Analysing Rationality And Objectivity

Central to critical thinking and education espoused by Israel Scheffler are the concepts of rationality, objectivity, and pragmatic realism. Scheffler’s conception of rationality is normative; he views rationality as a mode of thought and action which all strive for (Sheffler, 1973) as opposed to a conception of rationality as descriptive which would suppose that rationality is a daily manifestation in our lives. Another interpretation that Scheffler provides to rationality is that it underscores both the ends of actions as well as the values embedded within them (Scheffler, 1973). Scheffler recognizes that rationality is sometimes categorized and separated into the theoretical and practical domains: theoretical rationality deals with beliefs whereas practical rationality emphasizes on actions. Scheffler favors a hybrid concept of rationality wherein both theoretical and practical aspects are considered.

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In Reason and Teaching, Scheffler defined rationality as “the ability to participate in critical and open evaluation of rules and principles in any area of life” and “the free and critical quest for reasons” (Scheffler, 1973, p. 62). The fundamental characteristics of reason then are consistency and experience; these constitute rationality in the judgment of specific issues (Scheffler, 1973). The requirement of formal consistency purports that our evaluation and elaboration cannot be considered rational if there are no operative principles or criteria to guide us in forming judgment. However, these rules and principles are not implanted in the mind but are products of the evolution of human knowledge. Scheffler (1973) explained:

The fundamental point is that rationality cannot be taken simply as an abstract and general ideal. It is embodied in multiple evolving traditions, in which the basic condition holds that issues are resolved by reference to reasons, themselves defined by principles purporting to be impartial and universal. (p. 79)

Scheffler views that rationality should be considered a fundamental aim in education. As a broad concept, rationality has the tendency to “bridge the different fields of education

rather than pull them apart” (Siegel, 1996, p. 649). Rationality and all the ideas attached to it are pivotal to discussion, consideration, reflection, and deliberation. Scheffler provides the example of a dancer. Dance incorporates rationality as the student performs; dance is not merely emoting and simply flailing of arms and legs. It requires thinking, questioning, and talking by way of gestures.


Scheffler’s conception of rationality is tied to objectivity which is defined as the process where judgments are “put to the test of independence and impartial criteria” (Scheffler, 1967, p. 1, 3). Neiman and Siegel (1993) elucidate on the connection of rationality and objectivity in the Schefflerian context:

If my belief that p is rational, then that belief is based upon relevant evidence which is impartially and objectively weighed and assessed. Objectivity, in the sense specified, is thus a necessary condition for science and for rational deliberation and belief more generally. But rationality is equally required for objective judgment, since such judgment requires that claims and assertions be evaluated independently, on the basis of relevant evidence, and that the judgment reached be determined by the strength of that evidence. (p. 61)

Responding to the claims of the positivist school that beliefs are ultimately subjective, Scheffler argued the issue of objectivity as a way by which we can examine our belief systems and choose from other competing paradigms which is best, based on good reasons (Scheffler, 1982). Scheffler cautions against the excesses of the Cartesian method where truth is held as “miserly caution” where the scientist “gathers the facts and guards the hoard” (Scheffler, 2009, p. 131). Theoretical imagination is considered a distraction and an obstacle to pure objective science. According to Scheffler, so long as people have access to methods and opportunities to deliberate, they manifest to varying degrees, their level of objectivity. To him, objectivity “concerns the manner of justification; it requires only the responsible commitment to fair canons of control over one’s theoretical claims” (Scheffler, 1982, p. 67). In response to demands of certainty and uniformity in scientific inquiry, Scheffler (2009) provides this critique:

This doctrine is, in fact, the death of theory. Theory is not reducible to mere fact gathering, and theoretical creation is beyond the reach of any mechanical routine. Science controls theory by credibility, logic, and simplicity; it does not provide rules for the creation of theoretical ideas. Scientific objectivity demands allegiance to fair controls over theory, but fair controls cannot substitute for ideas. (p. 131).

Moreover, a crucial element of Scheffler’s conception of objectivity is the absence of certainty, a reflection to his commitment on the epistemological doctrine of fallibility (Scheffler, 1982). Accordingly, the criteria made for justification are also fallible (Siegel, 1982). The norms and criteria should be universal if only to media conflicts between belief systems of particular groups or cultures. However universal we would want these norms to be, we cannot prove the validity of how these criteria serve as justification for objectivity. Hence, justification should not be misconstrued as truth (Siegel, 1982). In the context of education, the inevitable facts of human fallibility and cumulative nature of scientific knowledge preclude absolute certainty. Scientific principles or scientific doctrines should not be considered as absolutes; rather, education must be organized in such a manner which leaves some room for “the possibility of intelligible debate over the comparative merits of rival paradigms” (Scheffler, 1982, p. 130). In this regard, educational content should not be presented as eternal truths but rather as the best truths that we have come up with for the time being. Scheffler conceptualizes rationality and objectivity in relation to a reality that exists independently. This reality partially evaluates which assertions are “based on good reasons”. In his response to Nelson Goodman, Scheffler makes an inference on truth as a human construction:

Surely we made the words by which we describe stars; that these words are discourse dependent is trivially [trueaˆ¦.It] doesn’t imply that stars are themselves discourse dependent. (p. 200)

Scheffler’s interpretation of rationality and objectivity figures into what he considers a minimal version of realism. He approaches the entire concept of reality as an educational aim with suspicion. In lieu of reality, Scheffler argues that educators need to emphasize the constrained nature of our inquiry. In the context of educational practice, educators must acknowledge that there are theories more credible over others; our deliberation and evaluation on what these theories are should be depend on reasoned judgment and sound criteria (Scheffler, 1973). Realism presupposes an ideal of expanding our conception of reality. In this case, teachers must encourage and help children keep in touch with reality and provide them with skills in order to manage within it and learn from it. Hence, realism also emphasizes how the development of critical abilities is indispensable in the evaluation and improvement of systems of description to make them more attuned to reality. Scheffler does not subscribe to radical constructivism which proposes that students should be left alone to construe their own knowledge or belief systems without guidance. Without such guidance, students are left with inappropriate or inadequate conceptual tools to learn and manage within reality. Like many supporters of the realist school, Scheffler believes that people who know and understand independent reality will have a greater probability of living a more rewarding life and making more reasonable choices. Accepting the plurality of theoretical and practical domains is one that must be embraced, based on good reason and evidence. Opposite radical constructivism is reductionism which narrows, delimits, and relativizes human understanding so that educational practice is tailor-made to fit into oversimplified conceptual constructs and absolute ideas of right and wrong answers. The idea of scientific and technical human being is one example. To Scheffler, the ideal educator uses “Objectivity without certainty, relativity but not subjectivism, truth consistent with pluralism – these are the pragmatic emphases I admire” (Scheffler, 2009, p. 3).

Scheffler’s views on rationality and objectivity emphasize the importance of reason and observation in our pursuit of understanding and truth. However, these pursuits do not preclude the use of non-cognitive emotions or morality. Based on Scheffler’s pragmatic realist point of view, the non-cognitive aspects of our belief systems do not automatically make them succumb to reason. In fact, in Scheffler’s (2009) view:

The ideal theorist, loyal to the demands of rational character and the institutions of scientific objectivity, is not therefore passionless and prim. Theoretical inventiveness requires not caution but boldness, verve, speculative daring. Imagination is no hindrance but the very life of theory, without which there is no science. (p. 131)

In summary, Scheffler assets that a degree of objectivity is required to pursue rationality. Rationality’s function is to help us weigh, assess, and evaluate our beliefs and actions based on good reasons and evidence. Objectivity ensures that our deliberations or judgments are impartial and not biased.