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“The Rational Life”: Issues in Quote Truncation March 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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The specter of rationalism haunts the historiographies of the Cold War-era social sciences, of mid-twentieth-century policy analysis, and, particularly, of the RAND Corporation. The basic idea is that there existed after World War II a belief that scientific method, new technology, logical analysis, and quantitative measurement could be used to find solutions to difficult problems of national policy. While it is generally taken that this belief was widespread within institutions of elite learning, it is regarded as having been particularly concentrated at RAND. And, as a prominent military contractor, RAND is taken to have been a crucial vector for the transmission of this rationalism from the realm of ideas into the corridors of American power.

One compelling illustration of this rationalism has been the opening address given by mathematician Warren Weaver, director of the natural sciences programs at the influential Rockefeller Foundation, at a September 1947 conference sponsored by RAND to recruit social scientists. In his address, Weaver remarked on his belief that the people at the conference were all united in their commitment to what he called “the rational life.”

Journalist Fred Kaplan was the first to quote this line in his 1983 book on American nuclear strategic thought, The Wizards of Armageddon:

At that conference the previous September, there was one particularly revealing remark that Warren Weaver made very early on in his opening address. ‘I assume that every person in this room is fundamentally interested in and devoted to what can broadly be called the rational life,’ he said. ‘He believes fundamentally that there is something to this business of having some knowledge … and some analysis of problems, as compared with living in a state of ignorance, superstition and drifting-into-whatever-may-come.’

‘The rational life’ might have served well as an emblem of the RAND style. And with a social science and an economics division, RAND was about to start pursuing it along a slightly different dimension. Before, RAND had confined itself essentially to studying the technical aspects of the instruments of warfare. Now, some of those at RAND, anyway, would start to study the strategy of warfare, would try to impose the order of the rational life on the almost unimaginably vast and hideous maelstrom of nuclear war.

wizards_of_armageddonThis quote has since appeared in a number of different places, always carrying the same emblematic burden that Kaplan gave it. In possession of “the rational,” RAND analysts and their ilk would feel authorized to offer guidance on any question they deemed themselves expert enough to address, while dismissing other perspectives as vestiges of an ignorant, superstitious, irrational intellectual order. (Another RAND quote, “General, I have fought just as many nuclear wars as you have” is also often invoked to make this point.)

Although a number of authors who have quoted Weaver’s “rational life” line appear to have had access to the original speech, none have deemed Weaver’s next sentences worth including. Here is a longer extract:

I take it that every person in this room is fundamentally interested and devoted to what you can just broadly call the rational life. He believes fundamentally that there is something to this business of having some knowledge, and some experience, and some insight, and some analysis of problems, rather than living in a state of ignorance, superstition, and drifting-into-whatever-may-come. I take it we all fundamentally believe in the rational life. I rather carefully did not say the logical life, because I am not as exclusively strong for the logical life as I am for what I mean by the rational life. I think there are some things that we need to talk about that are not very logical, but which are still awfully important; and I would like to include an intelligent interest in alogical aspects within what I mean by an enthusiasm for the rational life.

If previously we had thought it was pretty obvious what Weaver meant by the “rational life”—a formulaic, rigorous, logical approach to problem solving—suddenly we are forced to contend with a distinction between the “rational” and something called the “logical” life, with Weaver going out of his way to play down the importance of the latter.

I discuss in more detail what Weaver might have meant by “the rational life” in a parallel post at Rational Action. However, here I would also like to draw attention to Kaplan’s ellipsis, where he discards Weaver’s repetition of the word “some.”

In using “some” four times, not two, Weaver is clearly using rhetorical technique to emphasize that, whatever the “rational life” is, it is to be compared not with the irrational life, but with a failure to analyze. It is, in my view, an open acknowledgement that a logical order cannot be imposed on exceedingly difficult problems—a complete analysis is impossible—but that that does not mean that such problems ought to be faced without reflection through some arbitrary means of making decisions, i.e., in Weaver’s words, “ignorance, superstition, and drifting-into-whatever-may-come.” What form this reflection should take was an open question, and one to be discussed by the social scientists RAND hoped to hire.

It can further be noted here that RAND was still at that time a very young entity, established only the previous year, and still entirely devoted to the analysis of prospective military technologies. Weaver’s comments were made mainly within the context of acknowledging the need to address the real but difficult problem of how social and psychological factors bore upon problems of technology design and selection. I address this context in some depth in my book Rational Action. Although Kaplan uses Weaver’s quote prophetically, RAND’s work in strategic studies was still years in the future.

Warren Weaver (1894-1978)

Warren Weaver (1894-1978)

It’s difficult to say why no author has ever seen fit to mention Weaver’s distinction between the rational and the logical life. I seriously doubt it was out of an attempt to suppress the subtleties in Weaver’s ideas, but it does open up the question of how long passages can be responsibly truncated to convey meaning. By more or less implying that the rational could be conflated with the logical as an “order” to be “imposed,” Kaplan deprived Weaver of any self-conscious reflection concerning the notion of rationality, and implicitly reserved such self-consciousness for himself and his intended audience.

Weaver, interestingly enough, has in more recent years come to be routinely painted as a highly unselfconscious figure, and thus as emblematic of the apparent ideological orientation of the “Cold War” sciences.

As we already seen on this blog, intellectual historian David Hollinger has cast Weaver as a key rhetorician of “basic science” who went so far as to claim that the “recently exploded atomic bomb was not a product of government science.” Historian of economics Philip Mirowski, in his attempt to construct a genealogy of the failures of postwar economics, has called Weaver a “Grandmaster Cyborg.”  For his prewar support of molecular biology, historian of science Lily Kay implicated Warren Weaver in the creation of a “molecular vision of life,” which rendered biological processes amenable to simplified analysis and, ultimately, even a kind of control.*

Because so many historians have now come to regard Weaver as emblematic of a certain attitude toward science, I believe now would be an excellent time for a systematic reevaluation of his work and thought. We need to look beyond the end of the quotation.

*Kay’s analysis, it should be noted, has not been fully accepted by other historians of 20th-century biology; see for example Pnina Abir-Am’s 1995 review article on “new” trends in the history of molecular biology, p. 189.


1. What did Warren Weaver mean when he spoke of “the rational life”? | Rational Action - March 14, 2015

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