Rationality and Discursive Articulation in Place-Making

Huib Ernste

Late-Modern Action-Theoretic Approaches and “Rational” Interventions

Rationality is the ability to design, follow, and have knowledge about a systematic procedure for the redemption of validity claims. In classical philosophy the term denotes the ability of the mind in terms of reason (nous, intellectus, Vernunft) and rationality (logos, ratio, Verstand) (MittelstraB, 1995, p. 470). The logos provides the argumentation for the views one holds. Logos is the capacity not just for making statements but also for providing their proofs, and a statement is proven by being derived as a conclusion from premises (Welsch, 1999). But these premises themselves cannot be secured through argumentation. It is here that reason comes in. Traditionally, reason is therefore conceived of as the faculty capable of guaranteeing these first premises, by intuition (Plato) or induction (Aristotle). One could say that reason provides the specificity of the situation at hand, the context from which rationality is supposed to draw its conclusions.

It was the paradigmatically modern philosopher Immanuel Kant who, with his Copernican turn, stated that it is actually the other way around, that rationality provides the constitutive categories and principles of cognition and that reason provides only regulative ideas, through which one experiences particularities as parts of a destined whole.[1] In modernity, therefore, rationality is regarded as the most important ability, and reason can ultimately be done away with (Feyerabend, 1987). Seen in this way, rationality autonomously establishes its own principles, methods, and perspectives. In modernity it is also recognized that there is not just one single type of rationality but different types, which cannot be reduced to each other. Each type determines its own principles. Developing Kant’s ideas about theoretical, practical, and aesthetic rationality further, Habermas (1984) paradigmatically distinguished between cognitive, moral, and aesthetic rationality. Habermas built not only on Kant’s work but also on that of Max Weber, who first made rationality a key concept in modernistic thinking and used the term specifically in the sense of purposive rationality or economic rationality, the meaning it is also often has in colloquial language. It thereby denotes the strategic choice of the best means to reach a certain goal. In this way rational decision-making became of central interest and positioned rationality and action theory as core concepts in high modernity. Weber elaborated the role of rationality for individual everyday actions and called attention to the tendency toward disenchantment, that is, toward continuous differentiation and rationalization.

Rationalization in this sense designates a historical drive toward a world in which “one can, in principle, master all things by calculation” (Weber, 1919/1946, p. 136), by rational decision-making. This process of rationalization was not limited to the economic sphere but was extended with its own rational logics also to law and administration, the social and political spheres, and other domains. As a prerequisite, a peculiarly rational and intellectual type of personality or person of vocation was presupposed. Modern scientific and technological knowledge slowly pushed back the germinating grounds of human knowledge, such as religion and metaphysics, and created a culture of “objectification” (Versachlichung). At the same time, there was a loss of substantive-value rationality, the emergence of a polytheism of value fragmentation, and the related tensions between these two developments, in other words, rationality without reason in practice.

It is in this framework that one must also situate geographical action theory as put forward by Benno Werlen (Chap. 2, in this volume or 1987, 1995, 1997) in the phenomenological tradition of Alfred Schutz (1932). According to this school of thought, the internal mental intentionality directed to outer objects is what ascribes meanings to these objects, as people do through their everyday place-making and everyday spatially differentiated actions. This geographic action theory can be interpreted as the subjectivist version of what Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, and Savigny (2001) and Reckwitz (2002) designated as the mentalist paradigm in social theory. This approach contrasts with the objectivist version of mentalism, which stems from classical structuralism as exemplified by de Saussure (1916/1972) in linguistics, Levy-Strauss (1969) in anthropology, Althusser (1965/2005) and Emerson (1984) in Marxist economics, and Piaget (1970) in psychology. One could also add the more contemporary version of psychological structuralism (Lacan, 2002); behaviorist psychology (Skinner, 1938; Watson, 1913); and cognitive psychology (e.g., Broadbent, 1987) , including cognitive linguistics (Fauconnier, 1999). The approach diverges from behavioral geography (Golledge & Stimson, 1996) as well, for which human behavior is an effect of structures in the unconscious mind in relation to structured situations and is thus part of the objectivist mentalist tradition.

In geographic action theory, on the other hand, the assumption is that the active mind is in charge. In this case, however, the sources of spatial structurations are not unconscious cognitive structures in hard-wired reaction to external structures but rather the sequence of intentional acts as conscious decisions. The aim of analysis from the angle of this social phenomenology is to describe the voluntarist subjective act, mental interpretations of agents and subjective logics, and rationalities of decision-making and behavior. This intentional goal-oriented kind of geographic action is thus clearly related to the late-modern project based on Weber’s ideas of rationalization as a purely subjective mental process and individual rational interventions in the surrounding world. Even in Schutz’s (1932) version of social phenomenology or Mead’s (1934) social behaviorist approach, in which meanings are grounded in social relations, the individual subjective mind is still the seat of judgment and rational choice. Mental structures and mental activities, therefore, are treated as an incontestable “center” of social and spatial structuration (Reckwitz, 2002, p. 247).

Habermas’s (1984) stance on rationalization differs in this sense from Werlen’s approach in that Habermas partly decenters rationalization from the individual subject to the pragmatics of social interaction. “In speech acts, the agents refer to a non-subjective realm of semantic propositions and of pragmatic rules concerning the use of signs” (Reckwitz, 2002, p. 249). For geography, this language-pragmatics approach was detailed by Zierhofer (2002) and Schlottmann (2007). This approach can be seen as a critique of the pure mentalist program but does not reject it entirely, for there are still interacting agents endowed with minds (Reckwitz, 2002, p. 249). In that sense one can speak of a further development in action theory or of late- modernist views on rational action and intervention, where agency is partly decen- tered from the individual actor to external pragmatic procedures of interaction[2] and structural relationships within whose framework these interactions occur. Reckwitz (2002, p. 249) and Moebius (2008, p. 67) call these intersubjective performative approaches intersubjectivism. A third stream of social theory in their systematics is based on poststructuralist thinking.

  • [1] In Kant’s terminology the idea of a soul prescribes us to link particular psychological appearancesto a whole; the idea of a world prescribes us to connect ah our singular observations to a unitycalled world; and, finally, the idea of God urges us to see things as result of a causal chain. Togetherthese ideas create a systematic unity in our perception (Storig, 1989, p. 404). H. Ernste (*) Department of Human Geography, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlandse-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9,DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_3
  • [2] This understanding of rationality is not restricted to purposive economic rationality; it is refiguredas apraxial (pragmatic) form of rationality and rational critique (Schrag, 1992, p. 57-59).
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