Rationality and Irrationality Revisited or Intellectualism Vindicated or How Stands the Problem of the Rationality of Magic?

  • Ian JarvieEmail author


The problem of rationality emerges in anthropology when actions and ideas strike the ethnographer as inconsistent with commonsense or with science (e.g. to get crops you plant seeds; chanting is neither here nor there). The commonsense and the science appealed to are those of the society to which the anthropologist belongs or into which he has been socialized. Hence the problem is intrinsically ethnocentric. Rationality assessments are comparative judgments with no presupposition that perfect rationality is anywhere achieved or achievable. Rationality is normative: a work in progress. We strive to be ever more consistent whilst knowing we can never achieve perfection. An alternative proposal appears in a recent paper by Lukes on rationality and in Sørensen’s critique of my intellectualist view. These are criticized in their turn and it is reaffirmed that judgments of comparative rationality do little or no explanatory work. Beliefs and assertions as such are neither rational nor irrational; it is only our actions regarding them that can be so assessed. Explanation proceeds by matching means to postulated ends in defined situations, whether the ends are articulated or must be supplied by the social scientist as hypotheses to be tested. Ritual actions like chanting are pervasive. The place of ritual in science and the place of ritual in magic are quite different.



This paper had its origins in a workshop on “Individual and Collective Rationality” held under the auspices of the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales of the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis on March 21–22 2011. My thanks to the organizers, Richard Arena, Alban Bouvier, and Bernard Conein, for the invitation and the prompt it gave me to revisit these questions.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.York UniversityTorontoCanada

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