Rationality itself consists of essential limitations that until we recognize, we cannot act according to those limits and still consider ourselves epistemically moral and rational (for “good reason”), which might help us maintain existential stability. In other words, if we don’t accept the ways thinking is useless, paradoxical, and/or ironic, we cannot reinvent what constitutes “being rational,” for we fail to change our organizing truth. What a people believe is “true” is what that people will emergently and organically organize themselves “toward,” and if that truth and/or truths are poor ones, the people will reflect that impoverishment. Similarly, to allude to The Absolute Choice on Hegel, if we understanding that the ontological and metaphysical foundation of reality is A/B versus A/A, then it becomes “epistemically responsible” to engage in A/B, for A/A is unveiled to be essentially incomplete and ultimately self-effacing.
To allude to “The True Isn’t the Rational” and “Belonging Again,” both by O.G. Rose, all worldviews must structurally consider compromise as intellectual betrayal, even if “finding a middle ground” is the only practical way to resolve an issue, enable the government to function, and so on. If I believe abortion is murder, then supporting a bill that doesn’t entirely dismantle abortion clinics could be for me to spread injustice; if I believe Global Warming will cause the world incredible suffering, then any position that helps Big Oil could be unjust; if I believe Christ is the Son of God, then all activities that treat Christianity as equal to other religions might not only be promoting a lie but possibly contribute to people suffering damnation; and so on. This isn’t to say that, through hermeneutics and theology, a take on Christianity cannot arise that believes in Universalism (for example) but it is to case that if this Christianity arises, it must mean in its structure that those who don’t believe in Universalism are wrong, and thus compromise with those people would be to some degree a violation of the truth.
We cannot believe in x without thinking that those who don’t believe in x are wrong. Even if we think that “everyone is right,” we thus think that those who claim “not everyone is right” are mistaken. Embedded in the structure of belief itself is exclusion and definition, and thus worldviews must structurally be against compromise (to some degree). Since rationality is relative to truth, ideologies make compromise irrational, and thus people who are trying to be intellectually and rationally coherent must always be against that which is necessary in our Pluralistic Age: accepting tragedy, accepting compromise, engaging in “substantive democracy,” etc. Rationality is not enough: it is what both threatens and empowers Pluralism.
It is not only irrationality that makes people against compromise but also rationality. The solution is not more knowledge, but increased awareness of the nature and structure of ideology and rationality themselves. Though often good, increased knowledge might only strengthen the structure of our ideology and worldview: such will not necessarily help us see how the structures of worldviews themselves set us up to rationally and justly self-destruct.
Essential limits are those which operating according to is not a shortcoming, but rational, understandable, and epistemically reasonable (to allude to W.K. Clifford). Thus, if we understand that worldviews in their structure must make compromise irrational and self-betrayals, then we can understand that compromise is still rational “in the space between worldviews,” which is to say “in the environment of Pluralism.” Understanding the essential limits of rationality can then enable us to be rational, epistemically responsible, and intellectually stable to ourselves anew and differently (A/B), which increases the likelihood that the majority will in fact engage in compromise.
In his book Man and the State, Jacques Maritain wrote on the problem of finding reconciliation between competing worldviews and stressed the need to focus on practical grounds for reconciliation as opposed to grounds where different philosophical and/or theoretical views converged. On the topic of human rights to make broader points, Maritain wrote:
‘Yet it would be quite futile to look for a common rational justification of these practical conclusions and these rights. If we did so, we would run the risk of imposing arbitrary dogmatism or of being stopped short by irreconcilable differences. The question raised at this point is that of the practical agreement among men who are theoretically opposed to one another.’¹
‘Since the aim of UNESCO is a practical aim, agreement among its members can be spontaneously achieved, not on common speculative notions, but on common practical notions, not on the affirmation of the same conception of the world, man, and knowledge, but on the affirmation of the same set of convictions concerning action.’²
‘[T]he present state of intellectual division among men does not permit agreement on a common speculative ideology, nor on common explanatory principles. However, when it concerns, on the contrary, the basic practical ideology and the basic principles of action implicitly recognized today […] happen to constitute grosso modo a sort of common residue, or a sort of unwritten common law, at the point of practical convergence of extremely different theoretical ideologies and spiritual traditions.’³
What Maritain saw happening has only intensified with Pluralism: now, more than ever, we need to cease trying to find agreement on speculative grounds and focus on the concrete (though we have to be careful not merely Pragmatists, as discussed in “Phenomenological Pragmaticism” and my work on Nietzsche). If people knew what Maritain argued here, and if his argument was somehow proven or provided “good reason to believe it,” then what was considered the rational life could change, and what was once “epistemically immoral” could become “epistemically responsible.” Maritain also wrote:
‘If a theoretical reconciliation, a truly philosophical synthesis, is desired, this could only come about as a result of a vast amount of probing and purification, which would require higher intuitions, a new systematization, and the radical criticism of errors and confused ideas […]’⁴
Arguably, what “a truly philosophical synthesis” requires is an incredible brilliant majority of people, but under Pluralism I’m not even sure if that’s possible considering that each worldview operates according to different axioms and “first premises.” If indeed it is the case that such a synthesis is not possible (between some ideologies at least), then this is all the more reason why our understanding of what constitutes rationality should shift. If it is the case that rationality indeed consists of the “essential limits” described in this work, then not only is it rational to compromise on Maritain’s more practical grounds, but also rational on rational grounds (compromise is not an intellectual conceit). To allude to “Story Democracy” by O.G. Rose, it becomes “rational” to “enter the stories of others.”
Please note that a “practical middle ground” isn’t necessarily going to be “the centrist position”: in one instance, the “practical middle ground” might happen to be a Liberal position; in another, the Conservative (and do note that “practical middles” might be needed precisely when they are least wanted). Also, it should be admitted that Maritain’s proposal still leaves open some questions: Which ideologies should be part of the discussion between which “pragmatic solutions” can be determined? Is there a difference between the ideology of a society and the actual ideologies people practice? Is the goal of a practical consensus progress, and if so, what constitutes “progress?” Should a single worldview define the notion or should it be defined according to what “appears” across multiple worldviews (like a pattern)? Should progress be defined by what reduces pain? What kind of pain? Should the goal be to increase “the good?” But what is the good? And how do we determine the difference between a practical and a philosophical position?
And so on — these are large and important questions, but if we at least know that working with people who think different from us isn’t intellectual betrayal, we can at least know which roads we can and should travel.
Pluralism is devolving into tribalism not just because people are irrational, but also because people are trying to stay true to their rationality (which is indivisible from their truth). People do generally try to be “rational actors,” but since “rational” and “best” (or “true”) are not similes, this fact doesn’t tell us very much. Failure to understand that “rational” and “best” aren’t similes has lead us to dismiss the idea that people are “rational actors,” which though somewhat justified, can also go too far and contribute to us believing that democracy, debate, and the like can accomplish little. Under this thinking, democracy can be a threat to “our” country, and avoiding “the other” can also become a rational course of action. Power and force seem to become destiny.
We have long emphasized the need of education and rationality for democracy to work, but so cherishing these ideals, we might have ignored their “essential limits.” Worldviews have always consisted in their structure a rendering of compromise immoral, and Pluralism is simply showing us the world that we’ve always been in: it is unveiling the world, not changing it. Worldviews and ideologies are necessarily “exclusive truth claims” (as Timothy Keller has argued), and thus they are necessarily against compromise in of themselves: those who live according to an ideology (as we all do) must locate “the rationally justified grounding for compromise” in “the space between” ideologies (A/B); otherwise, they will struggle to feel existentially stable about what they are doing (even though it’s necessary for Pluralism to avoid self-destruction — another reality which can help ground us). If it is indeed the case that ideologies ultimately diverge at the level of axioms (as suggested by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions), this knowledge too can help individuals intellectually and existentially cope with “compromise.”
Worldviews are not alone in structurally consisting of paradox: justice, goodness, and perhaps all human values find themselves in similar situations. Justice is realized by processes which threaten justice (court systems can be corrupted, lawyers can fail, etc.), and yet without these processes justice could prove oppressive. Goodness is defined based on “ideas of what constitutes the good,” but to those who don’t agree with these ideas, those who are “trying to do good” can be seen as forces of injustice. Truth is likewise arrived at through subjectivity, which means truth must be defined out of that which could make it a falsity. Values are often if not always in tension with the means by which they are realized, practiced, and preserved, and so it goes regarding the society in which worldviews are situated and organized. We are always at risk, but that is perhaps also why we can realize value.
Let us explore an example of why a failure to accept limits is practically consequential. As argued in “The Tragedy of Us” and “Ironically,” both by O.G. Rose, reality is tragic and ironic: it consists of “trade-offs between competing goods” and countless instances of efforts and means for certain ends leading to the undermining of those very ends. As Martha Nussbaum discusses, failure to have a category of “tragedy” in a people’s thinking profoundly hurts the democracy, because when leaders must make “tragic decisions,” they will likely be thought of as failing to “find a solution,” and thus government will only ever be broken (likely leading to a collapse of trust in institutions and all the resulting fallout). The people will then quickly get disenchanted with the State, and the rising of an “outsider who will fix the status quo” becomes likely (as will totalitarianism).
The philosophical categories a people lack will have profound influence on the limits through which they are able to understand their world, and consequently how they should act and respond. If I don’t know about “tragedy” and think the world is a collection of “problems and solutions,” then when the State makes a (necessary) tradeoff between privacy and safety (for example), I could easily conclude the government failed to find a solution. I will then have “rational and justified reason” to think the people in office should be removed and that the government has failed: for doing the best they possible could (tragedy), the government will have failed and be deserving of punishment.
If I don’t view the world as a “conflict of visions” and fail to understand that ideological differences are ultimately axiomatic, then I will easily think differences in opinion are simply differences in education and intelligence, and thus that there is no (epistemically immoral) reason for compromise, only more education (that makes people think like me). When more education fails to bring about change, I will then have to conclude that people are either stupid or evil, incapable of learning, or deliberating ignoring the truth. Thinking this way about people who disagree with me, democracy will likely become an impossible if not foolish ideal.
There are essential limits to what education can accomplish, precisely because there are essential limits to rationality itself and because the world itself is tragic and ironic. If we understand and believe this, then it becomes rational and “epistemically responsible” to not try to use education to solve the world’s problems in place of compromise (which again, our ideology will be against in its structure).
If believing rationality is limited is rational, then its rational to act and live according to those limits, but if proof or at least “good reason” cannot be provided that rationality indeed entails essential limits, then it cannot be “epistemically responsible” to compromise amid Pluralism (suggesting the necessity of “conceptual meditation” in Hegel). If we don’t know that we lack a philosophical category of “tragedy” and “irony” in our thinking, then we cannot stop ourselves from realizing that what seems to be “a failure of the democratic order” is rather just a necessary tradeoff between freedom and equality, privacy and safety, etc. (“complete victory” is unnecessary and impossible). Ideas matter, for they are by which people decide what constitutes the proper practice and means by which they interpret and understand the world. Interpretation is inescapable, and thus interpretation matters like ideas.
Self-skepticism matters, for it helps connect knowledge to practice. If I know about confirmation bias but don’t practice self-skepticism, then “confirmation bias” will just be a lens through which I see and understand others, but it won’t be an idea that I use on myself. If I know that people can be wrong, that freedom isn’t everything, that self-skepticism is important, and so on, but don’t regularly ask myself, “How do I know I’m right?” or “How do I know which freedoms are good?” or the like, then I will fail to “live through” my knowledge (there will always be a disconnect, and do note that the person who practices self-skepticism thirty minutes ago will not necessarily be someone practicing self-skepticism tomorrow — we can never take our self-skepticism for granted.)
Self-skepticism is also important in that it can help us practically iron out the essential tensions between competing values (or at least helps us maintain existential stability about our tragic choices). If I must choose between privacy and safety, and yet I am also self-skeptical of my bias for increased privacy, then I won’t always assume privacy is the better route when “a tradeoff decision” arises — I’ll more likely examine each situation carefully and critically on its own terms. Sometimes I’ll choose privacy over safety, other times the opposite, and operating as such, I’ll prove much more likely to find a “practically beneficial balance” (though it isn’t easy to say exactly what constitutes that balance).
As discussed throughout The True Isn’t the Rational, we all naturally experience our rationality as “autonomous,” for we experience and think everything through our rationality, which makes it seem like everything is always rational (solely). To not fall into this natural way of thinking, we basically just have to “know better,” an act of which itself is “nonrational,” and yet the moment we think this thought it will seem like rationality “on its own” made this realizations (because rationality so quickly “consumes” the nonrational into itself). We basically just have to “know” the nonrational played a role, and a functioning Pluralism will be one in which the average person “just knows” that their worldview, ideology, and the like is “nonrationally grounded.” This will not be natural (as A/B is unnatural versus natural A/A), and yet this way of thinking will be paramount. If the average person proves incapable of it, we will suffer for it.
Maintaining Pluralism requires the right ideas, and where there are no epistemic adjustments for Pluralism, existential anxiety will rise and totalitarianism will gain in appeal to restore existential stability (to allude to “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose). Where people fail to understand that worldviews must necessarily reject compromise as epistemologically irresponsible, as is necessary in Pluralism, people will struggle to compromise without feeling like they are betraying themselves, leading them to anxiety and worse (where A/B becomes increasingly needed, if we are stuck in A/A, we will suffer). Where people don’t understand tragedy and irony, democracy will be unable to engage in necessary and unavoidable “tradeoffs” without being seen as failing, increasing the likelihood that people will become disillusioned about it. Where people don’t practice self-skepticism, the likelihood that knowledge and practice connect is slim: knowledge will likely only be used as a weapon against others.
This work hopes to highlight how rationality can operate rationally according to its essential limits if people believe and are taught those limits (hence a purpose of The True Isn’t the Rational and The Absolute Choice). Regardless what people believe, those limits will be present, but if people don’t learn about them, people will still define “being rational” as operating like those limits don’t exist (A/A). Outlining and describing the nature and limits of rationality itself is pivotal if we are to redefine what constitutes “being rational” in a manner that accepts the limits of rationality (A/B), and if we fail to teach people how they can be “rational actors” without ignoring the limits of rationality, we will potentially imply to people who strive to “be rational” that it is a waste of time. If rationality is abandoned versus redefined (with a new truth about rationality itself, A/B), both democracy and Pluralism will suffer. Existential anxiety will spread, increasing the likelihood of totalitarianism.
I do not mean to imply in this paper that rationality is all we need or that it is more important than other intellectual acts like empathy, creativity, or emotional intelligence: rationality is only a part of a needed whole. Also, as rationality needs to be redefined with its limits, so rationality also needs to incorporate acts like empathy into itself (as “being rational” to engage in), precisely because empathy is needed for truth to be best approximated (as argued in “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose). As rationality needs to understand it’s limits, it also needs to expand its horizons.
Rationality can be used to benefit the powerful, to oppress minorities, and to legitimize mistreatment, and yet at the same time rationality can be used to generate democratic debate, to express ideas, and to help us determine the best course of action. Rationality can be a function of power, yet not all functions of power are necessarily bad (say when the State stops murderer), and a society without any power at all would be one that’s justice would be meaningless. Power and rationality, depending on how they are used, can make the world a better place, but when their limits and abuses are misunderstood or unknown, it is more likely they will be used for ill.
Lastly, there can be as many rationalities as there can be truths (a point hopefully made clear in “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose): in saying that “rationality is needed,” I don’t mean to claim “the rationality is needed,” but for people to be logical relative to what they believe is truth, for them to ascent to the validity of syllogisms they cannot deconstruct, for them to define their terms, for them to seriously consider opposing views, for them to avoid logical fallacies, and so on (we need people to “intellectually follow what is given”). This doesn’t mean that people will always reach the same conclusions, but that people likely will do so when operating according to the same premises and logic. Indeed, people rarely do share axioms, but if when they do they still can’t agree, then there is little hope.
In closing, society benefits when people prize “being rational,” but if rationality is portrayed as a perfect and limitless ideal (A/A), it won’t be long before people notice the myth, and when so, they may throw the baby out with the bathwater. The answer is to for us to understand the truth about rationality and its essential limits, and in so doing redefine what it means to be epistemically moral and rational. Since people operate according to what is rational relative to their truth (which is not always best), it would seem to me that redefinition is paramount: disillusionment with rationality is ultimately disillusionment with ourselves. This isn’t to say that rationality is all we need, but like food, it’s needed.
¹Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. The University of Chicago Press, 1951: 76.
²Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. The University of Chicago Press, 1951: 77.
³Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. The University of Chicago Press, 1951: 78.
⁴Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. The University of Chicago Press, 1951: 79.