Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Is Winch a relativist or not?

You might have missed it, but David Levy provided a useful response to my post on what kind of relativist Peter Winch might have been. I replied, but I'm not very satisfied with my response, and re-reading the original post made me realize how unclear it is. So I'm returning to that territory now. 

Here's the unclear conclusion to my post:
In short, 'rational' can mean something like sane or intelligible, or it can mean useful in a narrow sense (getting a gun is useful if you want to rob a bank, but robbing banks is not a very useful thing to do), or good, or useful in a broader sense. Where a way of living has been identified as such, its characteristic forms of behavior will be rational in the first two of these senses, but not necessarily in the latter two.
I think I meant that so far as we can identify something as a way of living then it must be rational in the sense of being intelligible (and seeming sane) and the behaviors that belong to it must be largely effective as means to the people's ends. I'm not sure why I included that last part and I'm not sure it's right. Is going to church useful? Or burying the dead with solemn rites? I probably should have talked instead about non-irrationality instead. Funerals are not well understood if they are thought of purely in terms of means-end reasoning. So they aren't rational means to some end, but they aren't irrational either. But particular religious practices can be rejected as irrational in the sense that they are not (considered to be) good, and religion itself can be rejected as irrational. 

David writes:
The scare quotes around ‘rational’ were, I took, it Winch’s way of saying in a Wittgensteinian way that ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ are just words, i.e. terms with an application in a linguistic practice. I did not take them, for instance, to express scepticism. So in that sense 'rationality' will always be relative in the sense of belonging to this or that linguistic practice. In chess, it will have one meaning. In military tactics, another.
I wouldn't use the "just words" formulation myself, but the point about rationality being different in different practices is a good one. Presumably there is some reason why we use the same word ('rationality') in these different cases, but rational chess play involves different behavior and abilities than are involved in developing rational military tactics. David continues:
Instead, perhaps we should see rational as being able to see the reasons for something, roughly comparable to finding it intelligible.
I agree with this, especially when it comes to understanding another society and its practices. He adds:
I suppose my worry is that rationality is to a certain extent obviously relativist insofar as I can recognise someone else's reasons as reasons for them, though they are not reasons for me. To be an anti-relativist about rationality then would imply that any reason for someone is also a reason for me, which seems daft.
I think I agree with this too, although there are surely dangers lurking in the area of reasons versus reasons for this or that person. For instance, we can say both that the drug dealer's reason for going to the park was that there were teenagers there and that getting an opportunity to sell drugs to teenagers is no reason (not just not a reason for me) to do anything. His reason was no reason in the sense that what motivated him or what he intended to do was irrational. Here 'irrational' is at least partly a moral judgment, although there are people who will insist that morality and rationality are so connected that they always go together. 

In my reply to David I said:
One other thing I was trying to get at is the multiple uses of the words 'rational' and 'irrational'. Both ends and means can be irrational. In the case of means 'irrational' means something like inefficacious (although there are degrees here, and not every inefficiency is properly called irrational). In the case of ends it means something like crazy. But 'crazy' can mean insane (in a way that can be more or less objective) or something like bad (in a much more subjective sense). Ways of doing things can be, and probably usually are, irrational in the sense that they are not optimally efficient. (This seems like a weird use, perhaps a misuse, of the word 'irrational', but I think people do use the word this way.) More relevantly, a culture might be called irrational if it has inconsistent goals or if its goals just seem bad. Cultures that are irrational in the sense of having inconsistent goals are likely to be unhappy, and perhaps to change or die out relatively quickly. Cultures that are just bad (deeply racist or sexist ones, say, or those based on slavery) might be called irrational but are certainly intelligible (up to a point, at least). So it seems to me that there are various senses in which a culture might reasonably be called irrational without this implying that it is unintelligible. 
I think this is too neat and too condensed. So let me expand. The word 'rational' has multiple uses, or perhaps a family of uses rather than a number of really distinct ones. Many people in the Catholic tradition believe that what is good is rational and what is bad is irrational, at least when it comes to human behavior. Such a person might use the words 'rational', 'natural', and 'moral' interchangeably. And I think something like this way of thinking extends beyond the Catholic tradition. Kant, for instance, has a bit of this about him. [I might have this all wrong, so please correct me if that's the case.] Then again, someone from the same tradition might insist that it is not that 'rational' means the same thing as 'moral' but rather that reason turns out (or is made by God) to be a perfect guide (when used correctly) to what is moral. And then you have people like Hume who insist that reason is neither synonymous with nor a guide to morality. It's all about means, not ends. 'Rational' can also mean sane, or Spock-like, or efficient. So 'rational' and 'irrational' have a bunch of uses.

How does this connect with Winch, understanding other societies, and relativism? I think that Winch sees a problem in calling another society irrational in the sense that if it really has a way of living then it cannot be irrational in the sense of being unintelligible or without (at least potentially) graspable norms. A large number of simply irrational, unintelligible people cannot be said to constitute a culture or society with its own way of living. And a way of living implies norms. So in this sense another culture cannot be (rightly called) irrational. That might be thought of as a kind of relativism (and if so, so be it), but it does not mean that cultures cannot be criticized for being irrational in other senses. 

In short, I think that Winch is probably only a relativist in trivial and misleadingly-called-'relativist' ways. But that isn't the same as saying, as Colin Lyas does, that, "The whole thrust of his work is anti-relativist." 

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