When three is one

Paul Seabright

  • Motivated Irrationality by David Pears
    Oxford, 258 pp, £14.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 824662 5

Outside the community of analytic philosophers (and occasionally, subtly, within it) few figures are regarded with quite the mixture of coolness and condescension accorded to the thoroughly rational man. Robert Musil wrote of the wife of a civil servant that ‘what she called “soul” was nothing but a small capital of capacity for love that she had possessed at the time of her marriage. Permanent Secretary Tuzzi was not the right stock to invest it in ... apart from the period of honeymoon caresses, Permanent Secretary Tuzzi had always been a utilitarian and a rationalist, who never lost his equilibrium.’ Rationality, we are invited to conclude, may be good for you in doses but can wither the spirit; beyond a certain point its study becomes the province of moral pathology. It has not always been thought so, but there would be few dissenters nowadays. So when David Pears writes of his book, Motivated Irrationality, that ‘Western philosophy has always puffed the pretensions of reason, which, therefore, can do with a certain amount of deflation’, one has a sense of relief that a philosophically neglected subject is at last being accorded serious treatment. But it mingles with curiosity as to whether his iconoclasm will be radical enough to shock any but the most austere professionals. David Pears writes with an abstract analytical rigour that is an unexpected vehicle for his anti-rational ambitions. As with every poacher-turned-gamekeeper (or is it vice versa?), his qualifications for the job could not be better – but one wonders how far his heart is in it.

Certainly, the book’s agenda of problems is a familiar one. It considers both the formation of irrational judgments and intentional action against one’s better judgment. It is often difficult to decide which of these two is at issue when we perform actions loosely describable as ‘weak-willed’. Did I talk myself into thinking that a large lunch would not be undermining my concentration as I write this review (Pears and red wine don’t always go happily together) – or did I simply cave in without the need for self-deception? Either way, there are difficulties in explaining my behaviour, and the book goes through these in a systematic way. First, irrationality is defined as ‘incorrect processing of information in the mind’, and is sharply distinguished both from incorrect perception and from memory failure. The undefended claim that there is a clear distinction here gives the book a strongly empiricist stamp from the outset, a point to which we shall return (it is in any case surprising, given Pears’s admission that what one forgets can be influenced by wishes). Next, Pears challenges the neo-Freudian assumption that incorrect reasoning must always be due either to lack of competence (in which case it cannot be helped) or to the unconscious operation of a wish. Experimental work by psychologists suggests that human reasoning processes have certain natural biases built into them (such as the tendency to accord undue weight to evidence that is conspicuous or easy to remember). Although the interpretation of these findings is controversial in a way he does not discuss, it does seem plausible to describe what he calls ‘reason’s own perversions’ as representing a third possibility intermediate between the absence of reasoning ability and its distortion by wishes.

Pears goes on to consider a number of philosophical accounts of irrational behaviour. Aristotle’s term akrasia, though often mistranslated as ‘weakness of will’, is better represented by ‘lack of control’, the implication being that the agent’s reason is not in control of his actions. Aristotle clearly uses the term to cover both faulty reasoning and weak will. The first half of this book concentrates on the former phenomenon. It appears in stark form as self-deception, which philosophers have often found problematic. Suppose someone systematically ignores evidence which suggests that his lover is deceiving him: one is tempted to say that he either believes his lover to be deceitful or he doesn’t, but not both. The paradox is inherent in the term ‘self-deception’, for a deceiver must, we feel, know the truth which he hides from the deceived – but how can this be if the deceived is himself? The Freudian answer is to appeal to the unconscious as the true agent in the matter: the unconscious is the deceiver, the conscious mind the deceived. Sartre objected to this that the mental ‘censor’, which keeps an unpalatable belief out of consciousness, must in turn be deceiving itself, and so on in a way that threatens infinite regress. Pears deftly rebuts this by denying that the mental censor can be considered conscious in the same way as the whole person, so the same paradox cannot arise. And he stresses rightly that self-deception is only a strong version of a more general and important phenomenon – namely, the drawing of erroneous conclusions from the available evidence.

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