Otto Neurath

Pseudorationalism [soo-doh-rash-uh-nl-iz-uhm] was the label given by economist and philosopher Otto Neurath to a school of thought that he was heavily critical of, throughout many of his writings but primarily in his 1913 paper ‘The lost wanderers of Descartes and the auxiliary motive’ and later to a lesser extent in his 1935 ‘Pseudorationalismus der Falsifikation,’ a review of and attack on philosopher of science Karl Popper’s first book, ‘Logik der Forschung’ (‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’), contrasting this approach with his own view of what rationalism should properly be.

Neurath aimed his criticism at a Cartesian belief that all actions can be subject to rational analysis, saying that: ‘Once reason has gained a certain influence, people generally show a tendency to regard all their actions as reasonable. Ways of action which depend on dark instincts receive reinterpretation or obfuscation.’

Neurath considered that ‘pseudo-rationalists,’ be they philosophers or scientists, made the mistake of assuming that a complete rational system could be devised for the laws of nature. He argued rather that no system could be complete, being based upon an picture of reality that could only ever be incomplete and imperfect. Pseudorationalism, in Neurath’s view, was a refusal or simple inability to face up to the limits of rationality and reason. ‘Rationalism,’ he wrote, ‘sees its chief triumph in the clear recognition of the limits of actual insight.’ Whereas a pseudorationalist acknowledges no such limits, but rather contents that all decisions can be subject to the rules of insight. Scientific method is, according to Neurath, pseudorationalist where it contends that the rules for the scientific method will always lead ever closer to the truth.

Neurath further challenged Cartesian ‘pseudorationalism’ by asserting that operating upon incomplete data was in fact the norm, where Cartesian thinking would have it be the rare exception. Rather than there being one, final, rational answer to any given problem, Neurath asserted that scientific endeavour required a continuing and never ending series of choices, made so in part because of the ambiguity of language.

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