Thinking is walking, dancing, gesturing…


Almost forty years ago, I read a book in which two papers by the eminent linguist Roman Jakobson were included. One paper reported about interviews with Albert Einstein that had been conducted by Max Wertheimer. Einstein said that his thinking was primarily in non-verbal ways, especially in the stage of generating new ideas. He even stated that this felt like gesturing or moving, but not like manipulating symbols in a reflective way. Indeed, it is well known that Einstein even suffered from certain difficulties in using language from his early childhood onwards. Einstein’s view is shared by many mathematicians who would point out that the origin of a new idea is ‘intuition’, and only in the second step formalization and explicit mathematical reasoning follows. Creativity is not ‘rational’.

This observation clearly contradicts the established model of ‘two systems’ which opposes intuition and rational reasoning, linguistically mediated (one of my beloved topics in this blog). If even the highest achievements of human rational reasoning are based on intuition, how can our ordinary thinking be different?

In a new book, the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber present a systematic elaboration of the idea that intuition is central to human cognition, and that ‘reason’ in the sense of linguistically mediated argument comes only after the fact. That was also the argument presented by the psychologist Haidt in his celebrated paper showing that people build moral judgment on intuition, and rational arguments only serve to justify, well, to ‘rationalize’ this intuitive judgment. In the INSOSCI context, Lea Diederichsen is exploring the extensions of this approach into economics.

So far, so good. Intuition can be as rational as any product of rational thinking in the narrow sense. But Mercier and Sperber go one step further. They claim that rational reasoning itself is subject to a very different logic than normally assumed, which equates ‘rationality’ with logic and maths, as economists typically do. The logic of reason is the logic of communicating with others and aiming at convincing them and defending our own views. In doing this, our rational discourse easily strays away from what we normally conceive as ‘rational’ – think of the culture wars in the United States. Even most intelligent people use their rationality to shield themselves against information that undermines their position and mainly use their intelligence to attack the position of opponents by any means.

Mercier and Sperber defend the view that ‘reason’ is a specialized cognitive module among many others, which are behind our subjective view of our ‘intuition’. These modules operate in many media and ways and produce our cognitive performances, which can then be subject to reason: That means, for example, we justify and defend our views to other individuals, and even to ourselves, in inner speech. But that means that reason is not evolutionarily designed to produce ‘objective knowledge’ about the world (contra Popper).

Yet, why has human reason been so successful in generating such knowledge? This is because reasoned discourse is not an individual endeavour, but a collective one. Science is not the result of individual geniuses that live without conversing with others (or reading books of others etc.), but is a collective enterprise, in which the ‘irrationality’ of reason is only too visible, too: Just think of the many academic battles over particular opinions. We reconstruct science as a process of accumulating knowledge, because we simply delete all these other activities from our memory. But on the individual level, the gap between reason and an ideal of ‘rationality’ is all too obvious, even in science. Rationality is a collective and population-level phenomenon and cannot be located in the individual brain. 

Does that mean to be pessimistic about human intelligence? Of course, not. We simply have to accept that the brain is social, and that this enables us to be more intelligent collectively than we are individually. And here comes the final argument: Perhaps the way our reason module is constructed by natural selection is in fact optimal to drive this collective process, in the economic sense. We save our energy in sticking to our own view but invest much in attacking other views. But so everyone else does. He we are forced to defend and attack again, and so on. This is the invisible hand of rationality: What is individually flawed, works together in a constructive way.

Mercier, Hugo, und Dan Sperber. The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. London [etc.: Penguin Books, 2018.

Funded by: