Aspects of Rationality: Reflections on What It Means To Be Rational and Whether We Are

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This in itself calls for a deep reflection about the reasonableness of the Enlightenment project of pure reason. Ever since the triumph of scientism in the late 19th and early 20th century, reason as logic and rational inquiry has been hailed as a trait of modernity not because we want to grasp the reality of things in the Greek sense of the term but because a purely rational order is believed to enable us to have full control over the world.

The instrumental rationality that defines our value schemes, educational systems, political orders and daily lives provides handy justification for control, predictability and dominion and gives a largely false sense of security, satisfaction and fulfillment [6]. It asserts that things are important because they have a use-value for us.

Reason in the modern period has oscillated between the two extremes of logical positivism and radical historicism. The former view, represented by the Vienna Circle and its followers, has construed reason as an absolute and timeless principle unaffected by history, custom or such human frailties as emotion and desire. Rationality simply means proving that our concepts correspond to facts. It means drawing conclusions which fit the facts at hand. No other criteria count as a basis for rationality, and the value of everything from religion to art and education must be judged according to the logical and scientific dictates of this a-historic reason.

Thus the values by which we are to live must be derived from the facts of nature which we must investigate through rational inquiry and logical analysis. All else is to be rejected as metaphysical nonsense. Reduced to a function of reasoning as formal logic, existence, too, is reduced to a logical term with no meaning and force outside logical-linguistic constructions [8]. The second view, represented by the waves of postmodernism and constructivism since the s, deconstructed reason to the point of turning it into a by-product of social-historical processes.

Like all other human traits and enterprises, reason is a historically constructed notion whose meaning and function varies from one social setting to another. Rationality means applying the human capacity for thinking to different problem-solving situations. It has meaning only in the context of specific issues, problems or research questions. Depending on the different types of human needs, rationality takes on new meanings and new functions. The defenders of this bounded view of reason insist that this is not to belittle the significance of reason or propose an irrational way of doing things.

Rather, it is to admit the limitations of human reason. In this sense, rationality does not necessarily mean drawing conclusions that fit the facts. The concept of reason has had a different trajectory in the Islamic tradition and avoided the extremes of positivist absolutism and radical relativism. The reason that emerged within the islamic Weltanschauung proposed a different mode of thinking about existence, the universe, the human state and God. It was seen as part of a larger reality rather than a self-regulating principle and self-standing tool.

As I shall discuss below, it is this integrated and wholesale view of reality that underlies the Quranic mode of thinking about reason and rationality. Before moving further, a word of clarification is in order for the reason-intellect bifurcation that has come about as a result of a major philosophical transformation in the history of Western metaphysics.

Practical Reason

I shall not venture into this history as it requires a detailed treatment. It should be briefly pointed out, however, that ratio and intellectus came to designate two separate ways of looking at reality in the late Middle Ages and ever since then the two terms have taken different paths. Ratio has been used for logical analysis, abstraction, deduction, drawing conclusions, and other logical functions of reason. In this broad sense, ratio primarily constituted the basis of scientific knowledge and claimed precision and certainty.

By contrast, intellectus came to designate intuitive and sapiential knowledge, which was now fully decoupled from rational investigation and logical analysis. By implication, it was seen as lacking a solid foundation like ratio because it spoke of such subjective terms as intuition, imagination, illumination but not proofs, evidence, and demonstration. Had it not been for the later fallout between rationalist naturalism and mystical thought in the Western tradition, this may have been nothing more than a heuristic distinction.

As a matter of fact, the Thomistic tradition maintained a relationship of complementarity between ratio and intellectus and held that they were not opposed to one another but addressed to different aspects of the same reality [10].

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But as later history shows, the two terms were employed to represent two substantially different ways of understanding the world and making moral judgments. Ratio became the main instrument of natural sciences, which by now had divested nature of all of its intrinsic intelligibility and symbolic significance, and developed a separate modus operandi.

Rationality created a new domain of truth for itself and bade farewell to our holistic experience of reality. Rationalism, coupled with naturalism and positivism, sought to reduce reality to the analytical competencies of the human mind and identified quantitative-calculative thinking as the only reliable way of knowing the reality of things. Even though contemporary Christian theologians have insisted that both ratio and intellectus together make up a proper process of knowing, the bifurcation of discursive and intuitive modes of thinking has played a key role in the secularization of the modern world-picture and the profanization of nature.


Such a distinction has never occurred in the Islamic tradition. The two modes of thinking, however, complement each other and help us uncover the multilayered structure of reality, which, after all, demands a multidimensional yet integrated approach. Such a claim would turn faith into an empirical statement or logical proposition. Faith, by definition, must have a dimension that goes beyond reason; otherwise there would be no need for Divine revelation and the Prophets. What is beyond reason, however, does not mean anti-reason; it means supra-rational, that which transcends the cognitive competencies of the human reason.

Supra-rational is not irrational because reason can admit what lies beyond its capacities.

What Is It To Be Rational?

Such an admission is not illogical because it states not ignorance, agnosticism or blind faith but a self-reflective acknowledgment of limits. Reason cannot think without certain rules and principles. Freedom is not the abolishment of all limits and rules but the exercise of reason in conjunction with virtue [12]. What is unique and even astounding about human reason is that it can set its own limits to what it can and cannot know. The self-delimitation of reason is a rational act and points to the larger context of existence and intelligibility within which it functions.

Entering Islam meant leaving the mental and social habits of the age of ignorance, polytheism, injustice and immorality. It meant establishing a new socio-political order based on reason, justice, equality and virtue. It also required a new ontology of reason to overcome polytheistic logic and moral cynicism. And this was possible only by introducing a new Weltanschauung and a new mode of thinking. The mathal , translated here as similitude, refers to metaphors and parables by which a fundamental message is conveyed — a message which may otherwise remain inaccessible to the human mind.

Rather, it is a whole-some undertaking that requires setting upon an intellectual, moral and spiritual journey. It encompasses all of our being and overcomes such dualities as the sensate versus the rational, the material versus the spiritual, the individual versus the universe, nature versus culture, and so on. It urges us to see the interconnectedness of things and how one thing leads to the other in the great chain of being. Once this conscience is awoken and brought up to reckon with the reality of things, everything falls in place: our reason, thinking, sense organs, seeing, hearing, perceiving and moral judgments begin to come together.

Reason and rationality arise within this larger context of integrated thinking and moral discernment. Far from being a principle and ground of truth by itself, reason functions within the larger context of our being in the world and the human responses we give to reality. God cannot be known empirically because empirical knowledge entails limit, position, relation, relativity, etc.

What Is It To Be Rational? | Issue 1 | Philosophy Now

To expect reason to do more than that would be to transgress its own limits. If reason, like other components of reality, is part of the order of existence and not the whole of it, then it can never fully encapsulate the whole of reality. But this in no way diminishes or undermines its significance.

By contrast, God is the absolute reality that encapsulates everything. He is al-Muhit , the One who encompasses everything. Like love, charity, wisdom, spirituality and art, rationality is a fundamental human response to the call of reality. It enables us to disclose the intelligible structure of the order of existence. It invites us to overcome our corporeal existence and connect with the world of nature in primarily rational and moral terms.

It urges us to establish a socio-political order based on virtue, justice and freedom. It is none of them and all of them at once. It combines conceptual analysis with moral judgment, empirical observation with spiritual guidance, historical narrative with eschatological expectation, and abstraction with imperative command.

Being rational means rejecting oppression and injustice and embracing the Divine call for justice. In the Islamic tradition, this forms the basis of the moral ontology of reason and rationality and establishes a strong connection between intelligence, rationality, faith and virtue. According to Harith al-Muhasibi d. It acts as a principle of moral action and seeks to bring us closer to the Divine. If a person is really intelligent, reasons al-Muhasibi, he will seek to secure his salvation in this world and in the hereafter, for which he must use his reason properly.

A proper use of reason, illuminated by faith, leads to rational thinking and moral behavior. By the same token, faith articulated and corroborated by reason has depth and certainty. Just as the spirit cannot function without the body, the body cannot find meaning, life and wholeness without the spirit.

1. Introduction

Logic and transcendence thus work together to reveal the nature of things and realize our humanity. But this can happen only when we see human reason working in a larger context of thinking and contemplation.

Reason is that by which we protect ourselves from falsehood, error and evil-doing. This basic meaning of reason is not to be taken lightly, for it underlies the essential component of thinking and contemplation as the proper human response to the call of reality. In contrast to attempts to reduce reason and rationality to logical competency and procedural ratiocination, reason as a principle of truth and as an instrument of knowledge represents an encounter with the reality of things. Thinking is not simply to enumerate the physical properties of things or the logical relations of concepts.

It is more than a mere mental representation of things because, as Muslim philosophers insist, mental abstraction gives us only a picture of reality. Like all mental abstractions, this picture is frozen and can never fully measure up to the reality itself. Abstract concepts are essential for rational thinking and the formation of ideas.

What is RATIONALITY? What does RATIONALITY mean? RATIONALITY meaning & explanation

Thinking, however, requires more than abstraction and use of concepts. It takes place in a context of encounter with reality and puts us in a relationship with something larger than us. It means seeing, observing, listening, hearing, reflecting, contemplating, and drawing the appropriate practical and moral conclusions.

It means responding to what we encounter. It involves rational analysis but also moral commitment. In its deepest sense, thinking prevents us from seeing things as a means to an end. As I shall discuss shortly, if the world has been created by God, then it cannot be reduced to utility.

It has a substantive meaning and value independent of us.