Monday, May 19, 2014

Rationalize that!

If I could take one word back from the English language, change its common meaning without anyone noticing, it would be: rationalize.

Don't get me wrong.  I think it's cool that English words evolve over time, even when it's due to error. (Hey, that's how evolution works, right?)  I don't mind that it's now OK to say literally when you mean figuratively or nonplussed when you mean unperturbed.  I don't even really care about the plundering of philosophical terms like begs the question, which now means something completely different in the vernacular (raises the question) than it does when we use it in informal logic (takes for granted the point at issue).

But rationalize? Come on.  Certainly the obvious and intuitive meaning of rationalize is: to make more rational. But today the term has come to mean almost exclusively the opposite: to make something appear rational, when it is not. Dude, you know this is bullshit, you're just rationalizing.

Well, before I explain why I really find this meaning irritating, I have to admit that it isn't quite as perverse as I make out.  The suffix 'ize' means 'to cause to be or be like'.  And, of course, once you dance into the semantic cloud of similarity and appearance, it is a small step from 'be like' to 'seem like.'  Still, while the word rational isn't the only term to suffer izing in this way (moralize, criminalize, glamorize), it's worth noting that the vast majority of words that endinize do not experience this reversal of meaning.

OK, so what particularly bothers me about the ordinary meaning of the term is this: absent it's negative connotation, rationalization would be the absolutely best word in the English language for describing what philosophers are generally up to. The aim of philosophy is just to make the world a more rational place.  We examine systems of thought (scientific, religious, moral, aesthetic, legal, political, etc.) and we try to make them more reason friendly.

Take normative ethics. What's up with that?  Well, basically we have a bunch of different ways of thinking about morality which often produce contradictory moral judgments.  Philosophers are trying to rationalize the conceptual framework of ethics, so that competent users will more often arrive at the same answers to the same questions.

Or pick a topic in metaphysics, say free will.  Here we have a term in wide use, one that seems to be critical to our ascriptions of moral responsibility, but for which the most common meaning involves the attribution of supernatural abilities to human beings. Since we have fairly recently learned that humans are not supernatural beings, but exceedingly clever apes, we need to figure out how to rationalize the concept of free will; we need to make it compatible with what we know to be our true cognitive and behavioral capacities.

Or take my favorite area, philosophy of science. Within almost every scientific discipline there are tribes that disagree with each other, not just about empirical matters, but about terms and concepts. Physicists mostly agree about how to take measurements, but they do not agree about what a measurement is. Biologists all agree that species evolve, but they do not agree about what a species is. Economists agree that they study the behavior of agents under conditions of scarcity, but they do not agree what an agent is. Science is still remarkably under rationalized.

Note, when I say it's the business of philosophy to rationalize conceptual frameworks, I don't mean that this is always a necessary or useful thing to do.  The world benefits a great deal from people thinking differently about things, and part of what makes this possible is under rationalization.  In a prematurely rationalized system, everyone is on the same page, but it is the wrong page, and we can no longer turn it.

So is this just a rant, or is there any realistic hope of retrieving the word rationalize and purging it of its overwhelmingly negative connotations?  I think there is a ray of hope. Today it is increasingly common to speak of the goal of rationalizing industries. This is a term of art from economics. It describes the aim of eliminating inefficiency, the friction that impedes smooth commerce. It is particularly descriptive of the aims of the knowledge economy, which focuses on eliminating barriers to effective communication.  Everyone knows that it is fantastically easier today to make appointments, purchases, travel arrangements and financial transactions than ever before. Economists say that this is because these processes have all been rationalized to a significant degree.

Why not summon this use of the term back into common usage?
Dude, why is instant replay being used so much more in sports these days to review the calls of umpires and referees? Well, clearly, they are rationalizing the officiating process. You say that like it's a good thing. Well, of course it is, you want to get the call right don't you? I don't know, I kind of like the human element, maybe we're over rationalizing?  
Did you hear they've eliminated toll booths on the Golden Gate Bridge?  Yeah, it's cool. They're really starting to rationalize highway transportation. Can't wait for robot cars. Ick, not me.  I really like traffic jams and car crashes. Keeps life interesting you know? 
Hey, do you use Venmo? Oh, hell yes, it's awesome!  Totally rationalizes payback. Get it. Oh, I don't know. I don't think I want payback rationalized. I like the old days when you could bum money and then just, like, forget about it.

So talk like this from now on, I beseech you. Do your part to cleanse rationalization of its contronymity! Of course, I know this won't appeal to everyone, especially those who like to think of philosophy as having more profound aims than making our reasoning spaces more user friendly. But once rationalization has come to mean something good again, there's nothing preventing us from running with it.  Deep rationalization, anyone?

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Nice reflection. Contronyms are peculiar; you'd think they'd be selected out in the course of linguistic evolution. The fact that they aren't shows that evolution isn't always a rationalizing process. The term 'rationalization' is unusual in that both senses were made popular by theoreticians. Max Weber (and perhaps Marx before him) talked about the rationalization of society as a key part of modernization. Freud talked about patients rationalizing neurotic behaviour.

  2. Nice point Emrys. Or maybe contronyms actually provide that little bit of slop in the system we need to protect it from crystallizing into an over rationalized framework.

  3. Awesome. I love rationalizing. But you forgot to suggest a replacement for, e.g., the awful casuistry that often goes on in ethics. Wait, oops, there isn't anything necessarily illicit about doing one's moral reasoning from cases. Should we bring back 'sophistry' to refer to all the bad stuff?

  4. Whoa, hadn't thought about that! I think the problem is in the ambiguity of the suffix. Interesting that Herbert Simon chose satisfice rather than satisfize. I wonder if it was to avoid the suggestion that satisficing is a bad thing. How about 'rationalate?' That has a meretricious ring to it.

  5. Fun post Randy. Really, philosophers should just let it go. ‘Bad’ is “good” and ‘hot’ is “cool” - even ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are now the opposite of pejorative. We philosophers do not use the term rationalize in the way you want to recover. I’m OK with saying that “rationalizing is bad” and but giving rational (non-emotional) reasons for conclusions or reasonableness is good. Contranyms are great when you want to be ironical, which, by the way, we have to realize that most people do not ever actually do in the traditional sense of the term. Maybe it is time to retire ‘irony’ in its original sense. Isn’t it kind of a genetic fallacy to insist on a return to the earliest senses of a term or even its concept?

  6. Scott, you are a defeatist bastard. But yes, I agree with the genetic fallacy part, and no part of my view is based on a preference for original meanings, or even any dislike for contranyms or polysemy in general. I just like this word, would prefer that the positive meaning were the more common one, and think that it would be valuable to bring that meaning back into ordinary usage because it gives people a way of understanding all the changes they see going on around them.

  7. True that. To be honest, I do not like the word 'rationalize' probably because of its more recent, consensus usage. By the way, I also dislike the old philosophers' word 'ratiocination' so maybe a bit of my disdain for old school 'rationalize' is caused by its roots. I bet you like that word though - such a codger. My beef is with another -ize word: 'utilize' - it just means "use" so just use 'use.'

  8. Yeah, that''s a good one. Utilize should be contronymized and forced into service as 'make to appear useful.' Is there a word meaning that already?

  9. Speaking of administration and the abuse of language (yes, I did just create my own segue), but pertinent to the concern you raise here, Randy, I have this thought: because we've made words like rationalize and argument and judgment into their opposite (make to appear rational what is not, make to appear logical what is just your opinion, make to appear to be based on relevant criteria what is just your judging of me), we are left with the unfortunate phrase 'evidence-based decision-making'. I swear, every time I hear that now I feel like I want to say, "I feel like, no... just because." Is the alternative 'magic-eight-ball-based decision-making'?

  10. Yeah, nice point Chris. We also have as neologisms phrases like 'evidence-based medicine' and 'evidence-based social policy' and I think, there is a semi-interesting story to tell here. I'm inclined to think it's not so much that people didn't appreciate that evidence for such endeavors would be a mighty fine thing, as that evidence was simply not available in the past, so we were forced to do these things on the basis of common sense, intuition, and the advice of people who claimed to be experts. But I also think that it took a while before people really began to understand what it would be like to give evidence for things like this. In a sense, they weren't fully understood to be empirical questions. And I think that accounts partly for the 'Well, duh!' experience we have. Its also typical of philosophical insights, right? Invisible or ridiculous before they are accepted, and so patently obvious afterwards that we wonder what people could have been thinking.