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Polity Press advertises their Key Concepts series as "a series of concise and accessible textbooks exploring core concepts in the social sciences." "The books" they tell us, "focus on concepts that have a high degree of complexity surrounding them, and they get to the heart of debates about meaning and usage." The concept of irrationality is certainly a prime candidate for such treatment.Irrationality is Lisa Bortolotti's second book for the series (after her 2008 Introduction to the Philosophy of Science). Irrationality is certainly concise and accessible, but it may not represent the sort of general introduction that one might expect from a series of this sort.
Irrationality is not a general introduction to the concept of irrationality. It does not provide a broad overview of different conceptions, nor does it provide an historical overview. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is contrary to what many might expect from a key concepts series; these sort of series are, after all, primarily aimed at undergraduate students who are encountering concepts for the first time. What Irrationality is, is an argument for a certain conception of irrationality within a certain range of discussions. This conception is presented through examinations of four "conceptions of irrationality," which are presented for didactic purposes rather than as views for the students to ultimately take seriously.
Bortolotti's main argument is that irrationality plays a prime and often positive role in our lives. In this sense, the book could perhaps have been better titled: "In Defense of Irrationality," or something similar. Indeed, at many points readers may get the sense that this is an apologetics for irrationality. Bortolotti has three aims: 1) Descriptive: She examines "some of the dominant conceptions of irrationality and highlight[s] elements of continuity and discontinuity among them." 2) Argumentative: Her "second aim is to challenge the assumption that human agency is rational agency." Her main argument is that "irrational behaviour should not be seen as the exception, as an unexpected deviation from the norm that needs to be explained away, but as a core feature of the behaviour of human agents." 3) Prescriptive: Her "third aim is to reassess the relation between the cognitive and the affective, and between intuitive or associative processes and deliberative ones" (p. 1). Here she argues for the value of emotions in "attitude formation, problem-solving, and decision-making," arguing that we can trust "emotions and intuitions in some contexts." "By the end of the book" she tells us, she "will have sketched a psychologically realistic, but not entirely pessimistic account of the relation between human agency and rationality" (p. 2). And in this regard the book is indeed a success.
A great part of the book's value lies in its portrayal of a reasonable middle-ground view of rationality and irrationality, of deliberation and intuition, and of reason and emotion. Her use of recent research in psychology and cognitive science contributes greatly to the success of this aim. And exposure to some of these debates and trends will be very beneficial for students.
Bortolotti rightfully points out that "irrationality" is primarily a pejorative term. It is used to describe behaviour that fails to satisfy some norms of "rationality." Just what these norms may be differs widely from context to context. Irrationality is, in a sense, in the eye of the beholder; it is a judgement passed on a person or their behaviour. Bortolotti defines "irrationality" as a breach in (contingent) norms of rationality. This is an important notion for students to understand. I would have liked to have seen some discussion of the historical uses of this term, which could have brought up the converse point: that "rationality" itself has, to a great extent, been defined by its other, "irrationality."
Bortolotti focuses her discussion of irrationality on the question of human agency. Her argument is that people generally take irrationality to "compromise" human agency, but this is not always the case. Her second major aim – "to challenge the notion that human agency is rational agency" – could also benefit from an historical introduction. There is a long and rich tradition of thought that does not presuppose that human beings are 100% rational actors or calculating machines, or even that we are primarily so.
Her focus on agency and agents as "those who act" (p. 2) entails a focus on goals and questions of costs vs. benefits. This is a profitable way to discuss irrationality, and a brief mention of the important role that the concept of irrationality has played in economic thought would have been a useful addition. The questions of cost and benefit in turn are related to questions of success or failure that loom large in the book. Bortolotti argues that we can be "successful" agents even if, and, in many cases because we are irrational. She combats the view that "one needs to engage in reflective deliberation to be a rational and successful agent." She tells us that "philosophical orthodoxy tells us that failure to let reason prevail over emotion is the main obstacle to living a good life and making wise choices" (p. 6). Bortolotti disagrees; and she presents compelling evidence from psychology and cognitive science to support this view. She argues that, far from being the norm, epistemic rationality is instead "an aspiration for human agents, but when its often demanding standards are not met, then it is still possible for humans to exercise agency, and to exercise it with some degree of success" (p. 10).
The book is broken up into four chapters as well as a brief introduction and conclusion. The chapters each follow a formula: Each chapter opens with an example from literature that depicts the kind of irrationality the chapter discusses. Then the chapter presents a conception of irrationality, which it then problematizes. Bortolotti defines the relevant conception of irrationality and shows the ways in which it is overly simplistic, where it is inaccurate, but also in which ways it may be prescient. And this, in turn, leads to a more balanced and positive view of this form of irrationality.
Chapter 1, "Irrationality and Interpretation," presents the problem of "reading" other people. It contests and complicates the idea that we can only successfully ascribe certain intentional states to others and predict their behaviour if they are rational (if their beliefs correspond to reality and are consonant with each other, if their thinking does not violate the basic standards of logic, and so on). The conception of irrationality she describes in this chapter is irrationality as precisely a breach of these supposed conditions of interpretability. She effectively shows that people break these conditions all of the time, and yet, we are still often (and mostly) able to predict their behaviour and correctly ascribe particular intentional states. She argues that intelligibility, rather than rationality is the key to interpretation and that we are often perfectly able to understand behaviour and ideas that break the so-called "rationality constraint." She presents a more balanced, modified interpretationalism that has much to recommend it. (Those interested should consult her book on delusions, listed below.)
Chapter 2, "Irrationality and Mental Health," focuses on a conception of irrationality as "the violation of the epistemic norms that allegedly underlie normal functioning." Here she argues against the idea that insanity and irrationality are one and the same thing or that the one causes the other, "that mental illness just is a breakdown of rationality and self-knowledge" and that mental illness necessarily negates agency (p. 8). Foucault frames her discussion of conceptions of "insanity" and "madness" (terms not currently used prominently in psychiatry). Her prime argument in this chapter is that "the irrationality of human agents is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for their insanity" (p. 47).
Psychiatrists may take pause at the fact that the first authority she discusses – in this chapter, which deals prominently with psychiatry – is Thomas Szasz, a prominent member of the anti-psychiatry movement. Bortolotti acknowledges that Szasz' views might be over-simplified, and she points to work being done in neurobiology, which is making it more difficult to "preserve the distinction between organic and functional disorders" for which Szasz argues. Bortolotti argues for a rethinking of the role that irrationality plays in the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, exploring this through a discussion of Schizophrenia. "Widespread irrationality" she tells us, "is a feature of normal cognition and is not reserved to those who have a diagnosis of mental illness" (p. 73). Irrationality is neither sufficient nor necessary to diagnose mental illness and "there is no necessary link between insanity and irrationality" (p. 78). Instead, "people with mental illness are distinguished… by the extent to which contact with reality is lost and the severity of the consequences… for their psychological well being and social functioning" (p. 79).
Chapter 3, "Irrationality and Choice," argues against the view that human agents primarily make choices by rational deliberation. This argument has two components, each backed up with examples: 1) We do not utilise rational deliberation in our decision-making most of the time. In fact, most of our decision-making involves emotions, intuition, and heuristics, and often we cover this up by rationalising our decisions post hoc. 2) Rational deliberation does not always lead to the "best" decisions. Our non-rational decision-making processes often lead to better results, or more "success."
Bortolotti's arguments and examples are here are good, but students may be left wondering who actually thinks that people are primarily rational calculating machines (and to return to the question of the lack of historical perspective: who, post-Freud, thinks this?). The kind of popular, common sense "folk psychological" knowledge that she points to so effectively in Chapter 1 (in relation to our ability to understand irrational behaviour and ideas), will also form a large part of the background knowledge (or baggage) that students will bring to this book. And in this realm of popular knowledge the notion that people are irrational much of the time, and that "trusting your gut" is often successful may not be seen as particularly novel.
And herein lies a pedagogical concern. Each chapter opens with a view of irrationality that is over-simplified and often obviously inaccurate and then proceeds to show that it is over-simplified and inaccurate. This is, of course, a traditional pedagogical approach. But it is an approach that can be off-putting to a student. Some may find it very helpful and engaging, but others may react differently. And instructors should take this into consideration when choosing textbooks. Overall, I find that Bortolotti is at her best when she responds to specific thinkers and ideas (such as her engagement with Dennett and Davidson in Chatper 1), and less compelling when she talks about "the typical portrayal" (p. 8), how things are "often regarded" (p. 119), what "philosophical orthodoxy tells us" (p. 6), or the ways we supposedly generally see X or Y issue, which can be frustrating. This is not, of course, to argue that some people do not see the world as either black or white, but that it should not come as a surprise to most reflective people that there is in fact a great deal of grey.
Chapter 4, "Irrationality and the World," focuses on a conception of irrationality that "involves the alleged clash between epistemic and pragmatic ends." Bortolotti challenges the view that the "epistemically rational agent is like a good scientist: she forms beliefs that are well supported by evidence and revises or abandons them when counter-evidence becomes available" (p. 10). Bracketing the question of how widespread is the belief that "human agents are (expected to be) everyday scientists" (p. 143), Bortolotti's arguments against this view are cogent and her evidence convincing.
In Chapter 4, Bortolotti argues that "cognitions that violate key norms of epistemic rationality may have pragmatic benefits in the context of the limitations of human cognition" and that failures of epistemic rationality do not always "compromise knowledge and happiness" (p. 10). Her arguments for this point are good, but her discussion of the history and philosophy of science in this chapter is dated. This is a complaint that a previous reviewer had with her Introduction to the Philosophy of Science in this same series (Machamer, Science & Education, 2012). The reviewer also pointed to issues with the level of detail that are also present in Irrationality: if one knows the field then there is little that is new (which is not a concern for introductory texts), but if one does not know the field there is not always enough information to situate oneself (which is a problem for introductory texts).
An example of this problem is her discussion of "belief," which assumes a particular philosophical conception, rooted in a particular philosophical debate. This could have been better explained to the student readers, who might take "belief" to mean "holding X to be true" and might be baffled by the question of whether some who holds X to be true has a belief, or is "actually engaging in an act of believing" (p. 42). The question of whether "beliefs can be ascribed to agents who believe impossible things" is formulated in a way that may be puzzling to students without further background information and explaining (p. 38, emphasis added). More explicit definition of key terms as the reader encounters them would help, as would a glossary.
Bortolotti's Irrationality is an interesting book, and it presents a range of ideas and questions that students would benefit greatly by examining. But it is not a general introduction to the concept of irrationality, which is what one might expect from a key concepts book. This book will not provide a broad introduction to the concept, its history, and the various positions and conceptions represented by the vast field of thinkers who have addressed this topic, or the many different disciplines and discussions in which irrationality has played an important role (the question of religion, for instance, is totally absent). One might expect a key concepts book to be a doorway that opens up to a broader world for students to go out into and explore. But Irrationalityoften feels like a self-contained ecosystem.
There is, however, much here that is valuable. And, as long as the reader is aware of what the book is and is not, Irrationality can be very rewarding for students. As a general introduction to the concept the book leaves much to be desired, but it is an excellent introduction to a specific set of issues within the philosophical/psychological discussion of irrationality. As such, it could be an excellent supplementary text in a course that gives the broader picture and puts Bortolotti's arguments into context.
© 2015 Mason Tattersall
Bortolotti, Lisa. Delusions & Other Irrational Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Machmar, Peter. "Lisa Bortolotti: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Polity Press, 2008." Science & Education (2012) 21:287-288.
Mason Tattersall, Oregon State University