concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


In much philosophical and religious thought that either appeals to or rejects "reason" or "rationality" there seems to be a tendency to lose sight of what is actually being discussed and to unduly reify it into a simple object. It is important to begin with a clear recognition of what 'rationality' means.

Rationality is the ability to use reason, a quality which varies incrementally and is held by people. But what is reason? Reason is just the process of drawing conclusions from prior assumptions - working out either what must be the case given starting assumptions (deductive reasoning) or what is likely to be the case given limited evidence from observation (inductive reasoning). Reason does not operate apart from the people who use reason for specific purposes, nor does it provide any new information by itself. It is just a tool for clarifying information we already have through analysis. It is a very useful tool, but it has distinct limitations. It is not some sort of source of ultimate truth in the universe, as rationalist philosophers (or their heirs, over-enthusiastic mathematicians) might tell us. Nor is "reason" some sort of stubborn creature fighting in our minds with "emotion", as though reason had nothing to do with emotion: we use reasoning just as much as ever when motivated by emotion, and indeed it would be rather difficult to engage in reason without some sort of emotion to motivate us.

Rationality is a helpful tool for integration, because we can use reasoning, together with a sceptical motivation, to think critically about metaphysical assumptions and discover their lack of justification, weakening our attachment to them and thus opening ourselves to drawing new conclusions that give us a better understanding of conditions. Rationality is important for developing both components for justification in Middle Way philosophy - coherence and negative foundationalism. If we compare beliefs using reason and find them inconsistent, we are led to seeking new, more coherent beliefs. If we note the lack of ultimate justification for the assumptions on which a belief rests, then we become aware of its provisionality. All of these are processes involved in the integration of belief, for which the more rationality the better. It is not possible to be over-rational in the sense of having too great an ability to use these analytic processes. What people usually mean by over-rationality is a lack of awareness of the emotional dimension of experience, which has no necessary link with our degree of rationality.

Reason is only as good as the assumptions it is based on, and can only be justified insofar as those assumptions can be justified. Apart from dogma, the only justification for our assumptions has to come either from experience itself, or the ways in which those assumptions in practice help to remove barriers to understanding from experience. For this reason careful and elaborate reasoning based on metaphysical assumptions (for example most theology, or most Marxist philosophy, or most analytic philosophy) is at best a waste of time. The elaborate reasoning in these cases just tends to distract from the lack of justification for the assumptions, and catch us up in a group way of thinking formed by these assumptions.

Even reasoning used in a way that enables us to benefit from experience is not enough by itself to produce integration beyond a limited point. Emotional effort is also needed to work with our desires and meanings. Very often this emotional effort accompanies reasoning, and it should not be assumed, for example, that philosophy is not an emotional exercise. However, emotions can also be integrated by working with them more directly in, for example, therapy, the arts, or meditation. Integration of desire may be broadly supported by rationality, but also involves a spiritual process of opening up to new possible motivations. Integration of meaning is just as much based on the emotional effects of the stories we choose to tell ourselves as on any direct rational process. 

Links to related discussion

Why Buddhists should be philosophers, and why philosophers should be Buddhists

The psychological basis of the Middle Way (thesis)

The philosophy of the Middle Way (thesis)


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