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The brazilian word for «reasonable» is razoável. Or almost. Because there are subtle differences. Amongst the strains of meaning this word has, the two that puzzle me are “reasonable” and “rational”.

All those words, both in Portuguese and English, revolve around ratio-, reaso-, and this in turn seems to come from some Greek word that would refer either to thinking or talking. But it seems the two meanings i’m focusing are opposites in regards to their attitude. “Reasonable” is humble, “rational” is hubris. Is this reasonable?

The greatest of all charges against reason is that it wants to conquest and control the whole world, that it wants to impose itself over all the universe. And it is not necessary that there actually exist Luthor’s or Silvana’s for this criticism to be meaningful. Reason might be over-reaching in nature even if no one makes war with it. Thus if people feel reason is like that, even if it could be proven not to, this feeling itself is something we ought to think about.

The big “But, …” here is that reasonable might be also used for the humble «sensible». What is it, then? The daring hubris of Prometheus using his brain against the Gods, or the humble pragmatism of Epimetheus doing his best with the world the Gods gave him?

The meaning of “rational” is sometimes given as in accordance with the laws of reason. Thus reason would seem to be some overly serious sort of law-giver, some weird strict code of thinking that does not admit detours or creativity. But i fear this is a misunderstanding. “Acording to the laws of” is just an unhappy way to say “related to”, and “accordance with the laws of reason” is just a circular definition.

Reason might in fact be neither humble not hubris, it might be something altogether different. Maybe there are two kinds of reason, one based on following orders which is taught in school through punishment and censorship, and another one that is no more and no less than a form of power: A way to make the world conform to your thoughts.

I have, many many times, told people of reason as a bridge extending towards freedom, a bridge they must only cross, and the whole metaphor fell on deaf ears again and again. This sort of reason, later i discovered, was also a form of intellectual bullying that made my less intelligent peers in school feel humiliated at my brilliance (something i feel weirdly ashamed of). Claws in my brains, so to say.

But this form of hubris-reason was never about “what is the answer i want?” and always about “what is the right answer?”. So how can it be hubris at all?

Reasonable is, i think, something that is right without a secret to show how it is right, without a hidden code of approval. It is not right “because of the laws of logic”. It is just right and it pretty much is obviously right, explaining it is almost stupid. 1+1 is 2, not because i have proved it through 264 pages of axioms, i just see it as right, sensible, meaningful or whatever. The criteria that make it right are not something transcedental, it is just there, plain, for all to see.

7834913+2956721=10791634 does not seem quite so obvious. But if you stack the numbers one atop the other and make the count digit by digit it becomes simple. In exactly the same way, some “rational” things are completely unobvious at first sight, but if you look and look and look after a while you find the criteria that make it obvious.

It is humble, in that it does not claim to own the criteria, that it does not claim the right to say what is wrong or right, it just lets it open to anyone who cares to check. It is humble in that it accepts a minimum amount of making sense and tries to build from it.

Thus reason is a tool for freedom that most of the time is taken to be a set of constraints and rules and laws. Maybe it is just the way things are. But we, this world, we need to start teaching more people the freedom side of it. Because those that we can bring to see are the ones who will protect our children when we are not around anymore.

Posted by Wordmobi


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