Irrationality: Factual Fictions

irrational (adj.) late 15c., “not endowed with reason” (of beats, etc.); earlier (of quantities) “inexpressible in ordinary numbers” (late 14c.); from Latin irrationalis “without reason,” from assimilated form of in- “not, opposite of” (see in- (1)) + rationalis “reason” (see rational). Meaning “illogical, absurd” is attested from 1640s.


Karl Jaspers
Karl Jaspers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Karl Jaspers‘ General Psychopathology was one of the first psychiatric studies to really highlight this fact: a person who is suffering from a severe mental illness is rarely ever irrational. In fact, human beings at large rarely are ever deprived of reasoning.

Even when our reasons are utterly topsy turvy to others–they are still reasons.

We do, however, reason poorly. We do, sometimes, reason by jumping to unsupported conclusions. We do, very often, reason with only a paucity of data.

“Rational” derives from L. ratio. Yes, like measuring the ratio of X to Y. So in many ways, when we speak of “reasoning” something out, we are usually talking about how we make comparisons and contrasts in order to make a good decision. 

We collect given bits of experience (or data) to establish our facts. Here I like to remind people that facts derives from L. facere, to make. Facts are what we make from the data. Once we have constructed some facts, we can begin collecting them up, laying beside each other, comparing and contrasting.

We can call such a collecting together the gathering of information. When information is given a narrative that allows it to be utilized for the making of decisions, we are entering into the realm of demonstrable knowledge.. When information is given a narrative that we can use to demonstrate the same conclusion over and over, we can say that we know. Otherwise, we are informed.

All of this is a part of reasoning.

For instance: I wake up shivering.I am given many bits of data that allow me to maintain these facts: The room is cold. My covers are inadequate. However, I have other data and facts. It is summertime in July. My thermostat was set on 75 when I lay down for bed. There is the sound of rain hitting the window.

Bringing all of this together, I can surmise that there is more moisture in the air which has caused my body to feel colder than it would have. But I will not say that I know this to be true. Only that it is probable. At any rate, I get up for my blanket, checking the thermostat. It is still set on 75. I lay back down with my blanket.

Now, I have checked my surroundings, established the facts, made some comparisons/contrasts, and given it a quick narrative. I do not say I know because there are many variables that would not allow me to say the narrative is demonstrably true. But by the time I am drifting back off to sleep, I am  informed. I do not want say I am well or better informed. There is too much speculating to be well-informed. More than likely, I am actually poorly informed but just too tired to care.

[Why do I think so much when I wake up and need a blanket–maybe that is my own hyperrationalism.]

Getting back to the term that initially got me going–irrationality. Those who we refer to as being irrational are not without reason. They are, often, alternately informed. I say here “alternately” rather than “poorly” because the key differenced–the one that makes us want to make-out a distinct contrast that they are irrational while we are rational–lies squarely on where we make-up the difference: they do not think like we do.

For a person to make decisions based on the “fact” that the Archangel Bedrariel commands dogs to watch him and report  back on his movements is not irrational. It is more likely hyperrational: every single thing the person does is based on reasoning out what the Angel wants or reckoning how to avoid the Angel’s displeasure.

Jaspers’ psychopathological insight was that the psychiatrist needs to spend time with such folk to learn the ins and outs of how they think, how their reasoning process draws the world into a narrative so different from the majority of people. [You may recall that in 1914, when Jaspers was making these suggestions for the first time, psychiatrists were only a short time away from the days when they were called alienists.] 

Whether we are threatened by or entertained by the making of alternate narratives, we call these alternatives fictions. This derives from the same Latin term, facere. We might draw the distinction as “facts” being what is made-out while “fictions” are what is made-up.

There is a very fine line between facts and fictions. And that line is often observed in the breach by those who declaim the loudest that they are basing their actions on “facts.”

Our continued use of the notion of irrationality is–in fact–one of those fictions. And this particular fiction keeps afloat a great deal of the propriety that makes-over our societal lack of virtues. It is an attempt at making-up for why we cannot make-out what some folks mean or why a few folks seem so disconnected from us.

Here is a lecture by R. D. Laing on transpersonal psychology. Possibly, good brothers and sisters of the Ether, we will all of us gain some insights if we watch it together. Please post your responses to my meanderings here as well as the insights of Dr. Laing. 


  1. We live in metaphor, or they live through us. Some metaphors get along better with others. It is helpful to have a sense of this, yes? …or is that my hyper-rationality speaking?

    1. 🙂 I grok that. There would be know way for exchange without the means provided by meta-phores. At issue here is the majority of folks seeing their metaphorical topography as “real/rational” while judging the alternatively (in)formed few’s as “irreal/irrational”.

      1. Absolutely! It baffles me too that for some, not only is there no curiosity about the topography, but seemingly an active resistance against reflection in general.

      2. Yes. I recall a photo I blogged a few weeks back where an Assembly of God church’s marquee proudly declaims against the Satanic influences of critical thinking.

        I have also too often seen the new atheists use the rhetoric of irrationality to describe any one who has reasons for belief in a deity. And that includes people like myself who are often talking about the Encompassing Good or Dao, not promulgating orthodoxies.

        A good portion of my day to day endeavors in philosophizing are taken up in discussing with people about what they believe they know as well as examining how often I am making-up “truths” I have stopped contesting.

      3. Sounds like a great way to spend your day!
        Yes, I don’t know if it’s possible to remove oneself from the human inclination to make up truths. Ideas are very seductive.
        My appreciation of James Hillman’s idea that no matter where we are, we are living through a psychic structure that is not an absolute ground of reality is helpful. But you can’t get through the day over thinking the mechanism, yes? It’s helpful to immerse oneself in what the day brings, and adjust accordingly.

      4. Yes! I find Jaspers, HIllman, and others good for reminding me to just know I am dealing with constructions and possibilities. But to just let-go, I always turn to Master Laozi.

        After working on translating the Dao de Jing with my dear friend Lu Wenlong, I have come up with a short paraphrase of the text that i like to share with folks:

        Dao does; I should not do.
        In my not doing, dao does.
        With dao doing, I am done.


      5. Beautiful! Yes, the Dao is quite trippy. I used to collect translations, but that was awhile ago. I should revisit…do you have a favorite translation? One you would recommend, and is the one you worked on published?

      6. The one I am working on will hopefully be published with notes and commentary within the next year. Until then, we are putting out a few verses here and there. You can find them on here if you search for daodejing.

        I have a few favorites. I like the Dao de Jing by Ames, et al., because it takes a process philosophy look at the text. (We will be taking an “existence philosophy” in our commentaries). Also Ursula K. Leguin’s is quite nice.

        do you recall your favorite one?

      7. I do remember having a Stephen Mitchell translation that I did not like and an Alan Watts edition complete with his calligraphy that I greatly enjoyed. There’s one other that I can’t remember but I think the book is still on my bookshelf at home. I’ll let you know. I’ll look forward to reading yours!

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