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Philosophy of Science

Historical Types of Rationality

Vaclav Cernik, Jozef Vicenik, and Emil Visnovsky
Slovak Academy of Sciences

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ABSTRACT: In this paper we suggest that the contemporary global intellectual crisis of our (Western) civilization consists in the fundamental transformation of the classical (both Ancient and Modern) types of rationality towards the nonclassical one. We give a brief account of those classical types of rationality and focus on the more detailed description of the contemporary process of the formation of the new HTR which we label as nonclassical. We consider it to be one of the historical possibilities that might radically transform the fundamentals of our human world; in fact, this process has already begun. The paper mentions some of the main features of this process, such as formation of a new type of scientific object; new conceptual schemes; new logical and methodological equipment of scientific research; and new understanding of human nature, human mind, human action, and social order.

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Approaching the end of our millennium it becomes more and more evident that the modern type of rationality-which has dominated Western culture since the 17th century-is in crisis; that it has reached the limits of its potentialities and something new is being created. We seem to be experiencing the global crisis of consciousness which perhaps concerns fundamental questions of our cultural identity and signals total social crisis of our civilization. This raises a question about the nature of our current cultural this identity: Is it still modern or already "postmodern"? Or are we only experiencing the continuation from classical to modern (Král 1994)? Is the crisis of "modernity" a permanent state from which there is no way out and where we can do nothing other than to endure bravely the fate of our time (Weber 1983)? Should we comply with its anamnesis as deconstruction and thus to acquiesce to the extremes of its dichotomies (Lyotard 1993, Derrida 1993)? Or is this crisis something temporary? Should we believe in the future and hope that renovation of the past will take place in our pluralist society (Ricoeur 1992)? Do we face a decisive turnabout consisting in a return to the past, a reevaluation of the Orient and a valorization of ecology (F. Capra 1983)? Should we seek an alternative in glorification of nature and desacralization of culture (Griffin 1988)? Does the way to rescue civilization lead through deliverance of the individual "self" from the oppression of blunt rationality? Or does it lead through enforcement of the principles of fundamentalism whether with a capital "F" (radical, aggressive, insisting on the upholding of the essential articles of faith, e. g. on the literal wording of the Old Testament) or with a small "f" (liberal, human, declaring tolerance and dialogue between the rational and non-rational essence of human life, the overlapping of cultures or mixing science, literature, myth and shamanism in a sort of planetary "Eintopf")? Or should we look for a way out of the crisis via passing to a new type of scientific (physical, etc.) rationality associated with a new quality of life and a new world order (Prigogine 1991; C. F. von Weizsäcker 1992)?

Our main claim in this paper is that the contemporary global cultural crisis of our (Western) civilization arises from the fundamental transformation of the classical (including Modern together with the vestiges of Ancient) type of rationality into a non-classical type that will probably become a dominant form of human thought and action in the following century (assuming, of course, that the crisis or transformation will be successfully negotiated).

The Term

By the term "historical type of rationality" (HTR) (1) we designate the "meta-paradigm" of the whole cultural epoch: an HTR is a global "seeing" of the world; the fundamental cognitive model and cultural pattern that is characteristic of this or that epoch, its way of knowing (scientific as well as unscientific), understanding and acting. The particular historical types of rationality (corresponding to particular Tofflerian "waves of civilization") differ in their conceptual, logical, metodological, axiological and praxiological equipment; in their understanding of relations between human reason, will and emotions, and in their social frameworks and contexts.

The development of historical types of rationality involves both relations of correspondence (i. e. some elements of the prior type are inherited by the succeeding type with its more developed substance) as well as relations of non-correspondence (i. e. some elements of the prior type exit and are replaced by new ones within the succeeding type). The more advanced historical type of rationality is more explanatory coherent and also more efficient than that from which it has been developed. The criteria are the move towards more complete truth, more progressive resolution of problems and more powerful human agency. Each historical type of rationality develops itself through the whole range of possible histories and thus the succession suggested here is by no means a kind of historical necessity. It is just their historical retrospective reconstruction that suggests that a complex progressive "spiral" is an appropriate image of the history of human rationality.

Ancient Type of Rationality (ATR)

Historically, the first type of rationality was one that appeared from the transformation of the myth to logos and the formation of the system "philosophy-and-science". We name it the "Ancient Type of Rationality" (ATR) although sometimes it is also called "Aristotelian" type of rationality since Aristotle is taken to be its most systematic representative.

The way of "seeing" the world within the ATR manifested itself through a network of philosophic categories centered around the category of quality (a thing, a quality, a relation of subsumption). Subject/predicate logic and syllogistic theory of demonstration were the vehicles that systematized the vocabulary of knowledge. Theories-philosophical and scientific-were built upon the methodologies of classificatory analysis, abstraction (and idealization) of form, induction and syllogistic deduction. Within the ATR, the incipient differentiation between cognitive, ethical and aesthetical realms of culture, as well as between substantial capacities of reason (theoretical knowing, practical reasonableness, intuitive understanding, philosophical wisdom, and arts) could be discerned. Even though the distinction between knowing and valuing had already been made, the hierarchy of values was syncretically identified with the realm of ideas (Plato), and thinking of thinking with the supreme good (Aristotle). Special attention was also given to another distinction-that between theoretical and practical knowledge (Aristotle's practical syllogism and his scheme of causes of human action).

The ATR was the dominant form of rationality in, and adequate to the demands of, the Tofflerian First Wave of civilization; it expressed the needs and concerns of ancient and medieval societies based on the slave and serf labour. The historical limitations of the ATR consisted in the weight it placed on the category of quality (and the resulting phenomenalism, particularism, finitism). However, because it lasted past the point where it reached its limitations, it lead to paradoxes and antinomies. Nonetheless, at the same time the germs of a more developed type of rationality formed within the ATR (Archimedean physics, Eucleidean geometry, Stoic logic).

Modern Type of Rationality (MTR)

The second historical type of rationality-the "Modern Type of Rationality" (MTR), sometimes called also the "Cartesian" type of rationality-has developed on the basis of two fundamental scientific revolutions: Copernican and Darwinian.

The way of "seeing" the world within the MTR manifests itself through more a developed network of philosophical and scientific categories centered around the category of quantity (a quantity, a relation of function, a causality). Modern formal logic (predicate calculus, theory of demonstration, theory of recursive functions and set theory) is the vehicle that systematizes the vocabulary of knowledge. Such categorial and logical fundaments help to built both the factual and idealization methodologies, each equipped with their own experimental methods, relational and causal analysis, abstraction and idealization, relational and causal induction and advanced formal deduction, as well as axiomatic (formal) and hypotetical-deductive construction of scientific theories.

The understanding of the modalities of human mind within the MTR is characterized by the processes of differentiation, autonomization and separation of the cognitive, ethical and aesthetic realms of culture. The expression of these processes were found in the controversies between Enlightment rationalism and romanticism, between German classical rationalism and irrationalism of the second half of the 19th century, between positivistic rationalism and irrationalism of the first half of the 20th century, between philosophical modernism and postmodernism, and in dichotomies (highly significant for the MTR) such as subject/object, fact/value, rationality/morality. Although theories of human action and decision have been developed, within the MTR the analysis of social dimensions of human action has not reached beyond Aristotelian, Humean, Kantian or Hegelian approaches.

The MTR was-and still is-the dominant form of rationality adequate to the Tofflerian Second Wave of civilization; it is the expression of needs and concerns of industrial societies based on the capitalist system of a market economy.

Nonetheless, the MTR has already manifested its limitations as well as tendencies leading to its own transcendence. Within the realm of knowledge we can mention e. g. the anti-mechanistic invasion which occured in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century and which erroded the Newtonian paradigm that had dominated up to that time. The limitation of rationality of knowing within the MTR is evident in the way its conceptual, logical and methodological equipment is not sufficient to understand, explain and express the inherently dynamic motion and the development of natural and social systems (processes of their self-determination, self-regulation and self-transcendence). Attempts to encompass these phenomena tend to decline into unresolvable antinomies (such as naturalism/antinaturalism, individualism/holism, inductionism/deductionism, sensualism/rationalism; accounting for the antithetical philosophic categories as metaphysical "dualisms" etc.). The limitations of understanding of basic modalities of human mind within the MTR consist mostly in socially determined and growing (socially determined) separation of cognitive, ethical and aesthetic realms of culture which amounts to an expansion of common sense, as well as remythologization that is eliminating the boundaries between the rational and the irrational. The controvery between philosophical modernism and postmodernism appears itself as the hallmark of the global crisis of the MTR.

The limitations of rationality of acting within the MTR is documented by the narrowness of its axiological and praxiological equipment, by distorted representation of its own social basis, that is by its tendency towards pure "objectivity" on the one hand, and pure "subjectivity" on the other. This further highlights its insufficient understanding of the social dimensions of human action and its depreciation of epistemic function of the category of action (praxis); as well as the under-development of democracy in the areas of economics and culture; and in the resulting confusion of scientific and political rationalities.

Nonclassical Type of Rationality (NCTR)

The developmental tendencies appearing with the MTR point towards a new-Nonclassical Type of Rationality (NCTR). E. g., along the emergence of the Nonclassical science a new type of theoretical object has been adopted-the object of a "dual nature" (which, however, has nothing to do with any kind of philosophic dualism) corresponding to the principle of indefinitness. (2) Furthermore, such strategies as theoretical reconstruction of inherently dynamic processes, solving the problems of complexity in natural and social systems, and the question of developmental orientation, have become characteristic of the contemporary science.

That the formation of potential Nonclassical of rationality of knowing is taking place is documented by the appearance of further advances in the development of conceptual, logical and methodological equipment. A new, more developed system of philosophic and scientific categories centered around the "nest" of some crucial notions such as interaction, dialectic opposition and action is being currently set up. A clearer distinction has been also made between logical forms of reasoning and categorial forms of knowing enabling the creation of an inherently differentiated science of logic (involving modern logic as well as theory of knowledge). The procedures of analysis/synthesis, abstraction/concretization, induction/deduction have been elaborated and deepened to understand the qualitative difference within identity. The hypothetical-deductive method of construction of scientific theories is combined with a new ontology of inherent dynamics and a part of more advanced structural-genetic procedures (such as the advancement from the abstract to the concrete in thought, from the less concrete to the more concrete) becomes a "module". The reproduction cycle of scientific knowledge is mediated through practical thinking and is combined with the reproduction cycle of practice.

The formation of Nonclassical understanding of basic modalities of human mind leads to the description of cognitive, ethical and aesthetic realms of culture as the unity of differences. This allows us to reflect more deeply on the distinction between "reasonable" (verstandliche) and "rational" (vernünftliche) parts of human intellect (and their connections to the left and right hemispheres of human brain) as well as on the role of imagery and practice. We should learn to use reason "rationally", that is in harmony with the purposive will, ethical and aesthetic feelings and in accordance with economic and cultural contexts of social life. Thus is possible to combine rationality with creativity, and rationality with communication.

The formation of a Nonclassical type rationality involves a new, Nonclassical understanding of an object (as an entity with its social and human meaning) as well as a subject (as a human being who is self-reflective, naturally and socially objective and value-creative). This makes possible transcending classical dichotomies between knowledge and value, and rationality and morality. Social dimensions of human action (involving both relations between man and nature and among men themselves) become more deeply understood which creates conditions for better acknowledgement of epistemological role of the concept of human action (permitting us for instance to resolve the question of how to prove the fact that within our knowledge there is the content which is independent from the knowing subject). Thus appears an urgent claim to reconstruct epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, axiology and other sub-disciplines according to these new fundamental concepts.

As to the formation of a new social context for the NCTR, such processes as the transition from the philosophy of man as a consumer towards the philosophy of man as a humane creative being; the full advancement of political democracy; democratization, humanization and ecologization of economics; democratization of all spheres of culture; and the full expansion of a civil society, are taking place. The Nonclassical Type of Rationality should become the adequate type of rationality for the Tofflerian Third Wave of civilization.


The concept of the non-classical type of rationality is not offered here as another "emancipation idea which ought to be implemented". We have instead sought its origin in a sum of tendencies formed within the classical type of rationality and currently straing the boundaries of the possibility of that type of rationality. We recommend it inasmuch as its "explanation coherence" (Thagard 1992), practical efficiency, moral and aesthetic force are greater than those of the classical types of rationality (both Ancient and Modern).

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(1) The idea of "historical types of rationality" has originally been formulated by Slovak logician Vojtech Filkorn in his Pre-Hegelian Logic (1953) and later adopted by Czech philosopher Jindřich Zelený (1971). Filkorn wrote about four historical types of rationality within the development of logic and science: classificatory, relational, causal and dialectical; Zelený applied the term to the history of science and distinguished Aristotelian, Cartesian and Marxian types of scientific rationality. We apply the term much more broadly.

(2) Entities of the wave-particle nature which associate two seemingly incompatible properties become the object of theoretical physics; they behave once as particles and once as a (probability) wave. The wave-particle nature of microobjects presents itself at the experimental level: if we measure the wave properties of a microobject, its particle parameters are uncertain. The expression of this empirical fact is the Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty. Classical theories (Newtonian physics, Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, Einstein's theory of relativity) contain joint variables which can principally be measured with arbitrary accuracy. In non-classical theories (quantum mechanics, quantum gravitation theory) there are couples of quantities such as position and mobility of a particle, which cannot be determined simultaneously with arbitrary precision. An electron does not have an exactly determined position and a speed in any moment (it does not move round the atom nucleus in orbit); it just can be said with what probability we shall find any value of its speed (Hawking 1995, 52). Also in the field of social science and humanities it becomes evident that the most important classical problems like the essence of man, the nature of the human mind and human action or the character of social order are typical examples of this new theoretical object which classical science could not have adequately understood. The nature of these scientific objects is inherently dynamic and dual or even polydimensional. The dual nature (and apparent paradox) of the theoretical object of non-classical science is neither of the character of analytical opposition (A and non A) nor of Hegelian conjunction (a sort of the "midpoint" between A and non A), not even of the kind of Derrida's difference (a sort of logically incomprehensible and inexpressible "medium" or "dance" between identity and non-identity). Its character is that of rationally and logically expressible dialectic opposition. The logical result of the quantum-mechanical principle of uncertainty for instance is that the mass particle m behaves as a wave of the wavelength h/mc where h is the Planck's constant and c is the light speed (cf. Hawking 1995, 97).


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