Reasonableness is meaningful activity

Three people cooking together
Image courtesy Rhoda Baer

Reasonableness, in the way The Eggplant uses the word, is a quality of activity—stuff we do.1 It is reasonable to make an omelet for breakfast; it is not reasonable to make bismuth crystals for breakfast.

In this chapter, we’ll understand “activity” and “meaningfulness” partly by contrast with rationality. Formal rationality is mostly not about doing stuff, and it depends on meaninglessness.

In Part Three, we’ll build an understanding of rationality on top of the understanding of meaningful activity developed here in Part Two. Giving explanatory priority to concrete activity in specific situations, rather than to disembodied abstract reasoning, is an example of the “ethnomethodological flip.”

Activity is a flow involved in a specific situation

Activity is a seamless flow that continues throughout life. At any moment, activity is involved in a unique, meaningful situation: at a meaningful time, in a meaningful place, with meaningful social and material accompaniments; from all of which it is inseparable. You are always already doing something, other activities are already in flow around you, and you get on with it.

Reasonable activity is in unstopping, intimate contact with the world. You continually perceive relevant aspects of your situation and adjust your activity to account for contextual features. Within a fraction of a second, your hand adjusts the angle of the milk carton as you see or feel it pouring too quickly into your cereal bowl. (The upcoming chapters on routineness and meaningful perception explain more about how this works and what it implies for rationality.)

For reasonable activity, the context is both the “problem” and the resource for addressing it.2 Your concrete circumstances include obstacles to whatever you are trying to do, so stuff constantly goes wrong; but the situation also includes the cues and the equipment you need to get the task done, and to repair most trouble you run into.

Rationality is mostly not about activity

Part Two consistently uses the word “activity,” sometimes in places “action” might sound better. That emphasizes its continuing, interactive quality, in contrast with rationalist theories of action.

Criteria of rationality typically apply to abstract solutions to formal problems. A deduction is rational if it’s in accord with the rules of logic; a decision is rational if it’s in accord with the rules of decision theory.

Rationality is powerful because it is not about specific activities and situations. If a rational analysis is correct, it doesn’t matter who did the work, or how. It doesn’t matter whether they used paper and pencil or a spreadsheet; it doesn’t matter if they got it wrong three times first; it doesn’t matter that they were totally stressed out because they were in the middle of a messy divorce and that’s why they had trouble. Anyone can verify the solution, and the activity that led to it is irrelevant.

Rationality derives its power from context-stripping, from abstraction, from detachment. It aims for universal theories, context-independent generality, solutions for whole classes of problems; not just muddling through on a one-off, any-old-way, good-enough basis.

That power comes at the cost of disconnection from reality. As we saw in the chapter on reference in Part One, formal rationality can never be in direct contact with the world. In rationalist usage, an “action” is a formal object, not a real-world event. It is one of the possible outputs of a mathematical computation. It is a member of a well-defined set of clearly distinct possible actions, an identical instance of a formal type, not a complex, unique, material occurrence. Rationality abstracts a real-world situation into a formal problem, finds a formal solution consisting of a formal action or actions, and then considers itself done with the job.

In Part Three, we’ll see how rationality depends on reasonableness to bridge the gap between representations and effective action. That makes Part Two, explaining reasonable activity and meaningful perception, a prerequisite.

Reasonable activity is immediately meaningful

To count as reasonable, activity must be meaningful in at least two ways.

Meaninglessness is a key to rationality

By contrast, rational knowledge and methods are not purpose-specific, and often make no sense. That is the source of their power, and also their limitations.

Rationality mostly aims to produce or apply theoretical knowledge that is independent of specific purposes. Newton’s equation for gravitational force has numerous practical applications, but the theory itself is general-purpose. There is a sense in which rationality is, and indeed should be, disinterested.

Rational work is not pointless. You do it for reasons, but they are typically remote in space, in time, or in abstraction level, and are not immediately perceptible. You may perform chemical experiments in hopes of developing a better car battery, as a way of addressing climate change. There is, however, no electric car and no sea level rise evident in the laboratory.

Rationality is not meaningless overall, but meaninglessness plays a central role in it. That is a key aspect of formality.

A formal solution has to remain valid under arbitrary changes in meaning. For example, from “all ravens are black” and “Huginn is a raven,” it is valid to conclude that Huginn is black. Therefore, it must also valid to conclude from “all wampets are hudon” and “Snorri is a wampet” that Snorri is hudon—even though “wampet” and “hudon” are meaningless. If your decision theoretic analysis tells you to abstain from buying tickets in the Dutch national lottery, you also should accept its telling you not to divorce your spouse, so long as the payoff matrix has the same numbers in it. The math doesn’t “know” what it is “about.”

Rational inference often makes no sense; and its senselessness is part of what gives it its extraordinary power. Much of what we know from science is empirical and inexplicable. Demanding a reasonable account relinquishes its value.

  1. 1.In common usage, “reasonable” is also something people are (or aren’t). That sort of judgement is not relevant here, although to say that someone is reasonable is pretty much the same as saying things they do are usually reasonable, in pretty much the same sense as that of The Eggplant. In ordinary usage, “reasonableness” may also imply “agreeableness.” That’s not an intended sense here.
  2. 2.I put quotation marks around “problem” because making breakfast does not usually involve problems in the everyday sense of the word. This is a significant point that we’ll come back to.