Anti-Irrationalism, Meaning Rules, and Social Practice
Faced with Tarski’s criticism, Ajdukiewicz later came to the conclusion that his conception of language - especially his idea of closed and connected languages - had been a “paper fiction.” (see Woleński 1989b; Jedynak 2003; Grobler 2013). However, for the purposes of this study, we can make use of the idea of world-perspective and concede that providing lists of meaning-rules of a given language L can at least serve as a useful partial approximation of what the world-perspective set up by L is.
As explicitly pointed out by Ajdukiewicz e.g. in (1950, 1964), we can reintroduce Radical Empiricism (RE) and Radical Apriorism (RA) in terms of meaning rules. A proponent of RE says that at least insofar as science is concerned, we should only accept empirical meaning-rules as explicated in I.3, i.e. acceptance of any sentence must be based on observation. On the other extreme, one who believes in RA insists that we should only accept axiomatic and deductive rules, i.e. acceptance of any sentence must be based on axioms and their consequences. Moderate positions allow for all three kinds of meaning-rules to be accepted and they differ with respect to their usability, so to speak: while ME agrees that there are plausible sentences whose meaning is defined solely in terms of axiomatic and deductive rules, it denies the possibility of producing genuinely new pieces of knowledge based on them. On the other hand, MA accepts empirical meaning rules, yet it also insists that there are sentences conveying genuinely new knowledge whose meaning does not draw on observation.
Ajdukiewicz himself suggests in (1964, 1975) that AIRR allies with ME (see Woleński 1989b). On the other hand, he evolved over the years much closer to RE and it is not clear how this move was related to the issue of AIRR. Now, although I see no reason to openly disagree with the reading associating AIRR with ME (or RE), I would like to propose something else. And I argue that it is not at odds with Ajdukiewicz and LWS.
I shall make use of the notion of world-perspective, assuming that its sense is given. So, firstly, I propose that AIRR is not a particular position, but rather it operates as a meta-level decision platform and provides tools and criteria enabling one to build and/or choose a world-perspective; even if not to pick one in a flash, then at least to eliminate some options.
The importance of the notion of choosing and/or building a world-perspectives proves crucial once we realize that according to Ajdukiewicz (1934; see also 1949), empirical data cannot force a scientist to accept or reject any sentence (insofar as the language of science is closed and connected): if there is inconsistency between the data and the sentence, one can always change the conceptual apparatus, thus change the world-perspective. This position is called radical conventionalism. This form of conventionalism differs from the one endorsed by Poincaré in one crucial respect: while Poincaré targeted a priori structures that we impose on the empirical facts as conventional (his view was primarily focused on geometry), Ajdukiewicz’s radical conventionalism targets facts as well. This means that we have no access to facts outside a particular language; any delineation of facts, as it were, depends on a conceptual apparatus.
Therefore, being true or false can be sensibly ascribed to a sentence, according to Ajdukiewicz, only within a given world-perspective, so that one never has an isolated sentence to be compared somehow with reality itself, but each such “comparison,” if possible at all, takes place within a given framework established by a fixed conceptual apparatus. This leads to the question of how a world-perspective as a whole is related to reality itself (see Ajdukiewicz 1934a, 1949).
Now, on the basis of radical conventionalism it makes no sense to hold that a world-perspective as a whole is true or false. A somewhat Kantian whiff of this conception is that all our cognitive efforts refer to phenomena and we are unable, as already pointed out, to get a glimpse of reality itself. It seems then that world-perspectives are constructions that one can either accept or reject, employ or not, en bloc.Footnote 5 At the end of the day the question is not whether a particular world-perspective is true but why it is accepted by a given community or, perhaps, in some special situations, by an individual; why people assert a particular perspective.
Note that this pragmatic angle makes the question of rationalism and irrationalism pivotal: unlike truth itself which is in principle independent of what we think and could even be adequately grasped by accident (as Gettier’s 1963 examples show), what really matters here is how we come to decide which perspective we pick up. Thus, we find ourselves in a situation in which the burden is placed on the tools, methods, criteria and even attitudes that are supposed to guide the activity of constructing and/or choosing a world-perspective. And as we are about to decide whether or not to accept a given world-perspective, we need to defend ourselves against nonsense, thus against irrationalism of any sort.
So, when it comes to the announced notion of decision platform, I propose that the AIRR – IRR distinction is in the first place about how we build a world-perspective; about the “tools” we use to fulfill the task. Roughly speaking, we can follow both ordinary and scientific social practices, e.g., by allowing all three kinds of meaning-rules to be employed, or we can break with the social practice, limiting people’s epistemic practices and therefore calling for a sweeping reform of how humans build knowledge, e.g., by allowing only one or two kinds of meaning rules (as it is the case in RE and RA).
So, I propose that in this context AIRR insists on staying true to actual social practices, whether in science or everyday life. This means that any a priori restriction imposed on these practices deserves to be called irrational; it belongs to IRR. This does not mean that the social practices are deemed perfect, indefectible. Of course they are imperfect, yet the point is that it would be of no benefit to make armchair decisions as to which types of commonly practiced ways of obtaining knowledge should be dismissed upfront.
When generalized, this reading of Ajdukiewicz’s AIRR is deeply non-trivial. Remember his idea of AIRR’s duty to defend society against nonsense. This is the first point at which we can recognize the possibility of there being positions that call themselves rationalism and yet, paradoxically, are saddled with irrationalism. This happens when the reason (or Reason) invoked as the source of standards for the real people’s epistemic endeavors has nothing to do with these people’s actual epistemic capacities, goals, and perspectives.
In this context, IRR stands for any artificial restriction imposed on actual social practices from “outside,” as it were. Such a restriction would mean imposing a standard, a goal or an ideal that ignores how real people, including real scientists, real decision-makers, lawmakers and others gain their knowledge, solve problems or behave.Footnote 6 However, this is only the first step.
Anti-Irrationalism, Scientism, and Mythical Thinking
Hence, we have two strategies: one follows both ordinary and scientific social practices, e.g., allow all three kinds of meaning-rules to be employed (this is the AIRR strategy), whereas the other group breaks with the social practice and restricts the range of meaning-rules employed (which is targeted here as the birthmark of IRR).
However, now I wish to argue that one can avoid the said kind of IRR, yet still end up with IRR of some other sort insofar as the chosen world-perspective’ very being chosen is forgotten. The latter IRR is not about how we build a world-perspective; rather it pertains to a special attitude we take toward the constructed/chosen one. Perhaps that is what some thinkers mean when they invoke “scientism,” referring to the unwarranted extension of the methods of science and its pretence to objectivity to all domains of enquiry and life (e.g., Hayek 1980). In effect, science is deemed the only plausible story about the world. This possibility of IRR pertaining to a domain that may be regarded as the paradigmatic realization of AIRR, i.e., science, is a persistent source of confusion. To put it simply: how can one be irrational about one’s own exercise of rationality? I believe that Ajdukiewicz’s framework, interpreted in the way rolled out here, can do a good job in eliciting this complex and, indeed, surprising structure of our attitudes.
For the sake of this interpretation I bring Leszek Kołakowski, another recognizable Polish philosopher (not a member of LWS, however, an assistant to Kotarbiński), who started out as a fierce defender of Marxism in the 1940s and 50s, but ended up as one of its most influential and well-recognized critics (see Kołakowski 2008), which would lead into exile from 1968 (he would become a fellow at All Souls, Oxford, and at the University of Chicago).
Kołakowski was a philosopher and a historian of ideas (he contributed to the establishment of the Warsaw school of the history of ideas), tracing all remnants of mythical thinking in modern secular culture, philosophy, ideology, politics, and science (or rather in thinking about the sciences). It turns out, I propose, that IRR can be seen as a sort of mythical thinking and, surprisingly, it can turn up also in the guise of a mythologization of reason and rationality, including science.
In his seminal work, The Presence of Myth Kołakowski (1989) uses the term “myth” in a somewhat less technical sense, distancing himself from the way in which historians of religion appeal to myths, yet investing the term with a characteristically abstract philosophical character. Kołakowski purposely does not provide any strict definition of myth upfront, hoping that his usage of the term can be read from the contexts he addresses, but a sort of basic characterization of mythical thinking is suggested in the preface. Namely, a myth is any intellectual construction that purports to bind “conditioned and mutable elements of experience” with alleged “unconditioned realities (such as ‘being,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘value’)” (Kołakowski 1989: ix). I propose to read it in a way linking us nicely with Ajdukiewicz: our world-perspectives are constrained and limited by our conceptual apparatuses, but also points of view, sensory apparatus, and a variety of other factors; thus they are – to use Kołakowski’s vocabulary – conditioned. Conditionality, i.e., being sensitive to a given language, context, tool, etc., is the hallmark of each world-perspective.
Now, mythical thinking, which is not thought of by Kołakowski as something bad, by the way, but as an indispensable aspect of every human endeavor, envisages a prospect of there being somewhere, behind a veil, a domain that is not conditioned in any way (like Plato’s ideas) and a prospect of getting in touch with this domain. Hence, mythical thinking is an attempt to overcome the limits of all world-perspectives and to reach the unconditioned realm.
Among the myths we eagerly create and consume there is the myth of Reason. Kołakowski writes:
Thus, truth as a value different from effective applicability is therefore a part of myth which refers the conditional empirical realities to an unconditioned universe. It is part of the mythology of Reason, which establishes the discontinuity between Reason and the biological assimilation of the world and therefore does not wish to regard Reason as a bodily organ. If the brain is part of the body, and reason a part of the brain's behavior, epistemological valuation cannot be saved; truth cannot be saved as a quality different from technological applicability; nor can the rules of logic as a code discovered by the thinker in the nature of thought.
We need the myth of Reason to have the belief that our logic is not simply a savoir vivre of a community cooperating in thought, nor only a physical property of our bodily constitution or of our way of speaking (Ibid.: 41).
Here is the sought connection between Kołakowski’s reflection and Ajdukiewicz’s posit: from the perspective just unpacked, it could be said that AIRR seeks rationalism that is free from the myth of Reason and all its embodiments, such as the myth of the ultimate truth serving as the ideal of our epistemic efforts, or - going back to the issue of scientism - the myth of science as unveiling reality in itself, unconditioned by our cognitive limitations. AIRR is supposed to give justice to reason and even praise reason without an attempt to transplant our conditioned, conventional grasp of it into an alleged unconditioned realm in which reason becomes Reason.
It turns out that Rationalism understood as a sort of worship of an alleged Reason or Rationality is, in fact, an exercise of IRR. I propose, therefore, that in this context, AIRR is, first of all, the awareness that the chosen world-perspective is a world-perspective, while IRR boils down to the belief that the chosen world-perspective is identical to reality. In other words, IRR is a kind of dogmatism, whereas the core of AIRR is the acknowledgement of the very fact that there may be different world-perspectives, and even if the asserted one satisfies all of our conditions, it is still only a perspective. This means that even the perspective praised as the best available at a given moment is still one of many possible perspectives. Hence, when it comes to the invoked case of scientism, it is rational in the sense of AIRR to choose science as the right source of knowledge about reality, and irrational to forget about that choice’s being a choice.
Anti-Irrationalism with Respect to Conditions
Another thing is to make sure that the conditions employed when choosing a given world-perspective (or an attitude toward the chosen one) satisfy AIRR and avoid IRR. Note again the difference: even if you acknowledge that each world-perspective is a perspective, thus a matter of choice, you can still end up with another kind of IRR, namely the one pertaining to the conditions followed in making the choice. To summarize: there are tools one uses to built/choose a world-perspective; there are attitudes toward the constructed/chosen world-perceptive; and finally there are conditions or criteria that one employs to make the choice. And at each stage, one can stick with AIRR or succumb to IRR.
Here, at the level of criteria or conditions, I see the place for Ajdukiewicz’s notions of inter-subjective communicability and inter-subjective testability. The idea is that if you want to safeguard your choice of a particular world-perspective from IRR, you have to able to communicate your reasons in a public language so that other people can understand them. Even if the latter requires mastery of some technicalities, it must not be some obscure method in principle inaccessible to the vast majority of people. Secondly, your reasons must be testable, meaning that if you rely on empirical findings, your observations must be repeatable in a similar, experimental or natural setting; and if you rely on a chain of deductive steps, you must define the exact rules you used and axioms you accepted, if any, so that others can follow your train of thought.
Three Kinds of IRR and AIRR: a Summary
To sum up, I propose that there are three levels of the IRR – AIRR distinction.
IRR – AIRR with respect to the “tools,” broadly construed, primarily meaning-rules (which is what Ajdukiewicz was originally focused on), employed to build world-perspectives. IRR equals an artificial restriction within the types of tools, while AIRR reflects the actual social practice by allowing all of them at the starting point, leaving room for further decisions as to the scope of each tool (e.g., each meaning-rule).
IRR – AIRR with respect attitudes towards the built/chosen world-perspectives. Here a proponent of IRR (likely, unaware of their attitude) picks one particular perspective and, in a sense, forgets about the choice just made, treating the chosen world-perspective as identical to reality. AIRR is “merely” the awareness of the fact that the choice made is a choice; that the perspective picked up is a perspective which is never identical to reality. IRR as it stands here can be referred to as some kind of dogmatism.
IRR – AIRR with respect to the conditions governing the choice of a world-perspective. One has to be ready to provide reasons for choosing a given world-perspective, and in order to count as belonging to AIRR these reasons must be spelled out in a way that in principle everybody can understand and based on data that in principle everybody has access to. Otherwise, we end up with IRR.
Anti-Irrationalism About Anti-Irrationalism
There is one more thing that should be said. As I mentioned at the beginning, rationalism understood as anti-irrationalism cannot be deemed the “cult” of reason because it would produce a plain contradiction: the assertion of AIRR would breach the conditions of AIRR itself. I therefore propose to render AIRR a recursive or self-referring attitude. This means that each articulation of AIRR must satisfy the conditions of AIRR, i.e., in the first place, it must itself be communicable and testable.
One might ask what it could mean for AIRR itself to be testable. Here is what I mean: AIRR must be proven actually useful in each particular case. Let us take quite a controversial example: suppose that Sam and John are debating on the issue of gun laws in the United States. And here comes Jane who says that they should examine what justifies their beliefs in step with AIRR, i.e., to examine their claims’ inter-subjective communicability and inter-subjective testability (e.g. do they really communicate with each other when they seem to be using the same the term “Second Amendment”?). The point is that Jane herself has to be able to communicate, i.e., to explain in an understandable way and “prove” why Sam and John will benefit from employing the mentioned conditions. Now, the notion of “understandable way” appeals to social practices and natural language as they actually exist in a given community. Hence, this requirement forces Jane, who might be, for example, an academic, to articulate her point in the usual terms, without the technicalities specific to her discipline. And to “prove” of course refers not to a proof in the proper sense of the term, but rather to an exposition of practical results or of other cases in which the AIRR strategy has already proven useful, so that Sam and John can actually see that employing AIRR may be of some use to them. The AIRR strategy may be recognized as trustworthy more or less along the same lines as engineers’ expertise is trustworthy based on the fact that they build bridges that don’t usually collapse: one does not have to be an expert in all the computations required to make the bridge firm in order to examine its firmness.
The purpose of making AIRR self-referential or self-sensitive is primarily related to social issues. The purpose is this: expecting each articulation of AIRR to satisfy the conditions of AIRR prevents us from a situation in which there is a gulf between people professionally engaged in certain discursive pursuits (members of academia, journalists, lawmakers and the like) and people for the benefit of whom the former group is supposed to work. This is related to more general debates going on in contemporary epistemology pertaining to the role of experts and what it actually means to rely on someone’s expertise. There is a risk of experts being effectively locked up in what Thi Nguyen (2018) has recently called cognitive islands, i.e., domains of expertise that require one to be an expert or at least a person familiar with the domain in order to grasp it. Cognitive islands are actually inaccessible to profanes. Hence, AIRR can likely be considered a means of defending society against the perils of cognitive islands.
A Modern-Day Limitation of Ajdukiewicz’s Concept of AIRR
The appeal to the issue of cognitive islands draws our attention to a certain limitation built into Ajdukiewicz’s original rendering of AIRR in terms of inter-subjective communicability and testability; one that has only recently come to the fore thanks to technological development and, as such, could not have been known to Ajdukiewicz. It seems that appealing to inter-subjectivity may not be sufficient to guarantee that someone will not succumb to IRR in the specific context of what is known today as the filter bubble, information cocoon or echo chamber (see Pariser 2011; Flaxman et al. 2016). These constructs can be considered flip sides of cognitive islands, i.e. as opposed to experts’ being isolated on their cognitive islands, filter bubbles are realms of data and beliefs that are usually immune to expert knowledge. Think for example of the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, held by some in the United States. A priori it is possible that this false belief passes the standard AIRR test if one’s social media and other communication channels are structured in a particular way by algorithms responsible for creating psychometric profiles, to the effect that one can find other individuals whose communication channels are tuned in a similar way, and they can easily communicate within their shared information cocoon or even run some “tests,” thereby finding lots of “data” to support their belief in the conspiracy launched by Mr. Obama to hide his true birthplace (I am not saying that such a technology is available now, yet it is a thinkable option; see Matz et al. 2017).
The information cocoon can hardly be accounted for in Ajdukiewicz’s original terms, yet it can be approached as a certain pathology of the world-perspective, meaning a perspective whose task to select means or channels for reaching out to the world (knowing the world) has been replaced with the task of blocking these very channels. Hence, we have to amend the understanding of AIRR with respect to conditions provided above.
Of course, the filter bubble created by those who believe in the Obama conspiracy cannot count as a complete or comprehensive world-perspective. If so, one might argue that the issue of information cocoons does not constitute a thread to Ajdukiewicz’s, or an Ajdukiewicz-inspired, account of rationality. I shall not make a strong case for why we should think otherwise as this is not the proper topic of this paper. However, one thing that could justify invoking filter bubbles in this context is their systematic character, as it were, meaning that they are not just momentary exercises of our irrationality which can be corrected easily by relevant data (like Obama’s birth certificate); instead - they are relatively stable structures, based on countless pieces of statistical information pertaining to our behavior and constraining our access to the relevant data. If so, it seems that their impact on our cognition may be more fundamental and long-lasting, thereby shedding new light on the issue of rationality, too.
In this situation, we need to reintroduce the IRR vs. AIRR distinction with respect to conditions or criteria in newer terms, so that it can accommodate individuals who may be locked up with others in shared information cocoons, deceitful as these can be, for they create an illusion of inter-subjectivity, thus an illusion of rationality.
The problem just brought up does not pertain to Ajdukiewicz’s conception only. J. Searle writes in his classic book Rationality in Action:
Rationality in action is that feature which enables organisms with brains big and complex enough to have conscious selves, to coordinate their intentional contents, so as to produce better actions than would be produced by random behavior, instinct, tropism, or acting on impulse. (2001, p. 141)Footnote 7
Note, however, that the man who believes that Barack Obama was not born in America can satisfy such a mild description of rationality. He can coordinate his intentional contents with some of his fellow believers and produce better actions than would be produced by him alone. As a coalition they can establish a political interest group and influence the democratic process. After all, there is no a priori limitation imposed on what can count as a better action or as a good outcome of action. So if the group can influence the democratic process, it’s good for them, at least from their constrained perspective.
The point is that we can hardly denounce their belief as plainly false - even if it is false - if we don’t want to succumb to IRR by believing that we, unlike they, enjoy some privileged glimpse of reality. Someone might argue that in the cases such as “X was born in Y” there are documents that can be easily checked.Footnote 8 However, our access to documents is always part of a world-perspective, therefore, as noted, it may be constrained by the pathologized world-perspective; i.e. our filter bubble. Hence, we need to appeal to some conditions that the group failed to satisfy when constructing their world-perspective, not to truth thought of as correspondence with reality itself. But what conditions?
I propose to translate inter-subjective communicability into cross-perspective communicability, meaning that each factor that you are going to use as a building block in your world-perspective must in principle be explicable and understandable to someone living in a different world-perspective. If you and your friends construct a shared world-perspective, you have to be able to explain to someone who does not partake in your endeavor why a given tool, datum, or material deserves to be used. Analogously to Ajdukiewicz, who put stress on the possibility of understandable communication between two people, here the stress is put on understandable communication between a group of people sharing one world-perspective and another group sharing a different one. This condition does not allow the former group to be caught up in a bubble in which they in fact exercise fake communication.
Furthermore, following Ajdukiewicz again, each part of one group’s world-perspective should in principle be testable by the members of another group, thus for every factor constraining one world-perspective there must be a possibility of reproducing it in a different world-perspective so that it can be examined. For example, when one group of people sets forth a conspiracy theory about Mr. Obama, each part of the theory must be examinable by a different group of people.
Now, the point about AIRR’s self-reference and the proposed amendment of Ajdukiewicz’s conditions of AIRR will prove crucial in the last, most speculative part of this paper which maximally broadens the very idea of anti-irrationalism, so that it can be applied to societies, states, political powers, etc. However, since the announced generalization of AIRR is, as I said, maximal, it requires some preparation. Hence, the thing I am about to do in the third part of the paper is to recognize Ajdukiewicz’s closest environment, i.e. the Lvov-Warsaw School (LWS) in the light of AIRR.