ENGL 328: Rational

From Keywords for American Cultural Studies
Jump to: navigation, search


Rational (adj.)

1. Of or pertaining to mathematics: a rational number. Able to be expressed exactly by the ratio of two integers; or of a function, able to be expressed exactly by the ratio of two polynomials.

The Rational Number Song

2. A state of being, characterized by an ordered trait or traits, conformed to a set of standards.

3. Understanding; good sense; having reason, or the faculty of reasoning; endowed with reason.

Association with comprehension, intelligence, or inference drawn in ordered ways. Wikipedia:Rational

4. Justification of actions through false or substitute reasoning (Wikipedia).

Synonyms: Some useful antonyms- clearminded, analytic, practical, reasonable

Antonyms: Some useful antonyms- whimsical, ridiculous, foolish, emotional. Antonyms that stem directly from words which define "rational"- irrational, illogical, unrealistic, unreasonable, unsound etc.

Williams: The History

Williams importantly brings up the 19th century school of thought known as rationalism. He explains: "The term really came through in theology and the closely associated C17 social, political and intellectual arguments, where Reason associated with faith, precedent and established law was challenged both by new reasoning and new concepts of the reasonable, and, in the complexity of the argument, by an appeal beyond (mere human) reason" (Williams 254). Here Williams elaborates on the period in the 17th century in which religious doctrine dictated societal sense of reason. The rationalist movement goes outside of what had been always consider reasonable (i.e. religion), goes outside precedent and explores emerging complexities and concepts.

Wiliams addresses another meaning for rationalist. Williams states: "The theological use was once fairly simple; men were trying to reason about matters which 'unaided reason' could not resolve; they needed help either of revelation or of authoritative guidance; those who refused either were mere rationalists, whether professed believers or not" (Williams 254). Here Williams explains that rationalist was also a label pinned on people who refused spiritual aid in developing their ideas of reason and reasonable. Rationalists, then, could actually be believers in a religion who took a view on reason less reliant on revelation or ineterpretation by a priest or spiritual leader. It opposes imposition of religious leaders.

Williams also tracks an interesting developement surrounding rationalism. He explains that in the late 18th century a distinction between rational thought and emotion became more acknowledged. Specifically "Boswell's 'pretty dry rationality' (1791) expressed a new reaction; its context is religious but it is symptomatic of a distinction of rationality from emotion or feeling" (Williams 254). This notion highlights the idea that in order to make a "sound judgment" like that expressed in the first definition above, one must lack emotion or at least leave emotion behind.

He also remarks upon Freudian developments in the the twentieth century. Williams writes: "In Freudian and related psychology 'feelings-instinctual drives-were given primacy; a reversal of the long definition and the rational as central and constitutive human faculties" (Johnson 255). With this more prevalent inclusion of emotions and feeling, rationalizing turned to mean that one was "finding a false or covering 'reason' for an act or feeling" (Johnson 255). This emphasizes a rift between emotional and rational thought as rational turns into a logical, controlled facade for something more internal, uncontrallable and primal.

This idea of rationalization as a facade for underlying, uncontrollable emotion extended even further as it "came to mean any false or subsititute reason, even for the 'real' reason" (Johnson 255). As emotion came to be understood as the ultimate, raw truth, rationalizing which departed from emotion transitioned into meaning a substitute for 'real' ideas or feelings.

This usage is often found today, particularly by some when comparing men and women where men are considered "rational" and woman "emotional". This bias is a clear example of how in some cases "rational" is used as an opposite of "emotional".


Connects rational/reason with the ability to project a thought process, or the act of thinking through something, with a particular emphasis on beauty and the 'sublime' resisting or escaping such a process - "In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force." (A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, p. 64), and "No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear" (^^ p. 64).

"It is not for the diffusion of truth, but for the spreading of contradictions. Let the noble teachers but dissent, it is not matter from whom or from what. This great point once secured, it is taken for granted their religion will be rational and manly..."

It is interesting that Burke, here, is mingling rational and religion in the same thought. Religion, at times, has been so far as an antonym of rational. Rational can be used in describing religion, but religion cannot be used in describing rational. In other words, there can be order in the aesthetic, but there cannot be aesthetics in order.


Strongly connects rationality to nature in his essays, for instance in The Rambler, No. 36: "...poetry is nearly of the same antiquity with rational nature, and since the life of the first men was certainly rural, we may reasonably conjecture that, as their ideas would necessarily be borrowed from those objects with which they were acquainted, their composures, being filled chiefly with such thoughts on the visible creations as must occur to the first observers, were pastoral hymns like those which Milton introduces the original pair singing, in the day of innocence, to the praise of their Maker." (p. 190).

Johnson believes rationality is inherently linked to morality - "From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally" (The Plays of William Shakespeare, p. 427). Also it is sometimes linked with truth as from "The plays of William Shakespeare p 431 "he is in a state of elevation above the reach of reason or truth"

Rational, in regard to exercising the type of reason drawn from subjectivity, could be defined as judgment based on experience. As opposed to objectivity, Johnson's use is based on a person's thoughts within their mind, rather than an object outside the mind.

“It has been maintained… that pastoral is the most ancient poetry; and, indeed, since it is probable that poetry is nearly of the same antiquity with rational nature, and since the life of the first men were certainly rural…” (190). Rational is used to signify an inherent nature. However, the wording reveals a state which has changed, "poetry is nearly of the same antiquity with rational nature"-- that is to say, nature of man was not always rational. If rational was once not natural and inherent, then it can cease to be natural and inherent. This contradiction reveals that the rational is not inherent in human beings.

Johnson's use of rational in his writing most strongly coincides with definition 2: ordered and developed, with clear rules. It's in some sense connected to morality and the divine.


"Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Engergy" (29)

"Thus Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further" (40)

"I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning" (40)

"As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity..." (30)

As can be seen in the progression of these quotes, rationality (which here may be used interchangably with reason) is percieved by Blake as passive submission to set standards. These set standards spring from both "superficial opinion" and "analysis of the more sublime", or what Blake refers to collectively as "systematic reasoning".

Blake argues that systematic reasoning negatively effects the perception of reality, hence the difference in opinions of the angel and the man upon percieving hell. In another episode, A Memorable Fancy, on plates 17-20, Blake contrasts these perceptions more poignantly, revealing the effect of rationality on perception: the absolute distortion of reality. The angel and the man are once again viewing a portion of hell. At first, the angel's rational perspective is imposed upon the man. The view is a horrific one of a hellish place. The angel then leaves, and the man now percieves the place through the lense of "energy" (which Blake opposes to reasoning in his opening argument). The hellish place then turns out to be only an illusion. The man is left on a riverside bank, listening to the harp being played. The result of the rational, then, is a distortion of reality; a distortion characterized by a passive acceptance of rational fetters to our perception of the world around us.

Blake's use of reason is interesting because he opposes the order which our second definition describes, and prescribes to the fourth definition which is based largely upon impulse, emotions. Keeping in mind that Blake's is a satirical piece, he argues against order and standards as distortions to reality. Reality cannot be forced into these standards without losing some of its integrity. However, if reality will be viewed through Blake's energy, which may describe our fourth definition of rational, then perception is liberated from the fetters which distort, leaving the perciever free to see reality as it is.


This was one of the first images when searching Google. It shows two lions using rational thought in deciding which animal to kill. Instead of going for the ones that are easiest to catch, their rationality tells them that they should just go for the fattest ones.

This picture also deals with an interesting tension between natural and rational. According to this picture, rational is not natural. If this is so, then what is natural is inherently irrational. Here is a divide between inherent reason and the artful way of using reason in an unnatural way.


--Atopham 00:53, 14 February 2008 (EST) In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," Wordsworth writes that he published the first volume of the collection "as an experiment" to see to what extent his aesthetic approach could impart "that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure [...] which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart" (1). Wordsworth's use of this adverb is interesting here for two reasons: first, he is portraying the Poet's creation of meaning as a "rational" endeavour; and second, entirely while maintaining the rationality of this endeavour, he brings in the idea of experimentation, sensation and pleasure, ideas often seen as antithetical to reason and rationality.

This rational framework and focus on pleasure is maintained throughout the Preface, and it is Wordsworth's coupling of reason and sensation that is remarkable. In Section 4, he apologizes to the reader for using the Preface to detail some of the reasons which have determined [him]," which is striking in that it sounds similar to how others would speak of the power emotions have to overcome us (e.g., Burke's discussion of terror); humans are usually considered to be in control of their rational processes, not vice versa. In Section 6, Wordsworth really spells out the necessary complementarity of feeling and thought: he says that, while "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," good poetry is written only "by a man who, being posessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply." He then continues to conflate thought and feeling, saying that "influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the prepresentatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men." "Sensibility" and "habits of mind" must both work on and with each other to result in good poetry; there is, afterall, "one property of all good poetry, namely, good sense" (9). "Sense" here seems interesting, as it is immediately understood in the colloquial understanding meaning "reasonableness," but given Wordsworth's emphasis on sensation and pleasure in poetry, perhaps this "good sense" can be understood physically as well as cerebrally.

In another example, Wordsworth says that "if metre be superadded [to a selection of the language really spoken by men], I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind" (13), where the gratification shouldn't be thought of in terms of sterile rationality, but a pleasure that appeals to such a mind. Wordsworth insists on the cruciality of this language to his project: "in order to excite rational sympathy, [the Poet] must express himself as other men express themselves" (22).

Wordsworth's usage of "rational" itself and other related words implies a breaking down of the definition underwhich "rational" is an antonym of "emotional," "empirical" or "sensory". Rational could be best be described as "sensible" in Wordsworth's writing. He is a transitional author, evidencing the change from the 18th century meaning of the word (most closely tied to definition 2, with the addition of a divine aspect or link) to the more common 'inherent reason' definition (#3 on our wiki).


In questioning whether Africans are born inferior to other men, Equiano writes, "Every rational mind answers, No" (The Interesting Narrative, 45) The behavior of those of European decent foreshadows Freuds use of the word rational, as a means of justifying what is in fact irrational.

On page 45, Equiano also draws attention to God's creating all nations from one blood. If Equiano's use of Rational is to mean a person who is using good sense, reason, or judgment, then this reason can be said to be based on a set of standards. This set of standards being based on knowledge of God; a religious set of standards. Equiano means that the rational mind reasons by calling to mind what that mind has been taught about God; that mind being able to temper feelings of self exultation over other men by being checked by God.

On page 112 Equiano, in response to instruments of torture, asks, "Are they fit to be applied by one rational being to another?" What makes these being rational in this use is the ability to discern natural rights of mankind. It is the ability to understand that every man deserves fair treatment. Through pages 110-112 Equiano relates his understanding in why Moses struck down an Egyptian as being a result of unfair treatment of the Jew by the Egyptian. Equiano states that even the treatment of the slave in his time is contrary to what God intended. On this basis he finds that an uprising should be expected and not a surprise the slave owners. The rational beings should be able to reason that this course of action is imminent since it follows the same example and teachings in the Bible, which comes from God. In this case too, then, rational can be tied to a religious set of standards; as the slave acts in a way acceptable by those standards and that the slave owner is also aware of those standards.


"You are endeavouring to disarm me with reason, and to convince me against my will" (53).

"'He cannot bear writing, you know,' she continued-- 'he says it is quite shocking.' 'No;' said he, 'I never said any thing so irrational. Don't palm all of your abuses of language upon me.'" (110)

"The youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him to every thing but her beauty and good nature; but the four secceeding years--years, which if rationally spent, give such improvement to understanding..." (134)

"These apprehensions perhaps were not founded entirely on reason, and certainly not all on truth" (218).

Austen tends to use reason when people are thinking rationally and sensibility when they are using emotions to justify their thinking. Her use of rationality, can be traced to our third definition of rational (i.e. understanding, good sense). The title, "Sense and Sensibility" reveals the balance within the whole novel, which can be said to be between the rational and emotions. Rational is not yet being used in the novel to justify emotions, rather it is contrasted with emotions.

Other Forms of the Word

1. Reason: ("reason," The Oxford Companion to Philosophy): "The general human 'faculty' or capacity for truth-seeking and problem-solving, differentiated from instinct, imagination, or faith in that its results are intellectually trustworthy--even to the extent, according to rationalism, that reason is both necessary and sufficient for arriving at knowledge. Although the reason-emotion and reason-experience distinctions are overworked, the claim that reason is the defining characteristic of human beings (the human essence) remains powerful.--Atopham 23:49, 13 February 2008 (EST)

2. Rationality: ("rationality," The Oxford Companion to Philosophy): "a feature of cognitive agents that they exhibit when they adopt beliefs on the basis of apprpriate reasons. [...] It has long been held that raional assessment requires rigorous rules for deciding whether a proposition should be believed. Formal logic and mathematics provide the clearest examples of such rules. Science has also been considered a model of rationality because it was held to proceed in accordance with the scientific method which provides the rules for gathering evidence and evaluating hypotheses on the basis of this evidence. In this view, rational assessment yields results that are universal and necessary. [...] Our ability to be rational depends on a basic ability to exercise intelligent judgement that cannot be completely captured in systemes of rules."--Atopham 23:45, 13 February 2008 (EST)

3. Rationalize: involves giving reason or explaining a course of action. Perhaps to justify. For example, I had to kill the cat because... and then insert any line of Rationalization or reasoning to excuse, justify, explain the action of killing the cat.

4. Rationale:A reasoned exposition of principles; an explanation or statement of reasons; a set of reasoned rules or directions (OED).

5. Rationalism: ("rationalism," The Oxford Companion to Philosophy): "Any of a variety of views emphasizing the role or importance of reason, usually including intuition, in contrast to sensory experience (including introspection), the feelings, or authority. [...] Rationalism [...] does not have to take an extreme form. It can content itself with claiming simply that some of our knowledge, though not all of it, can come to us otherwise than through the senses. [...] Rationalism can also oppose reason to authority, in particular to religious revelation, and the name has been used in this sense, especially since the end of the nineteenth century, though not usually in philosophy."--Atopham 23:45, 13 February 2008 (EST)

The Rational Temperament

Rationals are constantly trying to figure out the world and why it is the way it is. Knowledge means power to them. If they know how something works they can control it. They are constantly striving to better themselves, so they are their own main competitor. They may be satisfied with what they have done today, but tomorrow they will have to do even better. They want logical answers to everything. They do not access their feelings easily. They much prefer to deal with the world in a logical rather than a values-based way.

They tend to use more abstract words that deal with theory, concepts, and ideas. They are more interested in the big picture than in the everyday details. The details can be filled in later although they are very good at taking care of all the details so as to produce the perfect outcome.

Their special skill is strategy. Strategy is the ability to look at a long range project and see all the possible situations and choose the right solutions to bring the project to completion in the best possible manner.

Cluster Words

Reason: OED: reasonable vs. rational - relatively same meaning; to be rational is to exercise reason
Emotions: to be rational may involve setting aside certain emotions in order to make a sound judgement
Logic: logical and rational also have relative the same meaning; to be rational is to employ logic
Experience: you can make a rational decision based on past experience
Sense/Sensibility: exercising good sense (reason, rationality), often with some moderation of sensibility (emotions)