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rationality and reason

martin hollis

Subject Sociology

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631221647.2002.x


Enlightenment thinkers declared the human mind and human society to be as rational as the other operations of nature and as amenable to scientific reason. The history of the social sciences could be written as an unfinished debate about the truth of this conjecture. Definitions of ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’ would be part of the debate, and so cannot usefully be given at the start of this entry. The conjecture is ‘rationalist’ in three very different senses. Firstly it involves a broad contention that nature is a rational (in the sense of ordered) system of causes and effects, governed by laws which a scientific method (Reason) can discover. In whatever exact way this causality is construed, it excludes meaning and purpose from the workings of nature and absolves science from thinking in these older terms about God's designs. It also excludes chance; but there is scope for a reluctant compromise by means of theory of probability, which allows for a limited element of unpredictability. ‘Positivism’, as the term is used in the social sciences, applies this broad philosophy of nature and science to the social world. To philosophers, however, ‘positivism’ suggests ‘logical positivism’, a sharp form of empiricism and hence opposed to rationalism. In this second sense rationalists think of causal laws in terms of hidden forces and necessities, in the spirit of the Cartesian and Newtonian ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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