Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.


I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

alice-heart1 copy


Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.


source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.


Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–stevetobin.com




Reasonable, calming…

Campaign rhetoric is  hardly deserving of the name. The commentator who attempts to persuade or question through the means of valuable, thoughtful rhetoric endeavors to avoid fallacies and ballyhooing. But such commentators are scarce as hen’s teeth. Apparently, we citizens of the USA are not considered intelligent enough, are not respected enough, by our politicians and their media handlers to be worthy of genuine discourse or reasonable argument. We are also far too emotional and prone to grand-standing and stereotyping, the media-savvy promoters must imagine. With a certain amount of dismay, I admit there may be some truth to that pathetic view of the average US voter; but I want to believe we are better than that.

In the thick of a presidential election, therefore, I find it pleasant to retreat to the calming, reasonable, optimistic (though cautioning) prose of Marilynne Robinson. For those of you who, like me, feel a sickening pressure around the whole election brou-ha-ha, I suggest a few hours reading and re-reading her recent book of collected essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson makes no secret of her perspectives as a Christian, Protestant, US citizen, and reasonable, thinking, person of letters (humanities canon through and through…). She also establishes how her perspective widens rather than narrows her views, offers her “gentler” interpretations of the Old Testament and of Calvin’s writing and teachings, and argues her opinion with an erudition, elegance, simplicity and wisdom that is exceedingly rare today, particularly during presidential election years…and among people identifying themselves as “Christians.”

In “Open Thy Hand Wide,” Robinson parses the difference between rationality and reason and reminds us of what the word “liberal” originally meant (and how its meaning has changed and become vague). By the way, though a rational person in terms of her use of rhetoric, Robinson is squarely in the arena of reason, which she defines — with sources, thank you — as less numerical and more courageous and intuitive, ie human, than the merely rational.

Is her work ever political? Is it ever not political? It depends upon  how one defines “political.” Robinson is deeply engaged with the human community. I think she would agree with Lewis Mumford on the city’s best purpose as being there to protect the welfare of its citizens, even the least of its citizens, and would agree that one of the most significant values of civilization is the creation of art. Certainly she here asserts that the highest purpose of nationhood is to establish justice (civic, human justice), to keep domestic peace within the nation itself, to secure freedom and liberty for all members of the society equally, and to keep the populace safe while promoting the common welfare of all the people.

I believe she is well aware–though she doesn’t say it even  once in this book–that this stance makes her a classic patriot, a defender of the US Constitution, even as it also means that she can easily be branded a “liberal” for her well-argued stance that the USA was not established as a capitalist nation but as a generous democratic one devoted to the public welfare (ie, “good”), and what the difference between those theories are.

Just a week or two ago, I visited the US Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The performance offered there (“We the People”) and the interactive and non-interactive exhibit halls do a good job of reminding US citizens that the Constitution is a living document that established a government like no other before it, a document amenable to change and interpretation even as it establishes fundamental rights. Let us look at the Preamble and connect it with Robinson’s essays and ideas:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Reasonable. Generous–even Liberal. Secure for the people–no caving in to irrational fears; offering human justice because divine justice is not for us to determine; defense, not aggression; attentiveness to the general welfare (not of the privileged few)…and liberty: the chance to live as safe a life as God and the randomness of earthly environments allow without the oppression of other human beings to weigh us down.

You really have to read Robinson’s measured, calm prose and clear reasoning to feel the optimism; I cannot do it justice. I will just say that reading her book has made me feel much less depressed during a time when lack of discourse and logic has made me almost lose my hope about the democratic process.

Molte bene, Marilynne.

5 good things

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes psychological research that strongly suggests human beings have stronger responses to negative events or stimuli than to positive ones. That makes sense; for survival reasons, it is “wise” to be able to recognize threats or aggression rapidly. Once humans understand this fact of our natures, however, we ought to be able to put its effects into rational perspective…if we are rational human beings.

Kahneman cites a study that looked at marriages and found that, in a marriage the spouses described as “happy,” each partner said or did five pleasant things for every one unpleasant comment or action. The five-to-one ratio turns out to be a steady one in other types of psychological research into mood, threat-response, and attitude assessments among employees, family members, and groups.

In other words, we have to do five nice things to outweigh the emotional effect of one unpleasant thing. Which is, by the way, irrational. A rational equation would be one-to-one for a neutral emotional grounding, and two nice events would (rationally) make up for one nasty remark. Philosophers would agree, but given that human nature is not as rational as we often like to believe, philosophers also readily understand the problem of what Stephen Covey has called “the emotional bank account.” That one negative situation taints our moods pretty severely, even though it should not. The emotional bank account draws down very rapidly if we consider that 5-to-1 ratio.

I propose that we learn from this research to practice five actions as we navigate the challenges of getting along with other people:

1) Try harder to do those so-called random acts of kindness. Smiling is a good start.

2) Repress at least a few of our negative markers (frowns, sarcastic remarks, resentful sighs).

3) Identify more good things people do so we realize that good things do occur.

4) Try to teach ourselves to be more rational when negative things happen.

5) Remember that others are recalling the one bad thing, just as we do, and let it go.

It’s harder than you’d think, but it isn’t impossible. Neither easy nor hard: the middle way.

Here are five good things I encountered today:

Pansies (viola × wittrockiana). Daffodils (narcissus). Chickadees (poecile atricapillus). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3 (1932).

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael