In the Cells of the Eggplant is a book in five Parts. They cover:
- Rationalism: The standard theory of how and when and why technical rationality works—which is, unfortunately, inadequate and misleading
- Mere reasonableness: Everyday informal reasoning and activity, which turns out to be necessary to make formal rationality work
- Rationality: A better explanation for how and when and why it works
- Meta-rationality: More effective use of rational systems through understanding how they relate to their contexts
- Applications: Some ways we can apply meta-rationality in specific fields.
Part One: Rationalism
Rationalism is the theory that because rationality is based in mathematics, it must always work. Practical rationality is not just math, though; it is the application of systematic thinking in real-world situations. Rationalism lacks an adequate theory of how math relates to reality, and so fails to recognize that rationality, unlike mathematics, is is often unreliable. This has been well-understood for half a century. Unfortunately, rationalism is still widely held, because better explanations are not easily available.
The Eggplant provides an alternative understanding of rationality, and of how to do it better. It’s based mainly on observations about how and when and why rationality does work, covered in Part Three.
However, it’s also motivated by specific ways rationalism doesn’t work. So Part One explains many ways rationalism fails to explain how rationality works in practice, with an eye to finding better understandings. The overall diagnosis is that rationalism fails to take nebulosity into account.
Part Two: Reasonableness
A better explanation for how, when, and why rationality works rests on an understanding of how, when, why mere reasonableness works. Reasonableness is thinking and acting that is not systematic, and therefore not technically rational, but that makes sense and is likely to work.
Informal reasoning is adequate for most everyday tasks. It usually deals with nebulosity effectively. How?
To find out, we need to take reasonableness seriously. We should not dismiss it—as rationalism often does—as irrelevant because it is irrational; nor imagine that it is a crude, weak-sauce approximation to true rationality. It addresses common issues systematic rationality can’t.
We need to investigate reasonableness as an empirical phenomenon. I will review some major features and dynamics of reasonable activity that have been discovered through rigorous observation. In summary, reasonableness works because it is context-dependent, purpose-laden, interactive, and tacit.
Part Three: Rationality
Systematic rationality aims for the opposite qualities: context-independence, purpose-independence, detachment, and explicitness. In some cases, it gains huge leverage by translating a problem from its nebulous real-world specifics into an abstract, formal realm. It solves the problem in that domain, and applies the formal solution to the real-world situation.
Why does rationality work? In large part, because we do practical work to make it work. We alter the world, as well as our thoughts and actions, to make them less nebulous, thereby making rationality more reliable.
Systematic rationality depends on reasonableness for three reasons:
- It relies on reasonableness to translate between the nebulous real world and a clear-cut formal abstraction of it. In most cases, this is a complex and nebulous matter of interpretation and negotiation. These are non-rational, but reasonable, cognitive activities.
- Perfect context-independence, purpose-independence, detachment, and explicitness can never be achieved. Rationality is, therefore, more similar to “mere reasonableness” than rationalism supposes.
- In practice, formal reasoning is almost always intertwined with informal cognition.
Rationality, from the meta-rational viewpoint, is not the optimal method for discovering truths. It is a jumble of disparate methods of understanding, which work more or less well in different sorts of situations. That makes it no less valuable. And, taking this more realistic view of how, when, and why rational methods work can help us apply them more effectively.
Part Four: Meta-rationality
Meta-rationality is reasoning about what rational methods to use, and how, in a specific situation. Effective meta-rationality depends on an accurate understanding of how, when, and why reasonableness, rationality, and meta-rationality work.
Part Four explains how meta-rationality evaluates, selects, creates, improves, and maintains rational systems—by understanding how they relate to their contexts and purposes, and often by modifying their surrounds as well.
It treats topics such as problem selection and problem formulation, the creation and revision of taxonomies and standards, building systems, and figuring out when to abandon a rational approach for alternatives.
Part Five: Applications
This Part provides examples of meta-rationality in practice; ways it may be used in fields such as software development, statistics, and entrepreneurship. It relies on case studies such as the development of the transistor, the invention of knowledge management systems, and the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS.