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IrrationalityReview - Irrationality
An Essay on Akrasia, Self-Deception, and Self-Control
by Alfred R. Mele
Oxford University Press, 1987
Review by CP
Dec 4th 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 48)

Irrationality demonstrates very well both the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary mainstream philosophy. The aim of the book is to provide an analysis of what irrationality is, and what it tells us about ourselves. Written in 1987, it was Mele's first and shortest book, and it is also, by far, his clearest and most interesting book. Although it is full of references to the philosophical literature, and would be hard for someone without a good deal of knowledge of contemporary philosophy to understand, Mele does use many examples of ordinary irrationality in order to explain his points. This use of examples helps the reader greatly.

Mele's project is to understand irrationality of thought and irrationality of action. In particular, he is interested in "motivated irrationality," to use a phrase of David Pears. This occurs when a person's feelings or emotions get in the way of her rational thought process. The first half of the book is devoted to "akrasia," which is a technical philosophical term for weakness of will. For instance, a person may give into the temptation of eating an extra serving of food when he knows he shouldn't. The second half of the book is devoted to self-deception, which what happens when one's emotions lead one to believe one thing when one knows the evidence points in the other direction. A middle aged man's vanity may lead him to believe, despite clear evidence, that his hair is just as thick and full as it was when he was twenty.

The kind of understanding Mele offers is not about what causes irrationality or how best to avoid it: it is rather about how we can consistently describe irrationality without paradox, contradiction, or unnecessary assumptions. His aim is to give the simplest account possible of irrationality which is still adequate for our purposes. Thus, he argues that for a person to be self-deceived does not mean that she holds contradictory beliefs, and furthermore, that the formation of the self-serving belief is not intentionally done.

What is especially noteworthy about this book is the way that Mele integrates philosophy and psychology. He gives a useful survey of important contemporary research of irrationality by academic psychologists. He then uses this information to support his philosophical theories. Especially impressive is his use of the work of Mischel on delayed gratification and Ainsley on impulsiveness. His inclusion of the research of Nisbett and Ross, Kahneman, and Tversky has also been influential for the philosophical discussion of seef-deception.

In later work, Mele has pursued the themes of what it is to perform intentional actions and what it is to have control over oneself at much greater length. In his subsequent two books and in many articles, he has made his arguments far more detailed and laborious. But it is here that he stated his essential views most eloquently and powerfully, and Irrationality is an essential starting point for anyone interested in the current philosophical discussion of this topic.


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