The Question of Rationality in History

AHA Session 53
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 103 (Hynes Convention Center)
Ann M. Blair, Harvard University
Steven P. Marrone, Tufts University

Session Abstract

Are people rational?  What does rationality mean?  Who decides what is rational or irrational?  How does rationality affect people’s lives?  What role does rationality play in historians’ interpretations?  This panel explores these questions in a broad and transnational fashion.  Five historians from distinct temporal and geographical specialties will discuss three papers of similarly varied scope.  The goal of the panel is to integrate these historians’ specific insights into an overarching statement about the role of rationality in history.

The main argument of the panel is that historians too often treat rationality as an assumption where it should be a question.  Standard notions of rationality, often derived from European Enlightenment thinkers, are often inadequate to explain the motivations and actions of historical figures.  At the same time, the rational/irrational nature of motivations and of lived experience are vital questions too often ignored in historical interpretation.  Accordingly, the papers on this panel take a somewhat revisionist view of the historical events they discuss.  Scott Girdner reimagines the medieval theologian Al-Ghazali as a thinker steeped in both rationality and irrational traditionalism; Elizabeth Nelson questions standard notions of modernity and madness as she examines how Western psychology pathologized denominational difference around 1900; and Jeremy Young argues that charisma and charismatic movements formed a vital social force that allowed ordinary Progressive-Era Americans an unprecedented opportunity to shape and control their society from below.

In keeping with the theme of the conference, each paper centrally situates the sacred in its exploration of rationality.  Organized religion is a key location for arguments over the rational, and the papers note the complexity of these debates in their examinations of Ghazalian rhetoric, the psychopathology of denominational choice, and the followers of evangelist Billy Sunday.  Yet the panel also expands the notion of the sacred by revealing continuities regarding rationality across the religious-secular divide.  Al-Ghazali blended traditionalist and rationalist rhetoric into a single theology; the supposedly rational domain of medicine was decisively influenced by historical trends in religion; and Sunday’s followers and those of the secular reformer Jane Addams experienced charisma in strikingly similar ways.  The rational and the sacred, the panel concludes, are not mutually exclusive; the two forces intersect throughout history in exciting and fruitful ways.  Together, they can explain much that has eluded historians regarding the past and present alike.

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