Rationality is the idea of being in accordance with reason and logic. When rationalistic explanations are given for human behavior, emphasis is given on logical, systematic, and intelligent thought processes. Rationality opposes the usage of emotions and other elements that are generally considered to be irrational, such as superstition, in explaining behavior and events.

The idea of rationality can be traced back to rationalism. Rationalism is the philosophical belief that knowledge can be gained by engaging actively in systematic mental activity. The rationalists believed that the mind actively interacts with information and derives some meaning out of it, suggesting that the mind is active.

Further, the rationalists believed that many of the processes involved among human beings are innate. They suggested that innate mental structures, operations, or abilities are involved in analysing thought.

The rationalists also felt that the idea of truth cannot be determined by merely experience and beliefs. According to them, conclusions about truth must be ascertained by making logical deductions and analysis, emphasizing a rational system in arriving at truth.

Baruch Spinoza
Rene Descartes
The rationalists, therefore, giving emphasis on deriving meaning from
information, an active mind, innate processes, and logical analysis, stressed on deduction and a top-down approach to gaining knowledge. Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz are considered to be the three great modern rationalists who initiated the idea of rationalism. They emphasized on innate ideas, an active mind, and logical and intellectual processes. Their idea of rationality, eventually led to the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, in the 18th century. 
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 

In opposition to rationalism, a number of scholars felt that an emphasis on intellect and rationality is too dry to understand the essence of human nature. This idea is referred to as irrationalism, and emerged as a reaction against the Age of Reason, in the 19th century. Proponents of irrationalism believed that instead of logic and intellect, there should be an emphasis on the unique human experiences, feelings and emotions, and the will.

The idea of irrationalism was strongly represented in romanticism or the Romantic movement, which gave emphasis to subjectivity. Scholars within this philosophy believed that in going with the idea of rationalism, somewhere, the individual human gets lost. They, thus, felt that in explaining human behavior, feelings and emotions, give a lot more meaning. This is what is said to be the Romantic movement.

Friedrich Nietzche
Jean-Jacques Rousseau 
Irrationalism and romanticism led to significant contributions in understanding human behavior in the form of existentialism and vitalism. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Soren Kierkegaard are regarded as some of the proponents of this idea.


Soren Kierkegaard

The debate of rationalism versus irrationalism has been continuing for years. It is even prevalent in contemporary psychology, where it has been found that psychologists often favoring either rationalism or irrationalism. A good example of this debate can be found in the modern concept of intelligence.

Lewis Terman
The concept of intelligence, right from its inception in the discipline of psychology, has been viewed in terms of intellect, logic, and reason. This is reflected in the definition of intelligence given by the developmental and educational psychologist, Lewis Terman, in 1921. Terman defined intelligence as the ability to carry out abstract thinking.   

Theodore Simon
Alfred Binet
The widely used intelligence tests, starting from the Binet-Simon test, developed by the psychologist Alfred Binet and physician Theodore Simon, in 1905, the Stanford-Binet test, developed by Lewis Terman, in 1916, and the Weschler scales, first published in 1955, developed by the psychologist David Weschler, all were modelled on the conception of intelligence being associated with logic and reason. These tests popularized the notion of intelligence quotient (IQ), first coined by William Stern, which has been extensively used in evaluating people in terms of having specific skills, being fit for a job, or even diagnosing for a psychological disorder.                           
William Stern

The earlier notion of intelligence can be viewed as more of a representation of the philosophy of rationalism. A number of psychologists found this notion of intelligence to be very limited. Moreover, they felt that intelligence being measured by the existing intelligence tests is more about academic abilities, and may not be useful in everyday life.

John Mayer
These disagreements of describing intelligence completely in terms of logic and reason, eventually led to the emergence of the concept of emotional intelligence. In 1990, the term emotional intelligence was introduced by the social psychologist, Peter Salovey and personality psychologist, John Mayer. They defined emotional intelligence as the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.

Howard Gardner
In defining emotional intelligence, Salovey and Mayer, have been inspired by the idea of personal intelligence, given by the educational psychologist, Howard Gardner. Personal intelligence, according to Gardner, comprises of intra-personal intelligence (self-knowledge; awareness of inner moods, intentions, motivations, temperaments, and desires) and interpersonal intelligence (ability to sense the moods, feelings, and motives of others and be in tune with them). These two types of intelligences are among the other eight to nine intelligences that Gardner describes in his theory of Multiple Intelligences, first introduced in his book Frames of Mind, in 1983.

Gardner, through his theory of multiple intelligences, was opposing the early notion of intelligence that psychologists had found to be too simplistic and limited in scope. There have been other psychologists, much before Gardner, who have been trying to describe intelligence beyond academic abilities.

Edward Thorndike
In 1920, the functional psychologist, Edward Thorndike, introduced the concept of social intelligence. Social intelligence is the ability to understand and manage people, and to act wisely in human relationships. By talking about intelligence in terms of managing people, Thorndike was giving a broader perspective of intelligence.

David Wechsler

Like Thorndike, intelligence theorist David Weschler, also gave a broader perspective of intelligence. In 1944, Weschler defined intelligence as the global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with the environment. Weschler also differentiated between intellective and non-intellective elements of intelligence – intellective elements include academic abilities, and non-intellective elements include affective, personal, and social factors.

Both Thorndike and Weschler were describing intelligence that was different from the earlier notions. They were still not completely dissociating intelligence from rationality, which can be reflected in Thorndike’s description of “acting wisely” and Weschler’s description of “to think rationally”. However, they were also describing intelligence in ways that was not just limited to academic abilities.

It was these initial diversions from the early notions of intelligence that eventually led Salovey and Mayer to come up with the concept of emotional intelligence. It is quite clear that the term used by Salovey and Mayer comprises of two words that are said to be the opposite of each other – “emotion” and “intelligence”.

Emotions have often been described as disturbances, something that is disorganized and chaotic, and leads to a loss of control. It has also been suggested that emotions distort judgment. Emotions, in this way, are the opposite of logic and reason. This difference between emotions and rationality can be traced back to the rationalism versus irrationalism debate.

By introducing a term like “emotional intelligence”, Salovey and Mayer brought together these two opposing perspectives, that is, rationalism and irrationalism. This is further reflected in their definition of emotional intelligence, which talks about monitoring one’s own and others’ emotions, and using it to guide one’s thinking and actions. The latter part of this statement is representing aspects of rationality.

Further, emotional intelligence involves understanding one’s emotions, which enhances self-awareness, helps in not being overwhelmed by the situation, allowing proper decision making. Additionally, emotional intelligence involves the understanding of the emotions of others, which allows having positive personal and social interactions, managing conflict, and thus, helping in not making erratic and inappropriate judgments.  

In a way, Salovey and Mayer in describing something like emotional intelligence are suggesting to use emotions in an intelligent manner. Accordingly, the emotions that have often been said to distort judgment, if used properly, if channelized in the right direction, can actually be used to enhance judgment. Therefore, emotional intelligence can perhaps be viewed as a concept that is merging the two opposing philosophical perspectives of rationalism and irrationalism.

The debate of rationalism versus irrationalism has been going on for years. Rationalism, the philosophy emphasizing logic and reason, and irrationalism, the philosophy emphasizing the use of emotions, have been viewed as strong oppositions. However, the emergence of the concept of emotional intelligence has brought these two opposing philosophies together, in the sense that one compliments the other. It can therefore be said that the concept of emotional intelligence takes a mid-way path of the rationalism versus irrationalism debate.

This article can also be found on the blog - History Of Psychology

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, an independent researcher, and conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the Department of Applied Psychology, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi, India.

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