Rationalizing Rationality

Majid Mumtaz Hussain
4 min readJun 5, 2020


Some time ago, an interesting exchange over the mechanism of rationality led to the idea of retrospective rationalization. This idea, which on one hand, antagonizes the very ground on which rationality stands, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in language. And despite its logical contradictions conditioning rationality with the outcome, its epistemological appeal and paradoxical form present itself in every walk of life.

Admittedly, to discuss this notion against its contradictions is an overwhelming task. For example, consider gambling, where its accused of retrospectively rationalizing winning bets as logical, while simply discarding losses placed with equal, if not more, conviction as irrational. With such logical contradictions retrospective rationalizing without further determination simply collapses under its unbearable burden. Yet, it lives in our society, and prevail even though its mechanism is not clearly understood. It’s linguistic appeal maintains its relevance through phrases like ‘end justifies the means’, ‘all’s well that ends well’, ‘what’s meant to be will always find a way’; which romanticize our thoughts with the notion of the outcome.

Some popular methods which employ retrospective rationalization are “test and learn” methodology, which through limited testing uses outcomes to arrive at purpose; and pre-mortem which is used in determining risks by assuming failure before the start of the project.

To clarify this function, we can say that retrospective rationalization creates a possibility to penetrate uncertainty by rupturing it from within by inversion of contingency into necessity. Epistemologically speaking it locates necessity retrospectively by unraveling the mysterious contingent of uncertainty. Thus, we can say, its notion emerges from the ashes of rationality’s glorious edifice.

Let’s do a simple thought experiment to develop this point clearly, imagine something irrational, for example, driving a car on water, then analyze the rational which repels this irrational idea. Let’s take design; a car is made to drive on roads and its design, when contrasted with ships repels the idea of it on the water as irrational. Now at this point, if you are asked to design a floating car then the first thing is to demolish the idea of the design of a regular car by moving beyond its established purpose i.e. driving on roads, only then you could imagine what can make a car float on water.

The role of purpose, or telos, is very well developed in rational thinking. We learn from a young age that one must ascertain their purpose before setting out on a journey which enables strategizing the route to optimize one’s resources and minimize chances of failure. To acknowledge its due credit, forward rationalization, has been and will continue to be, critical in the progress of knowledge. However, one should not overlook conditions which limit its efficacy, this also holds for retrospective rationalization. Process rationalization is set up for success in a very precise way, which initiates by developing a purpose, which then guides us to the outcome. However, if the purpose is not known, or is unknowable, due to uncertainty then this system cannot operate.

This problem is resolved by retrospective rationalization. The notion of outcome has a unique quality that it can determine outcome even when the purpose is lacking, for example, one can climb Everest without knowing why, however, conversely, in terms of forward rationalizing, one first has to determine why before starting his journey, and if the why is lacking one would not even think about climbing Everest.

If we abstract the movement in either form of rationalizing, purpose can be located in two places. Its first located at the beginning of the movement in its place as purpose, then it returns, as the essence of the purpose, manifested as the outcome. This duplication is grounded in rationality as rationality itself. If, at the end of the movement, purpose does not reproduce itself in the outcome, or conversely, if the outcome is not identical with the purpose, then rationality of the movement cannot be determined as rational. Consider if testing a phenomenon gives a different result every time, using either forward or backward rationalization, then we can safely state that its rationale is not fully grasped. In other words, when we say something is not rational, we mean that its expected outcome does not match with the intended purpose or visa versa; a mismatch between purpose and outcome generally presents itself in form of deceit, which still does not make it essentially irrational, but it implies an unknown element whose reason is not understood clearly.

Through this development we have reached the point where rationality is determined as a unity of purpose and outcome; if either is lacking it could be worked out with forward or backward rationalizing. In the end, I want to share a quote from GWF Hegel, one of the greatest proponents of rationality, who encapsulates this whole discussion in the following lines;

“To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect. The relation is mutual.”