these (restrictive) and (expansive) boundaries of rationality will then briefly be placed within the contours of a threefold perspective on the self-insufficiency of logicality – as merely one amongst many more dimensions conditioning human life. Although the meaning of the most basic logical principles – such as the logical principles of identity, non-contradiction and sufficient reason – will surface in our analysis, exploring some of the complex issues in this respect, such as the relationship between thought and language, will not be analysed. The important role of solidarity – as the basis of critique – will be explained and related both to the role of immanent criticism in rational conversation and the importance of acknowledging what is designated as the principle of the excluded antinomy (which in an ontic sense underlies the logical principle of non-contradiction). The last section of our discussion will succinctly illuminate the proper place of the inevitable trust we ought to have in rationality – while implicitly warning against the rationalistic over-estimation of it (its degeneration into a rationalist “faith in reason”). Our intention is to enhance an awareness of the reality that rationality is embedded in and borders on givens which are not open to further “rational” exploration – givens that both condition (in a constitutive sense) and transcend the limits of conceptual knowledge. Some of the distinctions and insights operative in our analysis are explained in Strauss 2000 and 2003. Yet, most of the systematic perspectives found in this analysis of rationality are only developed in this article for the first time. Since a different study is required to discuss related problems and results found within cognitive science, it cannot be discussed within one article. S. Afr. J. Philos. Vol.22(3) 2003: 247–266

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