In the modern and contemporary world, scientific rationality, based on experience and shaped by mathematics has taken the upper hand upon the current vision of rationality. Scientific discourse is taken as the prototype of rational discourse, while argumentation is seen as the instrument of reason as reasonableness in human affairs. This position has been strongly reasserted by Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca (), S. Persuade, convince; Persuasion.
Ordinary discourse in action embodies different kinds of rationalities.
Rationality as common sense — Rationality as common sense can be defined as the art of thinking complying with the rules and intuitions embodied in traditional logic and adapted to social necessities by rhetorical argumentation. As a scientific concept, this vision of rationality has been shaken to its foundations by the development of axiomatic thinking, as exemplified by non-Euclidian geometries or by the invention of the imaginary unit i, such as i2 = −1. In human sciences, the Freudian invention of the unconscious and the development of studies on ideologies and social determinisms, have most certainly challenged the vision of a sovereign subject transparent to him/herself, consciously mastering his or her calculus, intentions, discourses and actions. This double crisis directly affects the classical vision of the rational well-intentioned rhetorical orator.
Rationality as adaptation of a conduct to a goal — Rationality as adaptation of conduct directed towards a goal covers all forms of action guided by a script, recipe or pre-established conventional plan. To make good custard, for example, it is more rational to pour the hot milk on the eggs than to put the eggs in the hot milk, so that the cream will be more homogeneous. This principle of rationality merges with the consistency requirement between conduct and objective. It is exploited by all forms of refutation revealing a contradiction in the opponent’s conceptions and actions S. Ad hominem; Consistency. Since it is human to pursue several objectives at the same time, the resulting practical rationality is perpetually destabilized.
Rationality as adaptation of a conduct to a goal is compatible with crime. The Marquis de Sade is an outstanding arguer. Hence the possibility of delirious and despotic rationalities serving equally perverse goals.
Rationality related to a domain — Rationality depends on domains. A given behavior (with or without a linguistic component) is said to be rational if it conforms to recognized practices in the relevant domain, technical field, scientific paradigm or tradition of thought, S. Rules.
Democratic rationality — Democratic rationality is a quality of societies and groups where information is accessible; where free and contradictory examination of socio-political positions and oppositions may develop with a view to effective decision-making; where there is a right of reply; and where the safety of the opponents is ensured. It is a form of society in which the holders of legal power and violence are brought to account for their use.
Is rationality governed by rules? if one tries to express the preceding conditions as a set of rules, they will have to be hierarchized and context-sensitive in order to integrate various genres and practices.
2. Discursive and argumentative rationality
Language rationality — From a linguistic point of view, a discourse is deemed rational if it is well built, if it is understandable, if the speaker can account for it and if it makes sense in relation to the problem discussed or the task under way.
The reasonableness paradox created in an argumentative situation driven by a question is that each of the competing discourses taken in isolation makes sense, but, taken together, they become contradictory. To discriminate between these answers, theorists of argumentation need a criterion, which would be stronger than meaning, and, to that effect, introduce the notion of rational or reasonable discourse into their models. The different families of theories of argumentation can be related to different visions of rationality.
Discourse rationality and discourse types — Argumentative discourse is not the unique receptacle of discourse rationality. There is not one, but several discursive rationalities: argumentative rationality, narrative rationality, descriptive rationality, and so on. Irrationality is manifested in incoherent and delirious narrations, descriptions or prescriptions; any ill-conceived installation diagram which can be called irrational, because it is useless.
Rational discourse and effective rhetoric — Effective rhetoric, focused on the persuasion of an actual, relevant audience is a case of goal adaptive rationality. It is compatible with verbal and nonverbal manipulation.
Rational discourse as justified and rectified discourse — The definition of rational discourse as a justified discourse develops the idea that a discourse is reasonable insofar as its claim is not asserted on the basis of individual certainty, but openly supported by other propositions, exploiting some kind of public data connected to the claim by some recognized rule, albeit fragile. Its rationality increases if it exhibits its weak points, suggesting the directions that must be taken to improve it; as Bachelard says, there is no truth, only rectified errors. The Toulminian layout meets these requirements: the Claim is based on Data, according to a Warrant, itself supported by a Backing, and duly Qualified. The critical instance is represented by its trace, the Rebuttal, indicating the potential point of refutation.
The practice of dialogue, whether remote or face-to-face, can be considered to be the exercise of the critical function of language. A speech is more rational if it has been duly criticized, that is, if it has survived a number of contradictory encounters. Criticizing does not mean “denigrating” or “rejecting”, but “passing a judgment”, positive or negative, on an activity. The observation of the data shows that the partners involved in an argument spend much time evaluating their partner’s arguments (Finocchiaro 1994, p. 21). Argumentative speech is evaluated in a meta-discourse, produced under any conditions, face-to-face or at a distance in space and in time. Any approach to argumentative discourse concerned with empirical adequacy must take this critical dimension into account.
For the New Rhetoric, arguments are assessed by the participants in the rhetorical event; the rationality of an argument increases with the number and quality of the interested and competent audiences who accept it. The progression towards human rationality is seen as an evolution from a particular to a universal audience, S. Persuasion.
The dialogue models of argumentation put the critical activity at the center of their concerns. Pragma-Dialectic and Informal Logic develop a critique of argument based on the notion of fallacy. To detect fallacies, pragma-dialectics uses a system of rules, while informal logicians use the technique of critical questions. S. Paralogism; Sophism; Fallacy; Norm; Rules; Evaluation
3. Rational argumentation, as a “dream of language”
The Argumentation within Language theory of Anscombre and Ducrot and the Natural Logic of Grize make no commitment to rationality; they are not irrational but a-rational. Any discourse being argumentative, the idea of rectifying a discourse in order to improve its argumentativity or its rationality does not make sense. These theories are just concerned with the fact that to be rational a discourse must first be meaningful, S. Schematization; Orientation.
The Argumentation within Language theory proposes a radical criticism of the capacity of discourse to achieve any kind of rationality. Conclusions are seen as mere semantic developments of the arguments, the argumentation process being driven by the linguistic orientations of the utterances; the discourse develops according to the orientations of natural language, which are denounced as biases by fallacies theories, in search of a referenced, neutral, objective language. Rephrased in the language of fallacies, this amounts to the claim that argumentation in natural language is circular, so fallacious. It results that argumentation as a rational process is a “dream of discourse” (Ducrot 1993, p. 234). Following this metaphor, the rational pretension of argument (as found in Perelman, for example) will be seen as a “rationalization of the dream”, and the criticism of the arguments, as a “criticism of the dream”, whereas dreams can only be exposed and interpreted as such. S. Demonstration.
4. Rationality and rationalization
Psychoanalysis uses the terms rationalization or intellectualization to refer to discursive constructions claimed to be rational by the subject who tries to account for his or her actions, representations, feelings, symptoms or delirium. Psychoanalysis objects to such reconstructions that the subject has no conscious intellectual access to their true source (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1967, art. [Rationalization]):
Whenever possible, [the ego] tries to remain in good terms with the id; it clothes the id‘s unconscious commands with its preconscious rationalizations […] In its position midway between the id and reality, it only too often yields to the temptation to become sycophantic, opportunist and lying, like a politician who sees the truth but wants to keep his place in popular favor. (Freud , p. 55).