Marcello's Shortform

by Marcello7th Aug 20204 comments
4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:10 AM
New Comment

"Aspiring Rationalist" Considered Harmful

The "aspiring" in "aspiring rationalist" seems like superfluous humility at best. Calling yourself a "rationalist" never implied perfection in the first place. It's just like how calling yourself a "guitarist" doesn't mean you think you're Jimi Hendrix. I think this analogy is a good one, because rationality is a human art, just like playing the guitar.

I suppose one might object that the word "rational" denotes a perfect standard, unlike playing the guitar. However, we don't hesitate to call someone an "idealist" or a "perfectionist" when they're putting in a serious effort to conform to an ideal or strive towards perfection, so I think this objection is weak. The "-ist" suffix already means that you're a person trying to do the thing, with all the shortcomings that entails.

Furthermore, it appears harmful to add the "aspiring". It creates dilution. Think of what it would mean for a group of people to call themselves "aspiring guitarists". The trouble is, it also applies to the sort of person who daydreams about the adulation of playing for large audiences but never gets around to practicing. However, to honestly call yourself a "guitarist", you would have to actually, y'know, play the guitar once in a while.

While I acknowledge I'm writing this many years too late, please consider dropping the phrase "aspiring rationalist" from your lexicon.

Hm, I like this, I feel resolved against 'aspiring rationalist', which was always losing anyway because it's a longer and less catchy phrase.

I tend not to use "rationalist" for myself - the implication of identity and mix of description and value signaling rubs me the wrong way. For those who are describing actual group membership, part of the "rationalist community", I can see reasons to use "rationalist" and "aspiring rationalist" in different contexts, depending on what you're signaling and to whom.

Outside of community identification, "aspiring rationalist" implies a focus on application of rationality to one's personal life, where just "rationalist" is broader, and may only imply an interest in the topic.

Note: I should acknowledge that I don't think this is terribly important, and my standard advice for naming and jargon discussions remains "if it matters, use more words".

I get the point of view that we should be forthright about our goals,  practices, and community affiliations. Nothing wrong with using a label to cultivate a sense of belonging. After all, Christians call themselves after their ideal of perfection, so why shouldn't we?

I think part of the reason is that just about everybody wants to be rational. Not everybody wants to be a guitarist, Christian, perfectionist, or idealist.

Also, most groups have some way of telling whether somebody's "doing the thing" or not. Catholics have the sacrament and you have to call him Jesus, not Frank. Guitarists practice or have chops. Just about everybody tries to think rationally from time to time, even if they fail, so what's the thing that somebody would have to do to not be a rationalist?

Why don't we call ourselves epistemologists. At least it's one syllable shorter than "aspiring rationalist." Plus, it comes with the implication that we're interested in rational thought, not experts at doing it.

Funnily enough, I feel more trepidation about referring to myself as an epistemologist than as a "rationalist." I think it sounds too much like a professional title. But heck, I'm an author even though I've never published a book. I'm a musician even though I don't play professionally. Why can't I be an epistemologist?