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Situated universal rationality

It may be said that there are two main forms of rationality: instrumental and categorical. The former says that rationality is relative to ends; an act is rational if it is efficacious in the achievement of a specific end. The latter implies that there is rationality in a categorical sense, which instrumental rationality must also presuppose. There is much debate on the virtues and vices of these options (e.g. Giere 1989; Laudan 1990; Siegel 1989, 1990, 1996). This is not the occasion to go into the details of that debate. It may well be the case that most of the rationality talk is about the instrumental optimization of the best means for achieving desired ends. However, it seems to me that there is also some more fundamental form of rationality, which cannot be easily reduced to the means-ends form.

Rescher has developed an interesting account of rationality in which the principle of rationality is universal, but its application nevertheless always circumstantial or situational: 'Although the rational resolution of an issue depends on the contextual circumstances, nevertheless, rationality is universal in the sense that anyone in just the same circumstances would be rationally well advised to adopt the same resolution' (1988, 1). Or as Rescher also expressed it: 'what is rational for one person is also rational for anyone else in his shoes' (1988, 158; similarly 1997,

7). The universality of rationality can be seen as the general force or impersonal compeller for accepting a certain account on the basis of its rational features. This is the sense in which I also differ from Rescher, who reduces rationality ultimately to instrumental rationality. My view is that a rationally persuasive argument has force due to certain inherent rational features that are best studied by and exemplified in logic and argumentation theory. There are features like the fundamental cognitive values of consistency, coherence, simplicity, etc. and forms of reasoning, of which deduction is but the most famous one. It is just normally compelling to accept an argument (or come up with a worthy counterargument) that appears devoid of contradictions and progresses step by step to a reasoned conclusion. One must find a fault in the reasoning, such as implied contradictions or an unwarranted jump in the link of reasoning, in order to cause its rational appeal to wither.

This kind of rational force based on the most fundamental principles of rationality is something very fundamental psychologically and cannot be easily reduced to an instrumental account. Of course, the goal of the historian is ultimately to persuade peers and readers to accept his or her account. One might therefore think that the historian could use any means whatsoever to achieve this end, including irrational and non-rational techniques. Yet this is a very odd sense of 'persuasion'. First, the goal of persuading one's peers and readers is too abstract and vague to provide tools and instructions regarding how to do so. What exactly should one do, if the only aim is to persuade others without any further information about the audience or the substance? My point is that the means-end approach is not sufficient to capture the nature of historiographical rationality. More important, if the rational features are universal, then the audience shares them with the historian on some fundamental level. And even if we ignore the question of universality, I believe that the readers of scholarly historiography expect and appreciate rational argumentation in any case, and are not content with mere propaganda, tricks or threats.

The rationality of a belief, action or evaluation requires that the agent must be in a position to 'give an account' in order to show others why it is appropriate to resolve the matter in a particular way. This is another way to express the idea, introduced in Chapter 9, that a historian's argumentative speech act is a move in the 'space of reasons', which also demands readiness to defend one's move. The circumstantiality or situationality of rationality means that one may appreciate the rationality of a judgment or action by someone else whose conditions, and therefore judgment, are different: 'While I myself do not believe or value these things, I can see that it is appropriate that some in the agent's circumstances should do so, and in consequence it was altogether sensible for the agent to have proceeded as he did' (Rescher 1988, 158). This notion of rationality is thus compatible with and sensitive to the variation of times, places and the 'thousands of details of each individual and situation' (Rescher 1988, 159). It may have been rational for Galen in his day to believe in a two-leveled circulatory system for blood, given his training and background beliefs, but it is not so for us anymore because circumstances have so fundamentally changed. More provocatively, 'The Siamese king who refused to believe that rivers solidify in northern countries at a certain season of the year was perfectly rational, the freezing of water into ice lying wholly outside of his experience' (Rescher 1988, 7).

Rationality is thus context-sensitive historically. Entirely rational people have justifiably arrived at radically different accounts because they have acted under different circumstances. The universality of reason does not therefore lead to insensitivity regarding the motives and reasons of past agents and to a presentist imperialism of rationality. And although specific historiographical arguments cannot be assumed to be universally, or perhaps globally, rationally forceful, this is only to be expected because the background beliefs and the state of the historiographical discourse are so different in different times and places. The fundamental principles of rationality, and their persuasiveness, may be seen as universal and shared over different times and locations, however. In brief, while it may be impossible to find an ideally rationally persuasive historical argument, the operative principles in the background are universal and shared at least among scholarly historians who, almost without exception, wish to produce consistent, coherent and well-exemplifying accounts. Their rates of success naturally vary significantly.

I should clarify that I do not mean that there is a God-given rationality or one with some other kind of supernatural origin with a capital 'R'.8 My point is that the concept of rationality cannot be exhaustively stipulated but it has boundaries, that is, that not just any kind of practice can be understood as and called 'rational'. In this specific sense, fundamentally, the same concept of rationality applies generally although rationality in its purest form may possibly never be applied in historiography. Indeed, it is very important to be open to historiography-specific applications of rationality. It may be that this conception of rationality ultimately reflects Western ethnocentrism that Rorty welcomed with open arms. I am concerned with historiography and its normative requirements as an academic discipline and historiography is deeply rooted in Western tradition, after all. And it is not clear that 'non-Western historiographies' differ fundamentally from the Western one with regard to rationality. Finally, this conception may not be satisfactory in the end, and it is certainly not meant to be a 'final' one. Nevertheless, I think it is best we have for now and therefore it is worth committing to it.

It admittedly is possible to imagine someone or some community that does not commit to the standards of rationality as we know them, either because of a refusal to do so or because 'rationality' is entirely absent. For example, there has been discussion concerning the Azande and Wazonga tribes (e.g. Bloor 1991, 139-141; Rescher 1988, 161-162) who do not have a concept of rationality or have a profoundly different conception of rationality than Westerners. I have no doubt that there are people and communities who desire to not play by the rules of rationality characteristic to Western academia, that is, critical discussion and a consequent an incorporation of received critique. More specifically, there may be entirely irrational or non-rational means for presenting history, perhaps in the form of a performance, for example. An adequate response here is that everyone is free to choose their community, but everyone is not free to choose their favored concept of rationality. First, I do not think that the notion of 'natural rationality' (Barnes 1976) necessarily makes sense. It would allow one to view radically deviant practices as displaying alternative conceptions of rationality with the consequence that any (seemingly irrational) behavior could qualify as 'rational' as long as it is somehow rule-bound and found to exist in some community. My view is thus that rationality is something more categorical, and the concept of rationality consequently has its limits, beyond which one cannot speak of rationality any longer. Second, scholarly historiography is ultimately guided, although not determined, by the rules of rationality, respect for evidence and the spirit of argumentation, but no-one is forced to belong to this kind of community and take part in the discourse of scholarly historiography. In that case, one chooses to stay out or step out of the academic community and elects to be part of another form of life. In the end, we are talking about alternative forms of life.

There may be nothing wrong with irrational or non-rational practices, but the principle of rationality forms the 'transcendental limit' of historiographical communities. This does not mean that rationality is necessarily some human universal, as humans can clearly be irrational, only that the concept of rationality is universal in the sense of setting the boundaries beyond which one cannot talk about rationality any more. Further, giving up the most fundamental principles of rationality means rejecting scholarly historiography and excommunicating oneself from its respective communities. Rationality is thus a kind of 'normative transcendental limit' of scholarly historiography. It is a choice and commitment that one must make in order to be a historian in the scholarly sense. Popper formulated his idea of scientific communities aptly and I think that it applies to historical communities too: 'The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game' (Popper 1997, 53).

Now I am coming to the very end of this final substantial chapter of the book. The last task is to outline the link between rationality and objectivity in a justificatory sense, as promised. I used Rescher's analysis in Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (1997) to make this connection. Objectivity in a justificatory sense has to do with the cogency of our claims: 'the question of whether a claim is impersonally and generically cogent rather than personal and idiosyncratic - whether it holds not just for me (egocentric objectivity) or for some of us (parochial subjectivity) but for all of us (impersonal or interpersonal objectivity)' (1997, 4). This kind of epistemic objectivity is tantamount to rational appropriateness, as discussed above. Naturally, it is hard, perhaps even impossible, to reach a universally impersonally compelling account of anything, due to variable conditions, situationality and the influence of non-rational factors. Still epistemic objectivity represents the ideal that scholarly communities must try to reach even when the presentations of history retain their subjectivist flavor in the ontological sense: that as many people as possible and in as many locations as possible see the sense and persuasiveness of what is claimed.

In historiography, there may be several rationally constructed interpretations of the same subject matter. The point is that others should be able to appreciate the inner rationality of the views, provided that they know and understand the context. In this sense, the call for 'impersonal reason' does not lead to 'dehumanization' but instead requires that we situate and see ourselves in the others' circumstances. Criticism of the lack of rationality from our perspective should also proceed from these premises. It is easy to see that objectivity in the epistemic sense is a matter of degree. The more rationally forceful and acceptable an account is, the more objective the account in this sense is. Helen Longino has suggested that we commit to objectivity as inter-subjective justification as the aim of science and has stipulated conditions that enhance the possibilities for reaching as highly justified account as possible (venue, uptake, public standards and tempered equality) (Longino 2002, 129-131). Further, Longino's point is that, if the communal process of knowledge production is successful, it produces something that transcends the contributions of any individual or sub-community (Longino 1990, 69). However, as noted above, due to the nature of historiography, that is, because it produces higher-order interpretations and colligations, subjectsided elements cannot (and should not) be removed. But it is a different matter to remove bias and the lack of rationality due to subjects' defects, omission and other errors. An account that owes to the subject-side can ideally be generally persuasive and compelling due to its rational features. In this sense, the presentations of historiography should aim at producing something that transcends, in its rational persuasiveness, the contributions of any individual or any community.


This chapter has focused on several significant concepts in philosophy: objectivity and subjectivity, the real, constructivism and rationality. I concluded that historiography can be located between subjectivity and objectivity, between the subject-side and the object-side, in both the ontological and epistemic sense. Another central suggestion is that although historiography clearly is constructivist in the sense that the historian creates cognitive products with subject-sided elements, the outcomes in historiography can be considered real if they are justified, that is, rationally warranted. In the end, it became clear why the governing concept of the postnarrativist philosophy of historiography, rationality, must be community-transcending. The reason is that the historian should aim at producing an argument that becomes as widely rationally persuasive as possible.

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