Aspects of reasonableness

Having finished the preliminary explanations of what sort of understanding Part Two of The Eggplant offers, here we begin its substance: an understanding of reasonableness.

This table summarizes aspects of effective thinking and acting in reasonableness, rationality, and meta-rationality. The second column summarizes the contents of this Part.

Aspect Reasonable Rational Meta-rational
Relationship with reality Interactive Detached Reflectively relating formalism and reality
Breadth of considerations Context-dependent Universal Context-crossing
Effective action Ad hoc Systematic Meta-systematic
Improvised Procedural Flexible contextual use and revision of procedures
Purposiveness Purpose-laden Purpose-independent Evaluating and coordinating purposes
Contingencies Routine Exceptional or problematic Reflective
… Problems Everyday hassles Solution specifications Messes to manage
Inference Accountable, negotiable Truth-preserving Meta-epistemic
Epistemology Informal Formal Relating formal and informal
Concrete Abstract Crossing abstraction levels
Specific General Relating details with big picture
Tacit Explicit Relating implicit and explicit
Knowing how Knowing that Understanding in context
Reasonable account Rigorous theory Context-crossing understanding
Ontology Nebulous Clear-cut Relates formal patterns and nebulosity
… Categories Counting-as Rigorous definition Reflection on boundaries
… Truth Purposive, contextual Absolute “In what sense?”

We’ll return to this chart in Part Three, where I explain how rationality deals with the third column; and again in Part Four, concerning the fourth. You might want to think ahead about what the entries in those columns might mean. The third column may seem obvious; the fourth maybe not so much.

As a reminder, this is not a dual-process cognitive theory. That has two implications:

  • Resist the temptation to mentally add rows to the table: for example contrasting emotion and reason, or unconscious and conscious, or subjective and objective. These are not contrasts between reasonableness and rationality (as those terms are used in this book).

  • Entries in the first column are aspects of activity, in which circumstances and people always both play roles, which cannot be separated. As an exercise, it may be helpful to consider each entry in the second column and think about how situational features might contribute to making that mode of activity appropriate. As individuals, we have some choice about when to be reasonable versus rational, but choosing well depends heavily on circumstances. (Deciding whether to approach a particular situation reasonably or rationally is a meta-rational judgement.)

Aspects of the Theory of Breakfast

Making breakfast is better done reasonably than rationally. Let’s take it as a prototype, and look at it in terms of the aspects of activity in the table above.1

Making breakfast is necessarily highly interactive because the materials (cake, jam, eggs, yogurt) are nebulous: floppy, crumbly, sticky, lumpy, squishy, runny, and effectively impossible to model formally. It requires constant hand-eye coordination to make them behave. Cooking a cheese and spinach omelet by executing a detailed procedure or plan that spelled out every finger motion in advance is out of the question.

Normally you are only concerned with making this breakfast, now, here, for these people. You can, therefore, make use of all the specific resources available in the context. You don’t need to work out a system for breakfast-making that anyone could use on any occasion; you can improvise details based on available ingredients and equipment, ad hoc. Unless you are a serious food geek, you are not interested in universal properties of breakfasts in general.

The purpose of making breakfast is to have a breakfast to eat. Doubts can be addressed with “will this count as an adequate breakfast for the occasion?” rather than some criterion of epistemic correctness. There is no absolute truth about whether you have achieved an omelet. It looks like an omelet, pretty much; the question is only whether you are willing to eat it. And whether your family is willing to eat it; you may need to negotiate its omeletness with them.

You may have the same breakfast every day, or select among a small number of different ones. Maybe sometimes on the weekend you could try something more ambitious, but usually breakfast-making is almost entirely routine. You know how to do it. Often there are minor hassles (you may spill some egg on the stove), but dealing with them is also routine.

Your knowledge of breakfast-making is largely tacit, concrete know-how, rather than something you could write out in detail while sitting in an office. What finger motions do you make when gripping a spatula? What visual features of an omelet tell you when its done? No one can say. To the extent that you can describe breakfast-making, you will produce a reasonable account rather than a rigorous theory.2

  • 1. The title of this section is a play on Noam Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, a foundational text of cognitivism.
  • 2. As a consequence of all these aspects, programming a humanoid robot to make breakfast is well beyond the current state of the art in artificial intelligence research.


This page is in the section Part Two: Taking reasonableness seriously,
      which is in In the Cells of the Eggplant.

The next page in this section is Reasonableness is meaningful activity.

The previous page is The ethnomethodological flip.

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